The Day Before: Ryan Coogler on Fruitvale Station
On Jan. 1, 2009, two hours after the New Year’s stroke of midnight, a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer fired upon and killed an unarmed Oscar Grant on the platform at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. Grant had been returning home to East Bay from San Francisco with friends when a fight broke out in the subway car. Cops pulled a number of people off the train, and with Grant face down and restrained, an officer named Johannes Mehserle shot him in the back. Later, Mehserle would say he meant to draw his Taser instead of his pistol.
The incident was recorded on video by several of the train’s passengers, and the resulting cell phone footage, uploaded to social networks, went viral. In the days and months following, there were riots, and then mass protests, and then a trial. Mehserle was convicted and served less than two years in prison. Grant went on to become a symbol for police brutality and the inequities dealt young African-American men by the U.S. law enforcement and justice systems. His case is also notable for the role social media played in publicizing the crime and directing the community’s response.
Oakland resident Ryan Coogler, who makes his feature debut with the tremendously assured and emotionally wrenching dramatization of Grant’s story, Fruitvale Station, remembers the shooting well. We spoke to Coogler last summer for our “25 New Faces,” and he said, “I saw the riots and the frustration [following the shooting] and they didn’t have an effect. If I can get two hours of people’s time, I can affect them more than if threw a trash can through a window.”
Not even a year later, the completed Fruitvale Station is having that effect. It devastated audiences at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where Grant’s family joined Coogler on stage for a historic Q&A. The powerful feature went on to win the U.S. Dramatic Competition’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, and then was selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. But what’s most striking about the success Fruitvale Station is having — and the emotional responses audiences are having to it — are the choices Coogler has made in his filmmaking. With authenticity and honesty, Coogler and lead actor Michael B. Jordan portray Grant not as a martyr, but simply as a man. While the film opens with that cell phone video footage of Grant’s killing, it spends the rest of its running time following Grant in the day leading up to his death, showing him managing relationships with his mother (Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer), girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and daughter (Ariana Neal), all the while facing down a tough economy that too often makes crime seem like the sanest option. Coogler’s sensitivity to nuance and characters’ emotional lives, his honest depiction of community and his confident resistance to easy melodrama — these are the traits of an exciting new American filmmaker.
To interview Coogler, we asked writer/director Ava DuVernay, who won the Best Director prize at the previous year’s Sundance Film Festival. It seemed appropriate. A year ago, when we canvassed our film community for suggestions for the “25 New Faces,” she wrote back, “Do you know this guy from Oakland, Ryan Coogler?”
So this is Ava DuVernay interviewing Ryan Coogler, also known as Coog. Who calls you that?
Is it a football thing?
I want to start by commenting on the first time I met you. [Laughs]
The first time I met you is really unlike the first time I met anybody. It was emotional, you know what I mean? I mean, we literally had running starts from across the opposite sides of the room, straight into a bear hug.
Yeah, yeah, because I recognized you from pictures and from interviews and everything. And from hearing about you through people that I know and respect. I was rooting for you from a distance, so seeing you in person, like 3D in the flesh, was great. You know what I mean?
It was a great moment because I felt like we knew each other in a lot of ways. And as I was reflecting on that, I was thinking so many people I talk to feel like they know you, feel close to you. I think there’s something about the film that’s drawing people in in an emotional way. What is the response you’ve been getting from other filmmakers in particular?
From other filmmakers? I mean, from other filmmakers, it’s definitely different from anybody else because it’s just a happiness because they’ve got an idea of what I went through. They’ve got an idea of what it’s like to do a film that’s close to you, and there are a lot of things at stake. I think that’s the reaction from filmmakers. Me and you, you know, we come from similar backgrounds, similar struggles. You’ve got another set of struggles I don’t have with being a woman, which is why I feel like I root for you from afar, you know what I’m saying? Like, before your film was even completed, I was just, I’m rooting for it. I want to see it done. And once it’s done, I want to watch it. And once I watch it, I want to tell other people to connect with it because just us being here, it’s a success story in itself. Like, if somebody went back in time and went to Richmond and found me as a little kid and went back and found you in Compton as a little kid and told us that we would be where we met that day in Park City, we wouldn’t have believed them.
