“Home for the Holidays” must be the most relatable movie ever made about Thanksgiving. It has a turkey, a parade, an eccentric aunt, a gay brother, men playing football in the yard, in-laws who detest each other and multiple familial meltdowns. Jodie Foster’s film — released 25 years ago, on Nov. 3, 1995 — applies an unsentimental lens to the very American celebration while still managing to feel sweet, sympathetic and funny. It’s also quintessentially ’90s: a starry but intimate mid-budget dramedy released by a major studio (Paramount Pictures) that has become something of a cult classic in the intervening years.
“Holidays” was Foster’s second directorial outing, following 1991’s “Little Man Tate.” She cast Holly Hunter as Claudia Larson, an art restorer and single mom who has just been laid off from her museum job. Heading home to Baltimore for a prototypical Thanksgiving gathering hosted by her parents (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning), she is thrilled to spend time with her wily brother (Robert Downey Jr.) and less thrilled to see her bitter sister (Cynthia Stevenson) who never left home. Over dinner and various other happenings, the Larson family comes close to imploding. Also on hand for the antics are Dylan McDermott, Geraldine Chaplin, Claire Danes, Steve Guttenberg and David Strathairn.
Foster’s career behind the camera began with a segment of the 1985 horror anthology “Stephen King’s Golden Tales” and went on to include the movies “The Beaver” and “Money Monster,” as well as episodes of “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Black Mirror.” But “Home for the Holidays” is easily her most distinctive directing effort thanks to a stylish kineticism that accentuates the script’s humor.
Last week, Foster called me to discuss the film’s development, shutting down the set because Downey Jr. was “speaking in tongues,” wanting to make something that appealed to people in their 30s, and why she wishes she’d directed more movies.
I’m glad you were interested in chatting about “Home for the Holidays.” That must mean you have a fondness for this movie.
Oh, I love that film. It was an amazing experience. It was sort of cathartic for me, you know? We developed it from the short story and an earlier script, and so the process of creating it was really about downloading all of our lives and thoughts and feelings about being in our 30s and looking at our families, going home for the holidays. It even has a very personal resonance to me.
Looking back on it, where were you in your life and your career when you started working on the film?
Let’s see. It was just before I did “Contact.” I did not have children yet. I was 30, probably. 31, 32? I was running my company and I had already won both Oscars, so I was wanting to direct movies that felt like personal stories and that reflected my life in some way. I feel like “Little Man Tate,” “Home for the Holidays” and “The Beaver,” in a weird way, even though they were all written by different authors and they were about totally different subjects, for me, in my life, they’re sort of a trilogy.
“Little Man Tate” was, in some ways, really autobiographical themes about being a child that was prodigious. I don’t know that I was a child prodigy, but I was prodigious. [It was about] coming to terms with that and being different, kind of coming of age. “Home for the Holidays” was really about that very particular time in your life when you’re 30 and you’re still kind of attached to your parents and your family. You still feel like a child. You feel infantilized by them, and you have this very particular search for meaning that happens in your 30s: “Did I choose this life? Is this the life that I want? Where am I headed?” I think all three of those movies — “The Beaver,” as well — are about people in spiritual crisis. They’re people who are undergoing a kind of life assessment and are changing or making these transitions.
What changed about the movie in the course of your work with, or independent from, W.D. Richter, who wrote the first draft of the script?
Well, lots of things are different. It just deepened. I mean, the original idea was 36 hours over the course of a Thanksgiving meal. It was just like a bunch of messy anecdotes. I love him, but he really enjoys the kind of structureless thing. We really structured it. The brother character was very different. I think that in the original short story and in the original script, he was really just the crazy brother. There weren’t as many deep, emotional questions.
I love that character because he’s sort of ahead of his time. He’s gay in a matter-of-fact way. The movie doesn’t give him some big, dramatic coming-out moment or subject him to any of the AIDS panic that was common at the time. Did you recognize that you were doing something a little progressive there?
