Fruitvale Station, the first feature film by writer and director Ryan Coogler, was released in 2013. The film received a near 10-minute long standing ovation when it was shown to captivated audiences at both the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. Based on a true story, Fruitvale chronicles the events of December 31, 2008 – the last full day of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s young life. Shot and killed by a transit officer on a subway platform in Oakland’s Fruitvale Station subway stop on January 1, Grant’s death was captured via cell phone. The unwarranted death and the footage sparked widespread protest and riots in the city of Oakland. A Bay Area native, Coogler was touched by the story and decided to write a film about Grant, who was the same age as Coogler at the time of his death. We’re grateful to Coogler, Michael B. Jordan and all of the people involved in the making of this film for humanizing Grant and giving him his voice back. Read on for secrets behind the making of Fruitvale Station.
Piecing Together the Story
Writer and director Ryan Coogler became close with Oscar Grant’s family, and interviewed everyone Grant saw and interacted with on Dec. 31, 2008. Coogler also utilized cell phone records and legal documents to determine what happened prior to his death.
Budget and Schedule
Coogler’s first feature film, Fruitvale was shot in two weeks with a budget of less than $1 million. Due to the restricted budget, Coogler and his crew couldn’t afford to shut down streets, so a lot of onlookers often surrounded the set. Coogler also invited some of his friends to participate in the movie, playing Grant’s friends.
Michael B. Jordan
In preparation for the role, Jordan spent time with Grant’s mother, as well as his daughter, girlfriend Sophina, and his best friends. Doing so not only allowed him to understand each of their relationships with Oscar, but it also proved to be very beneficial to the film.
When writing the Fruitvale Station script, Coogler had only one person in mind to play Grant: Michael B Jordan.
Prior to becoming tapped to star in Fruitvale Station, Jordan had seen the video of Grant’s shooting death. He watched it over and over again, searching for a reason as to why the officer shot Grant. But like most of us, he couldn’t find one. “I was upset; I was angry and frustrated, and I felt helpless,” Jordan said.
Four years later, he received Coogler’s script and found himself crying uncontrollably as he read it. “Not only was it a beautiful story; I found a way to express myself through my work. And I jumped at the opportunity.”
Spending time with Grant’s family and friends, Jordan discovered just how complex of a man Oscar Grant was. “Everybody gave their own perspective of him because he was a different person to everybody,” Jordan told Backstage. “He was very complex. Oscar was a people pleaser; he wanted to keep everybody happy. He got tired of letting down the most important people in his life. Over time, it started to weigh on him, and he wanted to change for them.”
Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer played opposite Jordan as Grant’s mother. Jordan referred to Spencer as one of the most giving actresses he knows, selfless and void of ego.
In addition to Grant’s death, Trayvon Martin had just been killed around the time Octavia Spencer was made aware of Fruitvale Station. She initially felt like she was too angry to take on the role of Grant’s mother, and that her anger wasn’t the best emotion to bring to the story. Then she read the script and was immediately captivated by Coogler’s storytelling skills. She knew she could play the role.
Diaz played Grant’s girlfriend, Sophina. Like Jordan, she spent time with Grant’s family to get a better understanding of who he was. Diaz quickly learned that Sophina is “so unconditional.” That knowledge grounded Diaz and helped her to portray Sophina on camera.
How did Forest Whitaker become involved with Fruitvale Station? In 2011, he was looking for projects to develop for his production company. One of Coogler’s film school professors from USC helped him score a meeting with Whitaker. One of the projects that Coogler discussed was Fruitvale. The rest, as they say, is history.
Advice From an Oscar Winner
Whitaker, who produced Fruitvale Station, made a suggestion to Jordan that made a huge difference. Whitaker told him not to imitate Oscar Grant, but rather, to represent him.
She was not involved in the film early on in the process, but Octavia Spencer ended up becoming a co-executive producer midway through filming after a lot of the film’s funding fell through. Spencer made some calls to friends who provided money, and also pitched in her own money to help get past that hurdle. That’s when producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker offered her the co-EP credit.
According to Coogler, the BART system management “were very open to extending an olive branch to the community in terms of letting us tell the story.” This included letting Coogler and his crew film three four-hour night shoots at the actual Fruitvale station, where the horrific events occurred.
The Final Scene
The cast and crew spent two weeks rehearsing that single, culminating scene, and during the evenings before filming at the Fruitvale station at 1:15 a.m., they prepped all of the scene’s moving parts in the parking lot across the street for four or five hours.