- “Maniac” director Cary Joji Fukunaga told Business Insider about the challenges of making his trippy new show for Netflix.
- He also explained why Emma Stone hated playing the elf character, and why he and Stone almost went to Netflix to see if the screening giant would not release all the show’s episodes at once.
Warning: Spoilers below if you haven’t seen all episodes of “Maniac.”
Cary Joji Fukanaga has built his career looking at the darker side of society. Whether it’s the life of a young Mexican gang member who rides atop a train to seek a new life in the United States (“Sin Nombre”), or the 17-year-old case two detective can’t get out of their heads (“True Detective”), he brings to all his stories incredibly engaging characters and a dazzling visual style.
And in his latest project, the 10-episode Netflix series “Maniac,” we get all of that, but a little dark humour as well. The show follows two strangers (played by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill) who meet at a facility that’s doing a pharmaceutical trial. We then follow their hallucinations on the drugs, which involve the two doing everything from playing a Long Island couple, to Hill embodying a tattooed gangster with long hair, and Stone as an elf.
The entire show, created by Patrick Somerville (and very loosely based on a Norwegian TV series), shows off Fukunaga’s incredible visual eye but also examines mental illness, drug dependency, and family.
Business Insider spoke to Fukunaga (the day it was announced he would be directing James Bond 25) about the challenge of writing the show (especially since he had never seen the original), why they almost dubbed over Jonah Hill’s Icelandic accent in one episode, the reason Emma Stone hated playing an elf in another, and why Fukunaga would not come back to direct if “Maniac” got a season 2.
Jason Guerrasio: Was “Maniac” an interest because it’s completely different in tone than what you’ve done previously?
Cary Joji Fukunaga: Yes. Definitely. I think the idea of delusions and opening up the genre pallet even wider to do something with a more humorous tone, all of that made it attractive.
Basically what happened was Anonymous Content optioned the Norwegian show. I never ever saw it, I just basically knew what the format was. The idea was I can make a bunch of worlds, I can get any actor I want, and I thought “let’s make it a two-hander.” I knew I wanted Emma for sure, but I wasn’t sure who would play the other one. And the night that I met with Emma to talk about the show, that I had no idea yet [what it] was going to be about, she brought up Jonah and I kind of did at the same time, and we decided to call him up and go see him. And we did. That same day.
Guerrasio: Really? That day?
Fukunaga: Yeah. And he was like, “A show where you have no idea what’s going on yet other than it’s going to be a bunch of delusions? OK. Sounds good.” [laughs]
Guerrasio: Is it true that you and Patrick pretty much scrapped half of the episode scripts three weeks before production was to begin?
Fukunaga: That’s a little of a misrepresentation, basically we threw out a lot of different episodes along the way trying to hammer out what this thing was. I think part of collaboration is we both have to be happy with what we’re doing. So there were things I would throw out there and he would throw out there. We would put them up against the wall. We would even write entire episodes and then scrap them. So I can’t tell you how many episodes that were written that aren’t there. Some of them were other worlds, some of them were shifts in plot that went pretty wild, but then we honed in on this version. Especially for the latter half.
Guerrasio: Is there one of those scripts that looking back you are bummed you didn’t do?
Fukunaga: There was one that was about Emma and Jonah’s characters living together for 80 years. And I really like the idea of exploring what that kind of partnership was like. And we put it in a very stoic setting. But we never fully fleshed out that idea. It was just something in concept I really liked.
Guerrasio: And for that I would imagine they would have had to have been in make-up to make them look older?
Fukunaga: Yes. We had that conversation and the prosthetics component of that was hundreds of thousands of dollars, so that immediately put the breaks on that.
Guerrasio: Watching this show I felt it’s one you don’t want to binge because, especially in the middle episodes, they are almost like vignettes that you need a day or so to digest. Was that in your head at all while making it? Making an anti-binge show?
Fukunaga: No. But Emma and I did have conversations about this. We wondered if we should campaign to not have all the episodes released at once and should we talk to [Netflix CCO] Ted [Sarandos]. We went back and forth about it and ultimately we thought the thing about Netflix is you can either binge it take time to watch it.
