Two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster directs and co-stars with two-time Academy Award® winner Mel Gibson in The Beaver - an emotional story about a man on a journey to re-discover his family and re-start his life.
Plagued by his own demons, Walter Black was once a successful toy executive and family man who now suffers from depression. No matter what he tries, Walter can't seem to get himself back on track…until a beaver hand puppet enters his life.
A Family Story
In her career as a director, Jodie Foster has developed a reputation for her adept ability to share universal themes of family and family dynamics through the specific experiences of the characters in her films. At the time that producer Steve Golin was searching for the perfect helmer for The Beaver, several major Hollywood directors were contacting him, eager to get involved. But the director that Golin was most interested in was Foster, as her two previous directorial efforts, Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays, demonstrated that her skills behind the lens were exactly what this story needed.
"Jodie called about the project, she came in and we discussed it," Golin says. "She was very compelling, so passionate about the material. She showed an amazing affinity for the script. I was really impressed by her, intrigued by her grasp of the story and the possibility of her directing.
"I read the script for The Beaver and loved it, but there was another director involved at the time," says Foster. "Even though there was a lot of really interesting work to be done on the script, it was such a raw and beautiful first movie for a first time writer that I kept saying to everybody, 'listen, if anything happens, call me up.' And that's exactly what happened, where a hole opened up."
One aspect of the story that had particular resonance for the producer was the way it dealt with issues of family.
"At heart, despite all the strange twists and turns The Beaver is a family drama, the story of a father and son coming together, that tells in very direct terms how a fractured family finds a way to heal itself. It doesn't happen in the normal way it usually happens in films but in a deeply imaginative and original way."
"Jodie comes from a very strong acting and character background, and she had a terrific, insightful take on the characters and what they were going through. And she told me she was familiar with people who had suffered from depression and how it affected their lives, and the lives of those around them.
"Previously on the movies I produced, the directors came out of a music video or commercial background with a visual bent on things. It was fascinating for me to hear what someone who took things from a character-related point of view, from an acting and emotional point of view, had to say about the material. After talking to Jodie I understood that this was the approach for the story, and that she was the person to direct the film."
This Is the Story of Walter Black
The idea for Walter Black, the chronically depressed toy executive who rediscovers life by speaking through a beaver hand puppet first took shape in the mind of award-winning screenwriter Kyle Killen.
Killen, raised in Texas but educated at the USC Film School in California, originally conceived of the tale of Walter Black and the beaver as a short story.
"It was something I decided to write when my wife became pregnant with twins and we moved back to Austin," Killen says. "But instead of becoming a short story it expanded into hundreds and hundreds of pages of prose, at which point it seemed wise to make it into novel. In the end though, I decided to write it as a screenplay."
There's no doubt that the story of Walter Black found its perfect expression as a screenplay. When Killen gave the finished script to his agent the result was praise from everyone who read it.
"This, despite the offbeat nature of the story," Killen says. "I was surprised. And delighted."
In Hollywood, The Beaver screenplay made the rounds, and word about its merits spread quickly. By the time it won first place on the 2008 Black List survey as one of the best un-produced screenplays of the year several companies had expressed interested in it.
But by now the script had landed on the desk of Steve Golin, founder of Propaganda Films who today heads Anonymous Content. Golin, well known for taking a chance on offbeat material, having produced Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, responded immediately to The Beaver. He decided to produce it.
"I was so taken with it, it's a fantastic screenplay," Golin says. "Granted it's a pretty outrageous concept, unique really, about a guy who has a break with reality and winds up relating to the world through a beaver hand puppet. But it's a concept that, oddly enough, works.
"Walter Black, the central character, is someone who has hit absolute rock bottom," Golin says. "He's gotten to a place where he has no coping mechanism left, and when everything else fails him, absolutely everything, he is saved by the beaver hand puppet."
