Sto­ry­teller for the small screen

Jodie Fos­ter’s new di­rec­to­rial turn

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page -

Last month Char­lie Brooker told me about the mo­ment he learned Jodie Fos­ter would di­rect an episode of Black Mir­ror, his in­spired se­ries of one-off dra­mas about the ways our gad­gets are colonis­ing the idea of “hu­man”. Brooker had writ­ten a script for the new se­ries in which a neu­rotic sin­gle mother uses tech­nol­ogy to spy on her daugh­ter. The Net­flix peo­ple sug­gested they tried the script out on the two-time Os­car-win­ning ac­tor.

Brooker has had con­sid­er­able global suc­cess with Black Mir­ror but the thought of work­ing with Fos­ter, “an ac­tual icon”, made him come over, he says, “all Bri­tish and starstruck”. He turned to his co-showrun­ner for the se­ries, Annabel Jones. “We were like: ‘You’re kid­ding, right? You are go­ing to try Jodie bloody Fos­ter? Yeah right, of course you are.’”

The script was given to Jodie bloody Fos­ter, though, and she came back im­me­di­ately and said she wanted to do it.

Through the course of the film-mak­ing – the shoot was in Toronto, the edit­ing in Lon­don – Brooker says Fos­ter could not have been more en­gaged or en­gag­ing. And for his part, he says, as long as he re­pressed the thoughts that went: “Christ, she was in Taxi Driver, she was in The Accused, she was in The Si­lence of the Lambs …” he was fine. Other­wise, ob­vi­ously: “You got a bit of ver­tigo.”

I met Fos­ter to talk about her film when she was in Lon­don work­ing with Brooker on the edit of Arkan­gel (her episode of Black Mir­ror), and ex­pe­ri­enced a bit of that ver­tigo. It would be fair to say that the ac­tor, now 55, is not the most en­thu­si­as­tic of in­ter­vie­wees. Hav­ing been first put in front of cam­eras aged three, and sub­se­quently hav­ing suf­fered well-doc­u­mented trau­mas with stalk­ers, Fos­ter has long been wary of talk­ing about her­self be­yond her work. She is de­ter­minedly friendly, but ra­di­ates the same in­tense and guarded in­tel­li­gence you know from her most fa­mous roles, as well as a pro­found aware­ness of be­ing quoted out of con­text.

Stray a lit­tle too far into per­sonal ter­ri­tory and you im­me­di­ately feel like the seed­i­est of tabloid hacks. One of the rea­sons Fos­ter has taken a break from act­ing for a while – a de­ci­sion she an­nounced in an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally frank speech at the 2013 Golden Globes in which she came out both as sin­gle and as a di­rec­tor (she as­sumed ev­ery­one al­ready knew she was gay) – was, she says, to avoid any of this. She still loves the idea of act­ing, but she finds all that goes with it, the jun­kets and the photo shoots and the in­ter­views, “ab­so­lutely soul-crush­ing”.

With that idea hang­ing in the air we sit in a ho­tel room sip­ping Earl Grey tea and talk first about how the Black Mir­ror of­fer came about. Fos­ter was at lunch with her agent, and “moan­ing as ever about the fea­ture film in­dus­try”, she says. She was and is nos­tal­gic for the three-act be­gin­ning and mid­dle and end of 90-minute drama. “Much as I love this re­nais­sance of episodic se­ries,” she says, “char­ac­ters are not in ser­vice of a sin­gle story, and I miss that.”

As she grum­bled along these lines, her agent stopped her – “I think I have some­thing you should see” – and told her about Black Mir­ror, Brooker’s se­ries of stand­alone “in­die” films. Fos­ter went away and binged on the first two se­ries. (“Friends had told me about it a mil­lion times, but I hadn’t tuned in,” she says.) And then she read the script. “I was like: ‘How did you know?’”

Part of that affin­ity was the fact that hav­ing “made movies for some 50 years”, Fos­ter was deeply aware of how few sto­ries out there “are told by women, through women’s eyes, and with a fe­male di­rec­tor”. The other thing she liked about

‘When you are 18 and you have al­ready made 30 movies, you know quite a lot about sto­ry­telling’

Brooker’s script was its be­liev­ably hu­man drama. “What was in­ter­est­ing,” she says, “is that though all of the shows are about tech­nol­ogy, none of the shows are re­ally about tech­nol­ogy at all. All of them are about re­la­tion­ships and the emo­tional dam­age we all carry, which is high­lighted by the Klieg light of tech­nol­ogy.”

In her notes to Brooker, Fos­ter had quite a lot of thoughts about the dy­namic be­tween mother and daugh­ter. He went away and rewrote parts. She wanted the feel of the film to be more blue col­lar and lived in, to de­pict a slightly bruised small-town Amer­i­can world.

I guess Fos­ter made those changes be­cause she wanted to bring the story closer to home. She agrees to a point: “This show goes back to mothers and daugh­ters,” she says, “and it brings you back to your own mother. I have been think­ing about her in the edit suite this week.”

Fos­ter and her mother, Brandy, had a fa­mously in­tense re­la­tion­ship. Brandy was di­vorced from Fos­ter’s fa­ther, Lu­cius, a for­mer lieu­tenant colonel in the US air force, be­fore Jodie, the youngest of their four chil­dren, was born. In or­der to help sup­port the fam­ily Brandy put her in­fant daugh­ter for­ward for cast­ing not long after she could walk. Fos­ter was the bread­win­ner be­fore she went to school and the pair of them were in­sep­a­ra­ble in her early movie ca­reer. Some years ago now, Fos­ter be­gan to lose her mother to de­men­tia. Again at her Golden Globes speech, she ad­dressed her di­rectly: “Mom, I know you’re in­side those blue eyes some­where and that there are so many things that you won’t un­der­stand tonight,” she said. “But this is the only im­por­tant one to take in: I love you, I love you, I love you. And I hope that if I say this three times, it will mag­i­cally and per­fectly en­ter into your soul. You’re a great mom. Please take that with you when you’re fi­nally OK to go.”

