Jodie Foster and Julie Taymor Talk ‘Taxi/Uber Driver,’ the Artistry of Video Games, and Directors’ Social Responsibility

In which two female directors deftly navigate a minefield of soundbite potential.

Sony is on the verge of releasing Money Monster, the first mainstream “popcorn” movie to be directed by Jodie Foster. Out May 13, the George Clooney and Julia Roberts-starring film (which has nothing whatsoever to do with any number of Oceans) is an action thriller that’s deeply entrenched in the current conversation about American financial/power distribution — it sees a man holding a financial TV host hostage after he loses all of his money based on a bad tip.

However, as Foster said at the Tribeca Film Festival last night, in discussion with film and theatre director Julie Taymor (of Titus, Frida and Across the Universe), “more interesting than [the politics of the film] are the characters… who are all struggling with a spiritual crisis about their own lives.” Jodie Foster has always been opaque about both political and social issues, and when she spoke last night with Julie Taymor at Tribeca she… pretty much stayed opaque towards said issues, likely out of a (somewhat understandable) trepidation about sound-bite reportage. Throughout the evening, there were undertones of tension felt between Foster’s artistic ideals and perceptions of the facile politicization of art from the media. There seemed an avoidance of any comment straightforwardly charged enough to be turned into clickbait.

For these two successful and relatively powerful women directors, the hot-button topic that they likely perceived everyone would want to hear them talk about at some point was inequity in Hollywood, especially in the dearth of studio films helmed by women. And probably in part for this very reason, Jodie Foster said she was a “little sick of” the conversation, while Taymor added that they “don’t want to ignore it, either,” and Foster responded, “it’s real. It’s been a very long time, there are very few [women] filmmakers, it’s not just today, it’s not just this week. In television [now] there are lots of female directors [as opposed to film]…I think the more financial risk, the less risky studios can be. And I think people still see — for whatever reason, and I don’t think it’s a plot — but I think they still see women as risky.”

On occasions when and if identity politics ends up trumping discussion of the actual work of the people identity politically charged discourse is representing, it can become its own form or reductive pigeonholing. The conflicting feelings of “over-it”-ness and concern are understandable from Foster when you see that Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Buzzfeed all likewise reported on the event, and yet across 45 minutes of discussion, predominantly pulled the same few (still somewhat unclear) comments about gender inequity from the talk — when in fact for a great deal of the conversation they were speaking of their individual approaches to filmmaking and their somewhat polar ideas about onscreen realities. (When they were still in introductory mode, Foster said her films are about “reality” while Taymor’s are “wild and expressive,” and Taymor then noted, “It’s hard to say what reality and naturalism is, isn’t it, because when we put a camera in front of it, it’s not real anymore in a certain way.”)

For most of the discussion, though, Taymor brought Foster chronologically through her career — asking her first what her favorite book was as a child (by the age of three, she was already easing her way into the industry following a Coppertone sunscreen commercial, so even her favorite book growing up could have had bearing on her artistic process). That book was Franny and Zooey, and Foster noted that she’d told herself at 13 or 14 that someday she’d direct a Salinger movie. (No, Money Monster is not a Salinger movie.)

She said what she enjoyed about being a child actor were the surrogate families — “a hundred people being these fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters that taught me things. And being asked to do a job and be taken seriously. I loved the technical side of everything — I’d think ‘acting is so dumb,’ I couldn’t believe someone was asking me to say lines.” That changed, however, in Taxi Driver, when she got a glimpse into De Niro’s process. “He spent a couple days with me doing improvisations and talking back and forth as his main character. I didn’t understand what he was doing but I was fascinated.” (Also, notably, when a fan jokingly asked if there’d might be an Uber Driver sequel in the works, Foster’s interest seemed also-jokingly piqued — “I’m going to ask Columbia if that’s a good idea” — so this Tribeca talk may have been the origin of the new classic).

Foster began directing in her mid-20s, with the film Little Man Tate. “I was an actor, so I got to read a lot of material figure out how one reads narrative,” she said, about jumping into filmmaking. “I didn’t go to film school — I didn’t go that traditional route, and sometimes I find the most interesting filmmakers didn’t go to film school.”

None of her features have been self-written, because, she said, she doesn’t “have a lot of faith in her writing.” But this lack of faith seems oddly more assured than self-deprecating. “I’m very picky,” she continued. “I wanted a better writer than myself — I worked with other writers and I’m happy I’ve done that over the years.”

Instead, her focus as a filmmaker seems to be on how she can manipulate the given material in such a way that it’s connected and engaging, but not too contrived or teleological:

The idea of manipulation is something I’m fascinated by. There is a fine line, because we do control the image. We control the image, we control the sound, and yet in a way it’s a philanthropic manipulation. We do manipulate the image in order to present reality in a way that is true. It is a fine line to figure out what’s good manipulation and what’s bad manipulation.

