In the Mix: The Rise of Ryan Coogler
Director garners acclaim for debut film Fruitvale Station
Born and raised in Oakland, Calif., Ryan Coogler has been on a whirlwind schedule since his debut film Fruitvale Station was selected for the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab in 2012.
There’s been a tremendous buzz about the film on the film festival circuit for over a year and after seeing it, you’ll see why the industry took notice of not only its lead actor Michael B. Jordan (who portrays Oscar Grant), but also of the young writer/director.
Earlier this year, Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Film category at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as “Best First Film” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The 26-year-old filmmaker’s rise is almost straight out of a Hollywood movie. While he was attending the private St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. (a suburban community about 10 miles east of Oakland and 20 miles east of San Francisco), Coogler’s teacher suggested he should become a screenwriter after reading a story that he wrote about his father almost bleeding to death in his arms.
Coogler left St. Mary’s College, transferred to Sacramento State and eventually headed to Los Angeles to attend the University Of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. In 2011, Coogler earned a master’s degree in film and television production from USC. More importantly, his student short film Fig, which followed a young street prostitute’s fight to keep her daughter safe, won the Director’s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award, as well as the HBO Short Filmmaker Award. Fig was later broadcast on HBO.
His feature-length screenplay Fruitvale Station — which was shot in 20 days — was based on the 2009 BART police shooting of Oscar Grant, a bright and warm young African American man who got caught up with life on the street, ended up in the prison system for a time and then once released, struggled to make a better life for himself and his family.
Coogler still lives in the Bay Area, where in addition to making films, he works as a counselor at a juvenile hall in San Francisco. In town last month to promote Fruitvale Station, the humble filmmaker talked about why he chose Michael B. Jordan to portray Oscar Grant and what it was like working with Oscar Award winner Forest Whitaker.
There was a quote attributed to you that said, “A lot of filmmakers are stepping up to the plate and realizing we have a social responsibility not just to entertain but to make people think.” Why was it important to you to make a film that will make people think versus one that is simply entertaining?
The human thought is the most powerful thing in the world and that’s where growth comes from and where change comes from. If you can make someone think about something, that’s important. If you could open up someone’s perspective, that’s really important and film has the capability of doing that.
Have you had a time to take a break from the whirlwind?
Not at all. It’s cool and it’s life. I think it’s a blessing. How great is that we were able to get this film made? And people were able to see it and want to talk about it? The reason we made the film was for people to watch it, for people who weren’t familiar with the situation to be exposed to it.
Are you hoping that people will take away something from the film or just able to tell the story?
I want it both. I want people to be aware of the story. That’s a huge gift.
What did you see in Michael B. Jordan for him to play Oscar Grant?
Mike’s incredibly talented. He’s really dynamic and he has those different threads as an actor. It takes a talented actor to do what he does, especially in this film. He carries this film on his shoulders. Something about Michael is God-given. He has a personality. And even when he’s not acting, he makes you lean forward. He comes into the room and you want to know what’s going on with him. He grew up in Newark and he’s a year younger than Oscar would have been if he were alive today. And coming up in that environment, being a young black dude, you’ve got to be a chameleon and I needed an actor that understood that.
How was it speaking with Grant’s family about this film?
They were apprehensive, especially going through the trial that they went through. It helped being from that area. I told them I wasn’t doing it for the movie or for “shine” or anything. I wanted to tell their story and figured it might offer some insight and maybe it could help. And, having Forest Whitaker’s production company behind me was the biggest thing for them. He has such an incredible track record. He’s known for being such a good person aside from being a really great artist and businessman. They signed their rights over to his company, not to me.
What did you learn from working with Forest Whitaker?
I learned that someone could be a great artist and can have a great work ethic in this industry and not sacrifice who they are as a person. They can use that to be effective in society. He tackles so many issues. He still has a family as well and seeing his life, it’s possible to work in this industry, to have a career and be socially responsible. And, use that career to have a positive social impact. And to be humble. He’s all those things.
Go see Fruitvale Station when it opens nationwide in theaters this Friday, July 26.