Based on true events, Fruitvale Station is a narrative film about a young man named Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), who finds himself at the center of a devastating situation in a California Bay Area transit stop. The debut of writer/director Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is a day-in-the-life recount of a real headline subject, with his mother played by Octavia Spencer, and his girlfriend played by Melonie Diaz. Coogler, with three shorts to his previous credit, was recently honored with the Vanguard Award from the Sundance Institute, in the same night that Roger Ebert posthumously received the same honor. Jordan has appeared in films like Chronicle opposite Dane DeHaan and Red Tails opposite Cuba Gooding Jr., along with television shows like "The Wire," "Parenthood," "Friday Night Lights" and "All My Children."
In an exclusive interview I talked to Coogler and Jordan about the advantage narrative has over documentary, Chicago rap, how Fruitvale Station fits in with films like Mean Streets or Do the Right Thing, and more.
Fruitvale Station opens July 19 in Chicago.
Ryan, you said in the press notes that if done right, a narrative can bring you closer to a documentary. Could you elaborate on that?
Ryan Coogler: It can, when you have an actor like Michael. It's a few things. I think that because in a doc, the character is naturally 9/10 knows the camera is there. Most docs are either talking to the camera. There's that barrier. There's also the barrier of just experiencing the moment, like in a fiction film. The camera is supposed to be invisible, and then the audience is able to basically project themselves onto the character in that moment, because they believe they're not watching somebody being filmed, they're just watching somebody which is inherently different. I think the best documentaries though like Steve James' Hoop Dreams, these guys filming these people for years, so basically they get to the point where they are being themselves, and are comfortable with the camera being around. But those docs, they take a lot of time, and which people are masterful at. My friends did a doc called The Wedding Room, that was really successful last year and it was vérité stuff. But fiction filmmaking, if you can get amazing performances and great collaborators which I was fortunate enough to have, and these environments, you can get moments where the audience feels right there watching something happen. And that's where you can really get proximity to a character.
Michael B. Jordan: I think sometimes in a documentary people feel forced, like the information is driven home. This is what it is, facts, facts facts. But in art, it's like hiding the medicine in the food by the way, it's easy to digest, and at the end of the project you feel things you didn't expect to feel, and you start to question yourself. Also this side of a day in the life of. From sun up to sundown I could go through your routine, and at the end of the day I could have a pretty good idea of who you are, and know your character. I think that's another way to humanize Oscar Grant and show him where he was going when nobody was looking. That's what defines you as a person, to judge somebody off that.
Do you think you would understand me better if you saw my entire life condensed to a biopic, or a day-in-the-life such as 'Fruitvale Station'?
Jordan: I think the uneventful days for sure, because you're not under stress. But when you're under stress, then you see how people react to things. I think you get more of an idea of somebody on a just day-to-day, with life coming at them.
Coogler: I think with us in this situation, Oscar's dead. He's gone. I can never make a doc that would show you Oscar. But through fiction though, I can show you Oscar. I can get one of the best actors on the planet and dress him up like Oscar, and give him the tools to add to his talent and his tool-set, and we can present something that could represent him, you know what i mean? I think that in terms of the day, spending time with someone in a day, you ask yourself, how many people have you woke up with, spent the day with, and went to sleep with? It's a very intimate thing to do with somebody. You get to see somebody go in the rooms and leave, you can learn a lot about them from that, and see them make their choices in those quiet moments. All I had to do was get an audience to have an intimacy with this story.
After watching 'Fruitvale Station' I was thinking about a similarly composed project from a first-time director, John Singleton's 'Boyz N The Hood'. Do you think there is a difference between the release of that film and now with Fruitvale Station concerning how all audiences accept characters like Oscar, along with the drama, reality, and tragedy of these stories?
Jordan: Not saying that was the first time that has been done before, but in a way Boyz n the Hood was the first time a lot of audience members were getting introduced to those characters. It took a few hit-or-misses for people to really start getting a hold of the idea of accepting those characters, or being comfortable. Sometimes I feel like when you first get introduced to something and people are hesitant or it's kind of shocking, and after a while you see other memorable characters portrayed in a certain light or shot a certain way with a certain subject matter, [the audience] start to understand a little bit more, and become a little bit more familiar with those characters. I think what Ryan did with those characters was something that hasn't really been done before with a character like Oscar in the inner city like that, and it hasn't really been shown like that. I think people are finally at a place where you see people like Oscar Grant, and the way it was done, and a the way it is now, and people are so empathetic, and they want to feel for him. It's this timing thing. I think right now is a perfect time for this. Everything is going on in the world. Trayvon [Martin], all this stuff. Whereas back then it may not have been as accepted or well received during Singleton's time with Ricky and Boyz n the hood.
