on making her
film "Contact" -
interview by Douglas Eby
One of the appealing things about her character in "Contact" was the intense involvement astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway develops with her work, says Jodie Foster. "The foremost thing about Ellie's character, that's true in the book, in the screenplay, and definitely on screen, is that she is completely and totally passionate.
"And that's something that I was dying to play: somebody that is very involved and very focused on an intellectual process, and that that process allows her to fly in ways that feel very loving and emotional.
"And feels very human. I think too often, intellectual processes are portrayed as some kind of dry, scientific thing that doesn't have a connection to the soul. And when you're obsessed by something, when something fascinates you, it's wondrous. And in fact, if anything, I think she's a zealot, so it's actually kind of a movie about a zealot who learns to have tolerance for other people's zeal."
Part of Ellie's journey in the film is an emotional and transforming conversation with an image of her (now deceased) father; a profound experience described in the Sagan novel: "Whatever happened next, a wound deep within her was being healed."
Foster agrees this is a crucial scene: "For me, that was the one reason why I was really drawn to this movie over and over again as the years have gone on. That's the one scene that for me is the pivotal moment in the film. And I knew that that was my obsession. You know, "Nell" basically is the exact same damn story" she says with a laugh.
"So, there must be a reason why I'm obsessed by that. It's so interesting, when you think of both films, they're completely opposite; "Contact" has nothing to do with "Nell", and yet, for me, it's the same drive. It's this idea that at a young age, you're abandoned by somebody, and the pain was so intense and so illogical and so unjust and didn't feel right to you, that you made a decision that it didn't happen.
continue your life, sort of recreating
the world in this magical fantasy of saying 'Well, if I could just try
harder or listen harder, I'd find him' and 'It was my fault; I did
and then he went away.'
"The greatest moment in your life of healing, I think, and of growing up is the moment where you look off into that pond and you accept the fact that he's gone. And that you've changed, and you're no longer the person you were, and that you're alone. And both of those stories, "Nell" and "Contact", follow that same path."
In her 1976 film "The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane", Foster portrayed a young and gifted girl suddenly on her own after the death of her father, and having to hide that fact in order to be able to inherit his estate.
Foster recalls "It was kind of marketed as a genre, horror movie, but it wasn't. It was actually -- you know what, I'd forgotten about that movie, and the interesting thing is, it kind of fits in there [with "Nell" and "Contact"] too. Her father has died, and the whole town believes he's still alive, and she continues to live in this house as if he was still alive, and anybody who comes to find out the real story, suddenly starts dying."
Foster admits she's never been a big fan of science fiction or fantasy films "unless there was a real human connection, and then I completely go with it. I mean, "Altered States" is a movie that I absolutely love; or "The Andromeda Strain". I love films that were almost medical thrillers. But then again, because that's all about humanity and not so much about 'little green men'. So I think in some ways I have my own particular bend of scifi, and that's really the human connection, not so much the opticals and the effects, things blowing up."
Spending many hours in Seattle with Carl Sagan during his last days, and with his wife (producer of "Contact") Ann Druyan, talking about the development of the movie and the issues it addresses, Foster says "was my pleasure. And I hoped that she knew that I make movies to try and get better, and not worse, and part of wanting to make this film was to really honor Carl's original vision, and almost be a protector of his original vision. Because it would be very tempting to take a movie like this and make it about NASA and space things."
Responding to a comment by fellow actor Tom Skerritt that Ellie, and Jodie herself, heed their strong beliefs, and do what Joseph Campbell wrote about: follow their bliss, Foster says she finds "it's interesting especially for a scientist, because it's not supposed to be about belief, it's supposed to be 'cold, hard fact'.
"But the greatest scientific discoveries were all made by young people, who were able to say 'Well you know, damn it, two plus two equals five because why not?' They are at that time in their lives where they want to risk, and they want to believe in something blindly, stupidly. And they don't really know the risks that they're engendering. I think you realize that when you're forty, and you stop making big discoveries, because you start getting safe."
Another perspective on Ellie, Foster says is that "She has this idea, and I can't even explain this, I've tried many times, but it always fall flat like a rock; maybe when I see the movie it will someday make sense; but she has an idea that there's something purer to hold out for.
"Like if you knew you had to be absolutely alone in order to take this enormous journey to find the most pure love there is, would you say 'Forget it; I don't want to find a pure love, I'd rather spend my life with somebody' -- and committing to humanity, committing to imperfection.
"Or would you say, 'No, I'm going to hold out for the big stuff'? And I think she's held out for the big stuff. I think there's a side of her that says 'There's something out there that's larger than this, that I'm meant for, and I'm not going to waste my time settling for less.'"
Ellie is a woman who has accomplished a great deal in her life, and Foster notes "Traditionally, women who excel have had to place themselves carefully, because the journey is so fraught with disrespect, not being allowed in, all the lack of acceptance, and old traditional wounds, but it doesn't have to be that way. 'Little Man Tate' is kind of about that, too: there's two women, one in some ways represents the head, one represents the heart.
"And unfortunately in our culture, women have had to choose between the two; they weren't allowed to be both, allowed to be whole, in some ways. So that little boy represents a kind of repairing of that split between the two of them, because he gets the chance to be something they were never able to be." And, she adds, "I'm hoping, of course, that all that has changed now."
In "Contact", one of the things that gets Ellie in trouble, and makes her choice as the astronaut to represent humanity a controversial one, Foster observes, is that she's completely true to herself. "It also means she's blunt and annoying, and she's not political, she doesn't know when to say the right thing, because she won't disguise the truth.
"And she's not interested in telling somebody something they want to hear. In some ways the fact that she's kind of continually, almost aggressively, against the system means she's not an easy person to help.
"In terms of Drumlin [Ellie's former mentor] being the guy who's kind of accepted politics in some ways, he is a natural choice. I mean, I'd choose him as an astronaut, in a second. He knows how to talk to the press; he doesn't act as if he has a mission that is so clear to him in his head that he can't budge from it; he's easier to have dinner with. He may be the best candidate for America, but he's not necessarily the best candidate for the universe, because he's not as open and truthful."
In terms of her own political sensitivities, Foster says "I pride myself on knowing as much about feminism as the next person, and not being scared to say I'm a feminist, but at the same time, its role in our society has changed dramatically, because our traditions are changing. So sometimes the theories fit, and sometimes they just don't, because people are evolving."
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