Writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga on the set of Sin Nombre.

You might not be able to tell from the photo above, but writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga has massive cojones. To research Sin Nombre, his thrilling debut film about a Honduran teenager (Paulina Gaitan) and a Mexican gang member (Edgar Flores) whose paths cross on a dangerous train voyage to the U.S., the 31-year-old from California's East Bay risked his life.

The easy part was speaking to gang members in prison for murder. The hard part was riding unsecured atop trains with Central American immigrants in Mexico, braving gang attacks, immigration police and grave injury from falls, to interview them and better understand their experience. Complex spoke to the talented newcomer about his auspicious debut, which has a limited release this Friday, and what went into making it so authentic. Watch the trailer for the outstanding film, then check out what Fukunaga has to say...


Complex: One of the ways you researched for this film was to speak to gang members. It can't be easy as an outsider to gain access, so how did you hook that up?

CF: Every little piece of contact was from academic research; we might as well have been writing a thesis for the project. [We started] off with professors from universities and two sociology and anthropology professors who made contacts for us within the state security police who then allowed us official access to prisons. There we met social workers and then prisoners who were gang members, some active and some inactive. After about a year and a half or so of making multiple trips to visit gang members, with Gabriel Nuncio being a part of that research, I was sort of able to gain the confidence of contacts on the street.

Complex: What surprised you most about those conversations you had?

CF: What was surprising was how much I liked them. I created a sort of friendship with some of them, and despite knowing the heinous [crimes] they'd committed. Some of them were so young and they'd done so many violent things, and yet they still just wanted to have a normal life. In a lot of ways they were like child soldiers.

Complex: Once you were introduced, how difficult was it to gain their trust?

CF: One of the main things that's tricky is you're not supposed to talk about the gang. It's very secretive. Inactive members would speak about it, but even they would be a little worried about what they'd say. But to a certain degree, the inactive members had a green light on their heads anyway, which meant that they were already in trouble, so what the fuck did it matter if they told me more. Most of them had met a journalist before, had a journalist come in one time, get the story and then write a sensational piece about how powerful the gang is, so I think a lot of the trust was built in repeat visits and simple gift giving, just being thoughtful. I got a pair of Adidas for one guy who was inactive. He didn't ask for shoes but his were all fucked up, the soles were ripping off, so I just bought him a new pair of shoes and he was genuinely touched. He was like a little kid; he was nineteen and had killed like nine people, but he was just so happy to have those shoes. Little things like that were so important to them, and repeat visits. It wasn't like I was promising I would be their friend for life. I was just saying my goal was to tell a story as accurately as possible and put as much of a human face as possible on it too. Yes, they made the choice and did some horrible things'I'm not making excuses for that. There are violent things in the film, and people might walk away thinking that a gang is just a violent sort of mad thing, but I am still trying to put a human face to all of it and hopefully create some sort of empathy for people who are in this life.

Complex: As far as protecting these guys, did you have to take any precautions?

CF: I could use their fake names if I wanted to special thank them, but they didn't want me to use their real names or put their pictures up online, especially the active ones. But everyone who I met with now is inactive. Even the guy who was a leader in the prison decided to get out of it, so he's in the same boat as everyone else in a way.

Complex: Did they know the specifics of your story? If so, did they object to you showing a member of La Mara Salvatrucha betraying the gang?

CF: Gabriel Nuncio, who did a translation of the script, went down one month before we started shooting to do a sort of final dialogue check. One guy who was a sort of leader in the prison got to read every scene and, within a gang context, was like, "No, no, no. He can't do that. That's really bad." And we just kept saying, "Don't worry, there will be consequences for this." They know once you veer from the path, what your life can be like.

Complex: What did you learn about the concept of family from the gang members?

CF: For the gang, it's definitely about looking out for your brothers and destroying your enemies. When one of them kills one of your guys, all you want to do is just destroy the other people, and that's where that cycle comes from. They look out for each other, they help each other out, they share everything. There are strict rules and sometimes the rules go against what you want in life. That's why some people get sick of the gang'not just the violence but also many of the sacrifices that are a part of that life. But at the same time there's not really other options; it's not like you don't like your job and you find another job. That's your life, that's your neighborhood, that's all you know, and where do you go from there?

Complex: You also rode atop trains with immigrants headed to the U.S. What did family mean to them?

CF: For the immigrants, especially [those who were] leaving their families, it was a sacrifice and weighed heavy on their heart. That's why some of them risk going back to their families and have to do that journey again because they miss their family so much. I met immigrants on the trip who had gone home, risking their lives to see their mom or his dad or his wife and kids. Many don't go back because it's just too scary, especially for women, to make that trip. Within the context of the journey itself, there's also this like road family that's created and there are aspects of the family where everyone looks out for each other and it's in everyone's best interest to help each other out, to have power in numbers and to have that solidarity on the trip.

Complex: Did you ever feel conflicted about taking inspiration from these people's real-life struggles to survive and recreating them for a film, for entertainment?

CF: That was something I was sensitive to from the beginning of the research process and why I spent so much time doing the journeys myself and trying to experience as much as possible myself. I'm not an activist; I'm a filmmaker first and there's no way I can continue to be a lawyer, to be a sort of activist for this particular subject, while developing my film career right now. I will do what I can, but more than anything it's a story, and so while traveling with immigrants I was very honest about it being a film, not a book, not journalism, not a documentary.

Complex: What was it like for you when the time came for you to say goodbye to the people you'd bonded with on the trains, knowing their experience as illegal immigrants in the U.S. would be equally as difficult?

CF: That was the hardest part without a doubt. I felt very weighed down with emotions when I had to leave the people I was traveling with because I could continue on with my life, I could go on and I could take an airplane back to New York City, and here they were facing God knows what over the next few weeks, months, however long it took them to get wherever they were trying to get to, and whatever sacrifices they had to make to get there. The hardest part was leaving them behind.

Complex: The film focuses on the voyage, but did you speak to many immigrants about what they'd experienced after crossing into the States?

CF: Oh yeah. Definitely. One of the more heartbreaking stories was from a guy who was on his way back [to the States]. He had been in a detention center for six months before finally being sent back, and he had kids and a wife in the United States. One of the things he was most afraid of, that weighed on him the most on this trip, was what if one day his two daughters are in school and his wife gets caught. There would be no one to pick up his girls after school, they wouldn't know what happened to their mother and their father is already gone. So, the motivating factor for him to get back as soon as possible was that [his wife] could get deported at any time, and that while he wasn't there he couldn't do his job as a father for his two daughters, who were completely dependent upon him.

Complex: That's extremely heavy. Do you think you'll revisit these people and stories like that in future films?

CF: I might be done with the immigrant gang story for right now, but I'm not done exploring the family. There could have been hundreds and hundreds of [stories like that]. There's so much I wanted to put in the movie and it just couldn't fit.