Director Cary Fukunaga Takes On Beasts!
Cary Fukunaga’s directing career has been pretty much text book perfect. He attended NYU film school, entered and was accepted into Sundance Film Lab, won best student director and cinematographer with his short film, Sin Nombre, was offered a blind deal with Focus Films, the premiere art house film division of NBC Universal Studios, and within a few years helmed 2011's atmospheric Jane Eyre adaptation, starring Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench and Oscar nominee, Michael Fassbender. But wait, it doesn’t end here. Cut to 2014, Cary was compared to legendary filmmaker David Fincher after directing all eight episodes of HBO’s, True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson—which was dubbed by critics as one of the best dramas of the year. Despite his accelerated career path, the 36-year-old filmmaker remains surprisingly humble by his new-found Hollywood status and focuses on the task at hand—his passion project, Beast of No Nation, a drama based in Africa about a child soldier fighting in a civil war.
You’ve worked with some pretty heavy hitting talent since the beginning of your career: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Sally Hawkins, Michael Fassbender and Dame Judi Dench. What has that been like?
It’s pretty awesome. Jane Eyre was the first time I worked with anyone of that caliber. And it was pretty frightening at first. But if anything, it has been pretty awesome, on a professional level, to rub shoulders with people who are really at the height of their careers. And also it reaffirms that we have a pretty good casting department. It’s going to be interesting to me because my next film, Beasts of No Nation, is going to be populated mainly by non-actors—except for Idris Elba, who starred in Mandela. At this point I’ve worked with such great actors who gave effortless performances that it will be interesting to see how working with [non-actors] goes. With non-actors it’s going to be more a game of trickery and imagination.
Can you talk about your new project Beast of No Nation?
It’s something I’ve been working on since 2005. I got my Princess Grace award in 2005, and it has gone fast. I’ve only made three films. Films take a long time to make. The reason I want to make it combines a lot of things. Personal interests. I studied political science, history, geo-politics in college. The war machine, child soldiers, that was a hot button topic in the 90s— early 2000s. It’s not as much now. There have been a couple of films about it but I haven’t found that any of them were very effective- in terms of widely researched or well executed. I’m hoping to make a better film. I don’t think it’s really gotten out there as a large discussion outside being news or geo-discussion. It’s not going to be a film the world will see but I hope it starts a larger discussion.
It’s an important story and a difficult story. Beasts of No Nation is about child soldiers and what happens to a child through the experience of being conscripted into war, and learning to kill at such a young age. Idris is going to play the commander in charge of the main boy. It’s a dark, dark story. I’m still trying to figure out the rest of the casting. It’s a very low-budget film, so it’s going to be mostly locals and non-actors.I’m not sure yet who this audience is yet – because if you think about it- the movie is dark.
Where are you shooting it?
We are shooting in West Africa. The book was written by a young Nigerian author. And it’s sort of a fictional country in West Africa, so finding a place to shoot it may be difficult. So we have settled in Ghana right now.
I have a crew from here going, but it’s going to be a small film.
How did you get Idiris Elba involved in it?
Idiris has been amazing. It’s a risk in terms of a studio or anyone else to buying it because of the content. But Idiris has been really helpful getting us to West Africa – because he is half Ghanan and we were able to get a lot of support from the Ghanan government. They are helping with security, taxes – they are making it help make it financially viable to film it there. The film will be populated with local actors – same with the crew. In terms of crew – it will be an African crew.
There seems to be a common thread in your work— it’s all pretty dark.
I wouldn’t say ‘dark’ always (laughs). They’re just intense. Jane Eyre has a darker element. Sin Nombre was dark and violent, but also hopeful. I used to do more comedy when I was learning to make more short films. I like some classics Hollywood films, like The Jerk, Some Like it Hot, Airplane, Dumb and Dumber. There are some more contemporary ones that are great too. I love Portlandia.
Would you ever consider directing a huge studio film or are you avoiding the big Hollywood scene?
I definitely pick projects that I can envision and I would be pleased with. I don’t think I would ever pick a project that I felt like I was doing it for a payday or anything other than a vision I would be fascinated with. I don’t make a huge amount of money doing what I do now. I still live in a rented one-bedroom apartment in the West Village after directing three major projects. But I’m happy. I don’t need to live beyond my means. Chris McQuarry, who wrote Usual Suspects, was one of my advisors on my (Sundance) lab, and one of his first pieces of advice was, “live middle class. And stay middle class.” Because as soon as your living standards exceeds the level of projects you want to work on – you sort of have to sacrifice your own personal creative integrity and make projects to support that. That’s always stuck out in my mind. I don’t ever want to do something because I am forced to do it. People have this perception that people who work in film are all rich – that because you’re a writer or director of a movie – you’re rich and that’s a big misconception.
