Earlier this year, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature “Sin Nombre” collected awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival and was also developed in the Sundance lab. Now at last mainstream movie audiences can finally see the film as it begins its limited US engagement.
“Sin Nombre” intersects the stories of Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) and Casper (Edgar Flores), both teenage Mexican gang members, with Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a teenage girl fleeing Honduras for America with her father and her uncle.
In large part, the film is set atop a freight train carrying Sayra’s family and many more immigrants on a stealth ride to the American border. Casper is rooted onboard after killing gang leader Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) as he rampages across the platform, robbing families and attempting to rape Sayra.
The film also explores America’s immigration issues, enveloped in an emotive narrative. For writer/director Fukunaga, “Sin Nombre” is the culmination of a dream to get this heavily researched tale on the screen. He spoke to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: What was the genesis of this, for you?
Fukunaga: Well, it all sort of started with a short film that I was doing at NYU, my second year there and basically, it was a fictional film based on a story that I found of a trailer of immigrants abandoned in Victoria, Texas, where 19 immigrants ultimately ended up dying. While researching, I read about the Central American part of the journey, and about the train of immigrants and the bandits.
Now, ultimately, Mexico was much more dangerous of a crossing than the actual US border. And although that didn’t fit into the short film, I just – it’s something that stuck with me. And I had only planned, really, on making the short film. But when the short film started to have a life of its own, and Sundance, for example, asked me if I had a feature script on it, I realized that it was an opportunity to tell the story in a format where more people would hear about it, and learn about it. And if I was so surprised and shocked that this Wild West-like thing was happening just south of our border, I’m sure there were many more that were completely unawares of this.
So, I – pretty much right after Sundance, went into a deep research state, and had a script by the end of the year that I applied to the Sundance Lab with. I got into the Sundance Lab in ’06, with, basically, Sin Nombre. And a month later, because of Amy Kaufman, the producer I’d met with at the festival, we were making this with Focus very shortly after the first screenwriting lab. And a year later, we were making the film and a year later, here we are, about ready to present it to the world.
Question: Let me ask you about the deep research process that you were talking about. What did you discover during that period, and what surprised you or shocked you the most?
Fukunaga: I can go into more detail about this, but I think what initially sort of surprised me about this whole thing was how – I mean, I went and I ended up traveling with immigrants. And I didn’t think that I, personally, would be so affected by my research, on an emotional level.
You know, I came in at a much more academic perspective, starting off, sort of an academic-style research and structure to the research. And the more time I spent with the immigrants, and the more time I spent in the prisons with the gangs, the more I was able to create relationships with people, and the camaraderie, in a way that really affected me on a very deep level.
It was almost, you know, emotionally troubling, especially – and I don’t mean this – I mean, on the very surface, I can say, you know, traveling by myself with immigrants on trains, and experiencing assaults on the trains, and experiencing danger more dangerous than the hunger and exhaustion – that was one level. But just, I think, sort of the personal emotional involvement of sharing so many people’s experiences, and having so many of these people’s harrowing stories in my mind, deeply affected me.
Question: Was it easy for you to fuse all those elements that you’re referring to in a screenplay?
Fukunaga: No. It was easy to do a pass that got the world, in sort of a journalistic discussion setting. But reinserting the emotionality of the characters was not easy. And that was definitely one part of my journey, as a writer on this project, was really – and it was a learning process, my first script. Learning to – and I didn’t want it to be like a melodramatic story. I wanted it to be very minimal, in terms of, like, the motion of these characters. But still trying to find a way to create empathy between the audience, and what these characters wanted, and what they’re going through, was one of my goals, and also my deepest challenges.
Question: Did you ever anticipate that as a writer, your script would be as emotive as it was, when you first started out on this project?
Fukunaga: No, I don’t think so. I mean, again, the hardest part was the emotionality. It was something that came the least naturally to me. And I think that’s sort of a reflection of me as a person. I tend to be a little more even-keeled. And so it was hard for me to express, I think, how characters expressed emotions much more beyond how I would express things, and in a much more sort of extreme manner.
Question: How hard was it to cast this? Where did you find a lot of these actors?
Fukunaga: That was very difficult. We spent about a year casting for this film. I discovered Edgar Flores in Honduras by accident. I was down there looking for the Sayra character. I was looking for that girl in Honduras. I saw over 500 girls in Honduras.
