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Cary Fukunaga Wants to Screw with Your Expectations of Him As a Director, From ‘Maniac’ to Bond and Beyond

The "Maniac" director on his love for “Airplane,” his lifelong dream of doing a Bond movie, and how he transferred plans from “It” to his new Netflix series.

Cary Fukunaga - TIFF 2015

Cary Fukunaga

Daniel Bergeron

When Cary Fukunaga’s manager and producer Michael Sugar first approached him about adapting “Maniac,” a Norwegian show about a guy in a mental hospital having visualized delusions, the initial hook for the director was doing a series with multiple worlds inside it. The ability to move in and out of different genres, juxtaposing broad comedy with emotional sci-fi, not only seemed like a fun filmmaking exercise, but it was not like anything he had done.

Ever since his indie breakout “Sin Nombre,” the Spanish language thriller about a young Honduran woman’s attempt to immigrate to the U.S., Fukunaga has been aware of how he’s seen as a director.

“The reason I did ‘Jane Eyre’ was not only because I loved it as a kid in the Bob Stevenson [1943] version, but also because I had a pretty strong sense of how limited certain people’s imaginations were of what you are capable of doing,” said Fukunaga about his second feature film in an interview with IndieWire. “So from the very beginning, it was intentional to keep people guessing what kind of films I would be doing and why.”

Maniac

“Maniac”

Michele K. Short / Netflix

Fukunaga compares making the the 10-part Netflix series, starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, to being a kid in the candy store. The world-building possibilities were seemingly endless — a “Lord of the Rings”-style fantasy, a cold war spy thriller, and an ’80s action-comedy about recovering a lemur from a crooked fur coat salesman to name just three — as was the built-in excuse to juxtapose different tones and emotions.

“I think that the tonal flexibility also was a really good exercise for me,” said Fukunaga. “Especially now watching [‘Maniac’] with other people, because that’s where you really become aware of it, what I’m more drawn to as well and what is more of a challenge to play with.”

While making “Maniac” opened Fukunaga up in terms of what kind of material he was willing to take on, he insists last week’s surprising announcement that he would be stepping in to direct the next “James Bond” film was the product of a long-held dream pre-dating “Maniac.”

“No, I’ve wanted to do one of these [Bond films] for a long time, so that’s not new. So right now it’s just kind of dealing with the shock that it’s real,” said Fukunaga. He adds the biggest self-discovery wasn’t about mainstream or genre filmmaking. “I didn’t know that I was going to enjoy doing weird so much. The baseline reality [of ‘Maniac’], which you think would be the most mundane of everything was actually some of the weirdest stuff.”

Maniac

“Maniac”

Michele K. Short / Netflix

That baseline reality the director is referring is the Neberdine Lab where Dr. James K. Mantleray — played by Justin Theroux, in an intentionally over-the-top performance  — runs his mysterious pharmaceutical trial, administered by a depressed computer that’s causing problems. It’s in these scenes, that often deal with characters coming to disturbing moments of self-realization, that Fukunaga not only plays for big laughs, but also imbues the visual heart of his sci-fi world with a colorful, playful retro production design.

It was Fukunaga who adapted Steven King’s “It” — a movie he was preparing to direct until two weeks prior to the first day of shooting — from the 1950s to the 1980s, which is where the 41-year old director’s childhood nostalgia is based. After being fired from that film, it was something he wanted to carry over and continue to play with in “Maniac.”

“I think Michel Gondry did a really fun job in ‘Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind’] of creating technology of that time period as well,” said Fukunaga. “It’s a really kind of hands on — [it’s the] ‘you could see someone buying stuff at Radio Shack and building something themselves’ era, where we don’t live in that any more. Everything is microchips and processors and building technology is somehow seemingly distant. We wanted this world to feel somehow more handmade.”

Cary Fukunaga MANIAC

Cary Fukunaga on the set of “Maniac”

Michele K. Short / Netflix

That idea of how to express tone in the visual apparatus of filmmaking was both the most challenging and most rewarding part of making “Maniac” for the director and often came down to the design of a helmet, or asking composer Dan Romer to produce multiple cues to experiment with how to bridge scenes. Yet at the same time, part of what Fukunaga wanted to do was to see how far he could flip the concept of tonal continuity on its head.

“I like actually shifting gears and unsettling audiences and then bringing them back in,” said Fukunaga. “And just kind of making the ride rompus on purpose.”

One of the keys was driving a production that had actors capable of shifting tonal gears so easily.

“It was my job to sometimes pull back, sometimes push for more and then have the options once we started editing what was too much, what would really feel like a break,” said Fukunaga. “‘Let’s do a take with a little bit less of the the emotional fireworks’ — I always reference that scene in ‘Tropic Thunder,’ which Justin was a writer on, when Ben Stiller’s character is over-crying with Robert Downey Jr [saying], ‘I can’t act with you crying so much.’ That movie is so intelligent in terms of it’s observations about how cinema works and is created. [It’s] pretty spot-on.”

"Maniac" Justin Theroux Sonoya Mizuno Episode 3

Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno in “Maniac”

Michele K. Short / Netflix

It’s the director’s love and taste for broad comedy that is possibly the most revealing thing about his work in “Maniac.” Fukunaga jokes his sense of humor never really developed past “Airplane,” a movie he references at least once a day.

“I’m kind of hungry now for situational comedies again, where you don’t have to watch things in chronological order,” said Fukunaga. “In some of my work with Paramount in terms of development, I’ve been trying to conceive of those kind of shows.”

Cary Fukunaga sitcom producer — yeah no one saw that one coming either.

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