Cary Fukunaga On The Magic Of Cinema

Cary Fukunaga On The Magic Of Cinema

THE IN-DEMAND DIRECTOR IS BREAKING EVERY RULE IN HOLLYWOOD AND BRINGING BIG THINGS TO THE SMALL SCREEN

THE IN-DEMAND DIRECTOR IS BREAKING EVERY RULE IN HOLLYWOOD AND BRINGING BIG THINGS TO THE SMALL SCREEN

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Styling: Joe Mckenna

Text: TIM APPELO

Writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga, 38, was named after Cary Grant. He’s as immaculately natty and omnicompetent as any star he’s hired—or dated (such as arthouse heartthrob Michelle Williams). Roger Ebert hailed his “mastery of image and story,” and Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have agreed to star in his Netflix reboot of the Norwegian dark-comic series Maniac, about the heroic fantasy world of a mental patient. Not bad for a guy whose father was born in a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Growing up in California between his dad’s home and that of his Swedish-American history professor mom and Mexican-American stepdad, Fukunaga wrote a Civil War screenplay as a kid. “My college thesis was on the Smithsonian’s censored exhibitions on Hiroshima and the internment camps,” he says.

Influenced by his Sundance mentor, Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Oscar-nominated lefty screenwriter mom of Maggie and Jake and ex of American Historical Association president Eric Foner), Fukunaga is an auteur for our time—rooted in multicultural reality, a director who started out making snowboard videos and is now shattering the TV/film barrier, with a poet’s visionary gleam.

“I got malaria and almost stepped on a poisonous snake in Ghana on Beasts of No Nation,” he says of his 2015 film about African child soldiers. It became Netflix’s first major motion picture and might have won star Idris Elba an Oscar for his role as the children’s Commandant if Oscar voters didn’t fear that Netflix might steal their jobs by sending moviegoers to TV. Elba slipped off a cliff, nearly dying on the shoot, too.

Beasts felt like Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” says Fukunaga, referring to director Werner Herzog’s two legendary jungle epics, during the filming of which, star Klaus Kinski contemplated murdering Herzog. For Beasts, Fukunaga also ended up stepping in as cinematographer, on top of serving as the film’s director, location scout, and overnight rewriter. Some days the actors didn’t show up, or got the uncontrollable giggles, delaying filming. There wasn’t enough money to finish all the shots, but, through ruthlessly trimming scenes and filling in with voiceovers, he made it feel finished. Fukunaga refused to presell the film to a studio, which might have tried to insert a white star or stamp it with a Hollywood formula. “I definitely come from a generation that is sick of [movies] telling us exactly what to feel,” says Fukunaga. “My reaction is almost contrary to what they want—rebelling.”

But on Beasts, meddlesome studio suits weren’t the menace. “Snakes were everywhere,” says the director. “One day Idris tried to knock this giant snake off a branch overhead with mangoes, and you didn’t know if it was mangoes coming down or the snake.” Elba’s child costar, Abraham Attah, who won the Venice Film Festival Best Young Actor award, was scared of the snakes, and also of Elba, who stayed tough even when the camera wasn’t rolling. “It’s because of their darker qualities that all my villains have some magical charm, bad-guy charisma,” says Fukunaga. “It’s the reason they attract people like they do.”

Beasts, however, was not Fukunaga’s first brush with cinematic calamity. While filming aboard a Mexican train for his debut feature film, Sin Nombre (which won Best Director at Sundance), real gangsters ambushed the train and killed a passenger while another died in a police chase.

CLOTHING TOM FORD

“My career started fast,” Fukanaga notes, “which is nothing to complain about, but I hadn’t even graduated from NYU Film School. I thought I’d have more time to learn the craft. There were classical storytelling techniques I hadn’t had a chance to practice.” When Focus Features’ James Schamus offered him the 2011 remake of Jane Eyre, Fukunaga viewed it as a chance to expand his repertoire. “Sin Nombre was a guerrilla production, so I wanted to see if I could flex dramatic storytelling chops and make this 160-year-old novel relevant today,” he says. “It’s almost a proto-feminist manifesto. Plus, I wanted to do a historical epic.” Fukunaga is taking on movie history, genre by genre.

