As a filmmaker, Cary Fukunaga never makes obvious choices. His feature debut was Sin Nombre, a searing contemporary drama about young Hispanic immigrants who attempt to cross the border into America. His follow-up was Jane Eyre, an adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel that nonetheless felt fresh and modern. Still, Fukunaga’s most recent projects show he is at forefront of cinema, no matter the size of the screen. He directed the entire first season of HBO’s True Detective, which pushed the envelope of what television could accomplish, and now his latest, Beasts of No Nation, debuts in theaters on the same day as it becomes available on Netflix.
Beasts of No Nation is an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Uzodinma Iweala, a graduate of D.C.’s St. Alban’s school. It is about Agu (Abraham Attah), a boy in an anonymous African country where civil war rips his family apart. Lonely and desperate, Agu is found by a charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba), who takes him under his wing. The Commandant breaks down Agu, rebuilding him as a remorseless killer. Fukunaga takes the novel’s surreal, horrific subjective narrative and turns it into a darkly fascinating gut-punch of a film. His camera never shies from the atrocities that befall Agu, yet the camera never exploits them either, so Beasts engages both the mind and the heart.
Washington City Paper: How did you get your cast of child actors to prepare for the role?
Cary Fukunaga: When I made Sin Nombre, the kids in that were much more familiar with the gang life than your average film director. In this movie, we shot in Ghana so all the non-actors were local Ghanaians. It is by no means a wealthy country, but they haven’t experienced the kind of conflict found in Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Burkina Faso, or the Ivory Coast. [Ghana] has a very controlling government, so they’ve been able to keep the peace. We did bring in some former combatants, who played key roles [during production]. Some of them were found accidentally, but they all were able to bring experience on a strict military level, and to share their anecdotal experiences, too. By the time they arrived, though, we were already well into shooting so I didn’t want to rewrite too much of the screenplay.
WCP: There are a couple sequences in the film that feature long takes and virtuoso camerawork, which we also saw in True Detective. What do you find so appealing about them, in cinematic terms?
CF: It is appealing because… look, it’s very easy to break down a scene to a couple of shots, cover it, and then move on. It’s a lot harder to figure out when there is an impendent like an inability to switch an angle or a lens. It creates a challenge in terms of pacing, but it gives me an inherent build-up of tension and the ability to show things from 360 degrees, which normally seems impossible. There are a lot of jaded filmmakers and audience-goers who know all the secrets of movie magic, which means there’s a broken-down wall of how movies are made. When you do “oners,” it reconstructs that wall. You might ask yourself, “How the hell did they do that?” Hopefully you don’t ask yourself so much that you’re pulled out of the film, so the ideal reaction is being swept up in the scene. There are no oner effects in Beasts, by the way. We choreographed inside, we choreographed outside. Once we finished the inside, we would queue everyone outside and push the camera to follow them.
WCP: Was that challenging, logistically speaking?
CF: Had we done it in week one or two, then yes, it would have been. But we shot that sequence in week five, and trained our extras really well. I was really proud of my assistant director team and all of their extras, since I let them focus on all the outside of the house while I worked on the inside. That took about seven or eight takes.
WCP: This is your first writing credit since Sin Nombre. While I’m sure you had some hand in writing for your other projects, what was it like to return to the top screenwriting job?
CF: You’re right: I’ve written on every project I’ve done, officially and unofficially. I learned on Jane Eyre that it’s standard for [the director] to do their pass [on the screenplay], without a credit or not. I definitely changed as I writer since then. I rarely toot my own horn, but when I finished the screenplay for Beasts in 2006, I thought it was the best screenplay I’ve ever written. It was partially because Uzo’s book is so unfiltered, and yet contains enough material for an easy translation. It was also because of the subject matter, the content, and what types of scenes I’d have to shoot. When I reread the script last year before shooting, I realized, “Holy fuck, I have to do a rewrite.” I really had to update the style, descriptions, dialogue, and even make structural changes. It was originally going to be a minor rewrite, and it turned into a page-one rewrite.
