The first time I became aware of Cary Fukunaga was after I saw the “Levi’s America” commercial. It was beautiful, inspiring and nostalgic: Levi’s is an icon, so to see that spirit translated visually was exciting. Since then Fukunaga has only continued to expand and challenge boundaries. To date his credits include the Sundance Film Festival standout Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre and HBO’s True Detective, for which he deservedly took home the Emmy for best director. Needless to say we were excited when he sat down with us to discuss everything from his passion for the game of polo to his upcoming Beasts of No Nation, which sounds incredible.
AM: So where do you think you get your love of film from?
CF: I was raised oftentimes with the television or cinema as sort of a babysitter, if you will. My dad would drop my brother and I off at the cinema and we’d watch every single movie in the cinema before going home, and that’d be our afternoon. So I think I learned a lot about my moral tales and those kind of things from watching movies rather than from reading books, even though I did read a lot as well as a kid. But from a very young age I kind of used to fantasize about my own stories—always in a visual manner. Like, whether it be landscapes that I saw, or places around—I kind of imagined the stories taking place within them and wanted to organize my friends to make movies. But of course, you know, kids are flaky. It’s hard to get them to commit.
AM: What were the movies you were trying to make?
CF: I mean, there were so many. There wasn’t just one. I wrote my first feature screenplay when I was 14. It was like a long short film, it was like a 60-something-page screenplay.
I learned how to type while doing it too. It was about two brothers who fought in the Civil War. I was obsessed with the Civil War then.
When I was in high school I found a group of friends who used to make little comedy skits on video, and that was a lot of fun. That was what we did after school every day, we just made little videos. Then I wanted to take it a little further and make comprehensive stories and again ran into difficulty getting people to commit—so I kind of gave up making movies for a while. Just focused on school and other parts of life. Chasing girls and stuff. And then my senior year in college, I did a film project again just for the hell of it and made my first short film. Then I was hooked and decided I was going to try and make movies. That was it.
AM: What do you love about filmmaking? What’s the most enjoyable aspect of the filmmaking process for you?
CF: It’s hard to say now because I find so much of the filmmaking process actually not enjoyable.
AM: Is it because it became your work?
CF: I think it’s partially because it became my work but also because the projects are just so difficult. And sometimes the struggle feels like it’s not worth it. You spend years of your life disappearing from your friends and family to go make movies and you come back and everyone’s life has moved forward, and all you’ve done is make a new movie.
So it’s hard to say what the most enjoyable thing is anymore. I mean, I could make stuff up.
AM: No, you don’t have to do that.
CF: What would be or what should be fun or what I know under the surface is actually fun. But right now, after having done these two really exhausting projects, my feelings about cinema are very different.
AM: Are you taking a break right now?
CF: Yeah. Maybe after this month I get a break but maybe not. I don’t know. We’ll see.
AM: During the time you were having movies as a babysitter, is there any movie that had a really large impact on you?
CF: You know, very early on I was really interested in sort of more adult movies. I remember seeing Never Cry Wolf and The Last Emperor at a pretty young age. Bertolucci’s Last Emperor. I just really kind of liked being taken with the scale of stories and cinematography especially. And when I watched Empire of the Sun, I was nearly the same age as Christian Bale when that movie came out.
I was obsessed with the air force. I wanted to become a pilot, so I identified a lot with the characters. That was also the age when I really started paying attention to how the movies were made. Not critiquing but observing and the process and the shots and the construction of it all. And for a while it sort of ruined my experience of cinema, because it made me look at it with a critical mind instead of just being taken away.
But I can’t remember any one particular movie that, you know, struck me. Not necessarily one.
AM: Is there anything you do to prepare yourself before starting a project?
CF: I do a lot of research for the writing on the direction side of things, just to make sure that I know exactly what it is I’m trying to create. And once we get into pre-production, which is the planning part of the film, I spend a lot of time on location scouting.
There are people that come from different philosophies on this and people who think for a movie, it doesn’t matter what the location is if the characters in the story are strong, but for me the location always plays a very big part.
AM: What are some of your favorite places to shoot?
CF: I am not sure I have a favorite place. They’re all so different. I did like shooting in the UK. It was a lot of fun to shoot there. But I’ve shot everywhere. I’ve shot in Africa, I’ve shot in the Caribbean, I’ve shot in the Arctic, I’ve shot in Mexico and Central America and different parts of the United States. And they are all so different. I think part of the joy of shooting is the exploration. One of the things that I like most about location scouting is the people you meet. You go into people’s homes and their properties. And what happens is that you end up having these conversations with people that you would never have otherwise. It’s really refreshing and sometimes you meet just really fascinating people, but you also hear some pretty sad stories too. Maybe they have medical bills they are trying to pay or some other issue they’re dealing with and they’re going to lose their home. Sometimes you are forced to see just how desperate so much of the world is, it’s kind of frightening. But you also get to see some really interesting things and meet some really amazing people too.
AM: Sounds like a real adventure.
