It sure is swell to meet a precocious young American filmmaker who's not just a navel-gazer, who's actually traveled all over the world, gotten out of his own head, and come back with something to say besides "Hey, guess what movies I've loved and how cool I therefoream!" But then, ever since Oakland native writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga's short film Victoria para Chino cleaned up at Sundance in '05 and went on to win a Student Academy Award, people have been expecting more from him.
Like a Spanish-language thriller of imperiled Central American immigrants, for instance. Sin Nombre, the 31-year-old filmmaker's highly self-possessed feature debut, focuses on two teenagers -- a Honduran girl (Paulina Gaitan) and a Mexican gang member(Edgar Flores) -- whose paths fatefully cross on a freight train heading north toward America. Fukunaga (who is of Japanese and Swedish ancestry) recently sat down with KQED to talk about how he did it.
KQED: So you're from Oakland, originally. How'd you get from there to here?
CJF: Yep, I was born in Oakland, then moved up to Sonoma for high school, then I went to college in Santa Cruz, then down to L.A. after I did some traveling, then Asia for a couple years, and then when I was 24, 25, I went to film grad school at NYU. And that's what led to Sin Nombre, and that's why I'm back in the Bay Area talking to you today.
KQED: How'd you discover the path to becoming a filmmaker?
CJF: I knew I wanted to do filmmaking in high school, but I thought it would be too difficult. My family's full of schoolteachers, so there's no one in the industry. I just assumed you needed to know people to do it, and I wasn't really sure how to go about it. Incollege I studied history, I was interested in languages, but there was nothing else I could see myself doing. There's like three things I wanted to do in my life. One was be an architect. One was be a fighter pilot. And one was be a filmmaker. And, well, actually there was alittle stint where I wanted to be a pro snowboarder. But yeah, architecture: I used to draw house plans all the time when I was little kid. I still love it. Fighter pilot: I was taking advanced math classes, advanced physics, to go to Annapolis and do that. But my eyesstarted going bad, and I didn't want to fly cargo planes. But then filmmaking was always there. I didn't want to do it as an undergraduate degree. I knew I was going to try and figure out some way to do it after college.
KQED: Hence, grad school at NYU?
CJF: You know, I applied to grad school originally because a friend of mine from Santa Cruz was also applying. I didn't really know much about NYU, but he's like, "Dude, it's New York." And for me it was like, after L.A., where do you go? Meaning, after the Bay Area,you go to L.A.; after L.A. where do you go? So I didn't really know if I wanted to go to film school, but I didn't really have independent money to make short films so student loans were really the only way I could do it, if I was going to make movies with good production value.And everyone in L.A. that I was working with was saying, "Just work your way up." But I wasn't happy being a crew person. I liked being a crew person, I liked learning craft, but you plateau really quickly in terms of what you can learn as a crew person -- unless you want atechnical role. And so I decided to go to film school. I wasn't sure really until like a month before school if I really wanted to take on that debt. I mean you could potentially walk away from NYU with a $200,000 debt. And you could just be back in the same place again. I met guys who went to AFI (American Film Institute) to be cinematographers, and shot two films at AFI and went back to being assistant cameramen again after incurring a pretty big debt. So it was a gamble.
KQED: For sure. But your short film, Victoria para Chino, was a great success. After that, did you have a whole bunch of projects to chose from as a first feature? How did Sin Nombre become the one that you made?
CJF: It was a weird process. It wasn't like I had this dream to do a socially conscious film about immigration. I made the short film in 2005 because I had read this article in the New York Times and it just hit me on an emotional level, and I knew I could make it. I was going into my second year, where you have to make a ten-minute long film, and I wanted to do a socially conscious film for that. I just didn't know what the subject was going to be. So when I read the New York Times article I was like, "That's it. That's the story I want to tell." I wasn't making it to be a calling-card film. It wasn't like, "This is going to launch my career." So when it got into Sundance, it was like, "Oh shit, I'd better start getting things ready." I had some other feature scripts I was playing with in my head. But at the festival, when they asked me if I had a feature script, it was just like, "Uh..." But I said I did. The only thing I was really prepared to write on was the same subject, because I'd done so much research for the short film. So that's why I did it.
