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How Cary Fukunaga Took on James Bond — and Won

The maverick director of ‘No Time to Die’ on why he signed on to help Daniel Craig end his run as James Bond, and the long, winding road of what happened next

Cary Joji Fukunaga photographed in London for Rolling Stone in 2020.

Hollie Fernando for Rolling Stone

“What’s twitching in the corner?”

Cary Joji Fukunaga is slumped on a couch in a London editing facility, sipping a smoothie, stock-still except for one Birkenstock-clad foot perched, and almost imperceptibly shaking, on his knee. The 42-year-old director is running part of the opening sequence of No Time to Die, the 25th James Bond movie and the swan song for Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. The 10-minute sequence that he’s been given the ok to show starts on a particularly poignant note, before turning into a very-Bond-like action sequence that climaxes with the spy careening over the edge of a stone bridge and braving a 100-foot drop.

It’s a complex set-up, one that Fukunaga later admits involved months of prep, a lot of moving parts, finding just the right bridge (they ended up going with one in Matera, Italy) and a well co-ordinated team of stuntmen. That’s not what causing Fukunaga’s brow to furrow at the moment, however. There’s a tiny fly that’s flitting around the corner of a marble tombstone in one of the scene’s cutaway shots. The bug was to be removed via VFX, but it’s still there, and they have to lock the picture in less than a month. The knee bounces faster. There’s a quick, quiet back-and-forth. He’s assured they can get it ixnayed ASAP. The knee slows down. “My job now is sanding the distractions down,” he says later. “It’s the details, the little things, that matter. That’s the challenge.”

Luckily, Fukunaga has a tendency to thrive under these kind of obstacle-heavy, do-or-die circumstances. A former snowboarder, the half-Japanese, half-Swedish Bay Area native spent two years researching and riding migrant trains in Central America for his award-winning debut, the 2009 immigrant drama Sin Nombre. After getting offered “every border thriller” that came down the pike, he challenged himself to do something completely different: an adaptation of the Gothic-lit classic Jane Eyre (2011). Then he pivoted to TV, directing every episode of an anthology series (a rarity at the time) featuring two bona fide movies stars (even rarer) named True Detective. The crazed, single-shot shootout between Matthew McConaughey and a legion of white supremacist skinheads in the first season of HBO’s breakout mystical-pulp hit? And choosing to shoot his next project after that — Beasts of No Nation, a harrowing drama about an African child soldier — in a way that was completely immersive, and in which he did double duty as the cinematographer despite an illness and a near-death experience? Those were self-imposed Fukunaga challenges, too.

He thought that a tentpole blockbuster was the next summit — so when rumors spread that Craig was stepping down as Bond after 2015’s Spectre, Fukunaga cold-pitched himself to series producer Barbara Broccoli as a collaborator. “I wrote her a letter,” he says. “I just wanted to know: What were they planning? Who were they looking at? Would they consider me as a potential director? We spent an evening spitballing potential Bonds, and left it at that.” Time passed, and Fukunaga ended up focusing on other projects, including an adaptation of Stephen King’s It that he’d eventually walk away from; the 19th century serial-killer-vs.-criminal-psychologist TV show The Alienist; and the Jonah Hill/Emma Stone limited series Maniac for Netflix.

It was near the end of making of Maniac that Fukunaga heard that Craig had decided to return for one last go-round and that the original director, Danny Boyle had dropped out. “I didn’t even know they were making another Bond film until I’d heard that news,” he says, laughing. “Like, ‘Well, I guess they did start dating someone else!’” So he wrote another letter, and in September of 2018, Fukunaga found himself in Broccoli’s New York apartment, discussing ideas with the producer and her partners, Gregg and Michael G. Wilson. “They had a direction they wanted to go in,” he recalls, “but there was no story, no villain and nothing more than a few minor characters they had in mind. It was more of a brainstorming session than anything else: ‘Here’s what we had, here’s what we want to do, what do you think?’ You know, how could I help out vs. a from-A-to-B sort of breakdown. There was no TED talk of me walking them through why I was the best choice to direct it.”

