Interview by Roger Durling with Writer/Director Ryan Coogler
Roger Durling: Please welcome writer/director Ryan Coogler.
Ryan Coogler. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming out and watching.
Durling: Well, thank you for coming. We’re deeply honored to have you here. Ryan, you grew up in the Bay Area. You’re the same age as Oscar. Can you tell us when you decided that you wanted to tell the story of Oscar?
Coogler: It was pretty recently after it happened. I was back home in the Bay Area when the incident occurred on New Year’s Day in 2009. I was home on Christmas break from film school and, being an artist, I tend to make art from a deeply emotional place. Artists tend to make art about things that affect them or things that they are struggling to understand or struggling to deal with. It used to happen with musicians a lot actually. Often, people who are musicians will go through something tough or see something tough and then make a song about it. It’s no different for filmmakers in that way and for me, film was an outlet. When I saw the footage for the first time, it affected me very intensely like it affected pretty much everyone in the Bay Area and everyone who saw it. I couldn’t help but see myself in Oscar. We were the same age. Here was a guy wearing the same type of clothes that I would have worn if I had been out that night. His friends looked like my friends. And I have been in situations similar to his. And to see that, I couldn’t help but think, “What if that happened to me? What if I didn’t make it home to the people that I care about and if I lost my life in that fashion?” So that idea was the first thing that I was trying to process cinematically. In the days following, the incident got very highly politicized. People took sides independent of what political side they sat on. Oscar became something different to them. These people didn’t know Oscar. Some people wanted to hold him up to be this saint as a rallying cry for whatever cause they wanted. They would say, “Here was someone who never did anything wrong in his life,” and that he was a martyr. People on the other side wanted to make him the sum of every bad thing he had ever done in his life and use that as justification for what happened to him. He was this thug; this criminal; this felon; this drug dealer who shouldn’t have been out. He brought it upon himself. It would go back and forth. A lot of energy was going towards the sense of the scene, whether the police officer meant to do it or he didn’t and I felt like the real breath of the tragedy was lost. The real breath of the tragedy was that this human being, who was 22 years old, didn’t make it home to the people that he meant the world to. Nobody was really thinking about it in those terms. In the Bay Area, we deal with violence so much and so often. African American males are losing their lives as a result of it. It’s rare that people think about the human effect of that. I thought that maybe doing a film focusing on the relationships that Oscar had in his life, the ones with the people that were closest to him, could bring some proximity to us. That’s why I really wanted to make the film and make it this way.
Durling: You talk a little bit about the humanization of Oscar and you do show him with flaws and all. Can you talk a little bit about that? You see all human sides of this person.
Coogler: I think for me—it’s funny. I love watching movies, and all of my favorite movies have characters that I can relate to. I realized that I would always relate to characters through their flaws. I would never relate to a character that was perfect because I don’t see myself as being perfect. When I think about myself—and I think it’s a natural human quality, when we think about ourselves—the first thing that comes to our minds is how we want to be better. What are the things that we struggle to do? I thought it was really interesting and ironic that Oscar was killed on a holiday that is viewed as being relatively optimistic. It’s also a holiday—I’m talking about New Year’s Eve—a holiday where people always look into themselves and think about how they can get better for the next year. They make a resolution. I really wanted to make this film about Oscar and about the people who knew him best. For me, to ignore the things he was struggling with would have been a great crime and would have limited the amount that people could connect to him and see a little bit of themselves in him. How many of you guys can remember what it was like to be 22? I can. It wasn’t that long ago for me but I knew nothing. I know nothing now. I think about being 22 and how much I was struggling with. Oscar had major struggles. He had been recently released from prison. He had a daughter. He had a family. And he struggled with getting into trouble. When we meet him, he was doing the same things that got him incarcerated the first time. He was still using drugs and selling drugs and these things were on his mind. For us to ignore those qualities about him wouldn’t have been smart.
Durling: There are two things that you do as a director that I greatly admire. You keep a very objective view, almost like a documentary. You’re just presenting this stuff. Can you talk a little bit about that? And also, when did you make the decision of the structure? You’re only going to show us about 24 hours before the incident. How did you decide the structure that would tell Oscar’s story?
