Two-time Oscar-winning actor/director Jodie Foster had some pretty frank words on filmmaking-while-female on the red carpet at Cannes, where she is premiering Money Monster, her latest feature film as director.  

"Hollywood has never been so risk-averse.  Studio executives are scared, period.  More than I can remember in movie history.  It’s not that they don’t want to be open, change, do better and be better– but they’re stuck in tradition.  They’re too busy hiring people who look like themselves to see what they’re missing."

Foster knows the statistics.  Women directed only 9% of last year's movies.  Female stars are paid less than men.  Halfway through 2016, the only major Hollywood film headlined by a woman is Allegiant (Shailene Woodley).  Even box-office heavyweights like Jennifer Lawrence face the gender pay gap.  Yet women are responsible for buying 51% of movie tickets.

The inequities are so stark and the outrage so vocal–witness #OscarsSoWhite as just one example–discriminatory practices in the industry are now being investigated by both the ACLU and federal agencies.  

According to Foster, studio execs would be a lot happier–and probably richer–if they took more risks and opened more doors.

Jodie Foster Little Man TateJodie Foster and Adam Hann-Byrd in 'Little Man Tate' (1991)

Why Are Hollywood Doors So Hard to Open?

Foster's approach is diplomatic.

"It’s not a conspiracy to keep women or other minorities down. It's a psychology of risk aversion.  Gender psychology is like racial psychology:  it’s hard to look at a face that is 100% different than yours, a gender or race that you carry all sorts of traditional preconceptions about.  And that affects financial decisions."  

"When you’re a studio exec, about to hand someone $20 million, you’re looking for the best bet available, just to make sure you don’t make a drastic mistake.  So many things have changed in terms of economy, technology and the structure of studios that women are lumped into the category of too great a risk to take.  It feels safer to hire the person that looks like you."

According to Foster, studio execs would be a lot happier–and probably richer–if they took more risks and opened more doors.

jodie foster silence of the lambsJodie Foster in 'Silence of the Lambs' (1991)

Why Hire More Females?  

Foster believes that women bring something too often missing in film: a nurturing side, an emotional quality that men can’t access as easily.  Is this because women have experienced generations of parenting, up close and personal, while men have traditionally been more absent than present?  As Foster explains, some say it’s genetics, some say it’s acquired.  She thinks it’s both and calls it "empathy."

"We’re used to putting ourselves in other people’s bodies.  Male writers and directors have trouble creating complex women.  When they search for motivation for a female character, most of them choose rape.  They just don’t seem able to put themselves inside a woman's mind, to say that she was competitive with her mother, unable to make a given transition, torn by professional conflicts.  They don’t create women with multiple layers." 

Foster speaks from experience.  Her first acting gig was a Coppertone commercial at age three.  She was a child actor on TV, then in movies.  Then came a 1977 Oscar nomination for Taxi Driver, plus two Oscars for Best Actress:  the first in 1989 for The Accused, the second in 1992 for Silence of the Lambs.  In 1991, at age 27, she debuted as a director with Little Man Tate.  Since then–while continuing her acting career while raising two kids–she has pursued directing whenever timing and content feel right, including Emmy and DGA-nominated episodes for both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black

"Everything changed drastically when women began to be included.  It felt more like real life, like a family:  movie sets became healthier."  

Foster Learned from Women … and a Few Good Men

Born just after her parent's divorce, Foster was raised by a singlemother.  Her love of movies began with European films that she and her mother saw together, many of them directed by women.  Seminal influences incude Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter, Beyond Good and Evil), Margarethe von Trotta (German Sisters, The Rosenstrasse) and Lina Wertmüller (Love and Anarchy, Seven Beauties), the first woman ever nominated for Best Director.  

"It was their knack for mixing comedic and dramatic sensibilities that appealed to me."

Because her father was absent, Foster found her male mentors–or, as she calls them, my "film dads and grandfathers"–on set.  In fact, she credits her success in the male-centric film world to these industry surrogates.  

"These wonderful men–studio executives, producers and directors who knew me, worked with me, trusted me–they gave me opportunities that honestly nobody should have given me.  I was in the boys club."

Those female directors from Europe and the boys club in Hollywood were essentially Foster’s film school.  By watching them, she not only learned how to make films, but she also learned what was possible.  When she guest-starred in the TV-series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, she witnessed actor Bill Bixby directing himself on camera.  "That blew my mind."  She wasn’t yet ten years old–but it helped her decide that creative control was something she wanted for herself.

During her fifty years of film sets, Foster has worked with only one female director.  

Directors Should Be More Like Great Parents

Foster also learned what she didn’t like about filmmaking.  She grew up on film sets…and the faces she saw were almost entirely male.  

"The people in charge, the film crews and most of the lead actors were men, and many of them were unhappy.  Everything changed drastically when women began to be included.  It felt more like real life, like a family:  movie sets became healthier."  

According to Foster, film sets should feel nurturing, like a family, and film directors should act like parents.  "Directors at their best are like great parents.  Great parents can reach inside their kids and say 'I know why you just spit at Mommy.'  But that’s hard for some traditional males."