Walter finds the beaver puppet in a dumpster outside a liquor store where he usually tanks up on booze and winds up wearing it on his left arm. Emerging from what had seemed like a terminal stupor, he begins speaking through the hand puppet, at first to himself, then to everyone else. Through the beaver, Walter begins to turn his life around. He reconnects with his family, and revives the fortunes of his ailing toy company. But it all comes at a price.
"Even with the central conceit being very much out there, so to speak, I was comfortable with it," says Golin. "I've had experience with this kind of material and I felt this screenplay would make a compelling film."
Having Foster on board as director was a big step in the film going forward. The next hurdle was to find the actor for Walter Black, an extraordinary, original, 'outside the box' character. Golin knew that it would take a star to play him, not just because of the depth and complexity of the role, which could be a tour de force for any actor, but for logistical reasons as well.
"These kinds of pictures that fall beyond the realm of conventional storytelling are very, very difficult to get going," Golin says. "They're difficult to get made even with stars but almost impossible without them. We needed a star for the role but we all felt confident that we would be able to get one because the material was unique, really strong.
"Almost immediately Jodie had the idea of giving the screenplay to Mel Gibson. She had a relationship with him dating from Maverick, the film they made together in 1994. They had been friends ever since."
Foster was very much aware of what a terrific actor Gibson is, and knew that he had a great comic sense.
"Walter Black and the beaver had to be somebody who could fully understand and communicate comedy and tragedy at the same time," says Foster. "I've been friends with Mel for over 15 years and we've had many, many long discussions about life and so it was a natural place to go."
"Jodie called me up and asked if I would help her out," says Gibson. "And of course, I love her to death and I wanted to work with her again and I liked the material so off we went."
"I thought it was a great idea but a long shot," Golin says, 'because Mel hadn't done this kind of film before. But Jodie submitted the script, and two or three days later he told her he wanted to do it. And at first I thought he was kidding, it was just one of those things I didn't think was possible."
But it was. In fact, it was a perfect match.
Foster says, "He's such a talented actor. I mean, I feel amazingly blessed to have somebody like that who really took on the character, brought so much to it and no muss, no fuss. You know, he came in and it was two takes he left. That's who Mel is. I think probably the most light of foot actor I've ever worked with in some ways."
"Gibson has this unusual ability to be really funny in a serious situation,' Golin says, "and he has a tremendous amount of energy as an actor. I think that's important because, despite its comic elements, the nature of the script is dramatic and dark. But I think the humor he brings is a perfect balance."
With the director and star in place, Golin and his associate Keith Redmon moved forward and joined forces with New York producer Ann Ruark to make the film. Golin and Ruark previously produced Alejandro González Iñárritu's award-winning Babel.
Summit Entertainment, Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi also signed on to complete the financing, with Summit distributing. Things were moving along. It remained, however, for three important roles to be filled, the other members of the Black family -- Walter's wife Meredith, their teenage son Porter, and the seven year-old Henry.
Because of her deep connection to the material Foster realized that she wanted to play the role of Meredith. She was, however, unsure of Mel's reaction. So she went in person to his house to break the news and see if he was comfortable with it. Gibson was delighted.
"It's always great," he says. "I worked with her once before and I really dug it. She's always in, she's always on the phone, even if you don't talk to her very often, she's always there if you need a friend. So I was happy to work closely with her again."
For the role of Porter, the Blacks' super-smart 17 year-old son, Foster didn't have far to look. She was convinced that Anton Yelchin was perfect for it. Porter is contemptuous of his father, and struggles with demons of his own as he plots a way to escape the family. He hoards money for a cross-country road trip and for college by charging less-gifted fellow students a fee for writing their school papers. Not a typical teenage role.
"Anton is just such an amazing young actor and I think he brings two things working at the same time--one is incredible depth and the other is a real warmth and lightness and he has both things at the same time which is kind of hard to find with young actors, " says Foster.
