THERE’S A MOMENT IN DIRECTOR David Fincher’s upcoming thriller, Panic Room, that shows why Jodie Foster got the lead role. Playing a newly divorced woman with a young daughter, Foster has just rented a huge Manhattan brownstone that has one unique feature: a hidden chamber built as a sanctuary in the event of a break-in. You know from the movie’s title that something or someone will soon cause Foster and her daughter to take refuge there. Once they do, a breathless, freaked-out Foster looks straight into the camera, and you can see it, there in her alert blue eyes: a formidable intelligence that will save the day.
It’s the same intelligence Foster applies to her own life. Few people have seen the filmmaking enterprise from as many angles as she has. An actor since the age of four, she has appeared in more than 30 films and has won two Academy Awards (for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs). The 39-year-old has worked with many of America’s most celebrated directors, has directed two of her own movies—Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays—and has produced the latter and several others. Weeks before the March release of Panic Room, Foster agreed to sit down and talk about what she calls the “mathematics” and social dynamics of film production—a topic that fascinates her so much, it turns out, that she once considered writing a book about it.
Foster arrives exactly on time at the Four Seasons’ Gardens restaurant. She is alone, sans handlers. Fine boned and startlingly pretty, she is a master at blending in. Dressed in jeans and loafers, she wears nerdy tortoiseshell glasses and no makeup. She admits to being exhausted: Her second son, Kit, was born September 29, and she hasn’t had ten free minutes since—a point that is driven home later when she suddenly grabs the right armpit of her brown suede shirt with alarm. “Oh, man, how great is this? Look what I found,” she says, laughing as she reveals a bulky plastic security tag she is noticing for the first time.
Foster has stuck with the same editor, composer, costume designer, and first assistant director in both films she’s directed, and she has strong views about the collaborative nature of filmmaking. “Can you tell this is my obsession?” she asks at one point. “I could talk about this forever.” Now, as she attempts to simplify her life to make more time for acting and directing (she closed her 12-year-old production company, Egg Pictures, on January 1), Foster talks about the importance of ceding control, the appeal of opinionated people, and the realization that, over time, she has become less of a pain in the ass.
FOSTER: I’ve made a lot of movies with first-time directors and a lot of movies with directors who have made scores of films. You absolutely never know who’s going to be great and who isn’t. Some directors don’t do a great interview, and you’re like, “Whoa, this guy doesn’t have much to say.” And he comes on and brings so much to the process and is so observant. Then you’ll get a first-time director who seems like he’s got it down. And by the first week, everybody’s ready to kill him. He procrastinates. He doesn’t come up with anything. He’s one of those cocktail party directors who talks about it well but has nothing to deliver once you start shooting.
What I’ve learned also is that what’s wrong in your shrink’s office is what’s wrong on the set. Nine times out often, the thing that makes a film suffer is the thing that the director really needs to deal with psychologically. It’s usually issues of authority—not only how you handle other people’s authority but how you are as a leader. How you feel about yourself and how you project that onto other people or just the environment you set into play.
So now when I start a film with David Fincher or Robert Zemeckis or Andy Tennant, that first week I’m basically just sitting them on the couch. I’m doing the whole Freud thing on them so that I can figure out where their weak areas are and how to serve them. I really believe that the actor’s job is to serve the director. Even if he’s a schmuck, and even if by week one you realize he doesn’t know what he wants or you don’t respect what he’s going for or you don’t like his style, you still have to serve him. So you have to swallow any dissident thought. Not just because it will hurt the movie but because once a lead actor or anybody in a high position dissents, the rest of the crew no longer respects the director, and it’s down the toilet. He’ll never be able to take control.
Does directing your own films make it easier to relinquish control when you’re acting in somebody else’s film?
Absolutely. I don’t want to direct someone else’s movie. I want to direct my own movies. I’ve really felt the difference since I’ve been directing. I’m much less of a pain in the ass. It’s been much easier for me to say, “Okay, well, if that’s the way you want it, that’s good.” And to just go with that. As opposed to having to have movies stand for me. The movies I act in don’t have to stand for me.
