When Children Go To War: A Heartbreaking Portrait In 'Beasts Of No Nation' The film tells the story of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. Director Cary Fukunaga says that he tried to protect the young actors from some of the movie's most violent scenes.
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When Children Go To War: A Heartbreaking Portrait In 'Beasts Of No Nation'

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When Children Go To War: A Heartbreaking Portrait In 'Beasts Of No Nation'

When Children Go To War: A Heartbreaking Portrait In 'Beasts Of No Nation'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Cary Fukunaga, directed season one of the HBO series, "True Detective" as well as the films, "Sin Nombre" and the 2011 adaptation of "Jane Eyre." His new Netflix movie, "Beasts Of No Nation," is adapted from the novel of the same name about child soldiers. It's set in an unnamed West African country after a military coup, when the army and insurgents are at war. The main character, a boy named Agu who's about 12 years old, is left on his own after his mother and sister have fled for safety and his father and older brother are killed. Agu runs away into the bush, where he falls into the hands of a rebel commander who leads a battalion of children like Agu, who have lost their families or homes. The commander gets these young boys to become his warriors through a combination of indoctrination, force, flattery, threats and drugs. He teaches the children to use automatic weapons as well as machetes and kill on command. They are a terrifying, pitiless group. But they are also children. In this scene, soon after Agu has been enlisted into this militia, the commander, played by Idris Elba, is giving a kind of pep talk, manipulating the boy's anger about the army that killed their family members.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEASTS OF NO NATION")

IDRIS ELBA: (As the Commandant) We have been defending ourselves against the killings and rapings of our own people from the PLF and now from the NRC junta. But it has awakened a sleeping beast. It has awakened a giant. It has put the weapons of this war back in the hands of you, the young, and therefore, the powerful. Young men, wealth, we will not wait to inherit any wealth. We will not wait for them to come and give it to us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) No, sir.

ELBA: (As the Commandant) We are going to take it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) Yes, sir.

ELBA: (As the Commandant) We're going to take it from them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) Yes, sir.

ELBA: (As the Commandant) Seize it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) Yes, sir.

ELBA: (As the Commandant) All of you that have never been listened to before and have seen your family killed, you now have something that stands for you. You now have something that stands for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) Yes, sir.

ELBA: (As the Commandant) That is your family's blood.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) Yes, sir.

ELBA: (As the Commandant) Victory.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) Victory.

ELBA: (As the Commandant) Victory.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As child soldiers) Victory.

GROSS: Cary Fukunaga, welcome to FRESH AIR. You started working on "Beasts Of No Nation" before you even made any other feature films, before "True Detective." You had plenty of opportunities to take the off-ramp from this project. But you kept returning to the subject of child soldiers, and you saw through this movie. What kept you going back to that story?

CARY FUKUNAGA: It's hard to say now, on the other side of having made the film, what brought me back to it, what kept my interest or the sort of passion fired up for the subject. I suppose seeing that it was still just as relevant now as it was back then, especially as I was writing it last year, rewriting it, everything that was going on with Boko Haram in Nigeria brought it back, I think, to the forefront. And I think really, it comes from just, for me, the uncanny juxtaposition of children and war. It feels like a fairly new phenomenon, you know, from the images that I grew up with of Vietnam and World War II to suddenly the wars in the '80s and '90s being populated by so many children and holding weapons that, in my mind, used to be, you know, held by grown-up soldiers.

GROSS: You worked with children in the film 'cause the child soldiers are played by children of the same age as the children who they're portraying. Your leading boy soldier actor is Abraham Attah. He was 13 when he made the film. He's playing a - I guess he's playing a 13-year-old. So I don't know. Were any of the actors, the young actors who play the boy soldiers in the film, were they exposed to this kind of brutality and death in their own lives? I assume none of them were children - child soldiers themselves. But were they exposed to other child soldiers?

