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Jodie Foster Hands it to “The Beaver”

Jodie Foster Hands it to “The Beaver” (photo)

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The movie Jodie Foster described to me as the “biggest challenge” of her professional career started with another movie, 1994’s “Maverick.” That’s where she met, co-starred and became friends with Mel Gibson. Funny to think that such a lighthearted film about con men and women in the Old West could ultimately lead to such a dark film like “The Beaver,” which is about similarly deceptive characters who build defense mechanisms to hide who they really are.

One of those characters is Walter Black, played by Gibson. For reasons that are never fully made clear, Walter is suffering from a major case of depression. To help him cope with the world, Walter begins speaking through a ratty beaver puppet he finds one night in a liquor store dumpster. Letting The Beaver make his decisions reaps immediate dividends for Walter’s professional and private lives. But once The Beaver gets control of Walter, he doesn’t want to give it up, as Walter’s wife Meredith, played by Foster herself, soon realizes.

Even before the allegations of abuse and the release of angry phone calls between Gibson and his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, “The Beaver” wasn’t a project with a lot of easy fixes. For several years, its screenplay by Kyle Killen was considered the best unproduced — and maybe unproduceable — script in Hollywood. The film is funny at times, but it’s also a very honest look at a family in crisis and the legacies of pain and mental illness that fathers pass down to their sons, from Walter’s suicidal father to him to his own son Porter (Anton Yelchin), who worries that he’s too much like his crazy dad. “It was hard getting the tone right,” Foster told me. “And hard to love something that’s emerging but isn’t quite there yet, and no one else gets it.”

Then Gibson’s problems went public, and Foster faced more challenges. After several delays, “The Beaver” finally opens this Friday. The end result is a personal film with a truly impressive performance from Gibson. Given its uncommercial subject matter and unconventional approach, you might even call it the work of a maverick director.

Here’s my conversation with Foster about directing a puppet, what she considers most overlooked movie of her career, and why she chose to use clips from “Kung Fu” — a show she appeared on as a kid — in “The Beaver.”

How long has it been since you finished the film?

It’s usually a year between the time you finish and when you release. It’s just kind of the way it works. Between post, getting the music together, maybe going to a festival, waiting for the right time to come out, it’s usually a year. It was going to be a little less than a year from when we finished to our first release date. And from our first release date to the one now is about seven months.

In that time, did you go back in and change anything about the film? Or was there any outside pressure to change anything?

We did do reshoots, but that was before any change of date. After that, no, no changes at all. I mean, yeah, there were changes because that’s what you do. But there wasn’t any…

“You have to go back and change this!”

No, nothing like that.

Do you like directing yourself?

I’d rather not. I’d rather just direct. It’s much more pleasant and it’s a lot more joyful. You’re able to enjoy the process of directing a lot more, instead of coming in at five in the morning, two hours before you need to be on set so you can go into makeup and hair. You’re always being dragged out from behind the camera to do other things. It’s much nicer not to have to do both.

How about directing actors who are also directors themselves, like Mel?

That’s the easiest. They are the easiest people in the world to direct because they understand filmmaking. They know where you’re headed and how to serve you. And because they make their own movies they don’t feel the frustration of not creating their own voice. So they really get that it’s the director’s movie and they’re there to serve you.

You’ve worked with so many amazing directors. When you’re directing, do you ever think “I’m gonna do this the way Spike Lee did it,” or “I’m gonna make sure I don’t play this the way so-and-so would have done it?”

I never start out by saying I want to make a movie that looks like this. What I do use are movie references, as a quick way to let people know what I’m talking about. “You know in that movie where this happened?” or “You know that shot that they used in ‘Philadelphia’ where they do this and that at the same time?” It’s just a language to help people know what you’re looking for in a film. Because I’m an actor and I didn’t come up as a director of photography or an editor, my first question is an actor’s question: is it true or not true? That’s always going to be the first thing that I ask.

I was really interested in the way you visually approached the scenes with the Beaver. Where we see him in the frame, where he is in space compared to Mel, whether he or Mel is in focus when he’s talking. What was your strategy for shooting him?

We made a big bold choice up front to use anamorphic lenses. That gives you the wide frame and also that beautiful depth of field that allows you keep one person at the edge of the frame out of focus and one person at the center of the frame is in focus, which you can’t do with regular lenses. There is a real formality to that, a real prosaic quality to it. It’s very European, which I love. But it also allowed us to help the audience focus on who we’re trying to get them to focus on.

