Two years ago, only cinephiles knew who Cary Joji Fukunaga was.

He was the Oakland-born writer-director of gritty, modestly budgeted films, one about the hardships faced by a group of Latin American immigrants to the U.S. (Sin Nombre), the other a uniquely earthy take on Jane Eyre. While his work was critically acclaimed, his ascension to veritable household name didn’t seem imminent.

Then came the premiere season of HBO’s True Detective, where Fukunaga’s gorgeous imagery and his surprising skill in depicting chaotic violence elevated Nic Pizzolatto’s pulp miserablism into great television. Fukunaga’s adeptness at setting a mood and his meticulousness with visual detail shot him to new “Hot Young Auteur” heights of recognition—and were, to some degree, responsible for the acclaim heaped on his cast (with both leads, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey, nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes).

How has he followed that triumph up? With a visually bold, riveting drama called Beasts of No Nation, based on a 2005 novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala, about child soldiers fighting a civil war in an African country. A spirited young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) is living relatively happily with his family in a refugee camp fter a military coup (the country is never specified, but the conflicts are based mainly on those of Sierra Leone). When government soldiers arrive in the camp, Agu flees the massacre and runs into the jungle, where he is discovered by a rebel Commandant (Idris Elba) and his young, heavily armed charges. The Commandant offers Agu a sense of family and the opportunity for revenge, and eventually—with harrowing bloodshed—Agu proves himself to his fellow child soldiers.

As screenwriter, director and cinematographer, Fukunaga takes challenging and unpleasant subject matter and turns it into a gut-wrenching watch; one that never loses its humanity. This was hardly an easy task. Beasts of No Nation seems like the type of personal project—like Fukunaga’s feature debut, Sin Nombre—that might gestate for years before a filmmaker has enough clout to get it made. In fact, the movie was lined up before True Detective was made. Perhaps surprisingly, the funding for the project—from New York production company Red Crown—came through before Fukunaga cast a name actor, Elba, in a key role.

But, Fukunaga says, he “decided to push the production back.” Why? “I did not want to go to West Africa for six months. I knew it was gonna be a hard shoot. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done yet. I had just gotten back to America from the UK. I just wanted to be in the U.S. for a little bit before going away again. I needed those two years to sort of recollect myself.”

The story was one Fukunaga had been wanting to tell for some time. Back in 2004, while in Guinea making an unrelated documentary, he hitched a ride to Sierra Leone and did some “research with former combatants and displaced folks living in the camps to get a picture of what happened in that war.” After working on the story for a couple of years, it still seemed too complex to tackle in a narrative film. That was when his friend, documentarian Micah Schaffer, gave him a copy of Iweala’s book. “Everything else I’d been trying to do was too complex,” Fukunaga explains, “and here was a simple story, told from a child’s perspective—a child grappling with his moral place in this war. The research I’d done was much more from a historian’s perspective, and felt somehow too cold next to this simpler emotional perspective.”

Elba’s Commandant flickers between charismatic and tyrannical throughout the film

Idris Elba’s Commandant flickers between charismatic and tyrannical throughout the film

The set of Beasts of No Nation—in and around Accra, Ghana’s capital—was no place for prima donnas. “There was nothing glamorous about the way we shot this film. There were no trailers, no RVs, there were no green rooms. There was no air conditioning anywhere near a set. The food was all local catering—and ‘catering’ is a generous term for it.”

Not the typical habitat of a major international star. But Elba came ready to work, as the larger-than-life Commandant whose leadership is at turns fearsome, compassionate and deranged. “Idris is an extraordinary talent,” says Fukunaga, “and the character needs to be both charismatic and villainous. To have multiple layers, you need an incredible actor, someone who has that kind of gravitas but also understands the complexity of the situation. And he, like everyone else, was a real champ about it. He really did bring his A-game to the role. It was definitely a coup to have him.”

The film stands out even more for the performance of young Attah, an untrained actor onscreen for nearly the entire movie, who carries its considerable emotional weight. And he’s far from the only child in the movie, which features strong supporting turns from a host of young nonprofessionals. Fukunaga describes casting as “a pretty frightening process. I knew it was going to take months to find our cast of kids, and also give them time to learn to work in front of the movie camera.”

Up-and-coming casting director Harrison Nesbit, “pretty fresh out of undergrad,” took to schools, football pitches, orphanages, and other kid-friendly places to search for the right boys. Filtering through the most promising videos, Fukunaga’s team eventually whittled hundreds of kids down to about 30. “We did a four-week long theater workshop with in Accra and Abraham was one of those kids. Harrison remembers when he first met him—he was skipping school, hanging out with older kids, and smoking cigarettes. He not only laughed but cried during one of the exercises Harrison had him do. He was just very impressive.”

