Ryan Coogler Q&A

Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler on how he got started, working with Forest Whitaker, and dealing with Oscar buzz.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Ryan Coogler is making his directorial debut with Fruitvale Station, which won accolades at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year for its gritty, emotional look at the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, whose fatal shooting by a BART police officer in 2009 prompted protests around the Bay Area. Now the 27-year-old filmmaker may be headed for an Academy Award. And it all started at Sacramento State.

How did you end up at Sacramento State?

I’m from the East Bay area. I’d played football since I was a baby. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to St. Mary’s College. Shortly after that, the school dropped their football program. Sacramento State offered me a scholarship, so I transferred there my sophomore year. I played football and majored in finance.

How did you make the transition into film? Do you remember the “aha” moment when you realized, “Filmmaking is what I want to do with my life”?

I’d say it was when I was making my first short film when I was at Sac State in 2006. I wound up having to redshirt, because I hurt my hand and was dealing with a lot of personal things. I realized then that I loved filmmaking just as much as I liked playing football, if not more. The filmmaking classes were all taught by a guy named Steve Buss. He knew everything there is to know about filmmaking. I wanted to learn as much as he did, so I asked him where he learned it, and he told me it was at USC. He suggested that I apply [there for grad school].

How soon upon knowing Oscar Grant’s story did you resolve to make a movie about him?

It was pretty much immediately. I always liked to make films that came out of emotions I felt in myself. I saw the fallout—how the case was really highly politicized—afterward in the protests and the rallies and the response to that. I felt like what was lost is what’s always lost when young African-American males lose their lives in a violent way—the sense that this life matters to somebody.

How did Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer become involved?

Forest came on when I was still at USC. A professor recommended me to his production company. I was really nervous and excited at the same time. I told him about Fruitvale. He really responded to it and basically told me he wanted to support me and he wanted to help me make it. My agent suggested Octavia, and I thought he was crazy. She had just won an Oscar for The Help. I knew we’d be shooting run-and-gun in the Bay Area, and I didn’t think she’d want to subject herself to that—to the whims of a first-time director. However, I gave her the script and she said she wanted to do it.

This year, Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and an Un Certain Regard award (Prize of the Future) at Cannes. Have there been other surreal moments, like any celebrity reactions to the movie that have wowed you?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is an actor I really admire and a really cool person, said some really, really warm things about the film after he saw it at Sundance. That was really moving to me, because I really love his work. I met Jake Gyllenhaal as well; he had some really kind things to say about the film.

Do you worry that the tragic lessons of Oscar’s story might get overshadowed by the showbiz side of things—box office, awards talk and the rest?

I don’t even think about box office and awards, or any of that. For me, my job—what I set out to do—was to make the best film that I could make with the resources that I had. I tried my best every day. I learned a lot. I made a lot of mistakes. But I always gave it my all. What I wanted to do was do everything that I could to see to it that the film was seen and that the message gets out there. I just really want people to watch it.