“I couldn’t even get my aunt to watch the film,” cinematographer-writer-director Cary Fukunaga says of Beasts of No Nation as we sit down, with actor-producer Idris Elba, to discuss their controversial project on the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I mean, she finally did, but it took some real coaxing.”
Beasts, Netflix’s first original narrative film, is “a story about a boy in war and what happens to him,” says the 38-year-old, who is best known for directing season one of HBO’s True Detective. That is not an uncommon logline; but what is uncommon, at least in American cinema, is that the boy in question is an African child soldier and the story unfolds through his eyes, as opposed to those of a “white savior.” Fukunaga asserts, “It’s a fairly dark film and a very difficult film to watch — many people have made comments about that — but it’s not impossible to watch.”
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet/Seth Rogen/Danny Boyle, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and others — on iTunes.)
Clearly not, considering that just last week it landed a field-leading five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best feature, best director and best cinematography for Fukunaga; best supporting actor for Elba, the 43-year-old British actor best known for his work on TV’s The Wire and Luther and films such as Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Pacific Rim; and best actor for Abraham Attah, a Ghanian teenager who makes his acting debut in the film.
“I have a very short list of actors that I really want to work with,” says Fukunaga, “and Idris has always been up there.” He pitched the project to Elba, who signed on to play the Commandant because he trusted and admired Fukunaga, and also to serve as one of the film’s producers to help the tough-sell project — which Fukunaga insisted on filming in West Africa and with a cast comprised mostly of West-African actors — get off the ground.
“It’s a film that doesn’t make sense financially,” Fukunaga acknowledges. “Even when we went around and tried to go around and get presales two years ago, everyone was like, ‘We really like Idris. We really like Cary. But we don’t know how to sell this film.’ So no one put any money in.” Beasts eventually was optioned by Focus Features, which shelved it, and then the rights to the novel were recovered and held until Red Rock Productions signed on to finance Fukunaga’s version. Elba’s participation was key. “Luckily for me, I have a marketplace that is international, and I was absolutely 100 percent willing to lend that in any way I could to secure money, bonding, whatever we needed to do, as a producer.”
Fukunaga and Elba are both “third culture,” in the sense that they were outsiders in the place where they were raised. Fukunaga is the American son of a Japanese-American who was born in an internment camp during World War II, and Elba is the son of West Africans who relocated to England before he was born. Both think this sort of background has shaped their creative choices. “I think it’s made me always look to the ‘other,'” says Fukunaga, who first became a director to watch with 2009’s Sin Nombre, which focuses on children trying to make it from South America to the United States. “What I mean by ‘other’ is outside of my experience. So rather than exoticizing it [the other], trying to figure out what makes us different, but then also what makes us the same.”
While Elba agreed to be the ‘name’ actor in the cast of Beasts, he never was going to be the lead: That would be whoever ended up playing Agu, the protagonist, and had a very competent person not been found for that role, the whole project would have failed. “The question was how to find him,” Fukunaga says.
Casting director Harrison Nesbit was dispatched to Ghana — where no American film production had ever taken place, but where Fukunaga decided he wanted this one to be shot — and began a search. “He had about seven weeks to cast 39 speaking roles and 300 nonspeaking roles and to find a bunch of kids,” Fukunaga says. With regard to the main role, he adds, “[Harrison] saw 2,500 kids, of which I saw a couple hundred, and then we narrowed that down to about 30 kids.” Eventually they decided on Attah, at which point it became largely Elba’s responsibility to help the youngster and his contemporaries in the cast learn how to act for a camera.
“Cary had taken these extras who had never done this before and turned them into an army in the most regimented way,” Elba recalls. “So when I showed up it was one, ‘That’s Idris,’ two, ‘That’s our Commandant. Shipshape.’ And I realized I was being more effective to them if I stayed [in character]. In other words, whether we were shooting or not, I come, you stand up, you show me respect. If I ask you to do something, you honor it.” As for Attah, specifically, Elba says, “We got to a place where we just respected each other as both leading actors.”
Like another movie made in a jungle, Apocalypse Now, the Beasts production faced all sorts of unanticipated obstacles that threatened to derail it: Fukunaga, like “many people on the production,” got malaria; Elba “faced my death” when he almost fell off a cliff (“I would have fallen 12 feet and then another 100 feet”); the cinematographer got injured, so Fukunaga had to serve as the dp himself; snakes were always nearby; food deliveries never made it to the set; and not all of the castmembers were as reliable about acting — or showing up at all — as Attah. Still, the end-product looks as polished as most films made with far more luxuries than Fukunaga, Elba and Co. enjoyed on this one.
When it came to getting the film out to the world, Fukunaga received “a couple of offers,” but says one stood out from the others: “Netflix came in with this big thing that we really couldn’t say ‘no’ to — although I would have said ‘no’ had there not been a theatrical component to it.” Netflix arranged a partnership with Bleecker Street, whereby that distributor would release it in select theaters on the same day that Netflix debuted it on its platform, and this cutting-edge day-and-date model met Fukunaga’s requirements. “It was important to me that it be seen as a film, not just in terms of perception, but by audiences,” he says. “I know that people who watch this film at home will probably still appreciate it, but the chances of them being distracted over the course of it are so much higher.” Elba adds, “The advantage of this distribution method is this subject matter just would not be seen by this many people [through any other].”
What’s next for Fukunaga and Elba? Many hope Elba will succeed Daniel Craig and become the next 007 — an idea that Craig seemed to endorse a few years ago, to Elba’s chagrin. “I’ve honestly just stopped talking about it,” Elba says of the idea. “But you know what’s funny, though? Yesterday I was at the Governors Awards, and I was at the bar, and I just looked left and there was Daniel Craig. He came up to me, he looked me in the eye, he grabbed my face and he literally kissed me on the cheek. And I was like, ‘Man, you —!’ And he was like, ‘What am I gonna say? They asked me if you could play Bond! What am I gonna say, no?’ And he walked away.”
Fukunaga, in response to a question about whether he would consider returning to True Detective, which had a disappointing second installment without him, responded winkingly, “No one’s asked me to be Bond yet!”
Beasts of No Nation was released by Bleecker Street (theatrically) and Netflix (on its streaming platform, through which it still can be seen) on Oct. 16. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture; Fukunaga in the categories of best director and best cinematography; and Elba for best supporting actor.