TORONTO (AP) — The early conversations between director Cary Fukunaga and Idris Elba about their child soldier drama "Beasts of No Nation" began with, Elba says, the two discussing "the level of depth that he and I wouldn't mind plunging into."
"There is a version of this film that's a lot more commercial and a lot easier for the audience," Elba said in an interview. "Cary didn't want to do that. I didn't want to do that."
"Beasts of No Nation" is instead a brutal descent into war, as seen from a boy's perspective, and its commercial prospects are essentially already sewn up. The film, in which a West African boy (Abraham Attah, a nonprofessional 15-year-old from Ghana) is orphaned by war and enlisted into a rebel army led by Elba's Commandant, was acquired by Netflix to be its first original feature film.
When "Beasts of No Nation" hits the service Friday, it will play in a limited theatrical run through indie distributor Bleecker Street. But most will see it at home, the first foot forward in Netflix's new initiative. The streaming service's foray into film has already sent shockwaves through Hollywood and drawn deals with the likes of Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler, Leonardo DiCaprio and Judd Apatow.
"Beasts of No Nation" is a boldly uncompromising war drama that kicks off a bold new chapter in movie streaming.
"It's definitely not an easy film to watch," says Elba. "It's got balls."
"Beasts of No Nation" also wasn't an easy film to make. Fukunaga, the 38-year-old filmmaker of the acclaimed first season of "True Detective," the Charlotte Bronte adaptation "Jane Eyre," and his immigrant drama debut "Sin Nombre," had wanted to make a film about child soldiers for more than a decade. It took form when he came across Uzodinma Iweala's 2006 novel of the same name.
Fukunaga insisted the film, made for $6.3 million (and bought by Netflix for $12 million), be shot in West Africa. He settled on Ghana, where no Hollywood movie had been made before.
"It was a tremendously complicated, problematic, unlucky production," says Fukunaga. "I can't believe we got through it."
Fukunaga and others got malaria. His camera operator pulled a hamstring, so Fukunaga filled in. When they were needed, extras would refuse to show up without more money. Military equipment — necessary guns and vehicles — arrived unpredictably. The crew had no weather forecasts, so they didn't know when rain was going to last for 20 minutes or all day. Elba got the flu. Not far away, Ebola was breaking out.
"It was so early then. No one knew how big it was going to get," says Fukunaga of the disease. "By the time we finished shooting, it was a full blown epidemic."
Throughout the seven-week shoot, Elba largely stayed in character as the warlord whose ragtag militia indoctrinates boys into rampaging and killing.
"The extras that hadn't had much experience preferred that I was always the commander," says Elba. "That was definitely really good texture for what ended up on film. It feels in the moment the whole time because it was in the moment, a lot of it."
In one of the most powerful performances of his career, Elba is a commanding presence as the rebel leader. Despite the darkness demanded of the character, the British actor says it left little residue.
"The first thing I did when we wrapped was fly to Ibiza and DJ. Shook him right off," said Elba. "There was definitely an impression left on me, but more from the point of view of being aware of the plight of young boys who are thrown into these makeshift armies, doing these unbelievably violent, atrocious things."
When Netflix came in with an offer for "Beasts of No Nation," Fukunaga struggled with the decision. He believes strongly in the big-screen experience of movies, and hopes people seek the film in theaters. But Fukunaga was won over by the passion of Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who agreed to the simultaneous theatrical release.
With 61 million-plus subscribers, Netflix means a much larger audience: "Our reach will be so far beyond what I've done in the feature world," says Fukunaga.
Elba calls the deal "a sign of the times."
"On a Friday night, I'm probably not going to see a film about child soldiers," he says. "Netflix came in with a very bold effort and bought it. That was very exciting for everybody. It certainly helped the film's profile. The controversy around Netflix has certainly not hurt our film."
Sarandos, who declined to comment for this story, has become a regular fixture on the festival circuit, sometimes dropping hefty acquisition prices for edgy films like "Beasts of No Nation." It suggests Netflix will bankroll films that Hollywood might not.
Fittingly, the first shot of "Beasts of No Nation" looks through the inside of a television set that children have hollowed out.
"It's a through-the-looking-glass," says Fukunaga. "But a through-the-looking-glass to reality."