KQED: Let's talk about your research.
CJF: After Sundance when my short film played, I went down to Mexico to do real research. I went down with two friends who'd made the short with me, and the goal was to go to the shelters and the train yards and interview immigrants, and spend time in prisons and get a sense of what the gang's role was and what part they played in this weird micro-economy -- and then ultimately finish up with riding the train. And after two and a half weeks of doing that and listening to horrifying stories of the journey -- violence and young girls beingraped and people being hurt and falling off the train and all kinds of different things -- my friends decided they weren't going to ride the train. In fact, just a week before we were going to, there was a derailment, and several people died. So, I decided I was going to go by myself...(laughs)...thinking that they wouldn't let me go by myself. And the night came to jump on the train, and they were just like, "Good luck!" I was on there for about 30 hours, and almost everything I needed to see for the film was on that trip. Including our train being attacked by bandits. I later found out that one immigrant had been killed. So it was a harrowing journey and it really allowed me to tell a first-person experience of what that journey is like. And it was an interesting moment -- to feel completely equalized with their experience. Because once I was with them, no one was going to bail me out. You're impotent in that moment. You have that fear and that helplessness.
KQED: And you felt you needed to experience that personally?
CJF: That was important to me because...being an outsider...this is a tricky one to maneuver, because I knew I was making this as a fictional film, so inherently it's part of anindustry, and there's profit to be made. I didn't want to just be taking these people's misery and making a film out of it. I needed to know for myself that I put myself through enough risk to merit telling the story.
KQED: OK, so, any first feature is a challenge. But this one -- in another language, in multiple countries, in several potentially very dangerous situations -- seems like a huge challenge.
CJF: Absolutely...(laughs)...it was naïve. Naïve confidence. Really, if I knew how complicated the film was going to be and how tired I'd be toward the end of the shoot, I might have done things differently. It's amazing how you can burn your energy on a film set. I was there all the time, and by the last day of shooting -- six weeks and two days of shooting -- I was so exhausted that I sat down in my chair, and it was like I couldn't move. It was a highly impacted schedule, so any shift in that can throw off the entire shoot. There's no rain days in a schedule like that. Often times it was trying to find the elegant solution to not being able to cover the scene the way you wanted to cover it. Elegant meaning not throwing away the baby with the bathwater just because you ran out of time, and shooting any old thing. You have to find the essence of that scene: Why did that scene survive development, why is it still in the script, what is it trying to accomplish? And find a way in one or two shots to accomplish it. In a way it's good, that kind of pace, because everyone's just going. There was never a moment where everyone was just sitting down waiting for something to happen. For the actors, it's great, 'cause they get to stay basically in the moment all day long.
KQED: Some of the Sin Nombre cast members are experienced actors and some are not. How did you integrate them? What did they learn from each other, and what did that give to the movie?
CJF: The biggest challenge there is making sure everyone's in the same film. Because you have some actors who coming from a telenovela background, and Edgar Flores, who plays Casper, not having any experience, and someone like Paulina, who's only done films, and who's very much like the child actor, very professional. Tenoch Huerta, who plays Lil' Mago, and Luis Fernando Pena, who plays El Sol, are pretty established actors in Mexico, and really good guys. I used them a lot to be, like, team captains when we had lots of actorsaround -- almost like my lieutenants in a way. So I'd be so preoccupied putting out fires, I'd tell him, all right get the guys together, get them ready, and he'd go do it. And it made sense, because he's a leader in the film, too. I formed a really close friendship with Tenoch, so if I go to Mexico now I crash at his family's house.
KQED: So, film-wise, what's next?
CJF: Something completely different. That's all I know. Socially conscious? Maybe. Something new, definitely. I'm playing around with a musical -- something more raw than the typical Broadway type of thing. And I've got a couple of just regular college-age unrequited love stories. And then I have a sci-fi story. All I know is that I'm just trying to do something new.
Sin Nombre opens at the Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco and California Theatre in Berkeley on Friday, April 3, with openings in San Jose on Friday April 10 and Sacramento on Friday, April 17. For tickets and information, visit www.landmarktheatres.com.