The NS Interview: Cary Fukunaga

The director of <em>Jane Eyre</em> talks about political films, immigration and student loans.

Your 12-minute film Victoria Para Chino deals with a public matter, whereas Jane Eyre is very private. What was your impetus behind the short?

I wanted the audience to experience what it was like to be an immigrant. So rather than getting one character they can identify with, and just as a ride. The initial idea was no visual and just to do it with sound and make the entire cinema itself the container.

So it's implicitly political?

I think anything's going to be political when you're showing tragedy like that. There's got to be a message in there. For the audiences of the short film -basically the American bourgeois - it's easy to watch a documentary and from a distance talk about these things that are politicised, but nothing to experience it.

Your films take a neorealist approach. Is this the most powerful kind of cinema?

I think it's always action/reaction. My generation of filmmakers is reacting to cinema, especially the more popular cinema, which forces emotions. Oftentimes the best poetry is so exciting because you can fill in the blanks: it's the same with cinema. If you do something in a way that allows people to fall into the story and never be aware they're falling into it, you can have a much more successful emotional experience. It's a seamlessness that's very difficult to achieve.

Do you write in other ways?

I wrote in high school because I was trying to tell some stories and would have emotions surrounding them, but I wasn't aware of prose until I started reading classic books and studied French.

What's different in that language?

In French culture people would say "that's an ugly sentence", and try and find a better version of it. There's a real weight on the aesthetic of the sentence itself. I always think of my Japanese heritage, how understated that family is and the way things are communicated. There's "understood", and in French there's sous-entendu: "under-understood".

Sin Nombre and the short were made during the Bush years. How has the US-Mexico border changed under Obama?

It hasn't, really. If anything, the border's much tougher, especially now with the drug wars. Calderon is the person who made it incredibly violent, and he's basically [Vicente] Fox's successor, who was Bush's best friend.

Bush told Americans strengthening the border would make them safer.

I think a lot of it is about selling it to the constituents. Xenophobia is not a new thing. It has existed since the beginning of America. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts having the policy that they can just pull over anyone and ask for papers and deport them - is saying, "Look, we're protecting you".Increasing patrol and building the walls doesn't stop the flow of immigration. The economy does. No amount of frontier patrol is going to stop that. It just becomes more deadly.

Slumdog Millionaire was criticised for its use of child actors. Sin Nombre used several amateurs. Does the director have a financial responsibility to their actors?

I don't think so. Edgar [Flores], who plays the lead role, got more money than he ever thought he could have in his life. Because he was over 18 we set up a fund and got him acting grants. But then, no matter how much I said "save your money", Edgar ended up wasting it. He spent it all. It wasn't that much, but he couldn't take advantage of his acting career because he got a girl pregnant, and was stuck in Honduras. In that case, I'm not responsible for them for their whole lives.

How does your Jane Eyre differ from Charlotte Bronte's novel?

I downplayed the religious side and the racism. [The Rivers-as-cousins element] used coincidence too lightly. I think it's a trope of that kind of literature, and it's not a strong piece of writing. To include that is to weaken the film. What ends up becoming the emotional core is Jane's relationship with Rochester. [Bronte] spends the last third of the book on St. John Rivers, and you think, "why am I wasting my time with this?"... I skipped that part of the novel.

You received a lot of grants at film school. You can't miss all the paperwork that entailed.

The hustle is still there. I work for Focus Features - these ain't the old days! I've been sleeping on couches all summer. That's the funny thing about being a director: you can be flown business class, be driven around by a private driver, and you go back to your normal life where you ride the tube and you sleep on friends' couches because you don't have a place to stay in this town. I have student loans, lots of them.

Do you vote?

Yeah. I waver between cynicism and idealism.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?

Maybe the feeling of first experiences - so that every time it's experience, experienced again for the first time.

Are we all doomed?

No, I believe in a resilience within the most damaged populations.

 

Defining moments

1977 Born in California to a Japanese father and Swedish mother
1999 Graduates from University of California, Santa Cruz with a B.A. in History
2004 Writes and directs short film Victoria Para Chino for a student competition whilst attending NYU Graduate Film programme, winning a Student Academy Award. Makes a commercial for Levi's
2009 Spanish-language debut film about the Mexican Mara Salvatrucha gang, Sin Nombre, premiers, gaining a Sundance award for directing
2011 Re-make of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre released globally. Signs up to direct sci-fi film, Spaceless

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.