On New Year in 2009 a young unarmed black man, Oscar Grant III, was fatally shot in the back by the transit police officer who was restraining him on the Fruitvale BART Station platform in Oakland, California – an event caught on mobile cameras and widely disseminated, sparking outcry. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler's explosively powerful debut feature reconstructs Grant's whole day. We caught up with the young director when he was in town for the Sundance London screening of the film – which is out in the UK this week. Here's what he told us about getting it made.
The film's a dramatic reconstruction not only of the shooting, but the whole day leading up to it. How much of that was that creative license?
Ryan Coogler: I was in the Bay Area when it actually happened. I had a friend who was at law school when I was at film school. I told him I wanted to do a movie about it. He ended up working for the family's lawyers, and through them I was introduced to the family. I spent a lot of time with them, and that's where a lot of the stuff came from about Oscar's personal life.
So what about some of the stuff Oscar kept secret, like how he was still dealing, did the family know by then?
Ryan Coogler: Not everybody knew, and that was where it got weird. His girlfriend knew stuff that his mom didn't, and his friends knew stuff that his girlfriend didn't.
To what extent do you think the shooting occurred because he was black? Do you see it as a matter of police prejudice?
Ryan Coogler: It's like a numbers thing, you know. It's hard to say whether this would have happened if he wasn't black, but statistically African-American males are more likely to get arrested, more likely to serve longer sentences for the same crime, and much more likely to be killed by a police officer. People see and treat you differently based on how you look, and their assumptions about you.
"Any time you take somebody's life, what's the solution? There really isn't one" – Ryan Coogler
Did you see making this film as a political means of drawing attention to this problem of police violence?
Ryan Coogler: It's a personal problem for me. When the incident happened there wasn't a big jump. He was the same ethnic background as me, the same culture, the same age. For that same reason that you treat someone different for looking different from you, you also can see yourself more easily in somebody who is similar to you. So it was easy for me to personalise, and that's what drew me to it. I was very emotionally affected by it.
It seems the policeman responsible got off very lightly. What are your views on that?
Ryan Coogler: Any time you take somebody's life, what's the solution? There really isn't one.
Did you believe he only meant to taser him?
Ryan Coogler: I don't know. I can't say, as I wasn't there inside that dude's head. I saw the footage and read his testimony in court. I don't know for sure and my stance with the film is it's not about that, the film is about Oscar.
People are now more and more capturing events on their mobile phones…
Ryan Coogler: It's the only reason anyone's in jail at all. People who are second-class citizens in society, or people of colour – these are things that are used to downgrade the value of someone's life. And that's terrible.
Michael B. Jordan is really strong in the role. How did you come to cast him? Had you admired his work in The Wire?
Ryan Coogler: Yeah absolutely. He's a great actor, very talented, very charismatic and very experienced. He was top for the role.
What's your style of directing? Very improvised, or very scripted?
Ryan Coogler: I'm very involved. There's a time for one and a time for the other. I wrote the script but I don't have it all figured out. I'm far from the genius who has it all down perfect – that's not who I am as a filmmaker. A lot can change in the editing room. But some places we shot we had to get out in a couple of hours – the prison, and the train station – so in these moments there was no deviation from the script, there can't be, because you don't have time for that. You can do two takes max.
Was it hard to get permission to shoot in prison?
Ryan Coogler: No. It wasn't hard. They have inmates they use, all the inmates are real inmates and all the guards are real guards, except for one.
“I saw the footage and read his testimony in court. I don't know for sure and my stance with the film is it's not about that, the film is about Oscar” – Ryan Coogler
How do they choose the inmates?
Ryan Coogler: It's their own process. I work in a juvenile facility as a counsellor, and similarly I have a bunch of kids I know would be fine in a certain situation, with a camera crew in and so on. I still have my job, but I haven't worked a shift in a while because of the writing.
You're only 27. What next for you?
Ryan Coogler: I'm working on another film right now that's not as political but deals with similar themes. Have you ever seen the Rocky movies? It's about Apollo Creed. My dad was a big fan of the films and I used to watch them with him. I came up with this idea but I never thought it would happen, because I didn't own the rights to it or anything. But right before we shot Fruitvale I went down to LA and had a meeting with Stallone.
How was that?
Ryan Coogler: It was intense! It was like a surreal thing to me, 'cause you know him from his movies, and the funny thing about him is that his voice is the same as in the movies, but him as a person is nothing like that. It's like Rocky or Rambo's voice coming out of this dude that's an artist. Because all he talks about is writing and poetry, and he's a painter. He's also a really good actor, so when he tells stories, he's fucking convincing, you know what I'm saying? A couple of times talking, he'd get excited and get up and do this crazy reenactment.
And will he be acting in your film?
Ryan Coogler: If it goes ahead, yeah.
What advice would you give to other people wanting to start out in filmmaking?
Ryan Coogler: Always work on something you're passionate about.