There are 120 people on a movie set, give or take. How do you keep things from devolving into chaos?
Because the director is the visionary of the movie, they get to have the party the way they want it. Your job as a line producer or first assistant director or key actor is to gauge within the first week how your director likes his life to be. Does he like people to run at him with a lot of ideas? Does he like the set to be completely quiet and nobody says a word? Does he like collaboration or does he not? Then you can help him bring all the languages of filmmaking together to get it done.
The difference between a good film technician and an excellent film technician is not so much how they hold the boom or how they tape the floor or any of the tasks that we do that, frankly, anybody could learn in 20 minutes. It’s the degree of commitment to the film. You need to be obsessed — to have the kind of mind that, for whatever reason, makes you wake up at three in the morning and say, “I’ve got a great idea.” Though people don’t usually realize it, the need for that kind of commitment extends to the film’s technicians as well as its actors. A prop man, for example, has to pay attention to who the director is, because you’re not going to bring in red wineglasses if it’s David Fincher.
He’ll throw them in the fireplace and say, “What were you thinking?” He’s never put a color in his movies. I was looking the other day at a scene in Panic Room. Forest Whitaker’s character has a file-like thing for opening up safes, and part of it is red. And I was like, “Oh, my God! That’s the first color in the whole movie!” Someone said, “Yeah, it was by accident. Those things don’t come any other way.”
Now, not everybody on your movie set is your collaborator. Your key collaborator is supposed to be your cinematographer. But it isn’t always. Very often, cinematographers can’t talk. They’re purely visual, and you don’t really know it until you get on the movie with them. Ron Howard uses a different cinematographer on every movie he makes. Most people stick with the same one. Jonathan Demme has been working with Tak Fujimoto for a hundred years; the Coen brothers have used Roger Deakins. But then there’s Martin Scorsese, who jumps from person to person because either he hasn’t found a soul mate or he really feels like each story needs to be told differently.
For me, the cinematographer is almost like an actor. He brings so much of his own style and his own vocabulary that I feel like you sort of need a new person every time you go out.
What was it like working with David Fincher? His films–Seven, The Game, Fight Club—have made him one of the directors everybody wants to work with. But he’s known to be a control freak.
Without a doubt, of all the people I’ve worked with, he is the finest technician ever. He can do everyone’s job, and does everyone’s job the entire shoot. He’s the most meticulous, the sharpest, not just visually but in every sense. Sometimes there’s a little complaining about that because he doesn’t give people a lot of leverage to contribute. But he has the clearest vision of any director I’ve ever worked with.
That might mean 40 takes, if that’s what it takes. But I’m terrifically suited for Fincher, who knows exactly what he wants all day, because I like playing Twister. I like doing this [pats her head] and this [rubs her stomach] at the same time. I don’t do well with people who are not direct. I don’t do well with passive-aggressive, wishy-washy. Some actors really thrive in that atmosphere because it makes them feel more important and needed. I don’t. Directors who don’t come prepared—I can just be a mean person, because I can’t believe that you can be given all that money and all that responsibility and waste everybody’s time.
Now, Fincher may not get his shot until 2 a.m. That’s fine. At least I knew where he was headed, and I completely see his goal. And when I ask him a question, he either says yes or no. There’s no “Well, I don’t know.”
Pretty much my biggest frustration and pet peeve is jumping onto a project where everybody there is giving up time with their families, they’re sacrificing their health and everything else, and the director doesn’t know what he wants. Fincher knows how he wants his party. And I love that.
The movie’s title refers to a hidden chamber in your character’s apartment—you spend a lot of time in that little room. Was it difficult to keep that interesting?
Yeah, it was very hard on everyone. The tight space is hard on the crew. You can’t get light in. You can’t get a still photographer in. And Fincher almost always works with two cameras. It was just an incredibly challenging film.
You came into Panic Room at the last minute, when an injury forced Nicole Kidman to drop out. Was that stressful?
