Indie Filmmaker Also Discusses His Gestating Musical With Owen Pallett, His African Civil War Drama ‘Beasts Of No Nation,’ & His Good Filmmaking Fortune So Far
Exclusive: Delighting fans of period romance everywhere — and kids who can’t be bothered with even the Cliffs Notes of the classic Charlotte Brontë novel –“Jane Eyre” is making another appearance on screen. But rather than coming from a predictably English pedigree, the 2011 Focus Features version arrives from the seemingly unlikely source of Cary Fukunaga, a young American director with a single feature to his name, 2009’s gritty immigration thriller “Sin Nombre.” Fukunaga went young with his casting, opting for Mia Wasikoska (“The Kids Are All Right“) to play to the title role, while Michael Fassbender (“Hunger,” the dreams of many a female Playlister) takes on the brooding part of Edward Rochester.
For those who have skipped previous versions — and class — “Jane Eyre” traces the life of a plain, bright orphan from her time with a cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins here) through her adolescence at a harsh boarding school that would have made Dickens proud, as well as a stint as a teacher at the school of a would-be missionary (Jamie Bell). The meat of the novel (and film adaptations) centers on her time at Thornfield Hall, where she serves as governess with a mysterious, oft-absent master in Rochester and a chatty companion in Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). The house appears haunted, with strange howls emitting from seemingly vacant rooms, casting a strange light on the growing romance between the gruff Rochester and his quiet but headstrong employee. We were lucky enough to sit down with Fukunaga recently to discuss what brought him to the frequently adapted story and where things stand with that Beirut musical that has us excited.
The Playlist: So what drew you to “Jane Eyre”? It’s been made numerous times before.
Cary Fukunaga: Yeah, I thought just, “Why not one more time?” It feels like it’s made every five years, and 2006 was the last one, so 2011 makes sense to make another one. It’s my turn — do it. It really was one of those things where I was aware of the Bob Stevenson version of film from 1944. I was not aware of the 26 other ones that were there. I knew that it had been made a couple of times, but I didn’t realize it was that many times and that the BBC had just done one. But I watched it and I kinda felt happy that I knew I wasn’t making that version of the film, so it was okay.
What sets your film apart?
Toby Stephens was great [in the 2006 BBC version]…See, I watched a few episodes of it, and then I couldn’t do any more. It was because…I heard it got better once you got to the middle of it, but the first few? I was just all in the desert, the Red Room, weird quirky camera pushing it out with like a red filter, I was like, ‘What is this? What’s going on?’ But I respect Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. And even Michael [Fassbender] who watched a bunch of it said that he really liked what Toby did in that series, so I should one day probably watch it, but I didn’t want to be too influenced either. I didn’t want to do things to be different just to be different either. And some things after I shot the film, I saw what they did, and it dawned, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, we did the same thing.’ I remember one day I was having lunch or dinner at Pizza Express, which is the chain pizza that’s all over England. And we were shooting in Buxton and a bunch of the horse stunts guys were there, and this old guy, sort of the curmudgeonly old man was like, ‘Been watching what you’ve been doing. And pretty much every shot is like every other ‘Jane Eyre’ I’ve seen, except for this one thing you did. That was pretty good.” And I’m like, “Oh, thanks.” …. Because he basically, the same horse crew had been on the previous three “Jane Eyre”s since the early ‘90s.
Why did you want to make this the follow-up to “Sin Nombre”? It’s such a different film.
