Winter 2015

True Director

In the towering TV series True Detective and in his features, Cary Fukunaga researches like crazy so that once he gets to the set he can really let fly.


DGA Quarterly Cary Fukunaga
DGA Quarterly Cary Fukunaga True Detective
LIGHT TOUCH: Fukunaga had ideal collaborators in Matthew McConaughey (left) and Woody Harrelson for his spontaneous directing style in True Detective. “I want to see what the actors are going to bring,” he says. (Photos: (top) Marcie Revens; (bottom) HBO/Lacey Terrell)

Cary Fukunaga does not like to “overplan.” When asked what is the most important thing for his crew to remember, he responds instantly: “To be on their toes.” Then he laughs. “I make up scenes all the time.”

In his brief career, Fukunaga has been acclaimed for the diversity of his work, starting with the gritty Mexican thriller Sin Nombre (2009), followed by the elegant British production of Jane Eyre (2011). Currently he is editing a ripped-from-the-headlines drama about child soldiers of the African civil wars, Beasts of No Nation. But nothing has put his name in lights like the first season of the HBO series True Detective, for which he directed all eight episodes and won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.

For all the talk of the stellar acting performances in the series by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the hypnotic lighting and the gothic imagery, when Fukunaga gets buttonholed by fellow directors, they all ask about “The Oner,” the now-famous single-take sequence in episode four in which a violent, action-packed house raid goes on for six uninterrupted minutes. “Mainly they ask if it’s really a oner,” says Fukunaga. “I’m like, ‘Yeah.’”

The director who hates to overplan shots had to prepare that shot like a military assault. It all began when he first read the script written by series creator and executive producer Nic Pizzolatto. This is the scene, Fukunaga thought, to go loose.

“It’s present-tense storytelling. It’s a way to get out of the fort, the classic escape scene, like John Ford’s Fort Apache. To me it’s always more exciting to do these things as a oner rather than as a chopped-up, high-adrenaline, cut-heavy sequence. To do action without cuts is infinitely more exciting.”

True Detective combined the styles Fukunaga had been developing on his earlier films and his education as a cameraman on documentaries and music videos. He was searching for what he calls a “stately” look.

“It’s so easy for shows to be gritty and handheld and shaky and really tight in people’s faces,” says Fukunaga. “But we already had the density of the script, and the dialogue was such that we needed air. As much as possible, we needed breaks to mull over what we just heard.

“I wanted the camera to move, but more purposefully. There’s nothing I find more lazy than unmotivated camerawork just to make things look interesting.”

Shooting the heroic oner began after Fukunaga approved the location in an housing project just outside New Orleans. “I had a sense of where I wanted to go on the journey. It was just a matter of getting in there and blocking it out, myself first and then slowly bringing in more departments, stunts, special effects, and then bringing in McConaughey and walking him through the process, showing him where we’d have the fights and dashing through places.

“We had a full rehearsal day, a day of shooting, and half a day of me trying to perfect it. Even while we were shooting, kinks were getting ironed out all over the place. It was such a live choreography, with people hiding in various places. Each department had to come up with their own plan. My work was answering all their needs so they could prepare before I got too involved in the shot.”

Even after 13 takes, including several that were halted halfway through, he still feels he never quite got the perfect one. While True Detective was shot on film (in what Fukunaga fears might have been his farewell to the medium), the long take was done digitally. “It’s the only thing we shot on the Arri Alexa the whole shoot. We had two operators to switch out on that shot, because that’s a long way to go with a Steadicam.”

The long journey was put in motion by the unprecedented decision to have one director helm the entire eight-episode season. “That’s how it was packaged,” Fukunaga says. He and Pizzolatto are managed by the same company. “The idea was to get a feature filmmaker and get feature film talent in a kind of anthology show. That was the concept we sold to HBO.”

It worked, but it was unquestionably a marathon. One hundred and one shooting days to film the 500-plus-page script set on more than 300 locations. “We didn’t shoot it like TV, episodically; we cross-boarded a lot of it. There were scenes in the first episode that were shot at the very end. It was very massive and jigsaw-like. And we had four different eras to shoot—’95, ’99, 2001, and then 2012. It ended up being about 12 days an episode—still pretty fast.

