Interview with Ryan Coogler

fruitvale1FRUITVALE STATION brought rows of critics to a stunned silence punctuated by the sound of contained sobs at Sundance London this year.  It has created a lot of buzz in industry circles since it first screened at Sundance Utah in 2013, when it scooped both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, going on to win Un Certain Regard at Cannes and countless other awards and nominations. But, this is the first time that audiences in the UK will see it, and it lives up to the hype from overseas.

The film recounts the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was accidently but fatally shot by police at a subway stop in California in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009. As a black youth, Oscar’s death at the hands of Johannes Mehserle, a white policeman, inevitably caused racial tension. The incident led to rioting and created a lasting legacy in the Bay Area community of San Francisco. The outcome could have been very different if it wasn’t for footage filmed by witnesses on their phones, which secured a conviction for Mehserle, who was seen shooting a prostrate Oscar in the back.

“Regardless of what country they are from, they’ll feel it.”

We met director Ryan Coogler and asked whether he thought that FRUITVALE STATION would resonate as much with British audiences as it has in America. His answer was a definite yes: “This is a film about a young man at a point in his life when he was making hard decisions about what kind of person he wanted to be and doesn’t get to play them out. My goal after making the film was to get it seen by as many people as possible and get them thinking about what happened to this young man and think about those issues a little bit. Regardless of what country they are from, they’ll feel it. It happens everywhere – whether you’re in Sweden, Switzerland, Japan…”

The film focuses on an exploration of Oscar’s character through a re-enactment of the events during the 24 hours leading up to his tragic death. It presents a guy who dealt drugs, spent time inside and had a tough time staying faithful and telling the truth to the mother of his daughter; but who was, at heart, a good family-focused young man with morals, likeability and charm. Coogler explained that they tried to make the best representation of the story that they could, and talked to many people who knew Oscar as part of researching the film. “We were fortunate that on that day he was always around other people, he only spent a little time alone.”

Coogler admits that a scene where Oscar pets a dog and then, moments later, picks it up out of the road after a hit and road was fictionalised. The scene was actually inspired by something that happened to Coogler’s brother when he was writing the script. However, a strong scene at a supermarket fish counter, when Oscar puts a white girl onto the phone to his grandma for advice about how to fry fish home-style, was factual.

” The world would be robbed if [Michael B. Jordan] doesn’t become a big star. “

FRUITVALE STATION does go off-track at times, meandering into sentimentality, but the framing of the story certainly brings the film to a hard-hitting conclusion. There are so many good things to say about this film that it would be wrong to labour this one negative point. The fact that this film is Coogler’s first feature is astounding. He was fortunate in attracting the attention of Forest Whitaker’s people to his work, as they share the same film school. The Hollywood star was instrumental in getting the film made, has Producer credits and perhaps helped to attract a big name, Octavia Spencer. But it is clear that Coogler is also in possession of raw filmmaking talent. His next project is likely to be a boxing movie, for which he has just completed the script: he describes it as ROCKY franchise fan fiction.

Another rising star is lead actor Michael B. Jordan, who attracted Coogler’s attention with his supporting TV roles on shows like THE WIRE. “I just thought, he needs to have bigger roles.  [I was] curious as a viewer about the characters he played and I was disappointed when the camera didn’t follow him. There’s no doubt he can carry a film and I was excited to work with him in his first lead role. The world would be robbed if he doesn’t become a big star. You watch him and you feel better for it.”

So has Coogler been surprised about the positive reception FRUITVALE STATION has received so far? “It’s overwhelming: I look back at times when I just hoped it would get completed. We shot in my grandma’s house, at my aunt’s place and there were days when we weren’t sure where the money was going from so we could continue. Then we were worrying about which film festivals it would get into and when we got into Sundance, we were wondering how to get distribution. I’ve just taken it one step at a time. I got the biggest reward possible in terms of the film being shown.”

So what will he take with him, in terms of learnings, into his next film? “Definitely to trust my gut and to always do my best to maintain perspective. If you ignore your gut it will come back and get it you later. Things get a little crazy on a feature set and you can’t see the forest for the trees and what’s important anymore. Other filmmakers tell me that never gets any easier but that’s my focus moving forward.”

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