WCP: In the novel, Agu has an important encounter with a white woman, but you changed her to a black woman for the film version. Why did you make that change?
CF: In my research, especially in Sierra Leone, a lot of the aid workers were local. After being so authentic for the whole story, with the only encounter with whites happening as a UN truck drives by like they’re on safari, I didn’t want to have a white woman at the end trying to fix Agu. I was talking to my producers about it, and we decided to cast someone [from Africa], instead of bringing in some white actress. Uzo didn’t care, either. He said, “Oh, yeah, that’s fine.” When there was something from the book and I wasn’t sure why he made it that way, I’d always ask him about it. Another important one was the rape of Agu. We talked about it because, obviously, there’s a lot of persecution of homosexuals in Uganda, and we didn’t want to fuel that fire. We ultimately decided to keep it because the most important element in that scene is the abuse of power, or the demonstration of power via abuse. We didn’t want to skip it simply because we were afraid of political correctness in a particular African moment.
WCP: Another striking choice about the film is the synth score, which reminded me a little of early Brian Eno. How did you decide on music that’s not exactly native to the region, yet a good fit for the material?
CF: That was a specific choice as well because a traditional string score didn’t feel right. It would have felt like a colonial veneer for what is meant to be a regionally authentic story. Then again, going with Afro-beat or a drum score didn’t feel right, either, since that wouldn’t necessarily elicit the types of emotions I wanted to get across. These emotions are pretty strong, pronounced, and on the surface. The synth score would be the most effective way to do it because it would not be weirdly Western, nor a direct attempt at authenticity. I’ve worked with the composer, Dan Romer, before, and he doesn’t always do digital, either. He’s mainly a string guy; he’s an incredibly talented classical composer, but I really wanted to push the vintage synth-style score, which would feel a bit timeless.
WCP: How has working on this film changed your notion about the malleability of children?
CF: I’ve always known that children are incredibly malleable and impressionable. I saw examples of it when we were in Sierra Leone, actually. We were interviewing a former combatant, and I noticed there were some local kids watching us, so I asked him, “Could you turn these kids into soldiers?” He replied with, “Give me fifteen minutes,” so he taught these kids how to do covering maneuvers with wooden guns. I asked, “How long before you put these kids in combat?” and he said, “I’d put them in today if I needed them.”
Obviously, we’re not in a war, but I was impressed by how quickly he was able to whip them into shape. Even while filming, the kids were quick to learn what the assistant cameramen were doing, what the grips were doing, what the electric team was doing. The kids were quick to imitate the shorthand the crew was using amongst themselves. I have met many former commanders of child soldiers, and they all say without any hesitation that kids make the best soldiers, particular for light infantry. They’re not asking them to hump heavy gear, so when they’re carrying light weapons, they are effective, loyal, and eager to please.
WCP: After taking two complete passes at the novel, how did the performances change how you felt about the characters?
CF: That definitely happened with Idris. In the year before we made the film, we spoke at length about the character, how I was rewriting him, what he should be like. When Idris started, I was surprised by how likable the commandant seemed. That’s a tribute to Idris, really, since it was his goal to bring humanity to the role. Still, it’s important to remember that no villain thinks they’re the villain, and they always have a rationale for what they’re doing. Even after all he’s done, I still kind of see his point in certain things. Obviously, he made some pretty awful choices.
WCP: I’m sure you’ve seen the famous YouTube clip where David Lynch says, “It’s such a sadness when you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking phone.” Given that Beasts is releasing in theaters and Netflix on the same day, how do you feel about creating an opportunity for people to watch a major film on tiny screens?
CF: Because Netflix has been a disruptor to the traditional system already, [the roll-out] going to be really interesting, particularly since they do not really care about box office performance. All eyes are watching, and we’re the guinea pig. Maybe the film will be a complete failure, and no one will go see it in a cinema? Who knows?
WCP: If someone was completely indifferent between at home and the cinema, how would you prefer they see the film?
CF: What do you think? At home, of course! [laughs] Just kidding.
Image via Bleecker Street/Netflix