Cary Fukunaga

By
Photography Sebastian Kim

Published December 2, 2015

it’s almost like a seduction, right? If you really want to tell someone you love them, you don’t just go and blurt it out. There’s a dance. And your movie does that. CARY FUKUNAGA

Throw a dart at any point along the eight-hour running time of True Detective Season 1 and you are bound to hit someone’s favorite frame, favorite shot, favorite moment. So absorbing was Cary Fukunaga‘s broody, rotten nightmare of a noir from Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts, and so consistently thrilling the performances, the revelations, and the hothouse tension of the show, that it essentially redirected the internet for the course of a couple of months in 2014, making every conversation the same conversation: “How good is True Detective!” So rich was the lemony and lavender Louisiana bog Fukunaga constructed, and so arresting his cinematography of it, that every one of those eight episodes still rewards repeat viewings, reinterpretation. Really, so good was that show that it may have changed the way television and films are made and watched from here on out.

At least that has been the case for Fukunaga, who, as soon as he wrapped in Carcosa, decamped for the jungles of Ghana, where he set to prepping the war-torn drama Beasts of No Nation. Funded by a hodgepodge of investors and then acquired by Netflix, who released it theatrically and online in October, Beasts may set a new sort of indie auteurish paradigm for movies on demand. A prestige drama with sociopolitical scope, starring an A-list actor (Idris Elba) and costing about $100 million less than most of the big theatrical releases of this year, Beasts had more than three million views within its first two weeks of release—which is impressive no matter the platform. All of which places Fukunaga right back in award contention and right back in the conversation about the best things we’ve seen all year.

Not bad for a dude who, until his mid-twenties, was on track to become a professional snowboarder. Born and raised in California’s Bay Area, Fukunaga, now 38, did his undergraduate work with the fightin’ Banana Slugs of UC Santa Cruz, and then went to film school at NYU. His debut feature, the widely acclaimed Sin Nombre, like Beasts, tells the story of a child swarmed over by violence. The film won him the award for best dramatic direction at Sundance in 2009. It also won him the admiration and support of colleagues—colleagues like Michael Moore, who called up Fukunaga in November to talk about the new practicalities of filmmaking and the place of politics in their art.

MICHAEL MOORE: What made you want to get into making movies? Was there a moment, when you were a child or in college, when you said to yourself, “This is what I want to do”?

CARY FUKUNAGA: More than one moment. I started writing stories when I was 9 or 10. I wrote my first screenplay-type document when I was 14, about these two brothers in the Civil War. I tried to make movies with my friends, but it was impossible because no one cared as much as I did. And I sort of went away from it for a while in high school and college, when I was pursuing sports and school and, I guess, girls. And sometime around 20, 21 years old, I was in France and had blown out my knee. I couldn’t compete for a couple of months, and I didn’t want to just sit around doing nothing, so I got back into theater actually. I did a play in France, and I started writing again. I think that’s probably when it really started—going into my senior year of college and deciding that I wanted to make movies.

MOORE: So as a teenager, you were writing before you were filming?

FUKUNAGA: Yeah, I was writing and making lots of skateboard and snowboard videos—always working with the camera in some way but not necessarily for narrative storytelling, which was something that I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure if I had what it took. In snowboarding, you’re constantly aware that people are so technically brilliant at what they do, and you feel like, “Ugh, I’ll never be able to do that.” And for movies, it’s a bit different because you need so many people and, oftentimes, a lot of means and money to make these things. And you’re never quite sure if you’re actually capable of the things you’re imagining in your head. I think it wasn’t until film school, when I got to actually shoot some of my own film and video and construct things with friends and colleagues, that I was able to see whether I could actualize what I saw in my mind into something that I could then present to people.

MOORE: How many filmmakers do you think have followed the path from snowboarding to filmmaking? [Fukunaga laughs] Other than Hitchcock.

FUKUNAGA: I think Kubrick was a major snowboarder?

MOORE: [laughs] That’s right, I think so. In the Bronx. You’ve had this variety of influences, personal ones. Was it your grandfather who was at one of the internment camps that the U.S. built during World War II?

FUKUNAGA: Yeah. Basically everyone of Japanese ancestry was put into these camps during World War II—except for, ironically, those in Hawaii, because they needed the labor. My father was born in a camp. My uncles were born in a camp. First they were all in Topaz, in Utah, and then in Tule Lake in Northern California, which was a “no-no” camp, where they put people who said “no” to forswearing their allegiance to Japan and “no” to fighting for the military. So they were considered the more troublesome group of Japanese Americans, although they were U.S. citizens. My father was there until he was about 3 years old. So he was there for the duration.

