One of the most anticipated headliners here at SXSW is Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson as Walter Black, a CEO at a toy company who falls into a deep depression and finds that the only way he can continue functioning with the outside world is through a beaver handpuppet.
The Beaver premiered Wednesday, March 16th at the Paramount Theatre here in Austin to a large crowd that featured appearances by actress and director Foster, as well as Anton Yelchin, who plays Walter’s son Porter, and screenwriter and Austin-native Kyle Killen. Lost in Reviews had a chance to sit down with Ms. Foster during a press conference to gnaw out some of her thoughts on The Beaver.
Does the trailer do service to the film? It seems to impress on the lighter, more comedic aspects of the film.
I’m not in the business of making trailers, and I wouldn’t describe it as a comedy as it may come off in the trailer. There certainly are some quirky moments, some odd moments, some comedic moments, but I’d more describe it as a challenging family drama, which carries a different weight than a flat-out comedy.
Would you be okay describing it as a whimsical drama?
More a drama with whimsy. Really, it mirrors the state of mind of Walter, and we never meet him before we see him in this depressed state, and the beaver gives us an insight into the mind of that character and fills in the details of Walter’s life before, letting him keep things at arm’s length. The beaver speaks objectively, he’s the facts man.
Was the framing use of the beaver in front of Gibson an intentional part of the blocking or did it come up during filming?
It was intentional all along, and I made sure that he was in front of Mel before we started rolling, such as the scene where he hugs his youngest son and talks to him, and the beaver’s in the forefront, so that’s mainly what you see, so it’s meant to obscure Walter.
Can you talk about the importance of the beaver’s voice? Gibson’s voice [as the beaver] could almost be swapped out by Michael Caine.
He’s not quite as slow as Caine, but we wanted him to have a very deliberate and distinct voice, because he’s Walter’s coping mechanism, but at some point the coping mechanism he’s using begins killing him.
Was the use of the roller coaster intended to mirror your [Ms. Foster’s] character [as Walter’s wife] as she’s going through the ups and downs of her family life?
Yes, as films go on, you shape ad make them more precise, and the roller coaster was something to give my character a symbol for her state.
Why did you take this project? What interested you as an actor/director?
I was only interested in it as a director; I didn’t come to it as an actor until after that. And what attracted me to the project was the focus on loneliness and people in spiritual crises, which comes from my own childhood, and I find interesting as a director. But that was my opposite agenda as an actress.
How did the script come to you?
It didn’t; I’d had my eye on it for a while and asked when it would be freed up, when it was, I took the opportunity to direct it.
You mentioned that you really wanted to maintain a distinct and consistent tone all throughout, was there one scene that you felt was the toughest to film from that standpoint?
It was more the scenes that we took out—and that will be on the DVD—that I found toughest. One in particular is when Cherry Jones’ character recognizes that Walter’s mind is falling apart, and he sort of taunts her to take off the puppet (Jodie mimics Cherry Jones trying to force the beaver out of Mel Gibson’s hand). It was a great scene, but it was too comic for that point in the movie, and we tried to find a place for it earlier in the film, later in the film, but it just didn’t work and didn’t fit with the sequence of scenes tonally without disrupting it.
Was it the theme of loneliness that interested you in the project? They seem to pervade the films you direct.
I’m interested in solitary figures who live as misfits and try to figure how to live and recognize others as misfits, because I think that’s art—it’s a lonely process because you take something that’s all yours and all personal and no one else can ever totally understand it.
And that’s what I’m interested in right now as a director, that’s my art. I may take a break from acting from time to time and then return in my 60s or 70s, but right now directing is what I’m interested in.
How do you feel about the relationship between art and commerce?
This is not a mainstream film, and in fact it’s a bit more European, European in music, European in cinematography, but it’s an indie film, and it doesn’t have to appeal to everyone.
Did you “discover” the Robert Downey, Jr. we’re seeing now in your film Home for the Holidays?
No, I didn’t discover him. I told him he was far more talented that I could ever hope to be, but he had absolutely no discipline, and you need both as an actor—you can be a great dancer, but you need a choreographer to be great, and I’m glad he found discipline.
You said this was the first time you showed the film before a “real” audience; were you pleased with their reaction?
Well, this is a film festival crowd, and they’re going to be a bit more forgiving and not monsters who want to eat you. But I was happy they liked it.
Have you ever been to SXSW as a movie-lover?
Actually, when I was younger, I thought it was only a music festival!
What do you think of using puppets as a coping mechanism?
[Deadpan] It’s not an accepted methodology. However, children use puppets all the time to express themselves; really, it’s whatever it takes for someone to deal with their own crisis, and that’s what Walter does.
Last question: Did each of Porter (Mel Gibson’s character’s son) notecards really have some characteristic of Walter written on them?
They did—there were the ones we show, like “scrunches eyebrows” and “hates his father who hates his father who hates his father…” but a lot of them had just basic stuff written on them, like “farts when he walks,” and so on.
by Nat Almirall