Beasts of No Nation is a film of firsts. It’s the first original feature for Netflix; the movie is being released on the streaming platform and in selected theaters on Friday. It’s the first project under the direction of Cary Fukunaga since the man with the man-braids helmed the first season of True Detective. It’s the first acting gig for Abraham Attah, the teenage breakout who got discovered on the streets of Accra, Ghana and was recently granted the Best Young Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his spectacular, haunting debut. It also might be a first for viewers: When you see Beasts, it might be the first time you aren’t one hundred percent sure you want to have sex with Idris Elba.
Attah plays Agu, the young boy who we met as a goofy, relatively carefree kid. This giddy existence is short-lived: Soldiers storm into town, and Agu watches as father and brother are slaughtered, then finds himself separated from the surviving members of his family. He winds up wandering the wilderness alone, only to be taken in by a man known only as the Commandant, a charismatic, terrifying, aviator-wearing slice of human swagger you may recognize as Elba. The Commandant recruits lost boys to his own murderous cause, luring them under his spell and keeping them there with a Machiavellian mix of love and fear.
Fukunaga, exhausted from a day of press that, one imagines, is at least not quite as exhausting as that time he had malaria right before shooting started in Ghana, talked with ThinkProgress by phone about the making of his movie, working with former child soldiers, and his not-actually-crazy-if-you-think-about-it idea for how Netflix could continue to take over the entertainment world.
How did you get introduced to Uzodinma Iweala’s novel in the first place? What was it about the story that made you think: I have to make a movie about this?
I came across the book as a gift from a friend of mine who knew I was interested in making a movie about child soldiers and the war in Sierra Leone. I’d been working on the subject for five or six years at that point. In the book, I was just taken by Abu’s voice, and by the clarity of his vision of himself, so I don’t know, I was — I don’t know how to explain it. I just thought that was the best way to tell this story, whereas everything else I’d been working on didn’t quite add up to what I was trying to go for. It was a more affecting version of telling the story.
In your film, the action takes place in an unnamed country. All we know is that we’re in Africa. The book doesn’t place this story in a specific country either, correct?
It doesn’t. That’s kind of the point of the movie, too. There has been criticism about that, that the effect of the movie was blunted by its non-specificity, that having context would have made what it attempted to do stronger. I disagree with that. It’s irrelevant to the child himself, and to the child, the conflict is the same. When we see a child soldier, it goes right into our instinctual need to protect children. The incongruous image of a child with a weapon sparks our need to protect those kids. So the experience itself, what Abu goes through, is what needs to be seen, and whether the movie took place in northern Nigeria or the Central African Republic or now in Syria.
How did you decide to shoot in Ghana, then? Because in a way you had free rein, right, since you didn’t need to stay true to the real topography of any particular place?
Let me tell you one thing: There is no free rein in the movie. For those who call it uncompromising, there was nothing but compromise in the process. With this movie and this budget, you can’t help but struggle along the way. We were pushed pretty heavily to shoot in South Africa. In the middle of filming, even the bond company was blaming our issues on our shooting in West Africa. All the problems that we ran into were the things they feared. It’s very difficult.
Think of it this way: A movie is a short-term industrial operation, a blue-collar operation, that requires a lot of cooperation from many different parts of the government, and is very expensive for a very short period of time. You need specific help with logistics from the government to move equipment in and out of the country, for lodging, transportation, and to feed people. Those things we take for granted, they only exist in places with a tourist infrastructure.
So I’ve read about all the problems you had on set: You got malaria, as did your assistant and your driver, a props guy got dysentery, Idris Elba almost fell off a cliff, you were extorted by one of your actors. It’s like the Passover plagues struck your movie. At any point, did you look around and think, “Oh, yeah, this was a huge mistake. We should definitely not have filmed here. What was I thinking?”
Did you say Passover plagues?
Yeah, it definitely felt like we were ill-fated on this production. Like I did something terrible in a past life and karma was catching up with me. But sometimes, too, there’s saying a Muslim friend of mine used to say, who did the Peace Corps in the Ivory Coast, who said, “Allah never puts anything on your shoulders that you cannot bear.” It felt more like Job, in that sense. Every day you look up and are like, what’s going on? And you realize, everyone is looking at me. I have to be a pillar of strength right now. That bad luck made it difficult. But all of a sudden you’d have a stroke of good luck and remember why you’re there.
How do you balance wanting to be true to the level of violence in this story you’re telling — it’s a war, people are going to kill and be killed — with making a movie that isn’t so gruesome that people either can’t stomach it or just get distracted by the gore and don’t focus on the characters and the narrative?
I don’t think there is one way to do that because it’s so subjective. You just have your way. There are going to be people who think it’s too violent or ill-treated, and people who think it’s just enough. I’m not sure how many people will want more violence. I think those who have seen what these conflicts are really like, the torn flesh of warfare, it’s nothing near as gruesome as the real thing.
Some of the actors were former child soldiers. What was it like to work with that mix: People who have been acting professionally for a long time but haven’t been to war, and people with no acting credentials but all the real life experience?
I think both lend to each other. For the actors to be around real people is extraordinarily affecting and adds a level of weight to what they’re doing that they wouldn’t have if it were all pure artifice. For the non-actors, having professionals around that can demonstrate, by their willingness to suspend their relationship with reality and themselves — their everyday selves — in order to act, it gives the non-actors a feeling of freedom, I think, to act.
What was your initial reaction to the idea of partnering with Netflix? Did you have any hesitations about releasing the movie this way?
Once they established that they wanted to show it in cinemas, it wasn’t that hard. It was just a question of how wide they would make the release, and how seriously they would treat the theatrical component. I think Netflix should open movie theaters.
Oh, that’s a cool idea. I’ve never thought about that. So you think they should vertically integrate the whole entertainment experience? Produce the movies, own the theaters, make the popcorn, build the seats?
This is a personal opinion; it’s not inside information. But I just think they have enough content, and the more content they produce — HBO should have done it long ago. Who wouldn’t want to see Game of Thrones on the big screen? Netflix has enough to screen all week long, and if they make these original movies. Why not?