Yellow King

'True Detective' Director Cary Fukunaga’s Journey from Pro Snowboarder to Hollywood’s Most Wanted

Cary Fukunaga’s become one of the most coveted filmmakers in Hollywood after helming two excellent features—and all eight episodes of HBO’s ‘True Detective.’

Lacey Terrell/HBO

Cary Fukunaga is always directing. We’re seated at the True Detective helmer’s favorite neighborhood restaurant in the West Village, but something is amiss. Our table, it seems, is cramped into an odd corner of the cozy establishment by the stairs leading to the bathroom.

“This isn’t gonna work,” he tells me, before getting up and walking to the center of the restaurant. His head pans around 360 degrees, surveying each and every seating possibility. The maître d’ glides over to him and suggests a table by the bar. Fukunaga isn’t impressed. Finally, his eyes home in on a table in the front-left corner that’s just right.

We settle in. Despite the minor theatrics, he's a very down-to-earth guy—a far cry from some of those self-serious filmmakers in Tinseltown. Fukunaga, who is half-Swedish and half-Japanese, is sporting his long, dark hair in a man-bun, and is dressed casually in a red shirt and khakis. He’s got some serious stubble going, too, like he’s slaved away all night in an editing room. In his left hand he’s clenching a brown leather camera bag for his Leica.

And don't let his normal-dude appearance fool you. The 36-year-old filmmaker has fast become one of the hottest directors in Hollywood for his first two features, the immigration and Mexican gangland saga Sin Nombre and his über-gothic adaptation of Jane Eyre, as well as his riveting work on the hit HBO series True Detective, of which he directed all eight episodes. The latter anthology series stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of macho, hard-boiled cops struggling to unravel a case involving a series of ritualistic female murders. Nic Pizzolatto’s gritty, existential mystery, set over three time periods, has become a bona fide phenomenon.

Fukunaga orders the “Smoked Salmon” sandwich—a mélange of Russ & Daughters lox, lemon crème fraîche, caperberries, and dill on wholegrain toast, and I get the chicken baguette, topped with a small bed of baby spinach, roasted red peppers, white cheddar, and honey dijon aioli. He also orders the day’s special—a pair of fluffy, rich crab cakes—for the table. Over the next hour-and-a-half, we discuss his direction of True Detective, his rise through the filmmaking ranks, and his myriad upcoming projects.

How did True Detective come across your desk?

[Creator] Nic Pizzolatto and I are at the same management company, Anonymous Content, so my manager sent me the project and said it was timely, and me and Nic met and talked about the movies we liked and things we have in common. It happened very quickly. I had gotten it, and then Alejandro González Iñárritu was on it for a very short time, and then he slipped out and it came right back to me.

What was it about the show that enticed you to direct it?

It was only one script when I was first offered it, and then the second time there were two scripts. When I see an image in my head that compels me, where there’s this mystery about what’s going to happen next or could happen next, I’ll be intrigued. There are so many scripts that you read and you know exactly what’s going to happen, and there aren’t too many where you can’t tell within the first 20 pages where it’s going.

And the image you had in your head?

The image that always comes to my mind is one of a car driving along in the countryside, and there’s that light, especially in winter where everything is blue like a Magritte painting, and the sky is still light but it’s the last of its light, and I saw far, far away these guys on this plain. There was something in the horror of that beautiful light that I liked.

Since you only had scripts for the first two episodes, did you even know how it was going to end? Was it all mapped out for you in skeleton form?

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No. It was a Bible of an idea of where it could go. But what I liked about it was the fractured narrative, the elliptical dialogue where you almost have to play catch-up to see where it’s going, and the beginning of the character work—it felt very genre to me, in a good way. And it was originally set in the Ozarks, and I’d never been to the Ozarks but was always curious about it. I liked the exoticism of our own country—one that I hadn’t explored. So I came onboard in the fall of 2011.

Why did you switch the setting from the Ozarks to Louisiana?

That happened in spring 2012 when the realities of production dictated where we shot it. The three places that were thrown out there were Austin, New Orleans, and North Carolina. Me and Nic liked the idea of all three of those, but Louisiana seemed to make the most sense for the Ozarks, and Nic, being from there, felt like he could write that.

There’s a Southern gothic-ness to Louisiana that really complements the narrative.

Yeah. We tried to stay away from traditional Southern gothic tropes. This was not Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I think, proudly, there are no Garden District or French Quarter shots on the entire show and there aren’t a lot of shots of swamp life.

