Within the span of two films and one TV show that turned out to be a cultural sensation, filmmaker Cary Fukunaga has established himself as one of the most exciting voices in American cinema. Yes, Fukunaga already made a splash in 2009 with his directorial debut, “Sin Nombre,” which swept up at some big awards at the Sundance Film Festival that year, but it was HBO’s “True Detective,” the series of which he directed every episode, that launched him into near rock-star director status.
Much to the chagrin of nearly everyone aside from Fukunaga, the director passed on “True Detective” season two and decided instead to move back to feature-length filmmaking with his latest, “Beasts Of No Nation” starring Idris Elba. A dark, sometimes brutal and uncompromising film about the children enlisted to fight as soldiers in war torn African nations, ‘Beasts’ centers on the experiences of Agu, a young boy forced to fight in a civil war in an unnamed African country.
Agu is played by the remarkable 14-year-old Abraham Attah, who delivers a stunning performance as the boy who is stripped of family, friends, innocence, and dignity in what appears to be a war with no meaning or purpose — a circular motion of futility where even the commanders don’t understand the end game. It’s a heartbreaking, visceral, but humanist piece of work and as one of Netflix’s first major feature-film acquisitions — which sold for a whopping $12 million earlier this year — it’s not only about to make a big splash on the streaming platform it could find itself in the pole position for awards season (read our A-grade review here).
We recently sat down to speak with Fukunaga about “Beasts Of No Nation,” Netflix, working with Idris Elba and Attah, “True Detective,” and his love of horror. Somehow the TV sitcoms “Cheers” and “Friends” came up in the conversation too.
This project was announced right after “Sin Nombre” and you stuck with it over time. It must have changed over time.
It did change. It’s hard to say exactly what it was about it that changed. I changed, probably, I grew up, my style of storytelling changed. But my interests in the interconnectedness of the world, of conflicts, of the places where these stories take place, hadn’t changed. If I did “Beasts of No Nation” ten years ago, it probably would have been different as well. It’s just a reflection of my way of doing it now. My understanding of it now.
I stuck with it not only because I wrote it, because of the subject being dear to me, but also because I don’t like things being unfinished. To me it’s always important to to go all the way through. This was a movie that I knew at some point I was going to have to do.
So what was behind that compulsion, that drive to tell it?
[Pauses to think]. Well, I had a conversation with Peter Singer who hosted an event for us in DC. I think he wrote a book on child soldiers about 10 years ago [ed. “Children At War“]. He said, “Once you start doing the research, once you start putting together material which inevitably be for publication, there’s a responsibility that goes along with it.” I felt the same way about “Sin Nombre.” I didn’t set off to make a feature film about immigration. I was going to merely do a short film as part of my curriculum at NYU. It was a short film whose subject was important to me, but I wasn’t going to make that my calling card film.
But I went on to make “Sin Nombre” from there. Because as I researched, traveled with immigrants, spent time with them, and shared dangers with them, I did feel a responsibility then to carry on with what they’d shared with me, and share that with everyone else in the world. It would’ve felt really shitty to have just been like, “Well, the story didn’t work, I’m just going to go on with my life. Forget about all of the people that [lived this experience] with me.”
So ‘Beasts’ had that same weight?
Yeah, I felt the same way a lot about ‘Beasts’ early on. I did research in Sierra Leone in 2003, before even reading the book. I met a lot of former combatants. One guy who had been raised in East Village and he got sent back to Sierra Leone during the war because of a felony charge, and ended up fighting in the war with [a Sierra Leone tribe called] the Commodores. That we based a lot of the NDF on [ed. the tribe that Idris Elba’s character leads]. Once I wrote these characters, you feel like you really know these people. You feel like you know that character. I really wanted to give it a chance to be onscreen.
Idris’ character has a kind of rock star swagger and quality to him, with the way he does call and response with his troops. It’s like he’s on a stage.
All those answers and callbacks are very real. That’s how it’s done. In particular that’s based on again the Commodores, which sort of fashion themselves off of tribal hunting society. It’s pretty moving when you’re there. The chorus of hundreds of men yelling at once in unison is — not only as an observer, but I think for the people who are involved with it — it’s almost like, it’s hypnotizing.
