Cary Fukunaga Talks Beasts of No Nation, Netflix Life, and Not True Detective

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Photo: Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images
Cary Fukunaga Enters the Jungle
The Emmy-winning director on the hazardous production of Netflix’s first original movie, Beasts of No Nation, his many next projects, and not True Detective.
Photograph by Maarten de Boer

What has dreamboat director Cary Fukunaga been up to since blowing our minds with True Detective season one? Getting malaria while trekking through the jungles of Ghana filming Beasts of No Nation, his arresting new movie about child soldiers, it turns out. The movie is a passion project of Fukunaga's, who spent nine years adapting a script based on Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 novel of the same name, and also directed, produced, and, after his camera operator pulled a hamstring, shot the whole thing.

Mighty Idris Elba was there, too, playing a warlord with a very convincing West African accent. We spoke with Fukunaga about the production hazards; the film's extraordinary star, Abraham Attah, whom they found through street casting in the Ghanaian city of Accra and who just won the Best Young Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival; and what it's like to work with Netflix, which is releasing Beasts in theaters and on its streaming service on October 16 as its first original film.

True Detective came up, too.

The public world premiere of Beasts recently took place at the Toronto Film Festival. What was that like?
The premiere was pretty good. It’s the first time I’ve seen it with an English-speaking audience. In Venice, an Italian had done the English subtitles and gotten them wrong. Almost every two minutes there was an error in the language. I was sitting there boiling inside, watching my script get obliterated by the subtitles. So my experience of that was very different than watching it last night, where I was able to relax.

It’s really different watching your movie with an audience. You actually really do feel the room, and feel how people how react — whether they’re laughing at the jokes or not. I wouldn’t call it a funny movie, but there’s humor almost all the way to the end. People can react to the tough stuff and still get a laugh or a guffaw at those moments, so it was nice to hear it that way. We got three standing ovations. I couldn’t tell if it was my emotional fatigue or the feeling in the room, but I had to keep it together onstage.

Someone told me there was a military general in the audience who’d witnessed that kind of genocide and said it was the most real portrayal he’d ever seen onscreen.
He was a Canadian general who had been in Rwanda for the U.N. when the genocide was happening. I can’t even remember what he said. I was just so nervous he was going to say something bad about the film. [Laughs.]

How’s Abraham Attah handling the attention?
Abraham is cool as a cucumber. He enjoys the photos, he enjoys being onstage. At the same time, it still feels like him. I think he’s really enjoying it, but he’s a little bit tired. He’s got a lot of school to catch up with right now. So the last two weeks have been, like, a blur. He went to Venice twice because he had to go back to receive the award on Saturday. He’s living and traveling with a friend of mine’s parents whose daughters were both actresses when they were little, and so they’re used to being sort of stage parents. They’ve been really great with him.

Had Abraham been outside of Ghana before the movie?
No, he hadn’t even been outside of Accra, the city. We shot two and a half hours away from there. The experience just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

I hear there was uncertainty about his age for awhile.
When we were shooting he kept saying he was a different age because he thought that we wanted him to be younger. So he was 14, but he kept saying he was 12. We were like, “You’re fine whatever age you are. You just look younger. It’s fine.” He’s 15 now.

[Gets distracted by a spider on his arm, then gently lifts it off and places it on the ground.] He’s just hanging out, saying hi.

That’s very gentle.
Yeah, it’s bad luck to kill spiders. [Laughs.] There’s some meme on, like, Fuck Jerry or something, where it’s a spider looking up at some person with a newspaper and going, “Hey, buddy, I just killed, like, four mosquitoes. What are you doing with that newspaper?” Spiders are good! They’re good to have around.

You got malaria during production. Did much of your crew get sick, too?
It was just as hard for them. Somebody got a cut while making pasta in the hotel room, and then the cut got infected because you’re in an incredibly fecund environment. Our props guy got dysentery. Our accountant got malaria. My assistant got malaria. My driver got malaria. The camera operator pulled his hamstring.

Did you get malaria and dysentery at the same time?
I was so lucky that I had no stomach issues while there because I had to be on the set full-time. If I had to be running behind a building every two hours or 30 minutes, that would not have made production bearable.

Did Idris Elba get sick?
Idris got the flu. He had a fever one time. The scene where he is telling the kids about the abundant resources around the fire, he was burning up with a fever. He just took a bunch of Emergen-C, he delivered his lines, and he went home. He knew that our schedule was so crazy that if we didn’t get that scene, we may never get that scene, because we weren’t going back to that location. It was incredibly generous of him to be this gregarious guy telling this funny story, while inside he was feeling like he wanted to die.

I always assumed Idris was immune to all diseases.
He’s a human of the future.

Where were you when Idris nearly fell off a cliff and died?
I was right next to him! My first AD was there to catch him. I don’t think he would have fallen the whole way.

And since it’s Idris …
He’d be fine. He’d land in a backflip or something.