You’d worked on the short Glory at Sea with Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin down in Louisiana where True Detective is filmed. Did you hit him up for advice?

A little bit. That was my first taste of Louisiana, by the way. Just a bunch of us crashing in a big house and making a film in Katrina water. Good, old-fashioned guerrilla filmmaking. We made that film in the summer of 2007, right before Sin Nombre. But I’d worked with Sophie Kosofsky, who worked in the art department on Beasts, on a Levis commercial down in New Orleans right after working on Sin Nombre. So, I hired Sophie and a bunch of other crewmembers from Beasts for True Detective.

McConaughey was originally offered the role of Marty—but he chose Rust. And back then we weren’t in the full throes of the McConaissance just yet.

Early stages. Word was spreading. Killer Joe had not come out yet and Lincoln Lawyer was the last thing released at that time, but Killer Joe had a lot of buzz.

Was McConaughey’s sex scene with Michelle Monaghan in Episode 6 of True Detective a tip of the hat to his Killer Joe sex scene with Juno Temple? He takes the woman from behind in almost identical fashion in both.

You know, he does the same thing in Dallas Buyers Club in the bullpen! I think that’s the way McConaughey does it—from behind. That might be his style—doggy-style, like a pit bull. [Laughs]

But back to McConaughey’s performance as Rust, which is nothing short of brilliant.

Once I wrapped my head around it, it made sense. I like untraditional casting—casting against type—and he’s really great. It’s a character on paper that, once brought to flesh, could go a lot of different directions. He’ll always come off as intelligent, but will the character be likable? Will it be someone you want to watch? And McConaughey’s inherently watchable in anything. He has that movie star charisma that you just can’t turn off. Have you seen McConaughey in Unsolved Mysteries? Even back then, it’s a great performance! And he’s mowing the lawn. [Laughs]

So how long did it take for you to shoot True Detective? It took 101 days. We shot from January 2013 until the end of June 2013. It took for-fucking-ever it felt like, and there was no respite. It was about 12.5 days an episode.

What were the biggest hurdles for you, as a director?

Finding the look, finding the rhythm, and creating your language with the crew. We were shooting in very difficult locations and weather was not our friend. And it was also tough to find our endurance because there was no relief crew—it was only us—and there weren’t any hiatus days to prep the next episode. So, we could only prep the first four episodes, and for the final four episodes, the scripts weren’t even done yet. We didn’t have the scripts for the last two episodes until a couple of weeks before we started shooting, so we didn’t know where we were shooting or where to go to locations to talk about shots, so for the latter half, we just reacted and hoped that our instincts were on point.

The tracking shot in Episode 4 was a key moment in the series. It seemed to be the moment where even many of the show’s detractors were converted.

I just knew that I wanted it to be a oner because of the tension in that scene, but I was surprised when people started responding to it because they referenced the ending of Children of Men, and I thought that was way more epic. Alfonso Cuaron is the master of oners. I didn’t think it would be as hard to do as it turned out. I wasn’t even happy with it, but eventually we just had to drop the pencils and go on to the next stuff. It was really exhausting—to Matthew, the operators, everyone. On one of the last takes when we threw the brick through the glass window, a piece of glass hit Matthew in the eye, so we just said, “Let’s just stop now and hopefully one of these other takes will work.” We did 13 takes, and of the 13, eight were aborted because you just have to stop it if something doesn’t work. The first three takes I stopped quickly, and the fourth take went, and everyone was so happy—just cheering by the monitors. But I still thought we didn’t get it yet. In my mind, we never got the perfect one.

Do you have a favorite episode? Nic told us his favorite is Episode 5, which he called his “baby.”

Five is pretty good. The original cut of it was 90 minutes, and it was a good 90 minutes that didn’t feel fat, so cutting it down was really hard. Five is up there. Four I had more fun on just in terms of getting the pistons moving on the story—a lot less chatter, and more movement. It was probably a relief because there’s so much philosophy in the first few episodes, and it’s great stuff, but it’s a relief from that. The tension’s been pulled, and released.

Some people, like Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, have criticized True Detective for being too macho, and a bit sexist in its treatment of women.

And this came after she watched Episode 6? Interesting. Look, True Detective would not pass The Bechdel Test.

I’ve seen through Episode 7. Can you tease the finale? Any hints?

