|Dr. Stan Williams with directors Ryan Coogler & Destin Cretton|
Stan Williams interviews up and coming film directors Ryan Coogler and Destin Cretton
[edited for print]
STAN WILLIAMS: With us today are 2 young acclaimed filmmakers.
Destin Daniel Cretton has written and directed four award-winning short films including SHORT TERM 12 (http://shortterm12.com), which won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance
(A trailer plays of Destin's work)
Please help me welcome Destin Cretton.
(Audience Applause as Destin takes a seat on stage)
Ryan Coogler recently wrote and directed FRUITVALE STATION (http://www.fruitvalefilm.com), co-starring Octavia Spencer—you’ll remember her from THE HELP, which won her an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Ryan developed FRUITVALE at the Sundance screenwriters lab and at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival the completed film was awarded—here we go again—the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award. The first time that’s ever happened at Sundance. He has written and directed several award-winning short films, including FIG, which won the HBO short film-making award and LOCKS, which appeared at the Tri-Beca Film Festival. Ryan is a Fellow in the Disney ABC directing program and a recent graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
(A trailer plays of Ryan's work)
Please help me welcome Ryan Coogler.
(Audience Applause as Ryan takes a seat on stage)
STAN WILLIAMS: Ryan and Destin, because most of us have not seen the films that have brought you here today, please tell us what they are about? Destin, how would you explain SHORT TERM 12, and where does the name come from?
STAN WILLIAMS: And, who have you signed with distribution-wise?
DESTIN CRETTON: Cinedigm is going to be distributing it...in August (2013).
STAN WILLIAMS: Ryan, what is FRUITVALE? Where does the name come from and what’s it about?
STAN WILLIAMS: Who plays the title roles?
RYAN COOGLER: Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant, and Octavia Spencer plays his mom.
[FRUITVALE STATION is being distributed by The Weinstein Company.]
What criteria do you use to figure out what project you're going to pursue and be obsessed about the next year of your life?
RYAN COOGLER: In all the films I’ve had a chance to make, I have always tried to make something that was about something that was important to me, something that I was passionate about, personally -- things that I had questions about in society -- things that I’m struggling with, in myself. If you have a personal passion about something or a personal question about something, or something has effected you on a gut level, either an experience or something that you’ve seen, you can use that energy to drive you through the process of making a film -- and, staying true to that can always be a source of confidence.
STAN WILLIAMS: So, you’re starting from within. You’re not starting from without. Interesting. Because most of the people in this room — sorry for the generalization if it's not true, and perhaps I’m speaking just for myself — want to make films that are going to touch society, change the world, because we have a message, supposedly. But, you guys have just said is that is not how you first approach your films. Is that right?
My first screenplay was… well, I will never show it to another human being, although my intentions were really wonderful. I wanted to write a screenplay that was going to be the commentary on the state of homelessness in America. And, I tried to write this thing. But it is so pretentious and so forced… that it was actually really depressing when I was done and when I started getting feedback. So, I quit for a while. Now, I write for myself. Like, I have no idea what other people are going to connect with. I have no idea what society needs in a story. But I do know the emotions and things that I’m going through in a certain period of my life...and for me, whether or not anyone else likes it, at least I’ll have gained something through the process -- I think.
I come from the Bay area. We’re super diverse; there are a lot of languages spoken by the Bay area. I’m ashamed to admit that English is the only language I know. Sometimes you see a Pilipino couple arguing in Tugaloo, and I don’t understand a word they’re saying, but I know they’re arguing. I know she’s pissed at that guy for something he did, and that’s what I recognize. The situation is specific to the couple, but through their honesty and their
STAN WILLIAMS: Both of you have this desire for honesty, and for it to come from you interiorly; it’s moving you emotionally, and so you’re not worried about what message you have for the world. And while the end products will change the world in some small way, that is not how you've oriented your motivation for the project. Yet, from that interior orientation, as directors you now have the task to translate and transfer those ideas to the set, to your crew, to your cast... and ultimately to your audience. What do you do on the set to make sure that that interior honesty is communicated externally in your film?
I think [hiring people that are in sync with you in these ways] -- the most important part. And, then once you get on set, it’s just making sure that the environment outside of the actually shooting, when you’re not rolling the cameras, that the environment is the best type of environment for what you’re trying to capture on film. [Other than that kind of preparation,] I have no rules for anybody.