There is an argument that if “True Detective” was released all at once it wouldn’t have been as much of a conversation. I think that’s a very valid argument for that show. You’ll never know if that would be the difference in terms of the conversation that happens around each episode. But I do think that it’s something nice that as episodes come out they are about that episode rather a whole. And then by the end looking at it as a whole and having had all these conversations you come to the conclusion that this is what this show is. But, on the other hand, it is crazy that millions and millions of people, bigger than most countries, are going to have access to this show. That in itself is mind blowing.
Guerrasio: I was really wowed by Jonah’s performance, were you even surprised by the kind of range and vulnerability he brought to this?
Fukunaga: The Icelandic ambassador character was a long one in the making. We knew that he was going to be Icelandic but didn’t know how Jonah was going to play it. And we really didn’t have time to discuss it. I had the idea for white hair but voicing-wise, when he came up with the voice I was like, “I don’t know, maybe we will dub him.” There was a moment where we had a conversation [about to] dub his voice with a real Icelandic person. And Jonah didn’t know if he could do an Icelandic voice. It’s a tricky accent to pull off and that’s why we wrote in all that stuff that his mother was all these different ethnicities so he couldn’t be pinpointed to once accent. So Jonah was just having fun with it because he thought, whatever, they are going to dub me after. And then halfway through shooting that episode he said to me, “You got to keep my voice.” And I said, alright.
Guerrasio: But even the “option a / b” stuff in the last episode. That’s some of the best work he’s even done, I feel.
Fukunaga: It was important to us that that part of his character was not a joke. The way his family treated him could be a joke but not he himself. This is why we also moved the show out of a mental hospital, as it’s set in the Norwegian show. I don’t know Jonah’s process, he’s not necessary method, but it’s close to it in really trying to feel what the character is going through. It’s a very dark depressing character, so it was definitely a challenge for him to inhabit that for so long.
Guerrasio: Which characters did Jonah and Emma like playing the most?
Fukunaga: I don’t know, honestly. But I can guarantee you Emma’s favourite character was not playing an elf. When we were first brainstorming I said, “How about an elf or a vampire?” And she said, “No. Nothing that’s not real.” She doesn’t like not real things.
Guerrasio: That’s funny because she’s really great in that episode.
Fukunaga: She can do anything. Just personally, that’s not her taste. She’s never seen “Lord of the Rings,” she can’t get into things that aren’t real. So Patrick and I thought, well, doesn’t that make sense for the “Confrontation” drug? Something she really doesn’t enjoy? So we wrote that mildly into the character. And when she did the scene she was just like [gritting his teeth] “Cary, I’m doing this for you!”
Guerrasio: In episode 9 you do a single-shot scene of Emma’s character, who is a CIA agent in that episode, killing a bunch of guards in a hallway? What was the motivation behind doing a “oner” there.
Fukunaga: That was efficiency. One of the reasons to do that oner in “True Detective” is because there’s no way in the schedule that we can shoot this in a real action sequence. It would be a bad version of it. So a oner actually, if you have the time to get the choreography down, is just more efficient. For “Maniac,” we shot that whole thing in less than half a day.
Guerrasio: Wow! But what about Emma getting down the choreography for it? How long did that take?
Fukunaga: She had like a couple of hours. She’s not doing anything extremely “Aeon Flux”-like. But she’s a good dancer, she understands her body. She hurt her wrist doing it in one of the takes. I don’t remember what take we ultimately used. But there’s no place to do a splice to cut together, so she just had to kind of get through the whole thing.
Guerrasio: And is Jonah just riffing through that whole thing?
Fukunaga: Yeah. There were a few lines we wrote, but things like “I killed many men,” that’s just him.
Guerrasio: So are you interested in doing a Season 2 if Netflix does one?
Fukunaga: For me, I like to do one and move onto something else. I’d be very happy if another season were to happen, but I think they were just thinking about this as a limited season and if there’s an appetite for another one then I think Patrick would be happy to take it up and do it again. But not with me.
Guerrasio: Last question. You spent almost three years developing and writing “It,” you were going to direct it but left the project over creative differences. Have you seen the movie yet?
Fukunaga: [Laughs] I feel bad saying I haven’t, but I haven’t. I just think it’s no longer mine anymore so it’s like I will watch it one day, I’m not opposed to it.
Guerrasio: On an aeroplane or something?
Fukunaga: Exactly. A place where I’m a captive audience.
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