In ‘Maniac,’ Cary Fukunaga goes on a journey inside the mind

Creator Cary Joji Fukunaga and Emma Stone on the set of the Netflix series "Maniac."
(Michele K. Short / Netflix)

On a morning last October, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone were having an intense conversation about globular clusters.

Neither a brand of granola nor an exciting new indie band, globular clusters are a crucial (if mysterious) element of “Maniac,” an inventive series directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, in which Stone and Hill star as participants in a trippy pharmaceutical trial.

At Silvercup Studios in Queens, the former “Superbad” costars, clad in gray coveralls, were huddled inside a sleeping pod reminiscent of a Japanese capsule hotel. Their characters, Annie and Owen, have had an unexpected reaction to the drug and are trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

“Maybe it’s part of their experiment, to connect people and mess with their heads,” said Hill, in a near-catatonic monotone.


“That’s what I thought too,” replied Stone, her hair long and peroxide blond, as she anxiously nibbled her thumb. “Then I heard about the globular cluster and I started thinking maybe this was something deeper, and cosmic, like some multi-reality brain magic [stuff.]”

Hill paused, then asked: “What’s a globular cluster?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Stone said.


Viewers may feel a similar kind of exhilarating disorientation watching “Maniac,” a limited series debuting Friday on Netflix that defies categorization. Ask Fukunaga, who developed “Maniac” with Patrick Somerville, to sum up the show, and he doesn’t even try. “It’s like, how do you even try to describe a person in one sentence?”

While a logline can’t really do “Maniac” justice, here’s an attempt: Owen and Annie are a pair of emotionally wounded strangers living in an off-kilter version of present-day New York City. They agree to participate in a trial for a drug that promises to do away with pain. “You’ll be born again but not as a baby,” says the drug’s inventor, Dr. James Mantleray (Justin Theroux), a scientist with ethics as questionable as his toupee.

By taking a sequence of pills and hooking themselves up to some high-tech gizmos, Annie and Owen are able to enter a subconscious state to revisit past traumas. But in an unintended wrinkle, they are able to go inside each other’s minds (here’s where the globular cluster comes in) and inhabit new identities in different corners of time and space — a married couple in 1980s Long Island, a pair of con artists at a swanky dinner party in the 1930s.

Each of these psychotropic journeys plays out as a visually and tonally distinct tale, from black comedy to fantasy. With moments of suspense, poignancy and dark humor, the series is a genre shape-shifter. Even the length of the episodes -- around 40 minutes a piece -- puts “Maniac” into a no-man’s land.


“The idea that we could go and make a whole bunch of different stories in one” was part of the appeal for Fukunaga, who’s hopscotched between a Spanish-language thriller (“Sin Nombre”), a literary costume drama (“Jane Eyre”), a pulpy murder mystery (“True Detective”) and an unsparing film about child soldiers (“Beasts of No Nation”).

And in news that broke Thursday, Fukunaga will be taking another creative leap by directing the latest James Bond film, replacing Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”). He will be the first American ever to helm a Bond film.

“I like working in different genres, but not because I’m comfortable doing it,” he said. “Discomfort is the goal.”

The project came together in unusual fashion, more or less reversing the traditional Hollywood order. Before there were any scripts or a writer had even been attached, Fukunaga pitched “Maniac” to Stone over dinner in New York. The idea was to make a very loose adaptation of a Norwegian series of the same name, which follows a patient at a mental hospital and his Walter Mitty-like delusions.


“Discomfort is the goal.”

Director Cary Fukunaga

Despite the bare bones concept, Stone accepted almost instantly. Having only dabbled in television before, she was excited to make something long-form, and had heard from Woody Harrelson about his positive experience on “True Detective.”

“It was just the draw of working with Cary,” she said by phone.

Later that night, they showed up at Hill’s apartment door to ask him to costar. “It was kind of special the way that it happened,” recalled Stone, who went home that night with a stomach bug. (“I was like, I’m not going to take that as a bad omen.”)


Fukunaga soon paired with Somerville, a novelist and TV writer who’d worked on “The Bridge” and “The Leftovers,” to develop the concept, which “twisted and turned into little knots and sort of became its own little form,” Fukunaga said, resulting in an adaptation that ultimately has little to do with the Norwegian original.

“The show is trying to get at this idea that we’re all many different people,” said Somerville.

The job required Stone, fresh off her “La La Land” Oscar win, to play multiple characters in a series that aggressively blurs the line between reality and hallucination, chasing a stolen lemur one day and donning elf ears the next. The experience was “cohesive in its madness,” she said.

“Maniac’s” madness would probably be less cohesive without the steady hand of Fukunaga, who helped ignite the current trend for auteur television by directing all eight episodes of “True Detective” in 2014. Working with “incredible focus and incredible tenacity,” Fukunaga was able to maintain “a level of tonal control for a show that’s very, very hard to get in TV,” said Somerville.


Fukunaga is eager to point out he wasn’t the first filmmaker to direct an entire series — he cites Tom Hooper’s “John Adams” and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Decalogue” as earlier examples. But having endured the painful process of reducing “Jane Eyre” into a two-hour feature, he craves a larger canvas. “I love David Lean’s films, and larger epics just don’t have a place anymore in cinemas,” he said.

Director Cary Fukunaga, photographed here in 2015 while promoting his Netflix film"Beasts of No Nation."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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In reality, “Maniac,” at about 6.5 hours in total, is more like two Lean epics. “There’s nothing you can do to prepare,” he said. “It’s less fair to people that have families than for me. I wasn’t sacrificing anyone else’s lives to be able to throw myself into this other than my own. It’s exhausting, though. It really does feel like by the end, you’ve been sort of under siege.”


On set, Fukunaga hardly seemed like a beleaguered man. Wearing his trademark braids, he tried on an alpaca sweater visiting friends had brought him from Chile. Then he proudly took them on a tour of the lab where the clinical trial is taking place, a retro-futuristic bunker that can only be described as the love child of Stanley Kubrick, a 1980s Radio Shack and a bonsai garden.

He pulled back rubber flaps to reveal the mainframe room, a wall of vintage-looking computers connected by a tangle of wires. “Here’s where we record and watch people’s dreams,” he told them. “It’s supposed to look like ‘Star Trek.’”

Later, Fukunaga explained “Maniac’s” off-kilter aesthetic. “If the question of what is normal is part of the show, then the present tense can’t be normal,” he said, recalling the questions he’d gotten from Netflix about the show’s surreal look: “‘There is enough weird in this, why does this have to be weird too?’ That’s why.”



Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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