Interview: Sin Nombre Writer and Director Cary Fukunaga
by Kevin Powers
March 26, 2009
With no feature films under his belt, I wasn't sure what to expect when I scheduled an interview with newcomer Cary Fukunaga. But after seeing the writer/director's debut film, Sin Nombre, I knew I'd be talking to one of the industry's next great artists. When I entered the empty bar at the Ritz in Georgetown, Fukunaga was on the phone explaining the difficulty of translating the title of his feature film into English. While "sin nombre" does actually mean "without name" or "nameless," you can't exactly re-title the film without losing some of the intrinsic cultural nuance of the phrase. And this was only the beginning…
Fukunaga ended the call and shook my hand as we sat down to talk about his depiction of the immigrant journey (south of Mexico and into the US) from the perspective of a young girl, Sayra, and ex-gang member, Willy (aka Casper). The story was built off of Fukunaga's short film, Victoria para chino, which itself was based on actual events. "From the moment that I read the article about the immigrants who were abandoned in the trailer in Texas," Fukunaga says, "I had an emotional reaction to reading it, in a way that, although I had been familiar [with the topic of immigration] my whole life, I never really felt that before… reading about how horrific it was."
Fukunaga then discovered that a significant portion of the immigrants who make their way to the US border actually originate from deeper parts of Central America, such as Honduras and Guatemala, riding atop cargo trains. "Learning about the trains and stuff, I felt it was inherently cinematic; and really, a modern reference to our old West. In terms of American iconography, the idea of the pioneer drudging to the West with that hope, in the covered wagon and dealing with dangers along the way. And having that happen just south of our border was an interesting comparison."
The trains proved to be Fukunaga's biggest challenge in filming his first feature, however. "That was the most difficult aspect. Because we didn't have a high budget and to be able to shoot where 1/3 of the story takes place on the train and can only do it in a short amount of days was like playing Jenga. We found ways through movie magic to extend our shoot days on the train by building train cars on flatbed trailers and shooting on country roads. That was the hardest part."
Sin Nombre contains a great deal of rich and immersive sequences within the populated barrios of Honduras and Mexico that seemed they would have been difficult (i.e. conspicuously problematic) to film. Not so, it turns out. "We had really good location managers. And as a production, there was definitely a philosophy of not coming in with a superiority complex. You work with the communities to make films. And you just don't go in and take over their territory. There were never any real problems with neighbors and stuff like that. We included kids from the neighborhood in scenes because they wanted to. I wouldn't say that we were ever really shooting in neighborhoods that were too dangerous. Only one time did we shoot in a neighborhood where a rival gang showed up on set and decided they'd show us what real men were like by beating the shit out of each other."
Gangs constitute a significant portion of Sin Nombre. Casper is a member of the feared Mara Salvatrucha. One look at the predatory crew and you can see why. Many of its members carry pronounced facial tattoos, and some even that span their entire backs. Indeed, the skin art in Sin Nombre is exceptional. But why such a flashy focus on these gangs? "I think in terms of the gangs, it's conflicting because in a lot of ways I don't want to promote the film as being a gang film. Rather, there's a character that's a gang member in the film. But I think there is something inherently fascinating about gangs and about tribalism, especially a gang that tattoos itself like some of those gangs do."
"It's almost this weird South Pacific, exotic world, and there's always that question in western civilizations, 'Why would you do that to yourself?' I think there's a lot of curiosity and a lot of mystery around street gangs. For me, they are part of that world. And I was fascinated about a character, a bad guy who does good. I really like to figure out what is the good in all of us. And try to figure out how to balance that with characters that do bad things, and test our patience and our willingness to empathize with someone in their situation."
Fukunaga has recounted a personal story throughout promotion of the film where he actually rode the trains a number of times and for hours on end, much like the immigrants we see in the film. His dedication to crafting Sin Nombre through first-hand experiences really surprised me. "I had a lot of research, but that can only tell you so much, and it's always from the perspective of a journalist," Fukunaga commented. "There's a certain agenda or angle always at play. So the question is when you get in there and see you things for yourself, how to balance your own opinion and your own perspective of what's happening, and reinterpret it. And figure out a way to make it become your story as a writer. So authenticity was definitely my goal and trying to avoid exploitation. I had to go that much further to find out details to make sure that I was representing something as close to as out an outsider I could observe it was."
The research paid off as Sin Nombre feels intensely authentic and never contrived or exploitative. Sayra and Casper's parallel (though eventually mutual) journey to freedom certainly feels born of first-hand experience. However, Fukunaga did have to sacrifice one element. "One of the things I wish I could have done in the film was show more about the humor. The immigrants on the train are always joking and having a good time. And that's how you deal with hard times is to laugh. I think in this film, tonally, it was hard. Every time I tried to infuse comedy, the notes were 'it seems like they're having fun.' Well, they're not having fun; they're dealing with life. But it's something we had to take out. So I think in the next film, levity is an important goal for me."
And in terms of next projects, Fukunaga isn't set on anything yet. After Sin Nombre is released and the world has a chance to see the 31-year-old's talent, I certainly hope the offers will start pouring in. Although, Fukunaga intends to stick with the dual role of writer and director rather than breaking off into one or the other. "If it's not my script, [I'd] at least do a pass. Because writing, for me, is an inherent part of understanding the material on a deeper level. To make it your own requires a certain amount of blood and sweat." Pressuring him to guess what's next, Fukunaga says, "Probably not another immigrant film. I'm working on several different projects. They run the gamut from sci-fi to drama to more along the lines of a love story. I love period pieces. But it's hard to get money to make costumed dramas, so we'll see."
Sin Nombre opened in limited release last Friday, March 20th, and expands on April 3rd next weekend.