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Cary Fukunaga Explains Why He Knew He Needed to Cast a Non-Actor in ‘Beasts of No Nation’

Cary Fukunaga Explains Why He Knew He Needed to Cast a Non-Actor in 'Beasts of No Nation'

READ MORE: How Cary Fukunaga Traveled to the Heart of Darkness with ‘Beasts of No Nation’ (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

Filmmaker Cary Fukunaga is no stranger to casting untested amateur actors, having memorably used them as key extras throughout his first feature “Sin Nombre,” but did take a big risk casting young Abraham Attah as the star of his Netlflix original feature “Beast of No Nation.” The new film sees Attah going up against the formidable talents of Idris Elba, who plays a violence-bent warlord who enlists Attah’s Agu to join his army of child soldiers after massive upheaval strikes his happy village (and his happy family). The film hinges on their relationship, which is compellingly acted by both the experienced Elba and the newcomer Attah.

Fukunaga’s latest is a testament to his continued interest in finding new avenues of distribution and platforms for his craft — perhaps you remember his work directing a television series called “True Detective”? — but it’s also one that harkens back to his earlier works, especially “Sin Nombre,” and his ability to pull exceptional performances out of new talents.

Fukunaga recently got on the phone with Indiewire to talk about the unique casting process for “Beasts of No Nation,” his continued affection for seeing films in the theater and why he’s obsessed with Broadway hip-hop hit “Hamilton.”

Did you always know that you wanted to have a non-actor in the lead role?

Yeah, I think when you’re dealing with any sort of subject that treads on something as hardcore, for lack of a better word, or as socially relevant as — how can I say this — stories like “Sin Nombre” and “Beasts of No Nation” couldn’t have really worked if the main actors were kids from some middle class family who had never really experienced hardships in life.

We always knew we were going to be casting somebody locally once we knew where we were shooting. And once we focused on Ghana, it definitely had to be cast out of Ghana, so that’s the impetus for the non-actor casting.

How was discovering Abraham a different experience for you?

Basically, I hired a friend of mine named Harrison Nesbit to cast this thing. And Harrison was tasked with almost the impossible, that within 8 weeks he was going to cast most of the film and primarily out of Ghana where, even though they have a film industry, it is not like the film industry that you would expect or be used to in most other countries. So he knocked on all of the usual suspects’ doors…all the main production houses that made telenovelas and those kinds of things in Ghana. But then we had to open it up from there.

We had open casting calls, but really we weren’t getting the right people to come in, so we had to go out into the community and find kids. We had casting scouts going out into pretty much every school in Accra. Civic centers, church acting groups, orphanages, anywhere kids might be gathering who might have the charisma to come alive on camera. And Harrison found Abraham playing football one Friday afternoon and approached him, and Abraham thought he was potentially being scouted for an actual football team rather than for a movie. [laughs]

I read that he was considered a leader on set, which is so remarkable given his age and that he didn’t come from an acting background. Was that your experience?

He was very responsible. That was one thing I felt about Abraham right away, even when we were in the rehearsal, pre-casting stages. And one of things I even had the acting coach and Harrison do is to separate him from the other kids. Because he was so responsible, if they didn’t understand the direction we were giving, or if they were goofing off, he would always have them stay and check and everything. I needed to have him stop worrying about other people and just focus on himself.

Do you think he will act more?

It’s really so hard to find roles, period, so I don’t really know. It’s important that he gets an education too, and not completely forget about all of that, so we’ll see.

A few weeks ago, Netflix released a set of posters from the film that show a progression of some of the characters using their costumes, including The Commandant, but not a lot of that made its way into the film. Was some of that left on the cutting room floor?

Oh, interesting. I mean, they’re all stills from the film, so they’re all there in some degree. What happens to Idris’ uniform over the course is that it actually becomes more government-like by the end. It’s more irregular in the beginning, in terms of irregular Army-ish.

How much did you and Idris discuss The Commandant’s backstory?

We talked about it a lot. I had a document that I wrote that described his background, how he came up, but nothing was locked in concrete. He was sort of free to bend that as he would. At some point he got involved with Goodblood. It was just a matter of where and how and how he got the ability to be running his own battalion. But I feel that that power was bestowed upon him, rather than him doing it on his own.

