Cary Fukunaga: Cinema Sans Comfort Zone

Looking at master filmmaker Fukunaga’s impressive portfolio, and dissecting why he’ll be perfect for the upcoming MANIAC TV show.

Cary Fukunaga has no comfort zone. Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, True Detective – a tragic tale of immigration, an adaptation of a piece of nineteenth-century literature, and a true crime detective drama – these projects couldn’t be more different sounding, but they all hold one thing in common: Fukunaga.

The master of the massive pivot, it’s difficult to reduce Fukunaga’s filmmaking techniques to a specific recognizable formula. Whereas many filmmakers carry with them a series of traits, his are a bit harder to pinpoint. Alfred Hitchcock has his signature platinum blondes and tension-riddled scenes with characters chasing after dressed up McGuffins, Quentin Tarantino is noteworthy for his shocking violence and furious profanity showered down during long-winded conversations, and Spielberg usually brings a whimsical sense of wonder to his pictures, which often center around children dealing with metaphorical coming-of-age sci-fi circumstances. Undoubtedly, you know a Scorsese film when you see one. Fukunaga’s films, however, aren’t quite as easy to spot – and that, in itself, might just be his strongest directorial trait. You just never know what he’s going to do next.

The son of Anthony Shuzo Fukunaga, a Japanese-American father who was born in an internment camp during World War II, and whose Swedish-American mother, Gretchen May, remarried a Mexican-American man who would punish Cary by making him go pick fruit in the lonely fields by himself for hours, -- to say Fukunaga has much insight into many different variations of life would be an understatement. All of the various historical perspectives weighing down on his shoulders during his multicultural upbringing has molded the daring filmmaker into a person who has tapped into several different empathetic viewpoints. He simply sees the world in a different light than many of his peers. However, despite his intriguing background, Fukunaga doesn’t just rely on his own narrative to help him tell others’ stories. He dives headfirst into hours, days, and sometimes even months worth of research before he dares to set up a camera.

Brought up near Oakland, California, Fukunaga developed a deep appreciation for history as a result of his mother’s being an assistant professor, but still insisted for much of his life that he was going to be a professional snowboarder. However, while in his twenties, after he graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in history, Fukunaga developed an interest in film. First, he started out as a cinematographer on odd jobs, such as working on “Glory at Sea”, the short film by future Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin. He then went on to create his own projects while in film school at NYU, where he won a Student Academy Award for his short film “Victoria para chino”, which unveiled the real life story of the hardships facing a group of immigrants as they crossed the Mexican border into Victoria, Texas.

Like an evolution of his student film, Fukunaga’s 2009 feature film debut Sin Nombre unabashedly explores the heartache, triumph, and sense of loss accompanying two strangers, innocent darling Sayra and hardened gangster El Casper, as their paths interlock while they embark on a journey of crossing the Mexican American border while atop a moving train. In order to properly display the grievances illegal immigrants endure while making the tumultuous journey to the land of the free, Fukunaga spent two years researching his project. He spoke with gangsters in Central America allowing some to even edit his script in order to make the slang spoken in the film as accurate as humanly possible, interviewed prospectors either looking to make the long trek into better lands, or who had already completed the journey, or were turned back by border patrol, and even spent twenty-seven hours on top of a train himself, learning firsthand what it’s like for people who are forced to travel huddled atop a moving platform like animals, caught in the rain, baking in the sunshine, and subject to ransom and violence from fellow passengers and gangsters looking for trouble. In his quest for the truth, Fukunaga found sympathy for both the innocent passengers of this journey, and the gangsters caught up in a life that provided little options for them. The result is a movie that feels raw and authentic, highlighting both the sorrows of the people who cross the border illegally in hopes of a better life, and the triumph of the human spirit that prevails in times of destitution.

In 2011 Fukunaga embarked on his first English speaking film, Jane Eyre, although he wouldn’t actually shoot on American soil until he worked on HBO’s True Detective three years later. Based on the 1847 novel by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre tells the story of Jane (Mia Wasikowska), a plain and quiet girl abused and shut out by her own family before embarking on a journey to become a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets and becomes smitten with the man of the house, lone bachelor Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). The two clearly have a fiery connection from the start, but back in the repressed, tightly wound and proper era of nineteenth century England, one did not marry below his class, and therefore, the blossoming relationship of star-crossed lovers Mr. Rochester and Miss Eyre was simply not allowed to come to fruition. However, when the two decide to forgo traditional hierarchy and pursue their romance despite the callous judgment circling them, they will find that an even greater obstacle lies between them and happiness – a horrible secret Mr. Rochester has kept hidden for as long as anyone in this dreary house can remember. This love will end in flames. Although this novel has been adapted many times before, Fukunaga has arguably conceived the greatest book-to-film representation of them all – because of his dedication to authenticity. Fukunaga hired a real French girl to play the French child Eyre teaches, slightly altered the timeline in order to create more compelling period accurate costumes, and lit several scenes by candlelight alone. However, perhaps his most important attention to detail comes down to the novel itself – his depiction of Jane Eyre. Fukunaga hired Wasikowska to play Eyre, making her the closest in age to the actual character that had ever played her before, but he also created a sense of believability by focusing on Eyre’s independence. He knows that although the adoration that buds between Eyre and Rochester is undoubtedly important to the story, what matters more is Eyre’s unshakable self-respect, her outspoken nature, and her insistence on proper treatment by those around her. Eyre is an iconic character in literature because she stands her ground, even when she’s in love, to state that although she is plain and poor and without a strong family name, she is intelligent, and proud and will not compromise herself or her ideals in the name of popularity or humility, or even in romance. Eyre was a feminist before people even began using the word, and Fukunaga, through steady, self-assured camera movements, gothic lighting, and fierce, piercing dialogue, makes sure that Eyre is remembered for her inner strength, not for her romantic involvement.

