6 Filmmaking Tips From Jodie Foster

Advice from the child star turned Money Monster director
Jodie Foster Julia Roberts Money Monster
Sony Pictures Entertainment
By  · Published on May 11th, 2016

Jodie Foster’s latest, Money Monster, is only her fourth movie as a director. That’s surprising if you’ve associated her with filmmaking as much as acting over the last 25 years. The truth is, the former child star hasn’t exactly been prolific in front of the camera during that time, either. Also, in addition to helming features, she’s done an equal share of TV, including episodes of Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, and Tales from the Darkside, through which she made her directorial debut back in 1988 ‐ if we don’t count the amateur short film she claims to have made for the BBC a decade earlier.

Because Foster has directed so few works, she might not seem like a good candidate for Filmmaking Tips, but the low number actually makes her a more interesting person to hear from regarding her craft and of course her selectivity. Plus she’s a well-spoken woman with smart things to say about her experiences in the industry, which she entered at age three. So, as gathered from various recent interviews and statements, here are six notable pieces of advice:

Be a Movie Critic

Foster didn’t go to film school. Instead, she came up as an actress and learned what it takes to direct by “standing behind the shoulders” of those who directed her (she credits Martin Scorsese, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, Claude Chabrol, David Fincher, Spike Lee, and Neil Jordan as her teachers). She also studied literature at Yale, and at a recent Ivy Film Festival event at Brown University, she told a crowd that “learning how to read and wanting to look deeper” proved to be an “amazing foundation for filmmaking.”

As quoted in the Brown Daily Herald last month, she also encouraged the students in that audience to “go to movies and talk about what was wrong with them, and then ask yourself what you would have done differently.” She added, “Re-writing films is the best film school you can have.”

The quote can be related to an interview she did with the New York Times back in 1991 while promoting Little Man Tate. She mentions critical thoughts on Dances With Wolves, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the “genre-breaking” work of John Sayles, Alan Rudolph, and Stephen Frears. “Even if I don’t end up thinking it’s the best movie in the world,” she says of those three filmmakers, “I’ll still see every movie they make until there’s that single one that says everything I’ve always wanted a movie to say.”

That’s not to say other movies should inform your work too much. But they can. Here’s a relevant comment Foster made this month to the Miami Herald:

I don’t watch movies for reference,” she says. “I make movies from the inside out. My choices all come from the narrative and what the best way is to tell a story. However, that being said, Dog Day Afternoon and Network are two definite influences on Money Monster. [Director] Sidney Lumet is an idol of mine. I love the way he found humor in real characters; how he gave each character, no matter how small, a specific point of view; how he was able to present these large panoramas of everyday, ordinary people, even when they are in the middle of a crisis.

The Equipment Isn’t Important

One of the most common things filmmakers hear from students during campus events and film festivals is an interest in which cameras and filters and lights and other specific equipment they used to shoot their movies. But that shouldn’t be of any concern for wannabe directors. “Leave the lenses and the cranes for later,” she told the crowd at Brown. “The equipment is the least important part of the process. The most important part is figuring out what you’re trying to say.”

Here she is admitting to not knowing or needing to know about the technical side of filmmaking in a thoroughly essential interview she did for the latest issue of DGA Quarterly:

The cinematography is such an intangible for many of us. It’s the one job we can’t go, “Oh, I know what he’s doing!” You don’t actually. You can’t break out that light meter or know how the lab is going to go. A DP brings so much of himself to the process. Though [my earlier films] may all seem like personal movies, they were very different genres. I feel like there’s a DP for every movie that I make.

Be Choosy

And what you’re trying to say ought to be so important that maybe you don’t make a whole lot of movies in your lifetime because you want these statements to be special. At Brown, Foster noted that she makes “personal films,” which doesn’t mean they’re autobiographical so much as their narratives are in some way informed by her own life experience. That’s not exactly something that can be done when you’re making just any big studio movie year after year.

Below is a popular quote from an interview with Movieline from 2011, when she was promoting her third feature, The Beaver. It seems to partly explain why Foster has made so few films.

Directing movies is life-changing. It’s an absolutely life-changing thing. That’s why you can’t throw it away on some shooter movie about scuba diving.

I can’t do that. It’s waking up at three in the morning, it’s coming up with ideas, it’s downloading your whole childhood and the people that you’ve known and the experiences that you’ve had… you can’t just do that for something you don’t believe in. It’s a life-changing thing, and it allows you to get through a spiritual crisis in a completely full way. You think about it, you ruminate about it, you ask people, you do research, you inhabit each one of the characters and say, “‘Well, what about from their point of view?” “What about from his point of view?” How does it look, how does it sound, what kind of music will be playing… it’s a way of evolving and changing and getting through an experience in a full way. It’s fantastic.

As she says in this quote from a 2002 interview with the Pennsylvania newspaper The Morning Call, being choosy as an actress and as a director was also very important to her while she was raising her kids: “It’s a big sacrifice emotionally to make a movie, a big commitment. I don’t want to minimize the commitment. I want to make the commitment. But I only want to sacrifice my family time when I find a film I really believe in.”

The following interview with Julie Taymor during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival covers a lot of the topics and tips listed in this post, including why it’s best not to make movies in a manipulative way just for end results of financial success. She says, “I know that I’m naive but I believe that if you make an extremely good movie that comes from a true place, people will come. And if they don’t come, then you should try, try again. Because making choices for cynical or manipulative reasons has been a mistake.”