On the very first weekend, I met Edgar. I thought he was great, but I didn’t even really, like – it didn’t dawn on me that I should cast him for Casper, until I sort of like – he was good. His intensity, and I liked his look, and I was using him to read against the girls, to try to get a feel for if the girls could act. And just to see him show his skills reading with these people, and sticking with me all day long, and going through hours and hours of reading with dozens and dozens of people and not complaining about it, was great.
I think he was having a great time. Just, like, that I was paying attention to him, and having him stick around. And by the end of the week, I was like, I told John Lyons at Focus, and Amy Kaufman, I was like, ” This kid’s amazing. And maybe he should be Casper.” And that’s how we went.
Question: The film got a remarkable response at Sundance this year. How gratifying was that for you as a filmmaker, having started out as a short film at Sundance, and ending it the way that it did?
Fukunaga: I really didn’t suspect any kind of awards at Sundance. I was just happy that we were going to be in competition. And more than anything, I was happy that – Sundance having done so much for this film, and done so much for me as a filmmaker, that I was going to be able to premiere my very first feature film at Sundance.
Then just to get the awards at the end was sort of overwhelming. And – I mean, not sort of – it WAS overwhelming, and unexpected. I don’t know if ” validating” is the right word, because I know the award is part of it, but for me it’s also the audience. And I really hope the audiences come to the film, and come to see it in large numbers. But it was one of those situations where I think also, just for my actors and everyone involved, it’s just another reason to feel proud of the hard work and the long years of passion and labor on the project.
Question: What does this film say about the current state of American immigration, and immigration in general?
Fukunaga: I’m trying to stay away from any clear political statement. I would say I’ve done my job if pundits on either side of the debate used my film to forward my argument. More than anything, I wanted to create empathy for people that we do read about quite often in newspapers, that normally – it’s hard when you read about the things that are happening in this world, to create an emotional connection with people whose experiences are so alien to our own. And if someone can walk out of the theatre feeling like they’ve seen through the eyes of a gang member or an immigrant, and feel something– something universal, what they want, their experience in life – then I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.
Question: Do you expect the film to premiere, or to open, in Honduras or Mexico, or any other countries in Latin America?
Fukunaga: It’s definitely premiering in Guadalajara in Mexico next week and it will open in theatres May first. I’m really hoping to do something in Honduras, too, but we haven’t decided yet what it’s going to be. Focus is still trying to figure that out.
Question: What do you expect the Mexican response to the film is going to be?
Fukunaga: I think having Gael and Diego aboard is really sort of the legitimization of the film. I think it really lends a sense of authenticity. Because then it’s like, ” Well, if these guys are supporting it, then it’s got to be all right. It’s not just another gringo film, coming down,” and – sort of like, colonial filmmaking. This sort of thing.
Question: This movie must have opened some doors for you. What kind of doors?
Fukunaga: Well, if it does well, I’ll be able to take back more movies. [LAUGHTER] But, I mean, in terms of, like, opening doors in my career – I think, you know, yeah. I mean, my relationship with Focus has only grown stronger. And I’ll be working with them again. And now, with Universal, I’ll probably be working with universal as well. I’m created some, now, over the years – this has been a years-long process – I think I’ve won some confidence from some of the people that make the decisions, that I can get my next movies made.
Question: Are you writing something at the moment?
Fukunaga: I am. I am writing something. It’s not official yet, so it’s not like I’m being paid to write it. But I’m getting stuff ready to pitch to the studios for my next projects.
Question: Is it going to be another emotionally dense piece, or are you going to be – is it a bit lighter in tone?
Fukunaga: I don’t know yet. I think it’s possible I could be directing something before this thing that I’m writing happens, that’s not my own. So, I don’t know what it’s going to be. I’m trying my hand at various genres, including science fictions and musicals, and sort of a more classical love story.
Question: Is there a musical that you would love to direct, if you were told to direct anything at all?
Fukunaga: Well, there’s no Broadway musical I’d love to direct.
Question: Oh, okay. You’re more into doing something original?
Fukunaga: Yeah. I’m doing something original, and I’m working with some new artists I think are fantastic. So it’s really just a question of trying to – not reinvent the wheel for the musical, but do something that definitely has a different spin on your standard musical. And it’s not at all going to be theatrical, like – it’s not going to be a throwback to any of the old musicals.
Question: So it’s not Mamma Mia.
Fukunaga: It definitely is not.