Jane Eyre gave him a chance to leap from the style of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, which influenced Sin Nombre, to another film that formed him, Stanley Kubrick’s candlelit 18th-century drama. “It’s not as epic as Barry Lyndon, but there was a lot of joy in learning about the different genres,” says Fukunaga. Grappling with Michael Fassbender and Dame Judi Dench taught him how to negotiate with Hollywood authority, and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is, in some ways, the best since the 1943 version starring Orson Welles, which he knows practically frame by frame. “I learned not to call cut on a period film—as soon as you do, 500 people walk off set and it takes 20 minutes to get shooting again.”

His next project won him an Emmy, challenged the HBO ratings record set by Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, and opened all industry doors: the 2014 debut season of True Detective, a fantastically ramifying verbal kudzu of a fact-inspired murder mystery that did wonders for stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and has an afterlife in McConaughey’s portentous car commercials. “HBO gave us the freedom to shoot it like a movie—it’s not all closeups,” says Fukunaga. The eight-hour series boasted 300 locations, a 500-page script shot at up to 29 pages a day, flashbacks between four time periods, and a tour de force finale—a single, six-minute handheld tracking shot of a hellish drug bust—that made Fukunaga Hollywood’s director du jour. Instead of yelling “Cut,” he kept shooting as makeup people touched actors up on the fly. Even his rumored clash with True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto was historically significant, a collision of the director-centric world of film and the writer-ruled world of TV. But Pizzolatto has denied that an annoying director character on the show’s second season was a jab at Fukunaga, who only shot the first season.

Fukunaga’s astounding streak hit a bump with his recent attempt to film Stephen King’s It for New Line Cinema, which, the trades say, wanted to spend less money and hew to lucrative horror formulas, instead of a character-rich, Kingesque and Fukunagan creepiness. He decided to ditch three years of work on It and move on. “I signed a nondisclosure agreement, so I can’t comment, though I’d love to,” says Fukunaga, who, besides the new Netflix show, is brewing a stage musical, mulling a big historical epic, and savoring his new deal with Paramount TV. His first project as a director/executive producer there is for TNT. “I’m doing Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, about an early psychologist who’s obsessed with discovering the mind of a serial killer in 1890s lower Manhattan, with police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt’s help.” Fukunaga underscores that he’s “going for the dirty, haphazard banality of serial killer crimes, as opposed to the last 20 years of these overly theatrical sensational crime cases. The detectives are in peril because of the subject they focus on. We’ll avoid stereotypes and show how diverse and dense it was—the most populated square mile in the whole world, depravity side by side with wealth, the exploitation of the people.”

Fukunaga is still in love with the silver screen—he advocated for Netflix to open Beasts theatrically as well as digitally. “I really want Netflix to open cinemas, cross over to the big screen experience. They have so much content.” But he knows he’s helping lead a migration of talent away from existing theaters. “Diversity is being destroyed,” he reasons, “and the kinds of films that are being made are ultimately meaningless. I wish it was 90 percent movies like Christopher Nolan’s Inception and not franchises, book adaptations, or comic book movies. But that’s why cinema is moving to TV.”

Back in the 1940s, Fukunaga’s grandfather gazed through barbed wire at California’s Tule Lake Segregation Center, dreaming of being a writer. Now, his grandson is helping transform how movies are made. “The cinema is a magical place to experience moral tales and so many different parts of what makes us human,” says Fukunaga. “I’m trying to keep the magic alive in my stories.”

Credits:

Grooming Dick Page (Jed Root)  Hair Ward for Living Proof (The Wall Group)

Production Stephanie Bargas, Tucker Birbilis, Eva Harte (VLM Productions)

Studio manager Marc Kroop  Retouching Stereohorse 

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