A few weeks later, Fukunaga met with Craig for an informal chat. The actor knew Cary’s work well. (“He’s a very individual filmmaker and very comfortable making brave choices,” Craig says of Fukunaga, via email. “You need someone who’s able to make those brave choices at the helm of a Bond movie.”) The two hit it off, exchanging a number of ideas and talking about what had worked and, in Craig’s opinion, what hadn’t worked during his reign as 007. There were more meetings, outlines, story elements getting batted around. The next thing he knew, Fukunaga was in charge of a $250 million movie and a cadre of screenwriters (including Phoebe Waller-Bridge), set to shoot in three countries, and the first American filmmaker to join the franchise. Challenge accepted.

There are Bond fanatics, the kind of franchise devotees that can rattle off stats, quote dialogue (especially the pun-heavy “Bond mots” that 007 drops after dispatching henchmen), compile personal Top 10 lists. And there are moviegoers who see new Bond movies out of habit, happy to pay for a ticket to take what’s now a comfortable, if often predictable ride: the megalomaniacal villain, the “Bond girls,” the gadgets, the gloebtrotting, the John Berry theme and lava-lamp-run-amuck opening credits sequences. Cary Fukunaga was more likely to be slotted into this second category. The first Bond movie he remembers seeing was A View to Kill. He started to check out during the Pierce Brosnan era (“not that I didn’t see the films — they just didn’t mean the same thing to me”), but has a fondness for Goldeneye because of the video game that it inspired. If pressed to pick a favorite, he cites On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a.k.a. the only George Lazenby entry in the series, which he says he rewatched more than a few times going into No Time to Die.

But Fukunaga has a vivid memory of seeing Casino Royale, the first of Daniel Craig’s five movies as Bond, and feeling like something had shifted. “The reboot they did with him was so smart,” he says. “The world had changed. The series had to change. There are things that Sean Connery’s Bond did that would be absolutely incriminating now. And even before Daniel, there’s that moment when the series brings in Judi Dench (as M), and she calls him a misogynistic relic of the Cold War. That was an acknowledgment by the franchise itself about who this character was, and what it needs to become.

“But Daniel’s Bond movies were, and I feel like are, the ones for my generation,” Fukunaga continues. “What I love about these films is the emotional stuff: There are personal stakes. There are real losses. . . . When I decided I wanted to do something outside the independent-film world, Bond was the character I identified with the most. If you think about all of my films, from Sin Nombre to Beasts [of No Nation], they’re about orphans, outsiders, people who operate on their own wavelength — or are on their own, period. I get that.”

He pauses for a second, then takes the conversational equivalent of a step back. “I’m not an orphan, obviously, and I’m sure my family would appreciate me acknowledging that,” Fukunaga says, laughing.

“What I love about Daniel’s Bond movies is the emotional stuff: There are personal stakes, real losses. When I decided I wanted to do something outside the independent-film world, Bond was the character I identified with the most.”

The part about “outsiders,” however — you could see why Fukunaga might identify strongly with that aspect growing up, an interracial kid moving around Northern California a lot, as well as spending part of his childhood in Mexico when his mother remarried. He’s spoken about his upbringing in past interviews, notably in a 2018 New York Times Magazine profile where he was quoted as saying, “I’m not sure what group I belong to. And that gives me O-negative blood, where you can just donate to everyone. I feel like a third-culture kid. I feel part of nothing but part of everything.” Mention these statements to him now, and he lightly nods. You feel you can see Fukunaga carefully choosing his words before he starts to speak again.

“There’s probably a level of … as I learn more about my own psychology, there’s a sensitivity — and I don’t mean that in terms of a gentleness,” he says. “I mean that in terms of awareness to so many different kinds of people. Those experiences [growing up] and being able to see how I could adapt to any situation, and be whatever I needed to be to get in and get along … I don’t know that I can quantify exactly how that affects what I do now. But I can say that when I dive into worlds that are incredibly different from my own experiences — when I was doing Sin Nombre, when I was doing Beasts of No Nation — the similar aspects of people, no matter who they are, no matter where they’re from, are constantly reaffirmed for me. You do a lot of research to make sure you get the specifics right, to make sure it feels authentic. But the human experience feels universal.

