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Fruitvale Station D.P. Rachel Morrison

Rachel Morrison on the set of Fruitvale Station.

“She was an incredible collaborator,” says Ryan Coogler of his Fruitvale Station d.p., Rachel Morrison, in Ava DuVernay’s cover story on the writer/director this issue. “She’s very tough,” he continues. “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.”

Selected after a recommendation by the Sundance Institute and a face-to-face meeting, Morrison is being hailed for the honest, unfussy style she has brought to Fruitvale Station, a style that invites the audience in with a sense of immediacy while enabling with its fluidity the film’s authentic performances. Her diverse background includes much work shooting reality, TV series (including seasons of MTV’s The Hills) and indie features (Sound of My Voice, Any Day Now). In her interview below, Morrison discusses meeting Coogler, adapting to Super 16mm and balancing realism with emotion through her lighting choices.

Filmmaker: Could you start by talking about how you met Ryan Coogler and how you began working together?

Morrison: I was introduced to Ryan by Ilyse Mckimmie from the Sundance Institute. I didn’t actually realize that I was even on her radar except that I had met with her about doing the [Sundance] Labs a couple of years ago. I think in that meeting I had talked about the type of movies I wanted to make — how I wanted to make movies that I could really sink my teeth into, and that I cared about. She must have filed that away into the recesses of her memory, so when Ryan was meeting with DPs I was at least among the names she suggested. Ryan probably met with every DP on both coasts that had ever shot anything that he was remotely interested in. We connected on a human level instantaneously and profoundly. I don’t think I have ever had an interview like that where I was so determined by the end of it that this was someone I had to work with, and I think he felt the same way. We saw the film very similarly.

Filmmaker: How so?

Morrison: We both felt the importance of naturalism and making the audience either feel like they were living Oscar’s life, or a complete fly on the wall, part of his inner circle. We wanted to be subjective with the storytelling and make the whole movie very much from Oscar’s point of view. I think that took precedence over everything. We looked for that fine line between what one can do for dramatic effect, but not overstep.

Filmmaker: How do you achieve that technically? Could you talk about your choice of camera, lights, lenses?

Morrison: We knew we wanted to shoot film. And we knew we wanted the film to look like film. The direction that film has been going in is tighter grain, and we wanted the opposite of that — we wanted something where the grain was organic, there was movement to it and it resonated in a tactile way. 35mm isn’t very grainy any more and so I think Ryan’s gut instinct was to shoot on Super-16. I was actually a little bit nervous about giving up the shallow depth of field as a tool in my arsenal. That was our first conversation. It was a question of how to get grain but still have the shallow depth of field. Ultimately we decided that the visible grain trumped the depth of field. It was also a benefit to have a camera that was very small and easy to maneuver with. We knew that we wanted it to be largely hand-held, to have an exploratory approach with a single camera, close to the actors, moving through space as they do.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot with?

Morrison: Arri [An Tran and Lynn Gustafson] donated an Arri 416 camera body with the Zeiss Ultra 16 lenses, which are a little bit sharper at the wide-open end. I knew that we were going to have a lot of low-level lighting, so maintaining sharpness was essential.

Filmmaker: Did you shoot in a chronological order?

Morrison: Not at all. We were very much at the mercy of locations. It is nothing shy of a miracle that we were granted access to a lot of the real spaces that Oscar inhabited on that day. We filmed in the grocery store where he worked, on real BART trains and the BART platform where he was shot. The locations were the driving force behind scheduling. BART was the last to sign on — it was obviously very controversial. We ended up having to shoot all of the BART footage in the middle of the night, after they closed. So, from 1:15AM – 5:15 AM on three different days we got four hours on the platform. As you can imagine, that was not a lot of time. It amounts to one shooting day spread out over three nights. We ended up rehearsing all of the actions in a parking lot taped out to the specifications of the platform and ran the shots almost like you would football plays. Ryan comes from football, so we had laminates and a game plan in order to get something insane, like 20 shots in four hours.

Filmmaker: Even without you telling me the time limitations that scene seems like the most challenging to shoot. Partly because it was such an emotional scene and partly because you were in a limited space with so many people moving around.

Morrison: Also, it was really important to Ryan to be as faithful as we could to what actually happened, which was assembled from the depositions and the cell phone footage. Ryan has seen a lot more material than is actually available to the public. But there are still these little elements of the unknown. So it’s about piecing everything together. Authenticity was at the core of everything we were setting out to do.

Filmmaker: Do you feel like the people at the locations allowed you to shoot there because they wanted to be part of supporting the telling of Oscar’s story?

