Saturday, June 1, 2013


Dr. Stan Williams with directors Ryan Coogler & Destin Cretton
Biola Media Conference, Morning General Session, May 4, 2013
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 (, which won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance
Film Festival and made the short list for the 2010 Academy Awards. We should all be jealous. His featured script, Short Term Twelve, developed from the same material, was awarded a Nicole Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film went into production last year in September, 2012, and premiered then at the 2013 South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), where… now get this… Short Term Twelve won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award, an unprecedented achievement. Destin’s feature film debut, I AM NOT A HIPSTER, also premiered at Sundance in 2012.

(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 (, 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?

DESTIN CRETTON: SHORT TERM 12 is the name of a foster care facility where probably eighty-percent of the movie takes place. It follows the story of Grace, who’s a mid-twenty year old supervisor the facility, and she’s in charge of about 16 or so teenagers. The story just tracks her through a piece of her life where she significantly has some issues that she’s dealing with both personally and with the kids. It’s at a point in her life where she’s figuring out how to finally deal with the stuff from her own past that she’s been avoiding.

STAN WILLIAMS: And, who have you signed with distribution-wise?

DESTIN CRETTON: Cinedigm is going to be distributing August (2013).

STAN WILLIAMS: Ryan, what is FRUITVALE? Where does the name come from and what’s it about?

RYAN COOGLER: Fruitvale, comes from the name of a district in Oakland, CA. It’s also the name of a BART [Bay Area Rail Transit] Station. The movie deals with the 2009 BART police officer involved shooting of Oscar Grant, who was a 22-year old male in the Bay Area. The story follows Oscar and reimagines his day leading up to him being shot. He was shot on New Year’s Day, 2009, so the film follows him on New Year’s Eve, which so happens to be his mom’s birthday.

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.]

STAN WILLIAMS: Gentlemen, as you’ve experienced many times before, interviews like this are opportunities to talk about craft. How did you do that? How did you get that performance? How did you land Octavia, you know, attach her? How did you find the funding, is a question we all want to know, right? And, obviously you guys have mastered a great deal of this craft, otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten the awards and the acclaim that you’ve both gotten, and you’re to be commended for that obviously, that goes without saying.

But, we think there’s some deeper reason why you guys are being successful, …and why people are being just totally obsessed and attracted to your film. And, that’s why we want to ask the question “Why?” Why are you picking the films that you’re picking? Why are you going after these stories and—we talk about filmmaking being an obsessive affair, an affair with obsession, because it’s so all-encompassing, especially as the film-maker and the director. But, why do you… how do you… I guess the question I should ask first

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.

DESTIN CRETTON: I think the best things I write are the things that I’m feeling as my fingers are on the keys. When I’m writing a scene about a character who is making a mistake or a character who is doing something so frustrating -- when I’m writing those scenes -- I’m pissed. Or, sometimes, and it’s strange personally, when I step back and I look at the things that I’m doing, I have no idea …I don’t think I have that great of an idea. But, there are times when I make myself cry when I’m writing. And, it’s because I think it feels similar to writing in a diary or writing in a journal where I’m processing my thoughts through these other people’s lives that I’m writing about. For some reason that [personalization] helps me process things better than if I’m just thinking about it all by myself.

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?

DESTIN CRETTON: I thought like that for a long time. And this is just completely personal, it's my personality, but I get stressed out easily. I grew up on an island, Maui, where things are slow. Consequently, I get intimidated really easily and I can freeze. Like when I was going through college, I was operating under the idea that “I want to make movies that change the world!” That won’t change just one person, but that are going to go down in history as the thing that changed society. That pressure was way too much for this guy to handle, and it would paralyze my writing.

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.

RYAN COOGLER: What you’re talking about here is how people are connecting with your films. It’s honesty. You’re being honest with yourself when you write, as oppose to going from the outside-in, e.g. your homelessness script. Now, you’re going from the inside-out. You’re being honest with yourself to the point where you make yourself cry when you write. You’re burying yourself into your script, through being specific and honest with yourself as an artist. Human beings [audiences] recognize honesty. They recognize when something is being truthful… in any language.

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
specificity, others can relate to them and recognize and be moved by their situation. So, I think that that’s why your films (both of them) affect people the way they do. Because, you (Destin) were being honest; you were cutting out the pretention and all of that stuff, and people recognize that and are moved.

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?

DESTIN CRETTON: A lot of it has to do with before you get on the set. For instance, it’s who you choose to be working with and whether your actors really get what you’re doing -- and whether they are connecting on an honest level. You want to make sure your actors actually want to do the character and the film and not just perform. I mean certain actors will look at a role and just see that they can kill it in this performance and further their career. And, other actors will want to do this because they are in love with the material and really get something about that character. And, the same goes with your DP. (Director of Photography) and everyone on your crew and your producers.

If there is a sour apple in that barrel, it’s going to just start spreading and there’ll be maggots everywhere. It’ll be disgusting and smell really bad. So, for me, it’s making sure everybody is very clear about what the story is, and how the serious moments of it are part of the tone of the set -- in those moments. And then, there are the fun moments where you want things to be sporadic and you want people smiling. When you hit “cut” and you want people joking around, and having a crew that’s willing to go through that with you.

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.

STAN WILLIAMS: Destin, your producer told me that you try to leave the set in such a way that your hand, the film-maker’s hand it not seen? Can you explain what that means in terms of honesty?

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?

