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Contender – Director and Cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts Of No Nation

December 23, 2015 08:58 | By

Cary FukunagaCary FukunagaBeasts of No Nation, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is a shocking but also touching human drama about the tens of thousands of youngsters who are enlisted and coerced into becoming child soldiers in the bloody conflicts that are a fact of life in many African nations.

Fukanaga is the film’s screenwriter as well. He adapted the script from an acclaimed novel by Uzodinma Iweala. The focus is on one nine-year old boy Agu, skillfully played by first-time actor Abraham Attah, whose idyllic life is disrupted by a military invasion of his village that separates him from his parents and makes him fend for himself as he gets lost in the forest. He is recruited as a soldier, trained by and taken under the wing of the Commandant, a would-be warlord portrayed by the charismatic Idris Elba (star of last year’s Mandela).

Beasts Of No Nation

Beasts Of No Nation

The director is known for helming the entire first season of True Detective, the big hit mini-series on HBO that also wowed the critics. Fukunaga’s first time in the director’s chair on a film feature was the well-received Sin Nombre, about a young boy and girl fleeing gang violence in Mexico, and a modern retelling of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.

What makes Beasts unusual is that while it had a limited theatrical release, it is currently available on Netflix, one of the first major motion pictures to makes its debut on the streaming service.

On Beasts, Fukunaga wore what would appear to be an impossible number of hats. But though stretched to the limits, he carried it off with artistic aplomb. He was not only the movie’s director, screenwriter and producer but also its cinematographer. And that included operating the camera. “I started out as a cinematographer and have always loved doing it, so it felt amazing to be back in the cinematographer’s chair,” he said. “You get that tangible feeling of accomplishment on a daily basis, and doing it again reminded me of that.”

LR-atah elba beastsBut the joy was far from unalloyed, since he was constantly having to pay attention to his many other duties. “When you’re the director, you’re so concerned and focused on so many things, including the psychology of everyone that’s working with you, and on much more than just the creative stuff,” he noted. “So while being able to have the view of cinematographer every day was a great pleasure, it also made for a split personality since I was also the producer and the director trying make the day to stay on schedule.”

Even if he wasn’t always satisfied he had gotten the shot he wanted, he was under time and budget pressure to keep going forward. “There’s a slightly defeatist element when the producer side of you says you have to move on to the next setup while the cinematographer and perfectionist side of my brain said to do it one more time to get it better,” he noted.

Fukunaga captured the action in 360 degree shots. “Shooting 360 degrees gives me freedom in the moment so I can turn the camera around very quickly and keep shooting and keep shooting and keep shooting,” he said. “Especially when you’re dealing with non-actors, the traditional way of covering a scene by shooting from one camera position and then shooting again from a different position does not work. I filmed it the way I saw it playing in my head and I tried things I hadn’t tried before in terms of shutter angles and handheld work.”

LR-idris agu beastsHe was also shooting his first feature using a digital camera, though he had previously employed the technology on documentaries. He went with ARRI Alexas mounted with E-series Panavision anamorphic lenses. “We tried to bake in a look as much as possible with color filtration on the camera itself,” said Fukunaga. “We shot with a slightly underexposed reversal stock to get the look I wanted in the blacks, colors and details.”

A major complication arose when on the first day of shooting when the Steadicam operator pulled his hamstring and dropped out of the production. “So on top of everything I also became the camera operator,” he stated. “But that further lent itself to the kind of imperfect visuals I was after. The main thing was that I really wanted the audience to feel some of the texture of Agu’s world.”

Besides shooting Steadicam, there were many dolly and fixed-position shots. “I also shot handheld, usually on an easy rig to alleviate some of the weight of the camera,” he noted. “Shooting with the Alexa with two monitors on you — just imagine the weight there.”