FUKUNAGA: The quick answer is yes. Abraham Attah is from a neighborhood called Shiman (ph) in Accra. And it's a tough neighborhood. But by no means did he ever experience the kind of brutality and the kind of loss that Agu experiences in "Beasts Of No Nation." And in fact, within Ghana, which is a relatively peaceful country, the biggest disturbance being a coup d'etat in the '80s that was also relatively nonviolent, the people there haven't experienced wars like Nigeria has or, right next-door, Ivory Coast has, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Burkina Faso. It's had a very controlled postcolonial existence. And Ghana actually has supplied a lot of the peacekeeping in that region. But surprisingly, in terms of, like, what the kids are aware of and in terms of these wars that are happening right next-door, they really don't know about them. And when we talked about what happened in Liberia, for example, none of these kids knew anything about that war. And so we did cast quite a few people out of Sierra Leone and Liberia who had participated in both those wars. And I think they provided a lot of context for the non-actors and also just - just in terms of anecdotal storytelling, in terms of what their experiences were and sharing them with these kids.

GROSS: So you had these people who had experienced the wars, some of whom were child soldiers. You had them tell their stories to the boys who were starring in your film?

FUKUNAGA: Not just tell stories but also did a lot of military training with them. And what ended up happening - one of our extras is Anointed (ph), who we ended up casting as a security officer, sort of raised his hand when we were looking for somebody with military experience. And so he ended up being our boot camp instructor. And he brought in two guys that he knew from a refugee camp that we also cast out of - in Ghana that also had been in the war with him. And so we used them to sort of give a more government-style boot camp training to our extras and even our main characters, sort of how to execute maneuvers and just general sort of assembly and sort of living in camps, sort of routines.

GROSS: You are in an interesting position because, in this film that is really opposed to the idea of child soldiers, you had to train children who were acting in your film to play the role of child soldiers. You had to train them to act as if they had no empathy, to train them as if they were capable of taking a machete and, you know, cutting open a student's head. It's not something you want to encourage in children. So what was it like for you to kind of direct them and teach them to be so brainwashed that they can do these things and yet, the same time, teach them that you're just acting - these are not good things to do?

FUKUNAGA: If you talk to Abraham, it was very much like play, in the same way that when I was a kid I would play soldiers with my friends and war. And the sort of more bloody, violent scenes, actually in execution on set, were far more clinical and taken apart and slow. And the stunt coordinator was there, and the special effects guy was there to add blood and then clean it up. And it didn't feel real. It felt like play.

Especially for Abraham, I don't think, at any moment, did he ever sort of get lost in the moment, in thinking that he really was a soldier or was doing these things in real life. It was very clear to him that he was a character and had a acting coach that also helped him to sort of emote how we wanted him to be, you know, moment-to-moment in the scenes. And so, in terms of training them to be real soldiers, it's nowhere near what it's like as shown in the movie in terms of the indoctrination, in terms of the drug use for control, in terms of the sexual manipulation and just general socialized acceptance of violence. It definitely was not like the on set.

GROSS: In the initiation scene in which the child soldier, who's the main character, has to, like, prove himself or die and his - he's assigned to take a machete to the skull of this young man, a student who's begging for his life. And you can tell that Agu, the boy, doesn't want to do it, but he knows he'll be killed unless he complies. So, you know, he takes the machete and does it. It's a very traumatic scene for the boy, and it's a very painful scene to watch. Did the young actor who plays Agu, Abraham Attah, did he watch that scene? And what was his reaction upon seeing it?

FUKUNAGA: Yeah, he saw it pretty quickly after we shot it actually because every weekend, we would do these daily screenings for the crew. And we started about the first weekend as a means to sort of build camaraderie, as a morale booster as well, just to - everyone can see the fruits of their labor. And it also became hugely entertaining, I think, for everyone involved and also very educational in terms of, like, seeing how all those different camera angles we did and that scene that took two days to shoot was only two minutes on-screen and how it all adds up. And that scene in particular, the ambush with the RPG hitting the truck, was a really popular one with the crew, and we actually showed it a couple times as we kept adding on the components of that scene.

So, for example, when we're shooting it - I hate to give away movie magic - but for example, he's actually not holding a machete. In that shot where that blade hits his head, there's nothing in his hand except for a handle. That had to be added in with the effects for safety. So that's sort of an example of how he's just swinging his arm and the actor's pretending like he got hit. And I remember on set, it almost felt ridiculous to him because there was an invisible blade, and there was this guy sort of screaming as if something hit him.

