“Beasts of No Nation” is an uncompromising film about child soldiers in a fictional West African civil war.
The movie follows a young boy named Agu, whose family is brutally murdered by militants. After running for his life, Agu stumbles across The Commandant — played by Idris Elba — who forces Agu to join his mercenary fighting unit and trains him to become a cold-blooded killer.
This is the first theatrical release for the streaming service Netflix. (The film will be in theaters and on Netflix on Oct. 16.) And it’s also director Cary Fukunaga’s first project since he directed the hugely successful first season of HBO’s “True Detective.”
“Beasts of No Nation" was shot in Ghana and it was a grueling ordeal. Fukunaga, who also served as the film’s screenwriter and cinematographer, adapted it from a 2005 novel of the same name. The Frame's John Horn spoke with Cary Fukunaga at the Telluride Film Festival about the challenges of shooting the film and how it compared with "True Detective":
You had trouble with shooting the film from the outset?
The first day of shooting, actually, our camera operator pulled his hamstring. And from that moment on he couldn't be on his feet with the camera. So I had to take over as camera operator and we ended up having a lot more handheld [footage] than I wanted to have in the movie. But I think that was a fortunate accident, because even though I try to avoid that kind of treatment of the camera — oftentimes I feel like you're forcing the seriousness or intensity of a scene by the handheld work — it did help the chaos and added to the whole thing.
I want to hear more about the happy accidents that happened on the set. Especially on a movie like this, where you have — in your lead role, The Commandant — an experienced actor in Idris Elba, but your other actors are played by non-professionals. What challenges does that give you as a filmmaker?
I guess when you don't have trained actors — and especially with the kind of blocking we had where the frames aren't two actors with a wall behind them, but several layers — you end up having to do a lot of choreography. It's a very difficult task to teach people who have never been on a film set before the art of background work. So, happy accidents, I'm not sure how much there were. And oftentimes, in the Rumsfeldian way, there's the unknown unknowns and this production was filled with them.
I wish I had a list in front of me of the daily crises we faced. From the moment America beat Ghana in the World Cup and all the drivers and hotel cooking staff decided not to show up to work the next day...
Out of protest?
Out of protest or just because they didn't feel like going to work.
They didn't care that Ghana had eliminated the U.S. in the previous two World Cups?
This is the first project you've done after "True Detective," which was about 100 days of shooting. This, I suspect, was fewer than that?
Yeah, so we had about 35 days to shoot this thing and knowing that we were working with kids, we were going to have less hours. I thought we needed 45 days or something like that to shoot the film. When we were on the ground in Ghana, the cost of everything was inflating, and I was cutting pages from the script. There was no way we were ever going to get to 35 days, and there's this optimistic side of you when you're getting ready to shoot something where you think, Well, to hell with that. We can do it in 35 days. We'll figure it out.
Part of the difficulty when you're shooting is when you see the day slipping away from you and you can't do anything about it. It's completely out of your power to control and then you're left with an hour-and-a-half to finish what would normally take a full shooting day. That weight is when you feel like, Am I ever gonna realize or execute what I see in my mind here? What I've been seeing in my mind for the last 10 years? It's pretty troubling.
You're describing a very difficult shoot, a lot of compromises, a lot of frustrations...
As hard as the film is, [audiences] can never walk out and say, Oh I liked that film, or, I really enjoyed that film. The film's an experience. The film asks a lot of its audience and, in that way, one might describe it as uncompromising, but there is nothing uncompromising about [making] the film. We were compromised every level, every step of the process, from beginning to end.
And how did that feel coming out of "True Detective," which had gone so well? I know it was hard work, but it had been critically acclaimed. You had a lot of time and money to play with. What is that experience like when you come from one to the other?
I wouldn't say "True Detective" wasn't uncompromising either [laughs.] That had a budget and its own challenges. But in "Beasts of No Nation," it was mainly a resource issue. The producers were incredibly generous and thoughtful and really tried to make it work for what it was. But also, this was a movie that — on paper in a business model — should have been made for half of what it was made for, based on any number of precedents.
How hard was this physically for you to make this movie?
I suppose the direct evidence would be that I lost about 20 pounds shooting the film. I had malaria a week before we started shooting. That was not the hardest part of the shoot. I still [felt], a year later ... sitting in the edit room looking at these scenes of violence and you feel numb. It's a disturbing feeling to know that you're feeling numb. To be aware of that disassociation with what's happening on screen.
I talked to my editor at the time, Pete Beaudreau, and also the composer, Dan Romer, and we [said], "I think we're all going through PTSD right now." I don't mean to throw that out lightly. People experience real combat and drama. That's something that shouldn't be flippantly thrown around, but there is something about the repetition of having to look at that on a daily basis. I think there's some lingering trauma there.
"Beasts of No Nation" comes to theaters and Netflix on Oct. 16.