Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Kevin P. Sullivan
October 16, 2015 AT 03:31 PM EDT

With two feature films — Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre — and the celebrated first season of True Detective, Cary Fukunaga has distinguished himself as a filmmaker to watch. His latest film, Beasts of No Nation, has already gained plenty of attention as a powerful look at the lives of child soldiers in an unidentified African country, but it’s also the first original film from Netflix, debuting today on the streaming service and in select theaters.

In the lead-up to Beasts of No Nation‘s unprecedented release, Fukunaga spoke to EW about the project’s long development, working with Idris Elba, and his nerd-love for movie theaters. (Sorry, Netflix.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did this project start for you?

CARY FUKUNAGA: This really started while I was still an undergrad in college, when I was reading about conflicts in central Africa, specifically about Rwanda. I was taking a neo-colonial class, and I started to learn about the conflict in west Africa and what became known as the conflict-diamond wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. When I applied to film school in 2001, I applied with the idea of writing a child-soldier story as my feature pitch. When you do your application, you’re supposed to say, if you make a feature film, what will it be about. That’s what I sort of wrote about. 

I went out in 2003 to New Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the border to Liberia to research for my movie and try to write a screenplay. I struggled with it for a couple of years, but ultimately put it aside to write Sin Nombre. When I got back from my research for Sin Nombre, a friend of mine from the Peace Corps in New Guinea lent me his copy of Beasts of No Nation. For me, it was the perfect boiled-down emotional experience that I was looking for. I had been trying to throw in too much context and politics and everything else. When I read that book, I knew it was the real story I wanted to tell, and [author Uzodinma Iweala] had found its essence. Focus Features optioned the book for me in 2006, and I started writing a screenplay that year. I finished it before I made Sin Nombre, and then it sat on a shelf until Focus decided that they weren’t going to make it. I got it out of there and found Red Crown — maybe around early 2011 or 2010. They said they wanted to do it, and they waited patiently. They waited for me to do True Detective. It was because the story has been obviously near and dear to me for many years. When I said earlier that it has been years in the making, it even predates the script itself.

Was it difficult to keep up your enthusiasm for it over the years?

You definitely change. When I wrote it originally, I thought it was a short, contained, solid screenplay. I was pretty happy with it, and I liked it for its simplicity. When I came back and re-read it last year, I said, “This needs an entire rewrite,” and I did a page-one rewrite. I definitely brought it to where I was at that time period, but the thing that attracted me to the story originally and the thing that led me to push the boulder up the mountain and make the movie and finish it, the desire and the emotional heart of it were still there. That never went away, and my connection to the story never went away. Really, it was about trying to find a way into the story that didn’t feel too repetitive from what’s already been out there.

What did having Idris Elba mean for getting the movie made?

The guy has gravitas. You can’t deny it. Whether you see him on screen or meet him in person, he’s just one of those people who moves the room. I needed to find somebody for this role that you didn’t just hate, that you could understand not only their motivations, but how people could be attracted to them. By no means is this a Kony story. This is not trying to be anything about the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s about natural leadership in places of conflict and those people who would have been political leaders in another life or another country where upward mobility was somehow easier. Here’s somebody who found his own way and obviously did terrible things, but you could still understand who he was and not just be villainized.

I thought with Idris, whether in his role as Stringer Bell on The Wire or as Mandela, there’s always multiple levels to the character there. He’s somehow able to communicate through his acting. That’s a rare skill, and there’s a small set of people in this world who have that. In terms of getting him on board, that was a coup. His mother is from Ghana. His father is from Sierra Leone. Until this movie, he had never been to Ghana. He had been to Africa, obviously. He had been to Nigeria, South Africa, and other places, but never to his motherland. I also think it was just a great opportunity for him to reconnect with that part of himself. It helped a lot in Ghana to have him be part of the project, in the same way, for example, in Mexico on Sin Nombre having Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. It legitimized what we were trying to do. 

You’ve directed children in all of your work. Has it gotten easier?

I don’t think directing non-actors is ever easy, but what you get out of somebody who is not a trained actor, especially in children — the rawness, the vulnerability, the truth, in terms of their experience moment to moment in a scene — is unreputable. I think it just comes down to casting really. Harrison Nesbit was the casting director on this one, and Harrison had very little time to, once he was boots-on-the-ground, to try to find a cadre of kids to even show up and try out for us. People just wouldn’t do it. We tried. We put it on the radio, on TV, everything.

It really required going out into the community and trying to find people. A couple of the kids we found were homeless kids that made a living either as street fighters or taking care of horses at the stables. They have a lot of horse riding on the beaches in Ghana. We found kids everywhere we could that showed natural charisma and could also portray the depth and damage from being child soldiers. You can see it on the screen. There’s a scene that’s a part of that teaser, where King Kong or Strika, he walks up behind Agu when he’s about to kill that guy. You just see it in his face that he’s got no problem with what he’s about to do. Not that King Kong’s a killer in real life, but he knows what life and death mean at such a young age.

Where did you find Abraham Attah?

Abraham was found on a soccer pitch. He’s a street vendor. His parents are street vendors. He goes to school sometimes, but he was behind on his education. He wasn’t homeless, but he definitely was not found in a school.

What does the Netflix release mean to you as a filmmaker?

Beasts of No Nation could have very easily had a two-screen release and eventually spread out and maybe a few thousand or a couple hundred thousand people would ultimately see the film around the world. I still want to be a director that has a theatrical release, that has my movies playing in tiny places in the middle of nowhere with sticky floors and creaky olds seats and people having that experience, because I love doing that. But I also want people to see the film, and it’s really hard to deny the power of 61 million subscribers, where they’re going to heavily promote the film, heavily promote the idea of watching the film. If they can have an emotional experience with my movie, then that’s everything I want. Although I’d want to continue the more curated experience in terms of where it’s screening, I also want people to see it.

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