And actually one of the kids started laughing, and there was sort of like this infectious laughter on set that was - it was much harder, actually, just to get them to stop laughing and act serious again than to sort of, like, soothe any sort trauma that came out of that. But when we cut it all together though and showed it to all the kids, you know, in the more action-y (ph), explosive scenes, everyone's, like, you know, cheering and stuff. And in that scene, you got to watch all the kids actually go quiet for a second and take it in. And I think there is that difference between when you're playing on set and doing something and then actually seeing, when it's constructed, what the effect is. And I think it was - it was moving to them.

GROSS: What did you learn about how these child soldiers are initiated into militias?

FUKUNAGA: I think different factions around the world use different techniques. But I think, just like the U.S. military, one of the biggest parts is socialized acceptance. So, first you dehumanize the enemy. You start to create a sort of repetition of practice of killing the enemy, be it targets or anything else that sort of resembles a human being. And then eventually, after the first killing or, you know, watching others killed and learning by example, killing yourself, the acceptance or the understanding that that is now the new norm - and that's part of the way, I suppose, of deprogramming the brain's natural resistance to kill.

GROSS: What makes child soldiers so valuable to these African militias?

FUKUNAGA: I spoke to a minister in the government in Liberia who was a commander in LURD which is the same force that ousted Taylor. And on the subject of child soldiers, he told me that his - child soldiers were his most effective combat soldiers because they were the most loyal, the most eager-to-please and the most fearless. And, you know, I'm not a psychologist. I'm not trained in psychology, so I only know what I've read in terms of research and the conversations I've had with former soldiers as well - former child soldiers. And I think that there is this desire to please the adult, this desire for acceptance, this desire to be recognized. And from what I understand, even within ISIS now, the most devout and most ready to face combat are the child battalions they're creating, the child soldier battalions.

GROSS: My understanding is that, you know, like, neuroscientists say that the conscience part of the brain isn't fully developed yet when you're - when you're a child. So it's probably easier to teach children to do things that people with a sense of conscience wouldn't be able to do.

FUKUNAGA: It's not just conscience I think, too. I think it's awareness. It's - especially for adolescents, I think, it's - early adolescence, it's a time between innocent and awareness. And it's a time when the brain is in the process of some pretty heavy programming. And if you jump in there and rewire that, you can create pretty effective and ruthless killers.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is director Cary Fukunaga. He directed the new film "Beasts Of No Nation" about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country, and it's available on Netflix. He also directed a recent version of "Jane Eyre" and the first season of "True Detective" and the movie "Sin Nombre."

Let's take a short break here. Then, we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is director Cary Fukunaga. His new film, "Beasts Of No Nation," is about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country. And that's available on Netflix. He also directed the recent version of "Jane Eyre," "Sin Nombre," and the first season of "True Detective."

So we were talking about, you know, "Beasts Of No Nation." And the main actor, in addition to Idris Elba, is the 13-year-old boy who plays the child soldier that's the focus of this story. How did you find the 13-year-old who plays him, Abraham Attah?

FUKUNAGA: Once we knew that we were shooting in Ghana, then I also knew that we were going to be casting pretty much all the cast out of Ghana. And so the search for a kid became the main priority. We started to scour Accra for any kid or wherever kids sort of congregated that might sort of fit the bill for this role and all the other kids that take part in the film - schools, football pitches, church groups, civic centers, kind of anywhere kids would gather. And we happened to find Abraham Attah on a soccer field and approached him. And Abraham thought he was being scouted for a soccer team. And when it turned out it was for a movie, you know, he was a little bit disappointed. But he was still interested enough to come out and audition. And I remember seeing him on tape very early. When he acted, he wasn't overacting. It seemed thoughtful, and it seemed very authentic to his real emotions. And what's tough about this role for a non-professional actor is the amount of changes Agu goes through over the course of the story. Usually when you use a non-professional, they sort of play the same character from beginning to end. And you're not asking them to sort of flex acting skills that are beyond their skill level at that point. And Abraham essentially had to play a sort of mischievous, innocent boy, a hardened combat veteran and, by the end, this sort of very wise-beyond-his-years and not necessarily cynical but having seen so much, a very real perspective...

GROSS: Yeah, he's almost dead inside, in some ways, at the end.

FUKUNAGA: Yeah, I didn't want to say dead in the eyes. But there's something lost there, something tangibly lost by the end. And it's supposed to be heartbreaking, that loss.

GROSS: Yeah, he can't emotionally connect anymore.