But Yelchin has acting chops. In 2009, he co-starred to much acclaim in two films, J.J. Abrams Star Trek, and Terminator Salvation. The year before he received rave reviews for his performance in the title role of Charlie Bartlett. Yelchin was cast.
The part of seven year-old Henry took longer to fill but eventually it was given to the talented Riley Thomas Stewart, a California native.
Cherry Jones, the extraordinary Emmy and Tony Award winner, was cast in the role of the Vice President of Walter's toy company, JerryCo, and recent Academy Award® nominee Jennifer Lawrence plays Norah, the high school cheerleader Porter becomes involved with when she asks him to write her valedictorian speech that she'll deliver at graduation.
"Jennifer Lawrence is amazing," Foster says. "I wish I could credit myself with inventing her, but I did see many scenes of Winter's Bone before I cast her and I said this woman is such an amazing actress and she has such depth on screen. We actually changed a lot of who the character was, from the way she was in the script, once Jennifer was cast based on what she brought to the role."
As the casting of the principals was finalized Foster, Golin and Ruark assembled the creative crew for the film, lining up an extraordinary assembly of film technicians. These included director of photography Hagen Bogdanski, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Susan Lyall and editor Lynzee Klingman.
Bogdanski is noted for his work on the Academy Award® winning German film, The Lives of Others. Friedberg is one of today's foremost designers with credits that include several cutting-edge independent films (Synecdoche, New York) as well as mainstream fare (Runaway Bride).
Lyall and Klingman have both collaborated with Foster on the two previous films she directed, Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays. Lyall in fact designed the clothes for many of the films in which Foster played a starring role.
A decision was made by the filmmakers to set up production in New York and shoot The Beaver in the area, as much as possible on real locations. Finding the locations was crucial; Foster wanted sites that would reflect the characters identities and also speak to something about who they were inside.
The location team of Ryan Webb and Stephen Grivno began scouting within New York City's five boroughs, eventually spreading out into the city's northern suburbs in Westchester. They ended up in the town of Harrison where the environment and look of the houses matched Foster's vision.
One of Foster's requirements for the film was that the façade of the Black house should contain stone and wood - she wanted to stay away from red brick. Two houses were selected in Harrison to work as the one Black residence. The first was used primarily for exteriors, its garage area in particular; a second house neatly situated on a corner intersection and facing out onto a suburban landscape provided the front entrance, backyard pool and downstairs interiors.
A third, more modest residence in the area was chosen as the rental house to which Meredith and the boys retreat after abandoning Walter when he refuses to separate from the beaver.
Two other important locations were also found in Westchester, both in nearby White Plains. One, an office complex, formerly IBM's Westchester headquarters, served as offices of JerryCo, the toy company Walter has inherited; the other was White Plains High School where the unit shot over two successive weekends the scenes involving Porter, Norah, and several of Porter's classmates.
One last Westchester town was chosen for filming, Mamaroneck. Its main street, Boston Post Road, was the site of Walter's sidewalk jog with the beaver and the location of a toy store and a liquor store that figure in the story.
Rehearsals with the cast were conducted in the days that led up to filming, and production got underway on The Beaver September 19, 2009 on location at White Plains High School. Several weeks of filming followed at the residences in Harrison, and in Mamaroneck. Filming then shifted temporarily to Brooklyn where Foster shot Meredith and Walter's evening out at a fine restaurant in the borough's DUMBO neighborhood and, a day later, Porter's ride with Norah to a 'bad part of town' in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.Read more
The Beaver and Black Family Dynamic
The realistic look of The Beaver is also established and maintained in the way Foster worked with her actors. Reality, naturalism, spontaneity, real feeling was stressed. Which leads of course into a contemplation of exactly who and what the beaver is, and how he fits into the realistic structure of the film.Read more
The Beaver as a Phenomenon
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Beaver is the puppet itself, and how it affects not just the characters but also the cast. Specifically Mel Gibson. Gibson gave his all in preparing for this aspect of the part. By the time production began, he had become completely adept at manipulating the beaver physically, able to endow the creature with a mesmerizing speaking voice and an electric personality. It was uncanny. Read more
The Cast and Filming
The atmosphere on the set of The Beaver throughout the filming was one of deliberate purpose and intense creativity, combined with a deep sense of excitement and conviviality. Read more
About the Filmmakers
JODIE FOSTER (Director/Meredith)'s performances as a rape survivor in The Accused and as Special Agent Clarice Starling in the Oscar-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs earned her two Academy Awards for Best Actress and a reputation as one of the most critically acclaimed actresses of her generation.
