Cary Fukunaga interview: Jane Eyre, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench’s shadow puppetry, and more

We chat to director Cary Fukunaga about adapting a 150 year old story, casting Michael Fassbender, and his upcoming projects…

Cary Fukunaga’s bleakly beautiful Jane Eyre sits comfortably amongst the best cinematic adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, and features an outstanding lead performance from Mia Wasikowska. Only its director’s second feature (the first being 2009 Spanish-language immigration drama Sin Nombre), Jane Eyre is now out on DVD in the UK.

We spoke to the film’s young director Cary Fukunaga, about how he avoided making a “cheeseball” glossy period drama, Michael Fassbender’s teeth, his upcoming sci-fi and US Civil War projects, and why he wants to fit a horse with rubber shoes…

This interview contains potential spoilers for Jane Eyre.

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You had to cut a lot from the story so you could make the film, can you please make my day by telling me that there’s going to be a DVD extra of Michael Fassbender as a transvestite gypsy fortune teller…

That has to be the worst scene in the book. There are people out there that – I’ve read this – who say, “He should have had the fortune teller scene, it really ruined the film for me he didn’t have it in there”. That is the most contrived scene in the entire book, and it’s like, really?

So you didn’t film it?

Didn’t film it. That was never even considered to be a scene in the movie. When I read that scene I was like, I don’t know what Charlotte was thinking when I read that chapter.

Must have been an off-day.

To think that Blanche Ingram would actually be stupid enough to fall for that…

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You cheated a little bit casting Michael Fassbender didn’t you? He’s described as ugly a number of times in the book.

By who though? By Charlotte?

By the narrator, by Jane.

I know, but don’t you often think that guys that girls are attracted to are only attractive to them?


It happens. It also happens that girls think they’re less attractive than they are. Diana Rivers calls Jane on it outright, she says ‘what are you talking about saying you’re plain and ugly, you’re beautiful’ when she’s trying to convince her not to go to India with her brother.

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So you think it’s a question of subjectivity.

Yes. Absolutely.

Good answer. I was going to ask if you ever thought of going down the prosthetics route at any point for Fassbender to ugly him up…

[Laughs] No. Also, I personally think Michael’s very ugly, I don’t know what everyone talks about.

Well of course, he’s hideous to look at

All those teeth.

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You’ve spoken about not wanting to go down a Hollywood route with the film, not wanting a formulaic period score and making an anti-period romance at one point. What specifically were you trying to avoid?

Did I say non-Hollywood film?

You said “not like a Hollywood movie” in relation specifically to the lighting.

I suppose I meant sort of that honeyed, glossy look for the whole thing. No sweeping orchestral score – Dario Marianelli [the composer on Jane Eyre] likes to make sweeping orchestral scores but I kept taking away his players. Like even in the middle of recording sessions, I’d think, okay, can we just take the first player for this section? Then just play it non-vibrato and small, small, small. 

It was the same with the ending. In a Hollywood version of the film you’d probably crane away over a tree and disappear into the clouds as we talk about what happens in the future and all the babies they have. But I just preferred a much starker, simpler, quieter ending.

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On that note, the story has a number of fantastical and melodramatic elements, telepathy, bigamy, the mad woman in the attic and that kind of thing. How did you go about toning down the melodrama?

The one that was like weighing on me the most which ended up being the scene we shot first, was when Jane really hears Rochester’s voice, the first time on the moor, and it’s like “How do you do that?” 

I think a good example of how cinema’s changed from 1943 to now is that in Bob Stevenson’s version of the film, the version I grew up with, they have Orson Welles’ like booming baritone voice over the moors like “Jaaaaane. Jaaaane” and then Joan Fontaine runs to him but in this version we had Michael whispering as if it’s like, being carried on the wind, and that was the only way we felt we could get away with it without it really falling into cheeseball.

Was crossing that line a danger all the way through, with the character of Bertha for instance?

Yes, a spooky, crazy woman creeping around the house, it’s really hard to pull that one off and not have Jane be like “What the fuck? Who is this person?” It’s the same thing with Grace Poole, I think the whole Grace Poole plotline and suspecting Grace Poole is like… Jane, in the book never really goes all out to find out what’s happening to Grace Poole, and I feel like these days, it would be like, why wouldn’t she? If she thinks Grace Poole is doing these things, why would she be okay with being in a house with her, why would she be okay with her wandering around starting fires in people’s bedrooms? It just creates more questions than it answers.

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So it’s a question of credulity then?

Purists are going to be like, whatever’s in the book, you have to do it. I think what’s most important is the spirit of the main characters and the overall feeling of the novel, and that’s what we… at least I was trying to accomplish, without throwing in 19th century contrivances.

One thing that’s interested me about retelling a 150 year old story, is have you tried to avoid giving away spoilers in interviews like this on the promotional circuit? There are anecdotes – possibly urban myth – about some audience members being really shocked by the ending of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet

[Looks incredulous] In terms of marketing the film I had no part in that, or choice. The marketing department and the studios decide what they’re going to do, I can voice my opinion but that’s about it. 

