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.