In 2014 Fukunaga pivoted once again, this time, from a proper English adaptation to a deeply southern rooted true crime cult drama – otherwise known as the wildly successful first season of HBO’s True Detective. Told over two timelines, one in 1995 and one in 2012, True Detective follows the lives of Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), as they attempt to uncover the serial killer known in these parts as “The Yellow King”. Surrounded by evil on both sides of the law, this odd couple narrates the happenings of their tracking and catching of the killer in separate interrogation sequences, as they recall all of the clues that led them to Reginald Ledoux’s hidden property, where they discovered two young children chained up in a darkened trailer, one still breathing, and one not. Over the course of this eight-episode long miniseries, we learn both about the case that has recently been re-opened after Cohle insists they didn’t bring the right man to justice, and about the relationship between these two men, who haven’t spoken to each other in over a decade. What we discover is that evil is not always so easily defined as black and white, especially when darkness can drive a philosophically sound man to fall back on bad habits, and persuade a good, God-fearing family man to commit ghastly sins in the name of solace. Sometimes it takes bad men to bring worse men down. It is simply one of the greatest moments of television to ever exist, thanks in large part to innovative writer Nic Pizzolatto, legendary actors and off-screen friends McConaughey and Harrelson, and of course, visionary filmmaker Fukunaga. Although Pizzolatto’s intricate attention to detail helped pave the way to make this show as re-watchable as it is timeless, it was Fukunaga who, along with Harrelson’s help, suggested adding some much needed humor to the darkly devastating scripts, making the characters much more likable, and their horrific situations much easier to endure. Fukunaga insisted on shooting on film, avoided any cliché Louisiana shooting spots like the French Quarter, and scouted lesser known locations, scouring the swampy tall grass while on his dirt bike, looking for untouched patches of southern grime that would make perfect settings for his secretive Southern tall tale. Though they faced gators and snakes and even had to bring birds of prey to the set in order to fend off the unpredictable wildlife, Fukunaga got what he wanted – that air of authenticity he’s always desperately searching for; that touch of magic that makes it all the more real. Oh, and of course, let’s not forget that long take in episode four that gave him worldwide acclaim for years to come.

Of course, Fukunaga wasn’t aware of the critical praise he was receiving for True Detective as it was happening. He was too busy making moves on the other side of the globe, in Ghana, prepping for his next project – Beasts of No Nation. Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Fukunaga had all hands on deck for this project, as he wrote the screenplay, directed the film, colored all of the scenes himself, and even served as the director of photography, shooting all of the scenes firsthand instead of hiring someone to take over. The man who started out as a cinematographer came full circle on this film, digging deep into his roots, and once again, diving headfirst into research. While studying the history of West Africa, Fukunaga spoke with real child soldiers, even casting former members for his film, and visited various factions from Sierra Leone and the Liberian Civil War, like the CDF, the LURD, and the Liberian Armed Forces. Shooting became a problem when their crew was held up at the Ivory Coast on suspicion of being mercenaries, and things were made much worse when Fukunaga fell ill with malaria. There were no trailers on set, no fancy treatment for star Idris Elba, and some days, the crew even struggled to get food delivered to the area. Although at times it seemed nearly impossible, Fukunaga finished the project, brought it back to the states, and gave the world a glimpse into the life of a child soldier when the film aired on Netflix as its first original movie. In the film, a boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) watches helplessly as his family is gunned down in the street by armed militia, then flees to the jungle, where he runs into the Commandant (Elba) of an unnamed West African army, and becomes indoctrinated as a child soldier. From that point forward, his life is war – blowing up vehicles, burning down villages, gunning men down in the streets – he is now just like the men who stole his family. It is a bleak and violent and gut wrenching look at the world, but it is also honest, and gives those who would otherwise glance past a news article a chance to peer inside someone else’s mind. Someone who they might not have otherwise given a second thought to.

What happened next was unfortunate, to say the least. At first, it was like a dream -- Fukunaga was hired to write and direct an updated adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. Fukunaga penned the screenplay with co-writer Chase Palmer, made the rounds announcing his latest project, and got ready to tackle his long awaited horror story. However, due to “creative differences” (many rumors have circulated as to the actual cause but none are confirmed), Fukunaga parted from the project, and the director chair was then filled by Mama filmmaker Andy Muschietti. However, as stupendous as IT has turned out to be, it’s an exciting notion to think of a Fukunaga horror film. Fukunaga has since commented that he still hopes to make one of his own.

Luckily for all of us, Fukunaga is far from done, and his next project Maniac already has major stars lining up to be included. So far Emma Stone, Jonah Hill and Justin Theroux have signed on to the Norwegian based TV show, which tells the story of a man trapped in a mental institution, caught between the harsh reality of his medicated circumstance, and the much more alluring perfect life he has daydreamed up for his himself within the world of his fantasies. Fukunaga is set to oversee the dark comedy, and although it may seem like a stretch from his previous projects, Fukunaga has proven his unwavering ability to bounce sporadically between topics, and deliver spellbinding stories. Fukunaga’s commitment to his projects shines through his willingness to spend years researching, his refusal to find a comfort zone, and his never-ending quest for a sense of belonging. After all, the one thing it seems all of his characters have in common is their search for a proper home; their need for a family and their desire for acceptance. With that in mind, surely a man lost inside of his own mind and searching for purpose in this life will actually, surprisingly, be right up filmmaker Fukunaga’s alley. This writer will personally be waiting for the arrival of Fukunaga’s latest, Maniac, with baited breath.