Agreed. Well, folks are very excited for you, and I hope you’re feeling it. So I want to ask you a question that I rarely get asked. Whenever I do an interview, the questions I get asked are about the politics or culture of the film, which is fine. I accept it, and I enjoy talking about being a black filmmaker. But I want to ask you about the process. I think as filmmakers outside of dominant culture we don’t get asked about the craft enough. So tell me about the toughest day in the edit room, when you were like, “I don’t know how we’re going to fix this problem.” Tell me what happened, and how you fixed it, and tell me about your relationship with your editor.
I work with two editors I met in film school. We worked together on a project where it was mandatory that you use two editors. When I first got to film school, I was somebody who cut my own stuff, and I loved it. I loved getting into the Avid, using the keyboard. But USC is a place that’s big on division of labor. They want you to learn how to collaborate. They’re built up with more of an industry mindset, which was great for me because I’m the kind of person who’ll do stuff all myself. So it was cool to go to a place that discouraged that. My two editors happened to be a guy named Michael Shawver, who’s a white dude in his late 20s from Providence, R.I., and Claudia Castello, who’s in her 30s and is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Two people at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum on everything, but they have a real affinity for each other. I’ll never take a project and not try to have them as my editors. We’re really close. We cut the movie in Oakland in this small apartment. Michael was sleeping in the closet; I was sleeping in the living room. They cut out two desks, and I was going back and forth in between them.
Were they each taking sequences or scenes, or were they cross-cutting?
Before [the edit] started, we talked about what I was aiming at from a directorial standpoint, and what kinds of things to look for [in the footage]. Then it started off with them working on their own. I would let them do their thing and then come in. So one would work on the scene, and another one would work on [another] scene. And then they’d cross over. Claudia would jump on some scenes that Mike cut, and Michael would jump on some scenes that Claudia cut. And then they’d talk about stuff together [until] they had their editor’s cut. This was not without collaboration from me. They’re both really hungry collaborators. They’re both filmmakers themselves, so they wanted as much attention as an actor would want; you know what I’m saying? Like, they would want to know why this was shot [the way it was shot], or what’s going on with this dude or that dude. And they got a relationship with each other — they’re kinda like a couple.
I’d come in some day, and they might’ve had an argument, and it’d be tense. But it would all be coming from a place of passion. And they come from super different places. Mike is very cerebral. When you ask why he did something, he explains it in a very cerebral way. But Claudia will tell you, “I made this cut because it just felt right.” So they very much complement each other. The hardest day in the editing room? With me, every day was hard, but I think there were two things I struggled with the most. The first was how to start our movie. I never wanted the [archival news] footage [of the killing] to be anywhere in the movie. I just wanted it to be [Oscar’s story] and that we see [the shooting when it happens]. Early on, Mike and Claudia were like, “Hey, man, we should put the footage in.” Mike was more adamant about it: “We should put the footage in up top. People need to see this.” He was from Rhode Island, where they didn’t know anything about [the Oscar Grant killing]. I was against it in many ways, and it felt right to be against it. But as we went on, I realized coming from the inside out on this was actually the wrong thing to do. I [realized] I didn’t want the footage there because I knew what the footage looked like. I’ve seen it over and over and over again. But stepping back, putting myself in the point of the viewer, who doesn’t know anything about this, it had to go there, you know? So making that decision, to put footage of this guy actually getting shot at the top of the film, was a very tough choice to make.
It was a big decision.
The other thing was the placement of the prison scene. In the script, it was in a different place.
Your other key collaborator, Rachel Morrison, the d.p., came to you through Sundance?
Yeah, Rach came when we needed a d.p., and Sundance had a big list of d.p.s to look at. I needed somebody who could move ridiculously fast and had experience shooting feature films. The production company was very specific. They wanted somebody who was experienced enough to make it happen. Sundance hooked me up with a few d.p.s, but when I saw some of Rachel’s work and met her over Skype, the deal was sealed. She was an incredible collaborator, very much like that blend of Mike and Claudia in one person. And she’s very tough. On your first glance of her, you know she has edge. You know she’s somebody who will bust her butt to get the shot. But as you get to really know her and some of the things she’s been through in her life, she’s just this big ball of emotion on the inside. Once she’s set on fire by a story, there’s just no stopping her. And the best part about it is, she had a lot of background in nonfiction work. She shot a lot of reality TV to pay off her student loans and stuff. For me, I was fired up [about her] because I knew she was somebody who could operate the camera, work intensely when the pressure was on and who knew how to move with the actors. I knew I wanted to use long takes, and she would give the most organic performances when she was operating in those takes because she moves with her heart, you know what I’m saying? She had a great synchronization with the actors and how the actors were feeling — when to give them space, when to get in a little closer. And that enabled me to watch the actors as opposed to the monitor because I had full trust in her.