Coogler: I really wanted to give audiences the feeling of hanging out with Oscar for this one day. Maybe this will answer both questions but I know that it’s a very intimate thing to spend an unbroken amount of time with somebody. If you think about how many people in your lives you have gone to sleep with and woken up with and then been with the whole day, it’s a very intimate thing to do. I’ve only done it with a few people like my parents, my brother and my fiancée. That’s about it. What I really wanted to do was be objective and give the audience the feeling of hanging out with this guy and moving in the same environment with him. Because Oscar’s the type of person—like a lot of other males—who has to put on armor depending on which room he goes into. It’s almost a survival tactic. I thought it would be a very interesting way of displaying that. You get to see him walk into his own house when he’s alone; you get to see him walk into his job; you get to see him moving through the lowest point of his life in the flashback. You get to see how he walks differently when he goes to pick up his daughter; you get to see how he walks differently when he goes to spend time with his mom. I thought that would be a really interesting way of looking at it. I think understanding comes from experience and from spending time with other people. It’s easy to make comments about a certain type of person or to generalize when you have never met somebody like that or spent any time with them. Your only access to someone like Oscar might be through the media, which is really slanted. I think that your opinion can change when you actually walk around hand-in-hand with somebody. In life you don’t really get those opportunities except through cinema. The idea to make it a 24-hour film came from liking films. So many films that I loved, especially some of the ones I saw in film school, had a 24-hour structure. There are a lot of them. I always found that it was an inverse relationship between the amount of time that you spend with a character throughout a film and how close you get to them. There are films that cover twenty years of somebody’s life, but I don’t feel as close to the character as films that cover a few hours. I think it’s a really interesting way to provide attention. I could run off a list of films that have that structure. There are some great American ones. Spike Lee does it a lot with Do the Right Thing and a movie called 25th Hour, and there are some other American ones like United 93 by Paul Greengrass and Elephant by Gus Van Sant. Moving on to foreign ones, there’s a Romanian film called 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. These films all have that really focused structure, where by the end of the film you feel extremely close to the characters. It feels like you spent your whole life around them.
Durling: But there is one exception with the flashback in the prison. Why that particular scene with the mother in the prison?
Coogler: That’s a great question. It was about showing Oscar at the lowest point in his life. I think that so often when milestones come around—for Oscar, New Year’s Eve is obviously a milestone and it’s weirdly ironic that it’s also his mother’s birthday. He was just in prison; he had only been out a few months before this incident happened, and during his mom’s last birthday he was incarcerated. Talking to his loved ones, that stuff was all on his mind. He had an incredible guilt for missing a chunk of his daughter’s life when he was incarcerated, and his relationship with her when he got out of there was almost like he was trying to catch up on lost time. He was around her constantly and there for her, telling her he wouldn’t let her down again. For me, that prison scene is about what his biggest fears were. And his biggest fear was going back, which is why when you watch that tape he was reacting that way and saying what he was saying. The whole time he’s telling the cops, “I’m just trying to go home. I’m just trying to go home.” He was deathly afraid of going back to prison. And when he got shot, the first thing he said was, “I have a daughter.” That was what was on his mind. I felt that to fully understand him on that day, it made sense to show him at his lowest point and see him at the point when he felt most alone.
Durling: The choice of starting the film with the actual footage—I think most of us have seen it or were familiar with it—what was your logic behind starting your film like that?