FUKUNAGA: Yeah. I mean, maybe he can one day. That was based on former child soldiers that I had met with, talked about what they were like at this point...

GROSS: Right.

FUKUNAGA: And their life's experience. And many of them talked about, you know, that time, coming off the drugs, coming off the freedom and the power of being a soldier to the reality of the life they'd forgotten. And having to face emotions they didn't want to face made them feel dead inside because they didn't even want to think about emotions.

GROSS: Idris Elba plays the commandant, who leads this battalion and, you know, indoctrinates the boy soldiers. Idris Elba is best known for his role as one of the heads of the drug ring who eventually turns to real estate (laughter) on the fabulous HBO series "The Wire." And he's British, but his parents are from West Africa, from Sierra Leone. Did you know that when you cast him?

FUKUNAGA: I assumed because of his name he might be West African. I didn't know exactly where his family was from. And it turns out his father was from Sierra Leone. And his mother actually was from Ghana. And when we were trying to figure out where to shoot the film, I was really pushing with the other producers to find a way to shoot it in West Africa and not to be sort of forced to shoot South Africa for West Africa. And Idris was extremely helpful in making connections within Ghana to sort of prove to the bond company that we could shoot it there.

GROSS: Idris Elba is big and strong and imposing and quite a contrast to the young child soldiers who he indoctrinates. And I'm wondering, like, during the times when you weren't shooting, if you wanted to keep him separated from the boys in the film so that they would continue to see him as, like, separate from them and imposing and not, like, this great guy who they wanted to hang out with.

FUKUNAGA: I know what you mean in terms of, like, trying to create an atmosphere or trying to create, in a more method way, authentic sort of interactions. But even for the former commanders I knew, there was a familiarity between their soldiers, their boys, and themselves. So leadership wasn't always through fear but through respect. And so it wasn't important to me necessarily to separate them, more than anything because the shoot was so difficult, I just wanted Idris to be comfortable when we weren't shooting.

GROSS: Right.

FUKUNAGA: So, you know, if he wanted to hang out with the kids, more than welcome to go hang out with the kids. If he wanted to go relax somewhere, take a nap, definitely do that.

GROSS: Right, OK. How much time did you spend in the jungle just kind of getting familiar with it so that you'd know how to shoot it and how to position people within it and what the lighting would be like?

FUKUNAGA: I love scouting, actually. I spend a lot of time scouting on my own, with the location manager. And we'd just go out and walk around. And I had a sense of what I wanted, probably influenced by films I'd seen growing up and by my readings. But I also just wanted to get a sense of what Ghana could offer. And Ghana has spectacular landscapes that I was trying to capture as best I could on camera. And that went on through production. So every Saturday and Sunday, when people were resting, I was out looking for the rest of our locations. And those were actually some of my favorite days, too, because I was able to interact with the locals. And there was a lot of different tribes, actually, in the region we were shooting in. And those were my favorite moments because those people didn't know who I was or what I was there for. I was just a visitor. And I had the most sort of genuine interactions and the most sort of giving interactions with local villagers who would want to, like, give me their local fruit or just, you know, talk to me and ask where I was from versus the more sort of transactional exchanges I had as the producer and director when I was having meetings that were directly involved with deals for the film.

GROSS: My guest is Cary Fukunaga. He directed the new film adaptation of the novel "Beasts Of No Nation," which is now streaming on Netflix. After a break, we'll talk about directing the first season of "True Detective" and about his father, who was born in an American Japanese internment camp. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Cary Fukunaga. His film adaptation of the novel "Beasts Of No Nation" about child soldiers in a West African country is now streaming on Netflix. He also directed the first the season of the HBO series "True Detective" and the films "Sin Nombre" and the 2011 adaptation of "Jane Eyre."

So I have to ask you about the first season of "True Detective," which was on HBO. And I think even people who haven't seen the series know about this. Matthew McConaughey played a troubled detective who's smart and obsessive but has a cluttered mind whose train of thought seems very profound but usually impossible to follow. And, you know, it was a great performance, but it was so odd that it ended up being satirized, including on "Saturday Night Live," and he's done a car commercial in which he seemed to satirize the character himself. The story is told in flashbacks to when he and his partner, played by Woody Harrelson, are investigating a crime. The story is also told in the present when he and Woody Harrelson are being questioned by two detectives who are investigating whether there were irregularities in how this crime was initially investigated.

