Writer and director Cary Fukunaga talks about his debut feature film, “Sin Nombre,” which won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at this year’s Sundance. The film opens Friday. Photo by Conner Ross.

Writer and director Cary Fukunaga talks about his debut feature film, “Sin Nombre,” which won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at this year’s Sundance. The film opens Friday. Photo by Conner Ross.

Sitting in his socks, on an ottoman in a Ritz Carlton suite in downtown San Francisco, Cary Fukunaga speaks modestly about his film “Sin Nombre.” 

“My first film, my first script,” said the 31-year-old UC Santa Cruz alumnus. “It is what it is in its own little imperfect way. I mean, I could have kept working on it forever, but you just got to stop at some point.”

Fukunga’s efforts won him the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award for the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Excellence in Cinematography Award. 

After graduating from UCSC in 1999 with a B.A. in history, Fukunaga went on to attend film school at New York University, where he would perfect his dual crafts of writing and directing. For his second-year project, Fukunaga focused on the real-life plight of a group of Mexican immigrants who were deserted in a locked truck and suffocated after illegally crossing the border. The short film, “Victoria Para Chino,” won more than two dozen international awards, as well as a Student Academy Award at Sundance in 2005.

“‘Victoria’ floored me,” said Rosalee Cabrera, director of the Chicano Latino Resource Center. “The way he communicates the reality of people is very harsh. You can’t watch it and not have your humanity jarred.” 

Following the success of the short, Fukunaga was asked to submit a script to the Sundance Lab. This intense workshop program led him to create “Sin Nombre,” his NYU thesis and first feature film.

“Sin Nombre,” written in Spanish, tells the story of Sayra, a Honduran girl who migrates with her uncle and father to Tapachula, Mexico. There she meets Casper, a Tapachulan gang member. Seeking a better life in the United States, the two join other immigrants as they migrate through Mexico atop trains.

To research for the film, Fukunaga traveled alongside immigrants on trains through Mexico, an experience he says he couldn’t have written or directed the film without.

“Some bandits attacked our train the first night,” Fukunaga said. “I found out much later that they killed a Guatemalan immigrant on the train and threw him off.”

Fukunaga and his cast and crew spent a total of four weeks in Mexico City and over two weeks on the road heading south to the Guatemalan border to shoot the movie. 

“It was really cool for the towns to have a film shoot come there where real immigrants were traveling, and for the crew to see that what we were doing was so close to reality,” Fukunaga said. “People confusing cast and crew for real immigrants was a funny, curious event.” 

While the film focuses on immigration, Fukunga insists that “Sin Nombre” was not made with a political agenda in mind. Instead, he said that his intent was to create empathy for both the good and bad characters in the story while sharing the experience of a journey with viewers.

“It is a human story about immigration,” said Maurice Peel, the advertising and publicity manager at the Nickelodeon Theater. “It didn’t feel like it had an imposed political message.” 

Despite his reservations about attaching any political commentary to the film, Fukunaga did voice support for the UC system’s practice of allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition under Assembly Bill 540. 

“I used to mentor kids in L.A. and there were so many issues with them not being able to get any kind of financial aid to go to school, even though they lived their entire lives in L.A.,” Fukunaga said. “They definitely weren’t Mexican anymore, and then suddenly they found they couldn’t get financial aid to go to school. Where else can they go?” 

Fukunga said his next film will probably depart from the socially conscious nature. He spoke of a desire to do something in an entirely different genre — even sci-fi.

He also hinted at the possibility of doing a musical with Zachary Condon of Beirut, describing the story as a “two guys in love with one girl — classic love triangle.” Additionally, he is currently writing an “unrequited love story” that was inspired by his life in the College Eight dorms during his first year at UCSC. 

Fukunaga, whose mother is Swedish and father is Japanese, hopes he will be able to make movies around the world. 

“I’m not opposed to doing another Spanish-language film,” said Fukunaga, whose third language is Spanish — French, which he studied at UCSC and while studying in France his third year, is his second. “I just don’t even think about the borders really. I mean, if I see a cool story taking place somewhere, I do my best to learn the language.” 


“Sin Nombre” opens at the Nickelodeon Theater this Friday.