TIFF: How Cary Fukunaga Calculated the Amount of Violence to Include in 'Beasts of No Nation' (Q&A)

Photographed by Fabrizio Maltese

The auteur discusses the film's grueling Africa shoot, moderating violence on the big screen and the reality of the Netflix deal.

To describe the seven-week shoot for Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation as brutal would be an understatement. Fukunaga, the acclaimed helmer of Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre and the first season of True Detective (for which he won an Emmy), fought to have the film shot in Ghana, and, as a result, struggled with the challenges of shooting in a place with no film professionals and no infrastructure. Actors disappeared mid-shoot, local crewmembers demanded more money when they realized they had the upper hand, and, during the shoot, Fukunaga was forced to rewrite the third act to make it more manageable and budget-friendly. Plus, the 38-year-old director got malaria and lost a significant amount of weight during the shoot. But it seems to have all been worth it for Fukunaga, with Beasts premiering to critical acclaim at Telluride and Venice ahead of its screening at TIFF.

Beasts, an adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel about a young boy (Abraham Attah) who joins of a group of mercenaries in his war-torn West African nation, is also a big gamble for Netflix as the company’s first big foray into film (It’ll be released on streaming and in select theaters through Bleecker Street on Oct. 16).

Fukunaga spoke to THR about the challenges of shooting in Ghana, what he thinks of the Netflix release model and if he’ll ever do a big studio movie.

How tough was it to get the movie financed?

There were some stumbling blocks along the way, but we were extremely lucky in many ways. The initial optioning took place at Focus Features at the exact same time as Focus was optioning my first screenplay Sin Nombre. I happened to have [Iweala’s] book in my hands. I had no plans to pitch it, it was just in my hand because I was reading it, and the executive at Focus said, "I love that book, I want to adapt it into a movie." So we ended up making a deal, not only for my first screenplay but also for that book.  We hit some initial struggles when Focus decided we weren’t going to make it after I wrote the screenplay. Johnny Mad Dog [a 2008 film set in Africa] had just come out in Cannes and got a very limited release. Beasts got put on the shelf for a while. I was amazed when [producer] Red Crown came onboard to make the film. It seemed like an inherently unsellable film.

What kind of struggles did you have during the actual shoot?

There were just so, so many. I really pushed to shoot in West Africa, which meant that we’d be shooting in a place that didn’t have any sort of infrastructure for shooting a movie. That meant that the kind of things that happened every day were things that you wouldn’t imagine were happening on a real film set. There were constant renegotiations with people like the drivers, who figured out that we needed them to deliver equipment and we wouldn’t be able to hire other drivers, they could just keep asking for more money. One of our producers was the nephew of the president of Ghana, so we thought we would be able to get the military and other things for almost nothing, and in the end, they really upped the price and held onto equipment until the very last second so we’d pay them the higher price for it. It was just a lot of negotiations every day.

Would you say this was the toughest shoot of your career?

Without a doubt. I mean,True Detective was hard because of the pace, but Beasts of No Nation was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And I wasn’t the only one who got sick. Actors got sick, our prop master got dysentery. There was a fair amount of sickness around set. Even our accountant who was in an office the whole time got malaria.

How did you decide to cast Idris Elba?

Idris is one of those guys who I’d had my eye on for many years now, through The Wire. I was a huge admirer of his work. And given his chameleon-like adaptability and his African heritage — his mother is from Ghana and his father is from Sierra Leone — he was the only guy I went out to. There was never a backup list.

And how did you find Abraham Attah?

We found him through street casting. It was sort of the same way we approached Sin Nombre and just casted a wide net. Our casting director went to every school, school playground and orphanage [in Ghana].

Is he going to pursue an acting career?

We’ve had a lot of conversations about that. The main thing is managing expectations. I want him to enjoy this experience, but I also don’t want him to be traumatized if the attention he’s getting right now disappears. So education is the first thing. We put him and a couple of the other kids in the film who were actually homeless into boarding schools. A lot of them are just trying to get caught up to other kids their age. Abraham was luckier because he still has his mother and father, but he still comes from a very rough, poverty-stricken neighborhood.  Making sure his education keeps going is the priority. If he wants to continue acting, we’re trying to create a support network for that.

Did you struggle with how much violence to keep in the film?

I wouldn’t say struggle. In a way you’re conducting or moderating your audience’s ability to take in what’s going on versus turning away from it. It’s about riding that line. And there may be one or two scenes that may push too much and make people turn it off or walk away, that’s possible. But even then, the violence I show in the film is so minimal compared to how gruesome real war is. And it’s not about gratuitous violence, it’s about the context of the violence that makes it disturbing. We can watch an action film where everyone’s being blown apart. Our empathy is different in a drama.

Is there any frustration for you that the film won’t play in the bigger chain theaters like AMC?

There’s no frustration there because it was never going to be shown there. If Sony Pictures Classics or Fox Searchlight had picked up the film, it would still be in the Landmark or the smaller cinemas. That was just a lot of posturing by the larger theater chains. I completely understand their position, but the world is changing — you can’t be a rock in a river.

What do you think of the way the model is changing?

I think it’s still experimental. I think Netflix putting movies out into cinemas is a pretty interesting approach to it. I still want movies like this to screen in cinemas, that’s the most important thing. The experience of watching it in theaters — there’s no one who can say that’s not superior to watching it at home.

What are you working on next?

I have things that I’m pushing along, including some more personal projects that I’ve had for a long time. But nothing is ready to go right now. So all of my attention is going to Beasts and getting it out into the world.

There’s been lots of talk about you leaving It, but do you ever see yourself doing that traditional big Hollywood studio movie, or even a tentpole?

I'm not opposed to it, but I feel interest to direct other projects. The thing about being a writer-director is it takes so much time to get a movie made, and the older I get the more I realize how short life is. I just want to make sure if I’m going to commit a couple years to something, it’s something I really care about. If I’m going to do it, it has to be something I feel is really special.