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THE BURDEN OF BEASTS: How Do You Produce A Searing Drama About African Child Soldiers? With Great Difficulty.

Posted By Matthew Dessem, Monday, January 4, 2016

As Cary Fukunaga tells it, his new film has an origin story nearly as serendipitous as Lana Turner getting discovered over an ice cream soda. While meeting with producer Amy Kaufman about his 2009 feature Sin Nombre, an executive saw he was carrying a copy of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of No Nation, the harrowing story of a boy’s conscription as a child soldier in Africa. The book was "reading material on the subway,” says Fukunaga, but when the executive told him, "I want to make that into a movie,” Fukunaga replied, "Well, I want to make it into a movie, too.” Nothing else about the film’s journey to the screen came as easily.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Kaufman, a Boston native whose pre-Focus Features career included stints with Scott Rudin and Miramax, knew she wanted to work with Fukunaga from their first meeting. In fact, she obtained a copy of his script for Sin Nombre through back channels when it seemed he’d set it up elsewhere. Kaufman ended up producing it and the two bonded over a challenging shoot in Mexico. But Iweala’s novel presented another level of difficulty. "It’s not a movie that fits most models for people who finance movies,” she says candidly. Fukunaga wrote a screenplay for Focus, but the project was soon put in turnaround. Neither Kaufman nor Fukunaga was ready to give up, and when Focus let its option on the novel lapse, the pair optioned it with their own money. "It was a difficult decision at the time,” Kaufman says, "because I think it was probably a significant percentage of what I had in the bank.”

At first it seemed like a bad bet. "We submitted it all over town to everybody that made sense and we were rejected,” says Kaufman. But then another unexpected moment of serendipity moved Beasts of No Nation forward, when Kaufman received what she describes as "the craziest phone call” from a new production company, Red Crown Pictures. The company had been founded in 2010 as a partnership between Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Daniel Crown, with Riva Marker as President of Production. Taplin Lundberg came from indie film royalty: her father, Jonathan Taplin, entered the industry by producing Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, an experience that made a huge impression on his daughter. "I grew up romanticizing what film producing is,” she admits. "You know, you find someone off the street and then they become Martin Scorsese. And I think the first fifteen years of my career would prove that is not the case.”

Producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg on location with
writer-director Cary Fukunaga (left) and 1st AD Jon Mallard

One of Taplin Lundberg’s first ventures was Plum Pictures, where her work on Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right was what she describes as "a light-bulb moment for me … If you’re gonna make a movie you should really try to say something and be bold.” With theater owner Daniel Crown and Riva Marker, who’d been overseeing post-production at Plum Pictures, they formed Red Crown, dedicated to "artistic, director-driven material.”

Director-driven material requires directors, and at an early retreat, the Red Crown executives made a list of "real talents that the whole world doesn’t know about yet.” Cary Fukunaga was high on the list. One of the company’s creative executives, Alish Erman, had been an intern at Focus and recommended Fukunaga’s script for Beasts of No Nation; the other principles at Red Crown read it and called Kaufman out of the blue to set a meeting.

Looking back, Marker describes that initial sit-down at the Bowery Hotel as "one of these wonderful meetings where you didn’t know it was going to happen … Daniella and I came in with rose-tinted glasses.” Kaufman and Fukunaga were thrilled that someone wanted to make Beasts of No Nation, but there was a problem. As Marker recalls, Fukunaga told them "I can’t make this movie right now. I know what it would require of me … I’m gonna go do this thing for HBO, and when I’m done with that, that’s when I’d like to find my window.”

That "thing for HBO” turned out to be the first season of True Detective, and Fukunaga rapidly went from being a "real talent the whole world doesn’t know about yet” to a household name among the series’ passionate fanbase. But Beasts of No Nation was close to his heart, and as True Detective shot, Red Crown went about the difficult business of finding a way to make it happen.

As it turned out, the delay wasn’t a bad thing. "It took us three years to prep the film, and we needed those three years to prep the film,” says Marker. In 2013, Fukunaga was able to attach Idris Elba for the role of the Commandant, the leader of the military unit the main character fights for. "I’ve never seen such a quick and easy yes,” says Kaufman. Even with a star, however, financing for a film about such a difficult subject wasn’t forthcoming. Crown describes it as "the type of film that most people felt like they really needed to see in order to pre-buy.” When it became apparent that there would be no foreign pre-sales, the producers swallowed hard and put more on the table.

"We just decided to go for it,” Taplin Lundberg explains. "We believed in Cary and we thought, this is what making movies is about. You fight for the ones you believe in. So we went for a straight equity play, which most financiers will tell you, you never do.”

Producer Amy Kaufman with Abraham Attah
Scarily enough, raising the money turned out to be the easy part. Settling on filming locations was harder, not because they were difficult to find, but because they were hard to insure. Fukunaga wanted West African locations to match the novel; the film’s bond company favored Kenya. The matter was settled when Fukunaga, Kaufman, and line producer Peter Pastorelli arrived in Kenya to scout locations the day before the Westgate Mall terrorist attack. Suddenly, insurance was unobtainable for Kenya, and Ghana became the most stable option. Half-Ghanaian Idris Elba was able to trade on his reputation there to make some crucial introductions, including Tony Tagoe, an experienced line producer who became the production’s local fixer.

