It would be so pleasant to report that once upon a time, Jodie Foster had an absolutely hellish Thanksgiving and has ever since harbored a grudge against turkey day. Then it would follow that her new filmed-in-Baltimore movie, "Home for the Holidays," was an auteur's revenge, charged with meaning.
She decided to do to the holiday what the holiday had done to her: slice it to pieces.
And that, in turn, would turn Thursday night's gala premiere of the film at the Senator theater (Foster will attend) into a hatefest, not a lovefest.
Alas, no such tale lurks behind the Foster impulse to deconstruct Thanksgiving, which may be why the film, though it brims with nastiness and deceit, is held together by a kind of reluctant love of the sort anyone who's ever been in a family will instantly understand.
But as for her own Thanksgivings, they sound quite bland.
"We were very polite in our family," says the director of a film about the least polite family in history, with a laugh, "and we all enjoyed the cooking, although as it turned out my two sisters couldn't stand each other?"
So what turned the twice-Oscared actor-director on to a film about a dysfunctional family encountering and celebrating its dysfunctionality?
Actually, it was a note from her partner, executive producer Stuart Kleinman, attached to a screenplay.
"It's a complete mess," said the note. "And I love it."
The screenplay was by legendary screenwriter W. D. Richter, author of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "Brubaker," and director of the cult hit "Buckeroo Banzai." It was adapted from a short story that appeared in a Boston newspaper that Richter, who lives outside Boston, had found.
"It was a mess," said Foster from her office in L.A., "and I fell in love with it too."
The screenplay had already been bought by Castle Rock, then quickly put into turnaround as unsavable. Foster's Egg Films bought it right away and began a year and a half of T "development," which is to say a hands-on collaboration between director and screenwriter.
"The great challenge," said Foster, sounding like the Yale-educated intellectual she authentically is, "was to find a beautiful idea to pull through it, a narrative line that would make the story work and bring all the parts into the proper relationship."
"We do it all together," she recalls. "I don't like the adversarial boss thing. We just barnstormed at a table. We had great fun thinking up new details and lives and clearing up the relationships. It was a great collaboration."
As Foster and Richter worked it out, Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter), a mid-30s single mom, undergoes multiple life crises on the day before Thanksgiving. She loses her job in Chicago, learns that her teen-age daughter (Claire Danes) is about to give up her virginity, and has to fly home to Baltimore all on the same day.
There, in a neat little rowhouse snuggled close to Memorial Stadium, she encounters her heavy-smoking, neurotic mother (Anne Bancroft), her rather vague father (Charles Durning), her gay brother (Robert Downey Jr.), his mysterious "friend" (Dylan McDermott), her uptight sister (Cynthia Stevenson), her uptight brother-in-law (Steve Guttenberg) and her nutsy Aunt Gladys (Geraldine Chaplin).
At various times over the long Thursday, turkeys are launched by inept carving and land in laps, children cry, grown-ups cry, ancient enmities come steaming out, raw emotion boils over, alliances are made, broken and remade. And that's before the pumpkin pie!
In fact, the filming of the Thanksgiving dinner itself -- a kind of last of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" combined with the last six acts of "The Ring Trilogy," only louder -- took more than 10 days, using 64 turkeys, 20 pounds of mashed potatoes, 35 pounds of stuffing, 44 pies, 30 pounds of sweet potatoes, 18 bags of mini-marshmallows and 50 gallons of juice to simulate wine.
But the secret idea of the film, says Foster, is something else.
"I think what I responded to in the script," she says, "is the universal phenomenon of the artificiality of the day. You step out of your normal life, and you are asked to make a vow of love to people you don't really know and who don't really understand you. You wonder, how can I love someone who doesn't get me? It's like being stuck in an elevator with a bunch of strangers. And it all comes to loggerheads on this one day."
And there's another theme too, she insists.
"All of these people are trying to hold on to their pasts, and they want some sort of document. If it's on film, then it happened. But the point is to have an un-self-conscious life. The real experiences are far more meaningful than the souvenirs of it."
Foster says she's attracted to different material as a director than as an actor.
"As an actor, I'm attracted to other lives. It gives me a chance to get out of my skin for a few months, to be somebody new. As a director, I'm attracted to material that expresses me in some way, that has my humor and my tone."
For that reason, she says she'll never direct herself as she did in her first film, "Little Man Tate."
"I love that movie, but when I see it today, it seems somehow awkward. That's because everything had to be worked out in advance, and we could never go with anything, we could never capture anything spontaneously."
Quite the opposite happened on "Home for the Holidays." Foster spent 10 weeks in Baltimore, in pre-production and production. She also allowed for a two-week rehearsal period, where the ensemble cast could get together and feel each other out.
"I love being on location," she says. "I've always liked that. But the way we planned it, we had the cast in Baltimore for all the outside shots and some of the interiors. But then we moved back to L.A. to shoot the more emotional scenes. We had it both ways: we could get the actors out of L.A. and get them bonding and reacting away from movie culture. But then we got them back to L.A. for the more intense scenes. That meant they were back with their families and able to concentrate on their parts."
And why Baltimore?
"I love Baltimore," she proclaims. "To me it's the prototype of the American city. It's dangerous, East Coasty, urban. Yet it still has a hopeful quality to it. People still live in a tribal, ethnic way."
She also was attracted to Baltimore for a visual idea.
"I loved the rowhouses. It communicates an idea: that somehow, everyone is going through the same thing in each rowhouse. Everybody has a Thanksgiving."
The Baltimore premiere of "Home for the Holidays" will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at the Senator theater, 5904 York Road. Tickets are $60. Call (410) 435-8338.