Jodie Foster talks about directing her first thriller, ‘Money Monster’

A gunman (Jack O'Connell) takes a TV news reporter (George Clooney) hostage during a live broadcast in ‘Money Monster.’
A gunman (Jack O'Connell) takes a TV news reporter (George Clooney) hostage during a live broadcast in ‘Money Monster.’ TRISTAR PICTURES

Jodie Foster was 13 years old the first time she attended the Cannes Film Festival. She was there in support of 1976’s Taxi Driver, in which she played a street prostitute. The role would earn her an Oscar nomination, and the movie won the Palme D’Or, the festival’s most prestigious prize.

Foster has been back to Cannes since then. But her return to the festival on Thursday night — for the world premiere of Money Monster, which opens in U.S. theaters the following day — is special. This is the fourth movie Foster has directed. But it’s the first one that can be described as a genre film — it’s a crime thriller, told in real time — which is a radical departure from the intimate, character-driven films she had previously directed (Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays and The Beaver).

“It is definitely a departure for me, but it is also an experiment,” Foster says via telephone from New York “I wanted to see if I could have this big thriller playing out as a backdrop and still have a character piece in the foreground. The movie is almost like a play: 70 percent of it consists of two guys talking about the things they’re most ashamed of and sharing those failures with the world, who is watching them on live TV.”

In Money Monster, George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the self-proclaimed Wizard of Wall Street. He is the host of a cable TV show that provides viewers with investment tips and stock market analyses, all jazzed up with comedy bits and dance numbers to keep the ratings high. Julia Roberts plays Patty, his talented producer who best knows how to harness Lee’s clownish antics.

Then, during an otherwise ordinary broadcast, a distraught young man, Kyle (Jack O’Connell), crashes the show, takes Lee hostage at gunpoint and threatens to blow himself up live on TV. While Patty feeds Lee lines into his earpiece from the control room, Kyle reveals his motivation: He invested $60,000 on a stock Lee told his viewers was a sure thing. Instead, the stock plummeted, taking all of Kyle’s money with it.

Although much of Money Monster takes place inside the TV studio, the movie’s scope is huge, hopscotching around the world as Patty tries to figure out what went wrong with Lee’s stock-market prediction. The discoveries she makes reveal monumental corruption within the global financial markets.

A movie about the role the media plays in shaping our political and economical climates is particularly timely, coming in the middle of a tumultuous presidential election year that’s been fueled by heated televised debates, constant breaking news and social media. But Foster says she wasn’t trying to articulate any specific message or critique in Money Monster.

“We comment on our society through the drama and the characters,” she says. “It’s not a political movie. I think this film says what it needs to say. But it does touch on the weird intersection between entertainment and news and how we as spectators can’t always tell the difference. Today, everything is broadcast, and everything is immediate. We are also deeply invested in our entertainment. There’s a weird connection between that and politics. As viewers, we can’t always tell the difference.”

One brief but telling shot in Money Monster shows people at a bar, having just watched a tense crisis unfold on live TV, immediately going back to their drinks and games of foosball the moment the station cuts to a commercial break. The implication is that we have become so jaded by the 24-hour barrage of information of the modern era that we’ve stopped paying careful attention: A hostage crisis, a shooting, a tragedy — it’s all water-cooler fodder that leaves not a trace.

“That’s a big part of our new modern world, isn’t it?” Foster says. “My editor [Matt Chesse] found that shot while we were cutting the movie and said ‘What if we used it here?’ It kind of sums everything up. After all this happens, everyone goes back to the same old s--t. There are a few voices out there that can make a difference. They’re out there. They’re just drowned out by the status quo.”

The Sidney Lumet factor

Directors often screen movies for their cast and crew before filming begins in order to give everyone a sense of the style and tone they’re going for. But Foster doesn’t work that way.

”I don’t watch movies for reference,” she says. “I make movies from the inside out. My choices all come from the narrative and what the best way is to tell a story. However, that being said, Dog Day Afternoon and Network are two definite influences on Money Monster. [Director] Sidney Lumet is an idol of mine. I love the way he found humor in real characters; how he gave each character, no matter how small, a specific point of view; how he was able to present these large panoramas of everyday, ordinary people, even when they are in the middle of a crisis.

“I think of it as an explosion — all these people with all these different perspectives explode on this one event,” she says. “The cops see it one way: They think Kyle is a crazy, dangerous loner. But the movie also shows you Kyle’s perspective. He’s raising his hand and saying ‘I matter. I matter.’ ”

O’Connell, who plays the tortured Kyle, says making Money Monster was a lot more difficult than it seems, because there were always two sets of cameras running inside the studio: The film cameras and the TV cameras that are broadcasting the action live on cable.

“The shoot was complicated, but Jodie was always in control,” he says. “I never saw her off the set, even though we had very long days. And even though she was directing, she was incredibly educational to me as an actor. It’s quite rewarding when you’re learning from people who have a lot of experience in your field, and Jodie is definitely one of those.”

Money Monster is being released at a time when the dearth of female directors in Hollywood is a trending topic. But Foster says that although she’s aware of the dilemma, she doesn’t consider herself to be a poster child for the cause.

“I’ve been very entitled,” she says. “I had been working in the industry for a long time when I talked to the guys at [the now-defunct] Orion Pictures about directing my first movie in 1991. They already knew me, because I was making The Silence of the Lambs with them, so I was like a prodigal daughter. I can’t call myself a pioneer or anything like that, because I was already part of the system, and I wasn’t considered a risk because I was going to act in the movie too, so they were covered financially.”

But although Foster would have been a perfect fit for the role of the resourceful TV producer trying to keep Clooney alive, Foster says she never considered playing the part herself, especially after Roberts expressed interest.

“I’m always happy not to direct and act at the same time,” she says. “And who can be better than Julia Roberts? The thriller side I can definitely do. But nobody has that kind of immediate connectivity with the audience that she has. There’s also that mysterious connection she has with George. You can watch them together in anything.”

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald