Jane Eyre - Cary Fukunaga interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
CARY Fukunaga talks about playing up the Gothic elements of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre while maintaining the romantic story and working with such a great cast, including Mia Wasikowska and Dame Judi Dench.
He also talks about some of his forthcoming projects and why he feels drawn to certain themes.
Q. I gather you first became interested in making Jane Eyre while you were over here promoting your last film, Sin Nombre?
Cary Fukunaga: Exactly. I knew about since Jane Eyre since I was a kid and I actually had thought about doing it even before Sin Nombre... I thought about adapting the book. I basically moved here in June before the film came out, to do a bunch of festivals in Europe, and in August I decided to stay and in September I met with the BBC about Jane Eyre, and in October we were preparing the film. It happened so quickly. I think I just didn’t want to wait. I was writing a musical at the time, which I’m still to this day writing now that I’m free again, and I just didn’t want to wait two years to make another film, especially a sophomore film.
Q. Did it feel like everything fell into place at exactly the right time for you?
Cary Fukunaga: It had a perfect synchronicity. That’s when you know you’re kind of on the right path if you’re a fatalist – that the universe is conspiring to push you in the right direction [laughs]. Cast availability was there, financing was there, it just happened. Sin Nombre took what I thought was a long time, even though it was relatively fast in the filmmaking/development world, especially for such a difficult film to finance. But Jane Eyre happened so quickly I was almost spun out of control. When they said we were shooting in March, I sort of went ‘yeah sure’, that means we’ll probably shoot in the autumn, so that’s fine. But we did shoot in March and I was like: “Holy shit, we’re shooting in eight weeks! I’ve got to get my shit together!”
Q. Talking of that synchronicity, there’s even the Gothic element that appealed to you about it, which also spoke to the producers, rather than merely doing another costume drama… What appealed to you, in particular, about playing up the Gothic element?
Cary Fukunaga: Well, I think it’s the genre challenge of mixing a historical period film with a romance and then the element of horror. I say Gothic in that sense… Gothic in the sense of mortality. That is not really a theme that really is complimentary to romance stories. It’s actually very contrary, in that it contradicts the emotion of the romance, at least for an audience and their emotional connection to the characters. If you’re scaring them, they’re not getting behind the love story; if they’re getting behind the love story, you’re not really scaring them if you know what I mean. And I don’t really mean scare so much as creating an air of unease.
So, that was the challenge in terms of how you made the romance story work and then how do you at the same time get people to jump out of their seat once in a while or feel that tingling in the back of their neck and spine. That’s what I wanted, even though I couldn’t really think of a film that had done that before. I guess Bram Stoker’s Dracula had elements of that but it was so grandiose. I remember seeing the film and not really experiencing the same thing. There’s a moment in The Others, where you have the love story when the father comes back, but it’s so odd and so strangely played that you don’t really feel anything. Even in The Shining, there’s no romance in that relationship. So, that’s what makes Jane Eyre unique – not only the strength of the protagonist, the heroine, and her convictions, but I think also the mixing of the genres and how well Charlotte Bronte did it. I guess Twilight has elements of it but I don’t think anyone gets scared in Twilight.
Q. American critics have referred to Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Jane as arguably the best interpretation of the role ever. That must make you happy?
Cary Fukunaga: I try not to read too much because what ends up happening is that you ignore the nice reviews and you just focus on the bad reviews [laughs]. What do they say? A negative lesson is learned seven times deeper than a positive reinforcement.
Q. But when it came to Mia, she had also been looking to star in an adaptation of Jane Eyre at that time…
Cary Fukunaga: I was actually unaware of Mia before we started to look for her. I’d just done Sin Nombre so I wasn’t really up-to-date on up-and-coming young actresses in the English speaking world. I’d asked a bunch of friends who’d cast films recently who they thought were the best young actresses and Mia popped up on several lists and everyone said: “Check out In Treatment... you’ll really be blown away.” So, I watched the show and I was like ‘wow’. It’s basically 20 or 30 minutes of her doing a monologue and she was fantastic. But that was a couple of years earlier and I wanted to know how she’d matured.
