Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. This particular visit, an exclusive day on a movie which didn’t have any other domestic press allowed onset, was very exciting for me.
For starters, I had read the fantastic script by Kyle Killen after it hit the famous Black List and loved it. It’s a dark, dark comedy with a premise so crazy it had to work. A middle-aged man is losing his family as he sinks into a deep pit of depression. Pills, psychiatrists, self-help books, therapy… nothing works. His wife is fed up, his teenage son punishes himself every time he sees any semblance of his father in his own mannerisms and his youngest son is introverted to a such a degree that he’s almost autistic.
Just as this man, Walter Black, is at his lowest, inches away from a lonely suicide, he finds salvation in the form of a beaver puppet. By talking through this hand puppet Walter is able to say everything he couldn’t before. His lips move, his voice providing the words, but it’s really the Beaver speaking.
That’s quirky enough, but as the story continues you begin to have serious reservations about this pairing. What’s funny at first soon becomes a sign of severe mental illness… or something even crazier.
So, I was already excited that this movie was going forward, but my excitement quadrupled when Jodie Foster signed on to direct and co-star with one Mel Gibson in the lead, their first pairing since MAVERICK.
I traveled to New York City to see Jodie Foster direct Mel Gibson talking through a beaver hand puppet. I must have rescued orphans from a burning building or took a bullet for a holy man or something in a previous life because that’s so crazy awesome I could hardly contain myself.
Especially when you factor in that I had a massive crush on Foster as a child. I know I seem to have a crush on everybody, but it was a real deal thing as a kid. FREAKY FRIDAY and CANDLESHOE did it, I think. Of course I couldn’t admit that to Ms. Foster. It’d be creepy even before you factor in the whole “I had a crush on you in those movies, but it’s because I was a kid when I saw them, so it’s okay… I don’t have a crush on you in those movies now, that’d be creepy, right? Don’t call the cops on me!” thing.
The film was shooting in a little warehouse in Brooklyn called Cinema World. This place was cheeseball central. The studio space was just like most studio space, but walking in the publicist, Larry (who started his career with THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, which itself is pretty awesome… he didn’t care too much for Robert Redford, but that’s another story) and I had to pass through a fake library and a creepy-ass mannequin in a ticket taker booth. I later found out the upstairs was even scarier, with a tacky Pharaoh painted on the wall at the top of stairs built in a circular tunnel of neon light that pointed the way to a cave room that looked like an evil doctor’s lair from a bad late ‘60s Bond rip-off movie.
Oh, I should mention that the famous Radio Man was stationed outside the doors to the studio, the radio around his neck covered in a plastic bag to protect it from the chilly rain.
The set built in the sound stage was the top floor of the Black house. Everything that happened on the ground floor was shot on location.
Gibson was days away from wrapping out, so this particular shooting day was picking up various pieces from all over the movie. When I walked up to the monitors I could see a close-up on an obviously beat up Mel Gibson. He was looking at the beaver, but I could only see the back of its furry brown head.
This scene is the culmination of a drop-down, drag-out physical fight between Gibson and the Beaver. I was able to see some of the takes from this fight, shot the previous day, and Gibson would do Bruce Campbell proud with the lumps he was giving to himself.
But more on that in a minute.
They had just checked the gate on this shot and the crew was spilling out of the house. Larry grabbed Gibson as he came down the wooden ramp and asked if he could introduce me. Gibson agreed and came over to shake my hand. Up close his make-up looked even more impressive. His left eye was swelled shut, his lip was split and he had a bloody bruise on his forehead.
I greeted him and tried to make a lame joke about how he was a little beat up. I know it was lame because his only response was to say “It’s make-up.” After that awkward introduction he asked where I came from and I told him Austin. His face changed here, remembering, I think, that this pesky intruder was from Ain’t It Cool News. He might not have had any idea who I was, but he knows Harry and the site from his screenings of The Passion of the Christ at BNAT 2003 and Apocalypto at Fantastic Fest.
“Ah, Harry Knowles territory!” was his response, actually. He then proceeded to tell the crew around me exactly what Butt-Numb-A-Thon is and how crazy we all must be for sitting in one theater for 24 hours worth of movies. I pointed out that The Passion played very well even though it was the last movie of the night and he said that it did, but that’s because we were already raw and softened up by the time he got there.
There was some down time as they changed direction, so Gibson left to grab a rest and I was taken up to meet Jodie Foster before getting a tour of the set.
