Interview: Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler

In check. Ryan Coogler. Expect big things.

In check. Ryan Coogler. Expect big things.

If you were following the USA news back in 2009 you’ll be aware of how the story of Oscar Grant ends. But do you know how it started? First-time director Ryan Coogler, and Oakland California Bay Area resident, used his blossoming talents to woo producer Forest Whitaker and tell the story of Oscar from the other side of the police tape in Fruitvale Station. The result? A stark, emotional movie which sees Michael B. Jordan triumph in his first lead, and had film festival critics weeping into their Moleskine notepads at this year’s Sundance. Me being one of them.

Ryan Coogler made a bashful swagger to the Sundance Director’s breakfast morning like the runt of a litter of puppies. Cute, but with bite, and an unapologetic Cali drawl. He may be young (27), and this may be his first feature-length film, but with the leverage of Fruitvale Station under his collar you just know, and hope, this guy is going to grow to hound the movie-making industry.

Warning, some spoilers…

 Listen to the interview here on Soundcloud

We were just talking to about how much we Fruitvale Station. I went home, put it on my Facebook and told everyone ‘you need to see this film’. I cried, I never cry. So thank you for making this film.

I can’t take credit for this! That story moved a lot of people so for us, we were trying to make the best film that we could and just make the best representation of the story. We were trying our best to get out of the way of it…if you get what I mean by that.

“There would be days where we weren’t sure where our money was coming from next…”

How much was fact and how much was fiction?

It was really important to capture as much of the reality as we could as it affected our neighbourhood so much. We did a lot of research – talking with his [Oscar’s] family, and we were kinda fortunate in a way that on his last day, he spent time with a lot of people. He was always around people, he had enjoyed a really domestic day and only spent a little amount of time alone and a lot of what he did he spoke to Sophina [his girlfriend] about when he got home.

In terms of the parts that were fictionalised? One was the scene with the dog. That was inspired by something that happened in Oscar’s life and one thing that happened to my brother when I was writing the script.

…What about the fish counter scene?

That was real! Oscar was a guy that if you spoke to five different people they would give you five different stories, and that was one of the stories that came up after talking to his grandmother. He was known for being really flirtatious, specifically at his job at the fish counter. When we filmed at Sundance there was a lady from Hayward, where Oscar is from, and she said that Oscar would hit on her and try to get her number from the other side of the counter, so that scene was very much based on reality.

ryan at sundance

It’s the way he tells ’em: Ryan Coogler at Sundance London

How did Forest Whitaker get involved?

Forest was pretty much responsible for the project. When I was at film school I went to UFC, where he also went, and the lady that ran the production company – Nina Yang, went to UFC as well. They were looking for filmmakers to form relationships with, specifically young filmmakers and my name came up from my film profession. I went over to talk to them and I showed them some of my short films and some of the things I had written and eventually she said – ‘ok so what do you wanna do when you’re done with school?’l I went in and spoke to Forest about some projects that I was thinking about doing and this was at the top of the list for me.

You must be really thrilled by the journey this film has taken. There’s been an extraordinary stream of interest from festivals. How has that been for you?

It’s been amazing. I’m just amazed the film got made, this film wasn’t even supposed to get made. We shot in my grandmother’s house, we were on the streets and running around in Oakland and I was just hoping that the film would get completed. There would be days where we weren’t sure where our money was coming from next. Once we knew the film was gonna get done we could focus on what film festivals we could go to. We had our fingers crossed for Sundance and then the next thing was – hey, do you think this film will get distribution? Then we got that, so it was kinda like we were taking it one step at a time.

Our main goal was to make sure as many people saw the film as possible. Whether they didn’t like the film or they loved it, we wanted to get people thinking about what happened to this young man and hoping that people would think about those issues regardless of what neighbourhood they’re from or what country, it would be helpful just to tell the story. Now we’ve had that opportunity so many times over – it’s amazing. Fruitvale Station

You said in Cannes that there were loads of murals and graffiti art at the station where the incident happened. Has that increased since the film’s release or appeared in other parts of the country?

I’m not sure. I’m from the Bay Area and I see that stuff with my own two eyes and what happened to Oscar really affected everybody in the Bay. The Bay Area community is one that’s really outspoken and tends to be really artistic and you see allot of graffiti culture and a lot of people protesting. When the Occupy Movement was happening, people that occupied the Oakland square named it after Oscar and this was before the film so his legacy was pretty big already.

Do you think this story could happen anywhere?

Oh it happens everywhere. I’ve travelled a lot of places and there’s a lot of similar stories. It was kinda alarming how similar the stories were. Oscars’s story was a very human story. Oscar was just a kid, he was only 22 years-old and he was at that point where you gotta make decisions about what kinda person you gonna be. He was also in a community that had some contentious relationships with authority – and that’s everywhere.

