American filmmaker Cary Fukunaga first won notice in 2009 with his heart-wrenching debut “Sin Nombre,” before scoring success with his elegant adaptation of “Jane Eyre.” But Fukunaga hit a whole new level of fame and acclaim last year with HBO miniseries “True Detective,” directing all eight episodes of the first season. Having wrapped production on his follow-up (“Beasts Of No Nation”) and prepping for his much buzzed-about “It” adaptation, Fukunaga sat down with screenwriter James Schamus for the Tribeca Talks Directors series at the currently ongoing Tribeca Film Festival. We’ve collected the best moments below:
“True Detective’s” interrogation scenes were all shot in three days. Though the scenes of Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) thread through the first six episodes of the HBO series’ first season, Fukunaga explained that both actors ripped through those lengthy monologues in a shockingly small amount of time. The static camera used in these scenes was a help in the shoot’s efficiency. But the real MVP was McConaughey, who performed 29 pages of the teleplay in one day, a feat Fukunaga likened to performing a one-man show. He also revealed that McConaughey had created his own copy of the script that laid out all his speeches back to back, as opposed to the episode scripts where Rust’s interrogations are broken up into separate scenes.
Rust’s chain-smoking is another sign of McConaughey’s commitment to the character. Q&A host Schamus commented on how the tattered former lawman of “True Detective” ripped through cigarettes with a vengeance, unleashing long plumes of smoke after taking dizzying drags. Fukunaga replied, “McConaughey is a health nut. He doesn’t smoke. He was taking a few drags off the cigarette and I’m like, ‘Let’s just make sure we don’t make this like a middle school girl smoking cigarettes.’ So he took that to a whole other realm. He Cheeched and Chonged those things!”
Fukunaga’s “It” will shoot in New York this summer. “I’m eight weeks away from starting (production on) Stephen King’s ‘It,'” he told an enthusiastic Manhattan audience. But beyond that, Fukunaga was tight-lipped on “It,” politely dodging a question about how true to the source material his pair of movies would be. He did admit to being inspired by the iconic imagery of the 1990 miniseries. “The image I always see is the image that I saw when I was 12. That white face in the sewer, and poor little George getting sucked into the ground. I haven’t really gotten past that part.”
The star of his next film is an unknown from Ghana. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, “Beasts of No Nation” is a drama about child soldiers caught up in a civil war in Africa. As he did with his first feature “Sin Nombre,” Fukunaga cast non-actors to star, in this case a 14-year-old boy named Abraham.
Casting directors scouted kids on the street and invited 30 to attend a series of theater workshops to whittle down who’d get a role in the film. “We’d try out scenes that were kind of near the script but not exactly like the script, and improvise and see if these kids could play a variety of emotions that actually take place in the story,” Fukunaga explained, “Kids are fast learners so they quickly understood the concept, they quickly got the idea that the better they did the longer they stayed in this thing. They weren’t back out–like three of these kids were from the streets. One of them literally lived on a trash pile.”
“Beasts of No Nation” will have a jaw-dropping oner, just like “True Detective” did. But this time, it’s not a storied star with decades of scene-craft threading through the complicated choreography such a setup demands, it’s a first-timer who nonetheless nailed it. Fukunaga recalled, “To watch Abraham — who is the boy we cast in this film who is 14 but looks like he was 11 — get to the point where in the final weeks of production we have another oner — one long take — that he had to perform probably the most intensely that I’d ever asked him to do in the film, and do it in a oner, and have to have six or seven kids around him also perform and watch him become a leader to those kids and make sure they stay in focus and that they didn’t fuck up the shot so that he didn’t have to keep doing this over and over again. And I didn’t have to say anything. I gave almost no direction to those kids the whole time, like ‘King Kong you’re getting in the way of the camera. Don’t land there.’ Minor things. Otherwise, Abraham was guiding that shot. So from one month before starting production to one month into production, to see him turn into that kind of professional… it’s pretty astounding to watch.”
Fukunaga has since set Abraham up at a boarding school. “There’s a reality to the fact that they’re probably not going to become an actor, so this experience is probably going to be a one-time experience and to treat it as such,” he said. “Not like, ‘Oh this is my step into becoming a rich person or to becoming famous.’ So whatever money you make, save that money. If you’re really interested in acting, let’s figure out how to get you into an academy for acting. For Abraham, he’s only 14, so we need to get him up to speed with school. So right now, we have in him boarding school back in Ghana so he can get up the 14-year-old level of academics. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to finish high school or that he’s going to go to university or anything. It just means that by nature of crossing into these peoples’ lives, you’re going to have some responsibility there to maintain contact and to be there. But you’re also not adopting a child either.”
“Beasts of No Nation” could be a landmark moment in movie history. Though it will have a theatrical release — which helps with Oscar qualifications — the main platform for this drama’s release will be on Netflix. So its success could be a turning point in how we think of movies, just as Netflix’s success in creating series like “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” have changed the definition of television.
Fukunaga expressed excitement about the Netflix distribution deal, stating he believes more people will see “Beasts of No Nation” on Netflix than would have had it taken the typical limited release route. Pointing out this is a dark drama with no stars, it’s a bit of a tough sell. “You have a film that has no white person in it. It’s no DiCaprio saving Africa, it’s a mainly African cast,” he detailed. “The movie is a very difficult subject.” But Fukunaga believes that the accessibility and promotion built into Netflix will spur an urgency to see the film along with the ability to see it whenever suits. “It’ll be in people’s faces enough that they’ll be like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.'”
But he’s hoping it won’t be the death of cinema. “The difficult part is defining yourself as a filmmaker is that the concept of releasing in a digital platform or an online platform at the same time as it’s going be released in cinema really strikes the fear of god in your heart that people aren’t actually still going to go to the cinema when for only $6 a month they can watch it for free on their laptops or via their Apple TVs in their living room,” Fukunaga admitted, “But it was designed to be watched in an experience like this, collectively with strangers in the dark and you can see the story. And I know based on my experience watching movies at home versus watching movies in the cinema, the experience of the cinema is 100% more immersive than it is at home when my phone’s going off and I’m checking e-mails, and I’m not putting all my attention to the screen. And I’ll miss things. Every shot that I put in there means something. So people that are taken away by reading a text message are already missing something, some element of the story. So that’s Netflix’s big thing: consumer choice. As the audiences start to make that choice… 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 that you have to ask the audience to be aware of the fact that they are just as responsible for the death of cinemas as the people who make movies.”
No release date has yet been announced for “It” or “Beasts of No Nation.”
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