So, another cinematic version of Jane Eyre. Big deal. There have already been something like 27. I don’t want to offend you, I told Cary Fukunaga, director of the latest realisation, when he was recently in London, but if you are brought up in Britain, the surfeit of costume dramas adapted from literary classics can drive you to distraction. Couldn’t he have found something else to make a film about? Having lived on British shores for the best part of two years, he saw the inquiry coming. “To be honest that question only ever comes from people who live in the UK. But I didn’t grow up with that. I had no idea there were 20-something versions out there.” He shrugged but remained unapologetic. He had good reason. This was a very good Jane Eyre, possibly a great one. Fortunately for the heritage-battered British cinema-viewing public, Fukunaga nailed it.
As a result, the 33-year-old American director is hot property. Jane Eyre, only his second major film, sprung to the attention of most awards juries, winning Oscar and Bafta nominations for its meticulously observed costume design, and a clutch of best actor awards for the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender for his performance as Rochester. But Fukunaga is already moving swiftly on to his next project which concerns his great passion, the American civil war.
“It is a version of Buster Keaton’s The General, which was based on a real train heist, but told from the Yankee side,” he said. The film’s provisional title is No Blood, No Guts, No Glory. Did he already feel experienced enough to handle such an epic theme? “That doesn’t concern me at all. A gripping film isn’t about how sweeping it is, it all comes from the story. From a narrative with strong characters, where we feel there is something at stake. Then you have drama.” The execution, he says, “is all about pre-planning. And then dealing with all the new problems that every day brings.”
It was his obsession with the civil war, and the 19th century in general, that helped guide him while making Jane Eyre. Born of Swedish-Japanese parents, and brought up in the ultra-mellow Bay Area of northern California, he was an unlikely candidate to entrap the essence of a barn-storming English literary classic. “I was a big history buff as a teenager. I have watched a lot of the movies and never been entirely satisfied. They always felt wrong, either in historical detail or even texturally. You would see this cheap wardrobe that looked like it had come straight out of a warehouse.”
His own early ventures into historical reconstruction, by contrast, were exercises in scrupulous fidelity. “I used to do civil war re-enacting between the ages of 15 and 19. I was part of a unit that was considered very authentic. We would source the right wools, the right buttons for the costumes. We had the right look.” He brought that concern with verisimilitude to his film. “All of these things pop up while you are making it: for example, what did the servants eat? And what time did they eat? It has an effect on the shooting. All these things are part of the mise-en-scene.
“It even comes down to the furniture. We made sure the furniture in Rochester’s house was at least 100 years older than the time we were shooting in, because it was a house that Rochester would have inherited, and had been living in for a very long time.” That kind of attention to detail, he says, cannot help but aid the actors. “It allows them to give a more immediate performance, I think.”
The results of Fukunaga’s care were impressive. He captured both the wildness and the wit of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, with bravura performances from Fassbender and Australia’s Mia Wasikowska as Jane. Without resorting to gothic schlock, Fukunaga understood the mystical allure of the Peak District landscape in which he set the film. The understated elegance was allied with moments of sudden brutality. This was conviction, rather than confection, cinema.
I said the softly-candlelit scenes put me in mind of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. “I love that film,” he responded with the passion of the true cinephile. “One of the details I love most is when Barry’s uncle dies, asks him to kiss him, and we see a man-to-man kiss which I don’t think we would see today. People would be too afraid of it being homoerotic, but it was normal for the time, a sign of affection. I love those details, It is what makes period films so interesting.” Don’t be fooled by the lyrical note. Fukunaga, 33, gives the impression of a young man in a hurry. He spoke super-fast and fluently, and talked, during the course of our conversation, of various projects “in development”, including a musical and a sci-fi story.
Back to Jane Eyre and Wasikowska’s luminous performance: she captured the inner strength of Brontë’s heroine, which was a difficult feat to bring off, as her fortune is so demonstrably determined by men, I said. “The reason she feels so at ease with Rochester is that she is used to men being assholes. If a man is polite to her, she doesn’t know how to relate to him. It is the fact that Rochester is so rude that enables her to be honest back to him. It is freeing for her. [Brontë] says that specifically in the text.” I asked if he had become addicted to 19th-century English literature. “I really want to read Wuthering Heights. But I have never read any Jane Austen.” A lifetime of more men behaving badly awaits.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Fukunaga’s choice to direct Jane Eyre was the abrupt change of tone from his previous, and first, major movie, the Spanish-language Sin Nombre. The story set amid Mexican gangland, saturated in bold primary colours and full of violent action, is close to the polar opposite of his quiet treatment of Brontë’s novel.
Fukunaga described the build-up to making Sin Nombre as a “weird set of fortuitous accidents”. “It sounds very hippy but sometimes paths open up for you and as you walk down them, you become sure you made the right choice.” Its genesis was in a short film he made on his film course at New York University, based on a true story he read in the paper about a group of immigrants who were trapped in a refrigerator trailer while trying to cross the border from Mexico. Originally he wanted the film to be entirely in the dark, “as a sound-piece” but his professors persuaded him to shoot it in light. (That must have been a conversation worth overhearing.)
“It wasn’t my thesis film, but I decided to do it anyway because it was an important story,” said Fukunaga. “I had no plans to make it into a feature, but it began to travel like crazy on the festival circuit.” He took the idea to the Sundance Labs, and the film was made in a short space of time. “It happened very fast,” he said nonchalantly, as if that were little to do with him.
When I mentioned the striking difference in the palettes of the two films, he said that the only thing that influenced his choices was accurate reproduction. “They came from moments of truth. I did a lot of research [on Sin Nombre], travelling with immigrants, going to all the train crossings and bridges that they used. I knew those places.”
He used a similarly immersive approach for Jane Eyre. “When you go up to the Peak District, you walk around all those great houses, they all have the same feeling.” His intention this time was for the camerawork to be “as unobtrusive as possible”. Was he trying to show off his range, making two such different films in succession? “It wasn’t that. I didn’t want to get bored and I didn’t want to be categorised. He was hard-headed about the benefits of having made Jane Eyre: “It was my first English-language film, and there is nothing better than using a classic literary text. Brontë’s dialogue is one of the best things about the novel, because otherwise the plot is a bit pulp. The complexity of the characters is in the repartee. It is immensely rich material.”
He said he was bombarded with scripts about Colombian drug lords after Sin Nombre. “But now I have made Jane Eyre, they are confused. It’s a nice feeling to have broken the mould.”
We talked briefly about some of the directors he admires: Alfonso Cuarón, Gaspar Noé, Kieślowski, Forman, Scorsese. He was finding his own way, he said, grateful not to feel the pressure of having to produce “tent-pole dramas”. It struck me as a fruitful time to be making films, I said. “Well, it is very, very hard to get a film made, and I’m getting my films made. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer. ‘Jane Eyre’ is released on DVD on March 12.