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Fruitvale Station: Interview Ryan Coogler

By Meredith Alloway · July 9, 2013

There’s been quite the buzz around indie darling Fruitvale Station this year. At Sundance it was as if people were whispering about it in the streets. What’s this Fruitvale? Who is this Ryan Coogler? And then it took home the Grand Jury Prize…and the Audience Award. We all knew that pretty soon everyone would know about this exciting, heartbreaking and incredibly inspiring film. Harvey Weinstein was one of them. Now only months after premiering at Sundance, Coogler’s little-engine-that-could is being distributed by the Weinstein Company and opening nationwide.

Based on true events, the film introduces us to Oscar, played wonderfully by Michael B. Jordan. At only 22, he’s already having a hard time keeping his life together in the Bay area. His girlfriend, also mother of his 4-year-old daughter, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) is just praying he doesn’t land up back in jail. His mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) is also there for support. But on New Years Eve of 2008, despite Oscar’s efforts to stay out of trouble, he finds himself in a situation that will forever hold significance in history.

After speaking with the rest of the cast earlier in the day, I had some time alone with Coogler. In his hotel room in LA, we sat down to chat about his journey. His modesty was clearly apparent and also slightly surreal for his success. How ridiculously refreshing.

ATW: Tell me about when Forest Whitaker decided to come on board to produce the film?

C: His company Significant Productions was looking for filmmakers to mentor. I went to meet with Nina Yang, and I showed her a few things. I showed her a short called Fig that was about a mom in Los Angeles who works as a street prostitute. I showed her something called Locks about a guy in Oakland who woke up one day and decided to cut all his hair off. They were things that were similar subject matters to Fruitvale. She said ‘I’m going to get you in the room with Forest.’ Forest is one of my heroes, somebody who I’ve watched my whole life. When I got to meet him, it was really moving. I didn’t know what to wear! I had my shirt and tie on! I met him in between classes [Ryan was attending USC at the time]. He was a really calm, very humble person. He said I wanna help you make that. He stood up and shook my hand, and I was like Wow, what just happened?

ATW: Then you went to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab?

C: Yea, you meet with these advisors that help you get to the root of why you want to tell this story. They strip everything else way. Eventually you realize what it is. Each one of my advisors offered amazing insight.

ATW: You shot Fruitvale Station in 20 days and on a micro budget. But Michael and Melonie had some time to rehearse before that?

C: Yea, the San Francisco Film Society, they provided funding to bring Michael and Melonie to the bay area and to spend time and get the script on its feet. They also had time to meet some of Oscar’s family. I hung out with T [Tatiana, Oscar’s daughter] while Sophina, Michael and Melonie talked.

ATW: You had to open a lot of doors for yourself. You’re an expert at pitching your screenplay! From convincing the BART station to let you film there, to the attorney of the family to let you use their story. Did you have sort of a game plan or strategy?

C: Honestly, being really up front with people and being really honest about why I wanted to tell the story. I was fortunate that people responded to me and the story I was trying to tell along the way.

ATW: Watching the film, it reminded me of Million Dollar Baby.

C: Oh, wow.

ATW: At the end there’s an extreme emotional payoff, but I never felt you were manipulating the audience to feel a certain way, especially dealing with a touchy subject like racial profiling. Did you construct the film for that payoff or was it more so an after effect?

C: What I hoped for with the audience is that after spending time with this character and getting to know him over the course of the day, in a very personal proximity, that by the end of the film they would have an inkling of the connection the family has with that character. When what happens to him happens, they get a little piece of what that’s like. I want the audience to feel close to him.

ATW: When you heard about the event happening back in 2008, you’ve said you thought that could have been me. Are there elements of that feeling that have formed Oscar?

C: Character wise there are a lot of things on the surface I have in common, being from the Bay area, being young, being black, having a family that cooked gumbo on birthdays.

ATW: I’m from Texas! Gumbo! My family does too!

C: My grandma cooks gumbo Texas style! That’s something [Oscar’s family] does too. Having a family with those relationships, all those things I have in common. Having friends that you care about, where you go out and you’re having a good time in a dangerous place. There are certain things Oscar went through that I don’t have in common, I’ve never in incarcerated although people I’m close to have. I think the best films, often times, come from filmmakers telling stories about worlds they know intimately.

Fruitvale Station opens July 12th!