It's a remarkable coincidence (or maybe it isn't) that the tremendous, emotionally gripping docudrama FRUITVALE STATION is hitting theaters in the shadow of the verdict delivery in the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. The circumstances surrounding Martin's death are very different than those of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009. Grant (played in this film by the incredible Michael B. Jordan) was essentially executed by a transit cop, who eventually went to jail for a ridiculously short amount of time.
But FRUITVALE STATION isn't about death; it's about the last 24 hours in the life of a young man struggling to leave a bad life behind him and start things over again in a positive way with the help of three wonderful women--his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), his mother (Octavia Spenser), and his young daughter (Ariana Neal). This enormous amount of research and interviews with everyone Grant came into contact with that day was conducted by the film's writer-director Ryan Coogler, making his feature debut, which won top awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals.
Coogler has no interest in making Grant appear to be either hero or villain. He simply sees him as a person who did not deserve to get taken out of this world in such a brutal manner, and there's really no arguing that point. I had a chance to talk with Jordan and Coogler in Chicago recently, both during a Q&A after a screening of the film that was introduced by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the following day in a more traditional interview setting.
I wish I had recorded the Q&A, because between the two interviews, we covered the film from pretty much every angle. I'm still very happy with what we talked about on Day 2, but the more you hear about Coogler and Jordan's feelings on their subject and those around him, the more fascinating the story becomes. Known by many for his role in last year's found-footage superhero film CHRONICLE, Jordan has been one of my favorite young actors since he played Wallace on the first season of "The Wire," then went on to such series as "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood." Since then, he's appreared in such films as RED TAILS, HOTEL NOIR, and is set to appear in January 2014 in the romantic comedy ARE WE OFFICIALLY DATING?, co-starring Zac Efron, Miles Teller, and Imogen Poots. And let's not forget, he's still a very solid candidate for playing the Human Torch in director Josh Trank's reboot of THE FANTASTIC FOUR. Fingers crossed.
Please enjoy my talk with Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler, and go see FRUITVALE STATION as soon as possible. It's playing now in New York and L.A., and opens wider this weekend.
Capone: Hey, it’s good to see you again.
Michael B. Jordan: It’s good to see you. How are you?
Capone: Good. One thing we did not talk about last night, which I find fascinating is about how important it was for you guys to shoot on location, in these spots where these events actually occurred, especially the BART station. Tell me about why that was important and specifically about the emotion of shooting right there at that station.
MBJ: I think it was really important, especially to Ryan, but to everybody involved. Things just wouldn’t be the same if you were trying to fake it or fudge or if we shot in L.A. or another city. We had a certain responsibility to the community to get it done up there. As far as shooting at the actual Fruitvale station, it was heavy. That was the spot. That was the place where it happened. Even on the platform today, passengers won't stand on that side where it happened. Most likely people won't be standing there, because it’s just an eerie feeling, very emotional.
Before shooting, we all huddled up and prayed that everything would run smoothly as we were dealing with live fire arms, dealing with re-enacting such a tragedy, such a crazy incident, and we only had four hours to shoot there. I know for me laying down on that platform like Oscar did, going through the motions, I was scared for my life. I felt like I was going to die every time I did a take. It was very emotional. And I prayed to him a lot for me personally. Sometimes when I get lost, or if I lose my way a little bit, I talk to myself, but I’m talking to him, and it’s like I just give myself a little pep talk with him in mind to help me get focused. I think that helped me get through it, like “What was that young man going through at the time?” I think it was very important for us to shoot at that location.
Ryan Coogler: For me it was a creative decision, and I’m not sure if it was the right one or the wrong one, but I thought that because Oscar in many ways was a product of his environment--nd it’s an environment that I know fairly well, the Bay Area [Coogler is from the area]--it’s a very specific place, and I thought that on top of the fact that this case happened in the Bay Area and the trial moved. The defense made a motion for the trial to move to Los Angeles. So I thought to shoot this anywhere else would be a big slap in the face to the community.
