Having debuted to great acclaim at Sundance and already moved into theaters with a successful limited run before expanding today, Fruitvale Station and the team behind it are at no loss of enthusiastic enodorsements. So with that said, know I’m not simply pull-quote whoring when I say Fruitvale Station is a magnificent directorial debut, and undoubtedly one of the best films of the year (you’ll see similar sentiments in my review posting soon).
Detailing the 24 hours before the real-life shooting death of Oscar Grant on New Years 2009, the film is a textured window into the life of a man before he became yet another reference point in an ongoing dialogue about race and violence in this country. The film begins with actual footage of the incident before moving into a story of a guy trying to get his shit together, struggling with the pressures of life and a very deep-seated anger. How the film shakes out as an accurate representation of events is up for debate, but I can confidently characterize it as a beautiful contribution to a difficult dialogue.
I was lucky enough to be a part of a roundtable chat with director Ryan Coogler, a 27-year-old USC graduate who made a name for himself making powerful shorts about subjects like street prostitution, the victims of which he worked with first-hand in his time as a Juvenile Hall counselor in San Francisco. He ultimately wrote this script about the BART incident, received producing help from Forrest Whittaker, casted Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle), and went on to make a fantastic film filled with great performances. Now, many festival awards and a TWC acquisition later, the film is widening out into a few dozen markets today.
Give our chat a read-through and make plans to see Fruitvale Station as soon as possible. With so much empty spectacle and franchise retreads in theaters right now, you’ll find the film a more powerful theatrical experience than we’ve experienced much in 2013.
CHUD: Just to start off, tell me a bit about your experience with the film post-Sundance as you’ve gathered so much acclaim and made such a strong impact…
Mr. Coogler: I mean it’s all been I mean incredibly overwhelming, you know, and every step of the process has been new for me and a surprise. You know, for me, it was a film that we made with a very small – you know, very modest – budget under very short time constraints. We had a lot of incredibly talented people involved. You know, it is my first time making a featured film. And for us it was a great victory and just like each day is a process; was always a great achievement in my eyes just getting the film done. And learning that we would be premiering at Sundance, that was like: “Wow, the movie is going to play six times at this festival.” You know what I mean? For me it was always about just getting people to see it, whether they love it or hate it. You know what I mean? People have a chance to see it and at least think about some of the things that are in the film and engage in dialogue hopefully, Even if it’s for five minutes afterwards, you know. And if people who didn’t know about this incident, learn about it. You know what I mean; which is inevitable watching it. You know, that was the mindset that I had. So, for it to acquire distribution, and get accepted into Canada and play overseas, and get a release. It’s been moving and completely unexpected.
Q: Well, I’m curious. Obviously there’s been another incident that’s been in the news a lot lately that’s kind of similar that’s getting a lot more attention, I think, because honestly I haven’t heard much about the incident in your film till I saw the movie. So, I guess just what do you think of that? You know, one incident getting so much exposure and you had to work to get the incident and made a movie about out there.
Mr. Coogler: I mean that’s stuff I have no control over. You know, and the release coming at this time was something also that was purely coincidental. I mean the similarities are what they are. You know what I mean? The biggest thing is the differences, to be honest. You know, obviously the biggest difference is that what happened to Oscar was recorded. People were there and filmed it. In this situation, you know, nobody was there to film it, so it became — it was basically one person’s account, you know. I mean, for me, the biggest thing is I mean what inspired me to do the film was this loss of life, and loss of life with these types of people. You know, Oscar Grant – young African American male in urban environments is happening rapidly and it’s a constant thing. And for me to focus isn’t necessarily who’s holding the trigger. Because the result is still the same for the people who that person mattered to. You know, whether it’s another black male holding the trigger, which it so often is, or whether it’s a cop holding the trigger, or whether it’s a person who’s neither one, you know, holding the trigger. That was what inspired me and that goes whether or not there’s media coverage, or whether or not there’s a trial. You know, it keeps happening.
Mr. Coogler: Right. For me, that was really an artistic choice. And it’s been my experience, like you know, I watch a lot of movies; study a lot of movies. I was in film school when I came up with the idea for it. And I had this theory that, for some reason, how I would feel is, personally, for me as a viewer, I would often feel — I would often have an inverse relationship between the closeness I felt towards a character… I would feel closer to a character the less amount of time that lapsed during the movie. You know what I mean? Like if that makes any sense.
Mr. Coogler: It’s an inverse relationship. Yeah, so films that are biopics that transpire over several, several years and you have some films where you just spend a few hours with a person. And I always felt that that active waking up with somebody and following them on a day through the eventful moments, through the quiet moments, you know, and watching the movie in and out of their daily operations was such an intimate thing to do. And so it was that feeling right there, and I can name some of the films that work like that. Like you’ve got 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Romanian film. You’ve got Elephant by Gus Van Sant in ’93. Spike Lee does it in a couple films. Do The Right Thing, obviously. The 25th hour is the one that’s very similar to this film. And I think it comes from like — I think it comes just from the nature of being a fly on a wall with somebody for a whole day. Something that you only do with people that you’re really close to. You know, if you think about it.
