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Interview: Cary Fukunaga Talks HBO’s ‘True Detective,’ Says Child Soldier Film ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ Coming Next

Interview: Cary Fukunaga Talks HBO's 'True Detective,' Says Child Soldier Film 'Beasts Of No Nation' Coming Next

It’s been a while since we spoke to Cary Fukunaga, but last week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival we had the pleasure of catching up with the “Jane Eyre” and “Sin Nombre” director, and he filled us in on his many upcoming projects. Some of these projects had gone so quiet we feared they had fallen off the radar entirely but we can happily report that he has a good many diverse irons in a whole bunch of fires right now. In fact his next few years look, from this vantage point, to be highly promising, especially as it would appear he’s making good on his early intention to become an inveterate genre-hopper.

In addition to explaining why the the intriguing-sounding “No Blood No Guts No Glory” is no longer on his upcoming slate, and digressing a little around his mistrust of Tarantino-esque reinterpretations of historyFukunaga spoke at length about the unusual process behind his HBO series “True Detective,” of which he is directing the whole first season and which they shot entirely back-to-back. Between that and plentiful details on his other upcoming projects, and his response to the critic who labelled “Sin Nombre” “poverty porn,” we’ve a lot to get through—why are we still hanging out here in the intro?

So, has “True Detective” just wrapped? Tell us about the tone you were going for, more “heightened realism” than noir, I believe?
It very easily could have gone noir, I just didn’t want to do that, especially with a title like “True Detective”—it sounds so pulpy. [Grimaces] Not my choice. 

And what was your choice?
Not that! But the material is probably the best material I’ve read in a long time and is the reason I did it. Nic Pizzolatto is the writer and we’ve the same management company and I read the script, really liked it, we got together and then I got Matthew [McConaughey] and Woody [Harrelson] to join the cast and then we sold it to HBO.

I only had two episodes to start off with in terms of envisioning it, but what I saw was a stark bland American landscape, and two really strong male voices which I haven’t done yet, and that for me was kinda the drive, to get into the psychology of two men—one more of a philosopher and the other a non-critical-thinking man, and just to play with that world and observe. It’s heightened reality in the sense that it’s not like docu-reality, it’s not hand-held, not immediate, the camera is very smooth and usually just locked off and you’re just watching guys talk and argue and deal with points in their life.

It’s actually pretty formal, I think in its construction, that actually became pretty difficult because you’re shooting so much, and when you’re shooting formalism it has to be so well constructed, otherwise it all falls apart. We started having to move a little faster and it was real mental acrobatics trying to cover a scene and cover them nicely without sacrificing the filmmaking… But in terms of genre and tone it was heightened also because of the way Matthew and Woody act, so everything else has to fall into that.

I imagine McConaughey is playing the more philosophical of the two?
Right, and Woody is the more… instinctive? Or just less in touch with who he is.

How did you adapt your shooting style to TV?
The hardest part was making sure that we didn’t leave anything behind. You have 8 hours of story sitting in your head, and moving pieces around so that when we get to here, will this be clear enough? Do I need to heighten this moment or stretch this one? Thankfully I had a whole team I could discuss things with, especially Matthew, who was a pretty incredible collaborator, a leader in his own way. Someone I could definitely depend on, he knew his character inside and out, and because there are a lot of changes his character has to go through, the mental mapping was the biggest challenge.

How you’ve shot it is kind of a new model. We usually hear about “TV being a writer’s medium” but you’re heavily involved in the entire season?
I always ask, how did David Lynch do “Twin Peaks”? Did they do it episodically, did they take breaks? [Nic Pizzolatto] the writer had never done anything before, he’s written a couple of episodes of “The Killing” and that’s it. So as a foray into actual production this was his first one. Showrunners like David Milch, David Simon, those guys who have a long history of creating things and much more of control of the craft and what they’re doing and the directors they bring on. [There’s like a] HBO stock of directors, who are amazing directors that actually have a different kinda symbiotic relationship there.

I’ve never done television before so I was like, [mock outrage] “What do you mean, the writer is the boss?” So even for HBO the question was “How do we handle this?” We made it work, I think, but, especially not shooting episodically, it was definitely new ground worked out. There’s a reason TV works the way it does, and has for the last 60 years.

So you didn’t revolutionize the medium in one go?
[laughs] Well, we did it, but I don’t know if it’s going to continue as a pattern to follow. I don’t think so, it’s very difficult to do it that way. I think TV works very well based on a timeline that things have to get done in, and I understand [now] why it works that way.

Is there a possibility of a second season, and would you be involved?
Yeah, I don’t think HBO would have done it, if not for the possibility of a second season, but I’m not part of it. I’ll continue as an executive producer, but I don’t want to continue in the daily showrunner kinda way—it’s too much. When you shoot episodically you stop and you prep the next episode, but we didn’t have scripts for the last 2 episodes when we started and we didn’t have schedules or anything, we knew basically when we would have it finished by, but that was it.

So there’s 300-and-something locations in the film and hundreds of speaking roles. Each location has to be vetted multiple times, then you need to bring department heads there to tech scout it. So we were basically shooting and prepping at the same time the last two months of the shoot which meant we had full shooting days—12 to 14 hours—plus four more at lunch or during shooting, scouting with the crew or doing castings or doing something related to the post-production that was happening at the same time… editing during weekends…

I was lucky I had a really great team, a tireless AD, tireless department heads. Actually not tireless, everyone was exhausted, but people had great endurance. Still, I don’t think anyone got to end and was like, “I can’t wait to start the next one!” I think everyone was proud of the work we did and the show is going to be great but it definitely took its toll on everyone involved. It’s an impossible amount. We just finished [shooting] on Saturday morning. Then we have 6 months of post. I think it comes out somewhere between January and March 2014.

