Interview: Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station
At 22 years old, Oscar Grant was shot and killed at the Fruitvale BART Station by an Oakland police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. The incident was captured on video and the unsettling footage subsequently went viral, making it a national news story. Despite the tragic, upsetting, and confounding nature of the shooting, Oscar’s story failed to make the social impact that it should have. First time director Ryan Coogler’s recreation of Oscar’s last day on earth, Fruitvale Station, aims to spark the discussions about justice, loss, family, and empathy that the original headlines weren’t able to by reminding us that Oscar Grant isn’t merely a symbol—he was a human being, a father, a son, a lover, and a friend to many.
We spoke to Ryan in a tiny roundtable interview the day after the film premiered in Oakland. He talked to us about his initial reaction to the incident, being from the Bay Area, the support the film received from Forrest Whitaker, the amazing reaction the film’s been getting from audiences, and more. Check out the edited transcript below.
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At what point did you realize you wanted to make this movie?
Almost immediately following the incident. I don’t think that’s a rare thing. Artists, we tend to be inspired by things that strike a deep emotion in us. If a photographer sees something that moves him or her, they’ll take a photo. If somebody goes through an intense experience and they happen to be a musician, they’ll write a song about that. My outlet, my art is being a filmmaker. I often see things that move me in different ways and I wonder what it would be like in terms of cinematic structure. I saw what happened immediately after Oscar being killed, and it made me realize that a film could possibly offer insight into why these types of things are tragic, and maybe that insight could trigger a discussion that could help to make these type of things happen less frequently.
This film presents a story that the news can’t. Talk a bit about your decision to follow Oscar on his last day.
It’s not a new idea. It’s a type of cinematic structure that has existed for a long time and one that I found effective, especially in independent films. I can read off a list of films that do that. In American cinema, there’s Do the Right Thing, United 93 by Paul Greengrass. You can look at 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which is a Romanian film. You can look at Elephant by Gus Van Sant, a deconstruction of a school massacre. Something that these films have in common is that even though the time is compressed, you feel like you’re hanging out with the characters and you get to know them in the intimate moments and the meaningless moments. You go on a journey in that day, and days in themselves have a scripted feel to them. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. A person wakes up, goes to bed, and wakes up, hopefully. That structure isn’t a rare thing. I had that idea in mind for the film.
There were so many inherent ironies in [the incident that I found] when I was researching—the fact that it was New Year’s Eve, the most optimistic holiday on the planet. People are so forward-looking. Everybody’s being introspective around that time on how they can make their lives better or how they can make a resolution that’s going to fix things for this new clean slate. I found out that it was his mom’s birthday, which is crazily ironic. His mom was born on New Year’s Eve and his whole day was pretty much spent preparing for one of the most important women in his life. I found out that he had recently been released from prison, so that was added emphasis to the time and the New Year. I found out he spent most of his day with his girl and his daughter. Tracking those movements, it made perfect sense to tell the story in terms of that.
We seldom see any films about the East Bay. Do you plan on exploring more stories based here?
Absolutely. I live in Richmond and I don’t plan to move. I feel extremely inspired by home. I love home. There’s a history of talented filmmakers coming from this place and a history of amazing stories [coming] out of this place. You think about where the Bay Area sits in terms of its contributions to every landscape, be it the political landscape, the technological landscape, music, athletics. It’s a high representation in terms of contribution. In the filmmaking landscape, it’s not as high as other metropolitan communities like New York or Los Angeles. I would love more than anything to continue to tell Bay Area stories.
I think it’s a unique place with a lot of stories. I think it’s the best place in the world. I’m partial to it, but…It’s such a mash-up of cultures meeting here, right on the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t realize how good I had it in the Bay Area until I moved. I know the difference between somebody who’s Cambodian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese. I knew these things before I was in Kindergarten. I knew that every Hispanic person isn’t Mexican. Racial tensions exist here just like anywhere else, but it is different. I came up with white friends and Hispanic friends, all in the same neighborhood. You see multi-ethnic relationships like Oscar and Sophina’s. It’s not a weird thing here. It’s who we are. There’s acceptance of people with different sexual orientations or political views. It’s an interesting culture that deserves documentation, deserves stories to be told about it.
Can you describe the research process? How long did it take, and was it difficult?