It’s got to be tough too, because you want to give Mel the freedom to do what he wants with the puppet, but where the Beaver is onscreen in relation to Mel tells us so much about their relationship. At first they appear mostly side-by-side as equals. Later in the film as The Beaver begins to exert more control over Walter, particularly in the big dinner scene between him and Meredith, the Beaver actually appears in front of Mel’s face, completely obscuring him.

Yeah. I let most of that happen organically. But when I noticed it and it was working, I was like “Do that again!” And Mel, you mentioned that one moment in the dinner scene where he starts his speech and his face is obscured, and then by the end of the speech his face appears. And, yeah… that’s why you work with an actor/director. He did that himself. And it was great. And he knew exactly where the camera was going to land and he knew when the cut was going to happen.

At the end of the film, one of the characters talks about the fact that for some people pain might just be in their DNA. I know someone else wrote this script, and that it’s just a character speaking in a movie, but I wonder if that’s something you personally believe.

That’s Porter’s big question in the film. What if pain is just in our DNA? What if tragedy is our birthright? And then his next question is: what if, in the spur of the moment, shit just happens? What if things are predestined and there’s nothing you can do? I thought those were really interesting questions. We do know that depression has a real genetic predisposition and follows families. You have a very high chance of experiencing severe depression if someone in your family has had severe depression.

I saw the film for the second time last night. And one thing I noticed this time was not one but two appearances by the TV show “Kung Fu.”

[laughs] Yeah.

Was that in the script? Because I know you were actually on “Kung Fu.”

I was on “Kung Fu.”

I was watching a clip of it last night on YouTube. You were playing the mandolin.

Yeah. In the original script, it was an episode of “Growing Pains.” And it was some episode where Kirk Cameron says “Oh Dad, I love you!” or something. And we looked at the episode but it just wasn’t good visually, it didn’t really tell us anything we wanted and, I don’t know, the mood was wrong. And so I said, “Okay, what ’70s television show can we find? There’s got to be one that has a father and son component to it.” And we went through every show from that time period. And then I said, “What about ‘Kung Fu?'” I was on the show and I remembered the whole thing with the bald guy and this and that. We knew we wanted it to play twice, once for the father and once for the son, to try to show that idea that they are experiencing the same thing.

Speaking of changing things, I read in the press notes that when you cast Jennifer Lawrence as Porter’s love interest that you rewrote the character. But you didn’t specify what exactly changed.

In the finished movie she is a valedictorian, a cheerleader, and she’s beautiful. Three things already that are fantastic and she’s very lucky to have. But in the original script she was also amazingly insightful, understood everything about herself, was fully versed in psychobabble, and did a lot of confessing about her true motivations about why she felt the things that she felt. And I realized that there was something unreal about that character and in a way almost annoying, because she was so self-knowledgeable that I just didn’t buy it for an eighteen-year-old. I felt like it was much more interesting to see the smartest girl you ever met who’s just completely dumb about herself and has no self-knowledge whatsoever, which is not unusual at eighteen.

Her issues had to feed into the larger issues in the movie and this idea of grief and shame and how when you go through a crisis, spiritual or otherwise, you have two options: you can face it head-on or you can pretend it didn’t happen and go play volleyball. The person who faces it head-on has all the possibilities of evolving through it, and the person who runs and plays volleyball never will. They’ll just come and revisit it, over and over.

How do you respond to the people who see the movie and want to read Mel’s private life onto the film?

Well, it’s human nature.

I mean on the one hand, the script was written years ago, you shot it before all of that became public. On the other hand, there are some really obvious parallels.

He’s a man who really understands struggle from a very deep, painful place. It’s why he was interested in the movie in the first place and it’s why he brings such a raw and incredibly soulful performance. You don’t find that performance if you don’t understand that experience. So yeah, I understand it. And I think that it does give you an answer to the very trivializing and superficial reading of Mel Gibson that people who don’t know him have. This film in some ways is a much deeper look at a complex man.

So I don’t know. Does any of what’s happened, having private conversations splashed all over YouTube help the film? No! [laughs] Not in any way! It doesn’t help anyone. However, I do think that there’s something on the audience’s side to really learn about Mel that they can’t know any other way than seeing this film. And on his side there’s something very cathartic about inhabiting a character who struggles with something unsurvivable and emerges.

Last question. Besides your appearance on “Kung Fu,” is there a film or a project from your career that you think deserves a second consideration?

I feel like one movie I made that I really believed in that for whatever reason people didn’t respond to was “The Brave One.” I think that is an extraordinary movie. I feel like it took me to such a different place in my life and I never would have gotten there any other way. But, y’know, it’s not for everybody.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.