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.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era