By Julie Miller
Jodie Foster was 13 when she first attended the Cannes Film Festival, in 1976, for TAXI DRIVER, which won the Palme d’Or. According to festival legend, the actress upstaged Martin Scorsese and co-star Robert De Niro by using her fluency in French to translate questions during the film’s press conference.
“I might have,” Foster chuckles when asked whether this anecdote is true on the phone last week. “I vaguely remember that everybody got a kick out of the fact that I spoke French and knew what everyone was saying.” Exactly 40 years later, the Oscar-winning actress returns to the Croisette this week with her own film, MONEY MONSTER, her most ambitious directorial project to date. The Wall Street thriller stars Hollywood heavyweights Julia Roberts and George Clooney, resolves a multi-billion-dollar Wall Street heist in real time, and manages to get justice for the everyman underdog swindled out of his savings in a tight 98 minutes. Perhaps the most noticeable triumph in this film, which hits multiplexes at the same time as the famously male-centric summer-movie slate, is that its females get to be the problem solvers.
Yes, Clooney dazzles front and center as the charismatic host of the cable finance talk show MONEY MONSTER. It is Julia Roberts’s cool-headed director, though, who takes the lead when an audience member (Jack O’Connell) who lost his life’s savings on a bad stock tip storms the set and takes the crew hostage on-air. “She really is the hero of the movie and is able to multi-task and get more done in this crisis than even authorities,” Foster concedes of the rare alpha female on-screen. “She’s producing Clooney’s survival.” And unlike many of Hollywood’s other lifesaving women, Roberts gets to do so without being vacuum-packed into spandex and six-inch heels. “I love that she’s so natural in the film,” Foster says. “She’s wearing a parka, and she has this quiet, calm power.”
The character was not always written that way, however.
In the original script, Foster says, the character “really just directed the show, so she would say, ‘Go to [camera] one, go to two, go to three.’ You spend a lot of time developing scripts and changing scripts so that the female characters are deeper than they are on the page,” the filmmaker adds nonchalantly, as though this has become a commonplace task throughout her 40-year career. (In two films, Foster has completely re-hauled roles written for men to play them herself—in FLIGHTPLAN and ELYSIUM.)
Roberts’s character is able to exist in MONEY MONSTER’s world of finance, television, and hostage situations without any expositional reference to a family or love interest. She does not turn to men while in the face of danger. In fact she helps her mostly male crew members escape to safety and challenges the suggestions of authorities while still directing the live program. (O’Connell’s character demands that the show continues to air live as part of his explosive-aided plea.) In essence, Roberts’s character is able to exist on the same terms as her male counterparts—a through line that Foster has maintained with the characters she herself plays on-screen.
Describing the common thread between her roles, like in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE ACCUSED and PANIC ROOM, Foster told The New York Times recently that they are “solitary characters who don’t have mothers and fathers and boyfriends.” They also “have an experience that’s all mine, and I don’t really want to share it.”
Another shared characteristic of her acting roles is that they have erred mostly on the dramatic end of the genre spectrum, while she prefers directing films that have layers of comedy, like MONEY MONSTER, which offers some genuinely sharp-witted moments. “I tend to be drawn to really dark dramas that don’t have a lot of lightness to them as an actress,” Foster admits about her different tastes in material, depending on whether she is acting or directing. “As a director, I can’t make a movie unless there’s some comedy to it. I have to be able to look at my life and laugh a little bit. I’m not that interested, honestly, in directing a film that doesn’t have different facets to my personality.” Comedy, she demurs, “is not my genre as an actor. It really isn’t. It’s really hard work, by the way, much harder than doing dramas, and it requires you to keep that energy throughout.” Foster says she lucked out with her two MONEY MONSTER leads, who were not only used to keeping up that comedy endurance, but have an easy rapport from other on-screen collaborations like OCEAN'S ELEVEN, OCEAN'S TWELVE and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND.
“They have this dynamic that precedes the movie,” Foster says of Clooney and Roberts. “This baggage they bring or this connection as brother and sister, this bond that they have, it just infuses their relationship without even having to try.”
Ironically, it was not the script’s elements about overcoming odds—as Roberts and co-star Caitriona Balfe do—that resonated with Foster as much as the script’s examination of failure. “I was interested in this idea of men and failure and their overwhelming [need to] measure themselves—continually trying to figure out how much they’re worth and how much of that is pegged to what they possess or how much money they have or what they’ve accomplished,” Foster explains of what attracted her to the project. “There’s no place where you get to see that sense of disappointment and failure more than in the eyes of the women who love them. That dynamic was really interesting to me.”
On the subject of dynamics, we asked Foster about Hollywood’s persisting problem with its lack of female directors. Foster admits that she has seen some advances in on-set gender equality. “I grew up in the business when there were hardly any women at all, maybe a script supervisor every once in a while or a makeup lady. There are more women faces, and there a lot more women technicians now. Certainly women executives, but the one area that hasn’t changed very much is women directors and, specifically, in mainstream studio movies.
“It’s a really complicated discussion, and it’s been broken down into a couple of buzzwords about diversity,” Foster says. “It’s much more complicated than that, and it’s not going to be changed by quotas. It’s our culture that has to change. We have to figure out what are the stories that we want to tell. Do we want to tell the same five stories about the same white guys? It’s just more complicated than that.” She adds, “My favorite feminist director is Jonathan Demme,” referring to her SILENCE OF THE LAMBS director. “He makes personal movies that are about underdogs, and he’s a really maternal presence on the set. He’s all about loyalty. You don’t have to be a woman to make female-identified movies, and vice versa is true, as well.”