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The kids are all right, and so is their mom

Times Staff Writer

The exit off the 101 you take to get to Naomi Foner’s house is marked by a billboard for “Jarhead” and that is a little weird. It’s hard to drive very far these days without passing a billboard for a Jake Gyllenhaal movie, but still, it’s surprising to see one looming above the turnoff for his parents’ house.

Foner, at this point, is used to it. An Oscar-nominated screenwriter with a director husband and two actor children, she understands the nature of the business. She and her husband, Stephen Gyllenhaal (“Paris Trout,” “Waterland”), named their production company Rollercoaster Films, and together they have ridden Hollywood’s highs, and its lows.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 28, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Naomi Foner -- An article in Tuesday’s Calendar section on screenwriter Naomi Foner referred to her family’s move to Los Angeles 37 years ago. It should have said 27 years ago.

For a while, Foner chose to get off entirely, in part, she says, because she could not find a healthy balance between work and parenting. “The pull between the selflessness required for real parenting and the selfishness you need to have in this work became too much I think,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to do it.”

But when your kid has his own billboard, it’s probably safe to assume that the heavy lifting of parenthood is over. So now, Foner is back in the game, and it’s just as strange and unpredictable as she remembers. Her recent adaptation of “Bee Season,” starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche, came and went in an instant, leaving behind a trail of reviews that either loved it or absolutely hated it.

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Far from being cowed, Foner shrugs it off. Even before the film opened, she discussed its limitations with unusual candor, saying publicly that it didn’t turn out to be quite the movie she had in mind when she began writing it.

“It has flaws, fine,” she says now. “Everyone tried to do their best. Many people were moved by it, which is what I wanted in the first place.

“The terrible reviews,” she adds, “I take as a compliment; the film was about things that make people uncomfortable.”

“Things” being the roiling politics of family, including the push-pull of marriage and the unexpressed but undeniable pressure parents put on children to follow paths they themselves were not brave enough to trod. These are issues Foner has been exploring since she joined the Children’s Television Workshop way back in the ‘70s when political activism was still considered a viable career choice. Issues she feels she has only just become mature enough to truly understand.

“I had some inkling when I wrote ‘Running on Empty,’ ” she says. “But the best thing about getting older is you learn how to write better. And you have life experiences you can draw on; you aren’t confined to just referencing other movies.”

Foner’s life experiences have been at once varied and emblematic. It was just three years ago that she officially added “Gyllenhaal” to her professional name, as a 25th-anniversary present to her husband. “People think I did it because of the kids,” she says, “but I did it for Stephen.”

In a way, the Gyllenhaals are a quintessentially Los Angeles family, New York transplants on their way to becoming a Hollywood dynasty, a generation removed from the Douglases, say, or the Bridgeses, just a little harder to pronounce. (It’s Jill-en-hall, so pay up.) Her best friend is Jamie Lee Curtis, her children grew up surrounded by the likes of Billy Crystal and Martin Short. (From the time he could talk, Foner says, Jake didn’t have a chance. “We knew he was going to be an actor since the time he was tiny,” she says. “We figured he would just run away and join ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”)

Foner finds the idea of being the matriarch of a Hollywood Family amusing and a little frightening. Both her children are successful actors -- Maggie achieved her breakthrough in 2002’s “Secretary”; Jake is having an extraordinary year with three big films out, including the acclaimed “Brokeback Mountain” -- and she is very proud of them and the choices they have made. But like every mother she worries, about whether the environment she and her husband created funneled the children in to the acting world, about whether her own feelings of frustration with the industry made the kids feel they somehow had to make it big for Mom.

Jump-starting her career now is, she thinks, not only a way to avoid the temptation to live vicariously through them but also to carry the message she has learned over the years -- that there are many ways to lead a successful life.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” she says, “believe me, I was not a perfect mother, as they will tell you. But I do think that a gift I can give them is the idea that it’s never too late to do the work. Because life doesn’t only go in one direction.”

A ‘temporary’ Angeleno

Sitting at a patio table at Orso on 3rd Street, Foner is a small figure with a vaguely familiar face -- Maggie clearly got her eyes and chin and smile from her mother. Orso is a Gyllenhaal tradition; it’s perfect, she says, for birthday parties and graduation dinners. Although 37 years ago she had to be talked into “temporarily” moving to Los Angeles -- “Stephen had us drive from New York, with Maggie who was 10 months because he knew I would never make the drive back” -- she loves L.A. now, and not just one neighborhood.

“When we moved here, we knew nothing,” she says. “We bought a house near the old Bullocks Wilshire in MacArthur Park. It was a beautiful house; we thought we’d found heaven.”

Instead, they had found Los Angeles. Within a few months, the couple was in a fight to save the neighborhood. They lost, and eventually moved to the edges of Hancock Park where they made their way through a variety of fixer-uppers.

“We’ve probably made more money in real estate than from the entertainment industry,” she says, sealing her local pedigree.

Currently, she and Stephen live in a house off Mulholland Drive, a relatively small house -- “just 2,200 square feet,” she says, “it’s practically an apartment” -- with many windows, few walls and the air of a fresh start.

“It’s my empty-nest house,” she says, laughing. “We really had to get rid of so many things and that was very liberating.”

Foner speaks with the psychologically and politically informed cadence of a leftie, which she unabashedly is. Fresh out of college, she worked for the first Head Start program, then for Harold Ickes on the Eugene McCarthy campaign. Out of graduate schools, she took her degree in developmental psychology over to the newly formed “Sesame Street,” working her way up from production assistant to producer. She married and divorced; worked on a television project that was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities; met and married Gyllenhaal; began writing scripts, including “Blackout,” an autobiographical tale about the New York blackout.