I don’t know anyone that has… There are friends of mine who know the novel but who are like, they never liked Rochester, they don’t understand what Jane saw in him, those kind of people that were like, “She went back to him?!”

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Did you make the film for people who’d read the book?

The only thing I was trying to play with for people who didn’t know the novel was really to try and get across the idea that he could be dead at the end. I liked that idea. 

You’ve mentioned that for Sin Nombre, the key visual idea of the kids riding the freight train was what really struck you. Was there one key visual idea for Jane Eyre that struck you in a similar way?

Her wandering on the moors, in desperation. That was fascinating and a beautiful image. I hadn’t seen David Lean’s, is it Oliver Twist or Great Expectations? I think it’s Oliver Twist that starts off with the mother wandering the moors and showing up at this house and having this baby. I actually watched it after we started prepping the film and it was so similar to the way we were starting out, but it’s a part of that gothic area of Hollywood, but obviously in a different style, a much more theatrical way of doing it. But yeah, the idea of a girl surrounded by this vast, empty space of the moors makes it a really iconic image, iconic in the sense that it would stick in your mind. 

You have a reputation for being something of a method director in some ways, for Sin Nombre you rode the Mexican rails. Did you wander the moors yourself for Jane Eyre?

Yeah, well, I’d done the method bit before from like age 15 to 19 I was a Civil War re-enactor.

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So that links in with your next project (Civil war drama No Blood, No Guts, No Glory)

And it’s exactly the same time period as Jane Eyre so I was on these events for like, weeks at a time wearing period costume.

So you were a re-enactment nerd?

[Laughs] I was, I was. I haven’t done it for like over 15 years.

Did you ever get the urge on the set of Jane Eyre to get into period costume then?

Absolutely, I kept asking the costume designers for some riding boots and breeches, but they’re like, we have no money for that. Talk to the producers. [laughs]

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I do want to direct a movie from horseback one day.

Entirely on horseback?

Yeah, that would be amazing. I wasn’t a horse rider growing up, I learned to ride horses over here but now I’m like obsessed with it. So often at home in the West Village I’m like, “Why aren’t I allowed a horse?” I would keep a horse in a stable in my apartment and I would fit him with rubber shoes and we’d just roll him out, if I needed to go to a meeting somewhere, I’d just get on my horse and go across town. 

You could be like Bianca Jagger riding into Studio 54 in the seventies…

I definitely want to explore the legality of riding a horse in the city.

Since we’re a bit pushed for time, can I steer you away from horses and back to the film…

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Sorry, sorry. 

Just for my own satisfaction, there’s one moment in Jane Eyre, right before Jane and Rochester meet for the first time when she feels the vibrations in a puddle on the ground before he arrives…

[Looks puzzled] A puddle? What puddle? 

This is embarrassing… I remembered vibrations in a puddle and had this idea that perhaps it was a King Kong or Jurassic Park nod, that he’s almost like a monster approaching…

Definitely that was going on in the soundscape. I can’t remember if it’s actually in a puddle, but yeah. What we wanted to do is, first of all, those corsets are like so restricting that it makes you basically hyperventilate. So the idea was that she got to the top of that hill and it was like her blood was in her ears and her hearing was just gone and in the 3D soundscape she’s hearing the sounds around her and tripping out for a second until reality comes back in and the horse is like, booming. But I’m not sure if we have a puddle shot.

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Okay, but humour me that you were thinking King Kong?

[laughing] King Kong or Jurassic Park, one or the other, definitely channelling Spielberg.

You mentioned the 3D soundscape, did you ever consider making Jane Eyre in 3D?

No. It would be cool though. I love the idea of 3D but it’s completely superfluous to most stories. I don’t know if it’s just a fad, of course, 3D’s great, it brings things much more to life, I mean, think of Piña, watching dance in 3D is amazing. It makes it a much more immersive experience, even if it becomes unconscious after a while I don’t care, it shouldn’t even be about the spectacle, but just the fact that you’re there in the space would be amazing.

So you’re not ruling it out for the future?

No. If it was easier to do and easier to exhibit I think, why not?

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After the success of Sin Nombre, you must have had a lot of interest and offers?

Not really. No-one was coming and knocking, nobody wanted anything to do with me, it was like… Also, the movie was in Spanish. I don’t even really know how it was received in the UK, I remember… I don’t think it did that well in the UK.

Critically it was wasn’t it? I remember listening to a Radio 4 programme where it was really praised.

They said nice things?

Yup. It’s probably still on the iPlayer archive.

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No-one really tells me that stuff. I don’t know what would be the point in listening to it though because I know what my own challenges are and the things I’m working on, my own personal stuff. Like with filmmaking as well, I know what I got right and what I could improve and that’s all I need.

Your next move is into sci-fi with Spaceless, so are you happy to hop genres, in the mould of say, Duncan Jones with Moon and then Source Code?

I am jumping genres. I loved Moon, I didn’t feel that Source Code was as genius as Moon was. But he’s kind of staying in the same genre, weird psychological intrigue. 

Similar to Spaceless then, in the psychological intrigue sci-fi aspect?

Yeah, it’s got a bit of psychological play but hopefully at the heart of it, I want to make it a love story.