For her role in The Silence of the Lambs, Foster was also awarded a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, a New York Film Critics Award and a Chicago Film Critics Award. Foster received her first Oscar nomination and awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics for her role in Taxi Driver. She also became the only American actress to win two separate awards in the same year from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts - Best Supporting Actress and Best Newcomer honoring her performances in both Taxi Driver and Bugsy Malone.
Most recently, audiences saw Jodie star in the Fox Walden film Nim's Island with Gerard Butler. Prior to that, Foster starred in The Brave One for director Neil Jordan and for which she received a Golden Globe Award nomination for her performance.
In total, Foster has appeared in nearly 40 films, including the recent Inside Man with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen; the box-office hit Flightplan; Jean Pierre Jeunet's French language film, A Very Long Engagement; David Fincher's box-office success, Panic Room; Anna and the King for director Andy Tenant, Contact for director Robert Zemeckis; Nell opposite Liam Neeson; the comedy Maverick opposite Mel Gibson and James Garner and the romantic drama Sommersby opposite Richard Gere.
Other select motion picture credits include Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog; Mary Lambert's Siesta opposite Ellen Barkin; Stealing Home; Five Corners; as well as earlier films such as Tom Sawyer; Disney's Freaky Friday; Adrian Lyne's Foxes; Tony Richardson's The Hotel New Hampshire; and Claude Chabrol's The Blood of Others, for which the multi-lingual Foster looped all of her own dialogue in French.
Foster began her career at age three, appearing as "The Coppertone Girl" in the television commercial. She then went on to become a regular on a number of television series, including Mayberry RFD, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, My Three Sons and Paper Moon. She made her feature debut in Napoleon and Samantha when she was eight years old.
But it was her role in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975), which brought her to the audience's eyes, and her powerful portrayal of a streetwise teenager in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) that won her widespread critical praise and international attention. Foster appeared in a total of four films in 1976, Bugsy Malone, Echoes of Summer, Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and Taxi Driver, all of which were presented at the Cannes Film Festival. Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone earned her an Italian Comedy Award.
In addition to her acting, Foster has always had a keen interest in the art of filmmaking. The Beaver is her third directorial credit. She made her motion picture directorial debut in 1991 with the highly acclaimed Little Man Tate, in which she also starred. In 1995, Foster directed her second film, Home for the Holidays, which she also produced. The film starred Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft and Robert Downey Jr.
Foster founded Egg Pictures in 1992, and the company produced Nell (1994), for which Foster earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress; Home for the Holidays (1995); the Showtime telefilm The Baby Dance (1998) which received a Peabody Award, four Emmy Award nominations and three Golden Globe Award nominations; as well as USA Films' Waking the Dead, directed by Keith Gordon starring Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly. In 1996, Egg presented the award-winning French film Hate in the United States. Egg Pictures most recently produced The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2001).
Foster graduated with honors from Yale University in 1985, earning a B.A. in literature.
KYLE KILLEN (Screenplay) was educated at the USC School of Cinema-Television and received a BA in film production. He began his career writing short stories, several of which were published in various literary journals. His writing also appeared in Salon.com Killen has written the teleplay Midland. His screenplay The Beaver is his first feature screenplay to be produced. Killen lives in Austin, Texas.
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