The first time this THR reporter met Cary Fukunaga was on Feb. 26, 2020, at London’s Goldcrest postproduction facilities. The director was standing in front of a wall filled with 100-plus index cards featuring scene titles like “Bond loses control.” He was just days away from delivering to MGM his cut of No Time to Die, the 25th James Bond installment, which would mark Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 and a major coup for Fukunaga, the first American to helm a Bond. The world premiere was to take place at Royal Albert Hall in a month.
“I try not to think about the box office pressures,” he told me at the time, “although right now obviously I’m very concerned about coronavirus.” Bond producer and gatekeeper Barbara Broccoli downplayed concerns about how the virus might affect the $245 million film and its expectations to eclipse the previous Bond’s worldwide haul of $881 million. “It sounds like the Chinese authorities are doing everything they can to contain it,” she said. But Fukunaga couldn’t shake the feeling that history was about to repeat itself. His first feature, the Spanish-language crime drama Sin Nombre, took a box office beating when swine flu shuttered theaters in Mexico in 2009. “Obviously, you don’t want to take something lightly when people’s lives are at stake,” he said, then paused. “Coronavirus will be very bad for the film.”
Fast-forward 19 months, and Fukunaga is back in London, still waiting for what is surely the most anticipated Bond film ever to roll out to multiplexes around the world, including Oct. 8 in the U.S. “A whole lifetime” has passed since our 2020 meeting and, given the circumstances, Fukunaga says he’s been surprisingly busy. After delivering No Time to Die, he helped remotely re-edit the Mark Wahlberg drama Joe Bell, directed a Perrier campaign in Greece and hammered out a rewrite on an eight-part limited series, A Soldier of the Great War, based on Mark Helprin’s 1991 novel. He also just wrapped shooting on day 70 of Apple TV+’s Band of Brothers sequel, Masters of the Air, executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
But the 44-year-old filmmaker knows the real stakes for both his career and the industry at large rest on No Time to Die. In 2020, just seven days after his prescient remarks at Goldcrest, Bond became the first Hollywood tentpole to move release dates because of the pandemic, ushering in an era of theatrical uncertainty not seen since the advent of television. During the ensuing months, film after film, including Marvel’s Black Widow and the entire Warner Bros. 2021 lineup, became slated for simultaneous streaming releases. Amplifying the tension between theatrical purists and VOD adoptees, Amazon announced in May it was buying MGM, prompting speculation that No Time to Die, too, was destined for some sort of hybrid release. “Everyone at MGM was very good about calling me and keeping me in the loop, from [board chairman] Kevin Ulrich to [motion picture chief] Mike De Luca,” he says. “And they wanted to make sure I knew that this didn’t affect Bond whatsoever.” After its London premiere on Sept. 28, the film, which co-stars Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux and Lashana Lynch, will adhere to tradition and go the theatrical-only route. If No Time to Die can succeed during a pandemic lengthened by the delta variant, the theatrical community will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Looking back, Fukunaga recalls the tick-tock on the decision to pull the film. “I kept asking, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” he says. “There weren’t a lot of back-and-forth conversations.” Craig was actually in the middle of rehearsals to host Saturday Night Live when Broccoli, fellow producer Michael Wilson and MGM made the call to push Bond to November 2020 (it subsequently was moved twice more, first to April 2021 and then to its current slot). Fukunaga was told just hours before the public statement about the shift, though he suspected as much. “They move on those things so quickly because there’s so many places for things to leak, and I think they want to be on top of any news that comes out,” he says.
A seasoned director with a dynamic résumé, Fukunaga was used to the pressure of filmmaking before signing on to Bond, and his reputation as a wunderkind is backed by a filmography that includes the Sundance breakout Sin Nombre, a 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, his Emmy-winning work on HBO’s True Detective and Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation, a brutal depiction of African child soldiers that he also wrote, produced and shot. But Bond — and certainly this Bond — was singular, and there’s nothing in Fukunaga’s background that could have prepared him for this.
When they hired him, Wilson says he and Broccoli saw past the previous loglines and his American nationality. “He’s certainly well-traveled and very cosmopolitan,” says Wilson, noting the filmmaker’s fluency in French and Spanish (he’s also conversational in Portuguese, Italian and Japanese). “He’s very much a global person. And we looked at his films rather than the résumé, and I think the films are such a diverse group of achievements and show a great way of dealing with actors and telling stories and the narrative. The way he visualizes things is evident in all of his films. He certainly has all the traits that we wanted to see in a director.”
That global perspective, says Fukunaga, stems from a childhood in a mixed-race working-class family in Oakland. His father, who sold electric generators, was a third-generation Japanese American born in an internment camp during World War II. “My father never talked about it and my grandparents never talked about it, either,” he says, sipping a green matcha in London’s Ham Yard Hotel. “I think it shaped me, that multigenerational struggle. The psychological trauma inherited from [my father’s] childhood defines who I am, and I think that internment process was incredibly destabilizing for the entire Japanese American population.”
