After writing and directing a number of award-winning short films, Ryan Coogler tried his hand at a feature film, and it’s already generating nationwide buzz. Did we mention he's only 26 years old?
Coogler’s “ Fruitvale Station” won both the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, as well as Best First Film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Based on a true story, the film follows the story of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a BART policeman 2009 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The film has been a passion project for Coogler, who grew up in the Bay Area and who, for the past five years, has been working as a counselor at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco.
The young filmmaker opens up about what “Fruitvale Station” means to him, as well as the challenges and rewards of working on an independent film.
HLN: What do you love the most about your job?
Ryan Coogler: My favorite part of working on a film in general is collaborating with so many artists. From pre-production, to prep, to production, to post, at each stage, you get to meet people, work and collaborate with them. This is my first time making a feature film, so now I’m dealing with distribution and engaging with journalists and with people who see the film. Each part of that process is my favorite thing.
HLN: What has been the most challenging aspect of working on “Fruitvale Station?”
Coogler: It is the same challenges that any low-budget independent film has: Having the stamina and support to finish it. We had support not only from the production company, but also non-profit organizations like Sundance Feature Film Program and San Francisco Film Society, but it’s tough. Making a film is really, really hard. When you do it independently, every day is tough.
HLN: Is that the biggest misconception about directing a film?
Coogler: I think people know the difference between something that’s done independently and something that’s done at a studio level. But I don’t think people know how hard filmmaking is in general. It’s an incredibly difficult process. Making this film is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. People assume it’s a job that’s all glamor. It takes doing a job to know how difficult it is. Every job has its difficulties. But filmmaking is really, in my experience, a grit and grind kind of job.
HLN: A challenge like that usually ends up being very rewarding. What has been the biggest reward for you so far?
Coogler : I’m so fortunate -- not many people get to make films they care about. There are many perks that come with that. The biggest thing is engaging people that you’ve never had a chance to meet. People get to see what you worked on, and oftentimes you get the opportunity to hear their feedback: Whether they liked the film, whether it affected them, they can talk to you about it. There’s nothing more moving than that in this career.
HLN: The film has already received so many accolades. How does it feel for your passion project to be so well-received?
Coogler: Anytime somebody says something nice about something you’ve worked on, it feels good. But I was the most surprised person on the planet any time we got any kind of accolades. I’ve been extremely humbled by it. I know that it doesn’t happen often and it means a lot every time. More than anything, I go back to that sense of collaboration, because a film isn’t made by one person, it’s made by hundreds of people. And our film was small, but it was still made by so many people. So when people give compliments, I really take it as a testament to everybody’s work because I’m still figuring out what I’m doing. I don’t have this thing figured out at all, but I worked with so many people who are passionate and who put that passion into this project, so I put the compliments on them.
HLN: Why did you decide to tell the story of “Fruitvale Station?”
Coogler : I think the reason it touched me is the same reason it touches other people. When you’re an artist, you’re really just a vessel for something that means something to you. My goal for this film was never monetary, just for people to see it. It raises awareness about this particular (true) event and sheds some light on events like it. And I’m not just talking about situations that involve police, but situations where young people are killed senselessly, which is much more rapid, much more constant. It’s a problem that’s universal, and that can trigger a dialogue about humanity.
HLN: What do you want people to take away from this film?
Coogler: For me, the film is really about the value of humanity. It’s about this guy and his relationships. It’s based on a specific event, specific people, specific area and place. We wanted to get those things as accurate as possible, but through that specificity, it’s really dealing with universal relationships and a universal struggle. Oscar’s struggling with things inside of himself that he’s trying to fix, and I think everybody can understand that everybody struggles with something; everybody knows what it’s like to be young. Everybody knows what it’s like to have people that they care deeply, unconditionally about, like their mom or girlfriend or daughter. So what I hope people take away from it is I hope people see a little bit of themselves in the characters and think a little bit about how we treat each other.