“Call me. I’m a money player. Seriously.”
That’s what the ruddy-faced middle-aged white gentleman said to Ryan Coogler, the 26-year-old first-time writer-director of Fruitvale, as he shoved a business card into the young African-American man’s hand by way of introduction.
Seven days ago, Coogler was a complete unknown, a former college football player turned USC film student who’d captured the attention of Forest Whitaker’s production company with a trio of short films. But when Fruitvale premiered last Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, dramatizing the real-life tragedy of Oscar Grant, the young black man shot in the back by Oakland transportation police in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Coogler’s life changed. There was the standing ovation at the MARC Theater in Park City. There were the hugs and tears from Grant’s family members who attended the premiere. And then there was the avalanche of business cards from industry titans and wannabes who see Coogler as Sundance’s latest wunderkind, this year’s Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
Coogler was the same age as Grant and living in the Bay Area when the 22-year-old was shot in the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, and he remembers the community outrage, especially since shocked New Year’s Eve revelers recorded the shooting with their cellphones and quickly uploaded it to the Internet. When Whitaker took an interest in Coogler’s fledgling film career and asked for ideas, the young auteur quickly pitched Grant’s story. The Oscar winner signed-off on the spot, and before long, Coogler was presiding over a hometown production starring Friday Night Lights’ Michael B. Jordon as Oscar and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as his worried mother.
On Thursday night, Coogler took the stage again after a packed screening at Eccles Theater, Sundance’s biggest showcase. Another standing ovation. More handshakes and business cards. More “money players” circling — though the movie had already sold to The Weinstein Company.
Coogler sat down with EW to discuss the effusive reception to Fruitvale and his whirlwind week at Sundance.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Oscar Grant was shot in 2009, where were you?
RYAN COOGLER: I was home for Christmas break from USC. I was working security at a rave called Sea of Dreams in San Francisco. I was just working the door for extra money. I got a call: somebody had been shot at the BART station in front of like a 10-car train full of people. He had no gun on him and the cops shot him. I was like, “That’s crazy.” And by the time I got home, maybe like 10 a.m., he had already passed away. It was already all over the internet.
You said at one of the panels that your immediate reaction to the grainy online video of the shooting was that this could’ve been you.
Absolutely. When you look at that footage, it’s not a great quality camera so you can’t really make out Oscar’s face, so he stood for anybody with that complexion that wears their clothes like that. Coming up in the Bay Area and being African American in a city that has a history of complex issues of violent crime, interaction with the police is always intense. That’s something you have to learn. My mom taught me at a young age that if ever a cop stops you, you put your hands up and freeze — don’t move. Because the wrong move could get you shot.
Have you been in that situation yourself?
Absolutely. It’s unfortunate, but yeah.
Last February, Trayvon Martin was shot in Florida, an incident that provoked even greater outrage across the country. Did that have any impact on your production?
These things keep happening. So many people have died in similar circumstances to Oscar’s, it’s crazy. The thing that made Oscar’s death different was that people recorded it. So many people get killed like this, and nobody’s there to witness it. So it becomes an officer’s word against someone who’s dead. So for me, it was always an issue of me getting this project out there sooner than later. But when Trayvon was killed, that was devastating. It didn’t accelerate the process, but it definitely made it more immediate for people who were involved.
When the movie premiered on Saturday night, it ended up receiving a standing ovation. What do you remember?
There was a good energy in there. It felt right. That was the first time we watched it with an audience. And Oscar’s family came: his mom and his uncles and sister were there, and that was their first time seeing the film. I sat right behind them and we all went through those emotions again and I talked to them afterwards. They were a little emotionally spent, but they spoke positively about the film. That’s something I’ll carry with me forever.
The day after the screening, did it feel like your life had changed?
There was definitely a sense of a milestone being hit. I’m not sure whether I know my life has changed forever from this point on — but it seems that way. I didn’t sleep that night, which kind of helped. The energy was so crazy I couldn’t sleep. It’s overwhelming, man, to be around a film festival like this with so much talent and have people acknowledge what we did. It’s almost like — my fiancée and I haven’t gotten married yet — but it almost felt like getting married to filmmaking in a way. The day before, I was kind of a filmmaker, you know what I mean? But the next day, I was married to it. It’s official now. This is what I’m going to be doing. This is what I’m going to be seen as.
I can only assume you’re getting a lot of advice all of a sudden.
Nah. I wish I was. Support, yes. I have an incredible team — friends from USC, my family and fiancée — and people are here for me. These are people who knew me long before all this so they still give me s—.
The film sold rather quickly to The Weinstein Company. What was that experience like from your point of view?
I wasn’t involved with the numbers and the hard deals. But that’s a process that’s probably going to take me the longest to recover from because I was sitting down with people that I knew and admired, distributors that have put out some amazing slates of films. It was very moving for me as a filmmaker and as a film lover.
Was there one particular Sundance moment that you’ll remember most?
I’ve had a few. Talking to [Sundance’s] Michelle Satter after our premiere and getting her approval. Oscar’s family coming to Utah to see the film. The Eccles screening was every special, because anybody who’s ever been to Sundance has dreams of screening at Eccles. And to have John Cooper, who’s from the Bay Area, come out and introduce our film, and to be able to talk to the audience afterwards, that’s something that no one will ever be able to take away from me as a filmmaker. I’ll take that to my grave.
Even reading my first bad review was an awesome experience. It was cool because you make something and not everybody’s going to like it. I felt like that kind of grew me up a little bit into a professional. I was a student filmmaker and no one writes reviews about student films.
Have you been able to see many of the other films?
No, but I’ve been fortunate enough to see ones from the filmmakers I knew from the Sundance labs. I saw David Lowry’s movie in Salt Lake City with my fiancée, watched the Q+A, and then rode back with him talking about it. I met Jordan Voft-Roberts, who made Toy’s House and watched his film. You feel a part of this community that you just know is going to change American cinema. You can just feel it in your bones. You feel included. You feel like you have something to contribute to it.
Well, not to sound like a guy with a snazzy business card, but what are you planning next?
Once I get back to the Bay Area, home base, I can’t wait to get cracking. I’m still not sure what it’s going to be. But aside from film, I’m working on a graphic novel right now and also a young adult novel.
One last crucial question, how many points are the 49ers going to win by in the Super Bowl?
Now, that’s a great question. As much as I want the Niners to win, what makes me nervous is [San Francisco’s coach] Jim Harbaugh is [Baltimore’s coach] John’s little brother, you know what I mean? Because I have two little brothers, and it’s very difficult for younger brothers to beat big brothers. I’m from across the bridge, so I go for the Raiders, but I support the Bay Area and the Niners are doing a good job of representing us. I’ll be rooting for them.