Fukunaga’s mother, a former dental hygienist, is Swedish American, leaving him “sort of unidentifiable” as either white or Asian. “Being an ‘other’ in the check box is always something I’ve quietly been proud of.” Still, he experienced heckling in school. “It’s hard to get away with the name Fukunaga. I got lots of ‘Fuck-anaga,’ ” he adds. “I got called a commie. It didn’t really bother me that much.”
His parents divorced, and Fukunaga settled into life in a “composite” family. “My older brother, same dad, different mom. My younger brother, same mom, different dad. My littler sister is adopted,” he says. But he struggled with reading and undiagnosed ADHD. “As a kid, I was all over the place, daydreaming, couldn’t focus, couldn’t pay attention,” he explains. “But once I started reading, I really took to it and then I’d be reading three or four books at a time. That was when I actually realized I could be good in school.”
Growing up “in a very liberal, progressive bubble” prepared him to study history at the University of California Santa Cruz and political science in France during a year-abroad program.
After school, he was on track to become a professional snowboarder but felt he’d never quite get there. “It wasn’t going to work out,” he says. “I was good. I was competitive. I was never going pro.” Although he’s loath to admit it, he also did some postgraduate modeling in Los Angeles, with his ambiguous ethnicity and killer bone structure attracting attention. “My girlfriend then was a model and I got scouted for this ad and then did a couple little things, just trying to make some extra cash. I was always trying to be a filmmaker,” he says.
He was accepted to NYU film school, which he financed with student loans. One of his short films won a Student Academy Award in 2005. That led to Sin Nombre, a Mexican co-production about a girl trying to immigrate to the U.S. and a boy caught up in gang life that he wrote and directed. He nabbed the top directing prize at Sundance 2009, putting him on Hollywood’s radar. His sophomore outing, a 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell and Judi Dench, showcased his broad range. In 2015, just as Netflix was seeking to expand its original films division beyond Adam Sandler comedies, the streaming giant acquired Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba, in a $12 million deal (huge for a finished film not screened at a festival). At the time, Netflix was new to the “For Your Consideration” game and viewed with distrust by the Academy, so the film was mostly passed over during awards season.
“I think the reception from an audience perspective would be very similar [if it was released today],” says Elba. “But considering the social climate now, Beasts of No Nation would certainly make a real impact in terms of awards and accolades, and not just because of the climate but because of Cary’s great film. A film like Beasts at that juncture was being ignored for many reasons. But you wouldn’t be able to ignore it in this climate.”
Though Fukunaga’s work at that point had been embraced mostly by an art house crowd, he crossed over to the mainstream with True Directive and experienced his first real taste of Hollywood drama, famously clashing with writer Nic Pizzolatto. Though Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of season one, he did not return for season two, which was slammed by critics.
“The show was presented to me in the way we pitched it around town — as an independent film made into television,” he says. “The writer and director are a team. Over the course of the project, Nic kept positioning himself as if he was my boss and I was like, ‘But you’re not my boss. We’re partners. We collaborate.’ By the time they got to postproduction, people like [former programming president] Michael Lombardo were giving Nic more power. It was disheartening because it didn’t feel like the partnership was fair.” As for their creative differences, Fukunaga says, “Nic is a really good writer, but I do think he needs to be edited down. It becomes too much about the writing and not enough about the momentum of the story. My struggle with him was to take some of these long dialogue scenes and put some air into them. We differed on tone and taste.” (In a 2014 profile in THR, Pizzolatto said, “Of course, you’re going to have discussions and difference of opinion, but what matters is that everyone is working without ego toward the best realization of what we have.”)
In the case of Warner Bros.’ adaptation of Stephen King’s It, Fukunaga walked away from the directing job despite having written a script before things could deteriorate. Three weeks before production was scheduled to begin in 2015, he left the project. “I was on that for four or five years with Warners and then it got moved to New Line, right before we were about to go into production,” he says. “I think New Line’s view of what they wanted and my view of what I wanted were very different. I wanted to do a drama with horror elements, more like The Shining. I think they wanted to do something more [pure horror] like Annabelle [from the Conjuring films]. That was essentially the disconnect.” (He received screenplay credit, and the Andy Muschietti-directed It became a massive hit in 2017, earning $702 million worldwide at the box office and spawning a 2019 sequel.) Fukunaga insists there was no bad blood as a result and points to the fact that he continues to collaborate with It producers Dan Lin and Roy Lee. “If I was a difficult director, they wouldn’t necessarily want to be working with me,” he adds.
Within a year of leaving It, Fukunaga asked his WME agents to set up a meeting with Broccoli. He was curious what she and Wilson were aiming to do and wanted to be front of mind for the next round of Bond films. “I sort of forgot about [that 2016 meeting with Broccoli] and went on to my next projects. And as I was finishing [the Netflix dark comedy] Maniac, news broke that Danny Boyle was dropping out of Bond,” says Fukunaga. “I emailed Barbara and was like, ‘Is there a chance to talk about this?’ She responded right away, and we set up a meeting the next week. I didn’t have a pitch or anything, just asked them what they’re after and what wasn’t working.”