Coogler: It’s really interesting because I was very much against starting with the footage. People would ask me when I was writing the script a long time ago if I planned on starting with the incident, and I said no. It came up in the editorial process. I worked with two editors. One is named Michael Shawver, a 29-year-old white guy from Providence, Rhode Island, and my other editor is Claudia Castello, who is in her thirties and Latina from Rio de Janiero, Brazil. They moved up to Oakland and worked together on the cut. They were kind of like an old married couple. We were all in this enclosed space in this small house in Oakland. One of the first things that Michael brought up was that he was upset because he had never seen this footage before. He hadn’t heard about this incident and he was saying “Ryan, I’m only 3,000 miles away in America and I didn’t hear about this. I think we should start with the footage.” And I said, “No, Michael, no. I want to start in the bedroom with Oscar. I want people to meet him like that and go with him on this day.” And Claudia seconded his notion and was saying, “We should at least start with some of the scenes from that platform to let people know why they’re looking at this guy on this day.” I was incredibly apprehensive and then I realized that because I was from the Bay Area, that footage was burned in my mind. I didn’t need it. I had seen it so often that it was always with me so when I was watching this film. it was as if I had seen it before. And thinking about it and realizing how many people hadn’t seen it—(to audience ) how many of you guys didn’t know about this incident before? Wow. So what Michael and Claudia were arguing about was for those people. They were saying it was a great opportunity to let people see it as it happened. Once we decided to put the footage at the beginning of the film, it made a lot of sense. And it also spoke to the theme of the film, that theme of “proximity.”
Durling: . . . communication with cell phones that he does throughout the film.
Coogler: Right, right, absolutely. And not just with the technology aspect but the aspect of seeing an event twice and feeling differently about it the second time you see it. Oftentimes we read the news and hear about these horrible events when human lives are lost but if it’s half-way around the world, then there’s a distance. You have a distance from it. You process it differently. You’re still able to go on about your day and live your life. You brush your teeth, go to work and come home even though there was a tornado where five people died in another state or a tsunami where 300 people died in another country. But think of that one person in your life that means something to you, the one person who you know intimately. You know their gray areas, you know how they’re great as a person and how they suck as a person, but you love them nonetheless. If you hear about them being hurt or sick or losing their lives, it devastates you. It cripples you. You feel differently about it. My question is why is that? Why does one human life have a different value from another one? I think it comes from “proximity” and from knowing someone. When we put that footage there, you see something happen to a guy that you don’t know and you feel shocked and you’re like, “Whoa!” But when you see it again, and it happens to somebody that you spent the whole day with, it feels completely different.
Durling: You shot that last sequence in the actual station where it took place and you had the help of BART. How difficult was it to convince them and what was the process like to convince them to let you shoot there? Also, what was it like to shoot in the actual spot where the incident took place?
Coogler: In terms of the process to shoot at BART, it was an interesting one because this is probably the worst event that happened in their company’s history and BART is a company that has been around for a while. It’s a government organization that works to get people to and from work in the Bay Area. My initial thought was that they wouldn’t be open to letting me shoot in any of their facilities but we went in and approached them and talked to them and I think three major things helped: first was the fact that we had Forest Whitaker’s production company backing the project, and Forest has such a great reputation not only as an incredible artist but as an incredible person. He’s a humanitarian and works with the UN and does conflict resolution and things of that nature. Second, I think my being from the Bay Area really helped. I’m someone who rides BART all the time when I’m back home. I’ve been riding since I was a baby. And I think that the film not being about the platform helped because to me the film is about this guy and his relationships. He moves through different places and he’s on the platform for maybe 10 minutes in a 90-minute film. For me, the film wasn’t about finger-pointing or any of those things that happened after Oscar died. It’s more about the life that was lost and I think that they saw that as an opportunity for them to extend an arm to the community and not block the film from being made. The rest of the Bay Area community embraced the film and were really supportive of us, and they wanted it to be the same way. They have a new general manager now and a new chief of police and they were all very open to it. It was incredibly difficult because they didn’t want to shut the platform down for whenever we shot, so we could only shoot during sessions when the train station was closed, so it was from about 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. We had three days like that. Before we would shoot, everybody involved would just circle up and have a moment of silence. And it was everybody from BART police who were there to keep the place secure and monitor safety of our cast and crew. It was a very moving experience each day before we started. We would shoot to the best of our abilities. We had everything on those shoots. We had stunts, hundreds of extras, moving trains, incredible emotional peaks from Michael and Melonie, his friends, and the police officers. We had just about everything. Firearms. Blood. All these different things and everybody was really able to focus and get it done.