Have Ridiculous Confidence

One of the most important things as a director is to not have an unhealthy ego, but a strong ego, and the ability to say, “My opinion matters. The way I see it is the way it should be.” Part of what you’re given as an actor ‐ and it’s also part of the directing process ‐ is ridiculous confidence. The transition from actor to director is a really smooth one. You and the camera operator are the only people who are ever actually in the scene, who know why a scene works and why it doesn’t.

That quote comes from the DGA Quarterly interview. Without the strong ego and ridiculous confidence, you won’t be able to be as choosy and personal as Foster has been. And it’s not just for show or to convince others that what you want to say matters. As she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, it’s also important for your own headspace, especially when working at the pace of television:

I’ve worked for 47 years in the film business. And being prepared is good, but it’s also wonderful to be open and confident that you’re going to come up with something at the last minute. That’s TV. Allow yourself the confidence to know that if you relax, you’re going to come up with something fantastic, even when you have 12 pages to shoot and a bunch of people yelling at you. (Laughs.) And I love how that works. You create this beautiful thing together.

For movies, though, the preparation is key to having the necessary confidence, as she explains here in a recent interview with The Arizona Republic:

As a director, my favorite way of working is to prepare, prepare, prepare, and to really have a complete, controlled idea of the structure of the movie, every single detail from beginning to end, every possible detail that I could nail down, and everyone on the film is 100 percent aware of what those details are. We all know everything, and we are completely, 100 percent prepared. And then, we get there and we say, “Action,” and it’s like a spontaneous fury. We just go really fast. I go really fast, so that the actors don’t have time to overthink their performances. They can kind of stay in the spontaneity. They can give everything because they don’t have to reserve anything worrying that they’re going to get burned out. So it’s kind of a funny process, where so much preparation goes into this one moment, and then you turn on the cameras and you hope you’re in the right place, you’re in the place you planned to be.

Be Parental

Obviously Foster has adapted a lot of her own experience in front of the camera to how she directs other actors. It wasn’t easy at first, however, and she’s talked of how she was too controlling of her cast, particularly Diane Wiest, when making her debut movie, Little Man Tate. Now she’s better about prepping actors ahead of time so they’re aware of what she wants but also are free to do what they need to for their art during production.

She likened this approach to parenting in a 2011 interview with Psychologies magazine (as quoted by “I want to be a good parent who loves them unconditionally,” she said, “even when they come up with bad ideas and even when they suck.”

She elaborates more in her recent DGA interview:

I always say that a good director is being a fully realized parent: You respect the person in front of you. You’re the person who gives them structure and tells them what you expect from them. But you’re also the one who says, “I love and appreciate you so much. Just show me stuff. Even if it’s bad. I don’t care. I just want you to be free to find your own way.” It’s sort of that interesting combination between both sides of being a parent ‐ the freedom and the structure.

She goes on to discuss her experience with the approach from the other side when asked if it came out of how other directors treated her as a young actor:

When I was a kid, of course, you make those mistakes that kids do. You’re unconscious, you don’t think about other actors or you were drunk the night before and you come in and barely know your lines or whatever. [So] I was 22 and in Spain making Siesta, and Mary Lambert, also a good friend of mine and the only female director that I’ve ever worked with, sat me down and said, “This isn’t how it rolls. You’re not measuring up today.” You know, I’m a good student. I’m all into the teacher. It was shocking to me that somebody sat me down like a good mom and said, “The way you acted today is not OK. It wasn’t respectful to the other actors or to the crew. It cost us.”

Diversity is Healthy

Because she’s a woman, Foster gets asked a lot about the issues for women in Hollywood and the problem of not enough female filmmakers being trusted with big studio pictures. She acknowledges it all (and is sick of it, as noted in the Tribeca video above), especially how she had few directorial role models when she was a young actress with dreams of going behind the camera, and she also has comments on why it’s important for women to be a big part of the collaborative art of movies. Here’s an interesting anecdote from the DGA interview:

I made movies in the old days where there were no women. I remember being surrounded by a bunch of guys in a small town like Kanab, Utah, or wherever, and the culture was different. There were lots of guys running around and looking at the girls in town. It was crass. It didn’t feel like real life. I think those men were in pain a little bit. They left their kids and wives at home to be away at boys’ camp. When women started coming into the picture, when a set became more diverse, it felt like it got healthier. People didn’t feel so lonely, desperate, so cut off.

Last year, she talked to Vulture during the Athena Film Festival about how to make it as a female director in a male-dominated field, and she stressed that compromising your vision as a woman to fit in is not the way to go.

I think there’s a lot of temptation to cast aside your voice and signature as women and try to be like every other guy out there, and make movies in a man’s voice. But I think, as a director, I’d give the same advice I’d give a female actor: Just be true to yourself and try to know who you are. And when you make decisions, the only one you really need to make is, Is this real or is it not?

See her attempt to explain why there aren’t more women trusted with directing in this red carpet interview from 2015:

What We’ve Learned

Foster has had a very specific career path. If you’re not three years old, you’re already too late to follow in her shoes. Even her feature directorial debut came under a certain set of circumstances by being an Oscar-winning actress with a low-risk project she also had to star in. Acting experience has definitely been a big part of who she is as a filmmaker, from learning from others to knowing what actors want and need to having the ego and confidence of a big screen star. Also, more women need to be on the set, as directors or anything, to keep the work from being too crass and sleazy.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.