The director talks collaborating with Charlie Brooker, helicopter parenting and the unsettling near-future of ‘ArkAngel’
Jodie Foster was having lunch with Cindy Holland, who is - according to the director, actor and revered film industry icon - her “favourite Netflix executive”, and she was bemoaning the state of the movie business. “I really, really wanted to go back to doing a beginning, middle and end - that satisfaction of having characters etched so carefully, methodically, to create a story,” she tells me. Foster wanted the “perfect form” again, and hoped now that streaming services were dominating, that neat, emotionally textured feature films would prevail once more.
“Cindy was like, ‘well, do I have the place for you’.” That place was Charlie Brooker’s fourth season of Black Mirror - the British television show that documents unsettling near-futures in one-episode encompassing dramas, exploring the impact technology has on our concept of humanity. Across the last three seasons, Brooker and showrunner Annabel Jones have created a series of standalone episodes that are more like mini-films, picking at uncomfortable emotional truths facilitated by encroaching technological advances: life after death, sex, paedophilia, political armageddon.
‘ArkAngel’, the script Foster came on board with, however, is one in the new season that probably has the least amount of tech driving the story - a mother microchips her daughter, allowing her to always keep track, watch, monitor, no matter what. The fears of parenthood across childhood milestones, melting into the traumas of adolescence are magnified to an intense level.
“It seemed to be the perfect story for me, as something that I'd dealt with, single motherhood,” she explains. The themes of ‘ArkAngel’ touch upon helicopter parenting, surveillance and privacy, and the ethical issues around getting too close to your kid. “That’s a really powerful relationship, the most foundational, seminal relationship in my life,” she says of those mother-daughter semiotics. “I really found my truth in this.”
As someone who has fought hard for her own privacy, and experienced the intense breadth of growing up watched, ‘ArkAngel’ seemed totally primed for Foster to craft. She was supporting her mother Brandy - divorced not long after her birth - and her siblings as a toddler in commercials and small film parts, with her big breakthrough as a teen prostitute in Taxi Driver. Foster evaded acting for a while in her 20s to study literature at Yale, before returning to major acting accolades, Golden Globes and Oscar wins, later kickstarting her own production company in 1991 with her directorial debut Little Man Tate. She has kept her relationships and her now adult children out of the spotlight, finding that with the major peaks and troughs of parenting behind her, her art can be her focus.
“That’s what’s fascinating with Black Mirror. We have created this monster that has moved us towards the things we wanted, without any ethical component, or human heart”
She observes: “I grew up in the film business, I grew up in front of the camera, as opposed to behind it, or consuming it. My decisions come from the inside first, the character first. Getting a script and seeing characters for the first time can feel like falling in love for the first time. Like seeing someone across the room and thinking ‘That’s the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with!’ That can be the best love story, coming onto a film.”
“With Black Mirror, I felt like this was a book I had written years ago and I had just rediscovered it in a treasure chest. It was everything I had been thinking about.”
Her filmography traces the sinister side of the human psyche that can be found across the Black Mirror universe: the claustrophobic cat-and-mouse thriller Panic Room alongside a young Kristen Stewart, the stomach-churning horror of Silence of the Lambs, the shocking subject matter of The Accused and her character’s unrelenting will to survive and prosper. Foster also happens to be a lifelong fan of the Twilight Zone.
Foster herself points to Money Monster, her 2016 gripping satire that charts a multi-million dollar Wall Street Heist, hurtling through algorithm glitches, free falling stocks and criminal activity powered by tech. “It also has that idea that there’s this technology we have created to help us get things, things we thought we wanted to realise our dreams. But what we found out was that our dreams were really rooted in pain and suffering and sickness, disappointment and fear. Technology itself is really benign, and it's not the technology’s fault. They just executed what we asked them.
“That’s what’s fascinating with Black Mirror. We have created this monster that has moved us towards the things we wanted, without any ethical component, or human heart.”
What can be most unsettling about ‘ArkAngel’ - as in ‘Nosedive’ (where life is lived through Instagram-likes on speed) or ‘Shut Up And Dance’ (sextortion is happening increasingly today) - is that it doesn’t feel that far away from our own society. “Sometimes it’s a universe quite like ours, sometimes it’s one that’s very far away,” Foster affirms. “That’s the beauty of this all, and how Charlie’s mind works. He doesn’t want to be imprisoned by one way of doing something.”
As Joel Collins (the man behind the show’s visual identity) remarks in his episode-by-episode rundown for Dazed, ‘ArkAngel’ is subtle in its inclusion of tech: impossibly slim mobile phones, the little microchip with big worldly consequences for this small family. Everything in this episode rides on a very emotionally-driven, human story. “When I read the script, I wanted to really explore that symbiotic relationship between a mother and a daughter, and how technology just highlights their emotional complexity,” Foster adds. “All-encompassing, that pressure from birth until the day that her daughter could walk away from her.”
Foster wrote notes for Brooker, who went away and edited the mother and daughter parts, played by Rosemarie DeWitt and Aniya Hodge, to really focus on the intense dynamic between her leading characters. “The daughter is young, fresh and full of passion, quite sure of where she’s going. The mother is disappointed, nervous, afraid of letting go. Though there are two psyches, they’re part of one entity: one person came out of the other. This isn’t part of the sci-fi world for me, it’s an indie movie with a really personal, subtle, detailed exploration of character.” Female-led, the characters are complicated and dark, with an intensity that spans across the women Foster has herself played and captured elsewhere.
“I felt like this was a book I had written years ago and I had just rediscovered it in a treasure chest. It was everything I had been thinking about”
In preparation, she binged the entire series, picking out the overarching questions it asked about our future. Since, she’s convinced Brooker is psychic, and tapped in on a whole different dimensional plane. Foster points to the ruthless social media hunting of Hated in the Nation, as well as the man-made bees used by international militaries in real life.
“Charlie can anticipate where we are headed just by looking at our faults,” she asserts. ‘The Waldo Moment’ is a personal favourite - where a CGI blue bear from a reality show enters a political race. “He felt the rising, the popular dissatisfaction, the weird world of reality TV and put that out.” ‘White Christmas’, an episode that sees two supposed strangers swap stories of their lives in the outside world in a snowy wilderness outpost, is another fave of Foster’s.
The detriment that tech can have on humanity is something Foster has mulled over in her work, and personally. The episode title, 'ArkAngel' is ominous: all-seeing, all-powerful. “I ask my kids, I ask everybody: ‘is your life better since that piece of technology? Are we better as a species? In our home lives?’ Of course the answer can be absolutely yes. Extraordinary yeses: you could be raised in a rural Alaskan town, with no means to leave - but your voice can go global.”
“Sometimes though, it’s made life faster, but not better. I don’t have any problem with opening my own door or pushing my own button to get ice. There’s a lot of instances where the answer is no, it isn’t better.”