Director Cary Joji Fukunaga is a little tired, and has reason to be. For the last two months, he and his cast have been travelling North America nonstop to promote the release of their film, the first original feature released by Netflix, “Beasts of No Nation.”
Coming off his ambitious direction of all of “True Detective” season one for HBO (which earned him a Best Director Drama Emmy), Fukunaga filmed his adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel set in a civil war-torn country in Africa. The story, following a young boy joining a ferocious group of guerrilla soldiers, was shot on location in Ghana.
Fukunaga produced, wrote, directed, and shot the movie, which is highlighted by powerful performances from his leads Idris Elba, as commander of the guerrillas, and newcomer Abraham Attah, who plays the teenager. “Beasts” has talk of potential Oscar nominations building around it.
Business Insider recently talked with Fukuanaga as he was location-scouting for his new TNT series, “The Alienist,” about the “Beasts” release (shown simultaneously in limited theatres and streaming on Netflix), whether he’s seen the second season of “True Detective” yet, and why his movie shouldn’t be considered an “issue” film.
BI: Have you asked Netflix recently about the amount of people who are streaming “Beasts of No Nation”?
Fukunaga: Yeah, I finally accosted [Netflix head of content acquisitions] Ted Sarandos recently to try to give me the numbers. They are not allowed to give the numbers, but I was throwing numbers and it was like this [nods].
BI: “Stop me when I get to the right number.”
Fukunaga: Yeah. I obviously can’t tell you what he told me, but there’s a part of you that wants to know because you don’t have box-office numbers, other than the box office we do have. And those streaming numbers do mean something — just because you get good reviews doesn’t mean you know people are watching it. And you work so hard to get people to come to see it on the big screen. It’s reassuring to know the numbers.
BI: You’ve received reassurances that the film is playing around the world wherever Netflix is available?
Fukunaga: Yes. And it is, I have friends writing me [from other parts of the world] who have seen it.
BI: Would you be ok with Netflix publicly releasing streaming numbers of your film again?
Fukunaga: I don’t think they need to. That’s their MO, to not release numbers, so why would they do it again? Then that sets a precedent. I think because this was a hybrid release that [after the first weekend it was out] they felt they had to prove that people are seeking out the movie and watching it.
BI: Do you feel, with the amount of big-name talent making movies for companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, these companies sooner or later will have to release the streaming numbers for their original content to the public on a regular basis?
Fukunaga: I think they should. Why not? Though this gets confusing because even with Nielsen readings they don’t know how many people are in the home. It’s all very complex to me.
BI: Well, you’ve had some time to absorb this release platform you did with Netflix. Would you work with them again?
Fukunaga: Yes. And here’s why: Of course I would want the film to be seen in cinemas, I will always want my films that are intended to be seen in cinemas to be seen in cinemas. But — and I’ve said this before and I stand by it — honestly, if I had done a regular platform release it would have been in maybe 40 screens at the most. [Fukunaga’s debut feature] “Sin Nombre” was released very similarly. These are dramas, they aren’t going to break $US10 million. Hard films rarely do.
BI: Have you watched “Beasts of No Nation” via streaming?
Fukunaga: I only streamed the beginning of it to see the quality. I wanted to see, more than anything, the timing of the subtitles. [Laughs.] That’s the s–t I look at.
BI: That makes sense, though.
Fukunaga: Because with the DCPs [Digital Cinema Packages] they screen, if the software’s not up to date, certain files aren’t going through. So some subtitles won’t show up [on screen] and you see the audience scratching their heads. And this is the issue with technology. I mean if it was a f—ing regular film print you could put it right on.
I still have no faith in technology in that sense. I really don’t. And that’s reinforced every time technology f—s up. I mean, what I’m really pushing Netflix hard for right now is to archive the film on a three-strip film process. Because I don’t want some f—-d-up DCP along the way that doesn’t have the right patch of software and the version they archive won’t be able to decode it in the future.
BI: Are they into doing that?
Fukunaga: Focus has done it with my films. HBO does a digital archive and I’m sure Netflix does the same, but I want it for the film. It’s contained, it’s not a 10-hour thing, like a series. They can do it, and in regards to cost, I think it’s worth it.