No, I did it on Maverick, too, and it was fantastic. They basically just put me in costume and put me onscreen. It was like how I used to work on TV when I was a kid. Fincher and I have known each other for a while. And Mike Topoozian, who is my first assistant director I’ve worked with four times now, was the first A.D. on Panic Room. He knows I did television for 15 years. You can just put me in front, give me little pieces of information I need to have, and I’ll tell your story. I don’t necessarily know that it’s a good thing that I tackle films like I would tackle a math equation, where I kind of solve them—break them down into categories and say, “Don’t need to know this, don’t need to know that.” But that’s just the way I am.
When you’re directing, how do you make sure that your own celebrity doesn’t turn everyone around you into a bunch of yes-men?
I find that the people who work with me over and over again are people who have really strong personalities and opinions about things. A lot of directors don’t like that. It makes them feel not confident on a movie set. But I start getting very anxious and worried if everybody is too homogeneous, too happy, not obsessive enough, not opinionated enough. That makes me nervous.
How do you create that culture on a set?
[Laughs] I ask people. I ask their advice, and I let them in on every part of the process. It’s exhausting to do that, because it means that every time you have an idea with the camera department, you have to tell the sound department and the production designer—you’ve got to have conversations with all of them about every other conversation you’ve had. But my feeling is that if you don’t give them the whole picture, two things happen. One is, they feel like they’re punching a clock, doing a job, and they’re going to look up at six o’clock and say, “Time to go home.” Two, they don’t know where the train is heading.
If the propman doesn’t know what the look of the movie is, he’s not going to come up with that interesting, cool thing that has this color and reflects light this way, because he wasn’t part of the conversation with the cinematographer. Or let’s say your production designer has spent tons of money creating a whole environment. But now he realizes the camera’s looking up all the time, so he doesn’t have to put down the carpeting. If you don’t tell people where the camera is going to look, they won’t know what to focus on.
I gather you’re very involved in the editing of your films.
I love it. The kinds of conversations you have in an editing room are really like questions about life. You say things like “I just don’t buy it. She walks through the door and the first thing she sees is that? Why didn’t she look over there? You find yourself asking, “Why do you think he says that? Because he just wants to piss him off? Or because he knows its true?”
So it’s about meaning.
Yeah. It’s about refining the meaning of your film. I’m always amazed by how your film tells you who it is in the cutting room. It walks and talks the way it needs to walk and talk. And when you try to make it do something it doesn’t want to do, it just rebels against you. After you finish shooting, the editor does a first cut while you go away on vacation for about a week. Then you see the first assembly. A lot of people say they just want to kill themselves when they see it. It’s rambling. There’s no temp music. But I’ve never felt horrified.
Then again, I don’t overshoot. Most people shoot so much that there’s so much to take out. I do a lot of the taking-out process as we go along. On Home for the Holidays, for example, I’d come to [editor] Lynzee Klingman during shooting and say, “I don’t want to see that scene. Let’s take it out now.”
It’s remarkable that you are so certain that you aren’t even tempted to look at it one more time.
Well, that’s my Achilles’ heel. I pare everything down to the most succinct degree. I can tend to be really linear. I’m not a big dreamer. And that’s not always good. I’m so methodical that I don’t really need an overlord. What I need are people to work with me and say, “You can afford to do that. Try it. Why not?” On any movie, you have one overriding question: What is my movie about? From the beginning to the middle to the end of the process, you’re always refining the answer.
Give me an example.
During rehearsals on Home for the Holidays, I got this idea for a new ending. To shoot it involved all the actors, seven different locations, probably seven pages of dialogue. You do two pages a day, so that’s like three days of shooting, $75,000 a day—that’s a good $300,000 out of the movie. So what I did was organize the rest of the movie to take out things that weren’t important to me. Peggy Rajski, my producer, helped find the money in other places and made room. None of it was in the original script. But for me, the new ending is the point of the film.
Let’s talk about a particular movie and the collaborations that underlie it. Your production company, Egg Pictures, developed Nell, in which you also starred. So you were involved from the beginning.
