Jodie Foster’s The Beaver was always going to be a difficult sell. Even under the best circumstances, this complicated dramedy about a depressed, divorced corporate executive who learns to speak through a puppet he finds in the trash would struggle to lure mainstream audience members. But when Foster’s choice for a leading man — Mel Gibson — invited public scrutiny with a headline-grabbing scandal, The Beaver started receiving bad press. Now that the film’s opening in theaters, we’re finally able to discuss Foster’s directing techniques, Gibson’s performance, and Jennifer Lawrence’s bright future.
Q: You described The Beaver as one of the most difficult experiences of your professional career. Can you tell me something you learned about yourself as a filmmaker while working on it?
A: I think that the greatest thing that I learned over the course of this incredibly hard process is that if I feel it, there must be a reason. If it moves me, there must be a reason. Even if I can’t be articulate about the reason, I know that the reason is right. And whether it means that people like the movie or not is beside the point. I figured out that I have very honed instincts, and I can be kind of a people-pleaser, and I have to learn not to be.
Q: You introduced The Beaver at South By Southwest and made it a point to warn that it wasn’t a comedy. I found that interesting. Do you worry people may think that it is a comedy?
A: Yeah, I do. I think that the second you say it’s a movie about a
man who puts a beaver puppet on his hand, unless people know a lot more
about the film, they’ll just assume it’s a broad comedy. Not that there
aren’t light moments to the film, and not that you shouldn’t laugh in
parts of the movie at the absurdity of the situation. It is witty. It’s a
fable. And it has a light touch to it, especially in the beginning. But
you are going to be really disappointed if you come to see a big, broad
Q: It would appear that one of the largest hurdles to making this
movie is legitimizing the puppet as a character. Obviously the beaver
can’t act, so a lot of thought has to go into the beaver’s look. How did
you go about selecting this particular beaver?
A: You know, there were a lot of discussions about that, because I
was adamant about the audience never being able to forget that this
[puppet] was just something that he had taken out of a dumpster. It’s a
prop. It could have been a sock. The actual, physical manifestation of
the puppet is meaningless. The truth of the matter is that there is a
man who is struggling behind that, and he is a man who is speaking
through this survival tool that he creates to inhabit the man he wishes
he was. I didn’t want the audience to lose sight of Mel Gibson, or to
lose sight of his character. But little by little, as his psyche changes
and as he starts appearing more and more inside of this transformative
survival tool, we had to get a sense of the shifting of the camera, in
some ways, toward isolating the beaver out from Mel and allowing it to
have achievable, projected power.
Q: That’s so interesting because of the ways you chose to frame
conversations between Mel and his co-stars. The beaver puppet is
A: That’s right. There’s one scene in the beginning where he says,
“I’m the beaver and I’m here to save your damn life.” It’s the only time
where we cut to him in a single [shot], except for when we get towards
the end. We just really wanted to make sure that the audience understood
that there is a man behind this, and that it didn’t get cutesy.
Q: Did you figure out the beaver’s voice and accent right away?
A: Well, that was all Mel. The way he created the beaver was by
creating the opposite of Walter. Walter is a man that has barely any
voice, who is not confident, and who was raised with a silver spoon in
his mouth. He hasn’t been given the tools of leadership. And the beaver
is a South London scrapper who is detached from his emotions. He’s not a
puddle on the ground. He is a leader. He’s vital and full of life. And
he’s gruff! He’s a man’s man. He’s all of the things that Walter isn’t.
So he was kind of created by opposites, by shadow.
Q: We hear stories of filmmakers racing to meet deadlines. You had the opposite issue. Having filmed The Beaver, you had to sit and wait for it to be released. Did you have to fight the urge to go back and tinker in the down time?
A: Well, post was very difficult on this film, and we did go back and
do some reshoots before the release dates were cast aside. So I had
lots of time to cut the film and lots of time to go back and tinker. By
the time I finished the movie … I just was really happy with it and
didn’t want to change it at all.
Q: Do you ask your actors for multiple takes?
A: It depends who it is. Mel is a two-take guy. He has made as many
movies as I have. He can work with 120-take directors, too, and he can
give them whatever it is that they need. But I think that his best work,
really, is his rawest work, his most authentic work, and that happens
in the first few takes. Like so many actors, sometimes too many takes
whips the authenticity out of him. Then there are people like Anton who
love lots of takes. He asks for more. He likes to do all sorts of
different things so that you have all sorts of choices. And Jennifer is
like Mel and I — much more specific. But she does have this laser focus.
You could give her 40 different notes, and she will accomplish them all
with one take.
Q: Between The Beaver and Winter’s Bone, it’s clear Jennifer Lawrence is an actress we’ll be enjoying for years to come.
A: Oh yeah. She’s got a great movie coming out with Anton [Yelchin] called Like Crazy
that everybody is just raving about her in. She has something that’s
really special, and I don’t know if she has any control over it or if
she’s even aware of it, really, but she has this pain that exists in her
face. It’s as if she has lived through world wars. And nothing could be
further from who Jennifer is. [Laughs] She is a fun-loving Kentucky
girl. She is a lot of fun to be around. She is anything but that, yet
she has a weariness that can come out of her. And that’s an amazing
quality that just brings so much to dramas.