Part of that is a way to amplify the power structure in a way, I imagine?
Well, clear eyes full heart. What does that mean, you know, for the “Friday Night Lights” people? Is that a way to control the football players, or a way to rouse them up? And it’s reminder, of what they’re there for.
So it sounds like parts of the film are far less allegorical and just much more practically-driven from research.
Yes, it’s real. I love research. I love being able to draw from reality rather than just making everything up. That’s also because I feel like the truth is — I hate the cliché, but it’s true — truth is stranger than fiction. Do your research, you’re going to find amazing stuff. Stuff that hasn’t seen the light of day, or the dark of a cinema room.
OK, but what about Idris’ hair? There’s something about that sloped strange hairdo that is animalistic.
Oh yeah. That was like an experimentation too. We were playing with it, and he kept saying he didn’t want to be too handsome. In “Mandela” he did a lot of different hair things because it was the entire life of Mandela. We started playing around with kind of a scruffy beard, like as if he’d always been rubbing his head, he was like losing his hair on top. And that gave him that cone in the back, like a gorilla.
Yeah, It reminded me of an apex silverback gorilla.
Totally. It’s a silverback gorilla. He liked it. He got really excited by it. So it affected, the way he sat, interacted with people, watched, and observed.
They say don’t work with children, you not only broke that rule, you made the child the lead. How did that work and how did it play against an experienced actor like Idris?
I really love working with kids, actually. I’ve worked with kids for my short film, to “Sin Nombre,” to “Jane Eyre,” to “True Detective.” Some of my favorite things to do in “True Detective” was the family life stuff, with the [Woody Harrelson’s character’s] family, those two little girls and Michelle Monaghan. Of course, if you cast the wrong kid it could be a disaster, a nightmare. But if you cast the right kid, it’s such a pleasure because you can not only craft the scene, but they add to it.
This was the first feature you directed while acting as cinematographer too. How did that change the production and the film?
Well, it was definitely biting off more than I could chew in the sense that your job as a cinematographer is not just to make a pretty picture. You’re managing multiple departments: camera, grip, electric, the [digital imaging technicians]. You have to sort of be a captain to all those people as well, make sure that everyone else is taken care of. That’s pretty tough, on top of all the responsibilities of being director. The technical part of it wasn’t the hard part, it’s something I feel very comfortable with. I love shooting films. With every one of my movies, I’ve been involved with choosing the lighting package, all the cameras, film stock. I’ve always remained very involved with it, and I’ve been lucky to work with cinematographers who don’t find that annoying.
You shot digitally for the first time, right? Was it a cost thing?
This is the first movie I haven’t shot on film. That was a tough sacrifice at first. It wasn’t so much of a cost or a time thing either, actually. It was logistics and film processing. If there was any issues [with the dailies] anything that had to be reshot, you wouldn’t know about it for ten days time. We couldn’t hold locations like that. We just didn’t have the luxury as we were about two and a half hours north of Accra in Ghana.
So digital made things easier, actually, because I was doing a lot less lighting and light metering [and] just going off monitor. As long as the [digital imaging technician] said, “Guys, it was fine,” we’re good to go. One of the things that was the hardest about it was that I was so pulled in every direction, we were having so many problems, that I do feel like I neglected some of my departments too much. They didn’t feel the love that you would have with a director of photography to look out for them. That’s the one thing I feel like, the next time around if I ever do that again, I have to figure out a way to carve out time. Even when they all arrived in Accra, I couldn’t even do a welcome dinner for them because I was in bed with malaria.
Netflix has obviously become a big part of the narrative around the release of the film but —
I think the only perceived downfall to Netflix is that it’s going to be on Netflix at the same time as the theatrical window. Other than that there isn’t one, because it’s a still pretty wide, thirty market release of the film. [It’s] screening in the U.K. We’re still pushing to get it screened abroad as well, in cinemas. And it’s going to be in 65 million homes.
