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Retracing Ryan Coogler’s Sundance Institute Journey

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Ryan Coogler at the 2012 Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. Photo by Ali Barr.

Michelle Satter, Founding Director, Feature Film Program

Feature Film Program Founding Director Michelle Satter recalls Sundance Institute’s journey with and support of Ryan Coogler and his feature directorial debut Fruitvale Station.

I met Ryan Coogler in the fall of 2011 when he came in to have a conversation about his script, Fruitvale Station. As I listened to Ryan speak about why he needed to tell this story, his deep, personal commitment to the project became evident. Between his script, a great short film (Fig), and this meeting, our interest in supporting Ryan was immediate and unflagging.

Soon after, we brought Ryan to our 2012 January Screenwriters Lab where he worked closely with Creative Advisors Tyger Williams, Jessie Nelson and Zach Sklar on further developing his script. I remember so clearly that Ryan couldn’t be at the Lab for the first evening. This is the moment that the group begins their journey forward as they find a common bond and focus– I was a bit worried about him coming in late. Ryan arrived the next morning and my concerns were quickly diminished. By lunch he had been embraced by the group. Ryan’s beautiful soul and honest charisma were infectious. The Advisors felt his passion to learn and all of the Fellows were joined together as a family who cared deeply about each other’s work moving forward.

As part of the Feature Film Program support, we remain committed to a filmmaker and project throughout the life of the film by offering creative and tactical advice and resources. As Ryan continued his journey, we were there at critical moments to provide strategic granting, creative feedback, introductions to key crew and offer ourselves as a sounding board for everything that this new experience would bring.

After the Lab, Ryan worked tirelessly on rewriting Fruitvale Station and the FFP team and Lab Advisors continued to read and give him feedback on new drafts. Ryan was very excited about the commitment he had from Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang as producers and began to see the possibility that he would be making the film in the summer. Although this meant that Ryan wouldn’t attend the June Directors Lab, he knew that he had the opportunity of a lifetime!

At critical junctures along the way, the FFP provided $35,000 in granting through our collaborations with the Time Warner Foundation, Cinereach and Indian Paint Brush. When Ryan needed funding to bring his editors on during production; when he needed funding to do additional shooting; when he needed funding to continue to pay for living expenses, we wanted to be there. As Ryan finished production and started cutting Fruitvale Station, the FFP staff and Advisors gave him crucial creative feedback by watching many cuts of the film. It was so moving to see the film emerge in the cuts and feel the power of Ryan’s voice and singular vision.

Soon, the 2013 Sundance Festival deadline was looming and we began to discuss festival strategy and timing. I remember hearing from our Sundance Film Festival colleagues that they loved the film and that Ryan and his team were well on their way to an exciting Festival premiere. Sitting in the audience for the first screening of the film was one of the single most impactful experiences of my Sundance life. It was electric–the audience was completely present.

The lights went up and we were all weeping. Following the screening, Oscar Grant’s family talked about how much this film meant to them and Ryan was his usual gracious self, thanking all the people who had supported him and even recognizing the Sundance Lab alumni in the audience who were part of his extended family and support system. And, at the end of the Festival, the unthinkable happened: Fruitvale Station won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award!

As Fruitvale Station has gathered more accolades and support, we all await the release this weekend. We can only hope that this film will have a profound and enduring effect on audiences who will experience the love and care that Ryan brought to humanizing Oscar Grant and telling his story with empathy and emotional truth. Below is a video of Ryan’s acceptance speech after receiving the Vanguard Award, presented by Tiffany & Co., at last month’s ‘Celebrate Sundance Institute’ Benefit.

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