It probably says something not altogether confidence-inspiring about the current state of cinema that one of the most interesting and versatile independent filmmakers on the scene had to go to television to become a marquee name. Sure, indie fans hooked in to his 2009 debut feature Sin Nombre, and lit geeks fawned over his 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, but it’s fair to guess that most of the Tribeca Film Festival-goers who flocked to Thursday afternoon’s “Tribeca Talk” with Cary Fukunaga were there because of True Detective. And the director of that show’s entire first season was more than happy to oblige them.
The most interesting — and jaw-dropping — tidbit about True Detective was the time frame for shooting its much-beloved, much-imitated interrogation scenes: three days. And to be clear, that’s to shoot all of Matthew McConaughey and all of Woody Harrelson’s scenes, for the entire season. It was great for the actors, who were able to treat the scenes as long, searching monologues rather than the snippets of scenes we all saw, but for the filmmaker, it meant all but dismissing the visual element.
“The camera doesn’t move that much,” he told moderator (and Oscar-nominated writer/producer) James Schamus, “and that simplified things, in terms of coverage. But then the other complication was that McConaughey was working, as he should, as if this was one moment — y’know, a scene. Even though for us, they were scenes stretched across five episodes. So he had his script, which was great for him, in one arc. But then I had my sides, which were based in real episodic scripts, and he’d be jumping around, and I’m like, ‘Wait, which episode are you in now?'”
“Cigarette and aluminum can continuity must’ve been a nightmare,” Schamus noted, and Fukunaga confirmed: “Any time I see that, ever again, in the future, I’m immediately cutting that out.”
Fukunaga is far from done with long-form storytelling; he’ll direct a television mini-series adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, and, as he told the Tribeca crowd, “I’m eight weeks away from starting Stephen King’s It,” a long-gestating project that will reportedly unfold in two parts. (“I think for me the image I always see is the image I saw when I was 12, when I saw the mini-series, which is that white face in the sewer,” Fukunaga said.)
But he’s understandably skeptical about the kind of opportunities that are available to him in the Hollywood mainstream. “It’s nearly impossible to get anything that isn’t based on a precedent financed,” he shrugged, “because everything’s based on an algorithm. They just punch in numbers, they know what they can make on foreign sales on it, plugging in this actor or that actor — even, I’m talking about a $2 million film. If it doesn’t fall into a certain category, I mean, nothing’s impossible, never say never, but it’s very, very difficult.”
So what do you do? In his case, you find alternative venues, whether it’s the art house, HBO, or his recently announced partnership with Netflix, which will release his latest feature, Beasts of No Nation, simultaneously in theaters and via their streaming service.
“The exciting part about it, like anytime you make something, is that more people are gonna see it than, say, if it had a traditional platform release — for a film of this size, about this subject,” he said. “So you have a film where, basically, there’s not one white person in it, it’s not DiCaprio saving Africa, it’s mainly an African cast… The movie is a very difficult subject, it could easily become one of those films where someone’s like, ‘That seems too serious, I don’t wanna watch that.’ But I think that by nature of the force of Netflix being behind it, it’ll be in people’s faces enough that they’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try,’ and I think once they start watching it, hopefully they’ll be consumed by it.”
But that kind of exposure comes at a cost. “The concept of releasing on a digital platform or an online platform at the same time it’s gonna be released in cinema really puts the fear of God in your heart — that people actually still go to the cinema to watch a film when they’re paying six dollars a month, they can watch it on their laptops or via their Apple TV in their living room. But it was designed to be a film experienced in a group like this, collectively, with strangers, in the dark.”
And that’s where it gets tricky. “The experience at the cinema is so much more immersive than the one at home, when my phone’s going off, and I’m checking emails, and I’m not really putting all my attention into the story. And I’ll miss things. And every shot I put in there means something.”
So for the filmmaker, when it comes to matters like this, we all have some skin in the game. “Netflix’s big thing is consumer choice,” he explained. “So as audiences start to make that choice, and if they continue to make that choice to just watch online, then the cinema experience will be reserved only for comic book movies. And that is, in a way, the biggest democratic challenge for an art form: you have to ask the audience to be aware of the fact that they are just as responsible for the death of cinema as the people who make it.”
The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 26.