By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two years out of the University of Southern California's film school, Ryan Coogler is still paying down his debt.
That may not be the case for long. Coogler's first feature film, "Fruitvale Station," goes into wide U.S. release this weekend, having earned universal acclaim from critics, awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals and some early Oscar buzz. Coogler, 27, wrote the script and directed the independent drama, while Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker produces.
Add to that auspicious start a timely release. The real-life story of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot to death by a white transit policeman, hits theaters in the midst of a heated debate about race after the acquittal of a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer for the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The timing is just a coincidence, Coogler says, but he believes what happened to 22-year-old Grant at the Fruitvale commuter rail station in Oakland, California, on New Year's Day 2009 still resonates today, in part because of gun violence involving African-American men, as both victims and perpetrators.
Coogler, also an African-American from Oakland, was 22 when an unarmed Grant, lying on his stomach, was shot to death on a train platform after transit police detained him following a fight on a train. Coogler knew it was a story he wanted to tell.
"I learned at film school that, because it is such a difficult process, to always make stuff that really matters to me, to make films like they are the last film you will ever make," Coogler told Reuters.
And he learned to choose subject matter that is "not only close to you and impacts you emotionally but subject matter that you are curious about."
The film opens with the actual mobile phone video of the incident and the chilling pop of the fatal gunshot. It then jumps back to chronicle Grant's final day.
Michael B. Jordan, of TV show "Friday Night Lights," plays Grant, a loving father and struggling ex-con. Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for her role in "The Help," plays the mother who fears for his safety.
The other big takeaway for Coogler at film school was that filmmaking is a team sport, much like the football he loved.
"When I came to film school in L.A., I had just finished playing my last season of college football, and I missed it, deeply," he said.
With his incoming class, he found a group of filmmakers from all over the world with whom he began "crewing up and working on each other's films." He brought a half dozen of them aboard for "Fruitvale Station."
'A STANDOUT FROM DAY ONE'
Coogler calls the three-year graduate program at USC's School of Cinematic Arts "really expensive." Tuition for three years runs between $72,000 and $85,000 plus additional supplies and living expenses, the school says.
"I am still pretty heavy in debt," he said. "Most of us who graduate have something like a mortgage to pay back. It can be close to six figures."
Coogler did earn some scholarships while there, including the coveted Jack Nicholson award. "Coog," as he is known there, caught the faculty's eye early.
"He was clearly just a standout from day one," said John Watson, who had Coogler in his production class for two years. "It wasn't just his abilities, which are fantastic. It was his attitude. He had the ability to make everybody feel like he's their best friend."
In his second year, Coogler's short film "Locks" was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival and he didn't have the means to go. The school mobilized to collect travel money and the dean paid for his flight, Watson said.
While making "Fruitvale" after he graduated he kept in close touch with the school and even asked 10 faculty members to assemble to critique a near final cut. His success has played a part in inspiring other students to make films this summer.
"Nobody, including me or him, thought that it would happen as fast as it did," Watson said. "But as soon as I saw the first draft of 'Fruitvale' I knew he had something special and that Forest immediately responded to."
Coogler has been crisscrossing the country, promoting the film with distributor The Weinstein Company and working on his next film projects, one of which is about high school football.
He says he doesn't think about Oscar nominations, even after favorable reviews across-the-board from the likes of the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, whose film critic Kenneth Turan said it was "more than a remarkable directing debut ... it's an outstanding film by any standard."
"I am always the most surprised person, because the film came so close to not even being made, like so many independent films," Coogler said.
His reward, he said, is the opportunity to tell people what happened on an Oakland train platform four years ago and give them the perspective that comes from "spending time with a character like Oscar."
(Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Eric Kelsey and Eric Beech)