Fukunaga shot in English-speaking West Africa, encouraged by Elba, whose mother was born in Ghana, to shoot there. “They had an old filmmaking infrastructure there, though it died out in the 80s,” Elba said in Telluride. “They make commercials and videos. Ghana ticked all the boxes.” When Elba agreed to star, Fukunaga beefed up the Commandant for him, he said, to show “he had a brain and heart and charisma.” The cast and crew camped out in the jungle, building a camp for 200 non-pro actors (including former boy soldiers from Sierra Leone and Liberia) who lived there as they got creative acting and military training (Ghana reluctantly supplied guns).
WATCH: How Idris Elba Climbed Into the Skin of ‘Beast of No Nation”s Commandant (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)
WATCH: How Idris Elba Climbed Into the Skin of 'Beast of No Nation''s Commandant (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)
The Ghana-set adventure opens theatrically October 16 via Netflix, Bleecker Street and Landmark Cinemas nationwide.
Writer-director Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”) introduced “Beasts of No Nation” to raves at Venice (review here), then took the film and its stars, Brit Idris Elba and Ghana discovery Abraham Attah, to warm receptions at Telluride and Toronto. I sat down with Elba at Toronto.
We know writer-director Fukunaga is seriously gifted—from grittily emotional border drama “Sin Nombre” and the gothic romance “Jane Eyre” with Wasikowska and Fassbender to “True Detective” Season One, with McConaughey and Harrelson. (Fukunaga had no input on Season Two; Pizzolatto wanted to run the show.) He’s a director who pushes past the ordinary toward excellence, and doesn’t seem to mind putting himself in difficult situations to do it. This $6 million movie has astonishing scale and scope for such a low-budget enterprise, including moving through towns with tons of detail and choreographed extras.
Fukunaga was plugging away on a screenplay about boy soldiers in Africa for a years without finding the right angle; then he read a novel by Uzodinma Iweala that showed him the way: follow a boy into the heart of darkness. The comparison to Joseph Conrad and Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is apt, as young Agu (Attah) moves from innocent childhood with his family to lost orphan wandering the jungle, where he falls into a military camp where Commandant (an intimidating but vulnerable Elba) takes on the role of a Fagin-like parent/brainwasher, training young boys to take orders, handle guns and kill people. They smoke weed and alter their consciousness with drugs, becoming increasingly disconnected from their hideous reality.
Netflix bought all world rights to the film for $12 million and is making it available to stream to 65 million subscribers on October 16 at the same time it goes to Landmark Cinemas nationwide, to qualify for the Oscar as Netflix enters new feature film territory. Ted Sarandos is willing to spend money to obtain Oscar recognition (only their documentaries “The Square” and “Virunga” have been recognized so far). If the critics continue to lavish praise, Academy members will just have to see “Beasts of No Nation.” At which point, the actors should be impressed with both Attah (in the Best Actor category) and Elba (supporting), and the writers, producers, directors and editors should admire Fukunaga and his craftspeople.