“The algorithm’s argument is gonna win”: Cary Fukunaga explains how data call the shots at Netflix

Time to welcome our new computer overlords.
Time to welcome our new computer overlords.
Image: Netflix
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Beasts of No Nation and True Detective director Cary Fukunaga has a reputation for being an “uncompromising” talent. He’s hit roadblocks on a number of recent projects, including the popular It remake, which he left after clashing with the studio.

So it will come to the surprise of many that Fukunaga admits to being the ultimate collaborator with his new creative partner: data. In an interview with GQ, Fukunaga said that he deferred important decisions on his new Netflix series Maniac to the streaming service’s mysterious algorithm, which takes in the details of viewers’ behavior when watching content on an extremely granular level.

“The algorithm’s argument is gonna win at the end of the day,” he told GQ.

Based loosely on a Norwegian series of the same name, Maniac stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as participants in a bizarre pharmaceutical drug trial. Earlier this month, Netflix dropped a trailer for the show, which intrigued viewers with disorienting sequences and the distinct visual style that has earned Fukunaga a legion of admirers.

But how much of Maniac will truly bear the marks of Fukunaga’s filmmaking, and how much of it will appear as though it was written by a computer? Will the acclaimed director’s next work resemble the Netflix film Bright, which was essentially a bespoke creation of the streamer’s fan-friendly algorithm and completely bombed with critics?

Fukunaga acknowledges that he used the information Netflix provided to change at least one episode:

“There was one episode we wrote that was just layer upon layer peeled back, and then reversed again. Which was a lot of fun to write and think of executing, but, like, halfway through the season, we’re just losing a bunch of people on that kind of binging momentum. That’s probably not a good move, you know? So it’s a decision that was made 100 percent based on audience participation.”

Reading a director say that a story decision was made “100 percent based on audience participation” may rightly terrify cinephiles—or any film or TV fan who believes in the sanctity of the creative process.

For his part, Fukunaga describes Netflix’s data as more like a helpful set of notes from a producer than a new robot overlord. ”Because Netflix is a data company, they know exactly how their viewers watch things,” Fukunaga revealed. “So they can look at something you’re writing and say, We know based on our data that if you do this, we will lose this many viewers. So it’s a different kind of note-giving.”

If there’s anyone who knows how difficult it can be to get a project off the ground, it’s Fukunaga. And if bowing to the Netflix algorithm was the compromise he had to make in order to get a project as strange and audacious as Maniac in front of an audience at all, it may be worthwhile.

“It was an amazing exercise,” Fukunaga said. “It will be even more amazing to see people’s reaction to the show. I have no doubt the algorithm will be right.”