CHUD: Something about the continuity of seeing somebody’s choices right next to each other. It does dig you in deeper.
Mr. Coogler: And more than anything, seeing how somebody changes when they’re going to a location or how they change around a certain person. You know? I could think like about back in the days, like riding around with my dad. You know, there were some days like when we’d — just hang out with him and, you know, just kind of looking up at him. You know what I mean? Like while he’s going about his day, and I’d watch how he talks with somebody when he’s dealing with somebody from this way or how he talks to somebody when he’s dealing with somebody from that way. You learn a lot from somebody from hanging with them for a day. And then the other thing was the ironies of that day for him. I felt that it’d be insanely ironic, you know, the fact that it was New Year’s Eve. The fact that the night before he was talking, like everybody does on New Year’s Eve, talking about his resolutions. The fact that his day was very, very domestic. You know what I mean? It was a very domestic day. I was interested in seeing this character. This guy who’s known for being an ex-con and a drug dealer. You know, dropping his girlfriend off. Dropping his daughter. That’s what his day was. Preparing for his mom’s birthday and on the phone with all those people. So I found that to be ironic and the fact that it was his mom’s birthday as well. You know, the fact that this happened on the first day of the year, you know, so that was the whole reason why I chose the 24-hour period. And the biggest thing is I was really interested in just his life. Not what happened afterwards, because all that was covered. You know, you can find coverage for that, you know.
CHUD: What I find so interesting about the movie and why I was so deeply impressed by it, especially in light of the events out of Florida, is that this is the kind of movie dealing with a real life event and something that’s so politically and socially tinged. It’s the kind of movie where every single decision will be scrutinized. And when people bring baggage to it, every single moment is going to be loaded in some way. And every moment in this movie seems just so deftly chosen. So tell me about doing that, where you’re going through this entire movie and this entire story and trying to make sure every little moment mean something, but not a grand statement that overwhelms the rest of it, if that makes sense.
Mr. Coogler: Yeah. I mean just trying my best. You know? Like in writing it, you know, it was a razor blade to walk at all times. You know, at all times. And you’ve got to keep in mind that people will see it and they’ll have their own opinions about it. You know, there’s people who will see it and say the exact opposition of what you just said. And there’s nothing, as a filmmaker — all you have is yourself, you know, at the end of day. Like you can get feedback from other people on the script and you can get feedback on cuts. You know what I mean? When you’re working on options, but really it comes down to making choices. You know what I mean? And if they work for you, if they work for your decision pattern, then that’s what you kind of have to go with, because if you lose yourself, then you’re trying to hit a moving target.
Mr. Coogler: So that was– I tried to make decisions based on the research that I did. It’s not a documentary, but you know, I had a lot of material to pull from and just making decisions, you know, based off of that. Sometimes you have to make creative decisions in creative places, but you still say, “Okay, does this work for this character? Would this character really do this?” You know, you still have people that knew him and talked to him about it, but most of his day was pretty documented because he was around other people most of the time. You know? So, yeah, it was combinations of just using research, using my own personal judgment, and just going for it. You know what I mean? But I definitely don’t have it figured out though. It was my first time, you know, so I’m looking forward to working again. Hopefully doing better.
Q: How much input did you have from the people that actually are in the movie, portrayed in the movie, and did you have any obstacles? Like maybe since you’re filming more of the stuff that actually happened. Was there anyone who didn’t want that to happen?
Mr. Coogler: Yeah. Input. What the people who knew Oscar were, and they were there as a source of information. You know what I mean? And that’s the position that they took. You know, it wasn’t– they were very trusting of us with the project. It wasn’t them looking over our shoulder, saying, “How you can put this in, but you can’t put that in.” It was never that. You know, it was them. It was a very trusting relationship. They were there for research. So I’d go ask them about certain things and they’ll tell me about them. And I made decisions based off that stuff. Obstacles… I mean the biggest obstacles came from, you know, shooting on location, to be honest, but those obstacles also worked in our favor, because the community really embraced the film, like because they had a stake in it. So we shot a lot of my family member’s houses. We shot in real working businesses in the Bay Area. We used local crew, a lot of local cast, and people, you know, were very passionate about it. And for me, a big motif of the film was location. How people, in general, are products of their environment. What kind of places had Oscar been through? And the institutional places, you know, that he traveled through that day and his memories that day were very important. So, we shot in the real places; and because of that, some constraints came up. You know, like when we shot at BART facilities, we never got a full day, you know, because the BART was gracious enough to embrace the film and let us — the community let us film there, but you know, they’re not going to shut down the Bay Area’s transit system for us to make a movie. Like, they’ve still got to get people to work; get people home. So we had to be calling shoot on that platform for four hours. Four-hour shifts. You know, 1AM to 5AM basically. So we had to break that scene up over three days, and that was like a scene with a lot of important pieces to it. So we had that and then, you know, the hospital. We could only shoot for basically a day, so we had a day for the surgery. The doctors coming in an out more. Basically that was all in ten hours. So, I mean like those were some of the constraints. Same with San Quentin. You know what I mean? Only limited crew was allowed in there. I think they let us bring like ten people in. You know, we had real MAs and the real time constraints. Like they’re not going to shut down a prison for us to make a movie. So, those things. Same with the hospital. They’re not going to shut down the hospital for us to make a film, but they’ll be helpful. So those were the constraints that kind of came up from doing the film. You know?