So when you look at it compared to normal platform release, how do you create discussion enough to get people to show up when it’s only going to be on eight screens and the only thing potentially newsworthy about it is Idris and the subject matter? Versus something more like Netflix is entering into a new foray. So there was a lot of pluses going with Netflix.
But did the content of the film factor into the decision to go with Netflix? It’s a dark, uncompromising film with certain degree of difficulty and subject matter. Presumably its chances are better in 65 million homes rather than people having to trek to the theater for something that might be a tough sit?
I don’t know because I don’t know what would have happened if we had gone with a traditional studio, indie studio or specialty division studio release. Or whether they would have even made me make cuts or changes to the edit. It’s quite possible they would’ve. With Netflix, I got final cut. They can suggest…
Look, I’m a pretty big team player. I listen to people and when they begged and begged and begged, I would listen, but if I really still felt in my gut differently, I wouldn’t do it. I felt for “Sin Nombre” and for “Jane Eyre” that they were both a couple minutes too short. There’s a few things [the studios] took out that I felt would make a difference.
You might be in a scenario five years from now when you’re looked at as a pioneer who not only jumped on the Netflix train early with a a feature and auteur-driven TV.
It’s stumbling luckily into these situations. naively maybe. For “True Detective,” I never thought about it. I didn’t even think about how the public was going to receive it. I was really just focused on, “Okay we got this story, it sounds really interesting, we’ve got these actors, this network wants to do it. Let’s make it.” I didn’t ever think it was going to be the sensation that it was. Same thing for ‘Beasts.’ I just hope we get to cinemas and then ultimately people’s homes, people watching the Netflix, it all sort of happening. I’m not even sure you can plan those things. They just happen or not and they may never happen again to me. Who knows. I’m just enjoying it for right now.
Many had pegged you as a cinema guy. What was the draw of going to television?
For me, especially coming off of “Jane Eyre,” the fallout of knowing intimately a beautiful and extended novel that would never see its full brilliance on a screen. There’s a seduction to long format storytelling and that time that you can spend on detail, all kinds of details, from character and beyond. I love those kinds of things. I’m all about context and moments and little things that aren’t necessarily always about forward thrust.
Speaking about forward thrust or lack of it. Do you feel like binge watching is changing narrative? Longform narrative can be amazing, but when it goes on for too long it can also really overstretch a plot and then it feels like you’re just hanging out with people and nothing’s happening. Even something like “Breaking Bad” had filler episodes.
Well isn’t that what “Friends” was, like hanging out? I think everything has its cycle, and everything has a moment, and nothing completely disappears. I kind of have a hungering for good old fashioned syndicated television shows, that you didn’t have to watch all in order to enjoy them. There were the little things that would carry over. In “Cheers,” who was the rival bar? Wasn’t it [Gary’s Old Towne Tavern]? I just loved watching a group of people just hang out, and not have to be waiting five years for what could have been one season. You know?
OK, if you look back fondly on “Cheers,” I guess you’re not a snob about things [laughs].
Yeah. I’m definitely not dogmatic.
There was a lot of stink around the fact that you hadn’t seen season two of “True Detective.” Plus a lot of tales about conflict [between you and writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto]. The subtext always seems to be: why aren’t you coming back and why aren’t you still involved?
I have no idea what that’s about. Authorship is a tricky notion in filmmaking, in general. And it applies to film and television making world. I will never for example, put a “film by” credit on my movies. Never have, never will. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that when you have so many incredible people participating and putting not only their technical expertise in something, but also their own creative input, and oftentimes putting aside their personal lives to help your vision come to the screen. If you’re saying it’s your movie, what the fuck have they been doing this whole time?
So I imagine auteur theory is not for you.
The crazy thing about auteur theory is that even the early auteurs, most weren’t writing their own movies. It’s always been a collaborative medium. That doesn’t even make sense.
You recently spoke about enjoying “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Have you been approached for stuff like that? How do you foresee the rest of your career in that regard?
I remember early Spielberg stuff. He would come up with stories, didn’t he? And then someone else would write? That’s kind of where I’m at right now. I have a lot of ideas that I want to do, and I’ve got a feeling of what they could be. I know that if I sat down and wrote them for a year or two, I could maybe make them into movies. I just don’t have time to do that, and I’ve got too many movies I think I want to make before I crap out of this life. I think I want to be more in that space. I just get too excited about too many things, too much to focus on one movie every four years or something.
