Cary Joji Fukunaga has established himself as one of the best and most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers over the past decade in simple fashion: consistent excellence in a collection of movies (and one notable TV show) that share nothing in common except for the highest possible craft.
The latest from the 38-year-old California native, who was behind "Jane Eyre" with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, "Sin Nombre" and the first season of "True Detective," is "Beasts of No Nation," the portrait of a child (Abraham Attah) in an unnamed West African country forcibly enlisted in a military unit run by the brutal Commandant (Idris Elba).
It's a weighty subject, to be sure, and a difficult one. It's certainly not one your everyday filmmaker would eagerly embrace, especially given the movie's difficult shoot in Ghana. But Fukunaga rejects any implication that the film, adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, might have been intimidating.
"I spent time in Sierra Leone in 2003 doing research; I've been in conflict zones before as a camera operator, in Haiti specifically," Fukunaga says. "I met other child soldiers; they were labeled as gangs, but they were armed children, fighting for a political cause. I've done plenty of research and work in dangerous areas. In terms of the danger element: no. In terms of the darkness of the subject matter, neither."
The movie, which premiered to great acclaim at the Venice Film Festival and is frequently mentioned as an Oscar contender, fits comfortably within the thematic parameters that drive Fukunaga as an artist, the filmmaker says.
"My natural interests are international issues and where we are in the world, in a space and a time," he says. "What cycle we're in. How it's being repeated. What sort of unfortunate tragedies are going on."
Regardless of Fukunaga's unflappable confidence, pulling off "Beasts of No Nation," which premieres on Netflix and at Landmark theaters on Friday, was hardly a sure thing. The casting director found Attah, now 14, a non-actor, playing soccer in Ghana. The country had no infrastructure to support a production on this scale. Fukunaga didn't just direct, write and produce the movie. He served as its cinematographer, as well.
"It's been very interesting trying to trailblaze a production there," Fukunaga says of shooting in Ghana. "There are so many things that you need to have in place to just make a movie -- whether it be hotels, restaurants and transportation, for example, to skilled crafts people. It's not that there isn't a film industry in Ghana. Just not the kind that we needed to make the kind of movie we were making. You start taking for granted places that have that."
The movie's joint release on Netflix and on limited big screens offers a stark choice for audiences. It's the first original film for the streaming service, but Fukunaga is unambiguous on what he believes to be the right way to experience "Beasts of No Nation."
"Without a doubt, hands down, the best place to screen the film is in a cinema. There's nothing that can replace that. That doesn't mean the value of the film is lost watching at home, it's just not as powerful an experience," he says.