With the Bay Area filmmaking community, in terms of jobs, we couldn’t have done it without the community. The community opened their doors to us in so many ways. We shot it in family members' houses of mine. We shot in huge institutions that not necessarily were being painted positively. San Quentin to open their doors to us, BART opened their doors to us, Highland Hospital opened their doors. to us.
Capone: I can’t believe that BART would open their doors to you.
RC: We only had four hours on that platform, but we shot a lot of BART locations, and it was important to me because of that thematic idea of this character and these characters being products of their environments. In many ways for me, it was a motif that came about--the color yellow and institutional locations. We looked at BART and saw the yellow warning signs. And I used one-point perspectives; any time you see a one-point perspective and you’re seeing yellow, Oscar is in an institutional location. You hear that very much in urban places that idea of “he's on one-track right there--you’re either going to end up dead or in jail.” That’s the track that’s laid out for so many young black males like Oscar.
When he was born, his dad was incarcerated. He had a relationship with his father, but his father was in prison for his whole life. In many ways, you could say he was on a track that he couldn’t get off of, and yellow for me came from him actually being in a location and looking at these places and recognizing that where these places have institutional lighting.
I’m not saying this is the right way to do it, but for me it felt right, because I felt that maybe these environments would have an effect on our cast and our crew, especially our cast, being in the real places, to get Mike into a real prison search room and have him searched by a real guard and hire real inmates there. That’s what we did, and I felt like I was giving them things to feed off of and that that was the right way to go about it.
MBJ: He gave us the tools that we needed for those scenes, 100 percent.
Capone: I thought I read somewhere that the bullet hole was still in the Fruitvale platform when you shot. Is that right?
RC: They fixed it.
Capone: But was it there when you were there?
RC: Yeah, but they fixed it.
Capone: What I actually heard was that the bullet hole was there, and that you placed Michael's mid-section right over the bullet hole when you filmed. Is that true?
RC: Yeah. I don’t even think they knew it was there. Since they found out, they repaired it.
MBJ: "So that's where it happened." [Shakes his head] That’s so crazy that they overlooked that.
Capone: That they missed that?
RC: I don't know, man. To be honest, BART was super supportive on this project, and the whole community was. It was something that was very moving for me, being from there. For me, this film was not about finger pointing. And somebody can make that film, not to say that that’s the right thing or the wrong thing to do. For me, it was really about looking at this guy’s life, looking at the relationships in his life. What happens on that platform is like 10 minutes of the movie, 10 minutes of an hour-and-a-half film, and to me the film was about the other things, what was lost.
Capone: With each new person that he comes into contact with, he’s like a different person, but I think really what it is is that each of these people brings something different out in him. None of it is disingenuous; it’s all really him. Then when everyone comes together at the mom’s birthday party, he’s got to be all of those people that we’ve seen parts of, because he’s around everybody. I’m a huge fan of films that drop us into a day in the life of somebody. A lot of European films do that quite successfully, works from France, Romania. Was that an influence on you taking that approach?
RC: Absolutely. Dardenne brothers are some of my favorites. I looked at a lot of films for influence. I watch a lot of films. I would sit down with a lot of my collaborators, Mike included, and recommend films.
Capone: Can you tell me some of the films you watched?
RC: It’s a long list. [laughs] Are you ready?
Capone: Yeah, absolutely.
RC: I mean, there’s FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS, FISH TANK, A PROPHET, CITY OF GOD, BICYCLE THIEVES, BLUE VALENTINE, REVANCHE.
MBJ: THE WRESTLER.
RC: THE WRESTLER was one. I looked at a lot of performances I wanted him to watch, movies that are just basically the camera on somebody’s face for two hours. I gave him recent ones like A PROPHET, THE WRESTLER, THERE WILL BE BLOOD. I wanted him to check out what movies like that looked like, and then there’s the huge obvious influences like DO THE RIGHT THING, LA HAINE, there’s ELEPHANT. These are all 24-hour-based films where you know some shit is about to happen, but you follow these characters and you get attached to them and you forget.
Capone: Oh, of course.
RC: BREATHLESS. AMORES PERROS.
