Interview: Cary Fukunaga (BEASTS OF NO NATION)

CaryIn July, Netflix announced an original film initiative would launch with BEASTS OF NO NATION, a feature film written and directed by Cary Fukunaga. The film, adapted from the acclaimed novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala, follows the story of an African child torn from his family to fight in his country’s brutal civil war. The film debuted in October simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix.

BEASTS OF NO NATION would mark Fukunaga’s first project following his brilliant job directing the Writers Guild Award and Emmy Award-winning first season of TRUE DETECTIVE.

The WGAE spoke with Fukunaga about how he broke into the industry, his writing process and BEASTS OF NO NATION.

WGAE: How did you get your start in the industry?

Cary Fukunaga: I went to NYU’s Graduate Film program. I did a short film my second year called VICTORIA PARA CHINO which was accepted to the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. The Institute runs a writer’s lab twice a year and they asked me if I had a feature based on my short. I didn’t at the time but I was able to write SIN NOMBRE based on research I’d done for the short. Let’s just say the first draft wasn’t fully flushed out so I asked to submit to the next round after I was able to do more research in Central America – which I did and resubmitted that same year.  It was accepted to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab that January, a year after I’d been there with the short and straight out of the Lab (which is an incredible experience in and of itself) Focus Features optioned the project. So I suppose that was my start in the industry, as a paid writer.

What led to you directing TRUE DETECTIVE?

TRUE DETECTIVE came after I directed JANE EYRE. I had been living out of the States for a couple of years (in London). I was trying to figure out what to do next. I had a couple of projects I was writing but nothing was ready. TRUE DETECTIVE was presented to me by my management company, Anonymous Content. They wanted to put me and Nic Pizzolatto together with some talent and pitch to the networks as a package.

After TRUE DETECTIVE, what attracted you to doing BEASTS OF NO NATION? Was this a project you sought out or was it brought to you?

Prior to going to film school, I was interested in doing a story about the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. One of the first shorts I wrote was about an assault on a village by the RUF. So when I applied to film school, I applied with the idea of doing a child soldier project as my first feature. I actually wrote the first draft of BEASTS OF NO NATION before I shot SIN NOMBRE.

When exactly did you write the first draft of BEASTS OF NO NATION?

I wrote it over Christmas of 2006. It was a very dark Christmas.

Did you have the book rights at that time?

Focus Features optioned the rights to Uzodinma Iweala’s book for me in early 2006, the same time they optioned SIN NOMBRE. I hadn’t planned on that being the basis for the movie, I had read a lot of books on the subject while accumulating research but when I read Iweala’s book, it felt to me a complete cinematic experience, far more impactful and emotional than I’d been coming up with. It’s a very pure story in terms of this child’s experience. I felt like I could adapt it and still include much of the research I had already done as a basis or background for the story.

Can you tell me how you went about adapting BEASTS OF NO NATION? Were you concerned with keeping specific parts or the essence of the book? How did you go about figuring out what needed to be in the film?

I had no specific writing process up until then. For SIN NOMBRE, I had a much more plot heavy outline. For BEASTS OF NO NATION, it was heavily characterized in the novel but I used Joseph Campbell’s The 12 Stages of The Hero’s Journey as an outline format. Christopher Vogler does a really great job of explaining what that is in his book and I felt, especially at that time, that visualizing my outline in that way was for more informative to the process.

I reordered the book because the book was written nonlinear, and rewrote the first act to be heavily focused on his family. I felt an audience needed to see his childhood first, see the love of his brother and parents and the relative innocence he enjoyed. There were a lot of things I had to change in the third act as well but the first act is where I needed to invent. Uzo’s final scene in the book with the therapist was always going to be the ending, and I felt it was a strong ending, so I wasn’t as concerned with that part of the adaptation.

What type of environment do you like to write in? Do you like to be alone in a quiet room? Do you like to work in the morning or night?