I gotta say, and I might be biased because of my aforementioned childhood crush, but I found Foster to be adorable. She’s tiny and came across as a genuinely kind soul. You know how you can sometimes tell right away when someone’s a kind person and not just acting nice? That’s the feeling I got from Foster.
There was no awkwardness at all and we fell into a nice conversation about the project and about a character I wouldn’t have a chance to see on my visit, that of Porter, Walter’s estranged teenage son played by Anton Yelchin.
I hadn’t realized Yelchin was cast before the opportunity to visit the set came up and I thought it was perfect casting. It’s the kind of role that I was sure must have been tailor-made for Yelchin, almost written for him. Foster agreed and said that even though she saw a few people for the part she never wanted anybody else.
Seizing an opportunity, I had to make mention of Edgar Wright’s obsession with Bugsy Malone. Foster didn’t know Edgar by name, but knew of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I told her that Wright not only loves the movie, but has publicly admitted to singing My Name Is Tallulah in the shower (thanks Twitter). She laughed at that and began to talk about the movie saying that she recently showed it to her kids. That film and Nim’s Island are the only two films of hers she has let her kids see.
Larry asked what it was, not having seen it, so Foster explained the premise and talked about how great the soundtrack by Paul Williams was, but how strange it comes across in the movie since it’s cast completely with kids yet every song is sung by either Williams himself or one of his adult friends. If you’ve seen the movie you can tell instantly that Foster’s own voice wasn’t used in her song.
We shortly left to go explore the set while there was some quiet time. There’s not much to say about these sets other than how amazed I always am when I see movie magic at work. It’s not a flashy set, but it feels like a real house… an upper-middle class bedroom, very clean, but with arty clutter like books, photos, etc… The way they lit the windows and had shrubbery outside totally gave the illusion of a bright daytime view, not a gloomy black-walled studio which was the reality.
After touring the sets we made our way back down the monitors, but I saw the title character sitting on a cart. I asked if I could take a close-up look at the beaver (yuk-yuk-yuk) and was allowed to get up close and personal.
There were two puppets, a pre-fight and post-fight puppet. The pre-fight puppet is that ugly deep brown that reminds me of the 1980s, with a tan belly, leather nose and eerily realistic brown eyes. The post-fight puppet is messed up and I noticed that the damage on the puppet mirrored the damage on Mel. The puppet had a blood stain on the same spot on its forehead, its left eye had gone askew and its teeth were crooked. I’m sure the matching damage was intentional.
During the lull between shots I was introduced to a producer who had them run some of the Gibson fight with the beaver puppet on the playback monitors. There was everything from Mel punching himself in the face with the beaver puppet to him violently punching through a wall, pink insulation flying, to one of the creepiest things in the fight.
What’s great about this particular shot is that it’s both deranged and funny, which is kind of the tone of the whole story. Gibson is pinning his left hand, the beaver hand, with the neck of a guitar. His character is triumphant, but the beaver strains against the neck of the guitar and the way the shot is angled it looks like the straining beaver is staring daggers into Gibson.
I was later told that they didn’t do a wide array of looks. There’s no “mad beaver” “happy beaver” or anything like that. It only ever looks like the original puppet, but in this shot it just looks pissed off.
In a gravely voice the beaver says “You’re not going to win,” as it bites the neck of the guitar (which means Gibson’s character’s left hand is now holding the neck of the guitar) and swings it up, splintering it over Gibson’s face.
This is a good spot to talk about the voice of the beaver. In the script Killen just describes the beaver as having a British accent, so when I read it I pictured something more comical, a stuck up prim and proper accent. Gibson went the opposite way, giving the beaver a gravely gangster flick British accent. Like you could confuse Gibson’s voice with Ray Winstone’s.
From the way Gibson was hacking and coughing after most takes where the beaver had a lot of dialogue I’d wager this voice was playing hell with his vocal chords.
The next shot had the most beaver dialogue. It is wide profile shot that pushes into a close two shot of Mel and the beaver. Gibson starts the scene slumping down next to a bed, gasping for breath. He speaks and the beaver’s mouth moves.
“Ain’t I given you exactly what you wanted? You don’t need ‘em, Walter. I love you. I’m the only one what really, really loves you. That’s why I won’t let you go back.”
Walter is defeated here, exhaustion showing on his face. His own voice is meek as he says, “I don’t want to sleep anymore. Maybe we can work on something.”