RYAN COOGLER: I only made one feature. And it was FRUITVALE. With this situation, it was more about making sure the film was shot in the Bay Area where the event happened. And then, once we crewed up, making sure the crew knew how important the film was not only to me as a film-maker but to the community where I was involved -- both the film-making community and the community at large. I think that helped us a lot in terms of dealing with all that adversity that you deal with on a film set. You know how it is, especially making films for small budgets, where the days are long, there’s not a lot of people for everything that you need, and the talent doesn’t have as many amenities as they may be used to on larger projects. It was that spirit of doing something for something greater than everybody individually that helped to bring us through.

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?

RYAN COOGLER: It wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t say it was difficult either. The film itself isn’t really about the shooting or the trial. It doesn’t really sensationalize those things. The film is really about Oscar and about the community, and I presented it to them like that. I met with BART officials and sat down and talked with them about how we weren’t going to film or record anything that happened [in the shooting] but we would like to film in the actual locations to be honest. And, I told them what the film would be about and how we like to do it, and they agreed to treat us like any other project.

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?

DESTIN CRETTON: I don’t know why anyone else should care about Grace, but I know why I care about Grace. (chuckles)  I think most people can personally identify with things that she’s going through --very basic things that she avoids dealing with -- something that you have to deal with at some point, just something inside you that you just [put off] because you know it’s going to be long and hard and really difficult to even think about. And, so you just keep putting it off and putting it off, and that’s basically the struggle of Grace. So, regardless of whether or not you are dealing with something as specific as she is -- and I am personally both close to people who do that and I do that quite a bit myself -- she’s also just a really a nice person. She’s cool!

We were really careful with the way she is portrayed, because she is a character who always has something on her mind. Even when she’s laughing at a joke or smiling or having a decent moment, she always has this thing in the back of her mind that’s a little more brooding, so it was a careful balance to not show somebody on screen who is depressing to watch. But, yeah, I think she’s a cool person.

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, why do we care about Oscar Grant? Now, I want to ask that, not in terms of the headlines and his killing, but before that. And, that’s what most of your film is about, the life before the headline event. Why do we care? And can you tell us a little bit about how you make us care about Oscar Grant?

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.

I think that when you know someone personally, that the things about them that make them human are the things that are very gray -- the good things and the bad things and they’re never completely one or the other. So, I think that we tried to show those aspects of Oscar, those aspects of him that everyone can relate to. We tried to show what he was struggling with, showing him with his family, showing what he cared about, showing him with his friends. Everybody has those things, and they can relate to that. So, one of the reasons that people care about him in the film is that we see all sides of him and we get to hang out with him on his day.

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.

RYAN COOGLER: Yes. It was interesting because the day that he lost his life was New Year’s Eve. That’s usually a time when everybody has a holiday, everybody celebrates, it's everybody's time of celebration. It’s a time where people tend to be optimistic. They look forward to a clean slate, a new year. So, it’s interesting that that day would be the day [he would be killed]. We see him on a day where he’s struggling. Imagine that somebody on New Year’s Eve is hungry for cupcakes, [or something bad for them]. They're tempted to eat cupcakes, but they don't because they know they would struggle if they gave in to the temptation. In a lot of ways, Oscar is like that. He’s trying to do better, at least for a day. And, I think everybody can identify with that, trying to break habits and doing that first day, whether it’s cigarettes or food or the Internet, which I think all filmmakers are probably are addicted to (chuckle). But characters like that -- I think people relate to.

STAN WILLIAMS: We’ve been talking about how audiences relate to your protagonists and your characters, in your movies. But, most of us in this room are filmmakers, and you guys are like protagonists, of your own story, and we’re watching your story. We’re reading about it in the press, we’re up here talking it out, and we’re talking about the different facets of your lives as a director, and I'm sure this interview is touching on some of the things those of us in this room want to improve on as filmmakers.

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?

DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah. I can talk for like a full day about things I want to improve.

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.


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, what about you? What do you hope to overcome and improve on your journey?

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.

STAN WILLIAMS: One last question for both of you. You’re two humble guys with a lot of talent. But just for a moment, step out of the humility. I know, this is going to be hard, but you do know something William Goldman famously wrote in his book Adventures in the Screenplay, “Nobody knows anything.” Well, obviously, if you drive through Beverly Hills, some people know something! Right? Obviously, you guys know something, for all your graciousness and awards. So, please, would you tell us ... tell the filmmakers in this room, what is the one thing, or the two or three things, that are most important to know about how to make a good film?

DESTIN & RYAN: (Silence)

STAN WILLIAMS: Awww, come on, guys!

DESTIN CRETTON: Okay. For me personally, the thing that I keep having to remind myself of, almost daily, is that for me -- (and there’s not big difference between being a good person and being a good film-maker) -- I don’t want my film-making to wreck any relationships I have, and if so, I want everything to be a balance. I’ve learned that the hard way. I’ve quit filmmaking so many times. I haven’t been doing it that long, and I’ve quit a lot of times already, so… (chuckles)

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?

RYAN COOGLER: My dad told me that a wise man doesn’t know anything. I think that, as human beings, none of us really have anything really figured out. But, I think that if someone were to ask you, who is the person you really know the best, the answer would have to be yourself. So, I think that I struggle to find out who I am. I ask myself that every day, like every morning when I’m brushing my teeth, am I being the best version of myself. Am I being true to myself?

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.

And, what is success? What is a good movie? I don’t know… I haven’t met anybody who could give me an answer to that question. Yes, one person could say a good movie is when I made a lot of money. Are they wrong by that statement? Or, someone might say a good movie is a movie that the critics like. Are they right or wrong by that statement? It’s such a moving target with art. In terms of art, what is good? So, you gotta make something that you want to do yourself, and when you do that, you hit that target, and then the rest of the stuff will usually takes care of itself.

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.