“Fruitvale Station” is a movie about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who died after being shot by a San Francisco Bay area transit police officer on New Year’s Day. The film won awards at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals and stars Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) and Academy Award™ winning actress, Octavia Spencer. I had the honor to sit in a roundtable interview with the director / writer of the film, Ryan Coogler.
O.K., tells us about your experience with this film, especially after getting picked up at Sundance.
It’s all been incredibly overwhelming. Every step of the process has been a surprise. This film had a very modest budget and was shot under very short time constraints. We got a lot of incredibly talented people involved with making this film. It was my first time making a feature film. Each stage of the process was an achievement, and I was happy just to get the film done. Then to be picked to be the opening film of Sundance and realizing that it was going to be playing six times there was amazing. To me, it’s all about trying to get people to see the film. I want people to see the film, whether they love it or hate it so that they can think about some of the things they see in the film. I want the film to create a dialogue, even it’s for five minutes right after the film. If I can get people to see the film and learn about the incident, that’s what I want. But for the film to play at Sundance, get accepted at Cannes and now getting a national release, it’s just so totally unexpected.
There has been another incident, the Trayvon Martin case that has gotten a lot attention and is similar to what your film is about. What do you think about that case getting so much exposure?
It’s something that I don’t have any control over. With the release of the film coming out now, it’s just purely coincidental. The similarities are what they are. The biggest thing is the difference between the two is what happened to Oscar was recorded, where the other case was based on one person’s account. What inspired me to do this film was the loss of life. The loss of life for these type of people, young African-American males in urban environments, like Oscar Grant, is happening rapidly. It’s happening constantly. For me, the focus was not on who is holding the trigger. It’s the people that person matters to, that’s what inspired me to make this film.
What made you choose to just showing one day in Oscar’s life?
For me, it was an artistic choice. I watch a lot of movies, and it’s my experience as a viewer that I would have an inverse relationship with a character based on how much time had elapsed in the film. The shorter amount of time the film covered, the closer I felt to the character. I always felt that a film where you wake up with the person and follow them throughout their day, through the eventful moments, the quiet moments, was such an intimate thing. Films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” use this type of film-making. It comes from being a fly on the wall and being with someone for a whole day, something that you would only do with someone you are very close to. It’s also about seeing how somebody changes when they go to a location or interact with someone. It reminds me of when I used to ride around with my dad, and I would see how he would talk or act around different people. You can learn a lot about someone by just hanging with them for a day. But it was also the ironies in the day. That it was New Year’s Eve, and he was talking about making resolutions as we all do. The fact that his day was filled with domestic duties. It was interesting to show this guy who was known as an ex-con and a drug dealer, take his daughter to school, dropping his girlfriend off at work and preparing for his mom’s birthday. I found it ironic that this happened on his mom’s birthday that his death occurred on the first day of the year. That is some of the reasons why I chose the 24 hour period for this film. The biggest thing was I was interested in his life, not what happened afterwards.
Tell us about making this movie where every moment in the film means something but is never overwhelming or makes a grand statement.
Well, I was just trying my best. In writing the film, I tried to make decisions based on the research that I did for the film. While the film isn’t a documentary, I had a lot of material to pull from. Sometimes I made creative decisions, but I based them on whether it would work for the characters in the film. Most of Oscar’s day was well documented because he was around people for most of the time.
How much input did you have from the people in Oscar’s life and did you have any obstacles that came up during shooting, especially since you filmed where it happened?
The people that knew Oscar were a source of information. They were very trusting and supportive of the project. It was a very trusting relationship with them, and I would ask them questions and make decisions based on their answers. The biggest obstacles came from shooting on location. But it also worked in our favor, because the community really embraced the film.. We shot at a lot of the family members houses and at real working businesses in the Bay Area. People in the area were very passionate about making the film. It was very important to shoot on location because I fell that we are products of our environment. The places that Oscar went to that day were very important to the story, so we shot at those places. But it also caused us problems. BART was very cooperative with us, but they only let us shoot at certain times because they were not going to shut down just for a movie, so we shot the scenes near the end of the movie in 3 nights during 4 hour shifts. We shot from 1 am to 5 am. We shot at an actual hospital for ten hours and at San Quentin State prison where we had real time constraints because they aren’t going to shut down a prison just for us.
I thought your casting was critical for this film, especially the casting of Michael B. Jordan for the role of Oscar. Talk about Michael and his performance in the film.
Mike is an incredible actor that I can’t say enough good things about him. I wrote the script with him in mind even before I knew him. I had known his work, and I needed an actor that could fill a lot of categories in this film. I knew the film would live and die by the actor who played Oscar’s performance because he is on the screen for 98 percent of the movie. I needed someone who was young and looked like Oscar. I needed someone who could handle a fast shooting schedule and Mike’s done years and years of television. I need someone who could be a bunch of different people because Oscar was kind of a chameleon. Oscar was a people pleaser, and he would hide what he was feeling on the inside out of fear of rejection. His character in the film goes from being tough to being kind of soft, sometimes in the same scene. So I wrote it with Mike in mind. I sent him the script, and he agreed to do it, which was the greatest thing in the world because he is truly a great actor.
What was it like writing the script, where you were trying to get a film that doesn’t impersonate him but honors and represents him?
It came from research, from talking to his friends and family. It was always my goal to get into the depths of who this guy was. Just learning things about him and recognizing things in him, some of which are inside of me. While Oscar was a people pleaser, he also struggled with dishonesty. So I had to investigate that and discover why he was like that. He was the type of guy that would mess up when he was by himself. He would get into trouble when he was away from his loved ones. I think there are people like that, who want to be in the company of others, so they don’t have to face their demons, their own vices. So when writing, I would ask what does Oscar want from this person. In each scene, I would ask what does he want to project, what does he want. Like when he is dealing with his daughter, he wants her to feel safe and happy. With his mom, he knows that her worst fear is that he will go back to prison. And he realizes that, so when dealing with his mom, he doesn’t show her that side of him. With his girlfriend, Sophia, he wants to prove that he is masculine that he can take care of her, wants to show her that he isn’t being unfaithful, even though he might be.
Alright, thank you very much and much success to your film.
Fruitvale Station opens in Atlanta on Friday, July 19th.
Fruitvale Station Website