It usually takes me all day to start writing. I have my rituals of email, texts, and news and whatever sort of blogs I’m looking at. Then I’ll turn the internet off and I’ll sit there for a while. Then I’ll probably eat something before I start. By this point, it’s lunchtime. I really don’t get into it until the afternoon. I think around 3pm to 6pm is when I do most of my writing. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m in a café or alone. Once I’m writing it doesn’t matter. I can shut out the world. If my mind is in it, nothing can really affect me.

Do you surround yourself with notes and outlines while you’re writing?

I take a lot of notes. Some of the notes I include in the outline. Some of them I keep in separate piles. Especially if it is a heavily research-based scene. I have to have notes just to get the details about things right. When I’m doing research, I start to collate that material into one place. In the outline, I might include bits of it or I’ll include dialogue that came to me for a particular scene that I might forget unless it’s written down. I try to write down as much as possible, especially when I’m in writing mode, greases the wheels. I also tend to be much more of a sponge in terms of what inspires me. I normally wouldn’t be attuned to the world and what it’s showing me if I weren’t in writing mode.

Is there a scene in BEASTS OF NO NATION that you felt translated especially well from the script to the screen?

The whole first act of BEASTS takes place in Agu’s home village. None of those scenes are actually in the book, it was the part I finished writing while I was in Ghana getting ready to shoot. The imagination TV act was something that I used to play with my big brother when I was little and did it as an exercise for the kids because I knew it was something that made you think on your feet. They really took to it and I was like, “Well hell, I’ll just put this in the movie.”

That scene, with the kids acting out television shows visible through an empty television set, really brought you into their world.

I wasn’t sure if it was working as a scene until I saw the kids watch themselves doing it on screen. We used to show daily’s each Sunday. First it started out with just the crew. Then the kids would come. By the end it was standing room only, everyone was there even Idris. There were loud, sort of rambunctious, screenings with everyone calling themselves out and laughing. It was a lot of fun and a really good morale booster. When the kids first saw themselves at one of those screenings, they just lost it.

Tell me about the process of taking a subject matter that is upsetting and disturbing and turning it into something where an audience is able to connect with a child soldier like Agu.

It is a very dark place you have to go to when you are immersing yourself in the material. The photographs and video footage of the conflicts. The amount of death I’ve seen doing the research and the stories I’ve heard are terrifying and heartbreaking. These are images you can’t really erase from your memory. You sort of have to live in it as you are writing it and I’m sure that has long term effects that I probably don’t even know about yet. I can tell you writing a more pleasant story is far nicer and more pleasant.

I think that Iweala did a really beautiful job in his novel depicting Agu’s own interpretation of what was going on. He did it in a way that was so childlike. My screenplay had minimal screen direction. I would let the reader of the script sort of fill in the blanks there or I would use very simple words to describe some of the most terrible things and not try to embellish it at all.

As a Writer/Director, do you feel comfortable when an actor changes dialogue or puts a different spin on the way that you had envisioned it being said?

I knew a lot of the kids weren’t going to nail it exactly as I had written it. As long as the spirit of what I was trying to say was right, then I was fine with it. The same thing goes for both Kurt Egyiawan as 2nd I-C and Idris Elba as Commandment when they are making their political speeches—even the speech of Commandment at the very end. There were some points in there that were important to me and if the actors forgot it, I would say, “In the next take, don’t forget this part.” If someone changed the order of a sentence or the delivery, that part didn’t bother me, as long as I felt it was authentic to the character.

What else are you watching or reading that you would recommend?

I’ve been reading the Elena Ferrante series, The Neapolitan Novels. I started reading Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle   and was  really enjoying his clear and minimal prose. I’m reading a ton of nonfiction right now. I mainly read nonfiction these days.

Is there a film or television character you would love to go back in time and write dialogue for?

I think if you really filmed the right dialogue for Gary Cooper back in the day…. I mean he got away with some incredible lines.