panic room directed by David Fincher, written by David Koepp, produced by Koepp, Cean Chaffin, Judy Hofflund and Gavin Polone, with Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam. 120 minutes. A Sony Pictures release. Opens Friday (March 29). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 78. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
beverly hills -- jodie foster is filmmaker David Fincher's perfect female star.Sounds weird at first, doesn't it? Fincher makes violent, male-themed movies like Seven, The Game and Fight Club, while Foster's made her mark playing steely women confronting male violence -- think Taxi Driver, The Accused, The Silence Of The Lambs.
He's the director who sets up nasty situations. She's the hero who, by sheer will and courage, gets out of them. That's what makes them a perfect match.
In Fincher's taut thriller Panic Room, Foster stars as single mom Meg Altman, who moves into a four-storey Manhattan brownstone with her preteen daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). Inside their sprawling apartment is a hidden panic room, designed to be an intruder-proof vault. When three burglars -- Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam -- break in, Meg and Sarah lock themselves in the room and the standoff begins.
This is toned-down Fincher. It's his chamber piece, really. The action is contained to a single set, and everything depends on his ability to place the camera in the perfect spot and move it with fast-paced boldness and stealthy grace.
It also offers a pared-down Foster performance. She kicks butt but is rarely in the same room with the bad guys. She's the thinking woman's action hero, and gives the role a certain cerebral grittiness that Nicole Kidman, who was originally cast in the role, wouldn't have provided.
Panic Room had been shooting three weeks when Kidman started to limp after running up the set's four flights of stairs. She'd developed a hairline leg fracture, and that was it for her. Foster was unexpectedly available -- Russell Crowe, the star of her pet directing project, Flora Plum, was also injured, and her production had been shut down.
"I had already read the script and, frankly, I came to them as quickly as they came to me," says Foster, while holding court at the Panic Room round-table interviews in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel. She's surprisingly tiny and looks younger than her age (she's seven months shy of 40). A pimple on her chin gives her a sort of adolescent charm.
But the moment the Yale-educated, French-speaking, double-Oscar-winning mother of two (three-year-old Charles, five-month-old Kit) speaks her mind, she's mature and composed.
"David's an auteur. His films are strong because he has an opinion on everything (see sidebar, this page). He chooses where the lights go, he discusses colour temperatures, he discusses the sound quality, tells you where to put the mike, which mike to put on.
"That includes my and everyone else's performance. He manicures every single performance."
Four or five weeks into shooting, Foster surprised Fincher by informing him she was pregnant. For the next five months he shot around her pregnancy while she ran herself ragged. Yet it was Foster's mommy-to-be euphoria that kept her going.
"I was exhausted but I was happy, and I always think that's the only way to work," says Foster. "If you're happy you can play anything. When you feel insecure, when you don't like the film or the people around you, then it's hard to set the alarm clock to get up every day.
"I wanted to play Meg because she's someone who doesn't know who she is any more. She's beaten down, and her daughter's at the age where she thinks her mother's an idiot.
"Part of a young girl's growing up is to continually put her mother in her place, put her down. It's how women evolve -- we keep one foot on Mom and push off."
Does she expect her own kids will being pushing off her in the future?
"Boys are a little different. Women and their daughters, it's a hard thing to explain. I know with my mother it's a really strange, complicated relationship. It's too close to see -- like looking at an elephant through a microscope."
Foster's tension-filled relationship with her mother, Brandy, is a fabled one. Brandy oversaw Jodie's career from the age of three, when she got her start as the baby in the Coppertone commercials. By the age of 10, Jodie was supporting her mom, her brother and two older sisters with her acting, and by the time she was 14 she had earned her first Oscar nomination for Taxi Driver. Not your average American childhood. How would she react if her kids wanted to follow in her footsteps?
"Charles is three years old, the same age I was when I started. I'd be supportive of anything he's excited about. The one thing I would say is that I wouldn't want to be involved in his career. It's something he should do, so when he came home he would feel safe to talk about it.
"He doesn't seem to be showing any signs of interest. If when he's seven or eight and he wants to do plays or try out for commercials, then absolutely, I'd let him go, but I'd get someone else to take him."
Foster clearly believes she should separate her role as mommy and movie agent, but in her own career she boldly mixes and matches moviemaking skills -- acting, directing and producing.
In 1994, along with producing and starring in Nell, she helped pull together the short film Trevor, about a gay teen who contemplates suicide. It won the Oscar for best live action short.
A gay journalist at the interview praises Foster for her involvement with Trevor and then asks her if she feels any special commitment to the gay and lesbian community. There's a split-second pause from the verbally assured woman, who's been deflecting rumours of her gayness for most of her life.
"Um, special commitment? I feel a special commitment to all humanitarian organizations, but I'm very proud of that film." It's her only awkward moment of the email@example.comFincher on file
If Hollywood is a corral full of tired ponies, then director David Fincher is the wild mustang that's been let loose to run amok -- Alien3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and now Panic Room all have a dynamic, dizzying visual style. A Fincher interview is a lot like his movies -- he needs to push the envelope.
Did you really try to make a sex comedy for New Line?
"It was too expensive. Sex comedies are only as expensive as the people you want to see fuck, and I wanted to see expensive people fuck."
Admit it, you're a control freak.
"I'm more like a cheerleader, the den mother. These movies aren't watercolours. Movies cost millions to make and release, and that's a big chunk of money. In the end, my name is on the thing and -- good, bad or indifferent -- people are going to hold me responsible."
Why such a heavy, hands-on approach to actors?
"Actors worry about the little picture, I worry about the big picture. You have to say, 'OK, at this moment I'm not watching you do that. We only care about object X over there. We don't need you to kill yourself with a reaction shot to X, because I only care when you pick up X. I'm not controlling, just putting things into context for them."
Studios bankroll your films, but they make your life difficult, don't they?
"When I was making Alien3 I told the producers I couldn't shoot a joke in the script. 'Why not?,' they asked. 'Because it's not funny.' 'Well, it's funny to somebody,' they thought. OK, so what take do I print? Do I print take 11 because I'm guessing that's the one that will get the laugh? If I shoot a joke and don't think it's amusing, how will I know when I'm done?"IR