It’s been a rollercoaster year and a half for Ryan Coogler, debut director of docudrama Fruitvale Station. After winning awards at Sundance and Cannes last year, The Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights and Coogler – who also wrote the film – has been busy promoting it around the world. The film finally arrives in UK cinemas this week, and we sat down with the filmmaker a couple months ago at Sundance London to talk about the challenges he faced making his feature debut.
This film has been out in the States for a while now and has garnered a lot of well-deserved praise. Is there a particular stat-line or award you’re most proud of?
That’s hard to say. That week of going to Sundance and getting distribution, I remember it being a huge thing. You make a film independently, you never imagine it getting distribution and having someone say, “People have got to see this and it’s important that we get it out there”…
Especially when that someone is Harvey Weinstein.
Exactly. It’s close though, because having it shown all over the world and getting distribution internationally is just the same. This is something that happened in our community in a small place, and the idea that people in other countries can relate to it and be emotionally moved by it, have interest in it and want to go and check it out – that’s a moving thing in itself. It gives you respect for the art form. It motivates you to get back to work.
It becomes more and more evident as the film goes on that Oscar is a product of his environment. And I know that you grew up in the Bay Area and it shows in the cinematography. How different a film do you think this would have been if it was made by someone outside of that Oakland community?
Filmmakers have got to have their own DNA, and the biggest shaper of their DNA is their experience. You watch a film, and then you hear about that filmmaker’s life, and it makes sense. I’ve seen incredible movies done by people who were outside the community the community where the film takes place. All you gotta do is watch a Steve McQueen film…McQueen didn’t come up in Ireland and he made Hunger. He’s not from New York and he made Shame. He made 12 Years a Slave and the list goes on. So filmmakers can come into a place where they’re not from and do something special.
I do think it would be different. They won’t make it the same way as someone who’s from that place. My perspective is definitely one that’s inside out, and more than anything it helped me to move faster. I did a lot of research but there were certain things where I didn’t have to do research. I didn’t have to research how Oscar would talk, for instance, because I’m from that place and I know the slang they use. With clothing, I know how he’s dressed because I’m from there. So I was able to go with my gut and it helped with the speed of certain things. That was a big thing though with people being a product of their location; you don’t have any control over that, and it can make you or break you.
You’ve said in the past that one of the best pieces of advice Forest Whitaker gave you is to “Always make the best decision you can make in the moment”. Did that get easier as you went along and are there any examples of that you can think of?
If anything it got harder, because there was more and more at stake with each decision [laughs]. It never stopped. Even when we got distribution, it was really cool that they involved me in the marketing. I didn’t have complete say so but you hear about filmmakers that have no say so. And they would say “Hey, this is what we’re thinking about doing, what do you think?”, and these decisions are major. They got this poster or that poster and each one says different things, and then they ask you what you think. It never gets any easier.
I really liked the painted poster with Jordan and the girl…
I appreciate it. That was definitely a collaboration between all of us. The thing is it’s complicated because their job is different from mine. My job is to make the best movie I can make. Their job is to find people to see it. For them it don’t matter much if what they advertise is different from the experience that you get, because that’s not really their problem. They want to get you in the seats. You’ve got two people with differing perspectives who equally want what’s best for the movie, so that was an interesting process.
At what point in the shooting schedule did you film the scene at the Station? Is there a right time to shoot an intense scene or were you just beholden to the schedule?
Beholden to the schedule. Filmmaking is like a Rubik’s cube. You could be writing the script and you want to make it a little shorter, so you take one thing out and then it fucks everything else up so you have to go back and fix that…Then once you have all five sides matching, you go shoot, even though you might still be twisting as you shoot.
The next Rubik’s cube is the schedule. So maybe one actor can come in for three days, which is common with actors who are really in demand. So they’ll say “I can come in Tuesday-Thursday”. Oh shit! We gotta get all the scenes with him. But then you have a location that says you can only shoot on weekends…Scheduling is heart-breaking. You got these ideas of what scenes you don’t want to shoot in the first day, which scenes you want to shoot last. The truth of the matter is you don’t want to shoot any scenes in the first day because every scene is important, nothing is a throwaway. Something ends up being shot on the first day; something is shot on a day when you had a hard day before. It’s a great question you’ve asked, but scheduling can be the worst.
In preparing for this interview, it’s clear to me how much you love the writing process. Obviously it’s very early days in your career, but can you see yourself doing one without the other?
I think I could do it. It’s tough for me because I know it’d be easier for me to write something and give it to somebody else to direct than it is for me to find something somebody else wrote and direct. I’ve directed shorts somebody else has written before though so.
More than just the African-American side of things, the fact that Fruitvale Station deals with Oscar striving to be a man and all the responsibilities that come with that give it a universal appeal. How conscious were you of that in the filmmaking process and are there any memorable reactions you can think of pertaining to it?
For me that’s very much what the film is about and I hope that it was universal. Oscar was at that age where you’re still trying to find out what sort of person you’re going to be. He had a kid, he was the man in his girl’s life, the man in his Mom’s life, and his friends looked to him as a leader. And he’s fresh out of prison so he’s trying to figure out what it’s going to be for him. Am I that guy who’s in and out of prison while my daughter is growing up? Am I going to be the dude that holds down a steady job? Am I going to be ducking the law? He was thinking about all of this at 22. It was very much about a dude on a day who is contemplating what his place in the world is. A lot of people get at the political ramifications which exist in that same through-line but I was trying to work at the ground level.
Fruitvale Station is out in UK cinemas on Friday June 6th.