yan Coogler is calling my cellphone. Have I eaten yet, he asks, and would I mind joining him just a few blocks away at a local hamburger joint? He wants to move our 3 p.m. meeting from a coffee shop to this Oakland restaurant, where he is finally sitting down to lunch with his mother and fiancée. When I arrive, Coogler, dressed in worn jeans and a blue-gray plaid shirt, rises to shake my hand and clear condiments from the table. I apologize for disrupting the family’s meal; I know how hard it is to find time with Coogler after trying to schedule this conversation for weeks. The writer-director has been at the White House hosting a film workshop for high school students with Michelle Obama, or at the Stockholm Film Festival accepting a Best First Film trophy for his debut feature Fruitvale Station, or sitting down for panel discussions and interviews about filmmaking from Manhattan to San Francisco.
It’s the run-up to awards season, after all, and this is what happens when you make a movie like Fruitvale—which portrayed the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young black man who was shot to death by a police officer in Oakland in 2009. In lesser hands, this film could have turned the tragedy into a one-dimensional spectacle. But there is nothing easy about Coogler’s first feature. His protagonist is neither hero nor villain, and when the film ends, we the audience are overcome with grief—despite having known Grant’s fate from the opening frame.
That unsentimental execution would be commendable at any age, but somehow Coogler, 27, expressed this rare artistic and technical mastery barely out of film school, and on a budget of less than a million dollars. And then there’s the film’s commercial and critical success. Fruitvale won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards at Sundance in January, 2013, where it sold to the Weinstein Company for more than $2 million—before going on to gross in excess of $16 million in theaters.
Now the challenge for Coogler, having already established his credentials as a director, and survived the yearlong gauntlet of constant promotion on the festival circuit, is to maintain purity of vision on his next project, Creed—a story set in the Rocky universe.
Accepting a studio franchise reboot, directly following a successful independent debut, can stifle artistic ambition. (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won an Academy Award for The Lives of Others, accepted a job directing the Johnny Depp vehicle, The Tourist, and hasn’t worked in Hollywood since.)
But in Coogler’s case, it was the director himself, not MGM, who spearheaded Creed. After signing with William Morris Endeavor, Coogler approached his agents and shared his deep interest in telling the story of Apollo Creed’s grandson—30 years after his grandfather’s death at the hands of the Russian boxer, Ivan Drago.
Coogler hesitates to discuss specifics about the proposed film he’s co-writing with Aaron Covington, in part because he’d rather finish the movie before revealing anything about it, but also because he’s protective of his privacy. Personal experience inspired Creed, and when it comes to his own history, Coogler won’t say much.
Read the rest of Rebecca Ruiz's profile of Ryan Coogler exclusively in the print edition of BRIGHT IDEAS.
Photos by Evan Lane
Photo assist by Eli Woodhall
Styling by Jeanette Getrost
Grooming by Kira Von Sutra
Special thanks to Waraire Boswell