With those words in mind it is hard, when you watch Fos­ter’s un­set­tling Black Mir­ror episode, not to think a lot of that re­la­tion­ship was run­ning through her head when she made it. Fos­ter in­sists it is not di­rectly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal – it was Brooker’s script, after all – but does al­low that, “as a di­rec­tor I have al­ways wanted ev­ery movie I have made to be in some way the story of my life. Other­wise how am I sup­posed to com­mit to it?”

She sug­gests Brooker’s parable has a uni­ver­sal theme, about the fears any par­ent has about rais­ing chil­dren, and the un­der­stand­ing that at some point you have to let them go. “In a weird way our chil­dren have be­come our favourite form of en­ter­tain­ment,” she says, talk­ing more widely of the trend for “he­li­copter par­ent­ing”. “We live vi­car­i­ously through them and re­dis­cover the world through them. There is some­thing won­der­ful and healthy about that – and some­thing also suf­fo­cat­ing and sad.”

Does she recog­nise that di­chotomy from her child­hood? “My mother used to say she was al­ways scared and she didn’t know why,” she says. “She said she would wake up in the mid­dle of the night think­ing: ‘How am I go­ing to take care of my chil­dren?’ It wasn’t a given. It was very im­por­tant to her to give that op­por­tu­nity to me, and yet there was al­ways that con­trary sense of, ‘You’ll never take care of your­self with­out me!’”

Her mother must have been im­mensely proud. “She was, but she was a part of it. We were a team that made movies to­gether. We went to lit­tle towns to­gether and stayed at the Ra­mada Inn and made din­ners on hot­plates. It was like a trav­el­ling road­show.”

In some ways Fos­ter has al­ways seemed like a slightly re­luc­tant movie star. She ar­gues that’s not re­ally the case: films were all she ever wanted to do; it was the fame part that hit her in her teens after Freaky Fri­day, Bugsy Malone and par­tic­u­larly Taxi Driver, that made her un­com­fort­able. She read Mal­colm Glad­well’s Out­liers re­cently, she says, and the no­tion of suc­cess­ful peo­ple be­ing those who are lucky and com­mit­ted enough to get in 10,000 hours of prac­tice in a cho­sen field first res­onated with her. “When you are 18 and you have al­ready made 30 movies, you know quite a lot about sto­ry­telling …”

One way of read­ing her sub­se­quent ca­reer has been as an ef­fort to change that in­sis­tent “we” she talks about of her mother, to a de­fin­i­tive “I”. In her 20s, she re­jected act­ing for a while to study English lit­er­a­ture at Yale, and grad­u­ated with hon­ours. When she went back to films she be­gan a run of ex­tra­or­di­nary, drawn-out suc­cess with The Accused, and then The Si­lence of the Lambs. In 1991, the year she won her sec­ond Os­car for the lat­ter, she started her own pro­duc­tion com­pany and di­rected her first film, Lit­tle Man Tate. There was a sense in which she could put her tal­ent to any­thing. Was she a frus­trated di­rec­tor all the time?

She says it was more just how it turned out. “Sadly I never worked out how to be pro­lific as a di­rec­tor and have a ca­reer as an ac­tor, and also raise chil­dren and run a com­pany. It was the di­rect­ing that al­ways went on the back burner. But now is the time.” It is eas­ier for her to com­mit to the to­tal im­mer­sion that di­rect­ing re­quires, she sug­gests, now that her two sons, aged 19 and 16, are more in­de­pen­dent. She raised her boys with her for­mer part­ner, Cyd­ney Bernard. In April 2014, Fos­ter mar­ried ac­tor and photographer Alexan­dra Hedi­son.

She has no in­ter­est in re­veal­ing how her mar­riage has af­fected her work­ing life, but you have the sense, talk­ing to her, that it has co­in­cided with a greater self-con­fi­dence, that she is a bit less tough on her­self than she once was. When she stepped back from act­ing, she says she felt a new free­dom.

“I didn’t want to be the most suc­cess­ful di­rec­tor, or the high­est paid, I just wanted to be some­what of an au­teur,” she says. “If that meant I made two movies my en­tire life and I loved them, then I was fine with that.”

Though she has re­cently ac­cepted her first act­ing role for five years (as the lead in the thriller Ho­tel Artemis), she is do­ing so very much on her own terms, out of cu­rios­ity rather than ne­ces­sity.

“What once was cho­sen for her, now is very much her choice. “Some di­rec­tors love cranes and CGI and spec­ta­cle, but that is not why I make movies,” she says. “I feel like I make movies be­cause there are things I have to say in or­der to fig­ure out who I am or my place in the world, or for me to evolve as a per­son. But un­til you get to the end of your movie you don’t al­ways re­alise why you were ob­sessed with that par­tic­u­lar thing.”

And then she heads back to the edit­ing suite to once again make dou­bly sure.

Sea­son 4 of Black Mir­ror is on Net­flix

Na­dav Kan­der/Ob­server

On cam­era and be­hind it … main, Jodie Fos­ter now; from top, col­lect­ing a Golden Globe award in 2013; in The Si­lence of the Lambs; di­rect­ing Arkan­gel for Black Mir­ror

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