Only 27, Ryan Coogler is already living the dream. Namely, the dream that all aspiring filmmakers have during those sleepless nights, wondering if their first passion project will ever be seen by anyone outside of their inner circle. Coogler, though, submitted his independently produced debut, Fruitvale Station, into the prestigious, career-making Sundance Film Festival, watched it premiere to rave reviews and immediate buzz this past January, and walked on stage to accept to major Sundance awards for his work, the Audience Award for dramatic features and, even bigger, the Grand Jury Prize for dramas. Then, in May, it won Best First Film at the even more esteemed Cannes Film Festival.
Harvey Weinstein—the Hollywood heavyweight whose distribution company, The Weinstein Company, purchased Fruitvale Station for a reported $2 million out of Sundance—and everyone else who's been enamored by his film might be surprised to learn that the Oakland, CA, native didn't initially set out to make movies. At one time, he was just a Chewbacca-loving gridiron star.
Ryan Coogler: "I played football when I was younger, but before I started playing football, I didn't really fit in anywhere. I was having trouble finding myself. I lived in a rough neighborhood in Oakland. My parents were both really forward-thinking, even though they didn't have much money between them. But they were really focused on raising me and my little brothers right. They're just really great people. They put me in private school, so back in my neighborhood I didn't fit in because I had two parents and walked around with Catholic school clothes on, and in the private school I didn't fit in because I didn't have any money.
I would just read a lot, since I didn't have many friends, and when I did hang out with kids, I hung out with the nerds. [Laughs.] I had this one friend who told me about Star Wars; he was the only white kid in our school, and I hung out with him. We'd have these little air-lightsaber fights, just real nerdy stuff, but it was fun for me at the time. Once I started playing sports, though, I fit in everywhere. I fit in back in the hood, I fit while I was in school. Stuff changed for me through sports, but I still remained a geek on the inside. I hung out with a lot of different types of people.
For college, I got a scholarship for football, for this small liberal arts school in the bay, called Saint Mary's College. They actually have a really good hoops team, they go to the NCAA tournament a lot. I went there to play football, I was a wide receiver, and I majored in chemistry. I figured, if the football thing didn't work out, I would try to become a doctor. My freshman year, I had this creative writing class, and the teacher, I'll never forget, she starts talking about how she hates football and how it's barbaric. [Laughs.] We got into an argument, but then she assigned us a project where we had to write about our most emotionally intense experience. I wrote about something I hadn't told many people about before, I turned it in, and after she read it, she asked me to stay after class one day.
I thought I was in trouble. I went in, sat down, and talked to her, and she was basically like, 'So, what do you want to be when you grow up?' I told her I wanted to be a doctor, and she hit me back with, 'Why do you want to do that?' I said, 'Well, I'm good at it, and I think I can use to do positive things in our community.' She's like, 'That's cool, but I read your paper, and you write really visually. I felt like I was right there with you. Would you ever think about becoming a screenwriter?' At that point, I thought she was crazy. I didn't even know what a screenplay looked like. I left, though, and I stayed up thinking about it all night. I went online and found the Pulp Fictionscreenplay, that was the first screenplay I'd ever looked at. So I opened up Microsoft Word and I started trying to do my own mock version of it.
I quickly fell in love with it, and I started writing my own scripts from there. That school, St. Mary's, dropped their football program because it wasn't financially stable, so I then got a scholarship to Sacramento State. I went there, switched my major to finance, and started taking all of the film class electives, on the side. I was taking, like, 24 credits a semester. I completely fell in love with filmmaking. Once I was done playing ball, I applied to film school at USC, got in, went there, and made filmmaking my primary focus.
I still love different genres like science fiction today as much as I did when I was a kid, but where my deepest interests lie are in providing three-dimensional perspectives of people you don't normally get to see three-dimensional perspectives of. I think film has that power to bring you into worlds that you'd otherwise not be able to go into. I realized that when I started to watch foreign films, cinema out of Europe and Latin America. I loved it, because here were these worlds that I'd never been to, probably would never go to, watching the kinds of people I'd never get the chance to meet, but I related to them so much by the end of the film.
I realized, man, film really has this power, and I have access to certain types of people in intimate ways. I always like to tell detailed stories from the inside out. People can be from Schenectady or, say, Rochester, and go see a film about somebody from the area where I'm from, who they probably never met anyone like, but then leave the film with some insight into who that person really is. There's more to the human condition that's relatable than not relatable, I think, and films can bridge that gap. Like with my film and Oscar Grant, someone from the suburbs can see Fruitvale Station and, I hope, relate to how he's really trying to become a better man, a better father, a better partner for his girl."