BI: I was at your talk at the Tribeca Film Festival with James Schamus and you brought up how you’ve provided schooling for Abraham since filming wrapped. How is he doing?
Fukunaga: Well, his English has gotten a hell of a lot better. That’s one. Schooling, he’s in home schooling because he’s on our press tour, friends of my parents’ friends are his guardians right now. And I should mention that Ted Sarandos has said that he would pay for his private education through senior year of high school. Then we went to work trying to find a school that would start at his level. Because technically he’s in 7th grade, but I think there’s a lot to be caught up on including reading comprehension, and that’s essential to his script reading if he wants to do more acting in the future.
BI: And he wants to?
Fukunaga: Yeah, he wants to. In fact, he’s already been cast in something. So we found a private school that starts in the 7th grade, a lot of the private schools don’t start until 8th or 9th grade. And it’s a school that can cater to his specific needs and help him get caught up. And there are kids from Nigeria and Ghana and kids from Europe, so he won’t feel isolated. And his parents are all for it. They want him to take advantage of it and get an education and see what can happen from there. He got hit with the golden goose in a way.
BI: But it has to be jarring for him, not just the elevation of life, but the celebrity of it. How is he dealing with that aspect?
Fukunaga: He’s starting to be recognised.
BI: Have you talked to him about that?
Fukunaga: I’ve talked to him about it a little bit. He’s 15 years old. What’s important to him on the surface level and what’s happening deep down are sometimes hard to connect, or at least to do verbally. I think he’s handling it but he’s a little tired. He’s had a lot of time off, actually, because of that.
BI: From doing press?
Fukunaga: Yeah. He’s just been hanging out and skateboarding, doing go-karts.
BI: So he’s being a kid.
Fukunaga: He’s being a kid. And the celebrity aspect of it, I think it’s a bit hard for him, but we did an interview together two weeks ago and he said something along the lines of he doesn’t feel it but his friends in Ghana say he’s famous. But I think if someone is famous, do they ever really know they are famous?
BI: Well, let me ask you, do you feel you’re famous?
Fukunaga: I don’t feel I’m famous. No. And I don’t get recognised on the street. [Laughs.]
BI: But you have to know it’s close. You go on the Emmys stage and you have your hair a certain way and the Internet goes wild.
Fukunaga: But people don’t know who I am. I feel that’s niche to some degree. Of course my friends know about it, but my friend group has stayed the same for a very long time so that’s something that keeps you insulated. They are never going to say, “You’re famous.”
BI: Filming in the jungle has been a curse for filmmakers. From Francis Ford Coppola (“Apocalypse Now”) to Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo”). You contracted malaria, almost fell off a cliff with Elba. Would you do this again?
Fukunaga: I don’t think I’d rush to do it again. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s like the most miserable thing you could possibly imagine doing. As soon you are through and on the other side of it, not only with perspective but with the comfort of home, you’re happy you did it. You’re bonded with all the people you’re with but I mean I don’t know if you could be more prepared for these kinds of productions. The productions that have the money and the creature comforts to make it easier typically don’t go to the places we shot. So it’s already just a different scenario.
I still love going to locations. I think that will still be my thing in the future. It’s one of the most fun things about making movies. Despite all the difficulties in Ghana, when else do you have an opportunity to do something like that? So many years go by and we think our lives are going to begin and we’re going to this country we’ve always wanted to go to and check it off our bucket list and yet they just don’t happen. And that even happens for me. Though I’ve accomplished a lot of things within my career, I still have these lists of things that have been pushed off and shooting locations around the world. I can rattle off a number of places I want to shoot. I want to shoot in Antarctica, India, somewhere in the South Pacific, back to Africa, but different parts of Africa, the Middle East definitely.
BI: Does the story dictate the location, or if you have the opportunity to get a location, do you make a story work for that location?
Fukunaga: Huh. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that, actually. Because I think quite possibly your general interest in a place could lead to you finding stories in that place as well. For me, you can’t make a movie based off a location, you have to feel it. But sometimes I push back. “Beasts,” by the third year [of preparing the movie], I could have shot it in West Africa but at the time I didn’t want to go. I just didn’t want to go yet. I knew how the shoot was going to be, to some extent, and I just wanted to be in the States for a while.