The film is a Netflix original feature, but it will also be available in some theaters. You’ve had films that were released in theaters, you’ve gone the festival route, you’ve done television, how interested are you in the changing face of distribution methods?

I know that the world is changing in terms of how do we get out there. It’s a complicated question for me, because I have to walk the line between being very supportive of Netflix, because they’ve been so supportive of us and the film, but also fighting to keep cinema a sacred sort of experience and one that won’t be taken away in the future because of a lack of places to do it. In this case: If the film does well at the box office, if Netflix was really interested in pushing its box office experience and its ability to give viewers the choice to see it [in theaters], if Netflix wanted to four-wall cinemas in the major cities — like L.A. and New York and even beyond — [there is a way to] have them [release] their original content on the big screen with other people, which I think is the best way to see anything.

But then again, they may just want to focus on their streaming service. I just think that if you really want to give consumers a choice, you have to give them the chance to see these things on the big screen.

If the film is successful in theatrical release, do you think that will impact how Netflix releases their other original features? 

I’m not sure yet if they’re going to do that with all of their new original films. I just don’t know. Someone asked me recently if they’re going to show screen numbers. I don’t know how they’re going to base that success really. In terms of critical success, it’s already doing okay, you know what I mean? I think we’ll probably get a slew of new reviews once it goes theatrical and on Netflix. I guess that will be the final critical phase.

How would you prefer people to see the film?

I would love for people to see this movie in cinema for as long as they can, if they can.

Although you’ve done plenty in the interim, you seem to be constantly asked about “True Detective” even now. Does that wear on you?

[laughs] You mean I directed things before “True Detective”? It’s fine. If anything, I’m just glad people are still interested in it. But like anything, with “True Detective,” I hope even people who haven’t seen it yet will still be discovering that first season years from now. And that’s cool.

Do you find that people are still discovering it?

Yeah, friends are like, “I finally saw it, even though everyone said to watch it.” But you know how people resist watching things when everyone says to watch it. I just watched the entire fifth season of “The Walking Dead” over the weekend in between press stuff.

You’ve got a lot of rumored projects on your plate. Do you like having that many possibles going on at once?

I have a lot of projects right now and I ask my reps, “Is this normal?” I’m not alone in that. I think a lot of directors have multiple projects going at the same time, because you just never know which ones are actually going to happen or not. 

But there seems to be an uptick in chatter about your musical project with Owen Pallet and Zach Condon.

Yeah, so I’m in talks now to adapt it for the stage first, which is actually pretty exciting because I think that’s the best place to do it anyways, to do the musical on stage and see how it plays. The great thing about stagework is that you can also continue to adapt it and see how it plays. And it’s also a great venue to show the music. So I’m pretty excited about that. I have had zero conversations with any of the talent. I saw that piece somewhere that said it’s alive with these people, but I haven’t talked to them in a while, so I have no idea. I’m just still fans of their work.

How long have you wanted to make a musical?

Probably for about seven or eight years now. I think it came from me not really liking musicals and wanting to do my own, but then in doing research for musicals and getting ready to develop and make a musical, I started liking musicals more.

Which musicals really stood out for you?
I don’t think there’s any one in particular that would be the version that I would make, but once I understood the structure of it and how complicated they are, I started appreciating how they’re made and especially where they can go. I’ve been aware of hip-hop here for a while because I knew Danny Hoch when he was doing the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. And seeing now, some 13 or 14 years later, “Hamilton” on Broadway, it’s pretty amazing how that genre of hip-hop has gone mainstream, especially as intelligently as Lin [-Manuel Miranda] made it. It’s not just the words. They have a lot of battles, almost freestyle battles, that work for example for debates among leaders. 

What’s great about it is that you can explain things in a hip-hop song. You can get across concepts or story points, and not have it come across as being somehow false, whereas with opera and musicals, it’s really hard to get narrative through in a song and make the song anything but Broadway songs. You think of how rock n’ roll and everything else works, it’s much more oblique.

“Beasts of No Nation” is available on Netflix and in select theaters on Friday, October 16.

READ MORE: With Its Adventurous Netflix Deal, Can ‘Beasts of No Nation’ Work on the Small Screen?

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