So, I asked to meet her and at that time she was shooting Gus Van Sant’s film [Restless] in Portland, so I flew out to Portland to meet her and we had a really nice afternoon just speaking and talking about the book, about life and all kinds of other things. To me, that’s the best way to find out if someone’s right for a role. It’s not about an audition. If you’ve already seen a tape you know how they can act. It’s more about: “How do they work? What’s in their mind? How do they approach things? And do we see the same thing?” And if we see the same thing, then we can get there. I did the same thing with Michael [Fassbender]. We met, we spoke a couple of times and we had really good meetings, and then at the end of one of those I’d be like: “OK, I’d really like you to play this role.” And that’s it.
Q. So, you cast from instinct rather than audition…
Cary Fukunaga: I think maybe it’s great to do an audition but I think auditions are set up for failure because they’re not really the set experience. There’s no time to develop the character. You’re just looking at someone… if someone’s really good in an audition, sometimes they’re not good in the film. It’s something you learn when you’re doing short films. It’s the same way that some people do well at taking tests and some people don’t. But when you’re on a long-term filmmaking process it’s a completely different feeling.
Q. You also went after Dame Judi Dench by writing her a letter? I’ve read that you were slightly in fear of her and her reputation?
Cary Fukunaga: I did, yeah. I wasn’t in fear of her, especially after meeting her, but it was just like the idea of working with her given all the previous directors she’d worked with. I was like: “Wow, what could I possibly say to her that would…” You think as a director you’re supposed to utter words of wisdom and that kind of stuff, but Dame Judi has worked with the best so what am I going to say after a scene? But she’s immediately disarming in terms of her warmth and her willingness to achieve your vision. There’s no pretence about her and she’s just really excited every day on set. And I think that was really inspiring for Mia and Michael to see this icon, who they looked up to, who was so equally excited to be doing a film with them at any moment. You’d think that after the amount of films that she’d done that she might become jaded or bored by this, but I think she’s invigorated on a constant basis.
Q. She’s described you as being a gentle director on set. Is that how you see yourself?
Cary Fukunaga: [Smiles] As gentle? I don’t know what I am on set. I can be many different things on set depending on how stressful a situation is. But at the end of the day we’re making movies, we’re not saving the world… we’re not an army, no one’s lives are at risk and we’re just trying to make art, so I think as long as you keep reminding yourself that’s what it’s about you can have fun.
Q. I gather there was a lot of fun on set, from Jamie Bell dancing in between takes right down to the horse that kept getting excited every time Michael Fassbender sat on it? Is that reassuring to see as a director, that everyone’s pulling together in that way?
Cary Fukunaga: Yep, yep, yep, all those things are true [laughs]. Yes and no because sometimes the best set experiences make for the worst films. So, you don’t want it to be too good an experience! But the bulk of your life is working with people and collaborating so you don’t want anyone to be miserable on your film either. You want it to be something that people walk away from saying that it was a good experience for them and hopefully a good film. As a director, you are sort of leader of that troupe for that period of time, so you’re aware of morale and your effect – how you are as a person and how that sort of trickles down to everyone else. It’s interesting because it’s a job skill that you don’t really think about at the start.
When you think about being a director, you think about writing stories, putting the camera in interesting places and directing the actors to get your vision, but it’s hard to imagine even this process… sitting here nine months later talking about the film and talking about it 20 times in one day. You don’t even think about the part where you come to the set every morning and everyone’s looking at you to see your mood in order to see what the day is going to be like, and the influence that you wield. So, it’s the thing you learn over time to not take for granted. It’s also a responsibility that you wouldn’t have guessed was there.
Q. One of the things you can’t control ever is something like the great British weather…
Cary Fukunaga: Funnily enough that wasn’t a problem. It was contrary in a way that wasn’t helpful but these days you can fix anything pretty much in post-production. Our first couple of days shooting it was inclement but consistently inclement, so we’d start shooting a scene and it would be cloudy and then it would be bright sunshine and we had to re-shoot the stuff that was cloudy only for it to become cloudy again. So, you try and work around that. But mainly I wanted it to be cloudy and rainy and it kept being sunny and breezy. So, we have this opening sequence where Jane is slogging through the mud on the marsh to get to this house and it’s supposed to be raining and all those kinds of things, and it was sunny and windy. You couldn’t put smoke out because the smoke just blew right away. The rain towers were sparkling with the sunlight and it just didn’t look like it was supposed to be dusk. But somehow through timing and sky replacement we made it look like night-time.
