Cary Fukunaga

From riding the rails with MS-13 to helming HBO's True Detective

In just the pilot of HBO’s richly nuanced, eight-episode anthology True Detective, two Louisiana State Police gumshoes—the boyish, deceptively vanilla Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and his cagily antisocial partner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey)—evaluate the marshy, 1995 crime scene left behind by a ritualistic killer, obsessively hunt clues while their interpersonal tensions build in 2002, and prove their moral codes are elastic when recalling the investigation in 2012. There are no tidy answers or clear-cut heroes in showrunner/writer Nic Pizzolatto’s new series, made all the more cinematic under the riveting, poetic direction of Cary Fukunaga.

Fukanaga—the eclectic, 36-year-old talent behind 2011’s Jane Eyre and winner of the 2009 Sundance directing prize for his Mexican gang thriller, Sin Nombre—had his work cut out for him, having executive produced and directed every episode of this dual character study. Though he’s essentially been busy making an eight-hour “film,” Fukanaga took time to speak with BRIGHT IDEAS about his progressive blend of television and cinema, genre rejuvenation, and why his upcoming Stephen King adaptation is not a remake.


Cary Fukunaga, Eames chair

BRIGHT IDEAS: How did True Detective become an anthology?

CARY FUKUNAGA: The original idea was that we’d tackle it as a hybrid. Normally in television, you’d have multiple directors. This is more like cinema, with a singular voice to do the whole season—which is also a way to attract talent who normally wouldn’t do television. A lot of actors don’t want to put themselves out there if they’re going to deal with four different directors over the course of one season. Next season, it’ll be in the same genre, but a completely different story, cast and director, I assume.

BRIGHT: How different is your role within this longer storytelling format?

CARY: Normally, you’re constrained to a hundred minutes to get a story out. My last film, for example, was a literary adaption, so I was turning a 700-plus-page novel into a two-hour film. It’s a lot of condensing of really great material, with explorations of what it means to be a human being. But then once getting into it, you end up facing difficult realities. The reason why there are usually multiple directors [in TV] is because doing 500 pages of script is an overwhelming amount of work for one team to tackle. More than anything, you hit the wall of: “Holy crap, what are we trying to do here?”

BRIGHT: It must be a challenge, not to mention that audiences don’t sit down and watch a TV series as they would a movie.

CARY: For a lot of episodic television, structure is built around hooks at the end. But, the way that I consume, most of the shows I’ve watched much later in binge sessions. I had an interesting conversation with Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO. It’s not about who turns on the television that first night, it’s about the people who are going to talk about it and tell friends. Then those late arrivals are going to watch it down the line. I didn’t discover The Sopranos until it was in its fourth season. When you’re watching one episode after another, the hook is the characters and what they’re going through. That’s their most profound effect—at least in shows that are successful. In this one in particular, we were hyper aware that there might be people who aren’t watching once a week, but actually all the episodes in a row. We make sure the continuity and the feel of it could be watched without breaking for eight hours.

BRIGHT: Right from the first episode, clues are teased out about how this case has affected Rust and Martin over 17 years. Is it safe to say it’s the viewer who is meant to be the true detective?

CARY: The “unreliable narrator” was a big part of that, and that does put a lot of the onus on the audience member to be the omniscient viewer. But over the course of developing the scripts, I think the characters themselves start to write their own way. The sleuthing aspect of the story is the most off-the-side part of the whole thing. It’s an anti-detective story, if you will. In great stories, once you start off the lie, it adds so much subtext to every single interaction a character has. It’s so much more scintillating for the viewer, or the reader of a book, to know the truth when the people around don’t know, and see how people manipulate each other and even lie to themselves.

Cary Fukunaga, sunglasses

BRIGHT: Detective stories are a well-worn genre. Even though Nic Pizzolatto heads up the writing, did you follow any self-imposed rules in order to bring something fresh to the table?

CARY: I have never watched any of those CSI or shows, so I’ve never seen procedurals, really. Nic had studied them profusely, knows them very well, likes some, and dislikes other ones. That’s part of the reason I think procedure hasn’t been a big part of this show—because it is such a force in other cop shows. Everything is built around solving something in an hour. For this, it’s the mundane aspects of sleuthing and all the minutiae that goes along with the bulk of your day—which isn’t very cinematic. We try to imply a lot of that without having to drag the audience through it. They can fill in the gaps.

BRIGHT: As a filmmaker, you’ve told stories in Mexico, the United Kingdom, True Detective is set in the American South, and your upcoming drama Beasts of No Nation will be in West Africa. Yet, you’ve never tackled any of the places where you’ve lived. What attracts you to surprising locales?

CARY: The wandering observer. I appreciate people like Graham Greene to tell us stories from around the world. There’s a universal truth to being human, but also uncanny differences between cultures that always keep interactions interesting. Not to say that I won’t do something about California or New York, but there’s not a story there that’s grabbed me yet. When I’m telling a story, I’m also trying to teach myself something. It’s a challenge on both craft and personal levels. Part of the reason I’m into making films is to have that ability to move around, completely immerse myself in a place, and then be able to pull out of it and learn about somewhere new. You become a specialty in that thing, whether it’s immigration, English literature of the early Victorian era, or now Southern Gothic. In the same way an adrenaline junkie looks for different ways to experience that rush again, for me, I’m always looking for a way to experience the new or what I have yet to see in the world.

Cary Fukunaga, super cool

BRIGHT: In an interview with James Franco, you mentioned that, as a kid, like others your age, you wanted to make comedy skits and horror movies. As an adult, are those still interests of yours?

CARY: Definitely. No one thinks I’m funny, though, so no one will give me a comedy. I’ve tried. I’m also writing an adaptation of Stephen King’s It with Chase Palmer, and we want that to be a real hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck ride for the audience all the way through. So, hopefully, that will be as scary an experience as I had watching the miniseries as a kid. So, both those things I really want to tackle, but I’ll probably never do broad comedy. If anything, I’d do more real-life comedy, if they ever give me a chance.

BRIGHT: Who accused you of not being funny?

CARY: Too many people. [laughs]

BRIGHT: If we may circle back to the monumental task of adapting bulky novels for film, is it true that It will potentially be a two-movie project?

CARY: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of different iterations of the script over the years, and I thought it was the best way. The jumping back and forth in time wasn’t necessarily aiding the plot, and the kids’ plot is so separate from the adults’. Why not just separate it, and not do so much work in one film and allow yourself to learn about the characters? Then, when you come back for the adults’ part of the story, you bring a whole lot of backstory with you. It’s a freebie, basically.

BRIGHT: People often bemoan this current glut of horror remakes—as they should—but yours sounds more like a literary adaptation.

CARY: It’s definitely an adaptation in the sense that it’s for a contemporary audience who has seen a lot of horror. There are things that have to be updated because King has obviously been the king of horror for many generations now. We’ve seen a lot of those tropes in his films, even in comedies. What was that horror film Sam Raimi made about five years ago?

BRIGHT: Drag Me to Hell.

CARY: Yeah, which was a really interesting mix of comedy and horror. It was both frightening and funny at once. The challenge of making a scary film is you have to be earnest to a certain degree. In order to do that, you have to find new, more naturalistic ways to scare people.

BRIGHT: That makes sense. Last but not least, who is your favorite screen detective of all time?

CARY: Does Indiana Jones count? He’s a history detective. [laughs]

Photos by James Ryang
Styling by Mac Huelster
Grooming by Ren Nobuko
Photo assist by Ruby Jun

Special thanks to
Shades of Grey by Micah Cohen


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