Cary Fukunaga On 'Beasts Of No Nation,' His Netflix Gamble And The End Of 'True Detective'

The director has helmed the streaming service's first original movie.
Dominique Charriau via Getty Images

Netflix, once again, is disrupting the film industry's predominant business model. "Beasts of No Nation," the first movie to premiere on the streaming service, is now available for your home-viewing pleasure. That decision has angered the country's biggest theater chains, which refuse to screen the film despite a simultaneous theatrical release. The Netflix platform is even more of a gamble given the story's harrowing nature. "Beasts of No Nation" is a great movie, but it's not exactly something you curl up with when hunting for comfort food.

But that's only the start of the woes Cary Fukunaga has seen in making "Beasts," which chronicles Agu (Abraham Attah), a young orphan forced into mercenary service for a West African warlord known simply as Commandant (Idris Elba). After directing the first season of "True Detective" (he swears he hasn't seen the dreadful Season 2), Fukunaga headed to Ghana to make the movie. There, he contracted malaria and had to fill in for his camera operator, who pulled a hamstring. Meanwhile, Elba got the flu, the production battled erratic weather conditions and props didn't arrive on time. No matter: Fukunaga barreled through the ordeal and was met with glowing reviews at fall's major film festivals. Whether you see it on Netflix or on the big screen, "Beasts of No Nation" -- written and shot by Fukunaga, and based on the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala -- demands your attention. In keeping, The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with Fukunaga to discuss the film. In case you're still wondering, yes, he does know how you feel about the end of "True Detective."

You’ve shot a visually rich film that most people will see at home on Netflix. As it goes, the revolution will be televised. Obviously this is the business deal you made, but does part of you wish more people could see it on a big screen?

Well, it’s kind of the same, though, if your movie comes out in the cinema and gets a limited release and then eventually most people discover it. It’s kind of just the nature of it. People aren’t all going to be able to experience your film in the way you intended them to, which is on a big screen. There’s no doubt that the best way to watch a movie is on the big screen. There’s just nothing that comes to replace that, no matter how much anyone hypes up their home-theater system. It’s tough because we’re getting a pretty wide release -- we’re going to 31 markets in the U.S. and definitely three or four markets in the U.K., and we’re still lobbying with Netflix to try to open it up in more cinemas around the world because I think there’s an opportunity there, but I’m not the voice of Netflix.

Will Netflix make you privy to viewership numbers even though it doesn't release ratings?

I don’t know. I think they’ll probably remain the same. I’ll probably get a sense of the seat count for per-screen average for theatrical, but I’m not sure if I’ll actually know who’s tuning in to download the film.

Are you cool with not knowing? You’re probably used to seeing weekend box-office numbers and overnight TV ratings.

That’s a good point. Thanks for making me sleep less well at night.

I assume it didn't bother you previously, then.

I hadn’t even thought about it yet.

Sorry to plant the seed. Don’t even worry about it. Who needs numbers? It’s fine! Let’s talk about the artistic side instead. In writing the script, what was your take on how brutal the movie should be? There’s a fair amount of humor buried in it, but it’s also pretty grisly and tough to watch.

I am always hesitant about films that have zero humor in them because I’ve found, in the most dark places, whether it’s gallows humor or something else, that humor still exists. Humor is reality, so although not everyone’s going to laugh at the humor I’ve put in the movie, I try to keep that in there because you need to have, through tragedy, comedy. For me, that’s what makes it more human -- to have those dualities coexisting. But the darkness even isn’t as dark as I could have made it.

Part of that balance is in the way you’ve written Idris Elba’s character. He doesn’t fit a lot of the dictator tropes that have become clichés in film. Elba has more swagger than he does theatrics.

Part of it was, as opposed to, say, “The Last King of Scotland,” where Idi Amin was the leader of the entire country, Idris’ character is the leader of a military battalion. That’s part of the reason why I wrote in [Dada Goodblood, the supreme commander,] who's sort of a political figurehead. It shows that even this guy has somebody to answer to. There’s always a bigger fish, and that character, in a way, castigates or really humiliates Commandant in terms of his limitations. He’s not fit to be a political leader once the world is watching. He’s a very effective bulldog, so I think Idris did a very good job playing that swagger and playing the capriciousness of a somehow adolescent-like military man. I’ve seen leaders like him -- leaders on a small level who will never be leaders on a national level. He can lead a band of men, but he can never take that and transition it to more widespread power. He’ll make decisions on a whim without really thinking about what the consequences are.