So in the scenes that are in the present, the Matthew McConaughey character is older and disheveled and kind of gone to seed. And so I want to play a scene from that in which the older Matthew McConaughey character is talking to the two detectives who are questioning him. And he's going into this, like, long (laughter) long narrative. Everybody see if you can follow this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE DETECTIVE")

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Detective Rust Cohle) In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow, nothing can become, nothing changes. So death created time to grow the things that it would kill. And you are reborn but into the same life that you've always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation, detectives? Well, who knows? I mean, you can't remember your lives. You can't change your lives and that is the terrible and secret fate of all life. You're trapped by that nightmare you keep waking up into.

GROSS: That was Matt McConaughey in season one of "True Detective," which was directed by my guest, Cary Fukunaga. How much did you work with McConaughey on developing that character?

FUKUNAGA: McConaughey, he's one of the smartest guys I know, and he brings a hell of a lot to the table. And I remember our first discussions when he was able to wrap his head around the character because he had been shooting "Dallas Buyers Club" just before our shoot - also in New Orleans. And he had a notebook already. He had thoughts about language and, you know, he really loved Nick's dialogue. And it was really firing him up. So my job really was to sort of field his questions more than to add to it because I think he already had a ton of it there. Listening to that scene brought me back to the day when we shot that because that was a day we did 29 pages...

GROSS: Whoa (laughter).

FUKUNAGA: Of mainly his dialogue in one day. I mean, he killed it. I don't know how he did it because usually, like, for a play, which obviously it's far more than that, but, you know, he had memorized it somehow between all the other days he was shooting. And, yeah, we just shot it all at once. And it was a pretty big day. I think we all were really excited. You know, when you're shooting, you never quite know. Sometimes there's, at least in my mind, a nagging feeling that you never quite got it. But when someone is sort of running the performance and running the pace of the drama, like, in a scene like those interrogation scenes, you know immediately 'cause you are a spectator in the moment. And you know immediately what's effective or not.

GROSS: The story and the mystery kept getting more and more complex (laughter) with every episode. And I'm wondering if you were able to follow it as you were directing it.

FUKUNAGA: Well, there was multiple timelines, and I suppose it might be confusing for a viewer. But when you're in preproduction and you're figuring out the chronology of everything, you're sort of forced to understand what happened when. And, you know, between the different young women we meet and the different murders that took place and the people we learn about, you start to sort of create a mental map of everything. And, you know, what intrigued me about it was what wasn't there. You know, the information that was left out. And I love it when a story asks you to do the mental sort of math, but then when you're supposed to execute it, you got to know what those missing pieces are. So there was definitely a lot of that and a lot of meetings trying to get into the back story, which may never make it to screen but was important for our decisions in the filmmaking process.

GROSS: So in 2011, you directed an adaptation of "Jane Eyre." And I really love your adaptation of it. I was assigned to read "Jane Eyre" in high school like so many people are, and I don't think I loved the book when I read it. And I don't think I really understood the book when I read it in high school because I kept being, like, baffled. Like why would a young woman like her voluntarily marry an older man like him? (Laughter) I couldn't - I just couldn't comprehend it. But there's something the way - in your movie you really get a sense, which is hard to do sometimes in a film, that they each have a rich inner life and that somehow they are connected to each other, both by their intelligence and also by their understanding that it's really hard for them to conform to the social norms of the time, that it's very constricting to each of them. They see that in each other. What attracted you to the book that made you want to do, like, another adaptation? There had already been adaptations of it, most famously with Orson Welles.