Nell was taken from a stage play, which was very surreal, set all in one room. So the first collaborator we needed was a writer. We brought in Bill Nicholson, and he said, “I have to construct a completely different language for Nell, because the play’s Shakespearean language makes no sense.” He came up with ideas about why the character of Nell—a hermit’s daughter who’s been raised completely apart from civilization—was the way she was. She seems like a wild child, but she bathes and is meticulously groomed. Why? Because her mother was a serious Bible person who taught her good grooming. As we constructed her history, the language Nell used evolved from that.
Coming from a mother who is a stroke victim and never having met anybody else, Nell’s speech reflected how a victim of a right-brain injury would speak. Some stroke victims don’t lose their meter. Rhythm is stored in another part of your brain, so the music of your speech not only stays intact but is much more enhanced. So the Southern musicality of Nell’s speech had to be way out there. Also, for stroke victims the words that do come out very, very well are often things that are high affect, like “Taxes!” “Death!” “God!” and things that are rote—whether songs they sang as a kid or biblical phrases they learned by heart. So each of those elements had to be built into Nell’s speech. She was also a twin. Twins can develop vocabulary and sometimes even grammar that’s all their own. So then we had to figure out where the little pieces of twin-speak would come in.
Then, once you learned the language, you also worked with a dialect coach?
Julie Adams, who had done a bunch of movies with me, helped me by reminding me to stay consistent. I’d tell her what I was going to do: “Here is how the language works. This is what these things mean.” With dialects, everybody has their own way of working. Some people endlessly like to hear tape recordings of the dialect coach doing the language. I think that’s really destructive and bad. You shouldn’t have another person in your ear, because you’ve got to live the language, not just hear your teacher’s voice and repeat what they say.
What I’ll do is find one phrase that has a couple of good e’s, a couple of good o’s, a couple of good u’s, and is one phrase. Like “Hello, doctor. My name is Clarice Starling.” Or, “I went to UVA. It’s not a charm school, doctor.” Then when somebody says we’re about to roll, I just go to that one phrase that has the e’s I need, the o’s I need, and the u’s I need. And I’ll just say it and then do the scene.
It sets the coordinates for you.
Yes, your brain actually remembers how your mouth is supposed to move when it does those things.
You also worked with a movement consultant.
My friend, the production designer Jon Hutman, who was my college roommate, called me from North Carolina because he was doing all the prep work on the Nell set. He was one of the first people brought in—he and the location manager. He’s calling me and saying, “I hope you’ve got something planned for this part.” I’m like, “Why?” He said, “I just hope you’ve got something planned. I hope you’re not just going to show up and be spontaneous because, let me tell you, there are a lot of big questions.” He knew, because he had to build Nell’s house, so he had already been asking himself: “Who built the house? And if you can’t see out of it, then what can you see? and other questions about who Nell was.
So first I talked to Mark Morris, the choreographer. I said, “Maybe Nell should move in kind of a dance.” He said [adopting a gruff accent], “Whatever you do, no dance. Don’t do any steps. No steps.” So I went to this movement coach in L.A. and told her I wanted to see what two little kids would do together. When you take one child away and keep the other doing the gesture alone, as Nell did, I wanted it to look like she’s a nut.
So what’s next for you?
I’d like to finally direct Flora Plum [a circus movie that stopped shooting in late 2000 after Russell Crowe was injured]. We’re also developing a script about the filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, whose film Triumph of the Will some people argue was responsible for Hitler’s rise. It’s a great morality tale about artists’ responsibility. Fascist art makes form and beauty more important than anything else, which is basically superficial thinking. But artists need to be deeper thinkers. Because if you just stay on the surface, like all sorts of things we do in Hollywood, without realizing it you can move the consciousness of the country in a direction that’s not only dangerous but cruel.
It doesn’t sound like your kids are slowing you down at all.
I feel like I’m spinning in all different directions. I’ve really realized: Who are all these people who have children and make three movies a year? Are they just not seeing their children? I think they’re not. I just couldn’t do it. And let me tell you, part of me wishes I could.