Fukunaga put aside his doubts and committed to Attah, who lets Agu’s oversized angst and anger pour from his face with breathtaking rawness. “It’s a big leap of faith to put all that on one kid. The role required a huge change from being a lighthearted, mischievous kid in the beginning to a seasoned and traumatized kid at the end.”

Working with kid actors requires a certain arsenal of tricks. “Sometimes the subject matter is juxtapositional—based upon the editing,” Fukunaga explains. “It’s not like the set itself is morbid. So there’s nothing really that awful on the screen, and it’s very clear that it’s make-believe. People are pretending they’re dying, and they’re getting up and laughing between takes.”

Agu (Abraham Attah) and the Commandant (Idris Elba) march through an unnamed African country.

Agu (Abraham Attah, center) and the Commandant march through an unnamed African country

The remote location of the production, two and a half hours north of Accra, presented technical hurdles. Fukunaga wanted to shoot 35mm, and despite successful results on digital, he still wishes he’d been able to. “Of course I would have liked to have shot on film, but if we had had filmed, we would have had to run it overseas, and we wouldn’t have seen dailies for weeks.”

Instead, he shot on two Panavised Alexas with Panavision C and E Series lenses. “There are a couple of nighttime scenes we had to add some light to. Otherwise, it was pretty much all natural lighting. And there was the advantage of being able to shoot like that, to shoot in twilight, mostly. Because there is no ‘golden hour’ at the equator—it’s like 15 minutes long. So when light went, it went quickly, and we had to adjust really quickly. So I really got to employ those cameras in a way I hadn’t before.”

As seems typical of Fukunaga’s work, Beasts is striking in its rich narrative and background detail. The film is grounded in a realism that allows Fukunaga’s visual flourishes to enhance the storytelling without distracting from what’s truly at stake. In particular, there’s a long single take, a oner during which Agu makes his way through the chaos of an “enemy” village his comrades are invading. The camera maneuvers through the streets, up a flight of stairs, pausing while Agu observes a heinous crime, past a moment of violence that would seem to bring the madness to an end—but then the camera pushes through, up to the second-floor window, through which we can see the bloody mayhem continue on the dusty streets below.

The virtuoso camerawork is one of Fukunaga’s signatures. The shot naturally brings to mind a similarly complex, chaotic one in the fourth episode of True Detective, but the type of tension it creates is completely different. Instead of a bold flight from seemingly random violence, Beasts’ oner drags us into the abyss with Agu. Its value goes far beyond its technical prowess.

“A oner accomplishes a lot of things,” Fukunaga says. “If you can do it successfully, it actually takes less time than shooting a scene traditionally, and also prevents you from having to break down the scene into smaller moments. When you’re working with untrained actors, this kind of coverage is enormously helpful and keeps a flow to the scenes that wouldn’t be there if you did it more traditionally.”

He points out, too, that oners are an effective cinematic tool for ramping up suspense in an audience. “You become subtly aware after a while that you haven’t broken from a perspective and that means something is building. You may not know what it is yet, but the tension is definitely there.”

Elba and Fukunaga on set in Accra, Ghana.

Elba and Fukunaga on set in Accra, Ghana

Might some audience members feel the stylized camerawork brings too much attention to itself, removing them from the narrative? No, Fukunaga says, flatly. “If they are in the moment, that shouldn’t happen. There is no rule or reason to use a oner—you just do it when it feels like it’s the right moment. Within that descending spiral of action, it caps off an editorially fluid series of events that leads to a choice Agu makes—one that to some people might be unforgivable, even though he was doing what he felt was right thing to do.”

There’s another, quieter but just as strikingly stylized moment, when Agu takes a hallucinogenic drug with his brothers-in-arms before they go into battle. Fukunaga fills the screen with vibrant, pulsing hues, inspiration taken from a perhaps surprising source. “Uzo described the drug (‘gun juice’) in his novel as being hallucinatory with the sky turning red and leaves dripping with blood,” he says. “When I first wrote the script, Oliver Stone’s Alexander had already come out and I really liked [cinematographer Rodrigo] Prieto’s use of infrared film for the India sequence. I felt that represented what I was looking for, in a photochemical process, so I wrote it into the script.

“That was in 2006. It took nine years before we finally made the film and ended up shooting on digital, though a photochemical effect would have been the most visually communicative of that experience—not only the use of the drugs, but the level of violence Agu is involved with and perpetrating.”

The otherworldly visuals have a distancing effect. “The sensation the boy soldiers feel is a form of electrified passion. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s pretty frightening to hear people talk about that. But I needed the find some sort of visual representation. That was as close as I could be without going too far.”

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