BI: So you could have shot “Beasts” earlier, but for personal reasons you didn’t want to make the movie yet?
Fukunaga: Personal reasons. Knowing how difficult it was going to be not only psychologically but physically to shoot anywhere in West Africa. At that point we hadn’t honed in on Ghana. At that point I was still thinking Liberia or Sierra Leone. And Uzo was still pushing for Nigeria. But either one, I knew it was going to be hard shoots. I just didn’t know how hard it would turn out.
BI: Has it been frustrating that some critics of the movie knock it because there isn’t enough message in it? You have said that you didn’t go out to make an issue-heavy film.
Fukunaga: I think I get more annoyed when it gets pushed into a category of “Oh, another child-solider film.” Like there’s a huge amount of child-solider films, like there are too many. Of course people talk about too many comic-book movies but nobody talks about too many personal dramas. Why does one type of story get so ghettoized? You can’t lump all these stories together. If you look at the child-solider movies of the last 10 years, they are all different. You can’t say “War Witch” is like “Johnny Mad Dog” is like “Beasts of No Nation.” They aren’t the same. And the people that lump them together have a very limited perspective of the world. In my mind. Because genre-wise, they are different, content-wise and structurally. They just happen to have kids with guns and black skin and that’s all people think about in terms of categorising things. And that bothers me. I think the world should be a lot more discerning than that. Now it’s a topical film, you can’t deny it. But I don’t want it to be seen as the issue being the forefront. It’s not waving a flag, it’s about this kid and this kid’s experience. For me “Empire of the Sun” and this film have more in common than this film and “War Witch” or “Johnny Mad Dog.”
BI: And was this the kind of conversation you had with the book’s author, Uzodinma, on how you would adapt it?
Fukunaga: Maybe this is why I feel this way. I come from a history and political-science background, so when I was entering into the subject of a civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I was looking at it more from a historian’s perspective and a political and economic context. And of course getting into human stories through that. But I was looking at very broad strokes here. That makes it an issue film. So when I read Uzo’s novel, I got rid of all of that. I placed some of the issues back in small pieces, but really it’s about this kid’s experience. That’s why for me it’s not different than any story anywhere in the world — it’s about a kid who has to figure out how to function on his own when everything is taken away from him. That’s not an issue film, that’s a survival film.
BI: Tired of the “True Detective” questions yet?
Fukunaga: [Chuckles.] Depends on what they are.
BI: You said when you watch it, you’ll binge it. So have you binged season two?
Fukunaga: I have not. The only thing I’ve binged recently is Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None.” It’s great, I watched the whole thing.
BI: Are you curious at all about the episode in “True Detective” season two with a character supposedly based on you?
Fukunaga: No. Not really. I just want to watch it all. And I definitely will. And me not watching it is not a statement. I haven’t had the time.
BI: Can you talk a bit about your new serial killer-focused TV series, “The Alienist”?
Fukunaga: I’m not going to direct the whole thing. It’s a very, very big, ambitious project, and Paramount is establishing itself, TNT is rebranding itself. It will be some kind of flagship for them. I don’t know if it’s their first project out of the gate. It’s going to be pretty complicated, how to recreate these things, so that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now. [“The Alienist” author] Caleb Carr’s descriptions [of 1800s New York City] are so intricate that you want to honour them, but you’re scratching your head on how to do this on a television budget. The thing I love about television long-form is the length you can run things, but most often the budget of what you have to do 10 hours of TV is what on a feature film is like two hours. So that’s the tricky part.
BI: Have you watched anything that’s been in the awards conversation?
Fukunaga: I don’t think I’ve seen anything yet really. I have a bunch of screeners and have some time off come Thanksgiving so I’m going to plow through a bunch of movies, that’s my plan. I really want to watch “Straight Outta Compton.” That’s one I’m mad I didn’t get to watch on the big screen.
Watch the trailer for “Beasts of No Nation” (currently in theatres and streaming on Netflix).
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