Cary Joji Fukunaga and the Rise of a Modern Auteur

There are many young filmmakers working today who deserve notice, such as Ryan Coogler, Dee Rees, Taika Waititi, Maren Ade, and others.

Among them is Cary Joji Fukunaga, an Oakland-born filmmaker known for his uncompromising artistry. There is a haunting edge to his productions, and yet they remain undeniably beautiful—they are stories that, despite their darkness, always find their soul. Fukunaga has come to represent what a modern auteur looks like.

An “auteur” is generally considered to be a filmmaker with control over the many elements of a film. As directors, they often have particular subjects and themes that develop over the course of their careers. While auteur theory has been hotly debated since its inception, it’s still a fundamental topic in discussing a filmmaker’s body of work.

So far, Fukunaga’s films have not adhered to a single interest or subject. Nor has he committed to featuring films or traditional theatrical releases. As a film school graduate, Fukunaga has proven adept at working within any medium. In his short career, he has made a Central American immigration thriller (Sin Nombre), a dark Charlotte Brontë adaptation (Jane Eyre), an Emmy-winning, gothic crime procedural for HBO (True Detective), a sobering, African child-soldier story (Beasts of No Nation), and an upcoming, dark science fiction series starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone (Maniac). In addition to these projects, Fukunaga was set to write and direct It before he and the studio parted ways over creative differences. He also has a Leonard Bernstein biopic in the works with Jake Gyllenhaal in the starring role, as well as Shockwave—a drama about the events leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Most impressively though, Fukunaga has already altered the make-up of two industries: Film and television. His decision to direct the entire first season of True Detective led the way for film directors like Steven Soderbergh and Jean-Marc Vallée to helm The Knick and Big Little Lies, respectively. In doing so, Fukunaga demonstrated how television and its creators, despite typically playing “second fiddle” to the cinema in critical circles, have become worthy of auteur theory discourse.

In True Detective—despite its story faults and ridiculous dialogue—the direction was never less than top-notch and each episode was saturated with rich visuals of the Louisiana Bayou. Fukunaga also directed stellar performers Matthew McConaughey (during peak “McConaissance,” no less) and Woody Harrelson and successfully mined them for all their internal intensity, creating a tension that prestige television hadn’t experienced until then. And we haven’t even discussed the six-minute-long take that closed the fourth episode of the first season—it’s a shot so impressive that, at the time, it felt as if every Twitter user and entertainment site was discussing it. For his work, Fukunaga rightfully won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.

Instead of resting on his laurels, Fukunaga next directed the acclaimed, famously snubbed Beasts of No Nation. It’s rare these days for a director, hot off a recent success, to direct a mid-budget independent film—it’s something we may have expected in the 1970s when films like Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter were commonplace, but not anymore. And like those films, Beasts of No Nation touches upon the horrors of war, specifically, the violent atrocities that child soldiers are expected to commit in war-torn countries. The film asks if such children can be redeemed—an unsettling, but a necessary discussion that most films refuse to confront. But Fukunaga doesn’t hold back, exploring this grim reality with an unflinching focus.

Fukunaga’s dedication to the film is particularly admirable—he served as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, and camera operator. He even contracted malaria while shooting in Ghana. Only a handful of filmmakers will go to those extremes to finish such an uncommercial vision.

Fukunaga embodies the truly modern auteur. He is an artist with clear, diverse, and uncompromising visions, who is also willing to experiment in different mediums and methods of distribution—all in order to get his stories out there. If that’s not an auteur, then what is?

Just what is “auteur” cinema and who are the filmmakers considered auteurs? Find out by watching the movies especially selected by the “big brains” at Fandor in our Spotlight: The Auteurs. While you’re at it, learn more about other auteurs such as Spike LeePaul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, and Xavier Dolan. But auteurism certainly isn’t limited to directing—watch our video on the auteur composer, Jonny Greenwood.
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