This Director’s a Beast of at Least Four Nations

Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga “Beast Of No Nation” at Opening Ceremony of the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival. By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan

I was more than intrigued enough by the can’t-look-away-or-even-blink direction of True Detective‘s first season on HBO to become curious about the work of Cary Joji Fukunaga.  I was also delighted when he won an Emmy Award for his work on that gripping series.

When I saw Beasts of No Nation on Netflix, though, I felt compelled to learn more.  Beasts is the first film distributed from day one by Netflix, which premiered the movie simultaneously in art-house cinemas and  on its home video streaming service.

It  depicts the experience of a child forced into service as a soldier under the command (and under the spell) of a charismatic and depraved warlord fighting a fictional civil war in an unidentified west African country (it was shot in Ghana).  The movie is devastating in its authenticity, shocking, heartbreaking, and sickeningly violent, yet it is hypnotically beautiful, sometimes hallucinatory in its visual intensity, sometimes surprisingly funny, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit hopeful about the resiliency of the human spirit.  Somehow it ended up reminding me of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which for decades I have called the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.

Fukunaga not only directed but also wrote (dramatizing the novel by Uzodinma Iweala), produced, and lit the film as its director of photography.  When the camera operator pulled a hamstring, the director (after recovering from malaria) even shot the rest of the picture himself.

Fukunaga has said he hopes as many people as possible will see Beasts on a big screen, and I for one would love to, but I don’t live near a theatre that’s showing it.  It has been a complete disappointment at the box office yet millions have seen it in their homes.

Idris Elba, the formidable British star that plays the warlord, called “The Commandant,” is said to be a likely Oscar nominee, and the miraculous performance of novice actor Abraham Attah, who was 14 (but looked as young as his character, the happy-go-lucky 11-year-old Agu) when the film was made, has generated considerable speculation that he might become the youngest best-actor nominee in the history of the Academy Awards.  In a ten-nod Best Picture race I wouldn’t be surprised to see Beasts itself get a nomination, though perhaps Fukunaga himself is a longshot.

Having seen Beasts, I found myself at home sick one day last week, unable to get much work done but functional enough to watch a couple of movies.  I found that Fukunaga’s 2011 feature, Jane Eyre, filmed in the north of England and starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench(!), and Simon McBurney, with a script by Moira Buffini, was also streaming on Netflix, so I had a look.  In many ways it is very much in the tradition of other good recent adaptations of romantic novels (such as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice), but it is redolent of its director’s distinctive, simultaneously dark-yet-airy style.  It is a very good movie, and it is unusually well acted.

Now on a mission, I next found Fukunaga’s first feature, the acclaimed 2009 indy Sin Nombre, on iTunes, and rented it.  It is an arrestingly strong directorial debut, winning a top award for him at the Sundance Film Festival. It too is beautifully shot and beautifully acted.  It was shot mostly in Mexico and most of the dialogue is spoken in Spanish, one of two additional languages in which the English-speaking, California-born-and-reared American Fukunaga is fluent (his father’s ancestry is Japanese, his mother’s is Swedish).

I thought I noticed several commonalities among these films (which are also present in True Detective).  The destruction of childhood at the hands of others (whose souls were perhaps also poisoned at a young age?) is a consistent theme (he is planning a film inspired by the suicide of Jadin Bell, a bullied gay teen).  Fukunaga’s worldview is hugely compassionate yet deeply haunted.  He has a truly extraordinary sense of place, conveying an expansive and highly specific sense of each world he explores/creates on screen, finding the terror that permeates remarkably beautiful landscapes and the beauty that radiates from remarkably terrible settings.

In a few cases Fukunaga has worked with some of the most acclaimed actors in the world (Dench, Fassbender, True Detective‘s Matthew McConaughey), but he is better known for drawing amazing work from fresh talents (Wasikowska) and complete neophytes (Attah and Sin Nombre‘s Edgar Flores).  I couldn’t help wondering how he elicits such deeply felt, nakedly honest performances from his casts.

My reading provided few clues, but what I did find was gratifying to me as a proponent of clear, economical storytelling–and respect for actors.  In Allen St. John’s interview with Fukunaga for Forbes magazine (Feb. 9, 2014) about True Detective, the director said:

I think I learned discipline on Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s dialogue, the intellectual duel between Rochester and Jane Eyre’s character is so compelling that you didn’t have to do much with the placement of cameras. It was up to the actors to do most of it.  The tete a tete they have by the fireplace I literally just put the camera over each actor’s shoulder and let them do their best work. At times it felt like I should be doing something else instead of just sitting there. But it was the right thing.

I knew that what was going on [when detectives played by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles were interrogating McConaughey’s character in True Detective] was going to be really interesting. Especially contextualized and juxtaposed with the past. So my idea was to be as simple as possible. No reason for shaky hand-held cameras. Just set the camera down and let the actors do their work.

Fukunaga is not above shooting his inexperienced actors without actually telling them that the camera is on.  This is him speaking to Jada Yuan for an interview on vulture.com (Sept. 30, 2015):

…a lot of times I would shoot without calling “rolling.” When you’re dealing with non-actors — and the same thing happens in America — they change as soon as you say, “Action!” There’s something about people just being people that feels much more authentic….  [W]e would start rolling scenes without people knowing, and then [Idris Elba] would start giving people an order. It looked more authentic because then people were living in the moment of whatever was happening.

As impressed as I have been by the virtuosity of some of Fukunaga’s camera blocking, I am also inspired by his desire to serve the story, the actors, and the audience without foregrounding his own contribution.  Katey Rich wrote in Vanity Fair (October 18, 2015):

The single-take action sequence in the fourth episode of True Detective became famous, but Fukunaga says he doesn’t like shots—single takes or otherwise—that call attention to themselves. “You are, as a director, a sort of conductor of the whole thing, the orchestra,” he says. “You aren’t letting the music speak for itself. You’re like doing all this crazy shit, and everyone is looking at, you know, instead of listening to the music.”

I also sense that Fukunaga is a highly practical craftsman/leader, enormously prepared but also enormously flexible.  I’m impressed by his willingness to puncture the myth of the purist auteur in this quote, which is also from his chat with Yuan:

I compromise all the time. You find solutions. If anything, that’s probably my skill-set: trying to get what I want, but also making everyone else and the powers that be happy as well.

Everything I’ve seen and read makes me want to learn still more about Cary Fukunaga and how he does his consistently excellent work as a motion picture and television director.  In fact, writing this post has made me want to go back and watch the whole first season of True Detective again, and most of the movies as well.  I think he is an artist worth following, and I’m eager to see what’s next from this 38-year-old filmmaker.  Here’s Rich again in Vanity Fair:

“There are directors who are brands,” Fukunaga says. “People are going to see a Tarantino film, people are going to see a Fincher film. That’s very helpful.” How about a Fukunaga film? “Probably not yet,” he says. “Hopefully in a couple years, a couple more films, people want to see a Fukunaga.”

In this case, I guess, I’m an early adopter.  I want to see a Fukunaga.


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