An auteur of diverse genres

Cary Fukunaga on his favourite version of True Detective, the challenges of working on Beast of Nations, and why he’s a student of history

Cary Fukunaga’s strikingly handsome face dons a film of fatigue. He shrugs it off. “I’ve actually been in India for the last ten days.” He’s fresh, though, from a food trip to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. “The food’s amazing,” he says. Fukunaga was in the city last week for two events conducted by the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star and spoke to The Hindu.

Best known as the director of the first season of HBO’s hit television show True Detective, Fukunaga is an auteur of varied interests. He has also directed three films, each in a different genre. Each has been tremendously well-received. Does it irk him that True Detective appears to overshadow his other work? Last year’s award-winning Beasts of No Nation, for instance, was a gut-wrenching story about child soldiers in an unnamed African country. It was picked up by Netflix and had a limited theatrical release. “Not really,” he says. “It’s a matter of numbers, after all, given HBO’s reach compared to any indie film.”

Finding movies

Fukunaga started writing when he was ten, and wrote his first long story when he was 14. He won a few prizes for short stories in junior high school, but it was actually competitive snowboarding that first caught his fancy as a viable career. “Snowboarding was about challenging myself physically and overcoming my fears. Directing was a simultaneous interest, but I never thought of making movies as a career, more as a hobby, something you do on the side.” But in university, he found himself increasingly enamoured of the idea of making films and enrolled himself in New York University’s graduate film programme at the Tisch School of the Arts.

“I grew up with Spielberg. Later, Kubrick and Malick had a huge influence on me. In university, I discovered the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Danny Boyle, and many others.” The Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s films had a tremendous impact on him, especially his black-and-white films such as Pigs and Battleships.

Making a cult show

The first season of True Detective aired in early 2014. Almost overnight, the show became a sensation. So did Fukunaga, and the writer of the show, Nic Pizzolatto. This was the first time Fukunaga had directed a screenplay he hadn’t written. His movies — Sin Nombre, an emigration thriller set in the badlands of Mexico; Jane Eyre, an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic book; and later, Beasts of No Nation — are all based on screenplays drafted by him. “For True Detective, it was very clear that Nic would be only the one with the fingers on the keyboard. But along the development process, I had to re-adapt certain scenes, or re-order certain episodes,” he says. For instance, in the original script, the murder takes place in a forest. But Fukunaga, while exploring the landscape of Louisiana, found the image of burning cane fields haunting, which led to the scene being changed.

The lead characters of season one, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart, are now firmly entrenched in popular culture, subjects of reams of analysis in mainstream publications and endless discussions on online forums. The role of Hart, in fact, was first offered to McConaughey, who came back to the creators suggesting he play the role of Rust Cohle. Fukunaga admits this didn’t make sense initially. “Killer Joe and a couple of other films hadn’t come out. So it seemed strange to think of him in that role, even though I’m a big fan of casting against type,” he says. Now, of course, it’s unimaginable that anyone else could have played Cohle.

The internet was rife with theories about various aspects of the story — symbolism, colours, hidden meanings, references — months after the first season released. True Detective detectives ran amok on the Internet. And sometimes, of course, they read too much into the story. As an example, Fukunaga points out that the plot point about Hart’s daughter and her playing with the dolls was not a reference to her being a victim. Note for True Detective geeks: it was actually a reference to her being sexualised owing to her father’s job.

For True Detective fans, Fukunaga offers a delicious bit of news. There exists a version of True Detective that he loves the most. And it’s in black-and-white. How can we see it? “Well, I have it with me on Blu-ray. I suppose fans should now petition HBO to release it.”

Writing and directing

The second season of True Detective released last year to reasonably positive reviews, but could not scale the heights its predecessor had conquered. Even though Fukunaga served as an executive producer, he says he’s yet to watch the second season. Life has been busy. Beasts of No Nation came out last year and he was busy for months promoting it, taking it to festivals, and bringing it to theatres. Immediately after that, he got drawn into writing the screenplay for TNT’s eight-part psychological thriller The Alienist. While he’s no longer directing it, he’s completed the 507-page screenplay.

Fukunaga says that Beasts of No Nation is the most challenging film he’s ever shot, easily overshadowing the challenges thrown at him by the gruelling shoot of True Detective. “I still have dreams about it. I am just happy no one got hurt on the shoot. It’s just not worth losing your life over a shoot.” He recalls how they shot in the most mind-numbing terrain, in backwaters, with poisonous snakes and spiders; crew members falling ill due to dysentery; malarial mosquitoes that indisposed cast and crew; unpredictable weather; equipment locked up at customs; actors arrested on suspicion of being mercenaries, who had to be cut out of the movie. Once, they even faced a highway robbery attempt on the way to the coast.

His next is Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished Napoleon project (famously called “the greatest movie never made”), which will be adapted as a mini-series for HBO. Steven Spielberg is reported to be on board as an executive producer. David Leland is re-writing it for the small screen from Kubrick’s feature film version. “I’m very excited about it. It’s unconventional. The structure of the story by David is far more sophisticated,” says Fukunaga.

All-time favourites

Does he have a favourite TV show? “Well, Cheers. Have you heard of it? It’s an American classic.” And film? He thinks hard before offering three: Goodfellas, Empire of the Sun, and The Goonies.

And what is Cary Fukunaga reading these days? “It’s a book I’m adapting: Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. The book is about an old man recounting his experiences during World War 1, and should make for terrific source material. “I studied history, so it interests me. Historical films can offer subtle commentary on how we have progressed or regressed as a society.”

The author is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 7:35:55 AM |

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