“Then Maggie was born and I fell in love,” she says. It was strange, she says, because she had come of age at a time when feminism, to which she subscribed wholeheartedly, frowned on motherhood as a distraction from real work. “I was very ambivalent about the family stuff,” she says. “I grew up when having kids was considered somehow regressive.”

For years, she struggled to travel between two worlds -- the domestic realm, with its requirements of patience and humility, and the self-promoting churn of Hollywood. “It is really hard,” she says simply. “I was not prepared for how difficult it would be.”

From the outside, things looked practically perfect. At the end of her tenure on “Sesame Street” her job had consisted of contacting some of the hottest directors and stars in the country and coaxing them onto the show.

So when she and Stephen moved to L.A., the people they knew were movers and shakers; when she needed a pediatrician, she called Mel Brooks. “And he told me about this great school,” she says. So Maggie and Jake entered the Center for Early Education, now one of the most elite private elementary schools in town.

Her career was also going well; she quickly got a job at Warner Bros. and began her Hollywood education.

“They asked me what I wanted to write about and I told them ‘my mother and my sisters.’ They said ‘great.’ Then later they called me in and said, ‘Can you make these Jews Italians?’ It was the beginning of my Hollywood career.”

In 1985, her first feature film, “Violets Are Blue,” got made, which she found astonishing. “I had been making a lot of money, writing for big stars -- Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman -- but nothing ever got made. I thought my job was to throw scripts down a big hole somewhere,” she says.

“Violets Are Blue” was a completely different experience -- it taught Foner the great lesson of screenwriting: “That things don’t get made anywhere near the way you write them.”

Her next film was “Running on Empty,” the story of a couple on the lam because of their politically subversive past and their son who must choose between their lives and his. Starring Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti and River Phoenix, it earned Foner and Phoenix Oscar nominations and is now a cult classic.

“I knew people like this,” Foner says. “I wanted to write about the ‘60s in a way that wasn’t cliched or didactic. Someone said parents and children are the only love story that ends successfully in separation,” she adds. “I wanted to write about that too.”

Family, in all its lacerating, liberating complexity, became the driving force of Foner’s work, both thematically and tangibly. And the roller coaster cranked into high gear.

She and Stephen decided it would be fun to work on a film together; he directed her adaptation of “A Dangerous Woman,” which starred Debra Winger. They discovered that marriage does not necessarily translate into an easy working relationship, yet undeterred, they tried it again with “Losing Isaiah,” starring Jessica Lange. It was an original script and, Foner says now, a really big mistake. “Stephen would agree, and the kids would definitely tell you that this was a mistake.”

She felt too protective of her story and would not concede control to Gyllenhaal, even though he was the director.

“I broke protocol,” she says matter-of-factly. “I would disagree with him on the set like I would at home. And while this made our home a great place, it was not the way you deal with a director.”

“Losing Isaiah,” she says, suffered from the tension between the two, tension that brought their marriage to the brink and caused her to pull back from her career.

“I had to repair some damage,” she says. “I let my career fall apart because I had to make a lot of choices about marriage and family. It was hard for me and I went through a very dry spell.”

She began Jungian dream analysis, which continues in one form or another to this day because she believes our dreams are the foundation of our creativity. She began looking at what she really wanted and what was really possible and tried to ignore the ticking clock.

Meanwhile, her children launched themselves into their own Hollywood careers, making decisions she did not always agree with but tried her best to support. When Maggie made her feature lead debut in “Secretary,” the story of a self-destructive woman who finds love, orgasm and salvation at the hands of a masochistic boss, Foner’s first reaction was more knee-jerk feminist than mother-supportive.

“But then I realized that Maggie knew more than I did,” she says. “I saw the movie and I realized she had turned it into a film about the woman’s power -- this was what she chose and so it was empowering.”

When Jake dropped out of Columbia University after two years, she wasn’t thrilled either. “But the idea of a parent is to let them be who they are.”

She knew, if nothing else, her children had no unrealistic expectations of the Hollywood life. “They grew up around this, all of our friends did this. Maggie still makes this thing called Summer Salad she learned from craft services on location with ‘Paris Trout,’ ” she says. “They knew it wasn’t glamorous, that it was more like a war sometimes.”

In a way, she feels like she is at the same stage as her children now, finding her real voice as they find theirs. Having overcome some fears both tangible -- her fear of flying almost kept her from doing “Violets Are Blue” -- and more subtle, Foner feels ready to begin again, to revisit projects she left stranded, to direct the movie she promised she would direct all those years ago.

She is working on several scripts, including “Pilgrims Progress” about actors who fall in love during their work at a reenactment of the community at Plymouth, and another about suffragette Victoria Woodhull.

With the pressures of motherhood lessened and a clearer understanding of what is she wants to do, Foner feels as if she has that rare chance -- to do what she wanted to do at 20 with the wisdom of 59.

“I remember how changed I was by certain films, films that showed me that life could be, and was, lived in other ways,” she says. “Now I feel like it’s almost an obligation to do my work, to put those ideas out there.”

And having had it all yanked out from beneath her once, there really isn’t much to fear.

“That’s the part I want my kids to know,” Foner adds. “That you go up and you go down. The trick is to find flat ground to walk on while the crazy business moves on.”


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