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Cultural differences are interesting, Cary Fukunaga tells Zoya Akhtar at MAMI

The directors talked about the art of screenwriting, working with stars and non-professionals, and the troubles of filming on location at the 18th Mumbai Film Festival, on Wednesday (26 October).

Zoya Akhtar with Cary Fukunaga

Sonal Pandya

The multi-talented writer-director Cary Fukunaga was in conversation with filmmaker Zoya Akhtar at a conversation at the 18th Mumbai film festival. The director of such feature films as Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and Netflix’s Beasts Of No Nation (2015), Fukunaga travelled around India before stopping by the festival.

Akhtar began by asking him about his ‘nomadic filmmaking’ and how he tries to connect to the culture the story represents; each of his projects was shot in a different country. Fukunaga said it starts with the human aspect. "There’s something obviously that humans around the world are going to have in common in terms of our desires and needs in this life," he said. "I think the stories that translate well around the world are the universal ones. Hopefully, when I’m working on a project it does have worldwide appeal. And when it comes down to the cultural differences, that’s actually the really interesting part of the research.

He added that "sometimes when you are an outsider to a culture, you see more than the people do within the culture.” Fukunaga attributed his eclectic film choices to his early interest in history. He eventually majored in history and political science.

Fukunaga won the Emmy award for Best Direction on a Drama Series for his work on the HBO anthology series, True Detective, which was written by Nic Pizzolatto. He discussed working on screenplays written by someone else rather than himself.

Fukunaga was interested with longform television to explore more of a story that he couldn’t explore in a feature film. “When you’re taking in someone’s material, it can gestate in a different way, but when you’re tasked with it, then speaking about it intelligently takes a lot more time.”

Akhtar asked him about his films’ socio-political impact, especially with a contentious presidential election back in the US, and whether it makes any difference. He said, “Maybe, but I think it’s dangerous as a filmmaker to apply a label to yourself if you’re making any change. Only people from the outside can make that decision. There’s an immortality to stories. [Sin Nombre and its subject of illegal immigration] would have been relevant in the early 2000s, sadly, it’s still relevant now. It shows that we had our eyes on this subject. We weren’t ignoring it. That’s an important statement to make.”

Fukunaga joked about wanting “some tea time” after spending time with gang members for his switch in projects from Sin Nombre to Jane Eyre. In both Sin Nombre and Beasts Of No Nation, Fukunaga worked with young, non-professional actors. For Jane Eyre, he directed Michael Fassbender, Mia Wasikowski and Dame Judi Dench. Fukunaga said he got Dench to appear in the film after sending a cheeky note promising she would be the sexiest woman on set. “And she was," he revealed.

Akhtar marvelled at his use of the still camera in closeup scenes, while Fukunaga said he just let the actors do all the work, he didn’t have to move the camera. He said it was best when he didn’t interfere. Akhtar confessed that she asked filmmaker Karan Johar about casting an actor in her films, to which Johar replied, “You’ll need a track!” 

Fukunaga was witty, honest, articulate and quite patient answering the many, many questions from the audience members. Akhtar often asked him for tips on screenwriting and direction as she was curious about his style of filmmaking.

Akhtar said she was nervous the day before her shoot for her first film Luck By Chance (2009). “I hadn’t been nervous till then and then I just got drunk. That was it and I was fine.”

She also went to friend and collaborator Reema Kagti for advice on what to tell the crew and where to put the camera. Kagti’s fine advice was “Whenever in doubt, go handheld!”

On Beasts Of No Nation, Fukunaga astonishingly wrote, directed, produced and even filmed the feature film. He explained, “Being my own cinematographer meant that I had to talk to one less person every day, which was helpful.” It also helped him interact with his large cast of young non-actors.

He admitted to an audience member when asked if the project would have been easier if the cast had been all-white. "I think sadly the reality is probably yes. I don’t think it’s conscious racism, I think it’s guilt,” he said. He felt that most people couldn’t relate to the film’s heavy subject and felt turned off by it; maybe more people would have seen it if it had been set in Sarajevo or Ukraine.

Beasts Of No Nation’s author Uzodinma Iweala’s specifically sent in a question for Fukunaga asking his fear as an artiste when talking about the tough stuff. He replied, “Probably perspective. It’s the hardest thing to gain.”

Akhtar pointed out that in all three feature films he has directed, all his lead protagonists are orphans. He said, “That’s something I discovered later on. Clearly, I’m expressing my inner orphan. But the idea of family and reconstruction of family, I think, is fascinating.”

When he was asked about the Indian films he had seen, Fukunaga revealed that he had seen many Tamil films even though he didn’t understand the dialogues as the subtitles weren’t working. He was impressed by the technical ability saying, “I’ll definitely be shipping special effects shots here.” He said he watched Salman Khan’s Sultan (2016) before coming to the festival, but didn’t want to admit it.

Fukunaga’s next project is also for Netflix, a 10-episode dark comedy series, Maniac, starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill.