Cannes Film Fest 2016: Jodie Foster on Women Directors, Diversity, Quotas and Film as Art

Hollywood’s obsession with big-budget tent poles is holding the industry back when it comes to creating more films by and for women,  Jodie Foster said at the Cannes Film Fest.

Films that once traditionally starred women, such as romantic comedies and mid-budget dramas, are now made on TV, as studios back superhero and special-effects driven action films.

“They’ll make enormous movies tent pole films and they’ll be all in, kind of like a casino bet,” Foster said at a Variety event. “That’s a really dangerous bet.”

“Studio executives are scared period,” she said. “This is the most risk averse time that I can remember in movie history.”

In this climate of fear, executives are more likely to lean on what is familiar. “You’re going to go with the guy that looks like you,” she said.

But Foster sounded a note of hope. Growing up in the film business, Foster rarely saw women working on sets. They would play mothers or handle the makeup. They were most often the script supervisors. But the idea of having a female director or a cinematographer or other behind-the-camera crew wasn’t just an anomaly. When Foster was busy making a name for herself in “Taxi Driver” and “Freaky Friday,” it seemed like an impossibility.

Foster will premiere Money Monster, a financial thriller she directed, at the Cannes Film Fest on Thursday. She believes that things have improved.  More women are directing or editing films, and the sets have become more professional as they grow more diverse. “Everything changed when women came onto set, it felt more like a family, movie sets became healthier.”

The lack of women in mainstream studio films, didn’t dissuade Foster from pursuing work behind the camera. In addition to Oscar-winning roles in “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” she has directed four feature films, including “Little Man Tate” and “Home for the Holidays.”

“I was raised by a single mom and even though the world told me that there weren’t a lot of women directors, I decided that I was going to be one,” she said.

Foster holds that more change needs to happen, and the numbers certainly back that up. Last year, women comprised 9% of directors on the top 250 domestic grossing films and 12% of directors on the top 500 domestic grossing films, according to a recent report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Foster’s comments also come as government agencies have launched an investigation into hiring practices at major studios to see if gender discrimination is taking place.

That may force studios to hire more women to direct major blockbusters. Quotas in filmmaking have already been administered in countries such as Sweden, but Foster does not support that kind of system: “I’m worried about quotas in terms of art. We’re not talking about junior executives. We’re talking about an art form.”

She added, “I’m worried that it will set back the ideas that we’re hoping for of inclusivity.”

“I don’t think it’s some big plot that men have tried to put women down in the film business,” she said. “People want to be open and want to change…They’re stuck with traditional models.”

That could be good for the art form. Female directors approach stories differently. When film was a male-dominated medium, Foster maintained that female characters lacked complexity. Male filmmakers would often return again and again to one source of trauma when looking for motivation.

“I wonder why she was a box of tears…she was raped,” Foster said. “I wonder why she’s having trouble with her boss…it was rape.” “The motivation was always rape. They were uninterested in complexity, they were unable to make the transition (get inside a female character’s head),” she added.

That’s very different from the kinds of female protagonists audiences see in films directed by women, Foster said.

“I think it’s the male directors that have the problem,” she continued. “Women are used to putting themselves in other people’s bodies.”

Greater opportunities for women still requires difficult personal choices. The film requires long hours and frequent travel. Foster is the mother of two sons, but she said that as an A-list movie star, she had the luxury of being selective. She would wait years between roles or would pick projects that would take her to cities such as Los Angeles and New York, where she could have her family around her.

As director, more than a decade separated 1995’s “Home for the Holidays” and the next film she made, 2011’s “The Beaver.” “I barely directed when I had small children,” Foster said, noting that as a young actress she was aware of the strain the lifestyle puts on people.  “The movie business is hard on people and it’s really hard on families,” she said. “I saw the pain of that growing up.”