Ryan Coogler can’t stop moving. Fresh off the redeye, his watch still on West Coast time, he jiggles and stammers his way through an interview in a fancy Philadelphia hotel suite, as if he still finds the whole process a bit unnerving. If the reaction to Fruitvale Station, an impressionistic true story about the last day in the life of a shooting victim, is any indication, he may have to get used to the attention.
The 26-year-old filmmaker reduced Sundance audiences to tears with his first feature, then simply called Fruitvale, and took home the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, as well as a distribution deal with the Weinstein Company. But unlike most Sundance discoveries, Coogler isn’t a lifelong movie obsessive. Until college, his passion was football; he was a good enough wide receiver to win successive scholarships to Saint Mary’s College (which canceled its program) and then Sacramento State. But by the time he transferred, Coogler had started thinking hard about the power of telling stories on film, so when he graduated, he headed south to USC and enrolled in film school. He lived out of his car for a time and used that experience to fuel the short film “Fig,” about a prostitute trying to care for her daughter.
Right after Coogler’s first semester at USC, on New Year’s Eve 2008, an unarmed man named Oscar Grant was shot to death by a transit police officer in Oakland, not far from where Grant grew up. Grant, like Coogler, was black; the officer who shot him point-blank while Grant was face-down on a BART platform, was white. The incident touched off immediate protests and accusations of racism, but two years later, the officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to a two-year term—hardly fit punishment in the eyes of those who saw it as a cold-blooded murder.
The outrage and protests over Grant’s death seemed to have little impact. So with Fruitvale Station, which stars Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) as Grant and Octavia Spencer as his mother, Coogler opted for a less controversial approach. Focusing attention away from Grant’s death and turning it toward his life, the movie chronicles his last 24 hours on earth (plus a brief flashback), a largely uneventful span where the mundanity underlines the tragedy of Grant’s senseless death.
The Dissolve: Unfortunately, Oscar Grant’s death isn’t a unique incident. What about this particular case connected with you?
Ryan Coogler: It was my proximity to it. Being from the Bay Area, obviously it affected me. I was at a closer range to it. Also, age-wise, he and I were born in the same year, so I had a really close perspective on what it’s like to be that age, that ethnicity, from that area, and to have moved in and out of all those similar places.
The Dissolve: You mean physically the same places, the same neighborhoods?
Coogler: Physically, yeah. So it was proximity on all levels—proximity in terms of age, demographic, location. All those things. A lot of similarities there. Just being from the Bay Area, I think it affected all of us deeply.
The Dissolve: Have you been in similar situations with the police?
Coogler: I’ve been detained by the police before, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been detained in several situations. I don’t work in law enforcement myself; I work in juvenile hall. But I’ve been in situations where something will happen. I remember one time my fiancée and I were just hanging out in the car talking, and we got stopped, pulled out of the car, had to sit on the concrete because there was a robbery close by. They said I fit the description, so me and her were sitting out there for hours until somebody came by and said that it wasn’t us.
The Dissolve: When did you decide to make a movie about Oscar Grant? You didn’t grow up wanting to be a filmmaker.
Coogler: No, I didn’t. But I realized I wanted to be one before this happened. It happened after my first year of grad school. When I was finishing up undergrad in Sacramento, finishing up playing football, I took filmmaking classes and realized that was what I really liked to do. I got accepted to USC, so I chose to stop trying to play ball and go down to Los Angeles and learn how to do it. I really fell in love with it while I was down there.
When I was home on Christmas break, after the fall 2008 semester, is when [Oscar Grant’s death] happened. So what made me want to make a film about it was that pretty much right after it happened, I saw the impact that it had on everybody, not just me. It was like a gut-punch to us in the Bay Area, because we look at ourselves as being a liberal place, a progressive place, and a place where race relations are somewhat better than in the entire country. I thought, “I’ve seen situations happen like this before, and they keep happening—and not just with young, unarmed African-American males getting killed by the police, but also by each other.” I thought maybe this could offer some insight into people’s desensitization to seeing that stuff in articles in the paper. When you see “Young Black Male Killed,” “Young Black Male Jailed For Life,” you get desensitized to it, especially if you don’t know people like that. I thought this film could maybe give some insight into these situations, and show this is a human issue.
The Dissolve: When you say you get desensitized to it, does that hold for African-Americans as well?
