Ryan Coogler is the real deal. There’s a reason why Harvey Weinstein scooped up “Fruitvale Station” (July 12) at Sundance. He saw Oscar potential in it. This rookie Bay Area filmmaker grabbed a story he cared about and made it real. Audiences wept in Sundance and again in Cannes, where it played in Un Certain Regard and was front and center at the The Weinstein Co.’s May 17 awards season preview.
“Fruitvale Station” should have been in the main competition. Typically, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux hesitated to confer Competition status on a filmmaker who has not already been established; the festival rarely gives a Sundance film like “Precious”or “Beasts of the Southern Wild” a competition berth. They often place a lesser follow-up in the competition, like “The Paperboy.” The exception that proves the rule is Steven Soderbergh’s Sundance hit “sex, lies and videotape,” which eventually won the Palme d’Or.
And Weinstein is no slouch when it comes to taking films like “sex lies and videotape,” “Pulp Fiction” or “The Artist” from Cannes to Oscar contention. “Fruitvale Station” treads in the heartstring-tugging, social realist tradition that festivalgoers and Academy voters embrace.
The film recreates the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who at 22
years old was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer at the
titular BART station on New Year’s Day, 2009. Michael B. Jordan (“The
Wire”) and Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) are getting rave reviews; it’s a gut-wrenching tearjerker in the “Precious” tradition. (See new Michael B. Jordan featurette here.)
Coogler started out studying to be a doctor at the Bay Area’s St. Mary’s College on a football scholarship. He took one creative writing class, where his teacher told him he should write screenplays because his writing was so visual. He transferred to Sacramento State on another football scholarship, where he majored in finance, then attended USC grad school in film.
Anne Thompson: You were helped on this project by both Sundance and the San Francisco Film Society?
Ryan Coogler: The Sundance Labs reached out to me as I was writing the script. I had applied the year before with another project. They asked me to apply again, if I had something new. I applied to the screenwriting lab with “Fruitvale,” went up last January. It was a really great experience. They told me to meet with Michele Turnure-Salleo, who heads the great SFFS Filmmaker 360 program in the Bay Area. I wasn’t familiar with it. I’m from the East Bay, but was living in LA since film school at USC.
When did you discover you liked to write?
I used to write in school a lot, I always liked it, and used to write on my own, comic books, come up with alternate story lines to the stuff I watched and read, a lot of books and TV, episodes of “Twilight Zone.” I didn’t think about it. Before playing football, I didn’t fit in anywhere. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, which they spent on our education, to send us to catholic private school in Oakland, mostly black. The other kids had more money than I did. I started school early, I was young. So I’d come back to my hood and read.
Does Oscar’s death in ‘Fruitvale Station’ hit us so hard because he’s standing in for all the other folks who have needlessly lost their lives to racist violence?
I absolutely knew that he stands for that, without the movie, not just for being having his life lost in a violent way. I’m from Oakland, Richmond, and spent a lot of time in LA at film school. Violence is a reality for people like us, such a reality. It’s so unfortunate. I knew that his story would speak to that. I had a need to speak to things we deal with on a day-to-day basis. So few get our stories told by us. I knew I had an inherent responsibility to show things we struggle with every day, things that are good in our lives, the human relationships we have with people we love, with our kids. Because that is not often shown in the media, it often leads to issues where we are not seen as full human beings.
I take it you’re a fan of ‘The Wire’?
Absolutely, everybody is, anybody’s who’s seen “The Wire.” Mike was perfect for the role. In telling the story I knew I wanted to approach someone capable of carrying the film, he’s on-screen 98% of the film, the audience would have to relate to him. I needed the guy to look like Oscar, he’s recognizable to us, to be authentic. Another thing about Oscar, in pictures, it’s hard to find photos of him by himself, he’s always surrounded by people, and his smile was legendary among the people who knew him. Michael had that quality, I could check all those boxes.
One of the coolest things you can do as a filmmaker, is give an opportunity to someone who hasn’t had it before, it’s really fun. Mike was ready to be a lead— it hadn’t happened for him like that yet. It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase what he was capable of.