A lot of loose ends… I don’t know if they ever get addressed. [Laughs] The “final battle” that will happen in Episode 8 was difficult to figure out.

Let’s talk about your background, and how you arrived at True Detective.

Just normal, middle-class, suburban Bay Area livin’. But I’d always thought visually in terms of story since I was a kid, and we’d go on road trips and there’s nothing to do but stare out the window, so your mind just goes there. I began writing fictional stories and little screenplays when I was in fifth grade. We had a video camera that had a VCR still attached to the back in a backpack, like something out of Ghostbusters, which I’d use. When I was 14, I wrote a 60-page Civil War epic about two brothers that were in the Seven Days Campaign and were in a field hospital and fall in love with the same nurse. My friends and I also used to make little comedic videos all the time, like one of us would go for a slam-dunk and get our finger cut off by the rim—stuff like that. And when Blair Witch came out, me and my brothers shot a spoof of it where we get lost in our own house.

What sort of TV shows and movies were you into as a young’un?

My mom loved black-and-white Hollywood-style popcorn flicks like Jane Eyre, almost every Cary Grant movie—I have a bunch of GIFs of Cary Grant in my phone that I send people instead of texts. I feel like an image says so much more. And my grandfather was a pilot during World War II, so I got obsessed with that for a while and watched Platoon and Glory ad nauseum. I was convinced I’d died a soldier and come back. And I also watched 90210—the first season. It really dropped off in the second. But it wasn’t ‘til college that I started watching more arthouse cinema.

Did you study film during undergrad? No. I studied history and political science [at UC Santa Cruz] and then I went on to study at NYU’s grad film program three years after college, but I worked in San Francisco and then L.A. crewing on various projects before that.

What did you crew on?

A lot of music videos and a few obscure indie features that never went anywhere. My first job when I got to L.A. was camera PA-ing on the music video for Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” It was Beyoncé in the water and I thought, “Where am I? How did I get this gig?” Back in the day, it was all our friends—like 15 guys—sleeping on the floor of an apartment in the Fairfax part of L.A., and only two of us still work in film. I was camera-loading and interning for people like Chris Blauvelt (The Bling Ring) who are now coming up as cinematographers.

Had you always wanted to be a filmmaker?

No, I wanted to be a pro snowboarder. Every season, I’d go for the winter to train and compete. At 22, I had a good year and went to live in Japan, had a couple of magazine articles and stuff. But by the time I turned 23, I came back and looked at my friends who were 26, 27, and working as lift operators, and realized I didn’t want to be that. I’d always been interested in filmmaking so figured I’d try it out. But snowboarding taught me a lot about discipline and pushing my limits.

And then you went to film school at NYU. Are any of your NYU classmates thriving in the film world?

There were about 35 students when we started out and six dropped out. I’d say every one of them is working except a couple, and 15 of them out of 35 have made features, which isn’t bad. Craig Johnson just had Skeleton Twins come out and Mark Heyman wrote Black Swan. Rob Meyer has a film coming out soon, A Birder’s Guide to Everything. Pretty good class.

Did you have any famous filmmakers teach you at NYU?

Spike Lee was supposed to teach our Master Class, and the day class started he was like, “I’m not going to teach that class.” Then, Darren Aronofsky came in during the spring, right after I was at Sundance with my short, and taught a three-week course. He used me as a test subject because I had just been at Sundance and won an award and he grilled me and said, “OK, what’s your feature pitch? What are you gonna do now?” He really put me on the spot and gave me a lot of shit—in a good way—for being unprepared. And my friend Mark Heyman who was in the class did such a good job condensing feature pitches that Darren poached him right out of the class and he wrote Black Swan. Darren and I are still friends. He actually just showed me the final mix for Noah.

And your 2005 Sundance short, Victoria para chino, was a pretty big hit.

It won a Student Academy Award and was shortlisted in the Academy Awards. It was based on a 2003 New York Times story in Victoria, Texas, about a train of about 60 or 70 immigrants who were abandoned and they finally escaped after nearly suffocating to death, but 20 of them died. Really tragic. But the short really took off. It wasn’t my thesis film or a film that was supposed to jumpstart my career, but it ended up that way.

What were some of your biggest takeaways crewing on these various projects prior to helming your feature filmmaking debut, Sin Nombre?