Coogler: I think it’s true for anybody. Bringing it to that issue of proximity again, the farther you are from a situation, the less it affects you generally, and the less insight you have into it. I think it’s possible for African-Americans to get desensitized, to a certain extent, but we still have a proximity to it. We still know people like that. We still get affected by these people dying. They’re members of our community. But what about people who are not members of our community? What about people in areas that are homogenous, areas that are all white, and relatively affluent? That’s often the areas police officers come from. What about those areas that never come into physical contact with somebody like Oscar? Their only contact with a character like Oscar is through the media, through turning on the news or reading the newspaper. What kind of images do they have of these types of people? How do they feel when these types of people are slain or committing crimes? That’s the real issue. That’s when you can really get desensitized.
The Dissolve: This isn’t precisely an issue in the film, but the loss of the community-policing model, where the cops actually know people in the neighborhood who aren’t criminals, really fosters that dynamic.
Coogler: That’s a rough loss. That’s something I think is so necessary. Law enforcement is such a necessary thing, but I think that oftentimes, what’s lost sight of is what it’s there for, and who it’s there to protect, who it’s there to serve.
The Dissolve: You shot on Super 16 and you use a lot of handheld camera, which gives the movie a certain immediacy. Yet you chose to work with experienced actors like Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer. How did those two decisions work with each other?
Coogler: I went to film school, but this is my first time making a film, per se. I made a bunch of shorts, and I have a great admiration for all of the technical aspects of filmmaking. That’s one of the great things about USC, was that we got to learn all those things firsthand. It wasn’t like, “Directors stand over here in the corner.” You collaborate with a cinematographer, you collaborate with all these people; I got to get my hands dirty in every way. I admire filmmakers who let the type of story dictate the cinematic style, dictate the mise-en-scène, dictate how they approach, how they capture, how they work. In this film, I looked at my goal, and—coming back again to proximity—my goal was to bring people close to this person, this family, these relationships, and I wanted a sense of immediacy. I wanted a lack of any kind of barriers. There are only a few scenes in the film on a tripod. I didn’t want it to be obvious, but the one scene that’s on sticks is the prison scene, because Oscar is stagnant in that place. Using real actors, I think, added to that, because they’re so talented. Professional actors don’t feel like they’re acting, so I thought it would be great to see these well-established actors in that style of being captured.
As for shooting on Super 16, Oscar was killed on camera. He was killed on these digital [cell-phone] cameras with not a lot of pixels, so you couldn’t really see; you could just see that it was this guy and these officers. You see what they do to him, you see the manner in which he dies. It was tough in the trial, because they couldn’t really tell. They were looking for intent on these officers’ faces, they were looking for things Oscar was doing, but it was this low-quality footage. So I wanted what we captured the film on to be opposite. I wanted to capture it on film. Something organic, as opposed to digital.
The Dissolve: Let’s talk about staging the shooting. You have Kevin Durand, recognizable from Lost, playing an aggressive, hostile police officer who immediately treats every black man on the platform like a suspect. If all you know is that a cop shot Oscar Grant, you’re expecting him to be the one who pulls the trigger.
Coogler: It’s based on the real situation. If you watch the footage, you can see how that situation went down. The police officer in the real-life situation—we used different names in the film—he was a leader, a higher-ranked officer in that situation.
The Dissolve: He set the tone for that encounter. The officer who did shoot Grant claimed in court that he was reaching for his Taser and didn’t realize he’d fired a gun. Is that a possibility in your movie?
Coogler: I think it’s there for the audience to watch. For the film, most importantly, it’s about Oscar’s story and the impact on his family. That was stuff I didn’t want the film to be about at all. I’ve had people look at it and say, “You were too easy on the cops.” I’ve had people look at it and say, “You were too hard on the cops.” I wanted to leave room for people to look at it and see what they wanted to see, because they’re going to see that anyway. For me, Fruitvale Station is about this man and his relationships, and how what happened to him on that day impacted those things.
The Dissolve: You worked with the Grant family to get some sense of who Oscar was and what he did on his last day, but there are parts of the movie where no one else is around, like the scene where he sees a dog get hit and killed by a car as a BART train passes in the background, which foreshadows his own death. Where did moments like that come from?