FUKUNAGA: Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, yeah. I grew up watching that version of the film. My mom was a lover of classic Hollywood films. And that was definitely one of them. I don't know what it was about the story that it fascinated me as a child. It was probably the reveal at the end of Bertha Mason, his wife. Or I don't know if it was just the sort of haunting life or the tragic life that she lived and how unfair it seemed to me. But as an adult, it always stuck with me. I really wanted to be faithful to it. And I thought that Charlotte Bronte's internal descriptions of Jane's feelings and thoughts and observations were so interesting and so relevant, even today, in terms of how people interact and that feeling of isolation - not just physically, in terms of living in sort of the middle of nowhere of northern England, but the isolation of not knowing if you have an intellectual equal, if there's someone who thinks the same way as you. That still happens today, even in a city as dense as New York, where you'd think you'd find so many like-minded hearts and souls. It's still very hard to find people who are your people. And I think that's why it's still a relevant story and relevant also for young women in terms of, you know, the choices you make and not necessarily being a prisoner to society's current sort of rules. It was also a challenge, I think, from a directing standpoint to do something on a fairly low budget that was quiet and contained and really about two people and was a very different project than, say, "Sin Nombre," had been, which I'd been living with for a very long time, and "Beasts Of No Nation," which I'd also written just before that as well. So those were two projects that I really wanted to sort of move away from for that next film.

GROSS: My guest is director Cary Fukunaga. Here's a scene from his 2011 adaptation of "Jane Eyre" as Jane and Mr. Rochester are just starting to get to know each other after Jane has been hired as his ward's governess. Jane is played by Mia Wasikowska. Michael Fassbender plays Mr. Rochester.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JANE EYRE")

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (As Mr. Rochester) Your gaze is very direct, Ms. Eyre. Do you think me handsome?

MIA WASIKOWSKA: (As Jane Eyre) No, sir.

FASSBENDER: (As Mr. Rochester) What fault do you find with me? I have all my limbs and features.

WASIKOWSKA: (As Jane Eyre) I beg your pardon, sir. I ought to have replied that beauty is of little consequence.

FASSBENDER: (As Mr. Rochester) You're blushing, Ms. Eyre. And though you're not pretty any more than I am handsome, I must say it becomes you. And now I see you're fascinated by the flowers on the rug. Come, speak to me. The fact is, Ms. Eyre, I'd like to draw you out - rather look of another world about you. I don't wish to treat you as inferior.

WASIKOWSKA: (As Jane Eyre) Yet you command me to speak.

FASSBENDER: (As Mr. Rochester) You're very hurt by my tone of command.

WASIKOWSKA: (As Jane Eyre) There are few masters who trouble to inquire whether their paid subordinates were hurt by their commands.

FASSBENDER: (As Mr. Rochester) Paid subordinate... I have forgotten the salary. Well, on that mercenary ground, will you consent to speak as my equal without thinking that the request arises from insolence?

WASIKOWSKA: (As Jane Eyre) I've never mistaken formality for insolence, sir. One I rather like; the other nothing freeborn should ever submit to.

FASSBENDER: (As Mr. Rochester) Humbug.

WASIKOWSKA: (As Jane Eyre) Even for a salary.

FASSBENDER: (As Mr. Rochester) Most freeborn things would submit to anything for a salary. But I mentally shake hands with you for your answer. Not 3 in 3,000 schoolgirl governesses would have answered me as you've just done.

WASIKOWSKA: (As Jane Eyre) Then you've not spent much time in our company, sir. I'm the same plain kind of bird as all the rest, with my common tale of woe.

GROSS: A scene from the 2011 adaptation of "Jane Eyre," directed by our guest, Cary Fukunaga. After a break, we'll talk about his family history. His father was born in an American Japanese internment camp during World War II. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is director Cary Fukunaga. His new film "Beasts of No Nation" is about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country, and that's available on Netflix. He also directed the recent version of "Jane Eyre," "Sin Nombre," and the first season of "True Detective."

I want to ask you a little bit about your life. You were born in Oakland, Calif. Your mother, Swedish-American. Your father - her father was a pilot in World War II. Your father was born in a Japanese internment camp where his parents were placed. How much did your father or your grandfather tell you about that experience? Your father was 3 when he was released, so I don't know how vivid his memories are of it, but I'm sure he had to be shaped by it.

FUKUNAGA: I definitely think he was shaped by it and shaped by the post-war experience as well. My family's history is something that continues to inspire me but also intrigue me because there's so many mysteries still. But I used to ask my grandfather all the time about his youth and growing up and about joining the Navy and the Navy air force. And that's actually where he met my grandmother, who was a WAVE. And they were both stationed in Pensacola. And on my Japanese side, from my grandparents' understanding, what it was like to be interned and what their life was like before that and what they wanted to do and - my grandparents always thought it was so funny that I was always essentially interviewing them for school projects and even eventually for my thesis at university. They always felt like their story wasn't interesting or worth mentioning. And I think my sort of coaxing them into telling their stories was probably more annoying than anything else, but at least they did it. They shared it. They're passed away now, but I have recordings of, you know, their experiences. And I remember from my grandfather learning stuff that I would never have imagined. And this is by the time I was going to film school, I learned that he had actually wanted to be a writer at one time.