How has it been, working with HBO?
They’re really great, they’re pretty hands off—I’m still waiting for that hands-on experience. Focus and HBO have been really… well, what’s nice between both those places is basically you just have conversations and usually we just all agree, it’s question about how to apply [any changes].

Is it true that “Beasts of No Nation,” the child soldier film you wrote before “Sin Nombre” came out, is actually going to be your next project?
Yes, yes it is. I wrote it in… 2007? I think? And worked on it in 2008, while I was waiting for “Sin Nombre” to go into production—it was gonna be my next movie. But after [similarly themed film] “Johnny Mad Dog” came out and no one bought it, Focus got cold feet. So I went on and did “Jane Eyre” instead. But I didn’t give up on it, we were looking for the right time to do it, and I almost did it the summer before last…I had financing two summers ago, but I was just, like “I can’t do it. I can’t go to Africa now for 6 months.” It didn’t feel right, it wasn’t the right time. Now we’re gearing up to do it.

It’s such a difficult film to shoot and because we’ve to do it for so little money that I kinda had to figure out a place to put it, between two films I could survive financially on, because I will lose money doing this film. But I still wanted to make it and we’re finally doing it.

And you’ll be shooting where?
On location in Africa. I’ve got to location scout in a month so we have to pick a country as soon as possible to get a budget, but I think we’re going to start shooting in March.

Was going to Africa for the Maiyet project part of that process? [Fukunaga was actually in town to present “Sleepwalking in the Rift” a series of vignettes he shot in Africa for fashion label Maiyet.]
Yeah, it was kind of more a reinvigoration.

And after “Beasts of No Nation”?
I have a couple of other projects but I don’t know which one will go first. I obviously have [the Stephen King adaptation] “It” with Warner, which Chase [Palmer, co-writer] and I have been actively working on the script. So that look like it’s most likely to happen right after. Then there’s a sci-fi I’ve written as well for Universal.

The project formerly known as “Spaceless”? 
Yeah, it’s not “Spaceless” any more, it’s its own thing, I’ve separated it, and right now I call it “The Foldlings.”

Is there still a Gore Verbinski connection?
Gore’s company is still involved. But because I kept rewriting it and it kept changing and changing, the story is so different from the original, that it metamorphosed. It’s its own thing.

Does it still deal with time travel?
It’s a mixture of, um not so much time travel, as it’s a question about immortality.

And the third upcoming project is the musical?
And then I have the musical. With Owen Pallet who works with Arcade Fire and Beirut.

How do you see that being staged? You mentioned a while ago it would be pretty low budget, maybe on a sound stage.
Not necessarily on a sound stage, but in my mind the way I see it, it’s a mixture of “The Science of Sleep” and a Beirut music video—the players being there all time almost like a Greek chorus, the commentators. So when they break into song, the players are already there, it’s contextual: rather than the music coming from some invisible universe the music comes from the screen.

I wrote the script for that, 2 years ago as well… I went to Berlin and I wrote the script there. Since I’ve been working this last year on this show [“True Detective” for HBO], kinda everything has been on hold. But Owen and I haven’t given up yet, I’m doing it. It’s more just a question of timing. The problem with being a writer/director, unless you’re really disciplined you start adding projects and you have to make time to make them. Because you have to write them… no one else is writing them for me.

Would you consider directing another writer’s stuff or writing something and giving it to someone else to direct?
Harder for me to write and give to somebody else, easier for me to direct somebody else’s stuff. I didn’t write the screenplay to “True Detective,” for example.

Maybe with Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” not doing so well, that era of history may be even further off-limits for a while.
And Gore is such a lovely creative dude, I was really hoping that movie would do well.

Already relatively early in your career, we have you filed under the category of “polyglot filmmakers” like Soderbergh, Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom…
All people I love!

Is there any genre you wouldn’t tackle?
[Thinks a moment] Porn. Although I have been accused of creating poverty porn. When I hear that I really want to shake the person. Some critic I met in LA called “Sin Nombre” poverty porn and questioned whether I rode the trains or not…

But in terms of tackling different subjects, I can’t really think of anything I wouldn’t want to try, that’s the fun of it right? Each new style brings new challenges—not that you shouldn’t focus on one and master it, but it takes so long to make a film, you just want to have some variety.

Do you find ever yourself getting too involved in projects because you write and direct? I mean, Latin American illegal immigration, and child soldiers must take their toll?
Definitely. Living in those worlds for a while, and I haven’t had to for a long time, but while you’re writing it you’re there, you hear it, you smell it, you see it. And I’m going back into it. After “Sin Nombre,” I just needed to take a break to go to completely different worlds. But “True Detective” has a lot of relatively dark places that you have to go. I had to shoot a video… no I can’t give it away…

Damn, you can’t?
Well, I had to shoot something really dark last week, but I had to kind of separate myself from what I was doing. But I remember, I could see the people who were watching at the video village being horrified and I just had to keep on shooting but it involved a little girl. Dark.

Are you sure you don’t want to do the musical next?
I really wish I could! But I’m glad I could do this child soldier movie because I got into NYU with a child soldier story. So it’s been long time trying to do it, more than 14 years, and I finally have enough freedom than I can actually do it. It’s very hard to get those things financed, because who wants to see them? These stories are important and real but you have to find a way to construct the story so people don’t find it a chore or an obligation.

Which is where genre comes in handy—“Sin Nombre” could be classed more as a drama or thriller than a social issues movie… So if you were to put a generic tag on your child soldier movie?
Hmm. [Laughs] A coming of age film?

“True Detective” airs early next year on HBO.

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