I had another script, this child soldier script that didn’t end up going [ed.note: a drama based on the experiences of a child soldier fighting in the civil war of an unnamed African country called, “Beasts of No Nation“]. I was working on a musical while I was on my international press tour for “Sin Nombre,” and I ended up in England and I just really wanted to do a film there, and I really wanted to do one quick. Because I knew that my musical wasn’t going to happen quickly. I was just really trying to make it something, and I’m still trying to work on it when I have time, but something different, and everything I was coming up with just seemed so trite and pedestrian. I just wasn’t happy with it, and I didn’t want to rush anything, so I was open to the idea of doing a script that wasn’t my own, and previous to that, I had wanted to possibly adapt “Jane Eyre” because the Bob Stevenson version was a favorite of mine when I was a kid. So when I found out the BBC had the script, I met with them. I read the script, liked the script, met with the writer and producer and it was like going. And my experience with “Sin Nombre” was so slow. When Focus [Features] acquired the script and we decided we were going to make the film, it still took like a year and a half before we made the film. So I didn’t think it was going to happen so quickly. You know what I mean? I was like, “Hey, let’s do it. Let’s make ‘Jane Eyre.'” And they’re like, “Okay, we’re starting pre-production now.” And I was like, “Oh really? We’re really going to make the film now?” I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I was just totally catching up with it ‘cause I was still doing “Sin Nombre” press up until two weeks before we started shooting, so I never really got a break.
It is exhausting. I definitely went into the film tired, but I also went into the film really excited to be making another movie. It was just exciting to have just a really amazing script actors to work with, too. Everything just fell into place. I better knock on wood [knocks] because I think things have been just too easy. I don’t want ‘em to get hard, but the way “Sin Nombre” happened — I mean, obviously the research was very difficult, and it was dangerous, and it was a whole adventure, but getting the film made, but I never had to pitch “Sin Nombre” to anyone. Focus read the script and wanted to option it, and then the child soldier script I wrote, same thing. When I was in Focus as they’re asking me if I wanted to make the film there, I was leaving the building with the book of the child soldier script that I wanted to adapt, and another executive was like, “I really want to make that into a movie. It’s amazing you have that book in your hand.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I really want to make this into a movie, too.” He’s like, “I’m going to Berlin for the film festival, but when I come back, let’s get going on the rights.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” And then I’m like, whatever, he’s not going to call, and then literally like two days later, my agent was like, “Did you have some book in your hand at Focus Features? Because they want to adapt that, too.” So basically I got that deal just by having a book in my hand, and then the same thing with Jane Eyre. I don’t mean to sound so flippant about it, but literally I was just like, “Let’s make it.” And then literally the next day I’m making phone calls for casting, and Fassbender signed on, and then Mia signed on, and Dame Judi [Dench] signed on, and Jamie Bell, and I’m like, “Whoa, this is nuts. We’re making the movie.” We’re on our way to Northern England to look at castles and stuff, and I don’t have a place to live yet. So whatever’s next, right now I’ve decided that I’m not doing another film for a little while because I’m just a little worried about signing onto anything too quickly, and I’m just writing. I just want to write. I like to write and I like to have my own projects, too, so that’s what’s next.
Can you talk about the musical at all? Where it is with Beirut?
You know, I talked to Owen Pallett [violinist of the Arcade Fire and Final Fantasy] as well, and I havent talked to [Beirut band member] Zach [Condon] in years. It was a long time ago we talked about it, and then Owen — I met Owen a couple of times, and then Patrick, who’s his manager and boyfriend. We always talk about it, but he’s doing like 50 million things, and I’ve been doing “Jane Eyre,” so it’s always like, “Yeah, yeah, still interested,” but we haven’t done anything yet. For me, it’s like my work first. I have to write the story, and then we can start to work together on what the music could be. I still think Owen’s one of the most amazing composers out there, and I think he’d be perfect for this once I have something, but I can’t say that we’re working on it, because we’re not really working on anything together until I have a script, and then maybe it’s not just him, maybe it’s him and three or four other people that we’re collaborating with, I don’t even know yet what the music’s gonna be. I’m still trying to figure out the tone and all that stuff. So, hopefully, you know. It was literally just like initial meetings. I probably shouldn’t have said anything. [smiles]
Has there been any movement on the sci-fi/time travel film?
Yeah, actually, I just talked to Focus about that recently ‘cause I’m supposed to be writing the musical first for Focus, but I have this story that I really want to write. I know this story much more for the time travel one. It’s not time travel, it’s light speed travel. It’s not going back in time, just going forward. It’s really just about finding the time to write that, so that’s one of the things I’m writing next, the musical, and there was one other thing I was going to be writing next…. Meh, we’ll see.
