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Interview: Cary Fukunaga Talks HBO's 'True Detective,' Says Child Soldier Film 'Beasts Of No Nation' Coming Next

by Jessica Kiang
July 12, 2013 2:02 PM
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Cary Fukunaga

It’s been a while since we spoke to Cary Fukunaga, but last week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival we had the pleasure of catching up with the “Jane Eyre” and “Sin Nombre” director, and he filled us in on his many upcoming projects. Some of these projects had gone so quiet we feared they had fallen off the radar entirely but we can happily report that he has a good many diverse irons in a whole bunch of fires right now. In fact his next few years look, from this vantage point, to be highly promising, especially as it would appear he’s making good on his early intention to become an inveterate genre-hopper.

In addition to explaining why the the intriguing-sounding “No Blood No Guts No Glory” is no longer on his upcoming slate, and digressing a little around his mistrust of Tarantino-esque reinterpretations of historyFukunaga spoke at length about the unusual process behind his HBO series “True Detective,” of which he is directing the whole first season and which they shot entirely back-to-back. Between that and plentiful details on his other upcoming projects, and his response to the critic who labelled “Sin Nombre” “poverty porn," we’ve a lot to get through—why are we still hanging out here in the intro?

True Detective Harrelson & McConaughey
So, has “True Detective” just wrapped? Tell us about the tone you were going for, more “heightened realism” than noir, I believe?
It very easily could have gone noir, I just didn’t want to do that, especially with a title like “True Detective”—it sounds so pulpy. [Grimaces] Not my choice. 

And what was your choice?
Not that! But the material is probably the best material I’ve read in a long time and is the reason I did it. Nic Pizzolatto is the writer and we’ve the same management company and I read the script, really liked it, we got together and then I got Matthew [McConaughey] and Woody [Harrelson] to join the cast and then we sold it to HBO.

I only had two episodes to start off with in terms of envisioning it, but what I saw was a stark bland American landscape, and two really strong male voices which I haven’t done yet, and that for me was kinda the drive, to get into the psychology of two men—one more of a philosopher and the other a non-critical-thinking man, and just to play with that world and observe. It’s heightened reality in the sense that it’s not like docu-reality, it’s not hand-held, not immediate, the camera is very smooth and usually just locked off and you’re just watching guys talk and argue and deal with points in their life.

It’s actually pretty formal, I think in its construction, that actually became pretty difficult because you’re shooting so much, and when you’re shooting formalism it has to be so well constructed, otherwise it all falls apart. We started having to move a little faster and it was real mental acrobatics trying to cover a scene and cover them nicely without sacrificing the filmmaking… But in terms of genre and tone it was heightened also because of the way Matthew and Woody act, so everything else has to fall into that.

"What I saw was a stark bland American landscape, and two really strong male voices which I haven’t done yet, and that for me was kinda the drive...just to play with that world and observe."
I imagine McConaughey is playing the more philosophical of the two?
Right, and Woody is the more… instinctive? Or just less in touch with who he is.

How did you adapt your shooting style to TV?
The hardest part was making sure that we didn’t leave anything behind. You have 8 hours of story sitting in your head, and moving pieces around so that when we get to here, will this be clear enough? Do I need to heighten this moment or stretch this one? Thankfully I had a whole team I could discuss things with, especially Matthew, who was a pretty incredible collaborator, a leader in his own way. Someone I could definitely depend on, he knew his character inside and out, and because there are a lot of changes his character has to go through, the mental mapping was the biggest challenge.

How you’ve shot it is kind of a new model. We usually hear about “TV being a writer's medium” but you’re heavily involved in the entire season?
I always ask, how did David Lynch do “Twin Peaks”? Did they do it episodically, did they take breaks? [Nic Pizzolatto] the writer had never done anything before, he’s written a couple of episodes of “The Killing” and that’s it. So as a foray into actual production this was his first one. Showrunners like David Milch, David Simon, those guys who have a long history of creating things and much more of control of the craft and what they’re doing and the directors they bring on. [There’s like a] HBO stock of directors, who are amazing directors that actually have a different kinda symbiotic relationship there.

I’ve never done television before so I was like, [mock outrage] “What do you mean, the writer is the boss?” So even for HBO the question was “How do we handle this?” We made it work, I think, but, especially not shooting episodically, it was definitely new ground worked out. There’s a reason TV works the way it does, and has for the last 60 years.

So you didn't revolutionize the medium in one go?
[laughs] Well, we did it, but I don’t know if it’s going to continue as a pattern to follow. I don’t think so, it’s very difficult to do it that way. I think TV works very well based on a timeline that things have to get done in, and I understand [now] why it works that way.

