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Tribeca: Cary Fukunaga Talks ‘True Detective,’ Horror Flick ‘It,’ And Releasing ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ On Netflix

Tribeca: Cary Fukunaga Talks ‘True Detective,’ Horror Flick ‘It,’ And Releasing ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ On Netflix

Since breaking onto the scene with his streetwise debut feature “Sin Nombre” in 2009, for which he won the Directing award at Sundance that year, American camera operator-turned-director Cary Fukunaga has been on a roll. “Sin Nombre” went on to receive nominations for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Cinematography at the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards. Fukunaga’s follow-up “Jane Eyre” (2010) featured simmering performances from Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. The lush adaptation was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design, and Fukunaga had established himself as a force with a versatile eye and diverse interests.

In 2014, Fukunaga made the jump to television, radically overhauling the model by collaborating closely on HBO’s “True Detective” with the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto; Fukunaga made news by directing all eight episodes of the acclaimed limited series. The filmmaker has another possible game changer on deck as his next project — set to bow simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters later this year, “Beasts of No Nation,” starring Idris Elba, follows a child soldier at war in an unnamed African country. In addition, Fukunaga starts shooting on an update of Stephen King’s classic “It” this summer in New York City.

Yesterday at the Tribeca Film Festival, Fukunaga sat down for a Directors Series talk with one of his mentors, producer and distributor James Schamus, whose legendary reign at the former Focus Features included the release of Fukunaga’s first two features. Schamus is a fan, explaining, “Everything he does is a kind of reinvention.”

Here’s some highlights and choice quotes from Fukunaga:

1. On pre-production: “There’s a tremendous amount of optimism in pre-production… True Detective, because it was such a massive beast, the pre-production aspect of that required meeting upon meeting… That repetition is like learning lines for a play, so that when you’re on stage it feels all natural and improvised. [You want] every individual involved with your production to understand what’s happening inside your brain.”

2. On rehearsals: “More and more, less rehearsals… In film school, I really had to know everything ahead of time… “but then when you start working with more qualified actors — like Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey — you can actually rely on just an intelligent conversation ahead of time. Really get into what I think the character is, what they bring, their concept of what it is, we meet in the middle, and then I give them space on set to rehearse. When the whole crew sees what that rehearsal is, then they can start shooting.”

3. On Matthew McConaughey: They filmed all the interrogation scenes in True Detective in three days. “In one day, McConaughey did 29 pages… sort of like a one-man show.” (The continuity of the cigarettes and beer cans was a nightmare.) “Those long tokes all started because on the first day shooting — McConaughey is a health nut; he doesn’t smoke — he was taking a few drags off the cigarette, and I’m like, ‘Let’s not make this look like a middle school girl smoking cigarettes.’ And he took that to the whole other degree — he Cheech-and-Chonged those things.”

4. On his narrative film education: “I was not really much of like a classic cinema watcher before film school. I watched Hollywood — and classic Hollywood — but not so much the foreign masters. And so film school really opened my eyes to a whole new world of filmmaking… This is probably going to be too revealing, but one concept I had no idea of when I went to film school — my first class, first semester — was the concept of a character having to change over a period of time. Which seems so basic in narrative  —I mean, of course, you read books, and they change. But I was like, ‘They have to change?’ That never occurred to me.”

5. On sound: “I love sound. Walter Murch was one of the first people I ever met in the film industry. And I got to observe him finishing the final mix of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” So the concept of sound storytelling had always really interested me, I think more so than visuals, actually.” 

6. On the future of cinema: “If the future of cinema is moving towards Oculus, 360-degree, choose-your-own-adventure storytelling, then where is the storytelling anymore?”

7. On the secret to binge-watching success: “I’m still trying to figure out what it is for episodic television, because it’s clearly not plot. [laughs] There’s definitely character, but there’s something… I think it’s the concept that we know there’s ‘more,’ and if we’re only getting so much, we’re not completely satiated, in that little bit, so we keep watching… They’re not always based on cliffhangers or plot points… You just know, ‘I’ve got an hour before I really should be sleeping… I should have gone to bed an hour ago… just one more episode.’ Then it’s 3 in the morning. But I still can’t figure out why I’m doing it.”