With Boyle, there was a deviation of visions. His version was more tongue-in-cheek and whimsical. Broccoli and Wilson wanted something more serious for Craig’s final outing. After more meetings with the producers, Fukunaga had the job, one of the most coveted helming assignments in Hollywood. “I wrote Danny, and he gave me his blessing, wished me well and was really, really cordial,” he says of the email exchange.
Fukunaga, who lists Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale and Peter R. Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as his two Bond favorites, says he felt “a tremendous amount of freedom to reinterpret the character: Bond has a lot of [recurring] tropes, but I think what’s great about Daniel Craig’s run is just how much more raw and brutal and brooding he is. I much prefer that Bond than the one-eyebrow-up version.”
Still, the intensely scrutinized gig would test his ability to remain composed amid chaos, even before COVID-19. Craig suffered an on-set ankle injury that required surgery. The British tabloids were unrelenting in their breathless coverage, including news that a man was taken into custody after a hidden camera was found in one of the toilets of Pinewood Studios, where No Time to Die was shooting. (“Nothing to do with us. It was not on our film,” Wilson says of the incident.) Then came a thinly sourced report that Fukunaga kept his crew waiting hours while holed up in his trailer playing video games. “That really pissed me off because I take my work ethic seriously,” the director says. “I even had family members writing me, ‘Is this true?’ I’m like, ‘How could you believe this stuff? It’s complete nonsense.’ “
Craig is accustomed to the Bond three-ring circus and says Fukunaga navigated it with ease. “It’s crucial with the franchise to have individual directors imprint their take on the character and story, and Cary truly brought his own unique vision,” the actor says. “Having an auteur of his caliber at the helm is tangible in the end result.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the film was bringing its globe-trotting lothario into Hollywood’s post-#MeToo reality. After all, No Time to Die began development in 2016, before the industry embarked on a period of self-reflection in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall for predatory behavior. Though Craig’s oeuvre puts a greater emphasis on the quality of drinks than the quantity of women, the history of Bond includes casual misogyny and worse.
“Is it Thunderball or Goldfinger where, like, basically Sean Connery’s character rapes a woman?” Fukunaga asks. “She’s like ‘No, no, no,’ and he’s like, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ That wouldn’t fly today.”
At Fukunaga’s suggestion, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to work on the draft he wrote with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have worked on every Bond film since 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. The perception was that the Fleabag creator was used, post-reckoning, to make Bond more woke. But Fukunaga dismisses that idea.
“I think that’s the expectation, a female writing very strong female roles, but that’s something Barbara wanted already,” he insists. “From my very first conversations with [Broccoli], that was a very strong drive. You can’t change Bond overnight into a different person. But you can definitely change the world around him and the way he has to function in that world. It’s a story about a white man as a spy in this world, but you have to be willing to lean in and do the work to make the female characters more than just contrivances.”
Lynch, who plays 00 agent Nomi in No Time to Die, thinks Fukunaga succeeded. “Cary had big discussions with Barbara and Daniel about how to give the female characters equity, how to keep them in charge of themselves, how to give them solo moments where the audience learns who they are,” she says. “It was really important to empower the female characters as stand-alones. And I think that he kept that in mind throughout the whole shoot. I didn’t feel like Nomi, as a young Black woman, was constantly standing behind the white guy, which, for me, is job done. And that was a very conscious decision for Cary.”
Says Broccoli: “I think people are coming around — with some kicking and screaming — to accepting that stuff is no longer acceptable. Thank goodness. Bond is a character who was written in 1952 and the first film [Dr. No] came out in 1962. He’s got a long history, and the history of the past is very different to the way he is being portrayed now.”
After the film’s world premiere, Fukunaga is eager to return to his New York base. Around the time he booked Bond, he bought an apartment in downtown Manhattan, becoming a first-time homeowner, and now every hotel courtyard sculpture sparks an idea for how he will decorate his place. He moves his hand across a wall to feel the texture. As he muses about his mostly empty home, he touches on the loneliness his work can engender. He had an on-again, off-again girlfriend — an actress he declines to name — for the two years that encompassed No Time to Die. “This movie has definitely made it difficult to keep a relationship going,” he says. But now, Fukunaga, who has been romantically linked to actresses Michelle Williams, Margaret Qualley and Brit Marling, is single. “Nobody’s taken me off the market yet,” he adds.
He recognizes the folly of lamenting the fact that COVID scuttled his ambitious renovation plans. “Listen, it’s high-class problems to not be able to furnish a very nice apartment,” he notes. “One day I will live in my home. Hopefully, in a couple months, I’ll be home.”
In the meantime, with so many false starts, it’s challenging to wrap his head around the reality that it really is time for No Time to Die. “It’s so hard to anticipate what I’ll be feeling,” he says. “I didn’t anticipate the emotional weight of the last day of shooting and how much I was feeling the sadness of it being Daniel’s last day as Bond. I feel like when the film comes out, there’ll be a lot of feelings. There’ll be the elation of it coming out, the satisfaction of closure and probably another latent bit of sadness that the experience is complete.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.