Durling: You had the support of Oscar’s family. How did you approach them and convince them to trust you with their son’s story?
Coogler: It was interesting how I was able to meet Oscar’s family. I went to USC Film School and a friend of mine who was at the school with me was in the School of Law and was also from Oakland. When we got back from Christmas break when Oscar was killed—it was actually right after Obama was elected—we talked and he said, “Hey man, isn’t that messed up about what happened to Oscar Grant?” And I told him that one day I’d like to make a movie about that and I kind of explained how I would do it, but it was just in conversation. He ended up graduating and moving back to Oakland and becoming an attorney for John Burris who was an attorney who handled the family’s civil case. He gave me a call and said, “If you still want to make that Oscar Grant movie, I’m working for the lawyer and I could introduce you. He could introduce you to the family if he thinks you’ve got what it takes.” They also needed some help with the video footage as well. He was organizing that stuff and he knew I knew how to edit, so I actually helped him out with some of that. Then I came up and met with the attorney and showed him some of my short films. He said that once the family was done with the civil case, he would introduce me to them but he couldn’t make any promises. So I met with the family, and by that time Forest Whitaker’s production company was backing the project and I think that’s what helped a lot because I was a young guy. I hadn’t made any films before. I didn’t want to convince them; I just wanted to present them with what I wanted to do. And the first time I met them, they were very apprehensive and very reserved. They did a lot more listening than talking and I just basically told them who I was, where I was from, how I was the same age as Oscar and how I wanted to tell the film as honestly as possible, but really from the perspective of the people who knew him best. They were open to that and eventually they signed the life rights over to Forest Whitaker’s production company.
Durling: Forest. You keep mentioning Forest Whitaker. He is the producer of the film. How did that happen? How did Forest get involved with your first feature film?
Coogler: Like I said, I went to USC. And during my last year of grad school, a professor that I had earlier in school had recommended me to Nina Yang Bongiovi, who was Forest’s VP of Production at the production company. She was looking for film students to engage with and maybe mentor. So I went in from class to meet with her. They were looking at doing independent projects or television. I shared with her some things that I had written related to this and some stuff that could work in the TV space and she liked that. She watched a bunch of short films I made when I was in school and then she said, “I would love to get you in a room with Forest so you can maybe talk to him about some of the projects you’d like to do.” So one day I got an email saying I was meeting with Forest Whitaker at 3 o’clock and I didn’t know whether to believe it or not. I wore a tie to school and I had my backpack. People were looking at me like, “Why are you dressed like you’re going to church?” I left my afternoon class and drove up to their production office which was in Disney Studios at the time. So I drove to Burbank and walked in and Nina was kind of nervous. Forest just came in and sat down like, “Hey, what’s going on?” And I had to pretend I didn’t want to just jump up and hug him. It’s not every day you get to meet one of your heroes. But he was incredibly calm and really relaxed and humble. He told me that he had watched my shorts and it’s funny because Nina told me she didn’t think he had had time to watch my shorts because he had been really busy. He started telling me about it shot for shot and I thought this was interesting. He asked what kind of stuff I wanted to make and I told him about a few projects and about this film. I said I was going to make this no matter what. That’s what my plans were, to try and make this happen. He really responded to this film and he basically told me in the room that he wanted to help me make it, that the production company wanted to help me make the project. And then he just stood up and shook my hand and left. I was sitting there like “Is this how it happens?” And Nina got really excited. She started jumping up and down and saying, “Great! So we’re going to get started. Go home. I’ll send you an email.” I’m saying, “All right,” and I leave and go to my car thinking, “That was a joke. There’s no way this really just happened.” I went to class and I could barely focus in class and then I got home and was thinking to myself, “Man, he must be a really whimsical guy. He must make his mind up and change it the next day.” So I called my buddy, who was an attorney on the case and I told him, “Hey, send me everything legally available that a person can read about this trial and this incident because I want to get to work.” I figured if I got to work right then, it would be harder for him to change his mind. So I asked for links to different articles and transcripts from the trial and I started working on an outline for the script. I sent it the next morning and they said, “Great. Let’s get to work.” I kept working on that path but that was where Forest got involved. He’s definitely not a whimsical guy. He means everything that he says. He backed the project completely since that day and has been an incredible asset to me and to the production.
