Director and writer Cary Fukunaga and newcomer Abraham Attah talk “Beasts of No Nation”, the challenges of filming in Ghana, and working with Idris Elba
Beasts of No Nation can be construed as a passion project for Cary Fukunaga, whose credits include Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, and directing the first season of the very popular True Detective. Fukunaga had his work cut out for him for his latest film though, with several issues arising while shooting in Ghana. Persevering, Fukunaga worked with mostly non-actors and in a difficult environment. Facing the various challenges paid off as the final product is well worth watching and follows the story of Agu (Abraham Attah) as he lives the life of a child soldier serving a man known only as the Commandant (Idris Elba).
Sitting down to speak to me about Beasts of No Nation, Fukunaga and first-time actor Abraham Attah discuss the film, the casting process, and working on set.
You can read the entire interview below and read my review of the film here.
Beast of No Nation is available to stream on Netflix on October 16th and will be playing in select theaters as well.
There’s a lot of brutality in the movie, but some of the more violent acts aren’t shown. How did you come to the decision of how much violence you wanted to show?
Cary: Part of it was… [pauses in contemplation]there were a couple of reasons. Some of it was practical and some of it was… well, the practical sometimes led to a better filmmaking choice. For example, when Agu’s supposed to kill his first victim, in order to show the guy getting hit would have been very complicated. We would have needed a body, makeup, the effects. It would have just been a more difficult shot to do. But the result is that because it’s off-camera, it’s left to the imagination of the viewer to replace the picture. And often times I think people will see something in their mind which is far more more brutal than anything I could ever create.
This is Netflix’s first original film. How has that process been and what’s it like working with versus other studios?
Cary: Pretty similar. You know, this is an acquisition so they weren’t necessarily involved in the production of the film. But in terms of its release, when I’ve worked with Focus Features or HBO before, we’d be doing similar things and be in DC and in Boston talking to you guys [laughs]. And really they’ve shared all their materials and their plans and I pretty much know all the people one on one. They’ve been great so far and they really believe in the film and are putting a lot of power behind it in terms of getting people out to talk about it and to see it.
Abraham, this is your first film. What has the experience been like for you?
Abraham: Nice. To be in a movie, you go to places that I have never dreamed. Like going to Venice, Canada, that was my first time going to that place.
Has it been overwhelming at all?
Abraham: Yeah. Canada was a little bit cold [laughs].
What was the casting process like? You had a lot of non-actors in the film. How did you get Abraham [Attah] and everyone else involved?
Cary: We knew we were going to have to go about it differently than casting even Sin Nombre, which had a lot of non-actors as well. Because it wasn’t really easy to get folks to show up to casting calls, so we had to go out and scout and cast. We sort of enlarged our scouts, but… Abraham will tell you about it [turns to Abraham].
Abraham: It was on Friday and I was in school and we were playing football on our school field and a white man was standing there watching us playing the football. So we thought he wanted a boy for a football team so he came to us and said we should come for an audition. And we went to audition before he told us it was a movie.
How did you approach the emotional aspects of the film?
Abraham: It was normal for me to do it because I practiced it before going on set. I was having an acting coach, so I was practicing with the acting coach.
Have you been bitten by the acting bug? Is this something you want to do more of in the future?
What did you find the most challenging about making this film?
Cary: I don’t know if there’s one particular thing that was the most challenging, there was just too many things that were challenging. I’m kind of the person that kind of forgets them in terms of recall. It’s usually my AD [assistant director]or my department heads that will remind me of this story and I’m like, “Oh yeah, yeah. That was hard. That was a bad day.” Everything you can imagine and not imagine was difficult. The last major outside production [in Ghana]was 30 years ago. So it’s not really a place that lends itself to the traditional 75-crew, breakdown-your-scene-and-multiple-angles-shooting kind of situation. You really have to adapt to the skill set of the people you’re working with, as well as the heat and the speed that everything else moves, the bureaucracy, the logistics, the food even. Our production manager, whose job usually has many responsibilities, his full-time job on this movie was making sure that everyone ate. It was that difficult to get food to the set.
And I heard some people got sick.
Cary: Yeah, the props guy got dysentery, even accounting got malaria. They don’t even leave their room. [pauses dramatically]That’s not true, accounting has to leave their room all the time. We used to drain the town of cash every week when we had to pay… for our soldiers and for our various crew members.
Was there anybody working on the film who was a former child soldier?
Cary: Yeah. We had a few cast members who had fought in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Was there a recall of their experience? Was it tough for them?
Cary: A little bit. Many of them had been child soldiers who had been fighting well into their adult life. So by the time we were working with them they were definitely adults, but also it just became, I wouldn’t say normal, but an accepted part of their life experience. No one had a flashback, let’s put it that way.
I haven’t read the book that the movie is based on. How true is it to the book and was there anything you changed for creative reasons to better suit the movie?
Cary: The voice is pretty true and the basic story points are kind of similar to the book. The bigger departures are the structure. The book’s non-linear. It starts off with Agu’s capture and ends in a very similar way. But then there’s also things like the home life, the experience in his home village, that is completely written for the movie and doesn’t take place in the book. And characters like his brother and his grandfather aren’t in the book either. And in the book, a character named Rambo kills the Commandant at the trenches. In my draft in 2006, I had Agu kill him. And when I did a rewrite last year I decided to change that too and let the Commandant live because I thought it would be more interesting and a less neat way of finishing the story. It’s too convenient that Agu would do that. And also that it was an interesting choice that Agu would choose not to do that.
Being the only professional actor on set, how was it working with Idris Elba?
Cary: He’s a great guy! [laughs]
Yeah. He has such a commanding presence, which is definitely felt in the film.
Cary: Definitely. But he wasn’t ever… he was pretty quiet on set actually. A lot of times, he’d just be sitting on a rock somewhere. Whenever he was asked for he’d come. He tried to stay in character with at least the guys he was commanding. If they were mouthing off he’d tell them to quiet down. A lot of our conversations, in terms of the acting part, took place before we started shooting. We’d have these Skype sessions while I was in Ghana and we’d talk about character stuff because I was still rewriting when we were in pre-production. Little ideas here and there about his [Elba’s character] personality, or his background, his style of command.
Right before he flew out, he did his first impression of the voice he was working on for the role and I was really impressed by that. I really liked it and it started to feel more real all of a sudden to me. And by that point, we hadn’t even cast Abraham, so to hear somebody embody the script days from shooting was a much more reassuring feeling. And then we got to Ghana, we started playing around with the hair and facial hair and his wardrobe. We kind of settled on this alpha-guerrilla-like look. The way he sat and interacted with people, and walked, and watched and observed and then acted–that was kind of our spirit animal for the role.