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In Depth

People In Film | Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga | Beginnings

As the story goes, after attending a screening of the restored version of Orson Welles’ Mexican-set Touch of Evil, Jane Eyre director Cary Fukunaga met the great editor Walter Murch, who oversaw the restoration. Murch invited Fukunaga, who had grown up in East Bay and attended U.C. Santa Cruz, to sit in on the sound mix for The Talented Mister Ripley and then gave the erstwhile director simple, sage advice: “Travel.” “There was no reason I should be rushing out to intern at a company just because I wanted to make movies,” recalled Fukunaga to Time Out New York. “I should be having experiences in the world and be able to comment on them when I end up directing films.” So, before attending graduate film school at NYU, Fukunaga spent a year traveling the world, returning with an internationalist cinematic agenda. He told Filmmaker magazine, “I love what Michael Winterbottom’s been doing recently. He’s making films all over the world and investigating all these different cultures. Ideally, that’s what I’d like to do.” Fukunaga’s first filmic border crossing was to Mexico, where he made Victoria Para Chino, a riveting, tragic short about 17 illegal Mexican immigrants who die of suffocation while being smuggled across the border to Victoria, Texas. With a budget of only $5,000, Fukunaga made us feel not only the desperate, stifling heat of the immigrants’ locked trailer but also the larger social injustices that resulted in this tragic true story. The film went to numerous festivals, including Sundance, won a silver medal at the Student Academy Awards and announced Fukunaga as one of the day’s most promising young directors.

Cary Fukunaga | The Sundance Labs

For his first feature, Fukunaga revisited the themes of his successful short, Victoria Para Chino. After the short played Sundance, Fukunaga remembers, he received a call from the Sundance Institute’s Ilyse McKinney, who asked him if he had a script he’d like to submit to the Sundance Labs. “I put together very quickly a feature based on the third-person research I had done for the short film – newspaper articles that talked about what Central Americans go through to get across to the U.S.,” said Fukunaga. “I found the idea of immigrants riding on top of trains so fascinating; bandits and gangs that were tattooed – this whole world felt absolutely cinematic. It didn’t even feel part of North America. It was this old West thing, or like hobos in the 1930s, but it had this weird Mad Max kind of feel to it too.” Fukunaga was accepted, and went on to develop the screenplay at the Sundance Institute's Screenwriter's Lab as well as, later, in its Directors Lab. At the latter, he workshopped scenes with actors and a tiny crew in a location worlds away from tough landscape of his eventual film, shooting a rape scene in the living room of a luxury condo and a gang attack beside a beautiful mountainside brook. In a Filmmaker magazine interview shortly following the Labs, Fukunaga discussed what he got out of the intensive process. "The hardest stuff for me at the Labs was the emotional stuff because I'm still discovering how to convey human behavior," he said. “After the Labs I did a whole rewrite. Once the actors became my characters, I realized I had to rewrite and simplify things like the character arcs. For me, the Labs were a process of discovery… which is just a fancy word for practice.”

Cary Fukunaga | Sin Nombre

By 2008, Cary Fukunaga was in Mexico, shooting his debut feature, Sin Nombre, for Focus Features. The film tells the tale of a beautiful young Honduran woman, Sayra (Paulina Gaytan), who joins her father and uncle on train-top odyssey across the Latin American countryside en route to the United States. Along the way she meets a teenaged Mexican gang member, El Casper (Edgar M. Flores), who is fleeing his own violent past and trying to elude his unforgiving former associates. And then there’s Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), a young boy whose desire to please the fellow members of his newly joined gang clashes dramatically with the dreams of Sayra and Casper. Fukunaga had traveled through Central America and Mexico while making the film, and crafted the film's realistic characters through first-hand research. The film more than fulfilled the promise of his first feature, marrying the intensity of his short film Victoria Para Chino to gripping, empathetic characters, all against a backdrop that indeed seemed part latter-day Western, part Mad Max. Of this influence, Fukunaga said, "The environment feels like that of a Western. You can’t have trains or bandits without thinking of Westerns. And also the themes — you think of John Ford, Huston, some of the bigger Westerns and there is a sense of retribution. A lot of the stories are about justice, closing a chapter on something that happened earlier in the film, so in that way [Sin Nombre] is definitely constructed like that. Looking for a new life, hope — those are themes found in Westerns." Fukunaga’s film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Directing and Cinematography Award. In a four-star review, Roger Ebert wrote, “[Sin Nombre] contains risk, violence, a little romance, even fleeting moments of humor, but most of all, it sees what danger and heartbreak are involved. It is riveting from start to finish.”

Cary Fukunaga | Commercials and Cinematography

As Fukunaga's career has progressed, critics have noted the director's extraordinary visual assurance. He weds story and character to image and motion, and he captures his environments with a photographer's eye for both mood and detail. Perhaps that's because Fukunaga is also an extraordinary photographer and DP'd himself a number of noteworthy student films while attending NYU Film School. He has recently begun directing commercials, further refining his ability to tell dramatic stories concisely using compelling imagery. In a celebrated Levi's commercial entitled "America," Fukunaga juxtaposed voiceover from Walt Whitman's poem to stark black-and-white shots of distressed homes, fireworks, little kids flexing their muscles, and a flickering neon sign that spells the name of this country. For his upcoming film, Jane Eyre, Fukunaga says he's ready to push his visual storytelling even further. "On Sin Nombre, [cinematographer] Adriano Goldman and I improvised a lot of things on-site," he told Movieline. "We were working with untrained actors, and you can’t really block a scene in a traditional way. On this film, we’re working with such pros that can work and hit their mark, so we’re coming up with some interesting ways to shoot the film."

Cary Fukunaga | Jane Eyre

For his follow-up to Sin Nombre, Cary Fukuna has chosen unexpected source material. Traveling far from the world of Mexican gangs and illegal immigrants, Fukunaga is journeying to a country estate in 19th Century England. His adaptation of Charlotte Brontë 's Jane Eyre opens from Focus Features in spring 2011. But, listening to Fukunaga — and watching the film's intense trailer — it's clear that the film isn't the change-up it might seem. In an interview with Movieline, Fukunaga discussed what drew him to the project. "I’d known there was a Jane Eyre script out there for a couple of years, and [the Robert Stevenson-directed 1944 version] was one of my favorite movies as a kid,” Fukunaga said. “When [Sin Nombre] came out in the UK, I took advantage of that to meet with the BBC, and it turned out that there was no director that was attached anymore and the script happened to be amazing.” The film stars Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender and Dame Judi Dench, and Fukunaga says that, like Sin Nombre, it's informed by history and detail. "I’m a stickler for raw authenticity," he told Movieline, "so I’ve spent a lot of time rereading the book and trying to feel out what Charlotte Brontë was feeling when she was writing it. That sort of spookiness that plagues the entire story… it’s very rare that you see those sorts of darker sides [in the other adaptations]. They treat it like it’s just a period romance, and I think it’s much more than that.”

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