Durling: You shot this film rather rapidly, in some twenty-odd days. Did that urgency and immediacy of shooting so quickly help you with the film?
Coogler: I think that it was incredibly tough to shoot on the schedule we had. We didn’t have a lot of money. We shot the film for less than a million dollars and we shot in between days. And some of those days were those work days where BART was saying we had 4 hours. I think that it added to our cast and crew’s closeness. It was like everybody put their backs to one another, and every day we would fight time and money. That was what we were up against every day. Everybody would fight as hard as they can, and I think this sense of urgency and immediacy and doing the impossible really helped in its own way. I got a few gray hairs because of it. I don’t know if I would have done it any other way.
Durling: Michael’s performance as Oscar is one of the best performances by far this year. How did you come to cast him? How was it working with Michael?
Coogler: Thanks so much for your kind words about Mike. He’s one of the most incredible people I have ever met. When I was writing the script, I was thinking about the cast. I love working with actors. I think it’s one of the best parts of the job and, being a director, one of the most important ones. I was thinking about who could play this role and I realized that I was kind of writing myself into a corner because it’s a really tough role. I had some things that I really wanted to make sure we got in the person that we cast. I wanted to make sure that he was relatively young because, to me, Oscar’s youth was a big thing. There’s the fact that he was 22, when you’re legally an adult but you know nothing. I wanted somebody who could capture that. And I wanted someone who obviously looked a little like Oscar because his image is burned into our minds in the Bay Area. And I needed someone who had a lot of experience because I knew we’d be shooting fast. I knew we wouldn’t be able to afford all working actors. We would be surrounding this guy with a lot of non-actors. We’d be putting him through the ringer. I needed someone who could make people lean forward because in talking to people who knew Oscar, I knew he had that quality. In every picture I found of him, he was never by himself. He was always with his kid or his friends or family. He was somebody that drew people in, almost as a survival tactic. I needed someone who could do that with an audience. When I went down that checklist of somebody who was young, had worked a lot, could work on a rapid schedule, and was talented enough to play out all the layers that this guy needed to show, only Mike was left. He’s done so much television work. He’s a young guy but he’s been working for over a decade and in all his work he was always playing supporting roles. When I met him, I fell in love with him, and thank God he agreed to do the project. It was his first time having a leading role, which I thought was crazy. You know those people who are good at something, like athletes for example. I played sports my whole life and you’d have players that were mediocre, players that were good and every once in a while a player that was great. They’re very rare and I had a theory about what it takes to make a great player. Somebody can have God-given talent and have a somewhat mediocre work ethic and that would make them a good player. If someone has a somewhat decent God-given talent but they have this incredible work ethic, it can also make them a good player. But every once in a while you play against these guys who have this incredible amount of God-given talent and also have this outstanding work ethic. They work non-stop. They love the process. Those are the guys that you come across that are just great; they just fly off the handle. Mike is like that as an actor. He’s an incredibly charming guy, incredibly good-looking and that’s stuff that God did. Mike didn’t do that. He also is extremely smart. He studies his craft. He’s got this crazy work ethic. He’s always trying to do better and get to where he needs to be. He’s an incredible team player and that’s also what makes him a great actor.
Durling: Octavia Spencer. She’s like Mother Earth in this movie. She grounds it. How did she get involved?