“I just know that being exposed to so many different kinds of cultures, family structures, class levels . . . without turning this into a therapy session, those types of stories definitely make sense to me,” Fukunaga adds. “I see myself in those stories.” And it was recognizing that outsider aspect in a character as embedded into the pop cultural firmament as James Bond, he says, that made the idea of going after this job so enticing to him. For all of his jokes about the guy who did Sin Nombre delivering a moody, arthouse version of a 007 blockbuster (“I will give the people exactly what they want, which is lots of internal monologues of Bond wondering what his place in the universe is … “), the director wanted to make a “proper” Bond movie, with chase scenes and action-fueled set pieces and beautiful women and Daniel Craig doing what Daniel Craig did best during his stint. His intention was always to go big. But when Fukunaga says No Time to Die was also an extremely personal film for him, you 100-percent believe him.

“All of the characters in my films very very real to me,” he says, “and though I didn’t invent him, I’ll simply say that Bond felt very real to me by the end of this.” Except the actual “end of this” would turn out to be more than a bit of a moving target.

It was near the end of that first conversation in London that Fukunaga mentioned, almost randomly, something about a situation regarding China. It was the middle of February 2020, and cases involving a mysterious virus that had shut down the city of Wuhan several months earlier had been popping up in other major cities and other countries. There was talk about what this would do for the Chinese market regarding the film, and folks were monitoring things, and not to worry, everything was still going ahead according to plan. Fukunaga still seemed more than a little concerned by what he was reading and hearing about in the news. A few weeks later, during an hour-long talk on the phone, with the word “pandemic” getting thrown a lot more, he seemed even more apprehensive about the wait-and-see approach.

Still, the movie was almost done. He’d endured a long, hard production, one in which his lead actor was injured and Fukunaga had to suffer the slings and arrows of British tabloid reporting. It was set to come out on April 3rd in the U.K. and April 8th in the U.S. The finish line was near. “We’re so close I can smell the barn,” Fukunaga joked.

When we talk for a third time, at the end of August 2021, No Time to Die will have had the distinction of being the first major film to postpone its release (more than once) due to Covid. “I remember we were a few weeks away from the first press junkets, and asking everyone, ‘Are we really going to do this?’” Fukunaga says. He actually found out that they were “pressing pause” while driving to lock the final cut on the movie. “My first film also came out during a pandemic, right as Mexico was shutting down its cinemas [due to the 2009 swine flu outbreak], so I was already having a very déjà vu experience. Each project leads to the next — so what happens when your movie doesn’t come out and you still have to work?”

So Fukunaga went back to the States, took a few weeks off and hunkered down in upstate New York. A dream project of adapting Stanley’s Kubrick’s never-realized Napoleon project as a limited TV series, something he’d mentioned during that initial London conversation, had been put on hold. He did a re-edit on a movie (a Hollywood Reporter piece identifies the film as the Mark Wahlberg drama Joe Bell, which Fukunaga was a producer on) and began rewriting scripts for a TV series he’d developed about soldiers during the First World War. Feeling stir-crazy, he accepted a job shooting a Perrier ad campaign in Greece over the summer of 2020, which was where he got a call about working on the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg WWII anthology series Masters of the Air, an extension of their Band of Brothers projects that focuses on the American bomber squad known as “the Bloody One Hundred.” “I’m on the island of Milos, trying to figure out what my next year is going to look like and not sure when this [Bond film] is coming out, so I just thought, ‘Ok, it looks like I can do this and see what happens,” he says.

Now that it’s finally set to hit theaters in the U.S. on October 8th, the director is ready to say goodbye to Bond. But having had time to reflect on the exhausting experience of helming a franchise blockbuster, Fukunaga has come away with a new appreciation for the process. “It was a lot like the blind man feeling the elephant,” he says. “I could only understand what was in front of me at the time and then imagine, ‘What does all of this look like?’ It was a learning curve.

“I mean, you could say that I’m coming in to bat cleanup,” he adds, acknowledging that he had four previous films to work off of. “Cleanup is tough, though. Landing a story is the most difficult thing — closing up every thing in a satisfying way. Having to tie up Daniel’s run as Bond was a responsibility, but a challenging one. It’s a challenge I wanted … I think.” He laughs. “But now that I’ve done it, I’d definitely do it again.”

From Rolling Stone US