MOORE: And what kind of impact, if any, did that have in your home while you were growing up?

FUKUNAGA: It’s funny, I don’t think I remember hearing about it from my Japanese side. It was the white side of my family that mentioned it. My grandparents never wanted to talk about it; they didn’t think it was very interesting. And my dad doesn’t really remember it that much. My uncles definitely don’t because they were just babies. So it took a lot of prodding from me to get them to talk about it. My thesis in college, actually, because I studied history, was more of a historiography thesis, about how information gets into the public sphere. My thesis was about two museum exhibits at the Smithsonian. One, called A More Perfect Union, was a celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution. It was really controversial because it actually celebrated the Constitution, by saying that this is where the Constitution failed its citizens, and it used the internment of the Japanese as an example. Then about six years later, curators from the Smithsonian tried to do an exhibit on the end of World War II-specifically, the choice to use nuclear bombs. It was completely squashed by veterans associations. So my thesis explored what history is allowed to go to the public and what’s kept quiet. I definitely have a printed copy of my paper somewhere. It’s on a floppy disk. This is how old this is. [laughs]

MOORE: Do you feel that that piece of your family’s past has had any bearing or influence on your work?

FUKUNAGA: Definitely. I don’t know how it comes out, but at least the way I look at the government and what the government did to my family… It takes the wool from your eyes about how the world works, to show you that nothing’s necessarily fair, and that you might have a hard life. I look at my grandparents, and they never complained their entire life, despite having that happen to them right in the prime of their life.

MOORE: Well, certainly Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation are films about families torn apart and young people who are “nameless,” to use the English translation of your first film. These two films are very, very intense. You have no sense of what may occur here. And this sort of horror is probably one of the ultimate horrors that people have—that they are without a home, without family, without a destination. “Where is this life of mine leading me?” These are very difficult stories to tell. How has that worked for you, especially with Beasts of No Nation? Had you thought about this story for some time?

FUKUNAGA: I was interested in the subject of child soldiers since college. And I’ve been wanting to make a movie about the war in Sierra Leone, specifically, for more than 15 years now. Making a film like this, to research it and live in that world during the process, definitely affects you. It’s not the same as having been there, experiencing the same thing the character has experienced, but there’s something about being associated with that imagery, with that information, that can, long term, affect your psyche. But I wouldn’t want to turn away from knowing about these things or learning about them more deeply and more thoroughly—or from trying to share that knowledge in the form of a movie. That, to me, is very gratifying, sharing your emotional connection to a subject with your fellow humans. That is the best part of filmmaking.

MOORE: What is the role of the artist here? I get asked this a lot. And if I speak at a film school, the students are surprised to hear me say that the art of making a film comes before the politics—that if you have a story you want to tell, and you don’t make a great film, first and foremost, nobody’s going to care about the politics of what you’re trying to say.

FUKUNAGA: If you have something really important you want to say, you have to read your audience, I guess. For lack of a better word, it’s almost like a seduction, right? If you really want to tell someone you love them, you don’t just go and blurt it out. There’s a dance. And your movie does that. Your movie should lull people into a place of openness and vulnerability. If it is just a diatribe, it’s never going to work.

MOORE: Clearly that has been my problem with the “I love you” part: Just blurting it out. [both laugh]

FUKUNAGA: I had a question for you about Fahrenheit 9/11 [2004]. I know that it was important to you that it come out before the general election. How do you think things would have been different now if you could have released it the way we do today, online, on demand?

MOORE: I really wanted people to see the film before the 2004 election. I mean, I want people to see my movies in a movie theater, primarily. But I also realize I’m going to reach a hundred times more people if they can watch them at home on their television screen or their computer screen. This is the big question these days, isn’t it? How best to take this art to the masses. You have this situation here with Beasts of No Nation and Netflix, whose mission is to have people experience movies at home. But with you, they decided to put this in some theaters.

I wouldn’t want to turn away from knowing about these things or learning about them more deeply . . . or from trying to share that knowledge in the form of a movie. CARY FUKUNAGA

FUKUNAGA: And it’s an experiment. I think they probably learned a lot from it. And other people are going to produce films this way, who will learn from our release. There’s probably a better way to do it. But I think there is a way you can live online and create an event around these films, create the desire to see it in a certain way.