Originally, the brother was not gay. That was not part of the story, and it was not part of the original script, so that was something that we brought in. We wanted to create a real character. I think that’s what’s so powerful, and why it’s before its time is because it really is just based in the real world that we live in. These are people that are our brothers and our sisters. It never occurred to me to want to create a kind of victim story, or even a coming-out story. For me, at 30 years old, that felt kind of beside the point. It wasn’t about his acceptance of himself; it was about having to go home to a family when you already have a family. People that live in some subset groups — whether it’s gay people, whether it’s progressives, as opposed to going home for your conservative friends, or maybe you don’t live in a religious way but your parents are religious — your friends are your family, and that is very true of my generation. Our family was more the people that we got stuck in the elevator with that we didn’t choose.
Absolutely. When you were putting “Home for the Holidays” together, were you looking at or thinking about any other movies as influences?
Let’s see. I kind of never do that, and I work a little bit differently than most directors do that way. Look, I was a huge movie fan and I have a lot of references. Like, that’s all I ever did as a child. That was my film school, going to see movies with my mom, especially foreign films. But interestingly, when I prep for a movie and when I think about a movie, I never do that process consciously in the beginning. I try to stay away from that because I want the film to have its own feeling. That being said, we talked a lot about [John] Cassavetes. We talked a lot about that overlapping energy that was going on in scenes, the cacophony, really, of what a Cassavetes movie could be. We said we wanted that feeling, but we really wanted a structure. I was clear that I didn’t want to be left with a feeling that it was just an anecdote.
Oh, I was realizing, the one thing that people do mention about the Robert Downey Jr. character was the wedding. One of the plot points that we brought in was that he had gotten married and he didn’t invite his sister. And it was something that he had done on a beach, alone, with 20 of his friends. It was this moment that, to him, was profound and meaningful, and he didn’t bring his family into that equation because of a number of reasons. Obviously, in the era of gay marriage and the era of this time in our history, “Home for the Holidays” kind of stands out as a movie that was talking about gay marriage before anybody was talking about gay marriage. That gay family had to form privately on its own because society and culture did not allow that.
And I love that you show just a little glimpse of what that family looks like in the cutaway when Tommy is on the phone with the friends who have gathered in his absence. You do get a little snapshot of just how fun and beautiful that is for him.
Yeah, I mean, there was a theme that was running for me that’s a personal theme that runs through a lot of my work and a lot of things that I think about, which is my whole life has been on camera and been documented. A lot of people feel like, “Oh, it’s on camera, so that means I know you.” And the truth is that some of the most important moments of my real life, my private life, there were no cameras. There were no trophies. There were no million-dollar checks. They slip through your fingers. The most impactful moments are moments that you shared between another person and the two of you are the only people who know that it happened. You are the only two that can recall that memory or that experience, and so in the film, the father is constantly saying, “Well, did you get a picture?” He’s always taking pictures like he wants to freeze something and say, “This happened. This is real. I know because I got a picture of it.”
And the end [when Durning’s character is watching old home movies] is something that really happened during shooting. In the end, I said, “I really want to go through and let the audience see what those moments were that were only shared by two people.” We’re going to have the audience experience that the way the characters are experiencing that. And when we let the audience into that moment where, let’s say, Holly Hunter and her daughter are floating, looking at fish and they’re holding hands and they’re not talking but they’re pointing at fish, that moment is talked about during the course of the film. It’s alluded to as this kind of cementing, bonding thing that her daughter can remind her of that gets her through everything. And then when we go back, the camera is under water and we see that moment. We’re privy to something that is off the books. I really, really wanted to talk about that experience.
Did you ever consider casting yourself in the Holly Hunter role? People often say the two of you look alike.
Well, that’s funny. No, I never did. I’d done “Little Man Tate” and had directed myself, and I said at the time, “Oh, I never want to do that again.” I’m much happier just directing. I at least wanted to have the experience of just directing but not acting. It’s a much better experience.
