In April of 2012 I spoke with Writer/Director Ryan Coogler via Skype to Production Design his first feature “Fruitvale Station” that would be filming in the Bay Area in the summer. I was so impressed with Ryan’s vision for this film and his infectious beautiful soul and spirit, before we were done talking I told him, “I want to work on this project.”
A few days before we spoke, after I read the script, I began to research the Bay Area, specifically where Oscar Grant grew up. I looked at everything having to do with Oscar, from the cell phone footage of the night Oscar was killed at the Fruitvale BART, the protests that took place after the verdict was announced, to the very beautiful tributes made by his friends, family and community. Needless to say I was floored and moved beyond words. The first step I took was to pull colors from the environments that surrounded the life and death of Oscar. The colors came from murals of Oscar, and the colors you would see every day in Oakland and in the BART stations, specifically the Fruitvale and South Hayward BART stations. As I began to compile these colors, pictures, ideas, looks for the locations in the script, I pinned them on my wall creating a mosaic of the feelings I had from reading the script. It was important for me to do this so Ryan would have an idea of where my thoughts were when we spoke over Skype. I literally held up my computer so he could see the wall *insert smiley face* I don’t think he was expecting that, but it gave us a board from which to jump from. Soon after we spoke I got a call back from Ryan and he asked me to join the project. And I headed to Oakland to take this journey with a fantastic group of filmmakers.
We wasted no time when I arrived, and began location scouting immediately. It was important to both of us to retain a vivid realism in the design, while pulling a color story through the film. Ryan and I talked about the institutional environments that are meant to make our lives better and essentially help us from day to day, his job, prison, the hospital, BART all the places that are meant to give us forward momentum whether through healing, safety, rehabilitation or the ability to provide for our family, in effect, failed Oscar. At one point, I was drawing pictures of the BART and I really began to focus on the yellow line that separates us from the train rails, a color that separates us from danger. I brought that to Ryan as a way to define the things in Oscar’s life that had failed him, and it was something that we both felt worked. Ryan brought to me the idea of also embracing a one point perspective throughout the film really signifying that want for change and reflection we see Oscar go through that last day.
The interior residential environments that we see Oscar in are a place for family, laughter, and reconciliation. Because we were working with a lot of practical locations it was important to find the right locations that had something that worked for what we wanted and could be easily augmented. Grandma Bonnie’s house, which was Ryan’s Grandmother’s house, worked because it had a lot of neutral finishes, and warm tones. It made it much easier to control the colors we added and the set decoration in those sets. In Sophina’s (Melonie Diaz) Grandmother’s house, which we used the kitchen and bedroom, the architecture worked and it was again, a simple augmentation of changing the existing colors, which are more vibrant than any of the other residential interiors, but also there’s an aged feel that we added to that set. One thing that was important was the fact that it was the Holidays, New Years Eve 2009, Christmas had just happened so we needed to be mindful of that in the right places, as well.
In talking to Ryan about Oscar’s world he talked a lot about the East Bay “uniform” for a lot of young black men at the time, an oversized black hoodie, XXL white or black t-shirt, baggy pants, and a black knit cap – which is what Oscar is wearing in the very famous picture of him. We created Oscar’s apartment in a location that was Ryan’s Aunts house. We built Oscar’s kitchen in a kitchen because we needed it to be smaller to give it that feeling of an apartment and we kept it white to bounce off the idea of his clothing. We painted his room gray because it was where this story lived for so many people in the community and around the world. It’s the first time we see Michael B. Jordan, in this gray environment and that’s where he will live this last day of his life in “Fruitvale.” Blue became Oscar’s safe color or cleansing color, his shower, the water, and we played it in moments where Oscar was free, if only for a moment from everything outside, from the things weighing on him and then again the last scene with Sophina and Tatianna.
The main idea for the design is for it to melt in to the story and become a brush stroke amongst all the brush strokes that were put on the canvas by Ryan, the actors, the costume designer, Aggie Rodgers, the Cinematographer, Rachel Morrison and every crew member in an effort to create the picture.