“In terms of fatigue, we were all dead by the end,” says Fukunaga, who will stay on only as executive producer. The second season, he notes, will have multiple directors. “So we’ll see how that changes things.”

DGA Quarterly Cary Fukunaga Sin Hombre
DGA Quarterly Fukunaga Jane Eyre
HOMEWORK: (top) Fukunaga became so close to gang members and desperate migrants in Sin Nombre that he was arrested while doing research; (bottom) Moving to Charlotte Brontë’s England proved no problem for his next film, Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska. (Photos: Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC)

Although he looks like a natural-born director now, it was not a foregone conclusion that Fukunaga’s career would take that path. When he was a fledgling filmmaker hustling his projects through Sundance, he came under the tutorial eye of writer-director Naomi Foner. She became, he says, a sort of surrogate mom. Like any concerned elder, she wondered in what direction the lad was headed. Was he going to be a cameraman? He was always running to Haiti or someplace to shoot a friend’s documentary. But with all his feverish screenplay work, was he going to be a writer? A writer-director, perhaps?

“What sort of hyphen will you be?” she asked one day.

After getting a degree in history from UC Santa Cruz, it was early on at NYU film school that he realized he had “too many opinions to just be a cinematographer. I’m better suited to be a director, I think. I see myself as the general author. I hate the word ‘auteur,’ because it sounds so solitary when filmmaking is anything but solitary.”

As a kid growing up in Northern California, compulsively watching movies on TV, Fukunaga constantly imagined stories on film. “The first screenplay I ever wrote was a 50-page film about two brothers in the Civil War who fall in love with the same nurse in the convalescent hospital.” He was 14.

At NYU, he got a big push from Darren Aronofsky, who dropped by for a master class. “He was great. He used me as someone to pick on, like a big brother. He said, ‘Are you working on your feature yet?’ I said, ‘Uh, I’m working on it.’ He said, ‘Better get on it. That door’s closing.’ He would have me pitch in front of the class and put me through the wringer.”

When Fukunaga began work on his first feature, the low-budget Sin Nombre, in Mexico, his inner historian kicked in. He got so close to his subjects—gang members and desperate migrants—that he was yanked off a train and arrested while doing research. On another occasion, he witnessed an actual gun battle erupt on a train and had to run for cover. He shot the film entirely in Spanish. “Some people still think I’m a Mexican director,” says Fukunaga, whose mother is Swedish and father is Japanese-American.

“Research comes naturally to me,” he says. “It feels logical. Unless I understand the context of the world, I can’t grasp anything. From reality I find my characters.”

Fukunaga’s deep-dish research and penchant for authenticity is evident in his depiction of the gang world, especially in a single-take shot in which cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s camera wanders through a gang hideout, observing the tough guys doing their day-to-days, tattooing each other, ironing shirts, and interacting.

After Sin Nombre won the dramatic directing award at the Sundance Film Festival, Fukunaga didn’t have to pitch his next project. James Schamus and John Lyons, then heads of Focus Features, offered him Jane Eyre to direct.

Going from rail yards in Mexico to the windblown moors of Charlotte Brontë’s England proved not to be a troublesome leap. He knew the 1943 film version directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Orson Welles by heart—it was one of his mother’s favorites. (This was a woman who named her son after Cary Grant.)

As he perfected the “stately” imagery on Jane Eyre, he still retained his loose shooting style that borders on guerrilla. “I want to see what the actors are going to bring and be more spontaneous. I don’t like to do shot lists, storyboards, or any of that stuff.”

Besides inventing scenes on the spot, such as the tempestuous Rochester (Michael Fassbender) returning home and peppering the sky with buckshot, Fukunaga’s major lesson on Jane Eyre, he says, was figuring out how to deal with bigger actors such as Judi Dench and Fassbender, who were no shrinking violets.

“I think you learn how not to take things personally,” he says. “You learn that it’s a job for some people and it’s not about personal relationships on that level. You provide the space for them to do the best they can. Every actor is different. Some want adjustments; some don’t. Some want to know exactly how to say something; some want to be absolutely free. It takes a while to figure out everyone’s style and form of communication.

“On Jane Eyre, I learned how to be a general observer of everyone’s modus operandi. That really helped on True Detective—a lot.”

