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The Unflinching Eye: Filmmaker Cary Fukunaga

East Bay-raised filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, director of True Detective and Beasts of No Nation, is one of the cinema's most exciting visionaries.


Jeff Vespa/Getty Images

Film director Cary Fukunaga approaches his work by repeating a daring mantra each day.

“Do something every day that scares you,” he says, sitting in a conference room in San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton to discuss his newest movie, Beasts of No Nation. “Otherwise, you won’t progress. You have to challenge yourself.”

Fukunaga picked up the mantra as a teenager, when he lived in Oakland and aspired to be a professional snowboarder. But the attitude applies directly to his “career fallback plan” of filmmaking.

A thoughtful man who looks as if he’d be just as comfortable in front of the camera as behind it, Fukunaga isn’t interested in cashing in by making easily digestible blockbusters. Instead, his projects have tended toward heavy-weight, politically loaded subjects—child soldiers in Africa, Latin American immigrants chasing the American dream. His stories are told in a straightforward, unflinching manner, mixing horror and beauty in a way that is riveting and unforgettable.

Most importantly, Fukunaga builds a sense of authenticity in his films by placing himself and his camera in real-life, often dangerous locations: He shot Beasts of No Nation in Ghana and his immigration drama, Sin Nombre, atop a train heading across Mexico.

At just 38 years old, Fukunaga is a Hollywood rarity: a visionary director able to marry cinematic brilliance with highbrow concepts, working in an industry increasingly focused on churning out worldwide comic book franchises. Since 2009, Fukunaga has produced an unbroken string of artistic successes—three acclaimed feature films and the first season of HBO’s True Detective, widely considered one of the greatest single seasons in TV history. Fukunaga, whose political and social sensibilities invoke his childhood in the East Bay, has quickly become one of the great filmmakers of his time.


Setting the Scene

Born in Oakland in 1977, Fukunaga, who now lives in New York, says the cultural diversity of his hometown helped shape his worldview.

“In terms of looking out at the world, I do believe there is another level of consciousness [in the Bay Area],” he says.

That consciousness is reflected in the stories Fukunaga is drawn to. Speaking to his undergraduate alma mater, UC Santa Cruz’s, newspaper, City on a Hill Press, Fukunaga said, “I just don’t even think about the borders, really. I mean, if I see a cool story taking place somewhere, I do my best to learn the language.”

Fukunaga’s father, who was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and Swedish-American mother, a history professor, divorced when Fukunaga was young. Fukunaga’s childhood was spent bouncing between residences in Oakland and Vallejo, and his grandparents’ home in Walnut Creek.

From an early age, Fukunaga fell in love with movies. Often, his father would drop him off at a multiplex, where young Fukunaga would spend all day jumping from screen to screen.

“I would go see everything, everywhere. I would go to the movies with my grandparents in Walnut Creek, the art house cinemas around Shattuck [in Berkeley], and the multiplex in Vallejo,” says Fukunaga. “I would watch summer blockbusters, popcorn stuff, and art house movies. I remember seeing The Last Emperor when I was about seven years old. When Platoon and Dances With Wolves came out on VHS, I watched them over and over.”

The influence of those epics is evident in Beasts of No Nation, a story told through the eyes of a young boy (The Last Emperor) thrown into horrifying jungle warfare (Platoon), in a setting of spectacular, panoramic beauty (Dances With Wolves).

Fukunaga was writing screenplays and long-form stories by age 14, but in high school and college, his focus shifted to snowboarding. That dream crashed at age 20, when Fukunaga spent a winter studying abroad in France. Though he hoped to spend as much time as he could shredding the slopes, life showed him another route.

“I started realizing that despite how much I wanted to be a pro snowboarder, I just wasn’t good enough,” he says. “I was beating myself up physically and psychologically trying to compete at a high level. Looking back, I appreciate those difficulties—the rigor I put myself through. It was good self-discipline.”

Fukunaga instead spent the winter studying theater and photography, and writing stories. After graduating from UCSC with a degree in history, Fukunaga enrolled in film school at New York University, where his short film, Victoria Para Chino, received numerous prizes at film festivals and the Silver Medal at the Student Academy Awards. The 13-minute film, coproduced by Fukunaga’s mother, Gretchen Grufman, recreated the horrific true-life incident in which 19 immigrants died of heat stroke or asphyxiation while trying to cross the United States–Mexico border in a trailer truck.

Fukunaga read about the tragedy in The New York Times and immediately wanted to make a movie.

“I saw the whole thing in my head,” Fukunaga told the San Francisco Chronicle after the short film’s release. “I felt I could have been there. I saw it as though I was in the truck, and how horrifying it would have been.”

The movie was the first example of Fukunaga’s unflinching style, and the success of Victoria Para Chino inspired him to work on his first feature-length film, also about Latin American immigrants.


Body of Work

Fukunaga’s feature debut, Sin Nombre, was released in 2009 to rave reviews. The harrowing drama follows a young Honduran woman as she rides atop a train across Mexico, hoping to cross the Rio Grande and have a new life in the United States. Along the way, she witnesses many horrors, mostly caused by Mexican gangs that demand transit fees from immigrants.

To research his screenplay, Fukunaga rode trains across Mexico with hundreds of immigrants. He told UCSC’s newspaper that during his first night on the train, bandits attacked passengers, killing one person.

Sin Nombre won awards for best direction and cinematography at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The late Roger Ebert gave Fukunaga’s film a perfect four-star rating, saying the director showed “a mastery of image and story.”