Coogler: With Octavia it was kind of like playing the scratch-off and getting the call that you won some money. When I was coming out of the Sundance Labs, I got an agent who was interested in helping us package the film. He read the script and told me he liked it. He asked who I was thinking about for Oscar and I told him Michael B. Jordan. And he said that was great and asked who I was thinking about for the mom. I didn’t know but I said we needed somebody who was really good. It happened to be mid-February and he said, “What about Octavia Spencer?” And I’m like, “Craig, you’re crazy. She won an Oscar. Our movie has no money; we’re going to be shooting at my grandma’s house and changing clothes in the parking lot. There’s no way an Oscar winner is going to do this stuff.” And he said, “Hey, you never know. You’ve got Forest backing the project and she’s a really great person. She might read the script and want to do it.” So I said to pass it along to her. I never thought that I’d get a call back saying that she wanted to do it. Sure enough, I did. I was completely amazed and nervous at the same time because now we have Michael; we have Melonie; and now we have this Oscar-winning actress and this was my first time making a feature. So I’m like, “Man, if the movie sucks, it’s not going to be their fault.” More than anything, I was worried that she would come in and not want to take direction, not want to be a part of the process and kind of do it out of charity, which she would be well within her right to do. But she came in and all those fears were brushed aside as soon as I met her. She’s so youthful. She’s nothing like the character in the movie. She’s really youthful and very bubbly and really positive. We’ll do takes and she’ll be off in the corner singing and then I’d get Octavia back in. She really did take on a mothering quality in the film. Some money fell out right while we were shooting. When she found out, she instantly became a producer. She was up all night to talk to her friends to get enough money that we needed to finish it. She was the reason we could cast some incredible actors in some supporting roles. Both cops and O’Reilly all came from her producer skills. She was just an incredible asset for the film and such a loving and caring person.
Durling: You cast most of your best friends as Oscar’s friends. What was it like to involve your childhood friends while you were filming?
Coogler: It was very interesting. It kind of goes back to that comment about when I saw the footage. I saw myself in Oscar and I saw my friends in his friends. I wasn’t joking. My friends really look like his friends. We cast the project, and I wanted to cast locals because Mike and Melonie aren’t from the Bay Area and we have a real specific culture in the Bay Area that I really wanted to capture—a culture that I know and love dearly. So I figured it would be helpful to surround him with local people because actors can learn and absorb what those guys are doing. We cast and then a lot of my friends were like, “Hey man, I hear you’re auditioning. We’d love to come in,” and I said okay. And a lot of them came in and did really, really well, and it was because the characters they were playing aren’t far from us. We know guys like that. I think that really brought a sense of place and grounding to the project and raised the stakes for everybody involved because when that happened to Oscar, we were all the same age. A lot of that came in to play. It really helped because they all knew each other so well. They all kind of grew up together and had this bond and Mike just folded right into that gap. It was interesting because I would watch scenes where they were all together and it felt real because it was real. Those guys really care about each other and Mike formed a relationship with them like that. It was really interesting and I’m thankful to them for that.
Durling: I apologize that I have to ask you this question. With the Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman trial happening right now—what is your take about the fact that these tragedies keep happening and that we see the dehumanization of somebody like Trayvon Martin?
Coogler: My thought as it relates to the film–my day job is at a juvenile hall in the Bay Area. I work minors so it’s deeply saddening to see young men losing their lives to gun violence. It’s really sad to see the things people say about it and people’s reactions to it, especially in the media. I think the dehumanization that you were talking about is the reason we wanted to make the film. I started writing this film and started working on this film before Trayvon was killed. He was killed in February, which was right when I came out of Sundance labs. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn He was a young black male—only 17, whereas Oscar was 22, so he wasn’t even allowed to vote. TYou hear this idea that because someone looks a certain way, they’re dangerous, and they deserve to die in a certain fashion. What doesn’t get brought up is the fact that there is this human life that can never be brought back. This is a human life that didn’t have a chance to live out the rest of his life and make it back to the people who know him, love him, and care about him. And these human lives—even though they’re African American males—these human lives have just as much value as any other human life. It’s hurtful when that’s not taken into account. In terms of the humanization, it comes back to that proximity factor. For people who don’t know young African American males or don’t know people like Trayvon and people like Oscar, it’s easy for them to make comments. It’s easy for them to make assessments about them when their only contact with somebody like that is through the media, which can often be very slanted and very one-sided. I hope that people will see us as human beings. No matter what the circumstances are, just see that humanity in us just like they see it in other people.
Durling: You have the world ahead of you. Thank you for coming.
Coogler: Thank you. Thank you guys so much for coming out.