Cary Fukunaga Interview: Directing Debuts

August 12, 2009 by  
Filed under - Home, Features

I don’t know about you, but I always fill my spare time interviewing good looking, talented, American film directors. So it was just an average day for me when I sat down with Cary Fukunaga, director of Mexican gang flick, Sin Nombre.

Jealous much?

Cary hails from sunny California but has lived in France, Japan, Mexico and New York City and he speaks French and Spanish fluently. Ooooh.

He’s also won God knows how many fellowships and bursaries as well as so many festival awards, his mantelpiece has probably buckled under the weight of them. More recently, Sin Nombre garnered Cary a dramatic directing award and a Grand Jury nomination at this years Sundance festival.

Cary and I sat down for a spell and… well, at least now I have a crush on a celeb that I’ve actually met. Sitting on a rickety old bench in the boiling heat, Cary talked me through the process of making his feature length debut.

Tell me a little bit about how the project got started.

I made a short film called Victoria Para Chino (2004), and the film was about a group of immigrants that were abandoned in a trailer in Victoria, Texas. It was a true story and 19 of them died in this trailer. It was just going to be a short film and then what happened was the short film ended up having a life that was unexpected. It was going to more film festivals, getting seen by more and more people, then there was interest in a feature length version of it.

So I went off and did some more research and learned about Central Americans crossing Mexico on freight trains. So that was a surprisingly lesser known aspect of immigration. It’d make a great feature film because not only was there inherent conflict, just visually – just immigrants riding on freight trains across Mexico – but was something that I’d never seen before in a movie. In that way it was interesting.

Is that what made you decide to make Sin Nombre your feature length debut? As opposed to just writing it and handing it over to someone else?

I’m first a director and second a writer, so I couldn’t imagine giving it over to someone else. I’d always written it understanding that I’d be the one directing it. I wouldn’t have accepted anyone else doing it.

How important to you was it that it was authentic? Was it mostly factual or were there parts where you used artistic license?

It’s all fiction but all details are authentic. What the characters do, their personal stories is all fictional. So once I started creating their world, what they were after, who they were at that point in their lives, that dictated the decisions they made. But based on how someone from that world would react. So it’s a round about way of saying that the characters are my license but the world is completely based in reality.

How did you decide on how much and what to show in terms of on screen violence?

I limited my violence to where it made sense for the story, nothing was gratuitous in that sense. There are much more violent things that happen to them and what they do to other people. But my story is about Casper (Edgar Flores) at this point in time so its about the violence he sees for those few days before embarking on his journey.

I didn’t really think about it actually being a violent film until I saw it with an audience, and though it’s conservatively portrayed, people still respond with a lot of tension with some of the scenes. Especially parents with children have a hard time in the scenes where Smiley is being beaten up. But for me the violence wasn’t really part of the story, it was essential for certain moments.

For me it was an everyday thing and after living with the script and directing the film and editing it, it didn’t even shock me. Then when I saw it with an audience for the first time, I was interested to feel the tension in the audience with those scenes.

In terms of writing the script, how was it different writing the gang scenes and the softer scenes?

Even in the violent scenes I still see there’s gentleness taking place, like I think Casper’s very gentle with Smiley when he’s helping him shoot the guy, for example.

In researching Sin Nombre, you actually rode the tops of freight trains yourself. How scary was that for you?

Definitely scary and intense in moments. Then many hours, sort of long hot, rainy, monotonous journey; you’re waiting.

Did you have any rehearsal time with the cast?

Very little. We were shooting six day weeks on a six week schedule and i was using my Sundays to rehearse scenes for the following week. I’d kinda just get the bits of the scenes we were gonna do or I would rehearse a scene that didn’t exist. But a brief scene, just something to do, so that when we got to set we could do that scene again and then when we went into our scene, they’re kind of already going with it.

Did you find that you got good results with that exercise?

Yeah, especially with non actors. I thought that was a good exercise because instead of starting every scene from action, you gotta have them start at a certain level and then they just continue on through the scene.

What has your experience of Sundance been like?

Sundance is like a major part, I think, in my development in the last 5 years because first my short film was there in 2005. I came back a year later for Sundance Labs, and then a year later, I missed that year actually. The following year I came back with a film I’d shot for someone else, then again this year with the feature film. Also just with, aside from the festival, the Sundance institute, which is a separate entity. I feel very close to the people involved with that, helping me to make my film and to nurture me, I guess, as a new director.

Given the fact that Western audience can still struggle with subtitled films, were you worried about what kind of reaction you’d get?

No I don’t really think about that. I didn’t think about who my audience was necessarily. I did want people to understand what was happening so I spent a lot of time with the subtitles. I did the subtitles for my film for the English version. It’s not easy, I have new respect for people who do subtitles because you can’t be literal.

And people can say ‘oh it’s much better in Spanish’. But you know, you could listen but you have to read for subtitles and you need to get things across. If you don’t want people to read your film, who will watch your film? It’s like, what can you, in the most economical way, say that is the jist of a sentence. And so much of it is slang and a lot of it’s metaphor, especially when the gang talk; they speak quite often in metaphors. And that’s impossible to translate. Impossible.

Do you have any expectations of the film’s reception in the UK?

Well, we still don’t know who our audience is in the UK. I hope a lot of people go see it but you never know. It’s just a movie, and theatres are so inundated with movies every week, if we can get people out there then great.

Do you have any plans to release a film in English in the future?

I think my next film will be in English.

Can you tell us a little bit about that or is it top secret?

It’s not top secret it just hasn’t been written yet! I wrote another script that’s not being done right now, but this one – I’m writing a musical right now. That’ll be in English, but the story’s not quite finished so it’s difficult for me to talk about. It’s a love story.

There was a short lived romance in Sin Nombre, is that something that grabs you the most when watching or writing films?

I don’t know if it grabs me the most but I like tragic love stories. So this one will be similar in that sense…without giving away the end.

Sin Nombre is released on 14th August nationwide.
Read our review here.

Emily Moulder

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