There are opportunities that are suppressed everywhere and that’s a natural thing that happens in society. There’s always people on the other side of the fence that are having trouble for whatever reason to get to the other side and it comes out in various ways.

Did you have a lot of support for the film or was there anyone that didn’t want the film to get made?

Ah the community was very supportive. It’s never like 100% – there were people who didn’t want to see the film get made for different reasons. Some thought it was a horrible thing to make a film about this, in terms of not wanting to bring the past up. Y’know we had riots and protests, and it was a very tough time when that happened but for the most part people were extremely supportive. Even his friends who were down there on location were really open to that. They thought it could help the healing process

It was very well received…but why hasn’t it got any awards? It feels like you were robbed of an Oscar…

Ahhh….errm… (stumbles humbly), for me personally? The biggest reward possible is the film playing and showing and the fact that people want to see it and it getting distribution.

“I think the biggest reward is in the work and the fact that I was able to make and share this project. Being able to work again ought to be the biggest gift that anyone can get – to be able to work on another movie…”

…We were saying that is deserves an Oscar, the performances are brilliant the direction is great…

I’m the wrong person to ask about that! I see the film and see everything that’s wrong with it. I’m just surprised I’m even here and that it got into festivals. As far as Oscars are concerned I think that all the films that were nominated last year were deserving, I guess it’s just one of those things where there’s only so many spots and people people voting, who’s to say what is deserving and what isn’t? I think the biggest reward is in the work and the fact that I was able to make and share this project. Being able to work again ought to be the biggest gift that anyone can get – to be able to work on another movie…

So what are you working on next?

I’m working on a boxing movie right now. I just turned a script in for it. It’s kinda a crazy, crazy weird movie. You know the Rocky series? It’s almost like fan fiction in that universe. It’s about Apollo Creed’s family – a story about his family in the current day. If everything works out it’ll be Michael B. Jordan playing Apollo Creed’s grandson, and you kinda look at this young man’s grandson who’s grown up in this family where there’s a patriarchy. It’s like the guy’s been dead before he was even born, but his family are still trying to come to terms with what happened to him.


Shooting films (not hoops): Ryan Coogler and star Michael B Jordan.

This is good news. We need more of Michael B. Jordan. How did you cast him? He’s only had a few small roles in the past.

He was in a show called The Wire, and Chronicle and another called Friday Night Lights, he was alway really good in his supporting roles. I realised in film school that I was always rooting for the underdog. I always wanted to tell stories about the person who the camera didn’t follow. Out of curiosity I was always like ‘hey what’s going on with that dude over there?’ Mike was always that guy that my eyes went to.

…It’s great to see him in a lead and finally get a chance to carry a film 

I always thought that there was no doubt with him. Even in his supporting roles I was like ‘man, the camera should stay on that dude’. I was excited to have the opportunity to work with him in his first lead role but he was more than ready for it. That guy’s got professional shoulders that you can rest things on – his shoulders are like, this big (gestures a a wide berth with his palms) you can land anything on those shoulders and he’ll work with them. He’s a real team player.

Do you think he’ll be a really big star?

I think the world would be robbed if he wasn’t. He got a lot of talent. He’s one of those guys like David Beckham – you give him the ball and he’ll go out there for like 20 years and we’ll have fun watching him and we’ll all be better for it . He’s got that skill level, he’s like a Michael Jordan. Wow..(as if only just realising he shares the name with a certain famed basketball player) that’s weird.

What’s your biggest take away from this film?

Oh wow so many things so many things….um to trust my gut, and to also do my best to maintain perspective. Often times I make a film I get a feeling in my gut and I ignore it and often it comes back to get you later. In terms of perspective – that was my first time on set, of a feature film, and things can get a little crazy. At times you find yourself in the forest full of trees and what I try and do is maintain perspective. Like – why it this scene here, why is this shot important and I hope to carry that on the next project…what ever that is.

Is it hard to trust your gut when you’re still a bit of a novice?

Yeah, but it’s like when I come to events like this and talk to filmmakers that have been doing this for a very long time, they say it gets harder. They say they trusted their gut more when they were younger and just starting out. They didn’t know anything yet and they were second guessing themselves, but yeah it’s something to think about. They say it never goes away. Almost very filmmaker I spoke to said that. Most recently Spike Jonz. I was talking to him about the writing process and he was saying it never got easier, in fact it gets more difficult.

Fruitvale Station is out 6th June 2014. Watch it.

Read the full 5* review here





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