CF: Sometimes it feels that way. In Africa we were trailblazing. We’d pull up on the side of the road and I’d want to get to some edge of a cliff. We’d pull out our machetes and just start cutting trail through the jungle.
AM: Sounds fun.
CF: We have fun sometimes.
AM: Do you have any books or records or anything that puts you into the mode of inspiration?
CF: I don’t have a good mantra yet for my work. It’s almost like the most difficult thing, especially for me, in writing is getting to that zone. First couple weeks are painful if nothing’s happening and then eventually I get into a very focused place, you know, without the aid of pharmaceuticals. I’ve always tried coming from a very pure place. I’ve never let anything but my own discipline get me to the point of concentration. But I am open to the idea of some sort of meditation or mantra to get me to a creative space.
AM: Do you reference other films for a project? If so, what were they for True Detective?
CF: You know, I usually don’t reference films as much as I reference photographs. A photographer named Misrach was a big influence. Richard Misrach. He had this thing called the Petrochemical Highway, which was really fascinating to me and was a very big influence on what we did. My cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and I started talking about it. We spent some time trying to figure out the right look. A lot of the crime dramas go for the sort of cold, blue feel. That edgy sort of look, but that was not what we wanted to go with. We liked what the Coen brothers did in No Country for Old Men. But we also liked the sort of moody investigation [feel] David Fincher did with Zodiac. We kind of did a mixture of Zodiac and No Country for Old Men. But I think Misrach’s photographs are really interesting, sort of a mix between both those worlds. It has the movie-ness of Fincher as well as his mastery of imagery—I mean Fincher, there’s no one like Fincher in terms of mise en scène and movement of camera. I think he’s taken the ropes from Scorsese and gone further with it, you know. Torch I should say, not ropes. But you know, the Coen brothers are so idiosyncratic as well, and their work and everything is consistent throughout, even though it’s all so different. I’m sure [cinematographer] Roger Deakins plays a big part in that, but they’re the ones that board everything in; they create the sequences.
AM: Create the world …
CF: Those were definitely influences.
AM: How did True Detective come together?
CF: My manager brought it up to me. It was a project that he had with Nic Pizzolatto the writer. And then I came on board as director. Then we got the cast involved. It happened pretty quickly.
AM: Was this your first TV show?
AM: Did you like it?
CF: Did I like it— what do you mean?
AM: You know, compared to films. I’m sure it’s very different.
CF: Yeah, it’s different. But it’s also not that different. The construction of it is exactly the same.
AM: Did you feel different after winning an Emmy?
CF: No. [laughs] That stuff doesn’t matter to me. The Emmy went quickly into a closet and that’s about it.
AM: [laughs] Oh. How do you spend your downtime?
CF: I don’t really have much downtime. I work a lot. I mean, when I’m on my weekends or something, with friends, New York City has a lot of distractions. I play polo, but that season’s over now.
AM: Is there anything you do to relax?
CF: I think polo is pretty calming for me. When you’re on the horse and you’re doing your thing you forget about your everyday work and you’re just—you’re focused on the game.
AM: Where do you play polo in New York?
CF: Upstate. Can you ride a horse?
AM: I have, here and there, but I don’t. It’s not that hard to ride a horse… right?
CF: You’re not walking around on a pony. You’re running hard. [laughs] You’re galloping across the field and you’re turning and going the other way.
AM: I really need to come see this. Do you have any exciting projects on the horizon?
CF: I’m working on two scripts right now that will hopefully be done around the new year—
AM: You’re working on them simultaneously?
CF: I have about 12 projects in development. I have a lot of projects at different stages of development, some will be ready in the next year or so and some of them won’t be ready for years. But I wouldn’t be doing any of them if I wasn’t excited by them. It’s more just a question of which becomes real first. And to be completely honest, until I finish this little monster, Beasts of No Nation, it’s difficult to even guess.
AM: Beasts of No Nation?
CF: It’s the film I’m just finishing. It takes place in Africa. That should’ve been the first question you asked.
AM: Am I failing at the interview? [laughs]
CF: I assumed you knew about it. It’ll be done sometime in the new year and then hopefully I’ll take it to festivals later on, but it was a very difficult movie to make.
AM: How long have you been working on this project? CF: Eight years.
AM: How would you describe this project to someone who doesn’t know about it?
CF: Ugh, I hate those questions. [laughs]
AM: [laughs] Well, now that we’ve talked about it and opened the door, readers are going to want to know what it is.
CF: Well, it’s a Nigerian novel, written by a Nigerian about 10 years ago. It’s about a boy from a good family who was swept into a war—a civil war is taking place in his country. And it’s his philosophical and moral journey through becoming a killer—and then out. I don’t want to call it a child soldier story because it’s not an issue movie at all; it’s not about the issue of child soldiers by any means. It’s just about a boy. It’s a coming of age story, but in a very obviously extreme way.
AM: Do the projects that you’re working on influence you in your personal life? Your mood, how you feel every day?
CF: Yeah, I don’t think you’re doing your job unless it does do that.