Bearing Fruitvale

Sacramento State University alum talks about making the perfect movie for our racially charged times

Director Ryan Coogler (far right) discusses a scene with actors Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer while filming <i>Fruitvale Station.</i>

Director Ryan Coogler (far right) discusses a scene with actors Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer while filming Fruitvale Station.

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Ryan Coogler is getting a lot of love from his old Sacramento stomping grounds, but the young filmmaker would probably settle for an Egg McMuffin. In town last week to discuss his powerful first feature, Fruitvale Station, Coogler was in high demand with the local press corps and his Sacramento State University alma mater.

There was little time for food.

The 26-year-old should be used to the feast-and-famine whirlwind. The on-call probation officer in San Francisco has been on an “indefinite” media tour ever since his timely drama wowed Cannes Film Festival audiences in January.

The movie dramatizes the final day of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, whose 2009 death at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer outraged the community. The film entered wide release on the heels of the controversial George Zimmerman acquittal in Florida.

The Weinstein Company will likely keep Coogler in rotation until the Academy Awards. The hungry filmmaker better eat now.

This is your first feature film. It doesn’t have lots of huge stars, it’s an indie, it’s about a pretty sensitive subject: What made you think you were the right guy to tell this story?

Ryan Coogler: For me, when I first heard about the event, I was back in the Bay Area. I felt a close proximity to it, in terms of the guy being my age, being from a place that was close to where I was from, and I was affected by it. It affected everybody, though. It made people feel incredibly helpless, more than anything. And a lot of people, that sense of helplessness turned into anger, and they went out and protested. Some people rioted.

What inspired me to make this film was I wanted to talk about who this guy was before he was shot, who he was to the people who knew him the best, who he was to himself, because nobody was talking about those things. That kind of got lost.

As you got to know him more through your research, were there things that surprised you?

Some things that surprised me about him was finding out how close his relationship was with his daughter, me finding out that he had been recently released from prison and that he was making steps toward getting his life together. But I also found that he was also taking steps backward simultaneously.

In the movie, you portray him as this guy trying to figure it out. He’s being pulled between the world he just came from and the world he wants to be in. How did you capture all these different elements?

Oscar was the type of person where, if you talked to different people about him, you got different stories. That’s kind of the same with most people.

What I learned is he was someone who was trying to keep everyone around him happy, so when he was with certain people, he would be different. He’d be the person that they expected him to be, he’d be the person that they wanted him to be, and I wanted to show all of those things as much as I could in the context and the scope of the day.

Can you talk a little bit about the music you hear Oscar listening to in his car? Is it all Bay Area hip-hop?

It is. It’s specifically stuff that he liked and that his friends liked to listen to at the time.

I think that was important to get every level of authenticity, from getting what the Bay Area sounds like through the music the guys listen to, through the sounds of our traffic, the sounds of our BART trains going above ground, and the sounds of the ocean. That’s always there. All of those things, it was very important to bring his world to life in a real way.

There’s foreshadowing. There are moments of dramatic irony. Were you deliberately putting things in there that upped that anxiety?

I think it was rare that I put things in. But it was interesting talking to his family members. All of them—especially [girlfriend] Sophina, [daughter] Tatiana, [mother] Wanda—they all kind of blamed themselves for this happening. And they all talked about those moments where they kind of felt like they interacted with him in a way that led to this happening. Sophina talks about how he didn’t want to go out. Wanda talks about how she told him to take the train. And Tatiana talks about that last night, when she was trying to get him to stay. Those things, because I’m telling the story through those relationships, I felt like it would have been wrong to have left those moments out. Those moments aren’t inherently ironic, but that’s also how they see that stuff happening. So, I decided to leave them in, let them play.

Were Oscar’s friends and family initially skeptical about someone doing a movie about him?

I think there was some of that, for sure. And I never wanted to push them into anything. … I told them it wasn’t about making money for me. I just wanted to tell the story.