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Before ‘True Detective’: Cary Joji Fukunaga on His Immigration Drama ‘Sin Nombre’

As IndieWire prepares to host a screening of "Sin Nombre" in New York, here's a look back at Fukunaga's debut in his own words.

Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga

Daniel Bergeron

Cary Fukunaga may be best known for directing the acclaimed first season of “True Detective” and the Netflix-produced war epic “Beasts of No Nation,” but he first burst onto the scene with his tense debut “Sin Nombre.” Distributed by Focus Features, the immigration drama was released to wide acclaim in 2009.

To celebrate Focus’ 15th anniversary, IndieWire is hosting a free screening of “Sin Nombre” in New York followed by a Q&A with the director on August 10. To RSVP for the event, please go here

This interview was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. 

Cory Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” premiered to universal acclaim at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the directing award and the cinematography award.

As described in the Sundance catalog: “A social-political thriller in the tradition of American film noir, ‘Sin Nombre’ is set on the border, where Mexico becomes the crucible and the fearsome gangs of today’s Mexican countryside, the gauntlet, to freedom. The stories of Sayra, a teenager living in Honduras and hungering for a brighter future, and teen gang members Smiley and Casper, for whom the Mara Salvatrucha is nearly their entire universe, become interlaced on the train to the border, a journey that will determine the future of their lives. Young Casper is already a wary veteran of the “Mara,” and his new recruit is the 12-year-old Smiley, full of bravado and looking for status. The two run afoul of the everyday violence that penetrates their world and find themselves fellow passengers with Sayra on a States-bound freight, hugging the rooftop as their precarious journey unfolds.”

Fukunaga spoke with IndieWire just prior to the festival.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I began envisioning vast epics as a kid. But by the age of 12, my ability to inspire friends to help me make them into reality (with our parent’s video cameras) left me a precocious and frustrated young auteur. To be straight, I was kind of a dork and in order to fulfill the creative fires burning inside me, I participated vigorously as a Civil War re-enactor through most of my teenage years, traveling across the country to participate in large scale reenactments — grandiose plays enacted by over weight history buffs and war enthusiasts alike. At 15, the reenactments helped me envision my first script — a melodrama pitting two brothers in the Irish Brigade against each other for the love of the same nurse while convalescing after the disaster of the Peninsular campaign. I spent six months on this opus, but I can safely say that the only profit wrought from this endeavor was the useful ability to type.

Cary Fukunaga’s 2009 film, “Sin Nombre”

Then true adolescence hit and I became side tracked with a new fire — become a pro-snowboarder — the Civil War reenacting was marginalized and so was filmmaking. When I was 20 I was living in the Alps snowboarding and studying political science. I blew out my knee and I began to realize my days in the sport were numbered, the reality was I would never be a pro. While looking for something else to spend my time on, I returned to writing, photography and eventually, filmmaking.

How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?

As a university senior, about to graduate with a major in history and an emphasis in geopolitics, I made a sincere but naively over-intellectualized short about the end of days from the point of view of a college radio station (I’ve purposely lost that short). I think we all have to get our doomsday story out of us, but it rekindled the dream. After graduating I spent some time touring the world before hooking up with a job as a Camera PA on music videos and commercials in LA. I spent two years observing how easily big budgets could be spent and got to play with a lot of toys, but it dawned on me that I would never be a director following this route, just as a fellow PA wisely noted, “you’ll never be the pilot just because you were the flight attendant for 20 years.” I applied and got into film school at New York University — understanding that the large student debt I would incur could put the perfect balance of fire under my ass along with financial means to finally make my own films. I didn’t have an exit strategy. Experimentation and prolificness was the goal.

This article continues with the story of the film’s dramatic inspiration on the next page.

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