For the past 15 years, Focus Features has been a mainstay of the indie film industry, producing acclaimed films ranging from “Brokeback Mountain” to “Lost in Translation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But the company has also been a platform for emerging talent, most notably with its release of Cary Fukunaga’s 2009 debut, “Sin Nombre.”
On Thursday evening, IndieWire co-hosted a packed screening of “Sin Nombre” in New York, as part of an ongoing screening series highlighting the company’s output. After the film, Fukunaga took part in a Q&A session moderated by IndieWire’s Deputy Editor and Chief Critic, Eric Kohn.
During the half-hour discussion, Fukunaga discussed how he brought the dark immigration drama to the big screen, the challenges that arose from making the leap from student short film to feature, and some of the dramatic changes to the film industry since his debut.
Fukunaga said he was initially inspired by an article in The New York Times about a small town in Texas where a trailer full of migrants died. But he also was motivated by another director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, who had just released a short film about 9/11.
Fukunaga put a lot of research into “Sin Nombre”: He spent an extensive amount of time in Mexico and throughout Central America, getting to know migrant workers, and even rode the trains with them despite the dangerous conditions. He also visited prisons in Mexico, befriending gang members, and doing his part to make sure the gangs weren’t sensationalized or otherwise misrepresented in the film. Still, while the film is loaded with accurate details and unsettling violence, it only shows a fraction of the challenges faced by characters struggling to survive under the dire circumstances of poverty and gang-related violence.
“In reality, the stuff I heard was so much more worse than what I put on the screen,” Fukunaga said. “You always have to modulate violence when you’re putting it on the screen, because as visceral experience as the cinema is, reality would be overwhelming.” He faced a similar challenge several years later with “Beasts of No Nation,” which deals with gang-related violence in an unspecified African country. “It’s actually very toned down from the stuff that I learned about,” he said, “but a lot of it was rape, and the violence against women is pretty extreme across the board.” He was overwhelmed by “the chaos of it, the nonsensical violence and torture that takes place in those places where there’s no law or order.”
“Sin Nombre” was a daring first feature in part because it doesn’t provide the audience with an upbeat finale. “It just seemed like the realistic ending,” the director said. He also addressed the flashes of comedy in the movie, which struck some viewers as jarring. “Comedy is tragedy,” he said. “I actually found that humor was a big part of how the immigrants and gang members cope with their lives.”
No matter the degree of risk involved in the production, Fukunaga said that its very existence reflected a different era of film production.
“I dont think there’s any way we could have done this film nowadays,” he said. “The initial budget for ‘Beasts [of No Nation]’ came in at $3.5 million, and this movie was $5.5 million. So, 10 years later we had a budget that was cut by $2 million to do a similar kind of story in terms of the scale and ambition of it. Getting this film made for the cinema these days — I don’t even know how you do it really.”
Another big change to the business: Filmmakers heading to television. Fukunaga’s own career has epitomized this shift; he directed the acclaimed first season of “True Detective” and is currently developing the mini-series “Maniac” for Netflix, which also produced “Beasts of No Nation,” but he continues to develop feature films for theaters as well. “I like to be able to move back and forth between film and TV,” he said. “In my mind, I don’t really differentiate it right now… in the end, you either you gravitate towards a story or you don’t. Whether it ends up on Netflix or HBO or on the big screen for a period of time, it’s going to end up on Netflix or HBO eventually.”
Still, he underscored the value of the theatrical experience. “When you’re in a room — and this is also what makes going to the cinema so much better than watching at home alone — whether it’s comedy or horror or a drama, you feel the energy of the room more,” he said. “You feel the tension, if it’s laughter it’s more infectious.”
But then he turned to Netflix. “I don’t know how many people saw this film in the cinema, but most likely, you saw it on Netflix or something else, and that’s also the way that I’ve been watching a lot of films,” he said. “Of course, this is the ideal, but there are many things in life that are ideal that we don’t get to experience.”