Will you go back to television?
I might. “Alienist” looks like it’s probably next, although I don’t know when we’re shooting, so maybe I’ll do something in between, I don’t know. As for directing all of it: I’m not so sure about, because right now we’re working on 10 episodes [for “Alienist”]. In terms of features, I’ve got probably four or five features in development, but nothing ready to go.
I remember at the time before “True Detective” aired we had talked to you and you had suggested that directing and editing them all in that time frame nearly killed you.
Yeah, it was like a five-hour-and-a-half-long movie or something, it felt like a lot, nearly overdoing it. Already, “Alienist” is very different. We have multiple writers. If I do with partner with a director, I just have to figure out who I partner with, because I do want it to be unified, and I want us to be able to collaborate. I don’t want to feel like, “Okay, I’ve done my thing. Good luck.” Also it depends on the cast too, because if the cast says, “We won’t do this unless we do X amount [amount of episodes],” then we gotta do it.
You were developing a musical at one point
Still happening.[ed. read our full excerpt about Fukunaga’s musical with Owen Pallett and Beirut’s Zach Condon here]
I want to circle back to ‘Beasts’ and talk some spoilers. There’s a lot of humor upfront at the top of the film. The magic TV, the farting scene. Was that used a disarming technique?
I always find anything — making friends, lovers, family — if you can laugh with somebody, you feel a connection with them more immediately. You feel that sense of common humor somehow, makes you love them more. I wanted people not only to love Agu but his family, so that they withstood that loss just as much as he does.
[*Spoiler-y question here, please turn around now if you haven’t seen the film*]
I wanted to ask about the… I guess we would call it a kind of rape or manipulative sexual molestation scene. That must have been extremely hard to shoot and hard for it to not overwhelm the rest of the movie.
It’s a tricky one because we don’t want to show too much. We weren’t sure if we were getting even enough when we shot it. It is pretty unpleasant. It’s a very uncomfortable thing to shoot. I don’t think Idris and I or anyone really was comfortable with it. It’s a pretty awful thing to have to recreate.
Did instances of this kind of preying on soldiers, abusing the father-figure aspect of the film — did it come through research?
Yeah. In fact the author of the novel and I had a long conversation last year before I did my next pass at the screenplay, because I was like, “Should we take it out?” With everything happening in Uganda right now and the persecution of homosexuals, the villain in this film could be perceived as being a pedophile and a homosexual, to me felt like dangerous material to be playing with, and could be used against homosexuals in Africa. We sat there, we talked about it, we discussed it, we chewed on it, we went back and forth on it. I think both of us decided to keep it in there, because it’s not just about — and in fact I wouldn’t even call Idris’ character a homosexual — I think it’s a power thing. It’s a manipulation, it’s a way of keeping his power and trapping these kids. It’s a display of power in the most raw and ugly form. So we kept it, and it’s real, it takes place. That actually does happen, in Nigeria and in other conflicts countries.
Horrible. Let’s switch gears and end on a different note. You nearly made a horror film [Stephen King’s “It.”] I’ve heard you’ve had ghost experiences…
Yeah, god. I’ve had a few ghost experiences in my life. Has that affected or been influential at all in my movie making? I don’t think so.
Not even in “Jane Eyre”?
You know, actually it didn’t end up in the movie, but I did shoot a scene that was based on a nightmare I had of a ghost at the old house when I was a kid. I still don’t know if it was real or not what I saw, but a woman leaned over me in bed and her face was rotting away. I had a little girl crawl up on top of Jane and molest her. It was a dark scene.
I had never pegged you for a horror guy, but between a sort of haunted element of “Jane Eyre” and almost doing “It,” it seems like it’s something that’s chasing you?
I was very excited to be able to do horror. Yeah, I still want to make one eventually. We’ll see what happens. I like being scared, let’s put it that way.
“Beasts of No Nation” debuts on Netflix and opens in platform release on Friday, October 16.