Every Thanksgiving, while family members whipped up a turkey dinner in the kitchen, Jodie Foster would sit in front of the TV and watch The Twilight Zone. “Every single year,” she recalls. “It was like a 48-hour marathon. Non-stop Twilight Zone. It was my favourite thing.” Today, when Empire meets her on an appropriately bleak January morning in an appropriately bleak part of west London, she’s finishing post-production work on Black Mirror — the Netflix show routinely described as The Twilight Zone’s spiritual successor — for which she’s directed a new episode.
Foster’s ‘Arkangel’ is one of the entries in the latest anthology and, following a shoot in Hamilton, Ontario, she’s now in Twickenham, where Empire’s been invited to see some raw footage. Together we watch Rosemarie DeWitt fretting over her missing child and running down a grim-looking street in the Canadian steel town. In stark contrast to another new-season episode which riffs on Star Trek (‘USS Callister’), Foster describes her episode as “raw and real, like an indie movie”. There’s certainly a grey, muted feel to the footage we’re shown, despite the typically near-future technology at the episode’s heart — which here enables Hola (DeWitt) to monitor her daughter (Sarah Abbott) in a truly unsettling way. Think Ken Loach by way of Philip K. Dick.
It was Foster’s love of The Twilight Zone that brought her to Black Mirror. Last year, she had lunch with a Netflix executive (Foster had previously directed episodes of Orange Is The New Black for the streaming service) and found herself complaining that Hollywood doesn’t make “short features” anymore. “I think the short story is the most perfect art form,” she says. “Today, they’re all about the big, epic franchise movies, or television made in eight seasons.” Following that, Netflix put her in touch with Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s writer and creator, and within days she had joined the show’s roster of guest directors (including Joe Wright and John Hillcoat). “What’s interesting working with Jodie Foster,” says Brooker, speaking to Empire later, “is that you have to stop your brain screaming ‘It’s Jodie Foster!’ every two minutes. I think I managed to mask it.”
Brooker describes ‘Arkangel’ as “a mother daughter story, but not as boring as that sounds”, and Foster admits part of the appeal was the definitely-not-boring mother-daughter relationship she experienced herself. “It’s hard to describe it,” Foster says. “My mom was a single parent, she was my manager, she was my work life. It was… unusual.” This feeds into a key theme of ‘Arkangel’: learning to loosen a tight parental leash. “It’s all about the struggle between mother and daughter — wanting to create a woman who doesn’t have the fears you have, yet still wanting control over her. It means you sometimes have to kick your parents in the teeth.” Having found herself frustrated with the studio system (“there’s a lot of dumb notes and dumb ideas…), Foster’s relishing the creative freedom that comes with a Netflix gig. Though she’d like you to treat her episode like you’d treat one of her films. “I make movies that require people to pay attention,” she says, “so I always prefer it when people aren’t looking at their phone. Or cooking dinner.” Maybe not one for a Thanksgiving marathon, then.
First published in Empire, December 2017.