Robert Downey Jr. spoke about “Home for the Holidays” recently. He was on David Letterman’s Netflix show, and he was talking about that time of his life, mostly in the context of his current sobriety. Because he was inebriated during the production, he joked that his performance is “the most relaxed performance in the history of cinema.” He also said you told him, “Well, looks like you’re getting away with it on this one. I wouldn’t try that again because we’re kind of a forgiving group.” What do you remember about that exchange and the whole experience with him?
Well, I guess that’s the gist of it, but I don’t think that’s exactly how that conversation sounded. I love Rob, and we’ve continued to be friends. In fact, his wife, Susan Downey, did a movie with me — we produced a movie together, and I just love her. She really is one of my best friends, so I do see him a lot and I’m so proud of him for everything that he is, always was and that he continues to be. He’s just a wonderful man. He’s kind. He’s a sprite. He has this crazy mind. He’s just an amazing person, and so talented.
As I said to him then, and as I say to him now, “No matter what it was that you were going through, you never disappointed me. And I have to be clear about that, even though you were killing yourself.” I was forever grateful for what he brought to that movie. He was 100% present, as far as I was concerned. He was there, and he brought a character that was rich and that was messed up and that was in pain and suffering. I think you could feel that underneath all of his bravado and his rapier wit. You could feel that, underneath, somebody was suffering. So yes, as the director, I can’t say I took advantage, but his pain is onscreen. In some ways, it was good for the movie.
What I said to him on that particular day — and I’ve talked to him about this before — where he came to set and was speaking in tongues and I couldn’t understand a word he said, but he thought he was making sense? And then 20 minutes went by, and then suddenly he actually started speaking English? I shut down the set. I said, “You know what? We’re all going to go home. We’re on time, on schedule. In fact, we’re under schedule. We’re all going to go home. Robert? Come with me.” And I sat him down. He was making sense, and he was like, “Yeah? Hey. What’s going on? What’s up?” And I said, “So far, you are on a barstool, and you have managed to not fall off the barstool. It’s possible that you’re going to find a way to prop yourself up, whatever toothpicks it takes to prop yourself up. But I’m afraid for you. And now may not be the time, but I am afraid for you.” That’s the part he doesn’t remember. [His family] intervened at the end. The last day of shooting, we knew that it was coming. His family said, “We’re going to do an intervention on him after the shoot.” And they did. He’s had other interventions after that, but I did feel like that was his first step toward him really taking consciousness. We loved him. He was a member of the family, and the lovely Charles Durning really, like, sat him down and talked to him about where he was headed. He was supported. But it definitely was an odd time.
I wonder if, on some small subconscious level — and this, I’m sure, is hard for you to speak to, or even for him to speak to — the specific blend of pain and humor that his character experiences eventually helped him through that moment when he was experiencing an intervention.
I hope so. At the same time, it was his work to do. And he did really hard work. I mean, he really did the hard work. But obviously he had to fall off. He had to fall off the stool in order to really understand and grasp his sobriety. And that’s something that happened after us. But all I know is that we love him. He was really surrounded by people who cared about him.
Also, as the director, I wanted what he was bringing to the table. Some people talk about that performance and say, “Wow, he’s so crazy in that movie, right?” There were some improvs in the movie. There’s one where he’s driving his sister. Dylan McDermott’s in the back seat, and [Downey Jr.] just keeps going off. He does this monologue where he’s describing what came out of his friend’s nose, and everybody’s getting grossed out and trying to get him to stop, but he can’t stop. He’s like, “This goobery this, and there was a ferret,” just all of these images. And he went on for five minutes.
And it’s just a total improv?
Totally improv. The only thing that I said to him is, “When you hit this particular mark, I want you to put on the brake and stop.” That was it. It’s one take. It goes for minutes and minutes and minutes, and he keeps talking about “the piss, the goop, and the this and the that and the ferret.” And then when he gets to the mark, he has to say something offensive to her that makes her go, “Oh, that’s it, I’m out.” And it all had to be timed. So this is the part that’s not Cassavetes, right? We never knew what he was going to say. He got to the part just before he had to slam on the brakes, and he said, “That looks like something that would have flown out of your uterus,” and at that, she’s like, “No, that’s it!” So he had this amazing ability to contribute this stream-of-consciousness insanity that was witty. I have no idea where he pulled these images from, but then also to be aware enough to stop on a dime, with a mark, I mean, that’s an amazing talent.