So you really — not to say that you got lucky because it sounds like there was a ton of talent and thought there–but both Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska have just blown up over the last year. Did you kind of expect that it was going to be that kind of trajectory, or did you just really like them?
I just really liked them. I wasn’t really thinking about whether they’d be bankable as movie stars at all, just raw talent. ‘Cause I saw Fassbender in “Hunger,” and I just really wanted to work with him. Jamie Bell, years ago, saw him and wanted to work with him. It was kind of dreamy in a sense that all these people that I wanted to work with, I got to put into one film. And now I’ve pretty much worked with everyone I wanted to work with. Like for right now, except for maybe like Ben Whishaw, a bunch of other actors, but there was this core — Dame Judi, Jamie Bell, Michael Fassbender, Mia Wasikowska, Sally Hawkins — that I literally got to work with in one movie, and I wish I could’ve used them more. I wish I could’ve had much more of Sally, much more of Dame Judi. Sally Hawkins was amazing by the way, and she is only like in two scenes in the movie. I wish we could’ve done so much more because she’s such an amazing actress.
How did you think to cast her in such a…a very human role, but she’s very villainous, which never would have occurred to me from the things I’ve seen her in.
Well, ‘cause I saw her in “Happy Go Lucky,” in Mike Leigh’s film, and I just wanted to shake her because she was so nice. I wanted to see the other side of her, and I knew that there had to be something like that there. And she’s actually much more like the “Happy Go Lucky” character in real life, ‘cause she’s just so goofy and, I don’t know, she’s really special. But I knew that she could do that dark, stepmom kind of thing, too. She just has that face that looks she could be nice to the outside world. And the way I imagined Mrs. Reed was that everyone thinks she’s nice because she’s charming, but when the doors close, she turns around and there’s that devil crawling around her neck kind of thing. I thought she could do that. And Jamie also, was just so awesome to work with. It was so nice to have him on the first two weeks of shooting ‘cause he just brings so much. The kid’s like an acrobat….
So you’ve done two movies now that have had really strong, female protagonists at their centers. Is that intentional?
Just working out the young woman inside of me. I don’t know where that came from. it’s total coincidence. I could say on an intellectual level, “Oh you know, I really like these themes of someone looking for a home.” Essentially all my stories are about someone looking for a home, family. But I didn’t mean for it to be two girls at the same time, basically adolescent girls looking for a home, love. That just was a coincidence I guess, unless I need to go to therapy and find out what it’s for.
So this definitely focuses a bit more on the Gothic and the darker elements than some of the previous adaptations. Was that present in the script, or was that something that you kind of chose to do?
That’s present in the novel, I feel like. I think the Bob Stevenson version is one of the rarer versions that actually does really stay more in that pre-Gothic in that, it’s at the earlier end of the Victorian era. It has that sort of foreboding isolation, that dense fog, what’s beyond the moors in this isolated house, what’s beyond this tapestry in this wall, those creaky noises upstairs. It has that feeling in the book. And we just definitely wanted to do that. The question then becomes, how far do you go into the world of horror, or how much do you stay in the world of period drama/romance, while maintaining that tone. And that was the tricky part for me, really looking at the script — a scene, a scene, a scene — trying to be consistent with that. Because if you try to go horror and go too much horror, it takes away from the romance; it literally does. There were scenes we took out of the film because if you balance out the overall experience of it by going to this moment of potential horror, like Bertha Mason ripping the veil, for example. If you do it right, it takes away from the following scene where Rochester is reasserting his love for [Jane] and that everything is going to be fine once they’re married and away. And you kind of need that relationship to work by the latter part of the film. So that was the hard part, taking out bits of horror that we did shoot in order to balance out the romance story so that neither one felt really half-baked. There was actually some sort of complete execution of the one sentiment.
Do you think that the trailer is pushing the darker-side of things?
Definitely, definitely. I tell my friends, “It’s not that scary.”
“Jane Eyre” opens in select theaters on Friday.