Project Red Light

UPDATED: October 10, 2011
PUBLISHED: October 10, 2011

In an ideal world, Jodie Foster’s latest directing and acting effort, The Beaver, would be judged on its merits: the originality of the story, the craft required to bring it to life, and most important, the daring performances. But there’s a problem.

Mel Gibson plays the film’s main character—or two main characters, if you count the beaver puppet he wears on his hand for most of the film. Yes, the plot surrounds a depressed middle-aged man trying to remake his life and reconnect with family, while using a beaver hand puppet and speaking in the beaver’s cockney accent.

During production, the secretly recorded tapes of Gibson verbally abusing his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva came to light. Add that to the actor’s previous run-ins with police and various alcohol issues, and suddenly Jodie Foster has a serious problem no matter how well production may be going.

People pushing for success—entrepreneurs, managers, consultants—by definition must depend on key team members to achieve that success. But what happens when the people you depend on self-destruct or distract? Do you let the project or business self-destruct along with them? How do you hold it—and the rest of the team—together?

With two things. One, pure leadership. Foster is a massive creative force and skilled director. She knew that she had a great story to tell, knew how to tell it and how to keep everyone around her focused. Through hard experience won over an Oscar-laden acting career, she knew how to manage fear and doubt. “Fear is the No. 1 emotion that we’re spending tremendous amounts of brainpower to cover up,” she told Esquire.

The second thing? Letting Gibson channel his demons into his performance, which a good manager understands some creative people are able to do. Foster trusted him; he trusted her. And no matter what your opinion of Gibson, he’s turned in some of the best work of his career in The Beaver.

“I feel like when you’re watching his performance on-screen,” Foster says, “you’re watching a man who intimately understands struggle, someone who wants to change, who wants to transform themselves because there is so much self-hatred. You know, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to know that Mel knows that from a very raw place.”

It’s easy to panic or go into a defensive mode when a key team member threatens a project. But good bosses take an intelligent, open-minded approach to the person’s performance and do their best to keep them on-task and shining despite their issues. It shows in the final product—not just in the work product, but in the person, too.

“Often people think of strength as surviving,” Foster says. “But I think it’s surviving intact, and there’s a big distinction.”