Abraham Attah and Idris Elba star in a scene from "Beasts of No Nation."
Abraham Attah and Idris Elba star in a scene from "Beasts of No Nation."

Representation is something the culture is very consciousness of right now. Even though you had the novel as source material, for a filmmaker who isn’t from the area you’re depicting, what did you do to ensure you were telling the right story?

In terms of research, I did a ton. I was a poli-sci and a history major, and when I do history on real subjects I approach it as if I were writing an article about it and try to saturate myself in facts and details and anecdotal information and first-person testimonials. I’d done research with former combatants, displaced people, mercenaries, British and U.S. military involved in the conflicts, as well as, during the production, working with a commander who had taken part in the wars in Sierra Leone and in Liberia. A lot of what I did was based on that reality, even though it is fiction.

And what went into the decision to set it in an unnamed country?

That was in the book, and I think Uzo and I were on the same page all the way through development on this in that if we were to place it in Nigeria during the Biafra War or in Sierra Leone during its war or Burkina Faso or anywhere where these coups d'état or cyclical regime changes are taking place, that these kinds of wars aren’t so dissimilar. If we had to get into the nitty-gritty history of one, it feels like it’s less applicable to the others. Because they are so similar, it just seems like you can transpose the regions and the details of the war on the other. Of course, there are always nuances and it’s dangerous to generalize, but it was important that it feel more allegorical as well in terms of the kid’s experience, which was the most important thing.

Are those the specific settings you had in mind, even if you didn’t intend the film as a literal representation?

Yeah, because you have to nail down certain things so that your production designer knows what to base things on and your costume designer knows what to base things on. You can obviously make it all fantasy and fiction, but it’s better if it’s somehow rooted in reality, so I sort of did a mixture of Ghanian history using some of the plot points of the war in Sierra Leone.

You shot a pivotal battle scene using what appears to be infrared film. It's one of the movie's best moments. What does that scene mean to you?

It was in the book that when Agu first takes hallucinogenic drugs, the colors would shift and change. He described the leaves dripping red from the blood, so I took that pretty literally. In 2006, when I was writing the screenplay, I figured out that I’d probably shoot it, assuming we’d be shooting in a photochemical world, on infrared, similar to what Oliver Stone had done in the India sequence on “Alexander.” That was gonna be the goal for that section, and then ultimately we didn’t end up shooting on film and they discontinued infrared stock a couple of years ago. We tried using infrared on “True Detective” as well for Rust Cohle’s hallucinogenic sequences, and we couldn’t find infrared stock anywhere. So I ended up doing a digital effect that mimics infrared.

Speaking of “True Detective,” are you happy to go back to film for the moment, knowing this won't be as heavily scrutinized as the first season of that show was?

I didn’t really feel any kind of over-scrutiny with “True Detective.” It was more exciting that people were that interested in the details we put into the story, even if they were ultimately disappointed with the ending. It’s so different. This is such a different genre, this film, that I never figured it would be held to the same standards, in a way. It cost about the same as an episode of “True Detective” would cost, and this is a whole film.

Did you take into account the attention paid to "True Detective" when you first decided to do "The Alienist," your next TV project? It seems like it could generate a similar level of chatter.

Man, I hadn’t even really considered it. “The Alienist” is going to be ultimately compared to “True Detective” only in that it’s going to be a limited series and because it’s another crime series about crimes that involve children, and we’re trying to investigate it. But what draws me to that story is so different, and the writers are so different that I don’t know how the audience is going to respond. I don’t think I could ever anticipate that because even on “True Detective” I had no idea it was going to get that kind of response. I’m always mildly surprised that people like what I do.

Did you keep up with fan theories? Some of them got pretty ludicrous.

My agent is the biggest fanboy ever and reads all the blogs, so he would usually send me stuff along. I kept up that way, but I went to Ghana at the end of February last year, so I didn’t even see the whole rollout of the show. I was deep in pre-production, so I kind of stopped following it at some point. But when I got back, I would see some of the memes and some of the “SNL” and other skits. I thought it was hilarious. It was just awesome to have something you’d done go mainstream like that in the best possible way.

"Beasts of No Nation" is now in select theaters and available on Netflix. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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