When Cary Fukunaga and I sit down to discuss Maniac, his Netflix limited series starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, he’s put in two years bringing this challenging and wild show to life, and he’s only just finished.
He seems tired. He has every right to be.
“It may be stating the obvious, but most of the time when you’re shooting a television show, you have a director, then that director goes away. Then while they’re shooting an episode, the next director is scouting the next episode, then they leap frog each other,” Justin Theroux says.
“He did ten episodes entirely himself,” Emma Stone says.
“This is basically doing an eight hour movie in a very compressed time frame on a tight-ish budget. It’s a Herculean effort, that can’t be overstated enough,” says Theroux.
Maniac was a labor of love, something that Fukunaga poured himself into, pushing himself harder than he needed to, to create something unlike anything he’s made before.
It tells the story of a Japanese company that has invented three pills that aim to replace therapy altogether, led by a team of Japanese and American scientists. The pill is in the final stages of trials, trial that have yet to be successful. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone play two of its final test subjects.
Fukunaga is the son of Anthony Shuzo Fukunaga, a third-gen Japanese-American, who was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Fukunaga has always been proud of his heritage but, until Maniac, had yet to incorporate that heritage into his work.
“What was it about Japan that you wanted to explore with this material?” I ask.
“As a Japanese American, There’s not many roles for Japanese-Americans, or Asians in general. I suddenly wanted to have a bunch of casting opportunities out there. That’s all,” Fukunaga says.
Maniac’s Japanese-born cast is headlined by Sonoya Mizuno, recent star of Annihilation, La La Land and Crazy Rich Asians, who plays Dr. Azumi Fujita, who invented the world’s most powerful supercomputer, and Rome Kanda, who appeared in Steven Soderberg’s The Informant, as Dr. Muramoto, who co-developed the new drug.
Maniac’s setting is bound to raise questions, as it is set in an alternate reality that incorporates some elements of the past that have long faded, and some elements of a future that has yet to appear.
“I know this is technically sci-fi, but I still don’t really know what the genre of this,” says Theroux.
“It’s retro-future. It is! It’s retro-future!” says Emma Stone.
“On a thematic level, we didn’t want to let the baseline reality be exactly what our reality is. It’s very much a reflection of our reality now—just technologically, we chose to make a departure somewhere in the 1980s. Within our production design department, our ethos was, if the microchip had never been invented, how would these things work? We got some really creative minds together to brainstorm the technologies we could use, and how it would look,” says Fukunaga.
Why give the show such a complicated setting? Fukunaga will do anything he can to avoid one part of our current reality showing up in his work.
“I hate cell phones in movies and phones. It’s the most boring thing to watch. If I ever have to do a show or a movie with cell phones, I’m going to have to think of a clever way to keep it to a minimum. It’s such a big part of our world today, but it’s just not very cinematic,” Fukunaga says.
In a recent interview with GQ, Fukunaga revealed that he and co-creator Patrick Somerville threw out a lot of work and started over.
“It’s so funny what gets created as a soundbite. It’s just like anything—when you’re writing, discussing, and collaborating, there are entire episodes that were not shot, that we got excited about, but were impossible budget-wise,” says Fukunaga.
“Or we didn’t agree. We disagreed all the time about what we would do but it was a good collaboration because we just kept going forward until we found the idea, the genre, the world that felt right,” says Somerville.
“We know how we wanted to end. We knew where were starting from and we knew where we were ending, the tricky part was getting there,” says Fukunaga.
Why did they stop rewriting?
“We just ran out of time,” says Fukunaga.
“It got to a point where our AD would not allow us to have new ideas anymore,” says Somerville.
“There’s an entire team waiting for us,” says Fukunaga.
“Would you tell me what happened in the episodes that you didn’t film?”
“No,” says Fukunaga. “You’ll have to visit the alternate reality where that happened, in the Einstein sense.”
Fukunaga may have devoted two years of his life to Maniac, but that isn’t to say that he didn’t find some distractions along the way. When I ask him which episode was most difficult to shoot, he immediately mentions episode five—which they had to film for four nights straight—because he had made a new friend.
“I was adopting a dog. The place we shot had a shelter, so when we first scouted it, there were all these dogs there, and I asked if I could see some of their dogs,” Fukunaga says.
“What kind of dog? What’s its name?”
“It’s a little pitbull named Eli,” says Fukunaga.
“Didn’t Justin [Theroux] just adopt a pitbull as well?”
“Yeah. Totally copied me!” says Fukunaga.