Capone: There are films like that where in that period nothing huge happens, and yet we feel like by the end, you know so much about a person.
RC: Yeah, quiet moments. That’s why I talk so much about the Dardenne brothers films. For me in many ways, FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS was just big, and in terms of long takes. And that film is such an achievement, because it’s a master’s class in terms of tension, because throughout that film I’m incredibly tense and I’m not sure why. In our film, we know why. We shoot the footage up top [FRUITVALE STATION opens with actual cel phone video of Oscar Grant's death]. In FOUR WEEKS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS, it opens on a fish bowl. It’s a huge symbolic thing, but you know that film was really just incredible.
Any film I can get my hands on where it felt like I was watching somebody’s life, I was all over, especially when they are rooted in incredible performances. I think FISH TANK crosses over into that. And BICYCLE THIEVES, and the fact that they made me go back and rewatch it. The fact that you see something twice, and the second time you see it, you’ve got so much more perspective, where you see a bicycle get stolen twice, and the first time you hate the dude that stole it, and the next time you understand what it is.
I think with young African-American males dying, you’re seeing it happen all of the time, especially if you’ve got distance from that community. And often times for me, these are my friends that are getting shot and killed, but for somebody who has distance from that community, you see it and it’s like, “That’s a shame,” and you go about your day, but if it’s somebody you know…
Capone: It’s easy not to get emotionally involved when you hear, “Three more people died over the weekend." "Okay, it wasn’t anybody I knew.”
RC: Yeah, it was still a human being. Somebody knew him.
Capone: Honestly, the first thought in my head after this movie ended was, “Everybody who dies like this needs a movie made about them, or no one is going to care.”
RC: That’s real, man. That’s absolutely right though, and it shouldn’t be that way. I think that unfortunately--I wish we could talk more--it’s not that way for everybody. [almost whispering] There’s certain people that look a certain way, and when they die it’s different, and there’s more of an uproar. You see that and that’s talked about, especially here in Chicago. How many young people have died this year? Has there been a national outcry for gun legislation because it was happening here?
Capone: Not especially.
RC: Nobody is saying, "Oh we have to change gun laws for Chicago." People are saying they’ve got to change it for Newtown [Connecticut]. They’re saying that, you follow me? So my question is, what’s the value of a human life? Are some human lives more valuable than others? Why is that?
Capone: The other thing the film made me remember is that, in most cases, we do not wake up knowing we're going to die that day. And you made a good point last night that in some communities, you keep that in the back of your mind that you might day any day now. Both are true. This particular day was a day I think it was going kind of well for Oscar.
RC: It’s in the back of your mind, not the front. For some people, it’s constantly in the back of their minds, and it influences the way you live. [to Michael] I mean, you’re from Newark.
RC: I’m from the Bay Area, and there are certain things that we’ve always got to be on alert. I just sat down and had lunch with this young lady [Points to publicist in the room], and what happened when we sat down?
[She says, “We moved to the corner.”]
RC: I can’t sit with my back to the door.
MBJ: Never. You always have to see what’s going on, who’s going in and who is going out. The same with me.
Capone: That’s like an Italian gangster thing, too.
RC: What it is is coming from that area where you sat down before and stuff jumped off, and all of a sudden everybody’s life is at risk.
MBJ: Yep. You want the best advantage, you want to be able to see stuff coming, you never want to be caught off guard, you always want to have the best advantage.
Capone: There’s that scene in the train where that other group comes in, and everyone is reacting like immediately and starts getting ready for something bad to happen. I could literally talk about that for hours.
RC: All day! It’s good to see you again. It's nice to see a familiar face. It’s rare to see somebody twice within 24 hours.
Capone: Is it going to be weird for you with your next film and maybe not have this level of personal connection to the subject.
RC: I hope to. I’m working on a high school football movie in the Bay.
Capone: Michel has a little experience with that.
RC: [jokes] What are you talking about? This guy doesn't know anything about high school or football. He's never played anything like that. -- Steve Prokopy "Capone" firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Me On Twitter