MOORE: I will watch Beasts again at home on my TV, but nothing will replace that night and that moment of experiencing it at the Toronto Film Festival with a thousand other people.

FUKUNAGA: That’s true. But do you think that only matters for people like us, filmmakers? I don’t know if the general audience really cares anymore.

MOORE: I actually think there’s something that happens when you’re in a room with a lot of other people in the dark watching it on a big screen—especially with comedy. It’s a very different experience watching a comedy by yourself at home or in a room full of people, because of the sort of infectious nature of laughter. I mean, you and I are not snobs here about TV; I’ve had two series on television. You had what I think will go down as one of the great seasons of television ever. People still talk and think about True Detective‘s first season. When you won the Emmy, I think there was a communal feeling across the country, like, “Wow.” It was really great seeing you go up to the stage to collect that award because it was so well deserved. And it’s the kind of television we wish we could see all the time.

FUKUNAGA: That was a pretty amazing night, other than my blackout in front of however many millions of people there.

MOORE: [laughs] Right. That’s exactly what would happen to me. Is it okay to bring this up? Because, obviously, you must have heard or read on the internet about the raging, collective disappointment with Season 2. We as directors do not want to speak ill of others, so I don’t want to put you in that position. I don’t even know if you’ve seen Season 2, but have you at least heard the wails and moans over the massive letdown that took place with Season 2?

FUKUNAGA: I’ve definitely heard it. I had nothing to do with Season 2. And I haven’t seen it yet. But I think it was also set up for far too high expectations.

MOORE: Well, yeah, you set us up!

FUKUNAGA: Sorry about that. [laughs] I had never planned on doing Season 2. I don’t even think I realized how much work Season 1 would be. But I try not to do the same thing twice. And I definitely would never have done two seasons of the same show. That’s far too big of a commitment. After Season 1 was done, I was very happy to move on, back to feature film and a completely different world to immerse myself in. And whatever I do next, hopefully, will feel just as different as anything I’ve ever done before.

MOORE: So the campaign to get you to do Season 3 of True Detective

FUKUNAGA: [laughs] Time to find a new candidate.

MOORE: What are your all-time favorite films?

FUKUNAGA: I don’t know what my desert-island five would be. But there are some I go back to just because they are so masterful: GoodFellas [1990], Boogie Nights [1997]. Y Tu Mamá También [2001] is a really brilliant film. I love Barry Lyndon [1975].

MOORE: Is that your favorite Kubrick film?

FUKUNAGA: I think Full Metal Jacket [1987] still might be my favorite, but there’s something about Barry Lyndon that’s really special.

MOORE: Are you speaking as a storyteller or a cinematographer when you say that?

FUKUNAGA: I think more as a cinematographer. Storytelling-wise, I think the structure of Full Metal Jacket stands alone in its era. It’s pretty brilliant. It’s really like two films, two one-hour films.

MOORE: Wouldn’t you love to go back through a time tunnel to be there on the set when he made Barry Lyndon?

FUKUNAGA: Yeah. There are a lot of movies I would want to be a fly on the wall for. I would have loved to see the making of Jaws [1975], with all the fears and anxieties it was going to be a complete failure, and then to have it turn into the first blockbuster.

MOORE: David Brown, who was a producer on that, produced one of my films, and I got to hear all the stories of one disaster after the other. They really did believe that they were doomed. And then, obviously, just the opposite happened. Do you feel optimistic about the future of films?

FUKUNAGA: We’re in one of those anxiety—inducing periods where we don’t know what the exhibition and distribution will be for our films. But it turns out to be a pretty amazing time as well. I mean, I was on a jury at Sundance earlier this year. I’d sort of been in my own headspace, alone in editing rooms for a year and a half, and to watch that many movies in a short stretch—so many good movies—reinvigorated my faith in storytelling, in the new filmmakers who are continuing to innovate. I have tremendous faith that there will be greater films to come. I thought The Witch was pretty incredible.

