Even though he and Oscar Grant lived in the same area and shared similar experiences, Ryan Coogler had never actually met the late Bay Area native or any of his friends. He'd written a first draft of Fruitvale (the film's original Station-less title) only using his own secondhand research, but to fully understand the man, Coogler needed to spend as much time as possible with those who were closest to Grant: his mother Wanda Johnson), girlfriend (Sophina), and he and Sophina's daughter, Tatiana, who was 5 when her father died.
The same went for Coogler's actors, Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz, though further opening emotional wounds, merely three years after Grant was killed, wasn't easy.
Coogler: "I ended up having a lot of access to Oscar's family, but initially I didn't. For the first draft of the script that I wrote, the one I turned into the Sundance Labs, I just used the publicly available documents from the criminal case and the municipal case, and what was cool about that was that everything that was said in court was publicly available. It's similar to what's happening with the Treyvon Martin case right now. Everybody was under oath, so I was able to read about what all of the cops said, what all of Oscar's friends said."
"So I wrote that draft, and once Forest Whitaker was backing the project, the family started to engage with the project more and sign over the life rights. Forest Whitaker's production company, Significant Productions, reached out to my mentor at USC film school asking about young talent, and that's how my name came up. I went in to meet with the head of Forest's production company, Nina Yang Bongiovi, and she was saying Forest was working on a TV show called Criminal Minds at the time, and that they were interested in television. I showed them some things I had written, and since she liked my stuff, she got me in a room to sit down with Forest and talk about some projects. When he asked about projects I was interested in making, I mentioned Fruitvale, and he really responded to it. That was in spring 2011, when he came on board as a producer for the project. That was my last year in film school, too."
"That was when I was able to sit down with all of Oscar's family to interview them. I talked to Sophina, I talked to his mom, I talked to Tatiana, I talked to his friends. From there, I was able to pepper into the script everything I'd learned about Oscar from their stories, and that's when Oscar started to come alive as a character. He started taking on the three-dimensional qualities that I was looking for."
Jordan: "Talking to Oscar's family was a little awkward at first. I was a little hesitant. You're thinking about what they're thinking about you. You know it's still fresh for them, it's only four years old. I know, me personally, I wouldn't be over it yet. I sat down with his mother, Wanda, first, and then I had the chance to talk to Sophina and hear about their relationship and how they treated one another. Then I got to hang out with his best friends, and go to the park, order some BBQ, play some Dominoes, drink a little bit. The stories just flowed from there. It helped that I was on The Wire, too, because they were all huge Wire fans. [Laughs.] That definitely broke the ice a little bit and made it more comfortable."
"I can't talk to Oscar, you know? That couldn't happen. So it was important for me to hear the different perspectives of Oscar. He was different around everybody, so I heard about different versions of him. And thankfully, through Ryan's due diligence of researching so much, he really did most of the heavy lifting for us actors."
Diaz: "It was really intense for me, meeting Sophina for the first time. When we first met, it was more about getting to know her as a person—I didn't want to have her talk about the most terrible day of her life right away. I wanted to earn her trust, and soon after, we started hanging out some more. We got our nails done together, we went shopping. It was serious bonding time. I wanted her to be involved with my Sophina's physicality, the way she dresses, to make it more authentic."
"The more we hung out together, the more she opened up, and we were able to start talking about her relationship with Oscar. It's still extremely painful for her, and she's still angry. She hasn't seen the film yet, and I doubt if she ever will, to be honest. I totally respect that. It's still weird for me—I know this is a movie, and I'm playing a role, but it's also someone's life, and someone's real pain."
Coogler: "The story of Oscar Grant was always very clear to me, even before I started speaking with his family. I was always focused on the fact that he died unnecessarily, and the fact that his death had an impact. Not the impact that came from the media, or from the results of the trial, but the impact on the people who knew this person, who expected him to come home and were deeply hurt when he didn't. It's the fact that so many young black males die at the hands of a gun, no matter whether it's a white person or another young black male pulling the trigger. These young lives get ended before these men get a chance to become the people they truly want to be. I found the tragedy in that."
"It was important for me to end the film with his daughter, and not with any of the trial or what happened after his death, because that was what I was more interested in. It's more about the intimate impact, because those are the people who are affected the most by these tragedies. Those are the people who get glossed over, especially when a case gets publicized as much as Oscar's has. When people hear about this case, they're hearing about the trial, about how much time the cop is getting, about the riots and the protests—that's what's publicized. That was what there was footage of and reports on. There wasn't reports about how his girl had to tell his daughter that he daddy wasn't coming back."
"The most important people in Oscar's life were his mom, his girlfriend, and his daughter—three women. For me, his mom represented his past, his girlfriend represented his present, and his daughter, who was the most important person in his life, represented his future. It made perfect sense to end the film with his daughter, because his future got cut short."