The beaver responds, “Sure, mate, sure,” and leads Gibson up off the ground… of course meaning Gibson turns the puppet’s eyes away and holds his hand up in front of him as he gets up from the sitting position.
There were many takes of this, timing the push in just right and getting the positioning of the beaver where it needed to be to be in exact profile just like Mel is. About halfway through the takes Gibson throws in a moment where his character gingerly examines the fluff from a tear in the beaver’s hide, damage from the fight, as the beaver talks, regret on his face.
As I mentioned before, this was the only full-on sequence I saw film. The rest were inserts, scattered moments from throughout the film. Simple things like Gibson opening a closet and grabbing a jacket or washing up at the bathroom sink.
Some of these were interesting because Foster was shooting them to fit into a montage of sorts, highlighting the similarities between father and son. Mirroring previously shot footage of Anton Yelchin doing similar actions these shots would end up underlining how much of Gibson’s character was in Yelchin’s, one of the biggest burdens for that character.
I saw some of the Yelchin shots on playback as they set up the Gibson ones. Each shot sees the camera moving from left to right, hitting blackness and then moving into the next shot. So, the camera would move across Yelchin, in profile, at a mirror fussing with his hair, move past him into darkness, then move into a shot of Gibson at a mirror fussing with hair, move past him into darkness, then into a shot of Yelchin grabbing clothes from his dresser to Gibson doing the same thing, etc.
You get the point.
It was during one of these small moments that I was really taken aback by Gibson’s performance. Listen, I’m from the Road Warrior/Lethal Weapon generation. Gibson was always the confident badass, capable of being crazy, sympathetic and tough at the same time. I figured that would be how he approached his work, but the man I saw in front of the cameras was shockingly vulnerable.
After every take he’d look to Foster almost like a child would look to his mother for approval, a mixture of hope and nerves on his face. I wouldn’t call it full-on insecurity, but it was shocking to me as a person who had one image of the man from his work meet the image of the man as he’s working. He wasn’t Martin Riggs or William Wallace running at each take like a ball of crazy energy, but a very vulnerable human being. There was nothing but confidence as the cameras rolled, but he leaned very heavily on his director before and after.
I suppose to a great extent most actors do that, but most actors aren’t Mad Max.
When the crew broke for lunch I went along and was surprised to see Foster eating with the crew. I’ve been on close to 50 sets by now, I’m sure, and I’ve maybe only seen that once or twice before. It’s not that most directors hate their crew or don’t want to mingle with the commoners or anything, but they usually spend their lunches working in their office/trailer… planning shots or cutting footage together or catching up on emails and phone calls, etc.
Publicist Larry and I were sitting at a round lunch table by ourselves and I was grilling him on his previous jobs (especially his ‘70s work) when a plate heavy with meat and potatoes thudded down on the table next to me.
Gibson sat down, his crew and screenwriter Kyle Killen taking the remaining seats at the table. Saying I was surprised would have been an understatement. As rare as it is to see a director eating with the crew seeing an A-list actor eating with them is like seeing a Dodo in your birdbath. And if you do see one you’re damn well not gonna see them sitting with a geek like me.
Most of the conversation wasn’t about Gibson himself, but I did ask about his thoughts on George Miller doing a new Mad Max movie and he seemed to be happy that Miller was going forward with it, but not too broken up that he wasn’t Max again.
Other than that, we talked a lot about Old Hollywood. Once again, Gibson surprised me with a depth of knowledge about vintage films. From Bob Hope On The Road movies to vintage crime stories Gibson showed great enthusiasm for the films of yesteryear. He discussed producer Alan Ladd Jr (the exec that greenlit Star Wars and later produced Gibson’s Braveheart) with great affection (calling him “Laddy”) and went on to discuss Ladd’s ‘70s work and the work of his father, a famous star from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
There’s a level of surrealism that I encounter quite a bit in this job, but there’s nothing like trying to have a conversation with childhood idols. I encountered that when I met Steven Spielberg on the War of the Worlds set and Harrison Ford on the Cowboys and Aliens set and there was a little bit of that here as well.
Gibson was very low key, down for having a movie geek chat as he absently flicked his lighter or grabbed heaping forkfuls of mashed together potatoes and steak.
It was an odd, but incredibly cool and surprisingly warm and open visit. I hope all that came through in the above report.
Thanks to Summit for okaying the visit and for Foster and her crew for putting up with me geeking up their set for a while.