Movies

Ryan Coogler On Sundance & ‘Fruitvale Station’ A Decade Later & How ‘Creed’ May Be The Most Park City Franchise Ever

“It’s a part of me,” says Ryan Coogler of the Sundance Film Festival a decade after Fruitvale Station debuted in Park City and took home both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award. So much of it impacted me and made me the filmmaker that I am today, the Black Panther director adds. “Without question, and in ways I could have anticipated.”

An alumnus of the 2012 Sundance Institute Labs, Coogler is back this year at the Robert Redford founded festival in a duel role. The Bay Area-based filmmaker is a producer on the Peter Nicks helmed Stephen Curry: Underrated documentary, which premieres on January 23 at the Eccles Theatre. Coming off Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s global box office dominance last year and with Oscar nominations looming on January 24, Coogler is also at SFF 2023 to be honored at the inaugural Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance ceremony with the Visionary Award.

Presenting the Vanguard Awards for nonfiction and fiction to W. Kamau Bell and Nikyatu Jusu and the Sundance Institute International Icon Award to  Luca Guadagnino as well, tonight’s late night event at the first in-person Sundance since 2020 is a bit of a full circle for Coogler. “Now, that idea of self-determination, the idea of community building, the idea of building something that can last beyond you, something that’s systemic,” the filmmaker states of his own journey since 2013 and the Forest Whitaker produced Fruitvale (as it was then called) made such an impact “That’s what we’ve been able to do in our production company. That’s what Forest decided to do when he sat down and said I want to make something significant.”

Heading into tonight’s dinner in a snow-packed Park City,  Coogler sat down with me to discuss the impact Sundance had on him personally and professionally, and looked back at the difference between the filmmaker he was then and is now. Additionally, with the Michael B Jordan directed and starring Creed III about to get in the cinema ring on March 3, Coogler laid out how the boxing tentpole that evolved out of the Rocky franchise is actually a Sundance pic at heart.

DEADLINE: It’s been 10 years since Fruitvale dropped and dominated Sundance 2013 — long time. Looking back, who was Ryan Coogler back then in Park City?

COOGLER: I was just green, man, in terms of the industry. I was very green.

I didn’t know really anything outside of like how to make a movie, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t know much about what was to come next. It’s kind of like the fourth and fifth stage of filmmaking. I wrote and directed that film so you have your writing phase and then the hidden phase of once you’ve got a script, getting it put together. We got to find the financing and all of that stuff. But then you’ve got preproduction, production, and post. I didn’t know anything about what comes after. Like having your film shown and reviewed.

Then the press and marketing and all the decisions about what your poster’s going to look like and what your trailer’s going to look like and then going out and traveling to engage. I had no idea of that part of filmmaking and how to react to that stuff and how to pace yourself. So, I was just kind of slamming myself into it blind.

DEADLINE: But wasn’t 2013 actually your second Sundance?

COOGLER: Yeah, but I was really a wide-eyed kid, man. I knew a little bit about what Sundance was because I had gone there the year before, after the [Sundance] Labs, so I kind of knew a little bit about the festival but not a lot. It was my second Sundance when we were there with the movie, but it was my first time having the process of people wanting to buy the movie and meeting with people to figure that out and my first time reading reviews.

DEADLINE: Had the labs prepared you for any of that?

COOGLER: They did but that wasn’t their focus.

The focus for the labs was really based on your project and you build a community. They did a little bit of what I call industry preparation. It’s very slight. But it ended up being impactful, being real potent. They would introduce you to whatever you needed.

DEADLINE: Like who?

COOGLER: So, at that point, I needed an agent and they introduced me to a couple agents that they really trusted that had history with the labs and with the festival. One of them was Craig Kestel, who ended up becoming my agent. They introduced us to lawyers because I needed a lawyer because my project was advancing.

DEADLINE: Young filmmakers, they don’t realize that was so much going to be a part of the process.

COOGLER: I had no idea, bro! You know, I spent a lot of money at film school. Film school kind of shows you how to make a movie. It’s really showing you how to make shorts, which is like a super important steppingstone. And it’s introducing you to people who are going to become your collaborators in the future. As far as telling you how to make a feature … that you need a lawyer, an agent would be helpful, and agents can help you package a movie. That you’ve got to sell the movie and how film festivals work and all of that. I knew nothing, Dominic

DEADLINE: With that in mind, the success of Fruitvale at the 2013 festival, its release by the Weinstein Company and everything else since, including the global accomplishments of the Creed and Black Panther movies, you are back with the Steph Curry doc you are a producer on, and receiving the first Visionary Award on opening night. I mean …

COOGLER: I mean it’s amazing, man. I feel very fortunate. It’s a blessing, bro, to be able to transition and have personal transformation.