LR-Beasts of No Nation 7Fukunaga was keen to pay special attention to framing to get the images he wanted. “I fill the frame with as much depth as possible,” he said. “I always look to the location to have the opportunity to create depth. In a sequence that takes place over the course of time like a fourth dimension, you’re able to create a new context. So there’s a choreography between the foreground and the background that’s essential to me.”

Neither the book nor the film specifies where in Africa the story takes place. Kenya and Uganda were considered as possible locations, but ultimately the decision was made to do the picture in Ghana, which for years has had a stable democratic government and which made the film insurable. Beasts was the first Hollywood feature ever to be shot in Ghana.

“Uzo and I always wanted to keep this film West African and that felt important,” said the director. “In the film it’s definitely not meant to be Ghana, but the country offered all the elements I felt we needed to remain faithful to the novel,” he declared. Ghana’s landscape also features the forests, jungles, rivers and towns that Fukunaga and his production designer, Inbal Weinberg, were looking for.

LR-Beasts of No Nation 1cThe shoot lasted a quick 35 days and moved across 22 locations in Ghana. There was also a one-week delay early on because Fukunaga and 1st assistant director Jon Mallard both caught malaria and had to recover.

“The majority of sets were location finds,” said the director. “I went scouting on the weekends with my location manager and we really went everywhere,” he noted. Fukunaga was on a dirt bike, and the location manager drove an SUV. “We would scour the countryside and we were able to find incredible locations — not just beautiful for beauty’s sake but also in terms of telling a story,” he noted. One area that was explored was a national park with a waterfall. “It was across a valley, and we had to use machetes to cut through the jungle.” During the explorations, Fukunaga carried a long stick to fend off poisonous snakes.

The costume designer on Beasts was Jenny Eagan who had worked on True Detective with the director. “It was a pretty mammoth task, but Jenny is a master of improvisation,” said the director. Some of the fabrics were natural dyed and others were indigo dyed, which were scarcer and more expensive. She sourced materials from all over West Africa to make several thousand individual pieces for about 200 soldiers. “There was an entire shop of people sewing amulets onto the cotton linens,” said Fukunaga. “The amulets are based on Koranic verses, get blessed by a witch doctor and are placed on the clothing for protection.” Eagan couldn’t use original amulets because that would be considered sacrilegious, but they were made to duplicate the originals.

“I was pretty rigorous with her in terms of the camouflage for the different soldiers,” said the director. There are three different armies in the movie – the government army, the rebels and the Kamajors, a completely separate little army. “Each alliance has a very specific cultural background with their own look in what they wear,” he pointed out. “Much of the camouflage fabric for the soldiers was so new it had to be aged. That’s an art in itself, and it had to be aged thoroughly so it wouldn’t look like it was off the rack from an Urban Outfitters. The solution Jenny came up with was to throw the clothing into a giant cement mixer with gravel.”

Three editors worked on the movie sequentially. The first one hurt his back and had to bow out. Mikkel E.G. Nielsen came next and Pete Beaudreau followed. “Mikkel came in, but he had an expiration date. He had to leave in January,” the director noted. “We thought we’d be finished by then, but it was a massive editing job. We had just enough footage to edit with, and that made it tricky. Pete came in over Christmas, and worked on scenes that were still problematic. He cut it to a really fine edge.” Overall the editing, done in the West Village in Manhattan, took nine months. “I was there all day every single day, from September until May,” he said.

Sound editing and design is a very important component of a movie to Fukanaga. Another glitch: The first sound designer bowed out and Glenfield Payne assumed the demanding task. “Glen had only four weeks to do the sound design, starting pretty much from scratch, and when he got these notes from me his stomach was churning,” he recalled. “So we shook the cage for more money and time and we worked on it fiercely — not just on the sound of war, but also on the quiet. Finding the right amount of sparseness in sound design is so time consuming.”

Fukunaga said he follows the Walter Murch and Orson Welles theory of sound design, “where sound is more important even than the cinematography. “You can shoot a film poorly, but you have to get the sound right because it’s such an important part of the cinema experience.”