How would you block your scenes? Would you block them out or was it just, “Get in the space, put it on its feet and shoot as you go”?
I’m very OCD, so the night before [each shoot day] I’d be super-planned out — this person’s going to move here, this person’s going to move there. Nine times out of 10 that’s how I got down with it, with very detailed shot lists. And on the days I didn’t do that it affected me. But once I get into the moment, I like to go with my gut, and use the collaborators that are there. Oftentimes I’ll block something out in my head, and then we get into the space, and the actors will give their input. Michael’s saying, “I’m not feeling this. It’s kinda dead. I think I might move right here.” And I rock with it as long as it’s telling the story. So to answer your question, it’s both for me. I do my homework so I’m prepared and ready. And out of that rigidness, it gives me the freedom to deviate.
As filmmakers tackling real-life subjects, do you think we have the responsibility to satisfy ourselves in the story or to serve an audience?
I think one is easier to do than the other one.
Okay, which one?
I think satisfying yourself is easier to do than satisfying the audience because the audience is a moving target. I mean, we’re talking about “the audience” but who is the audience, you know what I’m saying? It’s all subjective. You should know no one better than you know yourself, and in being honest with yourself in making the movie, I think you can hit your intended target. Through being honest with yourself and doing something that’s close to you, it’ll connect with other people. They’ll connect with the honesty of it. If you look at a filmmaker’s filmography, their best work is the stuff that was closest to them, where they were trying to hit a target in themselves, not an audience target. I think that’s the difference between making art and making commerce.
We’ve heard you in interviews talk about how you approached Oscar’s family, but beyond their feelings of how you treated him, how did the real people feel about their own portrayals in the film? Like, the girlfriend or the daughter?
Tatiana’s too young to watch the movie. Sophina has been back and forth on whether or not she wants to see it because she hasn’t even watched the tape of Oscar[‘s death]. When I first talked to her about the project, she wanted to see my short films, so I showed her my shorts. She told me, “I’ll never watch this movie,” but she’s warming up to it. Last time we talked she said she wants to see the good parts. But the rest of Oscar’s family saw it and they were positive about it, positive about the portrayals.
Were they on set?
No. Oscar’s mom played a role in the film, the teacher at the daycare center when he drops his daughter off. See the car, picking up. You know, it was intense for her — and for Mike [Michael B. Jordan]. But for the most part, they weren’t on set.
I want to talk a little bit about this idea of black innocence — what it takes for us to be seen as innocent, and how it’s not something that’s easily given. You see it now in the Trayvon Martin case, which is similar to Oscar’s. Everything the brother did that really has nothing to do with his murder is being dredged up as evidence of him being less than innocent. How innocent do you have to be, though, when you’re murdered in cold blood?
From Emmett Till to Trayvon, these questions are in the news right now. Did you think of the way that the black man is seen in society, and these larger ideas of innocence and justice, as you were writing? Or did you just focus on the facts at hand?
I focused on the facts, and I focused on what it’s like to be a black male. And how different it is from being somebody else. These are things I think about constantly. You don’t want to be throwing around the word “expert,” but I’ve been a black male in America for my whole life, for 27 years now. And it’s interesting. Like, not so much “innocence,” but the word that I come up with is “deserve.” That’s the word that will come up all the time. Did he deserve this? Did he deserve that? Or he didn’t deserve to die like that. And knowing that our lives are at risk in so many different ways. Like, somebody like Oscar, somebody like me. Every day I walk out the door, and I’m thinking about, you know, when you come up in a place like this, you gotta look at people that look just like you. They’re the ones most likely to hurt you, the people that look just like you. And then the ones that are just as likely to hurt you are the ones that are paid to protect you, you know what I mean? Like, these are things that exist in our realities, you know? Like, these are things that are very, very true about our situation. So all those things are there in my mind organically. So when making the project, it’s not something that I thought about in the big picture, but it’s something that’s always there, and that’s a part of our reality. That’s a part of the fact that you open up the paper, and you see somebody that looks like Oscar dead all the time. And people will flip it over and say, “They deserved that,” just because of how they looked. Like, this person deserved to die like that just because he had done some things in the past. And me asking myself, why is that? Like, why are people okay with it, okay with these people dying like that, being killed like that? So I think that that’s inherently something that is a reality for my life that’s going to work itself into the art, and I’m thinking it’s something that’s a part of this piece. Like, from its inception. You know, if that makes sense.
