On November 1, the 2018 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate eight filmmakers and actors for their achievement in creative independence. We’re showcasing their work with new interviews this week.
At just 32, Ryan Coogler has already turned out an extraordinary trilogy of missing-father-and-son films: “Fruitvale Station,” which played Un Certain Regard after debuting at Sundance, “Rocky” sequel “Creed,” and historic blockbuster “Black Panther,” which has crashed Hollywood barriers that should have been shattered decades ago.
Coogler’s original coming-of-age concept for “Black Panther” was a lion learning what it means to be king, a man who carried an idealized version of his father and country in his head. When that is destroyed, he has to pick up the pieces and create something new. Coogler had never seen an African man like T’Challa, untouched by colonization, either in a movie or in history.
There’s no question “Black Panther” changed the rules of what works in Hollywood. It earned top reviews and like “Wonder Woman,” it was the first of its kind, with huge pent-up demand across the globe. With $1.3 billion in worldwide box office, Marvel’s “Black Panther” is poised to ride the swells of worldwide acclaim to become a Best Picture Oscar contender, as Disney pushes this Marvel superhero success beyond the technical achievements.
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It all started with Coogler’s first meeting in Marvel chief Kevin Feige’s office. “T’Challa could be their version of James Bond, like a globetrotting guy who gets into these global conflicts,” Coogler said “I thought that was cool. Kevin wanted T’Challa to be a guy anyone could point to and aspire to be like.”
He checked out all sorts of Bond movies (“Casino Royale” is his favorite), but his take on the only Marvel comics about characters of color was more nourished by Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” gangster trilogy — another film about a man from a secret country who steps into a position of power when his father dies, and tries to find his place. Other movies that influenced “Black Panther” included Oscar-nominees “Timbuktu” and “Embrace of the Serpent,” as well as “Planet Earth.”
A $200-million Marvel comic-book movie — even if the character Black Panther had already been established with Chadwick Boseman in “Captain America: Civil War” — was a leap in scale from “Creed,” even with the extra security of having the Marvel brain trust behind him.
“There is pressure that comes with that security,” said Coogler. “All creatives get into our own heads; we tend to be nervous, think of all the ways it can go wrong before the ways it can go right. There were pressures being with a successful company. You don’t want to be the one who doesn’t work when you come on board.”
“Black Panther” marked the first movie at that budget with a majority cast of African descent, with a level of release screens and a costly marketing machine behind it.
But the writer-director pushed his fears aside and took the daunting arc of production day by day. “I’d get more comfortable as I go along,” he said. First he jumped into creating a 400-page first draft with co-writer Joe Robert Cole (“American Crime Story”). “There were no limits, which is probably not the best thing,” Coogler said. “It was too much, too many characters, too much going on. It was also helpful to be given the freedom to start that big and crazy and have to cut away at it.”
In order to find a personal way into the ambitious saga that raises many questions about the role and responsibility of a rich nation in the world, as well as the ultimate consequences of neglecting and abandoning the less fortunate among us, Coogler placed African-American Killmonger in his hometown Oakland as T’Challa’s central antagonist. “For me to tell the story, and for me to be in my wheelhouse, it has to be coming from a place that’s personal to me,” he said. “What does it mean to be African? And how does that connect to me being African-American?”
At that point, Coogler had not yet visited that continent. “I knew that this film, if I did it right, would take me there,” he said. “I wanted to explore the film thematically through that protagonist/antagonist conflict.” Marvel was open to that. Making this movie at a high level required that everyone on board was “focused on asking the proper questions,” said Coogler, who was “doing things I had never done before. I was still learning up to the time I let the film go.”
He brought in some key creatives who had also never signed onto a Marvel movie before, among them Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth Carter (“Amistad,” “Malcolm X”) and his own team, cinematographer Rachel Morrison (the first woman nominated for an Oscar, for “Mudbound”), production designer Hannah Beachler, editor Michael Shawver, and his old USC classmate composer Ludwig Göransson, who likes to lay down music and character themes early, during filming.
Coogler’s suggestions were all better than the ones Marvel had in mind, said Kevin Feige at a Producer’s Guild panel. “They were open, they weren’t rigid,” said Coogler, “and took the meeting with Hannah and loved what she presented.” Beachler blew everyone away, including Coogler, whose expectations were already high, with her deeply researched presentation. She hadn’t been to Africa either. They both took their first trips to the continent and shared their emotional responses to putting their feet on African soil. “She’s a crazy, smart, detailed person,” he said. “We worked hand in hand in developing [Wakanda].”
Coogler saw the mythology of Wakanda, a hidden, high-tech African kingdom, as a way to recapture the excitement he felt when he first visited South Africa. He was struck by how much of his Oakland family’s rituals had their roots in African culture. The goal was to bring to life a place that was more than a fantasy, that “has to feel of this world,” said Coogler, “a place you could go visit and also something we can aspire to.”
Part of the vision was a gender equality that is usually missing in Hollywood films. Coogler swears that Feige and the Marvel team led by Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso and Nate Moore all encouraged the powerful warrior women played by Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira. “There was no insecurity or resistance there,” Coogler said. “If anything, they asked, ‘Are we going far enough?’ We were interested in how do we show a society advanced in every way; it doesn’t just mean they have really cool vehicles, but how do men and women relate to each other in this society?”
On the first day of shooting, in which little boy Killmonger plays basketball in Atlanta (subbing for Oakland), Coogler found out that Martin Luther King was buried in the church next door, and was introduced to his daughter. As he went through one daunting day after another, he tried to stay in touch with the child who delighted in reading the comics, who would never believe he would grow up to direct the movie.
When Feige saw the final cut, he turned to Coogler and said, “That’s the best movie we’ve ever made.” At the junket he told the director, “You’ve made us a better studio.”
After the movie opened and broke global box office records, Coogler gave a master class at Cannes, and has been sought after to do everything the studios could throw at him. Plan B is developing “Wrong Answer” with Ta-Nehisi Coates attached to write. Coogler is executive producer of “Creed II” (November 21) with his go-to star Michael B. Jordan, and is trying to keep his head on straight. He’s ready to get started on “Black Panther 2,” well aware of the high expectations he will have to meet.
“Any industry can be confusing,” he said. “I bounce things off the people who love me and make the movies work and go from there.”