As is often the case with films that explore the impact of events that are pulled from today’s headlines, Fruitvale Station is destined to become a centerpiece in the broader conversation about violence and race, and their effects on communities in this country. But instead of charting a political path, Fruitvale Station remains firmly planted where it began, as an exercise in catharsis for a community in grief and a way for director Ryan Coogler to depict the life of one man representative of many.
I spoke briefly with Mr. Coogler about the film, his inspiration for some of his creative choices, and his advice to other young filmmakers just starting out.
*SPOILER ALERT: This film is based on a well-known event, so we do get into some specifics about certain scenes. If you would rather go in to the theater fresh, I suggest coming back after you see the film!*
Cinedelphia: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, I really appreciate it.
Ryan Coogler: Oh no problem, I really appreciate you speaking with me.
C: So Fruitvale Station is a narrative film about true events, as opposed to a documentary, but you were able to film in many of the same locations where real events took place. How did that experience affect the actors and crew on set?
RC: I think it affected them deeply. It affected everyone being in these locations that had a lot of emotional context to them, specifically the BART platform, because everyone knew what took place there. It added an extra layer of reverence to the situation, and we actually had a moment of silence before we started shooting at the BART station location. So I think it was something that everyone felt, but the actors the most. I think it helped them to be there, in those places, to get to where they needed to be emotionally to be their characters.
C: Something else that was especially poignant for me was watching Oscar text and call loved ones throughout the film, and I thought it was a really effective way to get into Oscar’s head and learn a little more about him as a person. How many of the anecdotes in the film such as Oscar helping the injured stray dog, or assisting the woman in the supermarket are based on real life events from Oscar’s final day?
RC: The dog scene was a result of artistic license. It was a story that my little brother actually experienced, where he came home one day very introspective, and was kind of out of it, and he shared what happened to us. It was during the time I was writing the script, and speaking with Sophina (Oscar’s girlfriend) about Oscar, and something similar happened, you know, where Oscar came home that day looking very introspective and kind of out of it, and she tried to speak with him to see what was going on in his head. I thought it might be a good opportunity to put something in the scene that showed some of the things he was going through emotionally. The scene in the supermarket really happened. He really put his Grandma on the phone with a lady that didn’t know how to fry fish and she needed to learn that night and he wanted to help her out. All of this came out of my research about Oscar.
C: The supermarket scene was one of my favorite scenes. The entire film, and something that I love about it, is that it’s a short film, but every scene is important, all the dialogue is important, and I think that the choices you made brilliantly reflect that.
RC: Thank you, that means a lot, I mean, I’m still learning, but thank you for the kind words.
C: Another scene that struck me, and I’m sure will resonate with others when they see the film, is the actual altercation that occurred at the BART station that resulted in Oscar’s death. I know you viewed a lot of cell phone footage taken by witnesses to the event, so how much did watching that footage influence the choices you made in filming that sequence?
RC: Yeah, the video footage was definitely important in shooting those scenes in terms of placement and timing and blocking, and you could even hear what was being said on that footage, so it was invaluable in terms of research.
C: Right, so which kind of leads me to my next question a little. I really enjoyed the look of this film, was it shot with film or was it digital?
RC: It was shot with film actually, it was shot with Super 16 film stock, and I really appreciate you saying that you liked how it looks.
C: Oh I loved it, what inspired that creative choice, do you usually go for film as opposed to digital?
RC: Yeah I’ve worked in different mediums, but I learned on 16 mm film. For this film, I was looking for something that had a visceral quality, and also all the texts and Oscar’s last encounters were digital, you know, they were on poor quality digital cameras, all these things happened to him in this pixelated format, so I thought it would be interesting to bring him to life with a format that was a little more organic, that’s more traditional. So that was one of the biggest reasons. I thought it would be the best aesthetic for the story.
C: I know that you are just starting out, but I looked at your previous work in film school, and the work that you do as a counselor in the San Francisco area, and it all seems very connected to me. Do you find yourself drawn to tell stories about people that have complicated pasts?
RC: Absolutely, absolutely, that is the case. I think that people make movies about things that are important to them, you know, about things that strike chords. I found out that I like to tell stories about characters that you don’t often get to see, and tell the story from their perspective. I guess you could say characters that are often marginalized in the media. I find a lot of interest in that, and maybe it’s because I tend to know those people. Those people populate my reality and influence my filmmaking.
C: I like speaking with young filmmakers, and I know you had a lot of support for this film from Sundance and other non-profit organizations. What advice do you have for those that are just starting out?
RC: I would say to make projects about things they are intensely passionate about. Oftentimes when I was in film school, people would make films about different things, and when I saw films that connected with poeple the most, it was when people made projects about things that meant something to them. A filmmaker’s passion for a certain subject matter, can be felt by the work they put into it, and that inspires the people who collaborate with them on projects. I think that’s the most rewarding thing for any artist. So my advice to young filmmakers is to find stories that mean the world to them and make those.
C: Have you seen any movies recently that you would recommend to others? I know you are probably extremely busy promoting this film right now but…
RC: I recommend Kings of Summer which is in limited release in theaters now. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Short Term 12 which will be available in August I believe.
JM: Thank you again for speaking with me today and best of luck with the film.
RC: Thank you! Take care.
Fruitvale Station opens at the Ritz Five and AMC Cherry Hill theaters on Friday, July 19th.