Ryan Coogler on ‘Fruitvale Station’

A new film recounts the tragic 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant by a transit police officer at an Oakland BART station. Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours" talks to the film's director, Ryan Coogler, and star, Michael B. Jordan, about recreating not only tragedy but a life lost.
July 19, 2013

Writer and director, Ryan Coogler, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Alameda, Ca, is motivated by making films that matter.

His first feature-film, “Fruitvale Station”, which opened nationally on Friday, powerfully tells the true story Bay Area resident, Oscar Grant, an African American 22 year old who was killed by a transit police officer on New Year’s Day, 2009. The shooting led to protests in and around Oakland and garnered national headlines.

The film gives audiences a glimpse into the events leading up to Grant’s tragic death: Coogler recreated Grant’s final 24 hours and shows him trying to get a head start on his New Year’s resolutions,- he was trying hard to be a better son to his mother, a better partner to his girlfriend and a better father to their 4 year old daughter, Tatiana.

Coogler is no stranger to creating touching and compelling true life inspired story-lines. 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 2011 HBO Short Filmmaker Award.

Entertainment writer Huda Mu’min sat down with the up and coming writer and director to learn more about the inspiration and journey that brought “Fruitvale Station” to the big screen.

Being from the Bay Area what affect did Oscar’s story have on you? How did that inspire you to make this film?

I was originally inspired to make this film by the event itself, as well as the aftermath. I was in the Bay Area, on Christmas break from film school when it happened. When I saw the footage on the news and online I was immediately emotionally moved and shocked. I realized that Oscar could have been me. We were the same age, his friends looked like my friends and we wore the same type of clothes.

During the trial I saw how the situation became politicized. Oscar was either seen as a saint, or he was seen as a monster, who got what he deserved that night depending on which side of the fence people stood on. I felt that in that process, Oscar’s truth was lost. He was only 22 and had faults like all of us, but did not deserve what happened. I thought Oscar’s story had cinematic value and it move me and my community. Oscar’s story needed to be told.

How did Oscar winning actor, director and producer, Forest Whitaker come on board to produce Fruitvale Station?

When I was in my last semester of film school, I received word that Forest Whitaker’s production company, Significant Productions, had been searching for young filmmakers to mentor and develop, and that my name had come up in their search for filmmakers. I had the pleasure of meeting with Nina Yang, the head of production. After our interactions and discussions, she decided that I should meet with Forest. I met Forest a few weeks later and was really encouraged by his humility and his passion for filmmaking and social issues.

He was interested in hearing what type of projects I wanted to work on once I got out of school. We discussed a few ideas that I had been developing. Finally, I told him about “Fruitvale Station” and explained how and why this project was important to me and close to my heart. He agreed this story was important to tell and signed on to the project.

The story of Oscar Grant received nationwide media coverage and a great deal of controversy as well. Given the recent verdict of the Trayon Martin case, what do you want your audience to take from this film?

I want audiences to know that he was a real person. I hope the audience sees themselves in the characters in this film. Oscar was a real person with real struggles and personal conflicts, but also with real hopes, real dreams, goals and a family. Life, even ones that is different from ours, has a value. His life mattered deeply to the people that he loved the most. It’s a tragedy whenever a life is ended, especially when it is the life of a young person.

When writing this script, did you already have an ideal cast in mind?

Newly inspired, I started writing the script. As I was writing the script I had Michael B. Jordan in mind for the role of Oscar. I felt he was the best actor for this role. I knew that the lead would have to be able to carry the entire film. He would need to possess a great range and charisma, experience, talent and resemblance to Oscar. I had Michael B. Jordan in mind before I had even written the script, and I was excited about the opportunity to really showcase his talent while portraying Oscar’s legacy. He was perfect for the role. Thank God he agreed.

Melonie Diaz for the role of Sophina came through several recommendations. We were so grateful to have her; she and Mike had an amazing chemistry together. After reading the script, my agent decided that we should reach out to Octavia. Octavia Spencer was so far-fetched in my mind. I didn’t think she would ever want to do the film, because of her body of work and at the time recent Oscar win for her role in The Help.

Our film had a very small budget, small film and we were shooting in the bay area, but she read the script and since we had Forest back us up, he has such pedigree and reputation and then she signed on. You would never know they were big time actors the way they rolled their sleeves up and jumped right into a small project, especially Octavia.

For more information and show times in your area visit www.fruitvalefilm.com. “Fruitvale Station” stars Michael B. Jordan as Grant, Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mother, Wanda Grant and Melonie Diaz as Grant’s girlfriend, Sophina.

Huda Mu’min is a lifestyle expert, entertainment writer and celebrity chef from ABC’s The Taste. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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