How did you get close to Oscar’s family?
The first thing, I had a friend who worked with the attorney on the case, who I met at USC before any of this happened. He went to law school, he’s from East Oakland. After the situation happened, I mentioned to him that it would be a good thing to make a movie about Oscar. He graduated and went to the Bay area to work. I got a call, ironically he was working for the attorney in charge of case. He was able to give me access to public records and testimony before I met the family, which lead me to the right information, showed the way.
How did you know you wanted to show the last day of Oscar’s life?
It hit me as soon as I knew I wanted to do the movie, following him on the day. A lot of my favorite films have that structure, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” “The 25th Hour,” “Inside Man,” and even more so, “La Haine” also deals with police brutality. “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days” follows characters on a day. I thought there was lot of inherent irony in the fact it happened on New Year’s Eve, a day when people are thinking about the future, they’re the optimistic, best version of themselves, looking forward to a clean slate. I always knew I wanted to tell it in that format, spend time, let things breathe, let the audience spend time with the character. Ideally the people who watch this film would never know that person, or spend five minutes with him. Now they spend 90 minutes with him some understanding.
What research did you do?
I made every decision from research based on human beings who do exist. There’s some compression, some characters combined. It’s the gist of the day as it was, according to accounts. The night before he and his girlfriend talked about new year’s resolutions, he took her to work, and Tatiana to preschool, he got crabs for his mom, texted messages, spent time alone. I had to talk to friends and family. Sophia played the biggest role in the research for that. Fortunately most of the day was spent with other people.
When did the family see the movie?
His family came to Sundance, where they saw the film for the first time. It was very intense. I was
obviously nervous about how they’d react. Oscar I did not paint as a saint,
his struggles are out front. It was tough for the family to watch. The most important thing is that what happens, they have to relive that, more up close and personal than seeing
the video footage. I was honest with them while I was making it, trying
to make the best decisions possible. It was my first time making a film. I was 26 years old,
I gave it my all, worked really hard. That gave me some comfort, but it’s the most
nervous I’ve ever been.
What did they say?
I talked to them afterwards. We
talked a bit, but I gave them space, it was very intense. They were positive, and said a
meaningful thing to Mike about his performance, that oftentimes it felt like they were
really watching Oscar. I never got the chance to meet him or talk to him, so I spoke
to so many people, his daughter, his best friends, his girl. The same thing for Octavia, the actors’ hard work and passion paid off in that category.
Have you played in San Francisco yet?
The Bay Area feels ownership–it hasn’t played here yet, next month.
How does it feel to be going to Cannes with the Weinstein Co.?
I am humbled
by it, thankful to be able to share it with international folks. I’m excited for our actors, the Weinstein Co. will be getting the film
out, supporting their work, the great performances. I’m excited for Mike and Melonie [Diaz] and Octavia. In 2009 I went
to Cannes with a short film in the Kodak emerging program at the American Pavilion. The school flew me out, I saw “Inglorious Basterds” at its world premiere. My favorite was “A Prophet.”
That makes sense, you have a similar camera aesthetic.
I’m kind of a tech geek. With the camera work I chose to shoot super 16, which has a real tactile feel. I feel it’s as authentic as
possible, I love the way the grain feels. The DP operated the camera and she’s super
talented (at documentary), she’s emotionally aware, gets in there with the actors. She
knew I wanted to use long takes and cut as few times as possible, let
the audience be close to the characters as if they’re there. Oftentimes I let her go for it so I could watch the
actors. That was right for this story, thematically it made sense to get close to
them. The way Oscar’s death was captured, people had cameras and cell phones to
record, but they watched him die from a distance. I wanted to bring things closer in our
What are you doing next?
This is only our second festival after Sundance. I’m putting most of my energy going
toward this, there are some other things I’m working on, I have written things before. Right now I’m working hard on a film set in the world of high school
football in the Bay Area, a subject matter that is close to me. I’m looking at a lot of
other things, always writing.