Listen to the entire conversation on page two and watch some clips from the talk as well.

8. On casting his next film: “The boy that we used on “Beasts of No Nation” [Abraham Attah] was essentially a street vendor before we shot this film… To watch this kid go, a month from production from knowing nothing about acting… to watch him become a leader among those kids… to turn into that kind of professional was kind of astounding to watch.”

9. On releasing ‘Beasts’ with Netflix: “The exciting part about it… is that more people are going to see it than, say, a traditional platform release, of this subject, of this size… There’s not one white person in it. This is not [Leonardo] DiCaprio saving Africa; it’s an all mainly African cast.” [Schamus: “Well, he doesn’t have to. He already saved Africa.” Fukunaga: “And no diamond will ever have blood on it again.”] “The movie is a very difficult subject… but I think that by nature of the force of Netflix being behind it, it will be in people’s faces enough that they’re like, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’ And I think that once they start watching it, hopefully they’ll be consumed by it.”

“The difficult part of defining yourself as a filmmaker is the concept of [a day-and-date release] really strikes the fear of God in your heart, that people are actually going to still go to the cinema to watch the film… But it was designed to be a film experienced in a group like this, collectively with strangers, in the dark… The experience in the cinema is 100% more immersive than it is at home, when my phone is going off, and I’m checking emails, and I’m not really putting all my attention on it.”

“Netflix’s big thing is consumer choice. So as the audiences start to make that choice — if they continue to make the choice to just watch online — then the cinema experience will be reserved only for comic-book movies. And that is in a way the biggest democratic challenge for an art form: you have to ask the audience to be aware of the fact that they are just as responsible for the death of cinema as the people who make the movies.”

“People are going to watch this release as a benchmark.”

10. On marketing a not-obviously-money-making idea to film companies: “It’s nearly impossible to get anything without a precedent, because everything is based on an algorithm. Really. They just punch in numbers, they know what they can make in foreign sales on it, plugging in this actor and that actor… If it doesn’t fall into a certain category — nothing’s impossible, there’s never a never — but it’s very, very difficult… Even “Sin Nombre,” at Focus, probably wouldn’t have been done two years later, just based on the crash of the economy.”


“Also, if you can develop your name, if you have good stories, first make a webisode, or something smaller, and you keep growing an audience… Your work then speaks for you.”

[Schamus: Find a market segment that works for you. “My career, 90% of it, is making women over 35 cry. That’s put my kids through college.”]

11. On choosing projects: “I don’t know that there’s one thing overall… There are images that grab me, or characters… or elements that I think are masterful… I haven’t done enough yet where I think I can analyze that on a global scale. According to Schamus, I like to show people entering or leaving rooms. [laughs]”

[Schamus: “Other filmmakers try to find heroes and heroines. Cary is always looking at the person in the corner of the room… and realizes that they’re the center of a universe that’s so rich.”]

12. On his upcoming vision for his version of “It”: “The image I always see is the image I saw when I was 12 or so when I saw the miniseries, which is that white face in the sewer… poor little Georgie being sucked down in the ground. I haven’t really gotten much past that part. [laughs]”

“I can’t give away too much… Someone asked earlier about the themes; the only continuing thing is that children die in all of my films…. “It will cap off my children dying series of films. Hopefully after that, I’ll move into much more pleasant fare.”

13. On the craziness of shooting “True Detective:” “It’s actually frightening because you’re starting shooting and you haven’t had the chance to plan anything yet [for the last 3 episodes]. And so we basically planned in pre-production for True Detective… the first five episodes, really. But 6, 7 and 8 had to be planned while we were shooting; there was no hiatus. So it just meant we had to double up our work: before a shooting day, we’d go scouting, tech scouting. At lunch, we’d have production meetings. After shooting, we’d go see new locations. [This is on top of] a 12- to 14-hour day. At night, I’d go meet with the editors, try to get the first couple episodes locked up. Saturdays, more scouting. It just meant you did what you would have done normally in 8 weeks on the tops and ends and bottoms of days. It was a little bit insane.”

Browse through all our coverage of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival by clicking here.

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