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The Cary Fukunaga Interview: It's Sad But Hollywood Studios Do Have A White Bias

The director of films like 'Beasts of No Nation,' 'Nim Sombre' and the hit TV show 'True Detective' on the risks of telling culturally different stories.

01/11/2016 11:13 AM IST | Updated 01/11/2016 12:44 PM IST
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Director, Cary Fukunaga, poses for a portrait in promotion of their upcoming film "Beasts of No Nation" at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015 in Toronto. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Cary Fukunaga is a man of words.

It frustrates him if he cannot find the correct word to articulate a thought or a feeling he's had. I noticed this when filmmaker Zoya Akhtar interviewed him in a session held on the sidelines of the recently concluded 18th Mumbai Film Festival.

The American filmmaker was born in California to a father of Japanese origin and a Swedish-American mother. By his own admission, the multiculturalism at home was so deeply ingrained in him that it would eventually go on to help him write stories with characters that were easy to empathize with.

"No doubt that a multicultural upbringing makes it very easier for you to access and understand stories of cultures far removed from your reality," Fukunaga said, addressing a question posed by a member in the audience.

Before finding his calling in artistic pursuits upon enrolling in a film school in NYU, Fukunaga aspired to be a professional snowboarder. "After film school, I was left with a debt of over a thousand hundred dollars and that was definitely the biggest motivation to make films," he laughs.

Fukunaga's films have mostly been about displacement, lost identity, and the quest for belonging.

His debut, Sin Nombre, about a young boy and a girl trying to escape the hardships in Mexico by illegally immigrating to the US, won him an award for directing at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, while Beasts of No Nation, another drama set in war-torn West Africa, also garnered interest at major award ceremonies.

In between the two was, of course, the first season of HBO's breakthrough show True Detective, all episodes of which he directed, and another novel adaptation, the period romantic drama Jane Eyre, starring powerhouse actors Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska.

In this interview, the director talks about the transformative time in Hollywood, his fascination with war, and the next series he's directing for Netflix starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill.

The response to the first season of True Detective was phenomenal. It stood out for its vision, treatment and of course, the performances. Did you anticipate the kind of frenzy it eventually managed to create, something that the following season failed to?

Absolutely not.

I am still surprised at the amounts of memes it generated [laughs]. Soon after its premiere, I left for Ghana to shoot my film, Beasts of No Nation, and so totally missed out on the response. I heard it became quite a major talking point. But what I feel is that the timing worked very well for the show. You see if there isn't any major political event taking place, unlike now, people tend to concentrate more specifically on entertainment.

And that's what helped the show stand out in the way that it did.

You've spoken about how putting together Beasts of No Nation was quite a struggle, essentially because of the subject matter. Do you believe it'd have secured funding quickly if it were a story about white people?

As sad and unfortunate it is, I think that is true.

I think the studios have a white bias and more than conscious racism, I feel it comes out of guilt. There's the whole standard response that oh, look, I've too many struggles in life and then bills to pay, I don't want to sit through something so depressing.

There was a Human Rights Video which put a London girl as someone caught in the war in the UK, just like children in Syria are, and it really raised the question: would we pay more attention to the atrocities if they took place in the US or the UK? Perhaps yes.

So from a film perspective, would my film have gotten more viewership, more box-office draw, and easier funding? Maybe.

But despite the hardships, you stuck to that subject matter. How difficult is it to keep up the faith in a story that others, especially the decision-makers, aren't that excited about?

I don't really think about it from their perspective as much I probably should, even lesser about the financial viability of my films. Now this is because I do believe that good films get seen. If I do a good job at making a film that is evocative and emotionally compelling, people will see it. They may not see it immediately when it comes out, but it will eventually reach them and have a kind of life that no theatrical release window can perhaps ensure.

In the case of Beasts... getting the finance and distribution, I think the success of True Detective may have had a role to play.

When you, as a white American director, go to conflict-ridden countries to try and tell their stories, there's a big risk that you take. It's easy for someone to label your work as 'poverty porn' or 'war porn' or to accuse you of being a know-it-all white savior trying to resolve issues on their behalf. How do you navigate that thin line?

Well, I'm usually prepared for those kinds of accusations to come my way and with both, Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation, a few did say that. But not a lot. I don't think so my work sensationalizes or eroticises the subject matter that I am chasing. If you're talking about something in a sober manner, I think it isn't that hard.

However, there are filmmakers who focus on the sensational aspects, on the imagery, and the violence, instead of characters. There is an element of pornography. It's just visual stimulation and not a solid character-driven narrative.

So to answer your question, to navigate that line, you've to be extremely conscious of the fact that you are an outsider and deal with the conditions as sensitively as possible. You cannot have a condescending point of view, you need to internalize their point of view and present it without any moral superiority.

And when your stories are rooted in reality, like both of mine are, instead of being a race issue, it just comes across as a universal human issue, easy for most people to relate with.

Do you feel your stories manage to capture the horrors of the war with all its trauma, or do you feel that storytelling also has limitations in the sense that it leaves you with notions of inadequacies?

The intent always is to ignite the audience emotionally. No filmmaker can take one through the horror of war because it leaves people permanently changed. It is easy to arouse someone on a sensory level but can you get someone's heart to be engaged for two hours? Can I make them stop and pay attention to what's happening around them? That's the real challenge. As far as capturing the magnitude of a war is concerned, I focus on specific stories around it that act as a metaphor for the war itself.

How much impact do you think streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon have really had on the way we approach our stories? Have they really created a healthy, alternate television and film ecosystem that works as an antidote to the micromanagement of studios?

Well, Netflix released Beasts... but we always had the option to go the traditional release way. What these platforms do is give you a wide audience of dedicated viewers.

I've no idea what is going to happen in the next 10 years, how people will consume films but right now is a great time. Simply because the studio-shunned small-budget dramas are finding home through streaming companies.

You are directing Maniac next, an adaptation of a Norwegian show, which will feature Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. What's the progress on that?

Well, right now it's just being written. It's going to take a while before it flies. A major thing is going to be to figure out my schedule, Jonah's schedule, and Emma's dates and align them together. There's a good chance that I may do a movie before the show.

Sin Nombre was made in 2006 but it is perhaps more relevant today than it was at that point. We're hearing the same kind of stories albeit in a different geopolitical context. For instance, stories of displaced people traversing through the Mediterranean at great mortal peril. What is it about displacement as a theme that attracts you so much?

I think my work is more a reflection of the times that we are living in. And I prefer it like that.

Last year, we had the largest number of displaced people ever in the history of the world. That's something we need to be aware of. And films serve that purpose. They sensitize us and in many ways, films make us see and identify with our similarities more than our differences.

I'm not like an issue person as such but if these are the realities of our times, our cinema should also capture and chronicle and make them the stories of our times.

As someone who is a historian and a political science major first and then a filmmaker, I identify myself as a citizen of the world and I am very much interested in where our species is headed. We really need to figure our shit out. Else, we're in for some serious trouble.

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