Sweeping Sundance this year with the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards was Fruitvale, the true story of 22-year old Bay Area resident, Oscar Grant, who was killed by a transit police officer in Oakland, CA on New Year’s Day 2009. The tragic event, captured on cell phone video cameras by a crowd of witnesses, ignited protests and support by the local community and has come to symbolize the epidemic of police brutality against young African American men in our culture. First-time director Ryan Coogler crafts a compelling and emotional film that chronicles the last day in Oscar’s life, as we watch a man with a good heart try to straighten out his life, care for his daughter, girlfriend, and mother, and stay out of trouble with the law. With the buzz surrounding the film and an acquisition by Harvey Weinstein, it’s hopeful that this little indie film could get enough spotlight to do what most well-intentioned filmmakers aspire to do — make a difference.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison captures the essence of the story of Fruitvale as if we are part of Oscar’s circle of friends and family with great authenticity. Her lens puts us in the center of things as a silent observer to both Oscar’s emotions and the physicality of his day — in the passenger seat cruising around Oakland, chilling out at a family gathering, and on the crowded subway platform — as if we’re watching a documentary of events unfold unobtrusively. With grit and grain reminiscent of 1960’s news footage achieved by shooting super 16mm film, Morrison’s work on Fruitvale serves the story well and feels like an appropriate yet courageous artistic choice compared to the digital world of indie film we currently live in. Fruitvale is Morrison’s fourth Sundance film in the past three years, and is heading to theaters in the Fall. I had a chance to chat with Rachel after this year’s festival.
How did you get involved with the project?
Ilyse McKimmie at Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting Lab recommended me when Ryan was interviewing DPs. We had an initial Skype meeting which was incredible – we connected on every level and I knew he was someone I wanted to collaborate with.
What was your vision for the look of the film and what were your inspirations?
We both felt, to do this story justice, we needed it to look real and feel authentic. We knew we wanted to shoot on film and for the grain to be visible. We also decided to shoot the entire feature handheld and to look for ways to connect the characters using the camera to explore the world as Oscar navigates it. We referenced everything from photojournalists like Robert Capa to features including “The Prophet,” “Warrior,” and “City of God.”
What did you shoot the film on?
We shot on ARRI 416 with Zeiss Ultra 16 primes provided by ARRI CSC, with Kodak Vision3 500T 7219.
How did you come to decide to shoot on film, specifically s16mm?
There’s no substitute for the organic structure and movement of film – Ryan and I both felt the audience would connect better if they felt like they were watching something real as it unfolded, and we really believed even at a subconscious level, film would help us achieve this.
We went back and forth between 35mm and 16mm, but Ryan in particular had an affinity for Super 16 because he used it while he was learning his craft, and of course it further highlights the grain structure – we wanted people to be immersed in the story, but also to know it was shot on film. I suggested 2 perf 35mm which could be force processed to enhance the granularity, but we ultimately decided 2.35 would distance us from Oscar, when we wanted the film to be an intimate portrait of the man himself.
At first I wasn’t sure how I would work around the greater depth-of-field, but I came to embrace it, as the story’s second layer was really about Oscar’s environment.
The film had both a documentary and cinema veritae feel, but in a very intimate way. How much did you and the director collaborate on how you were going to capture the characters and story?
I have a background in nonfiction work, so I’ve spent a long time honing my handheld camerawork. Ryan pretty much trusted me implicitly while we were shooting – I had to make him look at the monitor! The nice thing about this is it freed him up to engage with the actors directly. Honestly, the success of the film’s intimacy I would attribute to this process. It was often just Ryan and I side-by-side in the room with the actors. He wasn’t directing from behind a curtain at video village.
What was your workflow like on location?
We had to adapt quickly to each new location. I didn’t have the gear and crew to start from scratch in each new space. Instead, I tried always to supplement and enhance the existing sources (from practicals to windows).
We shipped the film to Fotokem in LA to be processed and transferred to HDCAM SR. I communicated with the colorist by sending stills I had taken on my Canon 5D and notes as simple as “warm up the highlights.” They then shipped the HDCAM to Spy Post in San Francisco for DVD and digital dailies. Because we could only afford 2 day shipping, it was over a week before we actually saw anything we shot. It was only slightly terrifying.
There were VFX shots predominantly handled by the students at California Arts Academy and we worked with Spy Post for the final color correction. We never got to go back to the original negative but instead worked from our HDCAM master.
How many production days?
20 days, but really only 18 if you count three days on the Bart platform, where we only had four hours of shooting time.
What was your biggest challenge on the film?
The aforementioned Bart platform was the biggest challenge because we had little time, coupled with an ensemble cast, stunts, firearms, a moving train, SFX makeup and over a hundred extras. Ryan played football his whole life. We treated these three 4-hour shoots like we were running football plays. We had a laminate playbook and everything. We had approximately 18-20 shots to get in 4 hours. We only got 1-2 takes with a fast reset between them. We had a few lights in the air and I had one electric on each unit on the ground. One grip holding a floppy for negative fill etc. I play soccer myself and it was definitely like working together in a team sport. I’m really proud of what we accomplished!
How involved were you in the post process?
It was so quick – we had to get the film done in time for Sundance. I flew to SF for five days to work with a great colorist at Spy Post, Chris Martin. Our main dialogue regarded the broader strokes, as Ryan had fallen in love with the online color and I had some pretty big changes in mind all along. I think we found a really nice compromise, but we didn’t have as much time as I would have liked for matching shot-to shot. I had to return to New York to finish another film, but communicated the final day of work by emailing frame grabs and short clips.
What is your favorite shot of the film and why?
My favorite shot is the steadicam at the beginning of the prison flashback. We lead Oscar to meet his mother in the visitation area and we see him transform from the hardened version of himself (who he needs to present for survival in jail) to a devoted and loving son. Jordan gives an incredible performance and this shot really tells the story of Oscar in all his complexity. My second favorite is the steadicam at the end of the same scene, but now we are leading Wanda (Octavia Spencer) away from her son while he is held back by the guards behind her. Now we see the layering of all the emotion he has caused in her.