By Iain Blair
Writer/director/camera operator/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga has literally been one of the hottest — and coldest — directors in the business, thanks to making shorts, docs and movies everywhere from the Arctic Circle to Haiti and East Africa.
Now he’s hot again, in every sense of the word, having written/directed/produced and shot the harrowing new war drama Beasts of No Nation, set in the sweltering lands of West Africa, and shot in Ghana. It tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young villager, whose happy family life and childhood are shattered when army troops from the capital city arrive to squelch a rebellion against the country’s corrupt regime.
After seeing his father and brother killed, he escapes to the forest where he’s discovered by a company of young rebels led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). There, he undergoes a gauntlet of harsh treatment, initiation rituals and fiery speeches from the Commandant, and as the ragtag army sets off on a series of battles, Agu is eventually promoted from ammo carrier to rifle-toting soldier, gaining respect but losing his innocence as he’s turned into a killing machine. The film is available exclusively on Netflix.
I spoke with Fukunaga — whose credits include his acclaimed feature-writing and directing debut Sin Nombre, Jayne Eyre and the first season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective (for which he won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series) — about making the film, post and his respect for film sound.
Did you have a vision for how this film would look?
Yes, and it’s the film I wrote (laughs), but I don’t really visualize my films ahead of time. I’m not even sure about the music, so I start off definitely from a writing perspective and when scouting locations I start getting visual ideas. Obviously, I do have some visual ideas in my head or I couldn’t write it, but it’s such a work in progress… every step of the way. It was such a hard, brutal shoot — the hardest I’ve ever done, anywhere, and I’ve shot in some very difficult places around the world.
So post must have been a very calm respite after the grueling locations of West Africa?
I like post. It’s where you really make and finish the film, but I’m so used to being very hands-on in all the other production departments — writing, directing, camera operating and so on — that by the time I get to post, it feels very strange to be relegated to the role of almost an observer. And the rhythm is always fits and starts. You get in there and it seems like nothing’s happening for weeks, and then finally you make some progress, and then that all repeats. So post is definitely not my favorite part of the whole process, just because of the sheer time it all takes and how much I’m not hands-on anymore.
How did it work in the editing room with two editors —Mikkel E.G. Nielsen (A Royal Affair) and Pete Beaudreau (All Is Lost, The Gambler)?
Originally, a third editor, Elliot Graham (Steve Jobs, Milk) was on the shoot with us, but he hurt his back and had to drop out. We had roughly 75 hours of raw footage from Ghana, so Mikkel took over and had to completely learn all that footage again and then started re-cutting and re-assembling the film a couple of months after we wrapped. That was at Outpost Digital in New York. Then after five months on it, he had to leave for another job, so Pete took over — and we thought it would just be clean up by that point, but he ended up working on it for another five months. If you think of Mikkel’s work as hammering out the shape of the sword, Pete put on the fine edge to every scene.
So post was pretty long?
Yes, we did it all at Outpost. We were there almost a year, and we started on post while we were shooting in Ghana. Our associate editor, Victoria Lesiw, started off as an assistant editor in Ghana and was there all the way through and completely invested, from production to the very last days of post. We lost people along the way, so post wasn’t at all easy; people had to bow out because of previous commitments. We lost our original sound designer just weeks before we started our mix, and we had to completely redo it all in a very short time — just five weeks, which wasn’t really enough for the film — but we were able to create something out of nothing.
Although the film feels like cinéma vérité, obviously you used VFX, especially in all the battles scenes. How many visual effects shots are there?
Quite a few. There was a lot of clean up, and a lot of artifacts of war — bullet hits on walls, blood squibs — which we didn’t have time to do as usual physical effects, as well as muzzle flashes and augmenting explosions and so on. Then we had the big infra-red sequence. I’d written the screenplay back in 2006, and I loved the infrared sequence Oliver Stone and Rodrigo Prieto had done in Alexander, so I always wanted to do it. I wanted to shoot some infrared in True Detective, but we just couldn’t find the film stock — we just did it as a VFX sequence for this. Siren Lab did most of them, but The Artery also did some shots.
Sound and music both play a huge role in this, right?
I actually think they’re more important than the visuals. I had this great video class teacher in high school, who said, “People will forgive bad visuals, but they’ll never forgive bad sound,” and that’s so true. If there’s something wrong with the sound, it can be the most grating part of watching any kind of media, but if you do it right you can really elevate the storytelling. Look at what Walter Murch did… and Orson Welles, who came from radio. They really understood how much sound can tell a story, and have been a big influence for me. So when I do sound design, sometimes I’ll do entire sequences where that’s driving the entire story. We did all the mixing at Harbor Picture Company in New York. (The mix crew at Harbor included supervising sound editor Glenfield Payne, re-recording Mixer Martin Czembor, assistant sound re-recording mixer Josh Berger and re-recording mix technician Ian Gaffney Rosenfeld. The film was mixed using a Euphonix S5 Fusion console. The Euphonix was controlling 2 Pro Tools systems running Pro Tools 11.)
Where was the DI?
At Deluxe in New York with Steve Bodner (who uses DaVinci Resolve), the same colorist I used on True Detective. He’s the guy I go to for anything. We did some looks before I left, but more than anything we just get in the room and figure it all out. I love the DI, and by that stage I feel much more hands-on. We did a lot of work because the whole issue with digital is that you spend so much time trying to get back to a film look. So you sit there, massaging and massaging it, trying to get the color space right, and every film stock’s different.
I really love old photo journalism reversal stock. If I could have shot Sin Nombre on Kodachrome I would have — and part of that is the unforgiving nature of reversal stock. There’s no reciprocity there. Now, six, seven years later, shooting with the Arri Alexa, I was again looking how to approximate that slightly under-exposed reversal look for this film. I found that by shooting one stop under —and bringing in a lot of cyans and the blacks, but keeping the saturation up, and then figuring out how to make all the greens, yellows and browns really pop — it gave me the look I wanted.
There’s a lot of talk that you’ll do another TV project, a miniseries based on Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist. So what’s next?
I’m definitely involved with The Alienist, but I may do something else before then. It depends on the timing.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors and artists in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.