Q. Mia almost caught hypothermia though?
Cary Fukunaga: Yeah. That was day two. On day one, we shot the scene where Mia tells Jamie Bell’s character that she’s not going to go with him to India and that’s shot on the moors. That was one of those days where it began cloudy and the sun came out. But it became beautiful because you’d have these dramatic clouds in the background and the sun shining on them. Jamie and Mia gave amazing performances and that was day one. But then day two, we shot the whole sequence in the morning of Jane getting to the door of the house and poor Mia, it was freezing cold. It was the beginning of March and still probably, in Fahrenheit, in the low 40s to possibly 30s. There was still ice in some parts of the marsh. She was supposed to have a wet-suit, which was more of a thin latex body suit. I didn’t do anything.
So, poor girl… she was wearing this corset, which was restricting her breathing. It was pretty scary actually. On the second take, she was like: “I need to take this off!” So, she took it off and we got her back to her trailer to get her warm and everything, but what you see on-screen is what you got. But that’s how it goes sometimes on low budget filmmaking. You have so little time. You have this vision of what you want to do and then you get to the set and you have about half the time to do that. And that’s why I don’t shot list anymore. I started off shot listing on Sin Nombre and I stopped because you just didn’t know what the factors were going to be that changed things. It was better just to be fluid… rehearse the scene, figure out where you’re going to put the camera in the amount of time that you have to put it and shoot the scene that way, rather than be rigid or shoot in sequences that require other shots to complete the scene.
Q. I read there’s a two and a half hour cut. Is that likely to be shown?
Cary Fukunaga: No. As protocol, you do a director’s cut, which is your first pass, and then you work with the studio to bring the cut down to a watchable length. It remained at two hours pretty much throughout post. We cut out a half an hour pretty quickly once we started doing test screenings. It tested well, so we’d go through and make sure that each scene was the best take or the best balance. I’ve watched the deleted scenes and they’re good scenes but in the overall context of the film they upset the balance I was talking about between the horror and the romance. So, even though a scene in isolation maybe good, it doesn’t work for that moment in the story and there’s nowhere else to put it.
Q. How far along with your civil war drama are you?
Cary Fukunaga: We’re in re-writes. Right now, I’m writing my musical, so that’s what I’m focusing on because I’ve owed that to Focus for two years. Obviously I’ve been making a film for them so they understand, but it’s something that I’ve wanted to write for a while. I’m not writing the music yet, it’s just the libretto. After that, I have to start re-writing another project, the civil war one, and then another sci-fi one for Universal. So, I’m just in writing mode for the rest of the year and I have no idea which film could potentially go first.
Q. You obviously like mixing genres…
Cary Fukunaga: Yeah, they’re different but I’m not doing a broad gross out comedy or anything. In weird ways, they’re all kind of… I had a script to write about a child soldier and I think that would have been more in line with these last two films because it’s about family and about isolation and the search for companionship. These other films are more about unrequited love and personal demons. So, they’re a shift and in that way they’re different as well.
Q. What draws you to your themes, especially those of family and isolation?
Cary Fukunaga: I think it’s a fascinating thing to see how lonely people are in this world and what they’re looking for. It’s a universal concept. So, it’s something that interests me and I’ll probably revisit it if I get the chance to do the child soldier film because I think it’s one of the most important scripts I’ve written. It’s just too dark to do as a film right now. I need to do something a bit different.
Q. What’s been the most satisfying or surprising reaction you’ve had to Jane Eyre?
Cary Fukunaga: Gosh, I don’t know. [Paused to think] I’m not sure I’ve had a surprising reaction yet. Not from my family or friends at least. I went with my girlfriend to watch the film. She wasn’t around for the premiere, so we went in April, just the two of us, to the cinema and no one knew I was there, so it wasn’t a special screening or anything like that. But at the end of the film people clapped in the audience. I’ve never watched my films with an everyday audience so it was really crazy to watch people clap at the end of my film – with no one there, no actors, no people from the film. It was just a spontaneous reaction, so I thought that was probably the best compliment you could get from an audience.
Although, the entire film I was watching the film I was squirming in my chair because the sound didn’t sound right at one point, and part of the picture was too dark… all those things that you spend so much time perfecting in post are ruined on-screen. But somehow it didn’t affect the audiences’ perception of it. But that’s the best comment you can get – the fact that the audience enjoys the film because that’s what you want when you make a film, to transport people for two hours. So, that’s the most you can ask for. If it resonates with them and they want to go back and read the book, even better, because it’s a great novel.