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Talking ‘Money Monster’ and movie stars with director Jodie Foster

The stars of “Money Monster,” George Clooney and Julia Roberts, were rarely on the set together due to scheduling issues, says director Jodie Foster (right).
The stars of “Money Monster,” George Clooney and Julia Roberts, were rarely on the set together due to scheduling issues, says director Jodie Foster (right). Sony Pictures

George Clooney and Julia Roberts spend a lot of time talking to each other in “Money Monster” — urgently, intimately, sometimes as though their lives depended on it. Which, in this taut hostage drama, happens to be the case.

And yet, the two stars share the same physical space, the same frame, for only a few fleeting minutes at the beginning and end of the Jodie Foster-directed thriller.

That’s because Roberts’ character, Patty Fenn, is a TV producer, in a control room full of consoles and monitors, engineers and assistants. Clooney’s Lee Gates is the master of ceremonies, down on the studio floor of a show called, yes, “Money Monster,” in which he offers financial advice — stocks to buy, stocks to sell, companies to watch — while behaving like a wild man, boogieing, rapping, spewing outrageous stuff.

He’s listening to her prompts through a tiny earpiece. She’s hearing him on the control booth speakers.

(Any similarities to financial guru Jim Cramer and his CNBC show “Mad Money” are purely, ahem, coincidence.)

And when a disgruntled viewer — an intense, electric Jack O’Connell — breaks onto the set, wielding a gun and a list of demands, the cameras never go off. It’s a siege, live on TV.

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Still, the two Hollywood icons — teamed before on “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Twelve,” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — must have been on the set at the same time during production. Actors need to feed off each other’s energy, not to mention feed each other lines.

Right?

“Never, never, no, never,” says Foster, who had to work the shoot around Clooney’s and Roberts’ schedules. “Julia had to do everything through either playback, or performing to green screen, or to just complete emptiness. She had to make it all up. And when you look at her performance, it’s so extraordinary, because she gives so much, she’s so in there.”

The same can be said for Clooney. “Money Monster,” which opens Friday, is a pressure cooker of a movie. It feels spontaneous, crackling, and dangerous — even if, behind the scenes, Foster had to work through a “jigsaw puzzle” of technical issues to make it seem like events were happening in real time.

Foster says the “virtual connection” between Clooney and Roberts actually served the story’s purposes and themes.

“It’s an interesting facet of the movie,” Foster says, “where virtual connection feels closer, in some ways, than real connection. And Julia being in George’s ear and George looking at that camera, and in some ways the camera is her face — they’re looking at each other through screens. And that allowed them to be closer than they would be if they were in a real scene together. And that’s kind of amazing to me.

“That’s our modern world, that we’re closer virtually than we are in reality,” she says. “Technology has brought us this constant connection, everybody is communicating, everybody is experiencing everything in real time, and yet we’re more isolated from each other than we ever have been. It’s a strange thing.”

“Money Monster” marks Foster’s fourth time directing a feature (the others: 1991’s “Little Man Tate,” 1995’s “Home for the Holidays” and 2011’s “The Beaver,” with Mel Gibson).

It’s easily her biggest film, and she went for it in part because the screenplay reminded her of two gritty dramas that likewise unfurl in real time, and that likewise show events spiraling out of control under media scrutiny, with a whole world watching.

Those films are “Network” (1976), in which a TV news anchor goes haywire on the air, and “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), in which a bank robber goes bonkers, taking hostages, screaming at the news cameras. Both were directed by Sidney Lumet.

“There’s nothing that makes me happier than to have ‘Money Monster’ talked about in the same breath with those two movies,” says Foster, 53 now, and in show business since she was 3. “We could never be as great as Lumet, but we can certainly try to honor him. He taught us great lessons about real time … and about everybody having a point of view and having the filmmaking techniques be informed by character, first and foremost.

“And that’s something that I’ve tried to carry into all my movies. It’s really a lesson that comes down from him.”

It should be noted that a film Foster starred in — “Taxi Driver,” opposite Robert De Niro — came out the same year as “Network.” It’s the 40th anniversary of both films, the 40th anniversary of “Taxi Driver’s” debut at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. That was Foster’s first time there. (She also received her first Oscar nomination, for actress in a supporting role, for her portrayal of the film’s teenage prostitute.) She returns to the French film festival Thursday to premiere “Money Monster.”

Foster received a star on Hollywood Boulevard last week, honoring her career as a director. She has won two Academy Awards for her work in front of the camera — best actress Oscars for “The Accused” in 1989 and “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1992 — and has also been directing for television. She has episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards” to her credit (both shot before “Money Monster” went into production), and is looking to do more work for TV.

“We’re coming to a difficult and interesting time in the film business now,” she observes. “We all know that in the next 10 years that most theatrical (releases) will just be franchise films, and a film like ‘Money Monster’ is going to be rarer and rarer. They’re already incredibly rare, to have a mid-range film that is intelligent and that is character-driven but that also is opening wide and has movie stars.

“And it means that most real narrative ‘film’ is going to be on home screen, or in tiny theaters, for small budgets. Audiences’ viewing habits are changing, and that’s how they’re experiencing their entertainment. They’re kind of compartmentalizing it into different categories. And I think that has already affected how studios view risk, how averse they are to risk. And I think they will just become more averse to risk.”

Speaking of studios, and risk, Foster suspects that’s one reason women haven’t made more inroads as film directors, producers and studio execs. “I guess women are still seen as risks, apparently,” she says, laughing a bit.

It is still a male — a white male — dominated industry.

“I really don’t know that it’s getting better,” she says about the male/female inequity. “I think that there’s more consciousness about it, and there’s a lot of talk about it, so that’s always a good thing.

“But I do think that the discussion is pretty simplistic. Like all profiling — race psychology or gender psychology — it’s complicated. … You don’t just treat the problem by putting a Band-Aid on it and creating a quota. That’s not going to work.”

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