MOORE: Tangerine was shot on an iPhone, and ten minutes into it, I had forgotten about the gimmick because the story was so strong. And good craft doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. So, you’ve been going through the process of letting people know about your film, and I remember the first time I went through the press cycle, the only way I could keep it interesting was to just make up new answers. Like, “What is your next film?” I would try to think of a really cool idea for a film while I was sitting there. [laughs]

FUKUNAGA: I do this game with Abraham [Attah, Beasts of No Nation actor] so that it becomes a game for him so he’s involved with the moment instead of just re-reading a script of answers. There are a lot of the same questions—but that’s also because we’re not all that different, which is why I like to make movies in far out places, because it shows that everyone in West Africa or Central America or Northern England laugh at the same things and cry at the same things. We all want the same things, for the most part.

MOORE: What haven’t you been asked? What’s a question that you have been fearing or hoping somebody would ask but haven’t yet heard?

FUKUNAGA: [laughs] Well, you’re dealing with a film from a perceived-white director in black Africa. So of course, the more controversial questions are a lot more difficult to answer. That’s why it’s good to have Uzo [Uzodinma Iweala], the novelist on whose work the film is based, around. He can answer those questions with complete authority and legitimacy. I think you know about this, trying to face criticism head-on.

MOORE: Yes.

FUKUNAGA: It’s really hard to make a film about this subject matter with the knowledge I have of Africa, knowing that it portrays Africa, or some version of Africa, in chaos. The most difficult question is, “Why this movie?” And it’s the most frustrating question. I think these movies are extremely important. We want to be moved by what we watch. And it’s not a manipulation to show darker or sadder or more tragic things. It’s an important part of being a member of society to know what’s happening in the world and to know where you fall in it and what you can do about it. But then you get, “Well, why don’t you show a positive side of Africa? Where is that movie?”

MOORE: What I used to say is, “Kodak still makes film. Here’s their 800 number. You make it.” It’s frustrating to have people review the film you didn’t make. Like, “Why don’t you deal with the film I’ve made?” Yes, there are a million other stories to be told; this is but one story. And if I were you, I would just draw the connection to Jane Eyre [2011]. Tell them they’re companion pieces-of course, I’m just kidding, but not.

FUKUNAGA: No one was complaining about Hardy or the Brontës creating a dismal image of England. “Can’t you make England look nicer? Not so tragic?”

MOORE: No! In fact, it’s one of the reasons we like to go to a play or to a movie—we want to see the human condition in other shapes and forms and places. We want to be taken a place we haven’t been. Your movie does that in a very powerful way. Everybody is on an obstacle course in a lot of pain. We’re not all on a snowboard; let’s just put it that way. And when you see a movie, it reminds you that also, you’re not alone in what can seem like your singularly mundane real life, we’re not alone in our frustrations, we’re not alone in our tragedies. If anything, when you see other people’s tragedies, it makes you realize, actually, how good we have it. I understand that you got sick during the pre-production on Beasts in Africa?

FUKUNAGA: I got malaria. [both laugh]

MOORE: I was trying to think of a polite way to put that. What is that like, directing a film from your deathbed?

FUKUNAGA: It wasn’t that bad. The lucky part was that we were still in pre-pro, and by the time we started to shoot, I felt pretty much back to fighting condition. And I think you probably know this, too: When you know you have a certain amount of work to finish, you just don’t allow yourself to get sick again.

MOORE: Right. Was anyone from Netflix over there? Did anybody venture into the jungles there with you?

FUKUNAGA: No. Netflix came on as acquisition once we’d already finished. They didn’t fund the film; it was completely cobbled together by many, many different sources.

MOORE: What do you have in mind for the next year or two?

FUKUNAGA: I have a musical I want to do for the stage. I have a couple TV projects that are moving forward, and then a couple more dramas. I have aspirations of making a big, historical epic. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the money to do it, but you know, somewhere in the Napoleon-sphere, somewhere in the Civil War, or maybe World War I.

MOORE: Is the musical happening?

FUKUNAGA: I think so. I originally wrote it as a screenplay. Now I’m rewriting it for theater. Living in New York, I get excited by the idea of working in a different medium. And it’s pretty frightening because whatever skills it takes to make a good piece of theater seem mysterious to me right now.

MOORE: But I would assume you wouldn’t want to avoid it simply because you don’t know how to do it.

FUKUNAGA: Yeah, no. That’s what makes it exciting, because I don’t know how to do it.

MICHAEL MOORE IS A DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER AND THE DIRECTOR OF ROGER & ME, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, AND FARENHEIT 9/11. HIS LATEST FILM, WHERE TO INVADE NEXT, IS OUT THIS MONTH.