DESTIN CRETTON: For SHORT TERM 12 we came up with an aesthetic that we all agreed on, which was that we all did not want our personal, obvious fingerprints on every frame of the movie. Which means basically that we didn’t want to show off. Nobody wanted to show off. I mean, as an artist, I think there is something inside of everybody that wants to show off. Like, when I show you a movie of mine, there’s something inside me that wants you to be like, “Whoa, he thought of that cool shot? My gosh, like he’s so cool!” But, we knew that would harm this particular story. Some movies you’re supposed to do that; so, just go for it. But for this particular movie, the aesthetic that we came up with was we didn’t want to see too much of ourselves flauntingly in the direction, in my DP, in the shots that we were choosing and the set decoration. We wanted it to at least get as close to feeling like it’s just there, as opposed to perfectly created.
STAN WILLIAMS: Ryan, what do you do on the set to bring honesty and truth forward, and transfer it to your crew and cast?
STAN WILLIAMS: What impressed me about the honesty of this film is how the community got behind it. Here you have a BART Station police officer [who is Caucasian], shoot and kill an unarmed black man and it caused chaos in the community at the time. And now [just a few years later] you come back and you get the BART people to help you recreate this event on film in the actual station. Is that true?
RYAN COOGLER: Yeah. I guess so. Yeah, …(chuckles)
STAN WILLIAMS: Talk about honesty, credibility and just authenticity… was it difficult to get to that point?
STAN WILLIAMS: That’s really great, Ryan. Destin, Grace, your 20-something supervisor, why do we care or what's important about her character that we would be interested in her?
STAN WILLIAMS: I think Grace exemplifies a well-rounded character, which we always try to get in a film. One of the ways to do that is by telling not just one story about Grace, but several. Grace has multiple facets in her life. She has her romance life. She has her supervisory life. But, then she also has several subplots exampled in the different teenagers she’s trying to care for. And, so there’s a number of story lines there that remind us of ourselves. Like you said, “We’re never thinking about just one thing.” There’re things that are conflicting, and I think that’s why we identify easy with Grace and why we care about her, because she’s very much like us.
RYAN COOGLER: I think it’s a lot like what Destin says about Grace. I think that for me, a big reason to get involved in the project was because I was in the Bay Area when Oscar was killed, and I’m originally from the area. The crazy thing about him is we were basically the same age. He got killed when he was 22. And, I was 22 at the time.
What happened in the media was that the story got sensationalized. People who were on one side of politics basically dragged his name through the mud and said all the bad things that he had done in his life, almost saying he deserved it [to be killed]. People on the other side, made him out to be a saint, said he had never done anything wrong, and said he was this perfect guy and he just stepped off the train and was shot for no reason.
And I knew that the tragedy in what had happened -- was that his humanity, who he was as a person, and all of the gray areas-- were completely lost. So he became this kind of make-believe guy. Like this kind of face that you see in a paper and you just walk past.
STAN WILLIAMS: And, that’s the other interesting thing about getting a well-rounded character with which audiences can really identify. One aspect is investigating the different facets of the character’s life [the various subplots of their interests and friends]. But the other is realizing that our characters are not perfect and they cannot be purely evil. They’re imperfect individuals who are trying to do better. We, as audiences, identify with that because we know that we’re imperfect. We have problems in our lives, and we’re constantly striving to do better with what we’ve got. And from what I’ve read, that’s exactly what Oscar Grant is.
With that in mind, would you talk to us a little bit about how as protagonists of your own story -- what do you hope to improve? What are the different facets of your life, and how are you struggling as a protagonist toward your goals? What can we learn from you in terms of what you hope to overcome and improve as you go on your journey?
STAN WILLIAMS: But, you see yourselves as protagonists in your own stories, though. You must.
DESTIN CRETTON: It’s a great question… I mean, every film that I’ve done, every short that I’ve done, every documentary that I’ve done has been -- when I’ve decided to start working on it, it’s because there’s something about it that I want to get better at or learn more about. And, the really cool thing about that is, there’s no end. There’s no end! I mean it goes from practical things, like SHORT TERM 12, the short, which was my first exploration of writing dialogue and writing something that was a dialect in a movie.
