“Beasts of No Nation” writer/director Cary Fukunaga first learned about child soldiers as an undergrad in college. Before applying to film school at NYU he wrote a short script about the invasion of a village in Sierra Leone. “It was very ambitious for a short film,” recalls the Emmy champ (“True Detective”) in our exclusive audio podcast (listen below). The filmmaker had already spent years immeresed in the subject before being given Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed 2005 novel. “It was so arresting,” he says of the story of Agu, a young boy who joins a militia after being separated from his family by a Civil War. “For me, it felt like everything I had been looking for in terms of a story to tell. I could apply all of my research into that story.”
His exhaustive search for someone to play Agu started in Ghana, where the film was shot, and ended with the discovery of Abraham Attah. “I had acted when I was small, but not on camera,” says the soft-spoken teenager, who joined Fukunaga for our interview. Attah was in school playing soccer when the casting director approached him and his friends, initially looking for extras. “I decided to work hard for the role,” he says, knowing it could be a breakthrough for him.
The other major role in the film is that of the charismatic Commandant, played by Golden Globe winner Idris Elba (“Luther”), who currently leads our Oscar predictions for Best Supporting Actor with odds of 7/2. “In the storytelling, the father-son dynamic is a sort of theme throughout,” explains Fukunaga. “Not so much the literal father-son dynamic, but the idea of a patriarch, and someone that survives based on the goodwill of the patriarch.” He continues, “it was important that role have its own natural, organic development, and not feel too forced.”
Shooting “Beasts” proved difficult for various reasons. “We were in a country that doesn’t really do productions of that size,” recalls the director. “We had a pretty ambitious schedule, and an ambitious goal in terms of the kind scenes we’d be shooting. Everyday there were huge amounts of compromise, and a lot of days we just didn’t finish.”
You wouldn’t know that by looking at the film, though, which is filled with hauntingly poetic imagery that contrasts its grim subject matter. “It’s just how I see things,” says Fukunaga. “I shoot the movie as I see the world, and try to place the camera in a way that encompasses how in my mind I’m visualizing a scene. I also find that placing the camera and finding a frame that’s visually attractive is also the best way to — for lack of a better word — seduce your audience into accepting the narrative you’re feeding them. I think forced ugliness un-attracts or somehow dissuades connection to the story.”
Listen to our full interview for more, including how Fukunaga served as his own cinematographer, the difficulties of shooting on location, and the future of Netflix and film distribution.
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