Jodie Foster SiestaJodie Foster in 'Siesta' (1987)

Not all male directors, of course, are ‘traditional.’  Foster is quick to cite both Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) and Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) as directors who "know how to parent." But she sees that as rare.  "More often that kind of good parenting comes from female directors.  Leadership styles are informed by our mothers, by the schools we attend, by how we’re raised.  If you’re a woman, you’ll have a different leadership style based on your background."

During her fifty years of film sets, Foster has worked with only one female director.  "There just weren’t any women to work with!  I remember one male director who spent the entire production in the bathroom, calling his wife.  She should have directed the movie–but that wasn’t done at the time."  Then, at age 23, Foster joined the cast of Siesta, directed by Mary Lambert.  The film wasn’t successful, but Foster never forgot it.

"I needed somebody to tell me to change my behavior.  Mary took me aside, sat me down, said 'You can’t do that.  That’s disrespectful.'  I’m still so embarrassed that I can’t even talk about it.  But she took me aside the way a good parent would.  And I took note:  I never did it again."

"Everything you do creatively is because of your culture and where you come from."

Directors Also Need to Take Risks 

Unlike many risk-averse film execs, Foster likes to challenge herself–and her latest feature film proves it.  Starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts and the relative newcomer Jack O’Connell, Money Monster isa taut, almost-comic thriller about the financial world.  Sleekly directed and acted, it mixes mainstream entertainment with a character-driven political agenda.

Foster is wary of heavy-handed agendas.  "I’m not political at all," she explains. "All I've ever wanted to do is make movies.  But even so, I've found that my way of changing the world, of making myself and others better instead of worse, is through the art that I make."  

Money Monster isn’t perfect.  From George Clooney’s hip-hop dance routines to unnecessarily expositional dialogue, parts of it are simply cheesy.  Where The Big Short "bravely" – as Foster describes it–makes the issues of the financial world more accessible to the masses, Money Monster oversimplifies by pinning the problems on a cartoonish, one-dimensional villain.  

Even so, Foster's direction should be lauded for what does work.  This film plays on emotions, not ideology.  It explores and delivers a message about the human condition.  At moments, it has the lightly ironic "Fellini-esque touch" that Foster admires in directors like Lina Wertmüller.  And it cares about character.  In particular, Clooney’s rapport with O’Connell plus his "virtual intimacy" with Roberts–she is Clooney's confidante-via-earpiece throughout the film–create excellent chemistry.  

Julia Roberts Money MonsterJulia Roberts in Jodie Foster's 'Money Monster,' in U.S. theaters now.

This is where Foster shines.  "I like the relationship part of it:  the story of these two men, struggling with their deep sense of failure.  They look to the world of money, finance, celebrity … to find some sort of value in themselves.  To measure themselves."

Foster's male characters share more with her than is initially obvious.  Their outer and inner struggles, their personal quests for self-worth, mirror her own directing ambitions.  An even stronger parallel lies in the character played by Julia Roberts:  a "behind-the-scenes hero" whom Foster describes as the "director-producer type."  This parallel surprises Foster.  "I didn’t really think about it at the time, but i's true.  Julia’s character means a lot to me.  I kept asking the writers to expand her role in the screenplay."

For some executives, that choice would have been way too risky.  Foster laughs at the thought, then offers advice:  "Men need to understand that the industry's changing.  If you want to stay relevant, you have to take risks.  You need to bring women in.  Help them get closer to the process.  If you make the arena more comfortable, more welcoming, then the women you hire will be more confident.  They'll have a better shot at doing their best work–and you’ll reap the benefits."

"If you're an artist, you roll with the times and stay relevant.  Right now, the democratization that technology has brought is wonderful, and women can really take advantage of it like never before." 

Foster's Advice for Women in Hollywood

  1.  Know yourself and your history.  
    "Everything you do creatively is because of your culture and where you come from.  We're informed by our parents, the relationships we had with them, the way we were loved.  All of that comes into play every time we choose a lens, or a color, or the way we direct an actor.  I see myself in absolutely all of my characters, male and female.  I put myself inside those bodies:  I ask myself how I would act, what I would think.  How I would feel about failure.  I explore the male side of myself.  That’s part of me as much as the female.  And you have that too."
  2. Learn to adapt.
    "I learned this early on, starting out as an actor.  When I was in a bikini, it was always freezing.  When I was in an Eskimo outfit, it was always 100 degrees.  I learned that you have to adapt.  If you want to tell stories, you do it with whatever technology is happening.  Do it on the big screen, on an iPhone, write a play…  if you’re an artist, you roll with the times and stay relevant.  Right now, the democratization that technology has brought is wonderful, and women can really take advantage of it like never before.  All minorities can." 
  3. Don’t be intimidated.
    "Yes, this is a male-dominated industry.  And yes, most women don't begin the way I did, they face far more challenges than I've ever known.  But business is shifting.  We’re not a factory where we make shoes and we keep making shoes.  Every film is a new invention.  Whatever the medium.  Traditionally, TV has been more open to women, and right now TV is the place for narrative–so that's where you go for real storytelling.  Later, it will be somewhere else.  Just don’t be afraid to try.  Don’t be intimidated."

See all our coverage from Cannes 2016 here.