True Detective Matthew McConaughey Woody Harrelson

Is there a possibility of a second season, and would you be involved?
Yeah, I don’t think HBO would have done it, if not for the possibility of a second season, but I’m not part of it. I’ll continue as an executive producer, but I don’t want to continue in the daily showrunner kinda way—it’s too much. When you shoot episodically you stop and you prep the next episode, but we didn't have scripts for the last 2 episodes when we started and we didn’t have schedules or anything, we knew basically when we would have it finished by, but that was it.

So there’s 300-and-something locations in the film and hundreds of speaking roles. Each location has to be vetted multiple times, then you need to bring department heads there to tech scout it. So we were basically shooting and prepping at the same time the last two months of the shoot which meant we had full shooting days—12 to 14 hours—plus four more at lunch or during shooting, scouting with the crew or doing castings or doing something related to the post-production that was happening at the same time… editing during weekends…

I was lucky I had a really great team, a tireless AD, tireless department heads. Actually not tireless, everyone was exhausted, but people had great endurance. Still, I don’t think anyone got to end and was like, "I can’t wait to start the next one!” I think everyone was proud of the work we did and the show is going to be great but it definitely took its toll on everyone involved. It’s an impossible amount. We just finished [shooting] on Saturday morning. Then we have 6 months of post. I think it comes out somewhere between January and March 2014.

How has it been, working with HBO?
They’re really great, they’re pretty hands off—I’m still waiting for that hands-on experience. Focus and HBO have been really… well, what’s nice between both those places is basically you just have conversations and usually we just all agree, it’s question about how to apply [any changes].

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  • Tonynogales | February 26, 2014 1:36 AMReply

    He seems like really arrogant dilettante. Plus, he calls himself the show runner and says he was responsible for woody and matthew & hbo. Uccchhh. Obnoxious wanker. Glad to see him go.

  • jodie | March 13, 2014 12:06 PM

    Well, since he served as executive producer of the show technically he is a show runner. Also, read an interview with Woody where he stated he had lunch with Fukunaga in NYC and he convinced him to join the show since Matthew was already involved. I don't really think he is being arrogant or a wanker, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

  • Dirk | February 25, 2014 12:36 PMReply

    What director do people think would be best suited for season 2? I'd love to see Kim Nguyen (Rebelle) tackle it...his style would seem to mesh very well with that of Fukunaga.

  • Rocco | January 23, 2014 8:03 PMReply

    Is your movie based on magazine true detective? I have some with story about murder of my father in 1967, the case took over year to solve and ended up my mother hired someone to kill him. F lee bailey was my mothers lawyer very interesting story, I was only 4 yrs old when it happened

  • jacobtrailor | September 6, 2013 2:15 AMReply

    In a powerful, strikingly original voice that vividly captures Agu's youth and confusion, Uzodinma Iweala has produced a harrowing, inventive, and deeply affecting novel.

  • Alan B | July 13, 2013 9:37 AMReply

    There aren't many films that NEED to be made, but 'Beasts of No Nation' sounds like one of them. I can't think of many things as cruel, unjust and generally repugnant as putting a gun into a child's hand and conditioning him to kill. This isn't a vanity project about a 30-something actor whose daddy no longer funds his privileged lifestyle. It's a genuinely disturbing sub-culture that the media ignores (with the exception of gimmick internet campaigns) and needs further examination. The film will probably have no stars, it will not make money and he isn't a big enough name to guarantee an awards launch, but I respect that Fukunaga is willing to lose money on a story he believes in.

  • Annika | December 3, 2013 8:20 AM

    Cary Fukunaga has shown repeatedly from his first short that he has a deep belief in social justice. That is why he tackled issues in Mexico and Central America and is now headed to Africa. And whoever called the screenplay for "Sin Nombre" trite does not understand the limitations of subtitling for foreign films nor how much the original screenplay was edited by Focus.

  • Bnala | July 14, 2013 7:00 AM

    The movie you're referring to does need to be made but it also needs to be made well. I hope Mr Fukunaga's scriptwriting skills have improved since "Sin Nombre"... which was a beautifully shot movie with a trite script. Given some of Fukunaga's answers in this interview I'm a little doubtful about the quality of the script.

    @Frimble... have you read the script?

  • Alan B | July 13, 2013 7:43 PM

    Really, what you read it? Why is it so good? And could he cast any stars or names in a supporting role (ala 'Good Will Hunting') or would it completely ruin the authenticity of the film?

  • frimble | July 13, 2013 11:58 AM

    Plus its one of the greatest screenplays ever written.

  • Laurence | July 12, 2013 2:45 PMReply

    Owen Pallett musical?!? Holy shit, yes please. I want to watch every single one of these.

  • HairyFairy | July 13, 2013 4:19 AM

    Fukunaga still has to prove himself, his first two movies were overrated and to be honest a little tedious.

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