I did another short because I specifically wanted to build sets. It could be really practical or it could be subject-wise. Right now I’m writing something about that moment in a mother’s life when all the kids leave and she’s redefining herself again because I saw my mom go through it and I’m kind of curious about it, and I want an excuse to go and interview my mom and my grandparents. So, yeah, I don’t think that ever ends. But, I don’t ever think I’ll ever get to a place when I think, yeah, I’m here, where I want to be.
STAN WILLIAMS: This goes back to asking the right questions, not coming up with the right answers.
RYAN & DESTIN: Yes!
STAN WILLIAMS: What you’ve described to me, is that you’re both constantly asking, you’re constantly curious. You’re not here with an agenda. We hear this all the time, that movies are great at asking questions, but they’re not great at providing answers. You want answers? You go listen to the Bishop. The Bishop will give you the answers, right? This afternoon, we’re getting answers. [Pastor (Bishop) Kenneth Ulmer, who delivered the closing keynote, was sitting in front.]
RYAN COOGLER: As soon as I came out of grad school, I started making this film, and I’m still making it. It’s funny, I was talking with Destin backstage, and we are concerned about about the same things -- like trying to figure out our trailers and working with our distributors. So, I still feel like I’m making the film, at this point. I’m still very new to it. What I hope is that I can find a way to continue to make projects that make me uncomfortable that put me in a position of fear. Like each project I’ve ever made, has been about something -- yes, a story that I wanted to tell, but also something that terrified me as a person, and something that I didn’t fully understand. I think through making the film and exploring what those questions are, it’s kind of a way of venting.
I feel like I grow a little bit each time, even though I don’t figure anything out. I leave with even more questions. I hope that I’m able to make a career for myself that enables me to continue to ask those questions, as I continue to explore those things each time. I think that… [turns to Destin] it’s kind of what you’re speaking to, is always to be learning. Always be learning something from the projects and the people that you’re involved with and the subject matter that you’re dealing with. [turns to Destin] You said you wanted to do a short working with dialogue; the same thing here. It’s like I want to do something where I can learn this facet of the craft more and move on to something else once you feel you’ve got an understanding of that. So, that’s what I hope to be able to do. I hope to continue growing as a filmmaker and as a person.
DESTIN & RYAN: (Silence)
STAN WILLIAMS: Awww, come on, guys!
I found that for me to continue to move forward in this industry, I just have to constantly remind myself that other people’s opinions. When I go into a room and I’m talking to executives or whatever, and telling them ideas that I have -- I’m not there to please them, and if they don’t like what I’m saying then it’s fine. It’s not a big deal. We’re not going to work together, and it’s perfectly fine.
I’m also fine working at the pace that I’m working. I feel that I am nearly the opposite of how people in this industry expect you to be: I just move slower than most people. Yet, when I’m on set, we move really quickly. I talk slow, so people think I’m going to write slow and work slow.
But, anyway, all that to say that, the thing that I tell myself is that it’s okay to be exactly who you are in this industry, or in any industry, whatever you’re doing. I teach students sometimes, and some of my students who are really hyper, love like going into a room and working it. And that’s who they are. I’m like, that’s awesome. Do that, if that’s who you are. Other students are really shy, and they are like, "I don’t even know how to pitch anything." That’s perfectly fine. If you came in and pitched me something, I would love you, because I am also shy, and there are people like that. Usually, I find if I go to a networking event, I end up in the corner with the other shy people. But, we’re networking together. (chuckles)
STAN WILLIAMS: Asher Goldstein, your producer did tell me that you shot SHORT TERM 12 in 20 days. That wasn’t slow.
DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah, we didn't move slow. But, I think there’s something about me that seems slow. Regardless, all that to say, I think the most important thing is, just be happy with who you are. It doesn’t have to be terrifying to do this.
STAN WILLIAMS: Great. Thank you so much.
Ryan, what do you want to share with us? What do you know that we need to know?
I also think that if you make stuff that’s important to you, at your base level is important to you, and it's more important to you than anything else in the space of art, I think that you’re going to be fine in terms of making films, whatever that is. It might be something that nobody else really sees as being important, but if it is to you and you can see that clearly, and you can articulate that with other people through your enthusiasm, through your work ethic, and through the passion that you have, you’ll find success on a personal level.
STAN WILLIAMS: Great. Gentlemen, thank you very much. We have a lot to learn from these guys. We so appreciate your being with us today. Thank you.