Ten years ago, I was a kid in his 20s, didn’t know anything.

Now we’re able to have a production company now in partnership with my wife, Zinzi, and my buddy Sev, and we’re in the position coming back now as producers. We’re bringing a film to Park City, as you said, and I can’t tell you how proud we are of this movie. I can’t wait for everybody to see it. It feels special, man. All I can say is I feel a deep sense of gratitude, man. The last few years have taught me specifically…but even my first film was dealing with the mortality of a young person. I came in this business reflecting. Fruitvale was an act of reflection, but I was so young I didn’t totally understand what I was making. I knew it in a craft sense, but not totally in a life sense, you know what I’m saying?

Now, that idea of self-determination, the idea of community building, the idea of building something that can last beyond you, something that’s systemic. That’s what we’ve been able to do in our production company. That’s what Forest [Whitaker] decided to do when he sat down and said I want to make something significant. These things become systems that are able to do good things outside of yourself. Shaka King, who did Judas and the Black Messiah, who we’re working with on future things, I met him at Sundance.

DEADLINE: I didn’t know that.

COOGLER: Yeah. His film was in competition at the 2013 festival. He had a film called Newlyweeds. So, he and I met at Sundance. Didn’t know each other before, spent time together at the festival, and made a friendship. Through proximity, we were able to bring his second film to the world.

Now Shaka’s on a tear. I met a lot of people through Sundance who I went to work with.

There was Daniel Kaluuya, who is Fred Hampton in Judas. There was a filmmaker named Daniel Malloy, a British filmmaker, incredible, who he was in the labs with us in 2012. Played his short film that he made that won I think a BAFTA or something like that for short film. Daniel Kaluuya was the star of that movie. That was my first time ever seeing him act was sitting down looking at that.

LaKeith Stanfield was in Destin Daniel Cretton’s short film. I believe that went to Sundance. Destin was at Sundance in 2012 with I’m Not a Hipster. I was there in the labs. I met Destin when our films came out in 2013. His film won South By Southwest, a month-and-a-half or so after Fruitvale premiered at Sundance, and he and I met on the circuit. I introduced Shaka to LaKeith at like a Film Independent Awards.

DEADLINE: Wow.

COOGLER: Yeah. All this stuff ends up coming together. Sundance kind of ends up being the place for it. So, I’m in a position now that Forest was in with me when I was coming out. I feel fortunate to still be in the business. Nothing’s guaranteed. Then aside from Fruitvale and knowing Oscar’s story, I mean look at Kobe. Look at Chadwick, John Singleton. I mean nothing’s promised.

For me to even still be here. For me to even still be here is one thing, but for me to still be working in a way where I’m able to have the impact on other filmmakers’ lives, on culture, on this medium that I care about so much. It’s a profound blessing, bro, a profound one. It fills me with gratitude and just it makes me want to keep going.

DEADLINE: You were in the Sundance Labs with the likes of David Lowery and Marielle Heller too …

COOGLER: … And we’re still in touch with each other. We still talk to each other, support each other, root for each other. We still feel a sense of ownership when we see the other succeed.

I can’t tell you how proud of these folks I am every time they do something.

Like a lot of us, we knew each other before kids and we’re parents now. It’s just crazy to think about. So, you want to do right by the lab alumni and the people that selected you and supported you. So, it just means a ton, man.

DEADLINE: Assuming that’s something you are going to talk about at the dinner when you get the Visionary Award?

COOGLER: Dominic, you know, I’ve got to reflect on this Visionary Award. I’ve got to prepare my words here soon, and I’ve got to reflect a little bit more than I have been doing.

DEADLINE: Well, you’ve been in a whirlwind since last October when press started ramping up for the Wakanda Forever debut…

COOGLER: I mean I’ve been in a whirlwind, bro, to be honest with you, since 2012.

Showing up at the Sundance Labs, I made my transition to being a professional filmmaker and it’s been like nonstop for me since then. Fortunately. It’s a blessing to have worked that much, but it has come with certain sacrifices.

DEADLINE: Such as?

COOGLER: One of them is it’s very hard to be present and reflect. It’s difficult. The schedule doesn’t always allow for it, but I can feel things like slowing down just enough now. It could be like my mind maturing and kind of having a little bit of an understanding. You know, I was an athlete growing up. When I would make transitions going from junior varsity to varsity or going to college and playing my first college football game.

The game’s happening too fast.

