Having created three sensitive art house dramas about troubled families, Jodie Foster moved in a very different direction while directing her fourth.
“Money Monster,” opening Friday, is a tense thriller packed with Wall Street wolves, suspenseful hostage crises, a ticking bomb, SWAT snipers and police helicopters.
In a recent phone conversation, Foster said she was “delighted” that making a taut studio film not only offered her the biggest budget of her career, but triggered her first appearance as a director at this month’s Cannes Film Festival.
Having starred in such dark, action-oriented films as “Silence of the Lambs,” “Panic Room” and “The Brave One,” the two-time Oscar winner felt ready to direct something similar. The new movie’s life-or-death elements “play to a genre, general-public movie. I think that was the right step.”
“Right now it seems to be really prescient, and people tend to be talking about the movie in terms of politics,” she said. “I’m not a very political person. The things that really attracted me were the characters and their struggles.”
She saw “Money Monster” less as a critique of the financial system than as a star vehicle.
George Clooney plays a cheesy TV stock guru captured while on the air by an armed viewer who lost everything based on his tips and who threatens to kill the star. Julia Roberts is the show’s producer, trying to handle the crisis from the control room.
Foster began working on the project 3½ years ago, seeing its potential before current hedge fund scandals and offshore financial conspiracies reached the headlines.
“The housing crisis in 2008, the crash of 1929, there have been many,” she said. “It was a backdrop for us to talk about what’s happening in our society.”
She calls the fury of Clooney’s captor “a kind of rage toward the system lots of people are feeling. He did everything right and still got screwed over. The system is engineered specifically to tell regular people that they don’t understand because it’s too complicated for them, and the people making the rules and the complicated system are the ones that are benefiting from it.”
Foster said it’s challenging to make complex issues entertaining and informative at the same time. “But I just try to make the best film I can. That, to me, is always the best recipe. I don’t know any other recipes.”
Greed isn’t good
For Foster, the most important part of the film’s story is “becoming a human being.”
“George’s character starts off as someone who’s shallow and self-absorbed. He’s so invested in his own persona he doesn’t know himself anymore.”
The investment celebrity’s survival depends on connecting with his angry captor by reviving his own lost soul. Clooney’s character “has an enormous ego, and no faith in himself. I love playing with those two things — his lack of self-worth that has to be valorized by money, by arbitrary, abstract zeros. Value and money seem to go hand in hand, and yet that’s the worst way to see yourself.”
The balance between serious drama and occasional camp humor was a large part of what attracted Clooney, she said. The TV showman entertains his audience with exuberant jazz-hands dance gestures. While he’s no Baryshnikov, it was Clooney’s idea that his character deliver hip-shaking steps from an alternate universe.
“He said, ‘I want to dance like an idiot, come on, find a little dance for me!’ He brought that to the film, and I’m sure he rued the day he did,” Foster said. “It was tough. But he really embraced the buffoon quality, and how it really shows that this guy’s lost his way.”
Money never sleeps
Foster said she’s not interested in being a spokesperson, preferring to make the film’s points “through drama and character, not as a polemic. We didn’t even have to. Reality is doing it for us. The financial system is able to do its PR all on its own without us making movies about it. ”
Still, in offerings such as “The Big Short,” “Margin Call” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the film industry has been paying a lot of attention to the noxious effects of wealth. Foster said that’s not because Hollywood is Wall Street West, with the seductive allure of riches and immorality equivalent on both coasts.
“You can go to ‘Citizen Kane’ and earlier. A lot of movies have talked about the corrupting influence of wealth. It’s been a very interesting century in terms of financial business, and certainly the last 25 years have been more volatile in the financial sector than any other period in history. If there is a mecca of the wealth industry, it is New York City. It certainly isn’t Los Angeles. We don’t even have a stock market.”