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The Road To Sin Nombre

We speak to director Cary Fukunaga about his directorial debut

Californian-born Cary Fukunaga (named after Cary Grant, with surname courtesy of Japanese grandparents) has produced a tremendous directorial debut with Sin Nombre, his tale of the perils faced by Mexican migrants. He was named Best Director at this year’s Sundance, with industry bible Variety heralding him "a big new talent." His secret? Not being afraid to throw himself into the story…

Dazed Digital: Sin Nombre feels so authentic, I thought a Mexican director must have made it. Why this subject, and how did you make it feel so real?
Cary Fukunaga: When I was a film student at NYU, I made a short called Victoria Para Chino, inspired by a true event that took place in Texas where a trailer full of immigrants was abandoned and two dozen people died inside it. It was purely for my thesis, but it started travelling to festivals and winning prizes. It became like a calling card. People were asking if I had a feature script. I didn’t, but I started researching one and, the more research I did, the more committed to it I became. If you want to do it, you have to get the details right.

DD: And the research process was extremely visceral: you spent a lot of time with Mexican migrants riding freight trains into America. Were they happy to talk to you?
Cary Fukunaga: Not always. I interviewed gang members in prison and that was different because it’s a controlled environment. But just approaching people in train yards… it’s weird.

DD: Especially if you’re approaching gang members. It’s scary, surely?
Cary Fukunaga: Well, you don’t know who’s in a gang or not. Funnily enough, gang members don’t identify themselves. They’re not snapping their fingers like West Side Story! You just have to be careful because you don’t know who you’re talking to. But I approached it like a journalist would, with a notebook, making it clear I was just interested in their story.

DD: Can you speak Spanish fluently?
Cary Fukunaga: Yeah, and my Spanish improved during research, out of necessity. But I never really grasped vosotros, which is what they use heavily in Central America.

DD: Did you have a translator?
Cary Fukunaga: I couldn’t afford those kind of luxuries! I had two friends who acted as translators occasionally, but mostly it was solo-style: no money, just staying in hotels where hookers were sleeping with their customers all night long. It was very down and dirty.

DD: What was the scariest moment?
Cary Fukunaga: The first train ride I was on, we were attacked. We nearly got killed there. Gun shots were happening right next to us. But it’s hard to talk about those things because it almost sounds like you’re bragging. There were dangerous moments but you don’t think about it when you’re there. When violence happens, it happens instantly. We spent every day for a week in the train yard where the story takes place and, the one day we didn’t go, there was a shooting. You just never know.

DD: Was the danger worth it?
Cary Fukunaga: I was the only gringo on set with an all-Mexican crew, so the research was important because they respected me a lot more for it. When you grasp the subject so deeply, it frees you up to focus on the performances or the cinematography, rather than worrying about authenticity. I certainly could have directed a version of the film without having put myself through those experiences. But it wouldn’t be the film that it is.

Sin Nombre is in cinemas now