Just 31, NYU-film-school alum Cary Fukunaga made his feature debut on Friday with the release of Sin Nombre, the harrowing story of a young Honduran woman who falls in with a Mexican gang member as she attempts to cross the American border on a dangerous train. The intense, brash film so impressed Focus that they signed Fukunaga to a multipicture deal. Fukunaga spoke with Vulture last week about making Sin Nombre and surviving a real-life train attack.
Sin Nombre is wildly ambitious — the opposite of what film professors might suggest for a first film, right?
Writing the film, it was just what the story required. It wasn’t until we were sitting there in preproduction, that we realized: Uh-oh, we’re writing a movie set on trains and filmed throughout Mexico that might be too ambitious. I was literally like, “Oh, God, I’m such an idiot.”
Crime, poverty, foreign locations: Films like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire have both been branded as “poverty porn.” What’s your take on that debate?
I’m definitely sensitive to the idea of exploitation. You don’t want to glamorize certain things. My take on it is, I try to find the universal aspect, the emotional aspect, and make that the focus for the film. So rather than couch it in any kind of style, per se, I find out what the characters really want, and make that compelling. Then the world around it becomes the setting.
Visually, this film looks very different from a Slumdog or City of God — no shaky cam, no flashy effects.
I did not want to do that shaky, zoomy, overmanipulated inflected camera style, or an overtreated image. City of God and Slumdog Millionaire are both films that I really like, but they are stylistically the opposite of what I wanted to do. I was just tired of it.
You did research in Mexico.
We spent a couple weeks doing research in shelters and train yards and prisons. I had a lot of questions, mainly about the gangs. Like, why rob these trains when the people have so little money? That’s why I rode the train myself, so I’d make the film from things I’d seen with my own eyes, rather than just meeting some immigrant who’d gone through terrible things and stealing his story.
Your train was attacked, right?
It’s where I realized the naiveté of that idea. People do get killed. And there was an attack. I was in the carriage of a tanker car, which is kind of an extension up on top, with about a dozen guys. After the attack, in sort of a blissful moment, one of the Guatemalan guys just said, in this funny way, how lucky he felt that out of all the trains in Mexico, he was riding on a train car with this gringo who would maybe write a film about this one day.
What’s your next move?
There’s also a musical I’ve been talking to some people about. Zach Condon from Beirut almost did the score for Sin Nombre, so we’ve been talking. Him and Owen Pallett [from Final Fantasy and Arcade Fire], we’ve been trying to figure out how to do a musical or an opera of some kind. A rawer style than your standard Broadway adaptation or Busby Berkley throwback. I haven’t cracked it yet, because my thing is, I don’t really like musicals. We just don’t like the music in musicals, so the big question is how to turn the challenge of pushing narrative forward through song in a way that the songs aren’t ruined.