NEW YORK, N.Y. - Cary Fukunaga's first feature film, "Sin Nombre"— which translates to "Nameless," was a Spanish-language drama about Honduran immigrants. His latest, "Beasts of No Nation," is a brutal story about a boy drafted into a West African rebel army.
Don't be fooled by the exotic filmography. Fukunaga grew up in Oakland, California, in what he calls a traditional middle-class family, first planning to be a professional snowboarder.
"I've never really been drawn to telling stories that are immediate reflections of my life," says Fukunaga, who also helmed an acclaimed adaption of "Jane Eyre." ''I've always looked out: outside of my culture, outside of my time, even, as places of inspiration. I always used to daydream as a kid about living in different time periods and different places."
"Beasts of No Nation," which stars Idris Elba as the militant commandant, is also taking the traditional movie release to a new realm. When it opens in select theatres Oct. 16, it will also debut on Netflix. It's the first in Netflix's coming slate of original narrative films, which include Adam Sandler comedies, Brad Pitt's Gen. Stanley McChrystal satire and a "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequel.
But Netflix's first step is a savagely serious one in "Beasts of No Nation," a thrillingly cinematic but grimly horrific portrait of war seen through a child's eyes. It's playing on the fall film festival circuit and Netflix will give it an awards season push.
That makes "Beasts of No Nation" arguably the most prominent film yet to puncture the traditional theatrical window.
It also marks Fukunaga's first project since directing the whole of season one of HBO's "True Detective," which won him an Emmy and widespread recognition for his atmospheric direction and moments of one-take bravado. (The less successful season two, he says, he hasn't even seen: "I'm very much aware of the critiques of the show, but I never even got to see the scripts.")
But the ultra-bleak "True Detective," he chuckles, is "far lighter" than "Beasts of No Nation." The film was always going to be a more art-house proposition, so Netflix (which purchased the film for about $12 million) almost surely means a much wider audience. The choice, Fukunaga says, wasn't easy, but the lure of Netflix's 65 million subscribers worldwide won him over.
"I want people to see this film," he says, adding that he hopes many still see it in theatres. "To do a traditional theatrical release, a platform release, we might get a few thousand people to see this film. Tens of thousands if we were really lucky."
Fukunaga, 39, has wanted to make a movie about child soldiers for years. His application to film school to New York University included his plans for it, and he travelled to Sierra Leone in 2003. But it was the 2005 debut novel by Uzodinma Iweala, on which the movie is based, that made everything click for the writer-director.
He filmed "Beasts of No Nation" in Ghana. His 14-year-old star, Abraham Attah, was a street vendor without prior acting experience. For the intrepid Fukunaga, "Beasts of No Nation" is about using cinema to connect far-apart worlds.
"It's when you start seeing people for people and not just as a news headline, it changes your interest," says Fukunaga. "The reason for storytelling is to create empathy, to create connections with people around the fire, with people from far-away places that you wouldn't normally think you have anything in common with and yet you actually, absolutely do."