In terms of time, it’s tough to say. Things have been moving fast with the film. We shot the film less than a year ago. At the process [of making the film], research was all I had. I had a friend who was a lawyer on a civil case who I had met when I was in film school, and I was helping [him] organize the footage [for the case] because I knew how to edit. I was lining up footage for them to present in court, so I had access to all the footage. I knew I was going to make a film about [Oscar], and when it was time for me to start building the script, I asked for [every court document] they could legally share with me. I had the testimonies of the police officers, the testimonies of Oscar’s friends and family. From there, I could build out the scope of that day in terms of what happened and people’s perspectives on what went down. That’s where it started for me. I built the first script before I had access to his family. Once I got access, his character started to take on a three-dimensional quality.
How did you feel when they announced that you won the audience award at Sundance?
It was a very surreal experience. It [was] not something I expected at all. I was honored…to even be accepted to that incredible festival and be amongst that energy of so many people who love films, especially since we’d been supported by the Sundance institute. When they called the film up for awards…it’s a mind-numbing experience. I was really, really humbled by the fact that people thought enough of everyone’s work to honor it. Films are made by hundreds of people, so I was just happy and proud of all the work everybody else put in.
Talk a bit about how the film’s specificity makes it so universal and relatable to everybody, even people all the way over in France at Cannes.
That was a goal of mine. It was my goal that this film could be shared with people who had never come in contact with someone like Oscar. Often times, people like that become police officers in communities that are full of Oscar Grants! Often times, police officers come from places that are extremely homogenous—predominately white, predominately affluent. They want to be a cop in a city like Oakland, but they never spend five minutes with somebody like Oscar Grant! My goal with this film was to make it so specific about this character so that somebody who would never come in close contact with somebody [like that] could see a bit of themselves in that character. We focused on the human relationships. Everybody knows what it’s like to have a mom. Everybody knows what it’s like to have somebody they love. A lot of people know what it’s like to have a daughter. A lot of people know what it’s like to be 22 years old, trying to figure stuff out. We hope that in making it specific to Bay Area culture that people can see a little bit of their own culture in it. A lot of my favorite films are from places I’ve never been. I love A Separation by Asghar Farhadi, [which takes place in] Tehran. I’ve never been to Tehran! It’s very specific, but at the same time, when that couple is arguing about what’s going to happen to their kids, I’m right there with them. I think, through specificity, through being honest with things that you know, [the story] can become universal. I hope that it works for our film.
What was the casting process like?
It’s an amazing cast. A lot of it was just good fortune—I’m blessed. Forrest Whitaker and Nina Yang greenlit the film, so that added a lot of validity [to the project.] If we wanted to go out to an actor, it helped to have an Oscar winning humanitarian behind the film. I had the support of the Sundance Institute, which was an added plus. I had Michael B. Jordan in mind very early on. I knew I was writing it for him. In my mind, he wasn’t just the best person for the job, but in many ways the only person for the job. I went to him when I felt the script was ready to be shared and he agreed to do it. I met with him because my style of working is [that I get] very close to the people I work with, so I wanted to make sure that we got along. I fell in love with him as soon as I met him. We looked hard for Sophina. We saw a lot of talented Latina actresses. Melonie was somebody who was brought up by the Sundance Institute. We Skyped and talked about the script and made the decision that she was the best person for the role. The San Francisco Film Society came onboard and one of the ways they supported us was through a program called Off the Page where they pay money for the actors to come into the Bay Area to get the script on its feet. They brought Mike and Melonie out to get a feel for the Bay Area, the slang, and how we talk in the East Bay. We needed someone for the mom role, which is a very important role. My agent said, “What about Octavia?” She had just won her Oscar, so I was like, “Aw man, you’re crazy!” We have no money, and she’s not coming out to Oakland to make a movie at my grandma’s house. [We sent her the script] and she ended up signing on.
How was it meeting Oscar’s family for the first time?
His mom is the executive of the state. It was moving meeting her for the first time because I realized how young she was. When I saw pictures of her in news clips, she seemed like she was a little older. I met her while she was young, so that was heartbreaking. I realized how many moms bury their sons in this community, whether it’s police brutality, black on black crime…that was on my mind. Meeting Sophina and Tatiana was…you’re standing in front of this person who’s been through these things you’ve heard about in the news. You realize that it’s real.