Fruitvale

Article excerpt

Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison

Director Ryan Coogler

Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic category, Fruitvale imagines the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), the 22year-old black man whose death at the hands of a white transit cop in Oakland, Calif., in January 2009 made national headlines after video footage of his shooting went viral, sparking demonstrations and riots in the Bay Area. The film's tide comes from the BART stop where transit police detained, beat and shot Grant in front of dozens of bystanders, several of whom captured the incident with their cell-phone cameras.

University of Southern California film student Ryan Coogler, an Oakland native who was Grant s age at the time, followed the events closely, and after he graduated, he set about writing a script that would "restore some of Oscars identity, who he was as a person," he explained to an audience at Sundance. "You can't see his face that well in the videos, and I thought it could have been any young black man. It could have been me."

Three years later, after conducting extensive interviews with Grant's family and friends, Coogler took his Fruitvale script to the Sundance Institutes Screenwriters Lab. When financing fell into place shortly thereafter, he turned to Ilyse McKimmie, director of Sundance's feature-film labs program, for advice on a cinematographer. McKimmie recommended Rachel Morrison, an American Film Institute graduate whose credits include the indie features Any Day Now and Sound of My Voice (a Sundance 2011 selection).

Speaking to AC shortly after the festival, Coogler says, "The cinematographers the labs recommend are all very good, but I chose Rachel because when I met her, it really felt right. We first met over Skype, and we hit it off and ended up talking for two hours. We had a passion for the same films, and we talked a lot about life. There was a real connection there."

"I don't think I've ever had an interview like that, where I was so excited by the end of it to work with that director," says Morrison, a Boston native who is based in Los Angeles. "We saw the film the same way, had many of the same references and really connected on a much deeper level.

"I was affected by Ryan's script from the get-go," she continues. "I cried at the end of it, and it usually takes the end product to evoke a response that strong. But I also knew it was going to take a miracle to bring everything together and have the film unfold as poignantly as the script read just because it was such a small movie, and it was very ambitious for the resources we had. It was a 20-day shoot involving an ensemble cast, stunts, firearms, extras, kids, dogs and visual effects."

Something Coogler and Morrison bonded over immediately was the conviction that Fruitvale should be shot on film, which they believed "would lend an air of authenticity to the image," says Morrison. "There's just something tangible, evocative and organic about film's moving grain structure that was right for this story. We wanted the granularity to be visible. Production was not excited about what they perceived to be an added expense, but I pushed for film, and Ryan really went to bat for it."

Referencing such shared favorites as City of God, A Prophet, Fish Tank and Amores Perros, Morrison and Coogler then tested and debated 35mm and 16mm. "I learned on Super 16, and I love the look of it," says Coogler. "With all the advances in film stocks and DI technology, it's often hard for even a highly trained eye to tell whether something's been shot on 35mm or with the newest digital cameras, but Super 16 has an apparent, in-your-face grain structure. Also, I came up watching documentaries shot on 16mm, so I interpret that look as reality a little more."

Both filmmakers were concerned about Super 16 s greater depth-of-field, however. "Losing shallow depth-offield as a tool in my visual arsenal was actually terrifying for me," says Morrison. …