Cary Joji Fukunaga on what he did and didn’t show you in ‘Beasts of No Nation’


Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of new Bond film “No Time to Die,” is sitting on a Zoom call. Bond, however, is off the menu. We’re here to talk about Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a breakthrough film, though not necessarily for the director.

Released in 2015, “Beasts of No Nation” was Netflix’s first original movie — that is, the first movie distributed by the streaming service. A lot has changed since then. If Netflix has operated with all the momentum of a runaway train — $17 billion spent on content this year; 36 nominations and seven wins at the last Academy Awards — Fukunaga’s film greased the wheels and gave it a considerable push. Filmed in Ghana, his adaption of Uzodinma Iweala’s harrowing novel about child soldiers in West Africa was an auteur-driven film featuring an imperious Idris Elba and a breakout performance from first-time actor Abraham Attah as Agu, the boy at the center of the drama. It screamed prestige cinema and seemed destined for Oscars glory, only to be overlooked, receiving no nominations.
But Oscars aren’t everything; some films need to find their own path. Luckily a welcome reappraisal is on offer thanks to a new Criterion Collection edition. The set of collectors editions is a broad church of masterworks by filmmakers from around the world. For directors, it’s a club they all want to be a part of. “There is no higher honor,” says Fukunaga, who has admired their curatorial skills since his film student days.

To celebrate the release, Fukunaga took a walk down memory lane with CNN. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"Beasts of No Nation" follows a brutal civil war in an unnamed West African country.

“Beasts of No Nation” follows a brutal civil war in an unnamed West African country. Credit: Courtesy Shawn Greene/Netflix

CNN: Can you take us back to before you started shooting? From what I’ve read, when you landed in Ghana there were more things up in the air than your average production. How much of a gamble was this film?

Fukunaga: I don’t know if I thought of it as a gamble. “Beasts” was supposed to be my second film. I finished the screenplay in the beginning of 2007 before I shot “Sin Nombre” (Fukuaga’s first feature, released in 2009). Unfortunately, a movie came out that was about child soldiers — a very different treatment of it — and it didn’t do well internationally. I think it gave Focus Features cold feet about making “Beasts,” and I went on to make “Jane Eyre” instead. But I never gave up on making that film. While I was on “True Detective,” Idris Elba became a potential option to play the Commandant — that would have basically greenlit the film. (The late producer) Steve Golin facilitated the call and I talked to Idris and he signed on right there. Next spring, we were all in Ghana together making it.

CNN: You had experienced actors like Elba alongside first-time actors, hired through street casting. How much does that keep you on your toes? And as a director, what did you have to do to make sure everyone got what they needed?

Fukunaga: I always knew I was going to hire mainly unknowns. What I did was set up a little theater troupe. We took all the kids in that we thought had charisma or potential and did several weeks of workshops with them. And then out of those kids, basically cast all the different children that ended up in the film.

Emmanuel Affadzi as Dike, one of the young cast in "Beasts of No Nation."

Emmanuel Affadzi as Dike, one of the young cast in “Beasts of No Nation.” Credit: courtesy Criterion Collection

We kept that workshop going until about halfway through production, just so that we could workshop scenes and get them comfortable with what acting was. The age of these kids is tricky, because you’re getting right to that point of adolescence when that self-consciousness starts to creep in, and that ends up making natural performances much more difficult. But we got right in there with them and had some amazing performances.

CNN: Re-watching the film, it’s more violent than I remembered. But it doesn’t relish it for a moment. I wonder if this film influenced your attitude to portraying on-screen violence in future projects?

Fukunaga: A lot of the violence takes place off camera. The camera might revisit it, but the precise moment of violence, oftentimes it’s just on the edge — but you feel it, nonetheless. In both “Sin Nombre” and in “Beasts” I pulled back on the violence. In war, the handling of prisoners and battle wounds are far more brutal than what I’m showing on screen.

I think violence, similar to sex, you don’t really have to show it on camera. It is for the most part inconsequential to story and character. Once these things are implied, once we as an audience have taken in the fact, it’s like, “Okay, we got it, we can move on.” There’s no reason to necessarily linger on it as a voyeur.

CNN: And how do you strike that balance of giving the audience enough to feel the gravity of the moment, without overburdening them?

Fukunaga: I think if you really showed how brutal life can be, you’d lose the audience. They’d go completely numb, or they wouldn’t be able to stomach it and would have to leave. War is probably one of the most brutal things that people do not see anymore. There was far more imagery, I would say, 30, 50, 60 years ago. In fact, death for the most part is covered from our everyday life. It’s almost like we’re not prepared to look at it.

Abraham Attah as Agu, the  child soldier at the heart of "Beasts of No Nation."

Abraham Attah as Agu, the child soldier at the heart of “Beasts of No Nation.” Credit: courtesy Criterion Collection

CNN: “Beasts” was a first for Netflix. It also put them in new territory in terms of marketing and publicity. Looking back, how do you feel it all played out?

Funukaga: (Sighs.) I think the film would have absolutely been viewed differently from an industry prize perspective if we’d gone with a more traditional arthouse cinema release. I think it would have pretty quickly disappeared as well. When (Netflix CEO) Ted Sarandos was giving me his final pitch, I remember thinking, “Okay, if we go this route, it may mean we’ll never get a prize for this film. But the flip side of it is more people will see this film” — and I mean 10-fold, 100-fold, 1,000-fold more.

It was important for me, in terms of my philosophy of making movies, to take issues that are happening around the world and turn them into a format that can be viewed in a far more emotionally impactful way than say, a newspaper article or headline, and to have that lasting emotional memory. To achieve that goal as many people as possible need to see the film. So, ultimately, I made the Netflix decision. And I’m very thankful; I think they did an incredible job promoting that film.

CNN: You were the tip of the spear. Do filmmakers talk to you about how you cracked the door for others to go down this route?

Fukunaga: We also cracked the door in terms of still maintaining a cinematic release — we had day and date release. I think that other filmmakers since then have been able to fight for a separation of window, and I think that separate (release) window is still very important. Having a film (only) in the cinema obliges people to go see it in the best way possible. And I still think seeing films in cinema, with an audience, surrounded by the sort of contagious energy of an audience, is the only way to truly feel the impact of a film to its utmost.

Cary Joji Fukunaga attends the premiere of "No Time To Die" in London, September 2021. Fukunaga directed the latest film in the James Bond franchise.

Cary Joji Fukunaga attends the premiere of “No Time To Die” in London, September 2021. Fukunaga directed the latest film in the James Bond franchise. Credit: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images for EON Productions

CNN: Location shoots can be a bit of a traveling circus. What sort of legacy did the production leave?

Fukunaga: It’s pretty strong on the Ghana side. I still get messages on Instagram from some of the cast members and the kids. People who were part of the crew have gone on to do directing themselves in Ghana. Abraham ended up coming out to America after production and studying at a boarding school in Connecticut that Ted Sarandos covered. He went on to do “Spider-man (Homecoming)” and a couple of other projects. Then this year he’s going to start as a freshman at Tufts University. He’s worked really hard to get here — nothing’s been given to him.

CNN: Every film leaves a mark on its director. What did this leave on you?

Fukunaga: It’s a story I’d been living with for 10 years by the time I made it. I met a lot of people in the process, former combatants, former commanders. The kids’ lives we changed as part of the project. The experience is still one of the most incredible I’ve ever had, in terms of filmmaking. In a short window of time you’re making something that will be immortal; capturing that moment, not just of our lives but of these fictional characters’. It’s still, I think, probably one of the most important films I’ve ever made.



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