‘Beasts of No Nation’ Director Cary Fukunaga on Capturing Violence in Africa: ‘You Can’t Turn a Blind Eye’

“The acts of brutality that really happen are impossible to shoot,” says the director of the harrowing Netflix drama

“Beasts of No Nation” is making headlines because it’s the first major narrative feature to be released by Netflix, but Cary Fukunaga‘s dark and gripping story about child soldiers in Africa would be attracting attention regardless of its distribution platform.

The story of a young boy (played by non-actor Abraham Attah) recruited into a gang of rebels led by a fearsome Idris Elba, “Beasts” is at times hard to watch, but it’s also impossible to shake. Its box-office and awards prospects depend on adventurous viewers, but Fukunaga has earned plenty of those with his 2009 debut, “Sin Nombre,” his 2011 version of “Jane Eyre” and his first season of “True Detective” — you know, the season everybody liked.

The film, made by Red Crown Productions and Participant Media and distributed theatrically by Bleecker Street and Netflix, opens Friday in arthouse cinemas in more than two dozen markets. However, major theater chains have refused to book it because it is also available on Netflix beginning Friday.

TheWrap: You’ve been involved with this material for a long time, haven’t you?
Cary Fukunaga: Almost 10 years. I came to this film in 2005 when a friend gave me the book [by Uzodinma Iweala]. And I got that book and my first screenplay, “Sin Nombre,” optioned at the same time. I was going to make it after “Sin Nombre,” but the market just wasn’t ready for it.

Why did it take so long to get made?
There are probably a lot of reasons, some of which I’m not even privy to. At first it was set up at the same studio as “Sin Nombre” [Focus Features]. But I have a feeling that “Sin Nombre” would not have gotten made if I’d tried to start it in 2009 or ’10 — the landscape for these kinds of stories had changed by then, and studios were asking for projects that could guarantee them a net profit.

So I went away and made “Jane Eyre,” which was well-received by the critics and moderately successful at the box office. And after that [producer] Amy Kaufman and I renewed the book rights ourselves, and tried to shop it around. That’s when we found Red Crown.

"Beasts of No Nation" - Director and Writer Cary Fukunaga

But you then went off and directed the first season of “True Detective.”
I think I realized how psychologically and physically difficult the film would be. I said, “I really want to make this, but I don’t think I can make it right now.” I needed to get myself in the right head space.

Not that “True Detective” ended up being any easier to make, or more psychologically relaxing, but it gave me some space to think about it, and develop more as a filmmaker. It forced me to hone my skills, which helped me prepare to make a low-budget film in Ghana.

Probably not the easiest place to make a $6 million, not exactly small-scale, war movie.
Ghana has an incredibly polite, well meaning people. It’s one of those cultures where people say “yes” even if they mean “no,” because they don’t want to offend you. But you’re asking for a lot from a small film industry that’s not used to productions that demand this amount of detail and rigor.

We needed military participation, we need to get equipment and ammunition in and out of the country, explosive charges … And we couldn’t afford to bring in a big outside crew, so we had to find and train a local crew.

Didn’t some of the actors playing militia members end up in jail in a neighboring country?
Yeah. We had guys from Sierra Leone and Liberia coming over to be military consultants and actors, and they got arrested and held in the Ivory Coast. They were mistaken for a real militia. That was very troubling, because we couldn’t get to them. They had their phones taken away, and we had no idea what had happened — they just disappeared.

We finally figured out what happened and got them out, but it took a couple of days. That was pretty frightening.

The story contains horrifying acts of violence and brutality. Do you have to think carefully about how much you can show before it gets to be too difficult for an audience to watch?
Yeah, definitely. But you can’t make a film about this subject and turn a blind eye to the trauma of it. I feel like I still pulled back a lot from how violent this world is. The violence and acts of brutality that really happen are impossible to shoot.

I could list hundreds of things that have happened in the combat in Africa. The mutilation of the bodies in warfare is so grotesque that you can’t put it on camera, and the photographs I’ve seen are nearly impossible to capture.

Because you’re being distributed by Netflix, the major theater chains won’t show the film. Is that a concern for you?
Those same theater chains would never have shown the film no matter who released it. My concern is that people know it’s playing in Landmark theaters in 31 markets around the country, and in England as well. And I’m thankful that most journalists have said that you should see it in a cinema, because it was designed to be seen on a big screen.

You’ve made three feature films, but you’re also coming off a high-profile television series. Does the platform on which your work is seen still matter as much to you as it did?
Yeah. I was making this for the big screen experience. But even with “True Detective,” knowing that it’d be streamed on HBO didn’t change how I made it.