The movie is crawling with good performances, and the MVP in my book is Anne Bancroft playing the melodramatic, chain-smoking, busybody mom. What was it like to direct someone of her stature in such an over-the-top role?
I loved Anne so much. God I loved her. She’s just so amazing, because she looks so elegant. She’s this beautiful, elegant, statuesque woman, and yet she is really more like the character that she was playing. She’s mouthy and crazy, and so it was just wonderful to see her find that role, to really allow herself to explore that. You know, she loves wearing a wig, and she just loved all that stuff. But she also worked differently than a lot of the other actors. The thing about Anne is that she’s really meticulous, and she really wanted to know everything. She wanted to know every mark, every inflection. She wanted everything to be planned and prepared. And I love that about her, but I also wanted to loosen her up. I wanted to let her be off guard.
I’m usually somebody who plans a lot, and with Anne, I kind of pretended that I didn’t know. So she’d ask me very specific questions like, “Where is it going to be? And when am I going to do this? And when am I going to do that?” And I’d be like, “I don’t know,” just to kind of destabilize her a little bit. And I think that that contributed to this kind of frenetic quality, of somebody who’s trying to keep it all together but nobody is participating in her plan.
That’s an interesting technique as a director. How did she respond when you would just softly dismiss her questions?
Well, it made her a little nutty, and I think it contributed to the character. I mean, I just adore her. We really adored each other. Everybody in the cast was amazing, including Claire Danes, who’s in there for all of five minutes. It was just such a good experience for her.
You also have Geraldine Chaplin as the kooky, kind of pitiful aunt. Did folks pry her for stories about her father during the shoot?
No, actually. There wasn’t a lot of that. And she’s had such a big life, such an amazing life. The cool thing about Geraldine in that movie is just that Geraldine couldn’t be more opposite than that character. Geraldine was young. I mean, I say she was young. Maybe 50. But she was playing a real kooky, perhaps-bordering-on-dementia, almost grandmother figure in some ways. It took a minute to get her wardrobe and stuff together. At first, we came with an idea of what she might look like. Then we did all of her wardrobe, and then we all looked at each other and we were like, “I don’t know, I don’t think that’s it.” And the costume designer completely redid hers, so we put a Jamaican Rasta hat on her.
What kind of stuff was she wearing before?
I think she was too grandmotherly or something. I think it allowed Geraldine to be much more of a dichotomy. It was just about refining, to make sure that she had lots of different things that almost didn’t go together.
That’s an apt way to describe it. Is it true that you guys cooked 64 turkeys for the dinner scene?
It is, and it’s also true that nobody eats in the dinner scene, which was crazy. It was something that I insisted on because I had this idea that the only Thanksgiving dinner that we would see eaten would be the one that was in the kitchen between Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr. To me, that was sort of important. Now, looking back and being 58 years old instead of 30, I wish I could smack myself a little bit and go, “Wait a minute! Why didn’t we get any shots of the dining room? Of mouths just eating the awful pieces of stuffing and turkey and things like that?” So, if there’s one thing that I would revisit about the film, I think it was that I wish that I hadn’t been so stuck in an idea and maybe gotten footage of people eating all those turkeys.
What did you think of the movie’s reception? It just barely made its budget back at the box office, and it’s become much more appreciated over time. But on paper, it wasn’t a giant hit.
Right. Well, look, as a director or even as an actor, I always say to myself, “I got to make a movie!” That in itself is a really, really rare reward. I think people don’t even realize how difficult it is to get a movie off the ground, and certainly to be able to say “I made a movie” is just such an honor. So, how much the movie made is really none of my business, I always say. The thing about the film was that because it was released by a major [studio] — by Paramount — I think there was some anticipation that it needed to be this big movie, but the truth of it is, it had always been a small family film. I never saw it as, “Oh, wow, we need to make hundreds of millions of dollars.” But I think we always knew it was a perennial. We always knew that it was a film that eventually people would buy on DVD, and we hoped that they would watch over and over again as time went on. So, as far as I’m concerned, that’s great.
