Cary Fukunaga has visited so many cities promoting his film Sin Nombre in the past year, he's forgotten where he's been. "I drew a map for my friend of everywhere I've been this year, and I color-coded it by month. Even I was surprised," says the 32-year-old director and screenwriter, whose feature debut about a young Honduran woman headed to the U.S. atop a Mexican freight train and a gang member who becomes her accidental travel companion, won him an award for best director at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Fukunaga soon begins shooting on an adaptation of Charlotte BrontÃ«'s Jane Eyre in the U.K. with Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank) and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland), but first there's another Sin Nombre press trip to Japan. "My life has been a whirlwind since the Thanksgiving that I found out my short film got into Sundance," says Fukunaga, of his first appearance at the film festival in 2005. "Getting into Sundance, especially for a short filmmaker, is the holy grail. I'd seen others before me get in, and waste the opportunity. I had to make the most of it."
That short film, Victoria Para Chino, was made by Fukunaga as a second-year student at NYU's graduate film program. He based his script on a 2003 incident in which the bodies of 17 illegal immigrants who had died of asphyxiation and heat stroke were found in an abandoned trailer near Victoria, Texas. Many aboard the unventilated trailer were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and the incident drew national attention to the perilous attempts Central American immigrants make to enter the U.S. -- a theme Fukunaga further explored in Sin Nombre. The Sundance Institute soon invited Fukunaga to submit a feature script to their screenwriter's workshop. He didn't have a script written and scrambled, in two weeks, to create a triptych about teenagers crossing Mexico on freight trains, a common method of transport for Central Americans immigrating north. "It wasn't very good," Fukunaga admits flatly.
He was not accepted to the program, but the seeds for the characters in Sin Nombre were there. After taking a research trip to Mexico that summer, Fukunaga came home, threw out the old script, re-wrote what would become Sin Nombre, and got in.
Fukunaga would make several more trips to Mexico over the next two
years as he worked on the script, continuing to interview imprisoned
gang members and riding freight trains. Though he was usually
accompanied during these journeys, he was alone when a train he was on
was attacked by a group of bandits who killed a passenger. "The
difference was, I could choose at any point to get off the train and go
back to my life. And they can't," Fukunaga says. "It didn't stop me
from riding the trains again. It certainly made the surreal aspect of
all of the research I'd done, all of the horror stories I'd heard, a
reality, rather than something I'd just seen written."
Fukunaga's risky field research paid off. Focus agreed to make Sin Nombre, and, following its screening at Sundance, Fukunaga left Park City with a blind deal offer from Universal and another from Focus, for whom he had already written an adaptation of author Uzodinma Iweala's child soldier novel Beasts of No Nation. Fukunaga owns the book's film rights and says that though it's the best script he's ever written, he doesn't see a green light in the near future given the economic downturn. "It's just a question for when the market would allow for a film like that," he says. "You have to do it at a time that people are willing to watch films that are pretty dark."
Fukunaga is the midst of fulfilling his blind deal with Focus, an operatic musical. Though it's been rumored he approached both Zach Condon (of Beirut), and Owen Pallett (of Final Fantasy) to score the film, Fukunaga says Condon's involvement is unlikely and that Pallett is not attached to the project. "It was a very casual conversation [with Pallett] that got leaked somehow," he says. "But it's not necessarily true. I would love to do it with someone like him." The plot, Fukunaga says, is about a boy and a girl who live in parallel dimensions, in which their only form of communication is through song. "It starts when they're kids and then blossoms into adolescence and eventually they need to touch each other, as firing hormones require. And she finds a way to cross over into his world, with catastrophic results," Fukunaga says, adding that he'd like the plot to be humorous.
That script, however, is on hold while he helms Jane Eyre with Wasikowska in the title role of the shy governess and Michael Fassbender as her brutish employer, Mr. Rochester. Though Fukunaga says he enjoyed the novel, he was mystified by Eyre's "fall[ing] in love with the first guy she spends any time with. That's the thing about that era that doesn't really work any more, That life is so simple that you can just fall in love with your high school sweetheart, that that will fulfill your life."
And though going from Sin Nombre to a starchy period piece seems like an unlikely move for Fukunaga, there's one Victorian theme, albeit morbid, Fukunaga sees as a through line in his work. "All of my movies so far have had kids die. In my short film, a kid dies. In every single one of my films a kid dies," he says. God, I'm probably a fucked up person. I've really got to write a story where someone doesn't die."