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.

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.