“Call me. I’m a money player. Seriously.”
That’s what the ruddy-faced middle-aged white gentleman said to Ryan Coogler, the 26-year-old first-time writer-director of Fruitvale, as he shoved a business card into the young African-American man’s hand by way of introduction.
Seven days ago, Coogler was a complete unknown, a former college football player turned USC film student who’d captured the attention of Forest Whitaker’s production company with a trio of short films. But when Fruitvale premiered last Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, dramatizing the real-life tragedy of Oscar Grant, the young black man shot in the back by Oakland transportation police in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Coogler’s life changed. There was the standing ovation at the MARC Theater in Park City. There were the hugs and tears from Grant’s family members who attended the premiere. And then there was the avalanche of business cards from industry titans and wannabes who see Coogler as Sundance’s latest wunderkind, this year’s Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
Coogler was the same age as Grant and living in the Bay Area when the 22-year-old was shot in the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, and he remembers the community outrage, especially since shocked New Year’s Eve revelers recorded the shooting with their cellphones and quickly uploaded it to the Internet. When Whitaker took an interest in Coogler’s fledgling film career and asked for ideas, the young auteur quickly pitched Grant’s story. The Oscar winner signed-off on the spot, and before long, Coogler was presiding over a hometown production starring Friday Night Lights’ Michael B. Jordon as Oscar and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as his worried mother.
On Thursday night, Coogler took the stage again after a packed screening at Eccles Theater, Sundance’s biggest showcase. Another standing ovation. More handshakes and business cards. More “money players” circling — though the movie had already sold to The Weinstein Company.
Coogler sat down with EW to discuss the effusive reception to Fruitvale and his whirlwind week at Sundance.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Oscar Grant was shot in 2009, where were you?
RYAN COOGLER: I was home for Christmas break from USC. I was working security at a rave called Sea of Dreams in San Francisco. I was just working the door for extra money. I got a call: somebody had been shot at the BART station in front of like a 10-car train full of people. He had no gun on him and the cops shot him. I was like, “That’s crazy.” And by the time I got home, maybe like 10 a.m., he had already passed away. It was already all over the internet. READ FULL STORY »