No, no, it’s good. It’s good. You’ve said you intend to stay here in the Bay Area. Is that decision based on family? Or the feeling that your best work will be done in the Bay Area? What is it about the Bay, and how do you think that staying here will contribute to your work?
Well, it’s home for me. So that’s number one.
A lot of people move away.
That’s true. I’m not that kind of person though. I love it here. It makes me happy. It keeps me honest. I got a huge family, and that’s a big, big part of it. My family keeps me from getting my head up my ass. I lived in L.A. for some time when I was in film school, and I got respect for the place. One of my best friends lives there. The industry that I love has a stronghold there. And the best part about the Bay Area is that L.A. is an hour plane ride away. Whenever I gotta go down there, I can hop in my car. But home definitely feels right. It keeps me in the mental space that I recognize, and the stories I tend to write are oftentimes rooted in the Bay Area. There’s such a rich culture here, and so many stories that could be told about the place that I prefer to stay here and tell them.
Okay. The international piece of it. So your Cannes experience was a big deal. If you look at the history of black American filmmakers that have been at Cannes, whether it is in competition, in the sidebars, in retrospectives, it’s just a handful. No one your age in decades, with a lead that’s your age. I mean, you guys were both young brothers in tuxedos on the Palais just doing your thing. It was amazing to watch. But you were saying something earlier that I wanted to include in this interview about the international reception, particularly through press, and the way that they see the black American experience, and how they’re interfacing with you in press interviews.
I mean, it’s interesting because their point of view on African Americans or what it’s like to be black in America or racism in America is very blunt, you know? It’s oftentimes simple, you know what I mean? Like, comments will come up about race relations in America that will sound to me immediately false. Or immediately like, “Wait, wait, no, no, no, it’s not like that.”
It seems very black and white, right?
Yeah, very black and white. And very negative. And it makes me eternally grateful to be able to talk to them one-on-one, in person and to be able to tell them, actually coming up in America is like this, you know?
To me, first and foremost, my film is about the love that this dude had and the relationships that mattered to him more than anything. And what was encouraging was that that connected with them.
Two more questions. I really feel it’s important that people don’t think that you just came out of nowhere and were born at Sundance.
Because you were supported by a black film festival, and the black film festival circuit is something that’s really important. These are black arts advocates around the country who are supporting filmmakers that never make it to Sundance, that never make it to the international kind of stages we’re finding ourselves on, and these filmmakers’ work is just as valid, you know what I mean? Just as beautiful, even if it’s not authenticated by the laurels.
Right, right, right.
And so talk about your ABFF (American Black Film Festival) experience, and how that first award and that first festival experience set some of the foundation for what you experienced?
I had been to film festivals before and had been competing for certain things before. I made a short that went to Tribeca in the competition and competed. But ABFF was the first time that I ever took a film to a festival and received an award. In another way, ABFF was such a great experience just because everybody was black. It was amazing, you know? I’ve never been anywhere like that. For me, film festivals were a different thing. I’d been at Tribeca and I’d been in Cannes, you know what I’m saying, which is not ABFF.
And this was my first time in Miami, you know, and there was all of this amazing positivity and support coming from people that looked like me or you. It was moving. It was a festival experience I’ll never forget; meeting all those filmmakers I still have relationships with. And yeah, I feel like I had already won just by being there. It was supported by HBO, and it was a phenomenal experience.
Finally, writing — I want to ask you specifically about a couple of scenes. So the dog scene. Most people that I talk to about the film have a very strong idea of what the dog scene is. They either love the dog scene or they hate the dog scene.
Either love or hate it, yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
I’ve talked with lots of people — critics, black, white, homies, whatever.
And I don’t even bring it up. Somehow the dog makes its way into any conversation. Are you finding that?
Oh yeah, yeah, definitely.
What do you think it is about that scene that’s causing so much conversation?
I think it’s a few things. Any time you have a scene with a pet or an animal, it’s going to seem like something that’s on the nose or manipulative. That’s where I think the critical side of it comes from. People think we’re putting it there to make the audience sympathize with the main character. I think the people that like it see it more for the reasons that it’s there.