But eventually, what happens after you play it a little bit is the game starts to slow down for you, and it starts to feel like the game you played as you grew up. So, I could feel like a sense of belonging happening for me, and I’m starting to be able to see things a little clearer. Okay, this is what my life is going to be kind of thing. It’s making it easier to reflect, and it’s actually making me more appreciative.

DEADLINE: With that appreciation and where you are now, was there an inflection point as Fruitvale took off that you look back to now?

COOGLER: I was fortunate to have Forest as a producer in the process.

DEADLINE: Never bad to have Forest Whitaker in your corner. But how did that play out for you, especially once Fruitvale was picked up?

COOGLER: I was very shielded, and I think I was protected from seeing things or being treated unfairly in any way. I was protected by him. People didn’t want to upset him, so I might have had a positive view of it because I didn’t really get pushed around much. I didn’t get pushed around at all really. I had him as like a godfather in the process.

DEADLINE: Of course, one of the things that came out of it is you won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance 2013, which people…

COOGLER: That feels like it was yesterday, bro.

DEADLINE: I was going to ask what does that feel like?

COOGLER: You know, it’s interesting. I remember we won the Audience Award, and I figured it was over.

DEADLINE: Really?

COOGLER: Yeah, I figured I was so excited to get that. I felt, you know, you go to all those awards things but you don’t know what’s going to happen.

I had never been to something like that before. I have been to a couple things like that for short films. I went to ABFF, which is a brilliant festival by Jeff Friday. The last short film I made in film school had won an award. They had an awards night where you go and you don’t know which film wins. It was an HBO award they gave that was really, really helpful for me. I remember sitting there not knowing what name they was going to read out of the envelope, and they read the name of our film and we went up. So, that was the last time I had experienced something like that.

With this, in 2013, at Sundance, I had seen these movies and some of them, I knew some of the filmmakers, so I expected them to call another movie when it came time for the Grand Jury prize. I remember I was standing with Rachel Morrison, who was our cinematographer. She just directed a beautiful movie called Flint Strong. She directed that, but she was our DP on Fruitvale. She was the DP on the first Black Panther.

So, I remember talking with her. We were talking about what movie we thought was going to win the Grand Jury prize while Tom Rothman was going up to call it out. We both liked David Lowry’s film and thought it had a good chance to win. Then Rothman came out and he started talking about the movie, and I’m like wait a second. Is he talking about our movie? Then he called us back up, so it was crazy. I remember that just like it was yesterday, bro.

So, it feels like it didn’t happen that long ago but it also feels like a different person made that movie, a different person went through that process because I’m a totally different person 10 years later.

DEADLINE: You know, from Fruitvale, for obvious reasons, to today, you are seen as Bay Area guy. That’s your soil, but, and correct me if I’m wrong, my friend, that Sundance appears to serve that same function in terms of your filmmaking arena.

COOGLER: Totally. It is, man. It is. It’s a part of me. I hope to be a part of it for as long as I have been. It is, man. So much of it impacted me and made me the filmmaker that I am today. Without question, and in ways I could have anticipated.

DEADLINE: How do you mean, Ryan?

COOGLER: I guess I mean honestly how much…it’s like Creed III, it’s coming out soon, but that might be the most Sundance-impacted franchise.

DEADLINE: Didn’t see that coming…

COOGLER: (laughs) When you think about it, it’s funny because Jonathan Majors, who’s in Creed III, has a film in the festival. He’s starring in Magazine Dreams, a movie that’s in competition. I haven’t seen this movie. I don’t know the filmmaker, but it feels like I’m a distant cousin of this movie. The cinematographer Adam Arkapaw shot it. He’s married to Autumn Arkapaw, who’s our cinematographer on Wakanda Forever.

So, I was hearing about this movie from him and from her and from Jonathan, who is in the Creed family.

You know, Stephen Caple, who directed Creed II, he premiered his first feature film at Sundance, I think a few years after we premiered Fruitvale there. So, his debut film was at the festival before he got the job to direct Creed II.

DEADLINE: I see how this is coming together…

COOGLER: Yeah, then Mike B. Jordan, who is directing Creed III, and he was at Sundance with us. It was his first Sundance with Fruitvale, so I think a lot about those movies, how personal they are to me as franchise films go, and the connection between Sundance and that film.

DEADLINE: I stand convinced.

COOGLER: (laughs) So, when you ask me about 10 years later, about the Visionary Award … I haven’t totally processed it, but obviously it means a lot. The festival means a lot to me. The institute means even more to me. My interactions with Bob Redford and Lisa McKimmy, and all the people were just so amazing and took such good care of us. I’m out there now, still wanting to do them proud with the work.

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