Ryan Coogler Talks with Ava DuVernay about Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler photographed by Dove Shore. Ryan Coogler photographed by Dove Shore.

by
in Directors, Filmmaking, Interviews
on Jul 12, 2013

A year ago next week Filmmaker audiences met for the first time writer/director Ryan Coogler, as we featured him in our 2012 “25 New Faces” list. Here’s my profile:

Ryan Coogler remembers the first moment it occurred to him to become a film director. Having grown up in Oakland, Coogler was on a football scholarship to Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., where he had to take a creative writing class. The assignment was to write about a personal experience, and Coogler wrote about the time his father almost bled to death in his arms. He handed it in, and the professor called him into her office. What did Coogler want to do with his life? “Play ball, become a doctor and be a positive influence in my community,” he replied. He remembers her saying, “I think you should become a screenwriter. You can reach more people.” Coogler thought she was crazy. “But I was always thinking about stories, so maybe there was something to it.”

Saint Mary’s cancelled its football program, and the young wide receiver got another scholarship, this time to Sacramento State. There he changed his major to finance while taking every film class he could. By graduation he was “in love with filmmaking.” One of his professors had told him about USC film school. “It was either go there or play wide receiver. I was short, my prospects weren’t the highest, so I jumped off that cliff and drove to L.A.”

Living out of a car for his first semester, Coogler made a series of short films. Fig, the latest, has been on the festival circuit, and it’s a heartbreaking tale of a prostitute trying to leave the life and keep her daughter. It has a shattering conclusion, of which Coogler says, “That film is from deep research. I spent Christmas break on the streets and got a lot of stories. I never want to shy away from the truth.”

Of his several feature scripts, he says Fruitvale, which he developed at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, is the closest to his heart. It’s the true story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed man shot in the back by a cop in the early hours of New Year’s Day in Oakland. “I saw the riots and the frustration [following the shooting], and they didn’t have an effect,” says Coogler. “If I can get two hours of people’s time, I can affect them more than if they threw a trash can through a window.”

Fruitvale is being produced by Significant Productions, Forest Whitaker’s company, and it co-stars Octavia Spencer, right off her Oscar win for The Help. Like all of Coogler’s work so far, it sticks to the truth. “It’s very much a research piece. We got the life rights, and I got to know his family while writing the script.”

As sad as Fruitvale is, Coogler still calls it a “love letter to the Bay Area,” and, indeed, as that Saint Mary’s professor discovered, the young writer/director has the innate ability to draw a world and connect you to the people in it. And when the shoot is over? “I still have my day job as a counselor at juvenile hall in San Francisco. I work with at-risk kids, which is another reason youth-at-risk comes into my work.”

Less than 12 months later, Fruitvale has become Fruitvale Station — Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Dramatic Competition winner, Cannes Film Festival section — and it’s in theaters today. It’s a remarkable success story, and a tribute to a young director who has kept his focus on characters, community and the emotional truth of his filmmaking process. The Summer issue of Filmmaker, which will begin hitting stands next week contains a long interview with Coogler by fellow filmmaker Ava DuVernay, herself the winner of the Sundance Best Director Award the previous year. The complete interview will be in print and in our iPad edition, but here’s an excerpt.

DUVERNAY: As filmmakers tackling real-life subjects, do you think we have the responsibility to satisfy ourselves in the story or to serve an audience?

COOGLER: I think one is easier to do than the other one.

DUVERNAY: Okay, which one?

COOGLER: 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.

DUVERNAY: 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?

COOGLER: 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. 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.

DUVERNAY: Were they on set?

COOGLER: 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.

DUVERNAY: I want to talk a little bit 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?

COOGLER: Right.

DUVERNAY: 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?

COOGLER: 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.