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HomeAwardsContender PortfoliosRyan Coogler Directs Fruitvale Station with Team Spirit

Ryan Coogler Directs Fruitvale Station with Team Spirit


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Ryan Coogler directed Fruitvale Station
Ryan Coogler directed Fruitvale Station
Like a rookie quarterback whose first pass is a touchdown, Ryan Coogler has also lit up the scoreboard in his feature-film debut as the director and screenwriter of Fruitvale Station. The movie is based on a real incident – the police shooting of an innocent 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, on the Fruitvale Station subway platform in Oakland, Calif. on New Year’s Day 2009. The film follows him during the final 24 hours of his life, as he struggles to find a job and to rebuild relations with his family when his life is tragically cut short.

The indie made on a shoe-string budget got raves from critics and drew big audiences when it opened last weekend in Los Angeles and New York, with a nationwide rollout set for July 27. Moreover, the coincidental release of Fruitvale Station on the same weekend that the jury in Florida handed down a not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, has made the movie resonate with a wider public.

For the first-time director, it’s already been an extraordinary year. At the Sundance Festival in January, the film won the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award and was cited for “its skillful realization, its devastating emotional impact and its moral and social urgency.” A few months later at the Cannes Festival, he received the “un certain regard” award for innovative filmmaking by an up-and-coming talent. And a splashy red-carpet screening at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival generated buzz about possible Academy Award nominations down the road. It doesn’t hurt to have the Weinstein Company, known for its energetic Oscar campaigns as the film’s distributor.

Olivia Spencer plays Oscar Grant's Mother in Fruitvale Station
Olivia Spencer plays Oscar Grant’s Mother in Fruitvale Station
In all, a pretty heady brew for the 27-year-old Coogler, who grew up in the Bay Area and then went to film school at U.S.C. But he’s trying not to let it go to his head. “I try to keep in perspective that I’ve been given this incredible opportunity to tell this special story, and to also make the kind of a film I want to make as my first feature,” he said. “Yeah, that’s rare.”

But Coogler deserves lots of credit for his persuasive pitching of the bold but controversial project. He convinced Oscar award-winning actor Forest Whittaker to get on board as the film’s producer. And he attracted top-flight acting talent. Michael B. Jordan, who plays Oscar, is known for roles on The Wire and Friday Night Lights and was in George Lucas’ film RedTails, about a black squadron of Word War II airmen. And Olivia Spencer, who received an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her role in The Help, plays Oscar’s mother.

A delicate first task was to persuade Grant’s family to approve the project. “I told them I definitely wanted to stay away from sensationalizing Oscar’s story, and wanted to tell it through the lens of the people who loved him most and they agreed,” he recalled.

Ariana Neal (left) and Michael B. Jordan star in Fruitvale Station. (Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company).
Ariana Neal (left) and Michael B. Jordan star in Fruitvale Station. (Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company).
So what was it like directing his first feature? “It was very intense, unquestionably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but at the same time it was exhilarating,” said Coogler, talking to Below the Line during a recent visit to Los Angeles to promote the movie.

He reached for a gridiron metaphor to describe his approach: “Film school was great in learning the basic craft and techniques of making a movie, but the best preparation I’ve had for directing was from playing football my whole life,” he said. “I learned what it was like to be on a team. You have many people with different assignments, but everybody has the same objective, and that’s a lot like making a film.”

In working with his below-the-line collaborators, he also came at it from a team perspective, “understanding that everyone’s assigned task is equally important,” he observed. Assembling his crew had an “all-in-the-family” motif. He attended the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab, a one-week workshop where he polished his script, and found that Sundance provided an umbrella of support throughout the evolution project.

LR-df-01647r_lgNeeding a cinematographer, he found director of photography Rachel Morrison, whose expert handheld camera work gives Fruitvale Station its energetic look and feel, on a list supplied by The Sundance Institute. Coogler then held a bi-coastal interview with her on Skype and decided to hire her based on the screen session. “She came through as a true artist with an emotional depth you don’t often find,” he said.

The film was shot on Super 16mm film, with an Arri 416 and Kodak film stock. Approximating a documentary style, Morrison’s kinetic close-in lensing excelled, especially in the climactic shooting sequence. “Rachel always fought to be in the middle of the action, right with the characters,” said the director.

In addition to the Sundance Institute, the San Francisco Film Society also helped Coogler. It gave him a grant for postproduction to help finish the film, and also steered him to Skywalker Ranch, “where we were able to collaborate with some of the best sound people on the planet,” said the director. Bob Edwards was the sound editor, mixer and designer. He also had links to the Sundance Institute and did the sound last year for multi-Oscar nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild.

LR-df-01545_lgFruitvale Station was shot on location in and around Oakland. The interiors were filmed in houses belonging to Coogler’s family. “We shot the scenes with Oscar’s grandmother in my own grandma’s house. They look just the same,” he remarked. Hannah Beachler was the production designer. “She worked like a mad woman, dressing the interiors as much as possible,” he said. “One thing she noticed that was really cool was the deep yellow line on the BART platform that was a warning line – don’t cross or your life is in danger. So we decided to use yellow accents in the set dressing as a sign when things are going wrong with Oscar.”

Coogler was also persuasive in getting permission to shoot in two key public locations. The one flashback scene in the movie takes place in prison where Oscar has been incarcerated for a minor felony and angrily explodes when his mother visits him. The scene was filmed in San Quentin Prison.

A more daunting challenge was getting Bay Area Rapid Transit to allow filming at the actual subway stop and in one of the trains. The fear was that because it had been such a highly-publicized and terrible incident, BART would back off. But when the director described the project they agreed to let him use the premises. Filming was limited to a few hours in the middle of the night when the trains weren’t running, requiring several nights, which put more time pressure on what was already a short 20-day shoot.

Postproduction also was speedy. With filming finishing up late last summer, the target was to have it ready to screen at Sundance at the beginning of this year. So Coogler used two editors, Michael Shawver and Claudia Castello, both of whom he knew from film school. Editing was done in a cramped space on the top floor of a house in Oakland. “They lived there and they cut the film on two computers,” he explained. “They seemed like they were a married couple.” For his part, Coogler took a breather for a couple of weeks while they assembled an editors’ cut. “I gave them notes on what they had done, and from there, I was in there every day until we finished,” he said.

Ludwig Göransson, known for scoring televisions shows like Happy Endings and New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel, had also collaborated with Coogler on some short films that he made while at U.S.C. And supervising the choice of interpolated rap songs, including some of Oscar’s favorites, was the director’s younger brother, Noam.

All in all, a virtuoso first effort by a director with team spirit.

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