For most of us, our twenties are reserved for figuring out what we’d like to spend the rest of our lives doing. What’s your passion? What’s your craft? Can you make a living from it? For Bay Area native Ryan Coogler, who just turned 27, the answer to those questions is now playing on movie screens across the country. Fruitvale Station, a gut-punch dramatization centered around the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant, came out of nowhere to win the top two awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and has been unanimously praised as one of the year’s best films. Coogler, a USC film school grad, dedicated months to researching Grant and the events leading up to his controversial death at the hands of a BART police officer (Grant was unarmed). The result is an imagined reconstruction of Grant’s (played by Michael B. Jordan) last day on earth—New Year’s Eve—as he struggles with the pressures and problems of manhood and fatherhood. We spoke to Coogler about shooting the film’s heartbreaking climax, his staggering success, and the secret to making movies.
In the days leading up to shooting the climactic scene at Fruitvale Station, what were you feeling? Dread? Butterflies?
It was both. It would be a really big undertaking to shoot that amount of stuff in a short amount of days. We had a range we were to be able to use to get our shooting platform, so we had to do everything in four-hour increments, basically from 1 am to 5 am in the morning. It was technically daunting, and just emotionally that reverence was there as well, knowing that we were doing something in the actual location where it happened. What made it cool was that the community was there to see us rehearse and people were bringing different types of good luck charms and well-wishers from their homes. And whenever we would go up there everybody who was involved would join the circle and would hold hands and have a moment of silence before we got started.
What was it like seeing that scene play out before your eyes?
We tried to play it as close to the original as we could. Often times it would be very surreal, very eerie to see it play out with those guys in costume. But I tried to stay focused on the work so and not get lost in my own head.
How did you go about recreating the last day of Oscar’s life?
Well the first thing I had access to even before I had access to the family was the public documents that were available from the trial, and a lot could be gleaned from that—looking at what was said in court on behalf of Oscar’s friends, on behalf of his family, on behalf of the police officers. So I was able to build a whole first draft of the script based off that, and once I had access to the family I was able to weave in things that I learned about Oscar as best I could in that one day format.
Do you expect the officer who shot Oscar to see this film?
He’s a very small character in the film. I’m not sure if he would ever see it or not. I would imagine he would probably try to distance himself from it as best he can.
What about for the role of Oscar? Did you audition a many actors for it?
No, I wrote it with Michael in mind. I presented it to him once it was finished and he signed on.
The film has a verite style. Is that your style, or a style you developed for this film?
I think that is the style that works best for this film. I hope to be a filmmaker who will make choices not based on myself, but to make choices that work best with the story. And I felt that the choices we made in terms of Fruitvale were the best choices for the story in terms of shooting with a relatively loose camera.
What’s it like being the recipient of unanimous praise? Does it get uncomfortable at a certain point?
People come up and tell you that they don’t like you so much, too. [Laughs] No, I think that it is always moving to have people say kind things about the film, but for me it’s a great victory anytime somebody watches it. Anytime somebody takes two hours out of their day to watch something that we worked so hard on, it’s an honor. So it’s even more of an honor to hear that they felt it could be moving, or rewarding. Somebody saying that never gets it old. It’s always something I would never take for granted.
I had to go to a birthday party after I saw the film, which was difficult considering how emotionally drained I was after seeing it. Is it difficult celebrating this movie on the red carpet and at after parties, given that it comes from a place of real pain?
Yeah absolutely, it’s something that I’m constantly aware of. I think that more than anything, if there’s ever a party or anything afterwards, I look at it as more of a celebration of the completion of the work or a celebration of everyone’s efforts that went into it. I’m incredibly proud of what every person’s contribution has been to the film, from the actors to the crew to our distributors. So I think that’s worth people telling themselves “good job” every once in a while.
Now that you’ve broken into to Hollywood, are you interested in making bigger pictures, or are you going to stick to smaller, more personal films?
I definitely always want to make personal films. With regards to the scale, I enjoy films of all different types of scales. I’m a huge film fan. I go to see small independent movies, I go to see huge budget movies, and the scale of the film is not what’s on my mind, its always the story, so I hope to work with whatever scale is appropriate for the stories that I like to tell. But I definitely always want to tell stories that are of deep importance to me.
What kind of advice do you have for filmmakers that are around you’re age who want to follow in your footsteps?
I think that the number one thing is that making movies is very difficult—and when I say difficult I don’t mean in terms of getting one made, I mean in terms of the actual execution of it. It’s a very time consuming job, it’s very rewarding, but it’s very hard, so if you’re going to do it make sure its about something that’s very important you. Make sure it’s about a subject matter or a theme that you would live and die for. I think that’s what will get a filmmaker through the process, because as a filmmaker you not only have to be inspired yourself, but you have to motivate a whole team of people around you and that’s what they’re going to feed off of. If you’re doing something that you think is important to somebody else or you’re doing something for the wrong motivational reasons, I think that makes it even more difficult.