I really learned to wait. I did the Sundance Labs in January and July 2006, thinking that we were going to shoot in the fall of 2006, but we didn’t shoot Sin Nombre until fall 2007. During that period, I wrote the movie I’m doing now, Beasts of No Nation, and thought about getting started on Jane Eyre. I always tell my friends, “Don’t stop working.” You’ve got to keep doing it.

Did you have any great mentors at the Sundance Labs?

Naomi Foner, Jake Gyllenhaal’s mom, was like a surrogate mother to me—same with Michelle Satter, who’s like the mother hen. And Walter Bernstein and John Lee Hancock advised me, too.

Why do you think you’re fascinated by tales of immigration, in both Victoria para chino and Sin Nombre?

I grew up in California and there’s a Cesar Chavez Boulevard in every city there, plus my stepdad was Mexican and he used to threaten me when I was a kid that if I misbehaved badly, he was going to send me out in the field to pick fruit. I grew up around a Chicano family and was around Mexicans a lot.

So Sin Nombre comes out and is a huge hit at Sundance, winning the Directing award. Had you already started on Jane Eyre by that point?

I was still working on my child soldiers project, Beasts of No Nation, and a couple other ideas like this musical that I’m still working on. It’s an urban-set film about unrequited love but there’s a road trip component as well, and Owen Pallett, from Final Fantasy, we’ve been talking about this since 2009. We both have hectic schedules but want to do it when the time is right. But with Jane Eyre, I had thought about doing it while waiting for Sin Nombre to go, and after that was released, within a month Focus jumped on to finance it.

I watched an awful movie last night, by the way that I had to turn off. I watched Pompeii. I’d been working on a Pompeii project at Universal for a long time—around the time I was working on the musical for Focus—so I went down to Napoli, researched at Herculaneum and Pompeii. It took me two weeks. In two weeks, I got enough information to tear apart that movie frame-by-frame. Did they ever watch a YouTube video of what a volcano actually looks like? Or a pyroclastic cloud?

[Laughs] It still tickles me that Paul W.S. Anderson has the same name as Paul Thomas Anderson, one of our greatest filmmakers.

It really is the perfect example of extremes—just use the Paul Anderson scale! P.T. Anderson is one of my—if not my—favorite directors. Him and Cuaron. And Audiard.

Back to Jane. Was it tough to compress a 700-page book into a two-hour movie?

There were things I wanted to put back into the movie from the novel, and you want to honor fans of the book and also honor the story you’re trying to tell, so it’s part of the reason I wanted to do long format when I was done because you get to sit with the characters longer and get to know them.

What were the big takeaways from your experience making Jane Eyre? That was your first big film with real actors, and several stars, like Michael Fassbender, Dame Judi Dench, etc.

I was like, “How am I going to direct Dame Judi Dench?” One of my favorite movies is Notes on a Scandal, and she’s so great in that. What am I going to say to her? But she wanted to be directed. With Michael, he was helpful in working with Woody and Matthew on True Detective because I’d never had to contend with a guy my age before. It was this cat-and-mouse game of, “Who’s in charge here?” because I was this young filmmaker and he's not a young, untrained actor [like on Sin Nombre]. I learned a lot by that. Michael is a great actor. I thought he was brilliant in 12 Years A Slave.

There are some actors who try to re-write scripts while the movie is in pre-production or even filming—like Edward Norton on Frida or The Incredible Hulk.

I understand why. If you’re a smart actor and see the potential of something and see a director or writer ruining it, you think, “Let me take over.” Ed Norton is probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. We’re working on a project together. We’ve been working on this adaptation of Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War for almost five years. I want to do it as soon as possible.

You’re a very busy man. What other upcoming projects do you have cooking?

Beasts of No Nation, which is going to star Idris Elba and is about child soldiers and what happens to a child through the experience of being conscripted into war, and learning to kill at such a young age. Idris is going to play the commander in charge of the main boy. It’s a dark, dark story. I’m still trying to figure out the rest of the casting. It’s a very low-budget film, so it’s going to be mostly locals and non-actors.

And then you have the It movie remake with Warner Bros.?

Yup. It’s going to be a two-part movie, and I don’t think they’ll come out at the same time; they’ll be done separately. I think you have to separate the child and the adult stories in It, so I’m going to tell the kid’s movie first, and the second will be the adult’s movie. Our version will be faithfully but tastefully updated—making sure it’s appropriately scary, but not kitsch.

Are you coming back to direct the second season of True Detective?

Nope, but I’ll be executive producing. We haven’t begun casting yet! Too chaotic right now.