Were you pleasantly surprised when True Detective became a critical and a main stream success?
Yeah. When you see people mimicking things from the show or making art from the show or spoofing it – it’s pretty cool for a filmmaker. “It’s gotten pretty much universal praise– which is pretty surprising. And then sort of cultural phenomenon that came out of it- the meme’s, the GIF’s from the websites that create comedy... someone sent me a clip of Matthew Conaughey recreated like one of our interrogation scenes –it was hilarious. I think it was on Funny or Die!”
Tell us about the casting of True Detective? Is it true Matthew suggested Woody Harrelson for his role?
McConaughey was originally offered the role of Martin Hart—but he chose Rust Cohle.
Matthew and Woody are old buddies and I think they have been looking for something to work on together for a while. This was perfect timing and perfect chemistry to bring them together. They work so easily together. They know what they want to do. When Woody first read the script he told me it needed to be funnier. He was right and we rewrote some scenes for him. These guys know what they’re doing.
Why Matthew? He seems to have had a career resurgence.
I think people in Hollywood were starting to talk about Matthew doing amazing things for some time now. Everyone was talking about Dallas Buyers Club for over a year now and were predicting he might win the Oscar for it. Within the industry, for years, people have known about the redirection in Matthew’s work – he himself has known – now the general public knows about it. That’s pretty interesting.
Who are your mentors in the film industry?
I’ve had advisors from the Sundance Lab who have become like surrogate parents to me – Michelle Satter, who runs the Lab, and Naomi Fodor, Jake Gyllenhaal’s mom, are two women incredibly important to my creative and professional growth. Michelle ran the Sundance lab and they are very involved in your life – when you are writing and directing and when you are actually making it and when you are showing your film at Sundance and even beyond that. I was at the lab in 2006 and my movie was there in 2009 and that was five years ago – and I still see Michelle like once a year – we get caught up on things and new lab fellows coming out. And I like to be there and that network of filmmakers. She’s a great resource and friend.
You’re adapting, Stephen King’s Novel, IT. It’s also very dark. Will it be your next film?
I’m not sure I’m going to make it right now. It’s what I’m writing. I’m going to try and finish before I leave for Africa. It might be my next film. I haven’t decided yet. It’s certainly is dark (laughs.) Right now, I’m writing that and writing Beasts of No Nation-- so I spend my days writing about child soldiers and children getting killed. I’m living in a dark place right now.
What do you do for fun?
I stay out really late and drink too much.
After hanging out with all these cool people- do you have a favorite celebrity story?
I feel like I should have been documenting my life at this point with the amount of time I spent hanging out with Matthew and Woody. I think after a while you spend so much time with them that you try to normalize that. Woody and Willie Nelson are really good friends and I was dying to see Willie Nelson playing at Jazzfest. I was trying to rearrange our schedule one day so it was a scout day rather than a shoot day so Woody and I could get out early enough to see him. So turns out it got too late, but Woody called and said to come over to play poker. So I show up and there’s Willie Nelson and Adam Levine from Maroon 5 and some other people. And poker is being played. There is a $300 dollar buy in and I’m terrible at poker. And we’re playing and it came down to me and Willie – he and I are going head to head and I finally beat Willie Nelson in poker -- cleaning him out! Then I found out how the Federal Government repossessed most of Willie Nelson’s stuff and I kinda felt bad because I cleaned him out. But you can’t give Willie Nelson his money back.
Let’s go full circle. You won the Princess Grace Award in 2005. What impact did it have on your career?
It came at a time when I was finishing grad school and just starting out in film professionally and I was trying to finish my film and I was not making money yet. It allowed me to go off and do my research on the film I was doing, which became Sin Nombre. The Award came at a critical moment. Had I not gotten the scholarship I would have had to work to pay my bills, which would have changed the entire time line of how that first film was made. It’s really important especially after you come out of a really expensive film program – there are enormous amounts of pressure – because you have just spent a lot of money and the bank you borrowed it from wants it back. It’s tough times to think creatively and give 100% to your art when you need to think about the realities of the real world. It’s undeniable pressure and works 100% against being creative.
The Award was pivotal in helping not divide my attention from my art. It provided needed life continuity.
What advice do you have for future Princess Grace Awards winners?
If you have been recognized by the PGF-USA you are probably in a pretty good place. You are doing something good people are paying attention to. I guess the main thing is to try to maintain your integrity and choices. The Princess Grace Award is like being bumped closer to your destination. But if you’re a really creative person you never quite walk through that door.
April 25, 2014