Why is it there?
It’s funny because with Oscar on that day, he did a lot of stuff with other people, but then there was a gap, a time where he was by himself. And for me, as a filmmaker, I look back on days when things went bad, when things were off, and oftentimes there were things there that were kinda in the air. You know what I mean? That’s the kind of person that I am, you know? And in the Bay, and in a lot of places in urban environments, pit bulls are something that African Americans have a connection with, just like, straight up, flat out, you know what I’m saying? Like, that’s something that we have a connection with, and there’s a lot of similarities between them and us, specifically as black males. Pit bulls are the only dog that in certain places you can’t have because they’re illegal. You see pit bulls in the media, you see them as attacking a little kid. Or a pit bull does this, a pit bull does that; these negative things. Very similar to how you see us in the media. And people who own pit bulls, they’ll tell you they’re like the coolest dogs in the world. It’s hands down the most popular dog in the Bay Area. Like, it’s the dog people love, and they have incredible ties to people. That’s the kind of animal that they are. That’s what they represent. So in many ways, the pit bull represents us. And that scene is something that people connect with for that reason. And for the people that would get that scene? That was why we left it in there.
I think what you just said is right: “people that get it.” Because if you don’t want to give yourself over to the film, that scene is the excuse where you can say, “Ah, I’m being manipulated.” If you are choosing to fall into the humanity of the film, then that scene is very affecting. It’s interesting to be able to boil it down to a scene.
It’s cool to have divisive scenes going, you know?
Researching Oscar I heard stories about him where while he was incarcerated, one of his best friends on the outside was killed. So when he got out, everybody around him had grieved. Like, everybody got over it, but he was in jail. So when he got out, his friends were checking up on him about that, like, “Man, are you cool, man?” “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. Everything is cool. Everything is fine.” And one day one of his friends was looking for him, couldn’t find him. Went to the cemetery on a fluke and found Oscar there crying his eyes out. You know what I’m saying, over his friend. And I realized [he is] the kind of dude that cries alone, you know what I mean, like when nobody else is around. He’s holding it in for when nobody else is around. And in this film, you get to see how everybody else reacts to senseless violence, how it affects them except for the person that [it happens to]. So more than anything, [the scene is] the opportunity to see how he reacts to it.
I want to tell you about a scene that really resonated with me: Oscar, by himself, driving in his car with the music up. He’s calling his mom, talking about picking something up from the grocery store. What struck me is the profile shot of him in the car with the music on and the windows open, and he’s just driving. I don’t know how many times growing up I looked to the right of me in the car and see a brother in the car with the music up, right?
And for me, to see a film in the context of Sundance, where I saw the film, I literally look around me, and it’s filled with white people seeing that same image that I see every day. I know they see it too. But now they have knowledge and context for what that brother’s day was like before that moment. Where you just see some hood in the car with the music up? No. He has a daughter. He has a mother. He has bills. He has worries. He has blood in his veins.
That scene made me cry. And we hadn’t even gotten into the narrative yet. I was that emotionally into it. You deconstructed something we see every day and allowed people a way into it. That’s one of the reasons why I think this film is so important, and that’s a lot of weight on a film. From my knowledge, the film hasn’t really screened widely in the African-American community yet, but are you feeling the weight of the way the community of black folk will take these [scenes] as opposed to the way that the dominant culture will take them?
Yeah, I feel the weight. But I feel comforted in that I was always honest to how I was feeling and how the people that were involved were feeling while we were making it. I feel comfortable giving that to that community because it comes from an honest place in me, and I’m a member of that community. And what you say is very moving about that scene because I feel like the media is how we connect with other facets of humanity. I came up watching American TV. I’ve never been a police officer, but I feel like I know what a cop says when he comes up to [a crime] scene because I’ve seen Law and Order or CSI. And I ask myself, what aspect of us are we exposing to other people? It’s like we’re newspaper headlines, we’re caricatures. Our humanity is squeezed out to the point where people who are not familiar with us don’t see us as human beings. But we see ourselves as human beings from the inside out. So I hope to capture that humanity, the stuff we’re going through every day, from the inside out. And I hope that people on the inside of that connect with it. So yes, I feel the pressure, but I’m good with the pressure, if you know what I mean.