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"What I Depict Is Not Even One Tenth as Brutal as True Warfare Is"

Cary Joji Fukunaga—Oakland native, True Detective director, and hot Hollywood commodity—explores the outer ranges of humanity in a visceral African tale.


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Job: Writer, director, and producer
Age: 38
Residence: West Village, New York City

Your newest movie, Beasts of No Nation, adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s bestselling novel, has created a lot of Oscar buzz—both for you and for Idris Elba’s chilling performance as the commandant. Does that make you nervous?
Knowing that no one has seen the film makes the buzz unworthy. All it does is create expectations, and high expectations usually yield disappointment. I wish people would discover the film first and the praise would happen on its own, rather than right out of the womb without having earned it.

You’re known for your field research, like hopping freight trains in Honduras for Sin Nombre. How’d you go about it this time?
In 2003, well aware of the ongoing civil war in Sierra Leone, a friend and I hitchhiked down there to do some research. We talked to people there, including former child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone—not just about the conflict, but about their lives before, how they ended up in the war, and what life was like afterward. I even ended up getting a consultant for the film who had been a commander in the Civil Defense Forces during the Sierra Leone conflict.

How would you address criticism of you as an American writer-director coming in to tell an African story?
This is a story written by an African author, and basically it’s an all- African cast. Abraham Attah, who plays the main character [Agu], is from Ghana. He was plucked from the streets—he was cutting school when our casting director scouted him. There’s nothing in the film about the colonial nation coming in to save the day.

Is it hard to communicate the scale of the violence to your audience?
That’s the hardest thing, because a film is an exercise in empathy. So when Agu participates in violence, it is more essential that you understand how he could do it than that you see the consequences of what he did. At the same time, you want to communicate the true scale and the effect of the violence on the characters. But what I depict is not even one tenth as brutal as true warfare is.

Speaking of depicting warfare—you took part in Civil War reenactments as an Oakland high school student?
Yeah. Where did you read that?

You said it in an Indiewire article from 2009.
I didn’t even know that was out there. I’m actually flipping through a website that has a bunch of Civil War artifacts for sale.

Wait, right now?
Yeah, I’m looking at castoffs right now. It’s just pictures—it’s not really that distracting. I’m 100 percent listening to you.

Ha, OK. You were saying…
I found reenacting when I was 15— a janitor at my school was handing out flyers for a local reenactment. I got really into it. I loved what they called “moment”: It’s when everything you see around you is from whichever era you’re supposed to be in, and it feels like you’re living in that era. Reenacting is analogous to filmmaking in a lot of ways, because when you’re envisioning and executing a project, you’re physically projecting this sort of transportation—the time, the characters, the moment— onto your set.



Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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