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Interview: Ryan Coogler Talks Honoring Oscar Grant, Slain at 'Fruitvale Station' (UPDATED, TRAILER)

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood July 8, 2013 at 2:57PM

Ryan Coogler is the real deal. There's a reason why Harvey Weinstein scooped up "Fruitvale Station" 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 will do so again in Cannes.
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Fruitvale Station Poster1
How did you get close to Oscar's family?

The first thing, I had a friend who worked with the attorney on the case, who I met at USC before any of this happened. He went to law school, he's from East Oakland. After the situation happened, I mentioned to him that it would be a good thing to make a movie about Oscar. He graduated and went to the Bay area to work. I got a call, ironically he was working for the attorney in charge of case. He was able to give me access to public records and testimony before I met the family, which lead me to the right information, showed the way.

How did you know you wanted to show the last day of Oscar's life?

It hit me as soon as I knew I wanted to do the movie, following him on the day. A lot of my favorite films have that structure, Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," "The 25th Hour," "Inside Man," and even more so, "La Haine" also deals with police brutality. "Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days" follows characters on a day. I thought there was lot of inherent irony in the fact it happened on New Year's Eve, a day when people are thinking about the future, they're the optimistic, best version of themselves, looking forward to a clean slate. I always knew I wanted to tell it in that format, spend time, let things breathe, let the audience spend time with the character. Ideally the people who watch this film would never know that person, or spend five minutes with him. Now they spend 90 minutes with him some understanding.

What research did you do?

I made every decision from research based on human beings who do exist. There's some compression, some characters combined. It's the gist of the day as it was, according to accounts. The night before he and his girlfriend talked about new year's resolutions, he took her to work, and Tatiana to preschool, he got crabs for his mom, texted messages, spent time alone. I had to talk to friends and family. Sophia played the biggest role in the research for that. Fortunately most of the day was spent with other people.

When did the family see the movie?

His family came to Sundance, where they saw the film for the first time. It was very intense. I was obviously nervous about how they'd react. Oscar I did not paint as a saint, his struggles are out front. It was tough for the family to watch. The most important thing is that what happens, they have to relive that, more up close and personal than seeing the video footage. I was honest with them while I was making it, trying to make the best decisions possible. It was my first time making a film. I was 26 years old, I gave it my all, worked really hard. That gave me some comfort, but it's the most nervous I've ever been.

What did they say?

I talked to them afterwards. We talked a bit, but I gave them space, it was very intense. They were positive, and said a meaningful thing to Mike about his performance, that oftentimes it felt like they were really watching Oscar. I never got the chance to meet him or talk to him, so I spoke to so many people, his daughter, his best friends, his girl. The same thing for Octavia, the actors' hard work and passion paid off in that category.

Have you played in San Francisco yet?

The Bay Area feels ownership--it hasn't played here yet, next month.

How does it feel to be going to Cannes with the Weinstein Co.?

I am humbled by it, thankful to be able to share it with international folks. I'm excited for our actors, the Weinstein Co. will be getting the film out, supporting their work, the great performances. I'm excited for Mike and Melonie [Diaz] and Octavia. In 2009 I went to Cannes with a short film in the Kodak emerging program at the American Pavilion. The school flew me out, I saw "Inglorious Basterds" at its world premiere. My favorite was "A Prophet."

That makes sense, you have a similar camera aesthetic.

I'm kind of a tech geek. With the camera work I chose to shoot super 16, which has a real tactile feel. I feel it's as authentic as possible, I love the way the grain feels. The DP operated the camera and she's super talented (at documentary), she's emotionally aware, gets in there with the actors. She knew I wanted to use long takes and cut as few times as possible, let the audience be close to the characters as if they're there. Oftentimes I let her go for it so I could watch the actors. That was right for this story, thematically it made sense to get close to them. The way Oscar's death was captured, people had cameras and cell phones to record, but they watched him die from a distance. I wanted to bring things closer in our camera work.

What are you doing next?

This is only our second festival after Sundance. I'm putting most of my energy going toward this, there are some other things I'm working on, I have written things before. Right now I'm working hard on a film set in the world of high school football in the Bay Area, a subject matter that is close to me. I'm looking at a lot of other things, always writing.

This article is related to: Fruitvale Station, Cannes Film Festival, Festivals


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