Jane Eyre stars Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska / Focus Features/Laurie Sparham

Following Sin Nombre, Fukunaga took an unexpected turn for his second full-length film and adapted Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, Jane Eyre. Whereas Sin Nombre’s neorealist style featured a cast of nonprofessional actors, Jane Eyre gave Fukunaga a chance to work with breakout stars Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) and Mia Wasikowska (Crimson Peak). The project also presented the young director with new challenges, such as putting his own artistic signature on a story that has been adapted many times for film and television, most famously in a 1943 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.

Cary Fukunaga on the set of Jane Eyre / Focus Features/Laurie Sparham

“That was the version I watched over and over as a kid,” Fukunaga says. “Despite the fact that there have been many versions, I felt that I still had my vision of the story to tell. I was able to experiment and work on perfecting the craft of filmmaking.”

Fukunaga’s interpretation was truer to the novel in depicting the age difference between the romantic leads. It also had a more ominous tone than previous iterations. With each film, Fukunaga says his goal is to improve his filmmaking. “I wish I had 10 years just to practice the craft of filmmaking before having to show something to the world,” he says.

While both Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre were successes in art house theaters, his next project would launch him onto a much larger stage, albeit on a smaller screen. In 2014, Fukunaga helmed all eight episodes of the Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson noir thriller for HBO, True Detective.

The show, which followed a complex murder mystery over nearly 20 years, saw Fukunaga raise the police procedural to an art. The final shot of the fourth episode—a six-minute single-take nail-biter through a drug deal–turned-shoot-out—is praised as one of the greatest shots in the history of television. The sequence required makeup artists to hide on set, touching up actors in real time as the camera glided through doorways and over fences, capturing the scene with stunning realism.

Fukunaga’s mastery was rewarded with a 2014 Emmy for Best Director. (Fukunaga’s movie-star looks also caused a sensation on Twitter after he accepted his award, as this was the first time many fans had seen him.) And when True Detective’s second season was roundly considered one of television’s major disappointments of 2015, critics pointed out that Fukunaga hadn’t been behind the camera.


Fukunaga and actor Matthew McConaughey making True Detective / HBO/lacey Terrell

Facing the Beast

Rather than follow up with a second season of True Detective, Fukunaga chose to finally shoot Beasts of No Nation, a project he’d wanted to make since he read Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed 2005 novel about an African child soldier.

Fukunaga says he remembers taking the book with him to a meeting with Focus Features to discuss his screenplay for Sin Nombre in 2006. One of Focus’ executives had read the book, too, and optioned the rights for Fukunaga to adapt it while also optioning the screenplay for Sin Nombre.  

Despite the success of Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, and True Detective, Focus backed out of Beasts, so Fukunaga had to seek independent funds for the project. (After completing the movie, he sold its distribution rights to Netflix, and Beasts of No Nation became the first film to be released simultaneously in theaters and in streaming format.) Working with a small budget, Fukunaga relied on a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors (with the notable exception of British star Idris Elba, who provides a devastating portrayal of a warlord), and served as his own director of photography.

Fukunaga directs Idris Elba to a Golden Globe nomination in Beasts of No Nation / Courtesy of Netflix

The film juxtaposes beautiful images from the jungles of Ghana with intense war footage and horrifying sequences of child soldiers being recruited and transformed into cold-blooded killers. That Beasts of No Nation is mesmerizing, even uplifting, rather than soul-crushingly depressing is a testament to Fukunaga’s gifts.

Following its release, Netflix executives reported the film was watched more than three million times in its streaming-release weekend, a huge number for an intense, violent drama. Fukunaga says his clear preference is for audiences to watch Beasts of No Nation in theaters, but middling box office numbers—some chains decided not to show the film due to the streaming competition—suggest that the future for serious filmmakers may be in streaming and television formats.

Due to the film’s small marketing budget, a slew of Oscar nominations is unlikely, although Idris Elba is considered a front-runner for a Best Supporting Actor nod. Fukunaga could, however, take home multiple awards at the “Indie Oscars” on February 27, as Beasts received five Independent Spirit nominations, including best feature, director, and cinematography.

Fukunaga isn’t sure what his next movie will be, although he has a number of projects in the pipeline (see Coming Attractions). We do know it won’t be Fukunaga’s long-planned version of the classic Stephen King horror novel It. Fukunaga spent about three years adapting the book into a two-part feature, but when production company New Line Cinema wanted to revamp the screenplays into a standard horror movie, Fukunaga walked away from the project.

“I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience,” Fukunaga told Variety. “It was the creative that we were really battling . . . what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.”

Fukunaga realizes that his raised profile means that audiences, critics, and studios have high expectations for his future films, which could curtail his creativity.

“You have such a short period to experiment before people are aware of what you are doing,” he says. “Now, it might be difficult for me to do something sort of obscure or weird, without being criticized for it on the world stage.”

Then again, Fukunaga might just take a chance on doing something obscure, as long as it feels important—critics be damned.

After all, it would fit right into his mantra.


Coming Attractions 

The Alienist: Fukunaga plans to adapt Caleb Carr’s outstanding 1994 novel about a serial killer in late 19th century New York. Variety reports that cable network TNT has ordered the project to be filmed as a series, similar to True Detective, with a whopping budget of $5 million per episode.

Untitled Family Drama: Screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (Brokeback Mountain) are working with Fukunaga to adapt the true story of Joe Bell, an Oregon man who walked across America following the suicide of his 15-year-old son, Jadin, who had been bullied in school.

The Black Count: Fukunaga and singer John Legend are planning a big-screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of French Revolution General (and author of The Count of Monte Cristo) Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

Noble Assassin: The true story of saboteur Robert de La Rochefoucauld, an anti-Nazi French aristocrat who helped organize the resistance and escaped execution. Reports have Fukunaga slated to direct for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios.

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