Taking the trip How director Cary Fukunaga brought the bonkers premise of new Netflix show Maniac back down to earth
THE ELEMENTS OF Netflix’s upcoming ten-parter Maniac are bizarre. TV’S hottest director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts Of No Nation), Oscar winners Emma Stone and Sally Field, and Oscar nominee Jonah Hill have come together to remake a Norwegian sitcom about a character diving into neurosis. It’s a trippy premise, but Fukunaga wanted to make sure it felt grounded and specific, both narratively and thematically.
“It really comes down to: is there such a thing as normal? says Fukunaga. “And can you fix yourself?”
The Norwegian original toggled between the day-to-day existence of a patient in an asylum and living inside his fantasies. Fukunaga, who decided not to watch the original show, was loathe to follow the same route. Although the film reunites Stone and Hill after Superbad, don’t expect an all-out comedy. “There’s humour involved,” says Fukunaga, “but the aim is not to have you in stitches.” He also wanted there to be a concrete raison d’être for the delusions while respecting the sensitivities of modern mental health.
“Emma and I decided that making a comedy about a mental hospital wouldn’t be very funny in the United States. Given our treatment of mental health specifically, there is nothing to laugh at there. That was dangerous territory, so we switched to making it about a pharmaceutical drug trial which then allowed a pill-based way into having delusions.”
Set in New York, Maniac sees two self-isolating people take the trial. “Jonah’s character comes from a wealthy family but he is the runt,” says Fukunaga. “He’s been pooped on his whole life. Emma’s character carries a lot of self-loathing. She is self-harming.” Fukunaga also injected an internal logic into the trial itself. Well-versed in the world of psychoanalysis after adapting The Alienist, the director defined the trial as “therapy in a pill” where the tablets allow characters to confront their own defence mechanisms so the “psychedelics can go into your brain and potentially rewire yourself”.
Fukunaga has not been afraid to put his own hang-ups on the screen, admitting the show “has some early Woody Allen-esque neuroses — two people who are over-thinking a lot”. But Fukunaga doesn’t want laughs to subvert Maniac’s compassionate all-encompassing approach to treating mental illness.
“It’s about a way you can cure through community, connection and accepting who you are,” he says. It might make Maniac a pill everyone needs to swallow.
MANIAC SEASON 1 IS ON NETFLIX FROM 21 SEPTEMBER
Empire spoke to Cary Fukunaga on 3 July, while he took a break from Maniac’s final sound mix. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are reunited playing the role of inmates in a psychiatric institution.
Top: Stone on set with director Cary Fukunaga. Above: Emma is put on trial.