Idris plays a warlord, but was he also kind of the commander of the actors, since he was the only professional?
He had to be, because 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. I don’t shoot a lot of B-roll; it’s not like I’m shooting random nature shots for the hell of it. But we would start rolling scenes without people knowing, and then he would start giving people an order. It looked more authentic because then people were living in the moment of whatever was happening. I think people also wanted to look at him as a leader, too. Everyone’s looking for a leader in their life. These extras had a lot of different people telling them what to do, but it’s nice to have one person to follow.

I was like, “There’s no way we’re going to finish this movie. How are we even going to get through this day?”

Did his mom’s family being Ghanaian help with his authority?
I asked him that recently, when we were in an interview together. He’s like the prodigal son, right? He said that people in Nigeria were more aware of him than they were in Ghana. Maybe his shows and movies have been more widely disseminated there than in Ghana. But for those who did recognize him, it was something special.

He also had connections within Ghana that sort of set up the whole thing initially. Ghana wasn’t really on the table. Producers really wanted to shoot in a country that had production services, or at least a history with film production, and Ghana really hadn’t had an American film production. The last major foreign production there was Cobra Verde, the Werner Herzog movie. We scouted Kenya, Uganda, Ghana ... Uganda was a pretty good candidate. We could bring in a lot of crew from Kenya, which is right next door, and it had a history of war. I would’ve had to adapt the story to take place there, but at least it would’ve been authentic. Ghana really hasn’t had a war like the one we’re describing, so that way the fictionalization of it is more of a stretch, but the kind of war we’re describing could still happen in Ghana.

During the middle of shooting, were you ever like, “What the hell am I doing?”
There wasn’t necessarily a come-to-Jesus moment, but I really did feel like I was on a sinking ship. I was like, There’s no way we’re going to finish this movie. How are we even going to get through this day? When you do a schedule for a film, it’s not an optimistic thing. It’s like, this is how you have to meet the schedule, and if you don’t, bad things start to happen. They can shut down the production and cut weeks off, and then you don’t have a movie. Our producers had to keep the film-bonding company at bay while we were behind. Scenes that were supposed to take a day to shoot were taking four days, just because of complications. Actors getting sick. The weather. Trucks failing. People not showing up. We had an actor that wouldn’t show up to set unless we paid him more money. They figured out we needed them, and then they extorted us for more money. It was pretty crazy — and that was the easy stuff to solve.

Was he demanding a significant amount of money?
Not really. What he earned in the extra money, he lost far more in terms of potential collaborations. [Laughs.] Even the drivers who would ask for more money, it wasn’t a lot. It was just that the negotiation process slowed us down in ways that were detrimental to the film.

Had any of the actors or crew experienced the kind of war the movie depicts?
Yeah, we had a lot of former combatants on the film. There was a Liberian refugee camp outside of Accra called Tubarao, and we got a lot of our cast from that refugee camp. Did you notice the naked guy?

Uh, I don’t remember?
You didn’t notice the naked guy? His name is Tripod. You’ll know him when you see him. He really fit the name.

Why didn’t I notice that?
I don’t know! Why didn’t you notice that? [Laughs.] Anyway, the naked guy, he was a child soldier for Charles Taylor. He started when he was 10. We had all sorts of guys who were former combatants.

Did you have trepidation about doing this deal with Netflix?
Yeah, of course.

Was it the pioneering aspect of this being their first original film, or the fact that big theater chains like AMC and Regal won't be showing it because they insist on a 90-day window between the theatrical and VOD release? 
It would never have been in big chains anyway. That was just blowhard-ing by those chains. My trepidation was more about, will they put it in cinemas? I made this film to be experienced in theaters. Of course it will have a longer and more popular life after that, but I wanted people to see it in theaters. That’s kind of what I keep talking to the press about, because it’s an important rallying call. I think these kinds of movies are going to have less and less of a place in cinemas because they’re not obvious moneymakers. You can’t sit there beforehand and gauge what the foreign sales are going to be and budget it and know you’re going to get your money back. That’s what makes Netflix more attractive. They don’t have to worry about that, so they can show this kind of film. One thing I do know is that [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos is a movie nut. He loves to talk about movies.

Is there excitement about possibly being the guy who changes the way the industry sees VOD releases?
My excitement comes from the idea of convincing Netflix to open up cinemas that they can four-wall. It’s basically free advertisement for their streaming service, and I think people would love to see a lot of their stuff on the big screen. I would’ve loved to have gone to see House of Cards or something in a theater. I mean, True Detective is great to watch on a big screen. I screened the first episode for my friends in New York at the Jane, and to watch it with a group was so much fun.

Are you going to be involved in the third season of True Detective?
I’m always involved as an EP. Am I directing it? No.

I heard you haven't watched the second season.
I haven’t seen it yet, no.

I don’t believe that.
It’s absolutely true.

You’re the EP! What the hell?
They didn’t give me DVDs ahead of time, so I gotta watch it like everyone else would.