Plenty needed fixing. The production needed the cooperation of the Ghanaian military—"a lot of paperwork, a lot of different departments and ministers who didn’t like each other,” says Fukunaga. Everything had to be done in cash; everything cost more than anticipated. Pastorelli lost 45 pounds over the course of the production. Fukunaga contracted malaria. And as the shoot loomed ever nearer, the film still needed its lead actor to play the child soldier at the center of the story. Casting director Harrison Nesbit finally found Abraham Attah on a school soccer field. For Fukunaga, casting Attah was the biggest risk of a risky shoot; with only two weeks to work with him, he had to trust that the untrained young actor could handle a transformation that would have been taxing for performers with years of experience. Attah would have to "start off being this sort of light, fearless, fun kid, and end looking like he’s seen the weight of the entire world.” Once more, the production rolled the dice.

Things didn’t get easier once cameras started rolling. The shoot’s greatest single challenge turned out to be the most basic one: providing sufficient food and water for the cast and crew. Catering companies didn’t exist in the area, and transporting provisions to remote shooting locations comprised a full-time job. "Simple things there were not simple,” summarizes Crown. But despite the hardships, the production took on a camp-like atmosphere for the young actors playing the child soldiers, replete with dance parties and soccer matches. Fukunaga made a point of showing the cast and crew footage of their work, which was particularly motivating for kids who’d never acted before.

It also helped motivate the producers. Taplin Lundberg remembers being blown away by the first scene she saw, of Attah pantomiming television shows through a set with a missing picture tube. She’d been worried the film would be bleak, but, seeing Attah on screen, was thrilled to see that "there was as much love and levity as everything else Cary’s great at.” Marker was equally relieved to see they were on the right track. "As worried and stressed as we all were about keeping everybody hydrated,” she recalls, "and making sure that no batteries exploded from the camera and that the military arrived with the artillery that we needed—we never worried about the movie that Cary was making.”

The confidence that early footage built with the producers came in handy as unanticipated costs mounted. Crown, who’d been on location for most of the filming, traveled back to the United States mid-shoot to participate in one last round of fundraising. "I was so excited by what I had seen,” he says. "I wanted to let Cary run with this as much as we possibly could, and not let the budget restrict him.”

But even with more money, things were touch and go—some scenes had to be shot on a smaller scale than originally envisioned, and as with any film, eventually time ran out. On the last day of shooting, Fukunaga tried to work through a list of shots they’d missed earlier. He got about halfway through. "It got dark,” he recounts. "We had one scene we could do in the dark, and that was it. It was a pretty rough feeling—knowing that whatever’s on the hard drives right now, we’re going to have to make a movie out of that.”

To say the very least, they managed. None of the production stresses show on screen. The finished film is phantasmagoric, anchored by brilliant performances from Elba and Attah. Taplin Lundberg remembers seeing the assembly cut: "It felt like the best thing I’d ever been part of.”

But the best film in the world doesn’t mean anything if audiences don’t see it. The plan had been to partner with a traditional studio for a theatrical release; however, Netflix’s offer to distribute the film was the last unexpected moment of serendipity for Beasts of No Nation. The offer was nearly twice the film’s budget, enough for all the film’s investors to make a profit. But it wasn’t entirely about money; the producers also knew a traditional platform theatrical release for the film would be a difficult.

"It gets lost in the fray that this is a movie about child soldiers,” Taplin Lundberg notes, "and the only star in it is Idris Elba. It’s very difficult subject matter. We were thinking to ourselves, this is one of the best things we’ve ever been a part of, but what is the marketing campaign for this? How does Fox Searchlight turn this into Juno?”

With Netflix, they found a partner with something to prove: that a simultaneous streaming and theatrical release could be a success. As a result, their film would get the full benefit of Netflix’s publicity muscle. The gamble paid off: Beasts of No Nation got 3 million views in its first two weeks—the first time Netflix has ever publicly announced viewing numbers. Fukunaga, who’d wanted a film in theaters after True Detective, knew they’d made the right call when he started hearing raves from people who lived nowhere near an art-house theater. "What you ultimately want from a film,” he makes clear, "is for people to watch it and to experience it.”

But before the Netflix release brought the film to millions of homes, there was a very special theatrical screening: the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, which marked the first time the producers would see the film with an audience. The five-minute standing ovation spoke for itself. "As a producer,” says Marker, "you’re hoping to make movies that make an impact. It was just one of those moments you won’t forget.” But for all the producers, making Beasts of No Nation was its own journey—rewarding, challenging, life-changing—long before any audience saw it. As Kaufman puts it, "There are lots of different kinds of movies you can choose to make. You can sit in a room or you can get on a plane and go look around somewhere you’ve never been.”

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