Jodie Foster bows to puppet power in The Beaver
- 17 June 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
After 45 years in the film business, Jodie Foster is no one's puppet - yet, in her latest film, she has cast a bedraggled toy beaver as her star.
Although The Beaver, which Foster directs, also stars herself and Mel Gibson, it's the elderly puppet who resides on the end of Gibson's arm for most of the movie who steals the show.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a successful businessman who has a loving family - but depression and mental illness drive him to the brink of divorce and suicide.
It's while he contemplates ending everything that he picks up a battered old beaver puppet from a skip - who starts speaking to him.
"I'm the Beaver," it tells Gibson, in a throaty Cockney growl, " and I'm here to save your goddamn life."
Foster didn't write the script, but, nonetheless, she fought for years to get it made.
"There were so many themes in there that I loved, " she recalls. "Yes, it explores issues of mental illness, which isn't done enough, but it does it with humour as well as drama.
"But essentially it's telling the story of a family. Walter couldn't get on with his father, and now he can't get on with his sons."
Talking glove puppet takes over a man's personality - the pitching meeting for The Beaver must have been an interesting one...
"It could have been a different animal, I guess, " says Foster. " But there's an image within the type of animal that a beaver is: an industrious creature which creates and then destroys. That's what happens in the film.
"We spent a lot of time talking about what the Beaver was going to be, and there were two options," Foster added.
"He could have looked like a Beaver who'd come out of the water, or like a sock with two eyes.
"In the end, we decided to go somewhere in between. So he's definitely been held by a child, and you can tell he had a life before he met Walter.
"But he's a prop - he is not a CGI Disney character. And little by little, the Beaver takes on his own personality."
Foster took advice from Muppets creator Jim Henson, amongst others, on the glove puppet's appearance, as well as meeting ventriloquists for advice on the voice.
"The voice is all Mel though, " she said, " Some people asked me, ' have you cast Bob Hoskins' in your movie?'. But no, it's all Mel, I assure you."
Gibson channels early Michael Caine, or present day Ray Winstone to give the puppet its friendly, but menacing, tone. Foster maintains though, that the Beaver was always going to be English.
"Mel wanted to do an English accent. The Beaver is exactly who Walter isn't. Walter is a man who has had everything since he was a little boy, and he is weak.
"The Beaver is essentially Ray Winstone, right? So he's self-made, he came up from the streets, he has remote emotions, he's not a puddle on the floor. And he's macho, but he loves women."
From the start, Foster wanted her friend of seventeen years, Mel Gibson, for the part of Walter. The pair have been close since working together on the comedy western Maverick.
"I wanted him for this role of Walter because I knew he would be able to touch on those witty, funny qualities Walter has, that charming side," Foster explains.
"But he can also show the depth of his struggle, and in this film I think we see him really understanding what it is to be heartbroken and want to change.
"He is incredibly vulnerable in this role, and complex, and that is a side of him I know and love."
The actor made the film long before his recent sentencing to probation for domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva.
Both Foster and Summit Entertainment, who made the film, have stuck by Gibson, although its release had been delayed because of the case. The actor himself has done no press for the film, apart from an appearance on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
Even before this incident, the actor was a controversial choice because of anti-semitic remarks he made when he was arrested for drink driving in 2006 - for which he subsequently apologised.
Critics have drawn real life parallels to his role as a man in the grip of a nervous breakdown - but his director remains supportive.
"I think that Mel was willing to expose himself in some ways - to really talk about something that he knows a lot about - which is struggle and wanting to change, wanting to transform yourself, not wanting to be who you are. "
The Beaver's blend of darkly humorous drama - not to mention belief in a talking glove puppet - did not appeal to box office audiences in the States.
Here, reviews have been mixed, despite praise for Gibson's performance, with The Guardian commenting, : "The Beaver may flash its teeth from time to time, but deep down, it's tamer than Orville."
Whilst David Gritten reviewed the film for The Telegraph, and said the film "isn't for everyone, but I warmed to its ambition".
Foster, who received worldwide acclaim for directing films like 'Little Man Tate, ' maintains whatever happens to the movie, it was a valuable experience.
"Anything that takes years of your life, as this has done in my case, allows you to look deeper at yourself and what's around you.
"In the end, whatever happens, there will be a print of this movie, on DVD or whatever format, and that will be there forever. I am extremely proud."
The Beaver is released in the UK on the 17 June