Ryan Coogler's 112 career receptions as a Sacramento State wide receiver rank fourth in Hornet football history. His 1,213 receiving yards put him in the school’s all-time top 20. And he's a three-time winner of the Big Sky Conference's all-academic award.
The rising young filmmaker ('07, Business) came "home" to Sacramento State one day during summer 2013 for media interviews and an invitation-only screening of Fruitvale Station, the award-winning film he wrote and directed. The screening was held at Sacramento's Century Stadium 14, where he spent a lot of time watching movies during his three years at Sac State.
Critics raved about the film's raw power and perceptive insights, with many listing Fruitvale among their top 10 movies of 2013. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern called the 83-minute film "a directorial debut of limitless promise; as a first feature it's almost miraculous."
During his visit to Sacramento State, Coogler spent some time in the Broad Fieldhouse, which opened the year after he graduated. By chance, he's one of the Hornet football players depicted in a supersize photograph papering a wall of the Broad. Members of the athletics staff, former football teammates and old friends came by to greet the guy they call "Coog." Among them was his college roommate Angelo Muhammad, whom he cast in Locks, the short film he made as a student at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
"I told him it was just a matter of time," Muhammad said. "He always had a creative mind."
At one point, Coogler walked out of the fieldhouse and onto the familiar turf of Hornet Stadium, where a new generation of football players was practicing its moves. Years after Coogler made his last touchdown run as a Hornet, the game of football informs his filmmaking.
In a post-screening interview with Roberto Pomo, professor of theater and the coordinator of Sac State's Film Studies program (and one of Coogler's early mentors), the young director said, "I learned this from football: If you get talented players, a lot of the work is done for you. If you cast the right actors, if you find talented actors who are great people to begin with, all that work is done for you."
And when it came to blocking the chaotic scene in which the BART officer shoots 22-year-old Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), Coogler said he "kind of approached it with a football mindset."
"He was part of our pilot film studies program," Pomo said of Coogler. "He took all our courses and excelled as a writer/director." Coogler also frequently conferred with his mentor while attending the University of Southern California's film school as a graduate student.
Coogler told Pomo and the screening audience about Oscar Grant's last day and about filming at the same grocery store where Grant worked, at San Quentin Prison where Grant did time and at the hospital where Grant died. "The 20-day shooting schedule compelled us to work 12-hour days," he said.
Coogler admitted that his life wasn’t so different from Grant's. "Oscar's friends looked just like my friends," he said, noting that he has been stopped by police.
Shooting the station scene - and making this film - "was the hardest thing I've done in my life," he said. "We said a prayer and had several moments of silence before getting it right."
Coogler's brother Keenan has a role in Fruitvale Station as one of Grant's friends. (Another brother, Noah, is finishing up a degree in sociology at Sacramento State.)
Coogler shared some of his Sac State memories:
"I liked playing football. I learned how to make films under professors Pomo and (Steve) Buss. They were instrumental in my getting into graduate school. Dr. Pomo taught me how to watch film. In class, we saw Zoot Suit and Birth of a Nation. I brought my football teammates, and they started taking the classes. Steve Buss seemed to know everything about making a film. He had gone to USC as a grad student. He said that I should apply, that it was difficult to get in. They put me on the path and gave me the tools to be successful. Business (his major) was helpful; they do call it the 'film business.' "
Although Fruitvale Station did not earn a coveted Oscar nomination, it did pick up numerous honors, including Best First Film for Coogler from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle. His guiding principle as a filmmaker, he said, is "not to think about making a sale but making a film that's true to your goal and has the impact on the audience you desire. All the other stuff will take of itself." - Alan Miller and Dixie Reid