Q: I thought it was — your casting was critical, especially Michael Jordan. I think one of the things that I liked about him is that he brings — you instantly like the guy – the people that he plays. And I think that’s important for this character because of the situation Oscar is in. Just talk a little bit about Michael and his performance, and how you led him to discover Oscar.
Mr. Coogler: I mean Mike’s an incredible actor, and I can’t say enough good things about him. I wrote the script with him in mind before I knew him, I just knew his work. And you know, I needed somebody who could fit a lot of categories for this project, because I knew it would live and die by this performance, because he’s on the screen 98% of the movie. And his relationships would be the vehicle that the audience kind of travels in. I needed someone who kind of looked like Oscar. I wanted somebody who was young. I needed somebody who could work on a fast schedule. You know, Mike’s done years and years and years of television. And I needed somebody who could be a bunch of different people. Oscar was kind of like this chameleon, as an emotional tactic. He was a people pleaser, you know, and he would kind of hide how he was feeling inside out of fear of rejection. That’s how our character was, so often times he would have to go from being tough to being, you know, soft. You know what I mean? Sometimes in the same scene. So I wrote the script with Mike in mind, and I knew it would be a close working relationship, so I wanted to him before offering him the part. So we met and he read the script, and he, you know, agreed to do it and it was like the best thing ever, man, because he’s truly a great actor.
CHUD: Actually on that, I was reading an interview with Mr. Jordan this morning where he talked about you guiding him towards not impersonating Oscar, especially since there wasn’t any video or anything of him, but just crafting – kind of honoring – him by what you can learn from the people around him. And I was wondering what that process was like for you, writing it, in terms of using all these impressions of other people who knew him to craft something that represents him, if not impersonates him.
Mr. Coogler: Yeah. I mean it came from research, like talking to his friends and family. It was always my goal to get to the full depths of who this guy was. You know, and it came from talking to his friends and family. Just learning things about him and recognizing some of those things in myself. In looking at the scenes, like often times, in learning that Oscar was a person who was kind of a people pleaser, you know, who would often hide things from people. He struggled with dishonesty with the people that are closest to him. So, it was kind of like me investigating like why is that. Where is that coming from? You know? And my theory is that it came from a fear of rejection. Somebody who didn’t want to be rejected. And he often times would mess up when he was by himself. That was when he would get into trouble, when he was away from his loved ones. And I think there are people like that. You know, people who want to be around; want to be in other company so that they don’t have to face their own demons. So they don’t have to deal with their own vices. So it was really asking the question. It was often what does Oscar want from this person that he’s dealing with right now? What does he want to project in each scene? And that was where the script kind of came from. So when he’s dealing with his daughter, he wants her to feel safe and happy, secure. He wants her to love him. You know what I mean? So that’s where he’s coming from with that. With his mom- he knows that her worst fears are him going back to prison, and so anything that he’s doing, like in those kind of realms, he doesn’t want his mom to reject him again and cut him off, so he’s not going to show any of that. He’s going to try to deny that stuff. For Sophia, he wants to prove that he’s, you know, masculine; able to take care of her. And also, same thing, not going back to prison. Not being unfaithful. You know, even though he might be, you know, when he’s dealing with a girl in a grocery store and she’s cute. He might notice. What does he want from her? He wants to impress her. He also wants to show her that he’s somebody worthy of listening to. You know what I mean? He’s not somebody that you just want to brush off. So, I mean all those things. That’s really what the questions were; is what does he want from this person that he’s — and what are his tactics that he’s going to use to get it? You know?
Q: Well, I haven’t seen it but I understand you’ve done a previous movie, but I have not seen it. But it seems like the themes are similar in that they’re about just kind of harsh realities. So, I guess what would you say draws you to the things that you make films about?
Mr. Coogler: Oh, I just try to make films about things that move me emotionally. You know, things that I don’t have answers to. I’m trying to find answers. Like I made a short film before this that was about street prostitution. And you know, that’s something that — I worked in juvenile hall, you know, back in the Bay Area and I’d have girls that come through for that. Often for loitering. That’s what the charge would usually be. You know what I mean? And talking to them. It was something I never really could understand. Like what would make a woman want to do that? You know what I mean? And through that, it was something that impacted me emotionally. And through that, it was making a film about it came out as a way for me to kind of deal with all those questions and kind of search for those answers. You know, get out those emotional feelings. You know, so for me, I make movies about things that sit with me personally.
Thanks for reading- see Fruitvale Station in theaters this weekend…