“What is bad manipulation?” asked Taymor.

“I think it’s about the result — in studio films for example, where you’re trying to get that result, trying to get the audience to cry or trying to get the audience to laugh or trying to get the audience to pay,” Foster replied.

When they eventually opened the discussion for questions from the audience, the digressive unpredictability of people’s curiosities surprisingly yielded interesting — if hard to exactly read — results on Foster’s part.

When the “women filmmakers” conversation returned — via a fan who wanted an elaboration on why they’re sick of talking about it — Foster said, “I think we’re all looking forward to a time we won’t have to have [this simplified conversation] anymore.” She half-jokingly, half-completely-seriously praised Jonathan Demme as her “favorite female director.” She lauded him for being “the one guy who really understood Silence of the Lambs and saying, ‘This is a movie about a woman, who is our hero…The film was informed by that. It’s why the film is not filled with gratuitous violence.”

“Saying ‘Why are there no women directing mainstream franchises?’ is such an incredibly simple question that — there are so many reasons,” she continued. “Some of them are about our psychology, some of them are about our financial world, some of them are about the global economy, any number of things. There are so many answers to that question that go back hundreds of years. It would be nice…to be able to look at it as more than just a quota… I don’t think it’s a plot to keep women down; it’s neglect, really. It’s a bunch of people that weren’t thinking about it, including a lot of female executives who have risen to the top and have not made a dent in [making a place for women filmmakers.]”

One woman asked, in vague terms, about the impact video game violence has on children, and how they, as directors, go about filming difficult subject matters with a sense of public responsibility. (She also self-awarely noted that teenage boys probably aren’t watching Taymor’s Titus.) Both Taymor and Foster politely challenged the question for different reasons (Taymor didn’t seem cool with this likely sound presumption about teenage boys and Titus). Foster spoke against the generalization of video games as harmful, saying, “I have two teenage sons that are [into] games, and they couldn’t be nicer people. There’s always this argument about how art that reflects the difficult could move culture in the wrong direction. But I think there’s so much artistry in games now. Honestly, some of the most interesting bits of art now are in gaming,” she said, especially praising BioShock 2K as a “different way of looking at reality.” She continued, saying, “We do have a responsibility as artists hopefully to challenge the world to somehow be more connected and open, and I for one really believe that dramas are a great way of doing that. I don’t think it’s cut and dry.”

Meanwhile, Taymor segued from the notion that teenage boys aren’t interested in Titus (she said Titus Andronicus is “the Pulp Fiction of Shakespeare”) into a complex anecdote about directorial responsibility. “I was attracted to it because it horrified me. The content of that piece is about the violence — bloody, revengeful, lust, sexuality, rape, murder, race. It actually touches on every single violent act that mankind has ever perpetrated,” she said, continuing on to tell by far the most insightful story of the evening (and one that speaks to a conversation that’s been sparked particularly by Game of Thrones regarding its frequent rape scenes):

 What I think was a really interesting lesson as a director: there was an incredibly awful scene where a young woman is going to be stripped and raped by two teenage boys. Now what Shakespeare does is he doesn’t put everything onstage. And what he put onstage I put onscreen, and what he put offstage, I pretty much followed that. Because… your imagination is worse. And directors can set up that horror without showing it. But in this one scene I learned a lesson as a director: it was a steady-cam scene and the steady-cam is moving around [the character who’s raped offscreen in the scene], and it’s really giving you a dizzy feeling as these two boys — and Jessica Lange’s the mother — are taunting this girl as they’re picking off pieces of her clothing. You don’t see the rape; it’s pre and post.

But I had to work with a temp score. Directors out there know you often have a temp score before the composer gives you — and I was working with Eliot Goldenthal (who I know very well [he’s her partner]) but he hadn’t done that score yet. And we tried that scene with rock music. And it worked like gangbusters. It was pulsing and thrilling. And all of a sudden I went, “Oh my God, this is exactly the opposite of what should be done.” Talking about responsibility, talking about what you’re trying to say. Sure, we love revenge stories, we love violence and smack.

But we put that music on as temp, I played it for the composer, and he went ‘No.’ He said, ‘Let me do it from the victim’s point of view.’ He did a string quartet — it worked so well and it completely shifted the audience’s understanding and emotional involvement in the scene. That is the power that directors have, and I often feel they don’t use that power well. It can be the same piece of storytelling, but really think, ‘Do you want people to be munching on popcorn while heads are being sliced off?’

Ultimately, the two directors really wanted to talk about…directing. Which, come to think of it, makes a lot of sense for directors! Within that, their perspective as rare powerful women filmmakers matters — and likely the nature of how they might want to depict something like sexualized violence is informed by that perspective. But Foster particularly took assiduous — and sometimes even odd, if understandable — care to address it in such a way that she wouldn’t allow it to matter more than the actual reasons she and Taymor were involved in this conversation to begin with: the art they’ve made.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 24.