About an astronaut in a spacesuit drifting around?

It’s all top secret.

Is the musical still happening?

Yeah, I’m finishing the script as we speak.

Still with Owen Pallett from The Arcade Fire?

No, I need to talk to Owen again. Basically I’ve been on hold since Jane Eyre. I never really sat down with any music group and said “We’re going to work together”. I’ve met with Owen Pallett, I’ve met with Zach Condon [from the band Beirut] before. I have people in mind. I’d like to make it a big collaboration, it’s not going to be like one person. So the question is who’s available, who’s down for that kind of process and then see where it goes. Basically, right now what I’ve finished is the libretto, so next I’m working with lyrics and then the score, so now I’m trying to figure out who is the lyricist I want to work with and I have some ideas.

Can you share any names?

Not yet.

It might be a great way to bag them though, if you start talking them up in interviews?

[laughs] Well, what happened the last time I said anything was that everyone said, “Cary’s making a musical with Owen Pallett”, it was on Pitchfork, but it wasn’t true yet. 

Talking about writing, did you have the chance to do the Jane Eyre adaptation yourself or was Moira Buffini’s screenplay already in place?

There was a draft of her screenplay already, but I did, like three drafts of it and then more on set, I was doing rewrites, so yeah, you still write, you just don’t get credit for it. 

Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea [Jean Rhys’ prequel to Jane Eyre, set in the West Indies]?

I haven’t. 

You’ve mentioned liking a location change for each of your films, the West Indies would be pretty nice to film in.

They’ve already done it recently, isn’t that with Rebecca Hall or someone? I feel that every film that takes place on a nice tropical environment never turns out that well.

Which do you mean?

Can you think of any good film that’s taken place on a tropical environment?

The only one I can think of, weirdly, is Forgetting Sarah Marshall in Hawaii. That wasn’t the best…

Maybe Mel Gibson’s Mutiny on the Bounty, that was pretty good. 

[PR interjects laughing] What about that one Madonna movie, Swept Away?

So you’re okay with 3D but not with tropical islands, that’s the picture we’re building up. 

I would love to be okay with it because the lifestyle on a tropical island is pretty amazing. Actually, Pirates of the Caribbean did pretty well… 

Isn’t Gore Verbinski producing Spaceless?

[Nods] I’ll talk to Gore about maybe doing part of that movie on a tropical island…

You said at an open-air screening of Jane Eyre that the experience of going to the cinema is slowly dying. When you were making the film, did you think about making it for a DVD audience?

No, definitely not. Definitely just for the big screen. I just watched the American version of Let the Right One In, which is flawed, you know, but there are shots that are like… it’s definitely made for the big screen. If you think about, Laurence Olivier and picture that Bedouin shot of that little speck [from Lawrence of Arabia], it’s like, can you imagine watching that on your iPhone? 

I’m just as much a victim of it as everyone else, I watch a lot of Netflix on my laptop, which is our American version of LoveFilm, I watch a lot of films on my iPhone and there’s nothing like being in the audience. Not just for the scale but for being in a room with people, the energy is absolutely… it’s transcendent and it’s also transmitted. It’s like, if you’re watching a comedy, it’s much more fun with an audience, if you’re watching a tragedy you feel it in a room. It’s a shame that less and less people are going to the cinema, the numbers are there, statistically, that’s the truth of it. So when I got to show my film in front of 3,000 people at an open-air screening that was pretty amazing.

Speaking of Lawrence of Arabia, isn’t the Robert Stevenson Jane Eyre film kind of an odd choice for a young Californian kid to have as a favourite?

Oh well, you know, you watch the films that your parents are watching and my Mum was a huge Jane Eyre fan, that’s the reason why, I would sit there and watch it with her. After that I think my favourite film was Beau Geste. When I was seven or eight I dressed as a French foreign legionnaire for Halloween.

So the period costume thing goes way back then?

Yeah, it’s been a habit for a long time. 

Can you tell us anything about your Civil War film?

It’s still being written but it’s basically based on, do you know Buster Keaton’s The General? So basically it’s a real event, in the America Civil War, where these Yankee raiders try to steal a Confederate train, to tear up train lines and sort of cut off Atlanta from Chattanooga so hopefully then to capture Chattanooga which was like the centre of the Confederate’s country and by doing that, they could split the country in two and end the war. That didn’t end up happening until like 3 years later, but if they’d succeeded they could have ended the war and maybe saved close to 400,000 lives. We’ll stick with the reality of it, but it was just like one of those daring plans. It’s a bit of a tragedy, but we’re also approaching it more as sort of a buddy film as well.

Are there any cast members in place yet?

No, that’s like the last thing I do, I really don’t think about that until… I know the producers would like to attach some names but then I hate the thing in Hollywood where you have to attach a name to finance it. There’s so much richness in the variety of cast that suddenly limiting yourself to one name, because it all then has to fit around those people.

One last question then, did Judi Dench really do finger shadow puppetry on set between takes on Jane Eyre?

Yeah [laughs] that’s true. We’ve got photos somewhere of that.  

Cary Fukunaga, thank you very much.

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