Uprooted: Digging into "Jane Eyre" director's Bay Area upbringing

In what amounts to her 28th screen adaptation, Jane Eyre hasn't fared too badly with her latest devotee. Oakland-born Cary Fukunaga has been a critical darling ever since "Sin Nombre" debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win international awards.

"Jane Eyre" opened March 11 in New York and Los Angeles, and gradually expanded to other cities, including Fukunaga's native San Francisco Bay Area on March 18. This coy approach may help: The premiere, which unleashed ready praise from many critics, commanded the year's best per-screen box office figures yet.

Still, it seems a peculiar match, the pale, little, 19th-century English heroine with "features so irregular and so marked," and the slender, handsome, Bay-Area-bred Fukunaga, who once had ambitions to be a fighter pilot. "In the last two films, I'm always looking for the inner adolescent girl in me," the 33-year-old director joked at a recent Bay Area press conference.

Mia Wasikowska stars as the title character of the romantic drama of Mia Wasikowska stars as the title character of the romantic drama of The story of Jane Eyre, the defiant orphan who becomes a passionate woman, appealed to Fukunaga from a very young age, but it was the 1944 film version starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles that he knew. He didn't dive into the 500-page tome until after he met with BBC Films, which had the project on its slate. Fukunaga snatched up the title, eager to delve into the coming-of-age journey and her independence.

"One of the things I find great about Jane is how she thinks is not what everyone else does," he explained. "The moral code she lives by, she has discovered for herself and sticks by it."

Finding his inner adolescent girl
It's tempting to dig into Fukunaga's not-so-distant past to see what else draws him to this literary pioneer. After all, Jane's 'biography' couldn't seem more different than his: Jane had little family, and those whom she knew mistreated her, whereas Fukunaga comes from a polyglot environment. His father, born in the U.S. internment camps, is third-generation Japanese-American, while his mother has "mainly Swedish and a little bit of German" in her background. Divorce both fragmented and expanded his core family: His stepmother's roots are Romanian via Argentina, and he grew up with his step-grandparents. His mother remarried, to a Mexican-American.

Then there are the pop-up "cousins," strangers from Colombia and Argentina who would celebrate the holidays at his father's house. "At a very young age, I was surrounded by all these orphans, if you will, taken in for a larger community," Fukunaga recalls in a phone conversation. "I thought it was normal." The story of an orphan striking out on her own was bound to appeal to him as a boy, as was her yearning for family - a common theme in Fukunaga's repertoire.

Michael Fassbender (right) as Mr. Rochester and Mia Wasikowska (left) as Jane in Michael Fassbender (right) as Mr. Rochester and Mia Wasikowska (left) as Jane in Fukunaga formula for Bay Area filmmaking
Then there's that literary bond: His is a family of schoolteachers and librarians, although his itinerant upbringing resembles that of a military or even migrant family. He moved frequently within the Bay Area, living in Montclair, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Vallejo, Benicia, Sebastopol - wherever the next opportunity lay, he says, "where the family needed to go to stay together." Among his enduring memories was watching movies for hours on end with his older brother at the Shattuck Cinemas or United Artists multiplexes in downtown Berkeley, shifting from screen to screen. There, and at home where his family watched old movies like "Jane Eyre," his fascination for film emerged.

Fukunaga also did a bit of time shifting: In his teen years, he partook in Civil War reenactments, and delightedly recalls going to Nashville to be in the Battle of Spring Hill campaign. Reenactments aren't exactly your average after-school activity for Bay Area teens, but his love for history came from his mother, who taught the subject, and his relatives' stories about their different origins. Despite entertaining fighter-pilot dreams in high school (which required advanced math classes), he majored in neocolonial history at U.C. Santa Cruz.

If anything seems clear about the very able Fukunaga and his various ambitions, he could well have accomplished any of them. The lure of filmmaking, though, remained constant. While he never composed scripts at sunset while sitting on Berkeley's Indian Rock (a bit of romantic mythology from a news article that he's still trying to quash), as a kid he did daydream stories during family road trips, be they the shorter drives to Point Reyes, Lake Tahoe or the Sierra Nevadas, or on the annual 2,000-mile pilgrimage to Baja, Mexico.

He won short fiction contests in middle school and harbored great - albeit unrealized - plans at age 10 of making a pirate story, using his mother's humidifier as a fog machine, or doing a Civil War tale of two brothers falling in love with the same nurse. (He never filmed his living history hobby because that would've gone against the reenactment spirit "to keep modernity away," he explains.) He did make a horror film, and took on location-scouting work while attending Santa Cruz. The turning point was meeting sound editor Walter Murch ("The Godfather," "Apocalypse Now"), visiting Saul Zaentz's Berkeley editing studio, and watching the late director Anthony Minghella edit "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) there.

Untold - and unfinanced - stories
Now, as "Jane Eyre" expands to greater success, Fukunaga - a bit fatigued by his immersive style of directing - plans to take some time off. But it can't be for too long, given the number of stories he yearns to tell. One, of many, is inspired by his father's experience in internment camp - specifically, Tulelake in northernmost California, where the "No-Nos" were incarcerated. In 1943, Japanese Americans were sent to 10 internment camps, and quizzed on their loyalty after the fact. The term "No-No" arose from their responses to two questions:

"Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?"

The "no" responses were partly triggered by fears that these were trick questions (saying they'd forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor might imply they had been loyal before), partly from anger over their imprisonment. Fukunaga has wanted to do a story about a boy being born in that life, and doesn't want to leave it. But, even a hot director faces certain Hollywood realities.

"It's extremely hard to get financing for Asian American stories, in general because of a perceived lack of audience," he admits. "But I am interested." Given his current favored status, buoyed by box-office proof in his storytelling instincts, what interests Fukunaga might well be worth watching.