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The first time Cary Fukunaga came to Sundance, he brought a short film he’d made as a second-year grad student at New York University. Impressed, the Sundance Institute asked if he had a feature-length script he might want to develop. “I said I did,” the 31-year-old recalls, grinning, “but I didn’t.” Within two weeks, though, he submitted a rough draft, which, after four years of research and fine-tuning at the institute, became Sin Nombre, the film that scored him Sundance’s award for directing this past January, plus blind deals—contracts for as-yet-undetermined projects—from both Focus Features and Universal.
Sin Nombre, which opens on March 20 and is technically Fukunaga’s NYU thesis, tells the story of Central Americans who cross Mexico on the roofs of freight trains to get to the U.S. The people who make this horrific journey in real life endure gang attacks, rape and the risk of falling to their death. Which makes it astounding—and perhaps insane—that Fukunaga rode the trains himself. “Once, we were attacked,” he says. “There were gunshots and people shouting, ‘Gangs!’ It seemed ridiculous to be doing such a thing for a film, but for me, it was necessary.”
Fukunaga, who was merely conversational in Spanish when he began the project, ultimately directed the entire film in Spanish—a particularly tough challenge given that several members of his cast had never acted before. “Cary is wildly talented, but he’s also attuned to human beings,” says James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features, which produced the film. “I was involved in Ang Lee’s first feature, and he sure didn’t make this good a film his first time out.”
For his next film, the Brooklyn director hopes to move away from vérité style and political content, in part to avoid getting pigeonholed but also to give himself a break from the intensity of the past four years. “I don’t think I’d do a full-blown comedy,” he says. “But I would like a little levity.”