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Daily Archives: March 23, 2011
Last Wednesday, Jodie Foster‘s “The Beaver” premiered at South by Southwest, launching a thousand cheap Freudian double-entendre jokes — and finally turning a film that’s been obscured by hype and controversy into one that’s been seen by an audience. Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, whose crippling depression finds what seems like some relief when he begins wearing — and speaking through — a beaver hand puppet. The joke premise turns into a serious look at depression and our quick-fix mentality. Speaking with Foster the next day, the star and director explained that after all the excitement over Kyle Killen’s script and all the news furor over star Mel Gibson’s personal life, it was good to finally have the film play to an audience — up to a point.
“It’s nerve-wracking, too,” she said. “The first time a real audience sees your film is the first time you say goodbye to your baby that just walked away from you. Now it lives in other people’s homes and other people’s ideas and other people’s minds. It’s a bittersweet experience, nerve-wracking. It’s been a long process for this film, and that’s why I say personal movies like this take a long time and they take a lot of scalpel-like precision to finally have the voice that you were hoping for. This film — even though the original script is amazing and such an incredible voice — has taken quite a turn since then.”
And while it’s normally a challenge to separate “artist” and “art,” that’s even harder with “The Beaver,” with Gibson playing Walter Black — and with Gibson not appearing at SXSW and instead having an appointment with the El Segundo, Calif., police department to plead no contest to battery charges. I asked Foster: In our tabloid-driven day and age, how hard is it to say to the audience, “Just watch the movie”?
“I can’t control where people’s minds have been. I can’t,” she said. “Look, the movie exists, and it will exist on DVD. It’s its own little body: It has its own little way of walking and talking, and it can defend itself. I believe he has given such a tremendous performance, and I’ll always be grateful for that, for what he brought to the process. I can’t imagine anybody else playing the character who would’ve brought that richness and the drama and the struggle — really, honestly, the struggle that is his life — who would have brought that to the character. I can’t control how people perceive the film.”
Foster acts in the film alongside Gibson and Anton Yelchin — but, I asked, how much of a challenge was it finding the right puppet to play the title role? She laughed. “The best thing that we ever did was sit out and go, ‘OK, here’s 10 different possibilities on the spectrum. This looks like a real beaver that you would find in the pond … and this is a sock.’ In between the totally abstract and the completely real animal thing, there’s all these other options: You could go for a CGI beaver with eyes that turn around and look at people and hands that move. What we really wanted in terms of the visual style of the film (was) we wanted people to know, this is Walter speaking, and this is just a prop, just a tool. Do not invest all this reality into it. But then, little by little, as it becomes more and more real to Walter and as it starts impacting him more and more, in a weird way the puppet does start to become more and more real.”
Playing Mel Gibson‘s son in “The Beaver,” Anton Yelchin gave a unique insight into exactly how long the film’s been in the works: When he first saw the script, it was going to be for an entirely different star and director. “I first got the script when I was on ‘Terminator: Salvation,’” he said. “It was Steve Carell and Jay Roach. Then it disappeared forever — it disappeared for a year or so. Then it resurfaced and it was Jodie and Mel. At that point, it was a real film, and I read it, I had a meeting with Jodie where she sat down and spoke to me, and then I had a reading with her. That was a pretty simple, short process.”
Less simple? Acting alongside his director, Jodie Foster. “On this film, I knew she was acting in it, but she was always the director,” he said. “It’s probably weirder for her than it is for me. I felt very comfortable with it. I felt lucky to be acting with her, and then more so to be directed by her. I think she’s brilliant, and I’ve always had so much respect for her. One thing is to act with her — which is an honor in itself — and then to be able to have this woman who’s created so many fascinating characters — so many great, great characters, has such an acute eye for emotional detail — to have her sit down with you is so great.”
Working with Gibson was also a highlight for Yelchin, and he hopes people will be able to separate his co-star’s performance from his problems offscreen. “People seem to have a pretty positive reaction; people seem to enjoy it for the most part,” he said. “It was really nice to see them reacting and, I think, appreciating Mel’s performance — it’s really, really great. It’s so good and really honest and moving. For me, I walked out of there hoping that people would really see what a great performance it is, because at the end of the day, that’s what you should expect from an actor; that’s what the job is, is to create fascinating, multilayered characters that are interesting to watch and are captivating. He certainly does that. He goes beyond just doing that. I think that’s all that’s really important at the end of the day.”
