What does it take for a woman to win the trust it takes to become an action director? For Anna Foerster, it took two decades, an expert’s knowledge of visual effects and cinematography and a directing gig on key episodes of a cult television show — Starz’s Outlander. Now she’s helming the fifth film in a big-budget action franchise, Underworld: Blood Wars.
“An executive at Lakeshore Entertainment is a big fan of Outlander, and he called up my agent and said, ‘I want to meet the person who did that last episode,’” Foerster says of the roundabout way she got the Blood Wars job.
In the episode in question, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” the series’ eye-candy hero Jamie (Sam Heughan) is raped by the show’s resident Marquis de Sade, Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies, who also has a role in Blood Wars). The scene is excruciating and takes place at the head of the episode, so the rest of the running time is dedicated to exploring Jamie’s emotional and physical recovery — and the effect that being defiled by another man has on his masculinity. Critics were split on the rape scene: Is the show mining unexamined and edifying territory? Is it exploitative? What was clear, though, was that Foerster didn’t shy away from the violence, and her handling of complex emotions got people talking about something that’s quite real for one in 33 men.
“The scene was a tour-de-force opportunity for those two male actors,” Foerster says. “We had fortunately a little bit of a rehearsal and discussion time for that, which is great and is not always what you get in television and episodic work. It was important not to let it get reduced to the sexual act. It needed to be about power and emotion.”
Foerster approached the rape like she might a fight scene, choreographing every move to coincide with precise camera angles, beat by beat. She says that “allowed the actors freedom to concentrate on emotions.” Also, no director wants to put cast and crew through multiple takes of a rape. This ultra-preparedness is something she’s honed over time, working as a second-unit director and visual-effects cinematographer on films like The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down, Independence Day and Godzilla. That work formed the bulk of her 20-year career until the show Criminal Minds gave her a chance to direct.
“I realized before Criminal Minds that I didn’t know much about actors and acting when I went to film school in Germany. I skipped that. I wanted to be a DP,” she says. So she took eight years of extensive acting workshops to “find a language for communicating with actors.”
“I already had the language to communicate with crew,” Foerster explains. Often, studios say that the reason they don’t hire women for action films is that female directors don’t possess that language or the requisite technical prowess — that they’re instead more focused on characters and acting. Of course, that’s a false generalization. But Foerster’s having proven her knowledge for two decades convinced the Lakeshore execs she was ready. In fact, they had no idea at first that she was a woman when they’d called up her agent to talk to the “person” responsible for that groundbreaking episode — they just liked her work. But when they realized the extent of Foerster’s experience in the action genre, the conversation turned to Underworld. This path to action films is not unlike what Deep Impact director Mimi Leder took years earlier. (Leder’s back in TV now on HBO’s The Leftovers.)
Now in the director’s chair, Foerster says she wanted to return the Underworld franchise to its roots, both emotionally and visually, meaning the story and character arcs would have to take precedence and that, when possible, she would emphasize creative practical effects. But to her, those two things are part of the same process.
“Your focus should be on the story and the emotion, and that certainly translates into what the shots will look like,” she says. “It’s dangerous when you get carried away with too much technical stuff. Even if you have the most amazing action sequence or effects, if the emotion or story are lost, it becomes action for action’s sake or something that just looks ‘cool,’ and doesn’t mean anything.”
Foerster insists her first priority when taking on new projects now will be finding quality scripts. She demands emotion in a story, but action is her comfort zone and future. She’s got a television show in development, and J.J. Abrams has already tapped her to helm an upcoming thriller in development called Lou. I have to admit that when I read the news about Abrams, my heart jumped at the possibility that maybe she’d be groomed to take over another franchise, Star Wars, especially now that a female character has stepped into the lead role.
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Foerster laughs at that suggestion, but says she’d take the job in a heartbeat. She expresses some ambivalence, though, when I mention that series’ female lead.
“I have worked with strong female characters, and there is a lot about them that’s absolutely exciting to be able to shape,” she says. “But at the same time I think it’s kind of funny that it seems like female directors right now are kind of positioned so they’re only able to tell female stories.”
She says her favorite character on Outlander is the sadistic, complex Jack Randall, because as a director, she gets to find ways into a human who is completely unlike her. She lives for the challenge.
“I was talking to some friends the other day about action movies, and I said, ‘I wouldn’t mind directing a James Bond somewhere down the line,’ and a producer friend said to me, ‘Oh when they eventually have a female James Bond?’” Foerster laughs. No, that’s not what she meant. But, hey, if it’s a good script, she’ll take it.