Morrison: I think so. It’s amazing how many people hadn’t heard about it on a national level, but it shook the whole Bay Area. I think our film was a chance for people to find some resolution and a message in the wake of tragedy.

Filmmaker: Had you been aware of the story when it happened?

Morrison: Surprisingly, it didn’t permeate the news on a larger level the way that the Trayvon Martin case has. I knew of Oscar Grant loosely, but I didn’t know the details. I hadn’t seen the YouTube footage, and I think maybe one of the reason I felt so compelled to shoot the film is I felt like I’m part of the larger problem if I don’t even know what’s going down and I’m not taking some initiative to do something about it.

Filmmaker: You just mentioned the Trayvon Martin case, and while the cases are different, there are obvious parallels. What kind of relevance do you think that adds to the film’s release? To what extent are you interested in the timeliness of it?

Morrison: It’s crazy – I actually haven’t had a conversation with Ryan about this, and I’m curious what he thinks. On the one hand the whole point of the movie is to humanize Oscar Grant in a complex way and show a very personal and individual story, but ultimately it’s about humanity on a grander scale so that it has that much more impact in representing a broader issue…

Filmmaker: I feel like it can do both.

Morrison: That’s true. The goal is to do both. It’s very relevant.There is so much more to every stranger than what you might see from the outside.

Filmmaker: Was casting Octavia Spencer helpful in getting the film made?

Morrison: I’m sure. Octavia and Michael [B. Jordan] were both on before I was. It’s hard enough to get an indie made but nearly impossible without recognizable names. Fruitvale was everything I could possibly want or ask for in an independent film. It was a group of strangers making a movie about what it means to understand one another on a deeper level. By the end, we had become family. Also, it was an incredibly diverse crew. I’m a female DP, Ryan’s a black director, we had a 69-year-old costume designer, Aggie Guerard Rodgers… When you looked at the crew of Fruitvale Station, it didn’t look like your usual 90 percent white male crew.

Filmmaker: What are your hopes for the film?

Morrison: I think, more than your average movie, I want this to be part of a shared experience. I’ve been urging all my friends to see it in a theater. Don’t watch it at home. It really is about a chance to connect with people on a universal level. To be in the audience and share a moment with the person crying next to you. It’s truly special.

Filmmaker: What has the reaction been from Oscar’s family?

Morrison: It took Ryan a long time to convince them to let him try and do some justice to Oscar’s story. Ryan was a first-time feature filmmaker, and he wanted to assure them that they would be in good hands and that he wasn’t trying to exploit them. Ryan wanted to be faithful to a man who was complex and flawed. He had to have conversations with Oscar’s mom about the fact that he wasn’t going to hide that Oscar had dealt drugs or had cheated on his girlfriend. It must have been difficult for Wanda to allow the world to see her son that way. I think it showed a huge amount of faith and trust and instinct. I know for Ryan, more than anything else, all he cared about was that the family felt proud that they had agreed to do this. They were all there at the Sundance screening and Oscar’s Uncle, who is featured in the film, stood up and thanked Ryan for making the movie. Oscar’s mom said how much it was like watching her own son on screen. We’ve had incredible support from Oscar’s family. It hasn’t been easy for them. I know Sofina, his girlfriend, still hasn’t watched the movie, and I don’t know if Oscar’s daughter will ever watch it, and maybe they shouldn’t, but to allow the story to be told and impact people is what they felt Oscar would have wanted for his legacy.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that the film resonated personally for you. Could you talk about that?

Morrison: I think having experienced great loss changes a person. For me, personal loss has altered the way that I look at the world. It’s changed my sense of priorities, and I think that was one of the ways in which Ryan and I connected. There is no greater stake than losing someone that you love. That was something that I could bring to the table emotionally and translate into a visual language. That was one of ways in which I think Ryan and I balanced each other really well. For Ryan authenticity was at the core, and for me, at times, it was important to dramatize the stakes. For instance, in actuality the BART platform is lit by “warm white” florescent overhead bulbs, which lends a warm feeling to film instead of a cool impending doom. There is an emotional difference between these color palettes, and it was important to me that we cooled the bulbs down. Ryan didn’t want anyone who had ever ridden the BART to feel like it wasn’t their train, so we landed on a neutral color balance that still resonated for each of us. Another example is the scene where Octavia’s character sees her dead son for the first time. Originally I lit it very dramatically. When Ryan saw it, he was like, “This is a morgue, it should be bright. Turn on the lights.” I said, “It’s also a mother losing her son.” And he said, “But the banality of this experience makes it that much more heartbreaking.” Ultimately, I took dramatic liberty by lighting Octavia from the direction of her dead son, but managed banality and authenticity by turning on all the lights behind her. I’d like to think that we always arrived at the perfect balance.

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