Yelchin is bracing himself for the upcoming “Star Trek” sequel, where he’ll be returning as Ensign Chekov, but he’s also glad that audiences will get to see him play dramatic parts in “The Beaver” and the indie romance “Like Crazy” before that hits the multiplex: “I love being able to have all sorts of characters and give every character as many dimensions as possible, but it’s great when you get characters that are so multilayered and you get to go back to something lighter. It’s more fun — everything’s fun, but a little lighter. It’ll be fun to do that, to go back to doing that.”
For his part, Yelchin appreciated the emotional journey he had to go on in making “The Beaver,” even if that involved going some dark places in his mind. “I think definitely in order to play those scenes with as much honesty as you can, you have to go to those places. I think that’s why, when people get upset with actors for being intense, it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s an intense job. People spend most of their lives trying to avoid painful things and pain that they feel and avoid darkness that they feel and try and be happy. Actors have to willingly bring that up and access that to then put it into characters. It’s just a weird job, really: We all bury things. I think it’s our job to uncover those things in ourselves and apply them, see how we can relate.”
While the film festival portion of South by Southwest technically ended on the Tuesday of last week so the music festival could kick off, films kept playing, and debuting, throughout the week. I recapped some of the picks of the early part of the fest last week, but here are some more of the winners — and losers — from SXSW.
“Turkey Bowl”: Not a film to change the world, or a hard-hitting drama, but so impossibly loaded with charm and charisma that it won me over entirely. Ten friends gather for their annual touch football game — and the movie is the game. The best-known face in the film is Kerry Bishé — “Lucy” on the failed final season of “Scrubs” — but there’s so much heart and humor in the movie that I sincerely hopes it gets picked up somehow, somewhere. Imagine a feature film of “The League” — competition and friendship, life anxiety and athletics, all done by talented improvisers — without that show’s crueler moments, and you’re getting close to the joy of this movie. Every festival has at least one entirely unexpected pleasure of discovery, and at SXSW this year, that was “Turkey Bowl” for me.
“You Instead”: As more than one viewer said, it’s the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea of “Before Sunrise” at a rock show, as a platinum-selling megastar (Luke Treadaway) and a scrappy indie band’s lead singer (Natalia Tena, Tonks from the “Harry Potter” films) are handcuffed together at the Scottish T in the Park mega rock fest. The film’s a little unruly, but the energy of the festival and the performances fills the run-and-gun, shot-in-four-days romance with buzzy, fun excitement.
“Kumaré”: Winner of the Audience Documentary award, “Kumaré” follows director Vikram Gandhi’s journey where, to look into the nature of belief, he poses as a cult leader in Phoenix — and winds up with a retinue of followers. The movie has laughs — Gandhi has a great deadpan when no one’s watching his holy-man shtick — but it’s also surprisingly touching, as Gandhi, like “The Music Man,” realizes that his con isn’t all an act, and realizes what his stunt really means to people in pain and need. “Kumaré” got an endorsement from “Religulous” and “Borat” director Larry Charles (“You need to see ‘Kumaré’”), but, really, “Kumaré” is far, far better than “Religulous.”
“FUBAR: Balls to the Wall“: This eight-years-too-late sequel to the much-loved 2002 Canadian mock doc “FUBAR,” follows heavy-metal idiots Dean (Paul Spence) and Terry (David Lawrence) in pursuit of employment, women and the next altered state. I love the first “Fubar” — it has a real sweetness and depth to it — but this sequel ripped the hearts out of the characters and tried to paper the hole up with meanness, catchphrases and shouting. People will try to tell you that if you like “Trailer Park Boys,” you’ll like this, but they’re wrong, and you won’t.
“Sound It Out”: An unexpected pleasure, and entirely winning. A portrait of the lone independent record shop in the northeastern England town of Teesside, “Sound It Out” promises “High Fidelity“-style meditations on music and maleness, but director Jeanie Finlay wisely shows us much, much more in a portrait of community in tough times and how the silly ephemera of pop music is often the only thing we’ve got to hold on to in a changing world. Gorgeously shot, loaded with ace tunes and full of real people you come to know and like, “Sound It Out” was the unexpected pure pleasure of this year’s indie documentaries at SXSW.