Coogler: When I first wrote the script, all I had was the court testimony. This was before I had access to the family. I had the publicly available stuff. So that’s what the script started with. Oscar coincidently spent a lot of time around his family that day, so most of his time was accounted for. There was a section of time when he was by himself, and a lot of what built that dog scene up came from talking to [Grant’s girlfriend] Sophina, the person he was closest to. Sophina said Oscar was very introspective after he picked her up from work—like really, unusually introspective. He was bubbly and usually a people-pleaser, trying to keep everybody happy, and I think Mike did a good job capturing that. Usually with all those people, there’s something incomplete in themselves. They don’t like to be alone, and that day he was. And when he picked her up, he was a little off. Also, she would talk about how he wanted to get them into a new place with a backyard. He liked dogs, and where they were at at their apartment, they couldn’t have one.
While I was writing the script, my little brother Noah Coogler, who did some music on the film—he’s very similar to Oscar in his personality type, the kind of person that’s always bubbly and into keeping people happy—he came home one day and was introspective. And I asked what happened, and he told me he was at a gas station and he’d seen a pit bull get hit by a car, and he pulled it out of the street, and it died right in front of him. So I thought about that moment working for this film. While Oscar was in prison, one of his friends got shot and killed, and he wasn’t there. It was somebody he felt he could protect while he was outside. When he got out, all of his friends were saying, “Hey, man, how are you doing?” and he was happy and stuff; he didn’t let anybody know anything was bothering him. One day they were looking for him and couldn’t find him, and one of his friends ran to the graveyard where everybody’s buried, and Oscar was there crying his eyes out. What that tells me is he was somebody who cried alone. He would hold his emotions in at all times, and sometimes you have moments. Suddenly one thing can push you over the edge a little bit.
The Dissolve: What about the white woman he interacts with in the supermarket, who then ends up on the subway? Is that your invention, or real life?
Coogler: It’s two real people who got combined. There was a story about Oscar that his grandma tells about him putting her on the phone with this random woman in the grocery store, showing her how to cook. And then there was a woman who had seen Oscar earlier that day who then saw the fight happen, and she immediately turned in her footage to the hospital, one of the things they used most intimately in the case.
The Dissolve: It’s a nice moment in the supermarket, too, because that woman is clearly nervous, and then his friend behind the deli counter is like, “Yeah, he works here.”
Coogler: Yeah. [Laughs.] Tension.
The Dissolve: Which is so much what the movie is about, feeling that hesitation and then getting past it, or not. There’s a great illustration of that right before the fight breaks out, when Oscar and his friends are stuck on the BART as midnight on New Year’s approaches, and it becomes clear that no one on that train is going to be where they wanted to be at 12. Someone pulls out a stereo, and all of sudden this packed train car becomes a party, full of people who mostly have never met.
Coogler: That was actually how it went down. He and his friends were all trying to get to see the fireworks, and there was no way they were going to make it, so everybody did the countdown on the train, dancing and playing music on the ride over. There’s a lot of Bay Area culture in that. I realize as I travel that we’ve got a real optimistic nature about us. When his friends told me that’s what happened on the train ride over, it made a lot of sense. That’s kind of how we get down. We’re a very lemons-into-lemonade place. And on New Year’s Eve—I feel like it’s the most optimistic holiday on the planet. It’s the one everybody understands, no matter what culture you are, no matter what religion. Everybody understands starting fresh and a new slate, and ringing it in with a good time.
The Dissolve: Fruitvale Station moved audiences at Sundance and was picked up by the Weinstein Company, which is mainly an arthouse distributor. Given that arthouses historically have trouble attracting a black audience, was there any concern on your part about how the film would be distributed, and how it would reach the audience you wanted it to reach?
Coogler: It’s a collaborative process. They’re passionate about the film. They’re passionate about getting it out. And they’re a business as well. The more people that see the film, the better for them. So they definitely plan on attacking any and all markets. For me and the filmmakers involved initially, we made this film for everybody. It’s a Bay Area story, so it’s a very multicultural cast. The main character is black, but his family is multicultural. His girlfriend is Latina. You’re going to see all that representation just by the nature of the Bay Area. The woman who turned the footage in was white. He has an Asian-American friend he deals with in the film. I hoped for everybody to be able to see it, and I hope the relationships we focus on are relationships anybody can see their own in, no matter where they’re from.