Coogler: I think art has the ability to bring perspective to certain things. There are so many places in this world I haven't been, but I'll see movies or hear music or see pictures of and I'll feel like I'll know what it's like even though i've never been there. You look at Boyz n the Hood or Do the Right Thing. You look at what Martin Scorsese did with Mean Streets and Goodfellas and what GL did with American Graffiti. They bring you into places that they've been. George Lucas raced cars in Modesto, CA. Spike Lee walked around in Bedford-Stuy on a hot day, and saw police kill somebody for no reason. John Singleton came up in south central LA, and had those friends. Scorsese had those friends at ate at those diners. Art has the ability to bring into the world that somebody else might not be able to go. I think what happened with Boyz n the Hood is that nobody had been to South Central like that, and he had access to that, and he is phenomenally talented as a filmmaker. He gave them access through that film. What happened afterward is that the films started making money, and they said, "Okay, cool you can make money of movies like this, we'll make more of them." A lot of those films came out and the audiences said, "We know what being black is like. We know what being in south central is like." I've been to SC, it's one of the most homogeneous places, blacks, whites, Mexicans, you'll see someone as white as a cop. But people will listen to N.W.A., or watch Boyz n the Hood, and they don't know what it's like to be black. They get that through the media. I think that's what filmmakers do, and often times with their first films. They show places that they grew up in with characters audiences may not get access to, may not usually get to see, in the way that they see them. I love all those films I just mentioned, and feel honored to make a film about the Bay Area with a character that I could bring some proximity to.
Do you believe people are inherently good?
Coogler: I think people are inherently people. I think that people are people. I think there are people who are products of their environment, and I think there are people who affect their environments, and those are two different types of people. Theres' a great line in The Departed, "I don't want to be a part of my environment, I want my environment to be a part of me." I thought that was powerful, because there were people like that. No matter where they were born, they are going to be affected by where they are from. There are some people who are completely product of their surroundings, and I think there are more people like that. I think Oscar is like that.
Jordan: I think it's human nature. It's how you're brought up. It's about the environment you're in, or the parents you have, or it might be a traumatic experience, might be something that alters the way you think or feel about certain things, and sometimes people don't express certain things. How it comes out is how it comes out. We're human, and we're flawed. It might be for good, or for bad. You never know what you're gonna get.
Coogler: I work in juvenile hall in the Bay with kids. Every kid had to have been arrested to get there. Most of the time they're young. And I think that most of the time, people are inherently products of their environment, it's a chemistry that makes up people, coming from DNA that makes the person, what kind of person they are going to be in a situation they are in. A person with no parents is going to be different than somebody in an environment with parents. I think that's what makes people what they are. I don't think it is an inherent black and white.
Quick Questions with Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Coogler: Egg white omelette with spinach, tomato, mushrooms, chicken sausage, and some fruit. Jordan: I had scrambled eggs with cheese, potatoes, chicken sausage. Sharp cheddar. Coogler: He's a cook. Jordan: Yeah, I like cooking a lot.
Last CD you bought or downloaded? Coogler: Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories." Jordan: Wale, "The Gifted."
Do you follow much Chicago rap?
Jordan: I love Common, he's so talented.
What about Chance the Rapper?
Coogler: Our composer Ludwig Göransson makes his music, he's one of his producers. He made that beat for "Interlude (That's Love)". [Chance] raps like Eminem. But no one would ever say that because he's black. It's funny because we talk about this. It's kind of like western culture, to box things and compare things, and it is funny because that no one would say Chance is the next Eminem, they'd rather call him the next someone he looks like.
Favorite blockbuster? Coogler: The Dark Knight. Jordan: That's a tough one.
Favorite fruit? Coogler: Blueberry. Jordan: I'll say it. Watermelon. I know what you say, "break the stereotype!" but we both said chicken sausage, you get that? [laughs] Coogler: Yeah, but it wasn't fried though!
Do you feel that with the amount of spotlight on you guys that you have to be more mindful of what people could associate with stereotypes? Jordan: We can say that between us, we just can't say it out loud. Cooger: You're reminded. Jordan: [laughing] White people probably like [watermelon] more than us.