There were no secrets, at least, in dealing with the two well-traveled stars on True Detective, McConaughey and Harrelson. “Matthew is very communicative about his creative process. He knew his whole arc and where he was going to hit it. So I could just lay out what we were doing and let him do it.

“Woody’s process is more tactile and inspired. He gets an idea and he thinks about his dialogue, but he also wants to feel it out in the moment. He’s more instinctual. So it’s always a question of whether it’s working for him. He might say, ‘Something about this doesn’t feel right.’ And we’ll dig into it a bit.”

As for the striking visual content of the series, Fukunaga credits much of that to the choice of locations. “That old church at the end of episode two was on a flood plain. When we built that set, there was a 50-50 chance that it would wash away. But it was a spectacular location—the flat plain, the refineries in the background, the train line. There are times when you have to make bets.”

Choosing backgrounds was a big part of Fukunaga’s vision—and choices were never accidental. “In Westerns, you had the wonderful thing of the micro and the macro—these incredibly deft dramas in the middle of these bleak landscapes,” he says.“You’re always seeing how insignificant you are compared to how overwhelming life is.”

Communicating the vastness of bayou country was an important element of the storytelling, especially when seen from above. “The aerial shots were heavily discussed,” says Fukunaga. “There were many, many meetings with me and the helicopter operator. I described the terrain I wanted, how I wanted the helicopter to move and how to get these tableaus.”

A production this large and ambitious required a devoted team, including production designer Alex DiGerlando, who understood the graphicness Fukunaga was looking for, and 1st AD Jon Mallard, who made sure everyone understood the level of complexity and didn’t take it lightly. “There are times when the crew really has to get behind you,” says Fukunaga.

That meant inspiring people to follow you even as you get sudden ideas. “There are directors who can previs a film and then just follow it all the way through,” he says. “I respect people who can do that, but I just can’t wrap my head around that. I’m a maximizer. I want to get there and find out what the best possible thing is. So that’s why I do a shit ton of prepping.”

DGA Quarterly Cary Fukunaga Beasts of No Nation
ROUGHING IT: Fukunaga calls making Beasts of No Nation in Ghana, about the civil wars in West Africa in the ’90s, “pioneer filmmaking” because there was no infrastructure for moviemaking there. (Photo: Shawn Greene)

Ensconced in a dark room in his Greenwich Village postproduction facility, Fukunaga cracks wise that he’s not sure if a movie about Africa with no white people in it will attract a big audience. He turns to the editing table to show a harrowing five-minute battle sequence from Beasts of No Nation, and it’s immediately clear that someone will be taking notice of this film. Five years of research went into it, and the down-and-dirtiness is right there. You can almost smell the gunfire.

The film, which he adapted from a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, he says, is a return to “pioneer filmmaking. There was no infrastructure [in Ghana], so we had to create it. And try to get our equipment in without being charged exorbitant taxes by the ministries. The crew was mostly locals and the cast mainly non-actors. We cast out of refugee camps and on the streets.

“Those battle scenes?” he said, pointing at the Avid screen. “Just out of the camera line there were hundreds of people watching us work. Truckloads of people with machine guns.”

The story covers the civil wars that rocked West Africa in the ’90s, the era when child soldiers were set loose in Sierra Leone. Surrounding the child actors onscreen are former combatants of those wars. But as vivid as the battle scenes are, the real purpose of the story is to show war’s aftermath and the cost of human suffering. In the back of Fukunaga’s mind was Oliver Stone’s post-Vietnam War film Born on the Fourth of July. What drove Fukunaga to make his film were scenes of a child who remembers a mother’s love, and also that he had been a beast.

As he completes postproduction on Beasts of No Nation, Fukunaga is contemplating a plate of projects before him. There are entertainments like a two-part version of Stephen King’s It that he’s adapting. And he’d love to make a musical. But what continues to excite him are projects straight from a history major’s heart, such as A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin’s World War I novel. He would also like to direct a film of The Black Count, Tom Reiss’ recent biography of French Revolution general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

So how does a guy decompress from all this activity? These days Fukunaga prefers to head to upstate New York to ride horses.

“Someday I’m going to do a film on Napoleonic warfare,” he says, grinning. “So I’m getting ready to shoot it all on horseback!”

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