Ryan Coogler
Tommy Lau Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler is the real deal. There's a reason why Harvey Weinstein scooped up "Fruitvale Station" (July 12) at Sundance. He saw Oscar potential in it. This rookie Bay Area filmmaker grabbed a story he cared about and made it real. Audiences wept in Sundance and again in Cannes, where it played in Un Certain Regard and was front and center at the The Weinstein Co.'s May 17 awards season preview

"Fruitvale Station"
TWC "Fruitvale Station"

"Fruitvale Station" should have been in the main competition. Typically, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux hesitated to confer Competition status on a filmmaker who has not already been established; the festival rarely gives a Sundance film like "Precious"or "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a competition berth. They often place a lesser follow-up in the competition, like "The Paperboy." The exception that proves the rule is Steven Soderbergh's Sundance hit "sex, lies and videotape," which eventually won the Palme d'Or.

And Weinstein is no slouch when it comes to taking films like "sex lies and videotape," "Pulp Fiction" or "The Artist" from Cannes to Oscar contention. "Fruitvale Station" treads in the heartstring-tugging, social realist tradition that festivalgoers and Academy voters embrace.

The film recreates the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who at 22 years old was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer at the titular BART station on New Year's Day, 2009. Michael B. Jordan ("The Wire") and Octavia Spencer ("The Help") are getting rave reviews; it's a gut-wrenching tearjerker in the "Precious" tradition. (See new Michael B. Jordan featurette here.)

Coogler started out studying to be a doctor at the Bay Area's St. Mary's College on a football scholarship. He took one creative writing class, where his teacher told him he should write screenplays because his writing was so visual. He transferred to Sacramento State on another football scholarship, where he majored in finance, then attended USC grad school in film.

Anne Thompson: You were helped on this project by both Sundance and the San Francisco Film Society?

Ryan Coogler: The Sundance Labs reached out to me as I was writing the script. I had applied the year before with another project. They asked me to apply again, if I had something new. I applied to the screenwriting lab with "Fruitvale," went up last January. It was a really great experience. They told me to meet with Michele Turnure-Salleo, who heads the great SFFS Filmmaker 360 program in the Bay Area. I wasn't familiar with it. I'm from the East Bay, but was living in LA since film school at USC.

When did you discover you liked to write?

I used to write in school a lot, I always liked it, and used to write on my own, comic books, come up with alternate story lines to the stuff I watched and read, a lot of books and TV, episodes of "Twilight Zone." I didn't think about it. Before playing football, I didn't fit in anywhere. My parents didn't have a lot of money, which they spent on our education, to send us to catholic private school in Oakland, mostly black. The other kids had more money than I did. I started school early, I was young. So I'd come back to my hood and read.

Does Oscar's death in 'Fruitvale Station' hit us so hard because he's standing in for all the other folks who have needlessly lost their lives to racist violence?

I absolutely knew that he stands for that, without the movie, not just for being having his life lost in a violent way. I'm from Oakland, Richmond, and spent a lot of time in LA at film school. Violence is a reality for people like us, such a reality. It's so unfortunate. I knew that his story would speak to that. I had a need to speak to things we deal with on a day-to-day basis. So few get our stories told by us. I knew I had an inherent responsibility to show things we struggle with every day, things that are good in our lives, the human relationships we have with people we love, with our kids. Because that is not often shown in the media, it often leads to issues where we are not seen as full human beings.

I take it you're a fan of 'The Wire'?

Absolutely, everybody is, anybody's who's seen "The Wire." Mike was perfect for the role. In telling the story I knew I wanted to approach someone capable of carrying the film, he's on-screen 98% of the film, the audience would have to relate to him. I needed the guy to look like Oscar, he's recognizable to us, to be authentic. Another thing about Oscar, in pictures, it's hard to find photos of him by himself, he's always surrounded by people, and his smile was legendary among the people who knew him. Michael had that quality, I could check all those boxes.

One of the coolest things you can do as a filmmaker, is give an opportunity to someone who hasn't had it before, it's really fun. Mike was ready to be a lead-- it hadn't happened for him like that yet. It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase what he was capable of.