You mean, like, on HBO Go or HBO Now, where it’s available to stream on your computer anywhere in the world the second it airs?
Yeah, but they finished it right when we started this thing, so I haven’t had time to sit down and watch it. I like to binge-watch.

Be straight with me: You’ve said you heard about the director character but haven’t seen him. You’re telling me no one sent you a screenshot?
No, the people I know were on set. They don’t have access to screenshots.

But it aired on TV. No friend took a picture of that character and texted it to you?
No, not even the editor, who’s my friend.

It seems so unbelievable you’d be that removed.
I was pretty removed. I had no part in it whatsoever.

But why?
Part of it was me making Beasts, and part of it was that they didn’t need me. Nic [Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective] had a second season, he has his own directors, he didn’t need any input from me.

“Nic had a second season, he has his own directors, he didn’t need any input from me.”

You weren’t curious to see what was happening with this show you started? Isn’t it like sending your baby off into the world?
Well, it’s a different show, different characters, different story. It’s not necessarily my thing anymore. If it was Woody [Harrelson] and Matthew [McConaughey], of course I’d be more quick to watch because I want to see where those characters go. But if it’s all new characters, I can watch it whenever I have time to watch it. Other than the brand, it’s not my show. When I watch it all, I’ll check back in with you. I swear to God, though [raises hand to swear]: I have not seen it yet.

Full confession: The night before your Toronto premiere, I saw you and Idris dancing at the Bungalow 8 pop-up until three in the morning. [Bungalow owner] Amy Sacco came up to me to discuss what a good dancer you are.
Really?! [Laughs.] Oh shit, that’s hilarious. I am from Oakland. We like to dance out there. You just grow up dancing, trying out moves in the mirror.

What’s next? I feel like I’ve read about two war movies you’re doing.
I’ve got like 12 things in development. Some are shows, some are movies.

There’s the Jadin Bell story.
Yeah, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana* are working on the screenplay now. That’s more akin to Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation. I don’t think that’ll necessarily be what I'm directing next, but it’s a story that’s close to my heart. Not necessarily because of the bullying aspect, which was the big headline from the newspapers, but I think it’s a big Americana story. It’s really about poverty in America, and psychological illness. It’s about a small-town family trying to keep their life together. The mother, who’s still alive, she’s so strong. I don’t know how she does it. We spent a lot of time with her, and she’s a pretty extraordinary woman.

And then the war movies?
There’s a couple war movies. I’m not sure anymore if the spy one is still happening, I don’t know where we are with that. That was basically — we bought a book option but the book hadn’t been written yet, so you can’t write the screenplay if the book hasn’t been written yet. Black Count I’m working on right now with a co-writer to try to make that movie faster. That’s the one about Alexandre Dumas’s father who was a general during the Napoleonic Wars. Doing that with John Legend. And I’m in talks with a couple of other films, and then I’m also writing another film right now.

When I read about you pulling out of the remake of Stephen King’s It, it sounded like it was about having to compromise artistically because you couldn’t get the budget you wanted.
I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to talk about It anymore. [Laughs.] But I wouldn’t want it to be said that I’m not compromising. I always compromise. Even for Beasts of No Nation, there’s nothing uncompromising about that film. 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.

“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.”

Is it coming to the point where there are just too many voices involved for you want to do big studio stuff?
I wouldn’t say that across the board. There are some exciting things happening with studios now that I can’t even mention because I’m not officially attached yet. But it seems to me that if I am to do these projects, I will have the freedom to make a film that would be a large film and won’t feel like there’s 15 people giving me their two cents.  

Have you been approached to do superhero movies?
No, not really. I feel like they’ve all been taken. [Laughs.]

I’m asking because I think about Josh Trank, director of Fantastic Four, who said he’d made the movie he wanted, and then, after a year and a half of studio reshoots, it was something else. I'm not sure if he was covering his ass or if that’s true, but in any case, it doesn’t seem like there’s much room for self-expression with big-budget action movies.
I do think there’s a place to make intelligent, big films. It depends on sensibility, too. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s a comic-book movie. It felt really refreshing and different. Then you also look at people like Chris Nolan, who are making original content that’s also on the big screen. Interstellar and Inception weren't based on anything other than something he wrote with his brother. It’s pretty amazing to have original content be on an Imax screen or be a tentpole film.

I have to ask: Is your interest in doing war movies based on the fact that you used to be a Civil War reenactor? 
Ha! I was interested in war movies before Civil War reenacting.

Do you still do that?
Civil War reenactments? No, I haven’t done them since I was 19.

A little bird who knew you at that age is the one who tipped me off.
I have no shame about my Civil War reenacting days. It was living in that imaginary world that I also bring into a lot of my movies. The mise-en-scène of it all. And I may or may not be accumulating stuff in case I ever want to reenact again. It’s all preparation to be directing from horseback. Some giant war movie.

With the camera on your back.
I’ll have someone else operating by then. I just want to be on my horse directing. So someone can say, “Oh, look at you on your high horse.”

*An earlier version of this story misidentified Diana Ossana. We regret the error.