“The Beaver“: Yes, it’s nearly impossible to separate Mel Gibson‘s life from his work, but the thing is that “The Beaver” is startlingly good, and not just by virtue of Gibson’s work in it. The premise is broad and silly and goofy and, in many ways, the bright candy shell around a much tougher and trickier set of concerns: the devastating costs of depression, the perils of thinking easy solutions are solutions. Gibson, Anton Yelchin and director Jodie Foster all deliver great work here, but the most impressive thing about “The Beaver” is how you notice that you stop laughing as the film changes, and how that change makes it so much more than you expect.
“Buck”: A documentary about legendary horse trainer Buck Brannan, who helped inspire Robert Redford‘s character in “The Horse Whisperer,” “Buck” goes past its feel-good Western imagery to become an astonishing story of kindness, compassion and a kind of Zen journey. Brannan’s a natural on-screen — with a sly, warm deadpan and Gary Cooper-style charm — but the film’s subtext of real pain and real healing makes it immensely moving.
“El Bulli: Cooking in Progress”: A documentary about El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s Spanish restaurant hailed as the best in the world, and of the six-month period every year when it closes so Adria and his chefs can research and perfect new dishes. There’s a lot going on in “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” — the question of food as a mix of science and performance art, the search for new techniques, the privilege and expense of a meal at El Bulli — but we don’t get any of that, instead focusing on unexplained scenes of cooking and Adria touching his finger into dishes before contemplatively tasting them. “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” wants to put you in a dream state; instead, it just puts you to sleep.
“Attenberg”: Written and directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, the producer of “Dogtooth,” this coming-of-age story where a young girl (Ariane Labed) deals with her dying father, her best friend and a new love (“Dogtooth” director Giorgos Lanthimos) has a lot of that film’s surreal deadpan but none of its political and metaphorical intensity — which doesn’t quite work in the context of a more natural setting and story. I’m not sure how I’d feel about “Attenberg” if I weren’t comparing it to “Dogtooth,” but its feel is so close to the blunt bizarreness of that masterwork that it can’t help but seem like a pale imitation.
In Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win,” Paul Giamatti plays a small-town lawyer and wrestling coach grappling — pardon the pun — with ethical conflict and the danger of failure. Giamatti’s character sets out to deliberately defraud an older client, played by Burt Young, and then has to take in Young’s grandson (and wrestling prodigy), Alex Shaffer, as part of his scheme. When I spoke with Giamatti, the well-known actor explained how the world of high school wrestling was a big part of what made “Win Win” a film he had to do. “The wrestling stuff was very appealing about (“Win Win”). Not just me getting to coach it, just the idea of it. I like anything that’s trying to show a weird subculture like that in a real way. It’s a really weird — it’s not a subculture, but the whole culture of high school wrestling, it’s intense.”
But even though the movie opens with a shot of Giamatti jogging that’s designed to elicit laughs, he explained that his character isn’t that far from where he is. “I come from an extremely athletic family, and believe it or not, I was at one time,” he said. “My grandfather was a football coach, so I grew up around a lot of that kind of thing. We went and saw crappy teams and saw the less-good coaches and saw the really great, aggressive coaches. It was really interesting. They get really physical with those kids; the whole culture of it, it’s really fascinating.”
Giamatti may have been working with writer-director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor“) for the first time, but he’s known McCarthy for decades.”I went to drama school with him,” he said. “He’s an actor. He was in the class behind me. I’ve known him for 20 years; I’ve never worked with him before. He came to me — I was at a Thanksgiving dinner that he was at with friends, and he said, ‘Hey, man, I have this script that I’ve written, and I really want you to read it.’ I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t even need to read it. If you want me to do something with you, I would be happy. I don’t even care what it is.’”
And despite his success, it wasn’t hard for Giamatti to tap into what it took to play a failing businessman. “I have a kid. I don’t know that I was ever consciously thinking — acting is a wonderful thing and I work a lot, but it’s not like money doesn’t get tight a lot and hasn’t been, so I feel like I can sort of understand that. I certainly see enough (people in trouble) that are around me. I suppose I’m tapping into some sort of experience of my own, I guess. I don’t know.”
And while Giamatti is working with actor-turned-director McCarthy, he said he’s not sure if he could make that leap himself: “I don’t think I’d be able to handle that s—. I can barely handle it as an actor outside of it. Maybe it would be really interesting; maybe it would be interesting to go on the other side of it and just purely be doing that. I don’t know how I’d direct actors. I would have a hard time with that.” Giamatti laughed, with the rumpled smile he’s made famous in dozens of films: “I might be all over people too much, or I might be too much like, ‘That’s great, everyone. That’s great. Let’s go to lunch.’ I think I might be too easygoing.”