Hollywood makes so many movies with Halloween and Christmas sensibilities, but there really aren’t very many that are specifically about Thanksgiving. Often movies will pass through one Thanksgiving scene, but rarely is it the centerpiece of the film. Do you have any theories about why Thanksgiving isn’t a more common movie subject?
Well, Thanksgiving isn’t an international movie subject, because they don’t have Thanksgiving in other places. It’s really just a domestic thing. But I love it, and it’s a big part of my life. We have a number of questions growing up as Americans. We think, first of all, “What the hell are we celebrating? What is Thanksgiving anyway?” It’s a total lie, right? And then, if you really prod people, they don’t even know what it represents. For most people, it’s really not about Indians and all of that. It’s really about a day where hundreds of thousands of people get on airplanes to go meet up with their family, and they only have very few days to do it. So it’s incredibly stressful, and it’s this enforced familial love.
One of the reasons why I think that it wasn’t as commercially viable was that it was a movie for 30-year-olds. If you were older, I think you were annoyed and resentful that somebody would make fun of your treasured holiday. And if you were too young, if you were in your 20s, you couldn’t really relate to worrying about the meaning of life and whether your parents were getting old. it was a very specific relevance for me at that time, and for most people that saw it.
I think you’re right about that. Does anything stand out from the last day of shooting, or maybe the wrap party, if you guys had one?
Gosh, let me think. Oh, I remember our wrap party. And I remember dancing. One of the things that we did when the movie came out was I had rented a house on the beach. I had a Thanksgiving dinner made for all the cast, and that was really amazing. It was really cute because Robert brought his little boy.
I don’t know about you, but for me, when I was younger, Thanksgiving was about having to go be with my family. But then I made my own family, and the first time that I had Thanksgiving alone with just my wife and my kids, and we were in New York, it was like the best Thanksgiving I’d ever had because I got to reinvent it. It’s like I got to mess up the tradition and say, “No, we’re going to do it my way.” We bought a whole bunch of things from Whole Foods, and we carted the Thanksgiving in the stroller and we brought it home. There’s something really special about making the tradition ours. I have a new lease on it. And so I understand older people who say, “Wait a minute. Why are you making this movie making fun of my holiday?”
You didn’t direct another movie until “The Beaver” in 2011. Why such a long gap between the two?
So many reasons. I wish I had directed more movies in those years. One, I acted a lot, but I also had two kids. And I couldn’t get stuff off the ground. I had “Flora Plum,” which I almost got off the ground. It was with Russell Crowe and Claire Danes. And two weeks before shooting, we got shut down because Russell had an accident. Then he couldn’t be in the movie because it’s about circus performers in the ’30s. And then we were going to get it recast, but then there was going to be a strike. Then it all fell apart. I wish I’d made more movies as a director in those years. I definitely kick myself about it. But I did a whole bunch of other things. But I was really hungry to be a director, and I just either couldn’t find the movies that were right or I couldn’t get them off the ground.
We’re privileged to be able to say that this has started changing in the course of the past 10 years, but at the time, there weren’t many female directors. But was that less of a problem for you because you already had a foot in the industry?
Well, I definitely had a leg up. People in the industry knew me. In some ways, I was a prodigal daughter. The old men who gave me my first opportunity were like my grandpas. They loved me, and they were like, “We know her. She can do it.” So, obviously I had an opportunity that lots of other women didn’t have, having been in the industry already. But look, I grew up in the film business where I never saw another woman. When I was growing up, sometimes there would be a script supervisor or maybe a hair or makeup person, but other than that? There were no other women ever on set. It’s changed a lot. The one area that didn’t change was directing. Directing, for all sorts of psychological reasons, was really the last frontier of sexism, really. And I really feel like we’re at a new point, and it’s exciting to see more new voices.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.