James Schamus and Cary Fukunaga are longtime friends, and their rapport was on full display when the two sat down at the Tribeca Film Festival yesterday. Schamus, accomplished producer and former CEO of Focus Features, called Fukunaga a “rising superstar” and promised the panel would cover more ground than the final episode of “True Detective” Season 1. (He was almost telling the truth.) Here’s what we learned from their discussion.
“True Detective” was an insane, massive shooting experience.
“There’s a tremendous amount of optimism in pre-production about what you can accomplish,” Fukunaga said. “You’re like, oh, this will be easy, we’ll get that today and then we’ll move on to something else. Because ‘True Detective’ was such a massive beast, the pre-production aspect required meeting upon meeting…We did all the interrogation stuff in three days. One day, McConaughey did 29 pages of text.” He added that much of the planning happened on the fly: “We knew there were going to be eight episodes total. We just didn’t know what the sixth, seventh, and eighth episodes were. We basically planned those in pre-production. We had to double up our work: before a shooting day, we’d go tech scouting. At lunch, we’d have production meetings. After shooting, we’d go see new locations after 12 to 14-hour days. At night, I’d go meet with the editors, try to get the first couple episodes locked up. Saturdays, more scouting. It was insane.”
…especially those cigarette scenes with Matthew McConaughey.
Schamus mentioned that maintaining the cigarette and aluminum can continuity in the interrogation scenes with Matthew McConaughey “must have been a nightmare.” Fukunaga emphatically agreed. “Whenever I see that again in the future I’m immediately cutting that out. I looked at the script supervisor and she’s, like, mixing up carrots with ranch dressing and stuff,” he recalled. “I was just like, ‘Are you noticing what’s happening here with the cigarette ash?’ And then, of course, McConaughey is a health nut. He doesn’t smoke. He was taking a few drags off the cigarette, and I just said, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t make this look like a middle school girl.’ So he took that to the whole other degree. He Cheech and Chonged those things.”
“True Detective” is, indeed, a miniseries.
“We were aiming for it to be more like a miniseries,” Fukunaga said. “The end would be definitive. We wouldn’t extend anything into the second season. It would be done, and the next season would be completely different storylines and characters. So each episode had its own arc.”
He got his start as a camera operator and learned how to observe people.
Fukunaga said his background before he launched his directing career was a huge asset for him. “I worked as a camera operator on docs for a long time because it was the easiest way to make money,” he said. “Documentary was a great way to learn how to observe people. In ‘Beasts,’ we applied a bunch of documentary-style camera ethics to covering gigantic shots with 200 extras when you’ve got 30 minutes left to shoot something.”
He thinks rehearsals aren’t necessary for experienced directors.
“The more you direct, the less you need rehearsals,” he explained. “I had this concept in film school that I really had to know everything ahead of time, and I think part of that is because I was using less trained actors and crew members. But then when you start working with more qualified actors like Idris Elba or Matthew McConaughey or Michael Fassbender, you can actually rely on just an intelligent conversation ahead of time. We talk about what I think the character is, what they want to bring, and you meet in the middle. Then you give them space on set to rehearse, and when the whole crew sees what the process is, you start shooting. Of course, you don’t want people to be surprised on set when they suddenly realize what’s in the shot.”
A photograph is worth a thousand frames.
“For ‘Jane Eyre,’ it was the images that first carried me away,” he said. “It was the visual entry that got its hooks in me. Working with cinematographers, I like to refer to photographs rather than films as references. A good photograph does so much more storytelling than the timeline of a shot, that fourth dimension.”
…but a great soundscape is worth more.
“I love sound,” Fukunaga added. “Walter Murch was one of the first people I ever met in the film industry, and I got to observe the final mix on ‘Talented Mr. Ripley.’ The concept of sound storytelling had always really interested me. I think more than visuals, actually.”
He hasn’t really planned for Stephen King’s “It,” but he knows a lot of children will die.
Fukunaga said he was eight weeks away from production on his adaptation of King’s bestseller. “The image I always see is that white face in the sewer,” he said. “I haven’t really gotten much past that part. I can tell you that children die in all of my films…’It’ will cap off my children dying series. Hopefully after that, I’ll move into much more pleasant fare.”
Work begets work.
“It’s nearly impossible to get anything [in this industry] without a precedent,” he said. “Your work speaks for you. Everything’s based on an algorithm. They just punch in numbers, they know what they can make on foreign sales, plugging in this actor or that actor… Even ‘Sin Nombre,’ at Focus, probably wouldn’t have been done two years later based on the crash of the economy.” (Schamus, who was Focus’ CEO at the time, agreed.)
If you use your short as a calling card at festivals, have a feature script ready.
“The first couple years I was at NYU, there were a number of students who went to Sundance with their films,” he said. “There would be interest in a feature they could write, and then six months would go by and they hadn’t written anything yet. I took that as a lesson of what not to do. Eventually, those people don’t respond to emails anymore, and your moment is done. When the lab asked me if I had a screenplay, I didn’t have one, but I had researched things that couldn’t fit in the short and decided I’d write some poorly executed version of that story. I ended with the short film, you know, put it in the future to solve twenty pages of script-writing. After another year of research, I made ‘Sin Nombre.’ A lot of that was driven by the labs, to turn something in.”
He pulled kids from the streets to cast “Beasts of No Nation.”
“[Abraham Attah] was essentially a street vendor before we shot this film… A month before production he went from knowing nothing about acting to turning into a kind of professional. It was astounding to watch. To cast, we gathered a bunch of kids we thought had potential and we’d do these theater workshops in a basement of a hotel. We’d try out scenes that were basically like the script and we’d improvise, see if these kids could play with a variety of emotions, actions that would take place in the story. In the end, I gave almost no direction to these kids when we were shooting, apart from blocking shots.”
He’s excited, but very nervous, about the film’s Netflix release.
“The exciting part about this release is that more people are going to see it than if it had a more traditional release,” he said, addressing the unconventional strategy. “You have a film with basically no white people. The movie is a difficult subject. It could easily become one of those films that no one watches because it’s so serious. But with the force of Netflix behind it, it’ll be in people’s faces enough where people will give it a try. And I think 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. Because, of course, they could watch it for free on their laptops. But it was designed to be a film experienced in a group like this, collectively with strangers, in the dark. Netflix’s big thing is consumer choice. So as audiences start to make that choice, and if they continue to make that 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 it.”