GROSS: This is the grandfather that was interned?

FUKUNAGA: Yeah. He was actually separated from my grandmother in the camps. And I can't remember which separate camp he was sent to. But they were already in Tule Lake, which was basically the no-no camp. So the no-nos were the people that said no to - for swearing citizenship to Japan as well as to the U.S. and no to fighting for the military. And they were sort of all concentrated in one area in Northern California. And then he was - because he was deemed a radical - sent somewhere else. So that period in particular they didn't want to talk about.

GROSS: So he never explained to you why he refused to take the loyalty oath?

FUKUNAGA: I think I understood why he refused it. I mean, my grandfather was from Hawaii actually and grew up pretty free-spirited and had always been pretty stubborn and wanted to do his own thing. And I think the idea that your government was going to tell you that you're going to be locked up just because of your ethnicity, not even your citizenship because he was a U.S. citizen, but because of your ethnicity, was something that he couldn't stomach.

GROSS: Right, 'cause he was going to be interned whether he signed that oath or not.

FUKUNAGA: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're a symbol, in some ways, of America in the sense that one grandfather fought for America in World War II as, you know, as a pilot and your other grandfather was interned in America during World War II because he was Japanese-American?

FUKUNAGA: Yeah, I guess I'm a product of its errors and also a reflection of its, you know, its best self. I wouldn't want to have been born anywhere else. I'm fascinated by the history of this country. And I'm fascinated especially by 20th-century history and the mistakes we've made. But what does still make me very proud to be American is, you know, to still be the grandchild of someone who's been interned and then also still have the successes I've had to be able to be an artist in this country as well.

GROSS: So your father is still alive. He, as we mentioned, was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, lived there until he was 3, and then had to live with whatever lingering anti-Japanese sentiments were in America after he got out. He must be very proud not only to see you be so successful but to have his name become a famous name now because you are one of the directors who is getting increasingly known by name. And it's a distinctly Japanese name - Fukunaga.

FUKUNAGA: It's a very Japanese name. It's a name that when you're growing up you know when it's your turn when there's a substitute teacher who won't even make an attempt to say your last name.

GROSS: Oh, wait a minute. And may I say, your named is spelled, F, U, K, U, N, A, G, A. So I don't even want to think about the kinds of comments you got from kids about your name.

FUKUNAGA: I got - I had very thick skin about my name.

(LAUGHTER)

FUKUNAGA: But you do learn to be proud of it as you grow up. And even the name Cary, which I got because my mom loved Cary Grant, as a boy everyone's like, isn't that a girl's name? And I'm just like, man, have you never seen a Cary Grant film? But again, you learn to sort of own what you've been given. I think for my Dad, even for my grandparents, this idea of making movies made everyone very nervous. No one knew if I was going to really ever have a career in it. And I remember one of the first paychecks I got when I optioned "Sin Nombre" to Focus Features, I wanted to take my grandparents to lunch. And they told me - they said, no, no, it's OK, wait until you have a real job. And I'm like, no grandma, this is a real job now. And I think for my dad it became more real at Sundance in 2009, not only when "Sin Nombre" premiered there but I made a deal with Universal and with Focus to write two more screenplays. So it seemed like my job had become official. And I remember seeing in his face his pride and also just how moved he was by it. So, you know, it's tough I think for Asian parents to say how proud they are of their kids, but you know it doesn't always have to be verbalized. And I think my family in particular and my community - because my family is filled with so many other people who are a part of our home in terms of adopted family, you know, friends from Columbia and Spain and Russia and everywhere that spend our holidays with us - everyone has been so supportive and also continue to be so proud I think of what I've been able to do with this moviemaking thing.

GROSS: Well, congratulations to you and thank you so much for talking with us.

FUKUNAGA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Cary Fukunaga directed the new film "Beasts of No Nation," which is now streaming on Netflix. Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers shares his unusual end-of-the-year list. This is FRESH AIR.

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