The Sundance Prize-Winner Has an Undeniable Resonance with Current Events

When watching Ryan Coogler’s debut film Fruitvale Station, which opened on Friday, one can’t help but draw parallels between what happened on an Oakland, California, subway platform in 2008 and what happened to another young African-American man in Florida in 2012. Based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident shot and killed by a BART police officer, the film is both achingly of our time and timeless, raising similar questions of race, violence and morality that continue to surround the murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent not-guilty verdict in the trial of his assailant, George Zimmerman.

Despite the gravity of this context, DP Rachel Morrison says the film, produced by Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker, was no more than “our little movie” when it entered competition at Sundance earlier this year. It went on to win both the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and has already surpassed the $15 million mark at the box office, leading some to speculate on its future in this year’s Oscar race.

“There was only the smallest amount of buzz about the film going into the festival,” admits Morrison. “Compared to some of the other dramatic competition films, it felt like ours was very understated and people weren’t really talking about it. But the second we premiered—and we premiered to this very intimate and amazing audience that included members of Oscar’s family—we got a standing ovation. The buzz almost became palpable as word of our little movie spread through Sundance. I was tempted to come back to the festival already because we hadn’t had our big 1,200-person screening yet at Eccles Theater, but as the buzz grew, I knew I had to. Plus, a friend who had won Sundance two years ago told me in no uncertain terms, ‘Get your ass back to Park City right now.’ Morrison was back with her “Fruitvale family,” she says, long enough to feel the sweep of informal praise build to its rewarding conclusion. “All of us who worked on that film felt like it was completely unexpected and really incredible.”

Morrison shot Fruitvale Station in Super 16 (using KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219) with the Arriflex 416 fit with Zeiss Ultra 16 lenses. Her previous effort, Some Girl(s), was shot with the ARRI Alexa. When asked if she finds it difficult to transition from shooting film to digital and back again, she makes it very clear where her heart lies. “I come from film and I love it,” she says. “This is my third show shot on film in a row, in fact, and in some ways shooting on film feels to me like coming home. But there are little things that you miss, coming back to film, once you’ve shot digital.”

Rachel Morrison with Ryan Coogler at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards Ceremony, June 12, 2013. Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images

Beyond film’s long-regarded strengths, which Morrison extols as “the texture, the granularity, the organic [quality] and randomness of film,” she finds the medium’s intimacy liberating. “I really like that you don’t have so many people clamoring around a monitor and running in to change everything because they can’t see exactly what you’re shooting,” she says. “It becomes so much more impressionistic when you’re shooting on film.” She also understands the risks, which can add a certain kind of magic missing from most overcrowded film sets these days. “You definitely rest easier at night after shooting digitally,” says Morrison. “I’ve been fortunate enough never to have a hard drive fail, so to me, digital is foolproof, and that’s a great thing. With film, you never quite know what you’ve got until you see your dailies, which in the case of Fruitvale, was almost a week after we shot our film. There’s always this little bit of fear, but that can be exciting, too. I definitely miss the surprise of film when I’m working digitally.”

Even as digital production becomes the norm, Morrison says she hopes film can still be an option for those filmmakers, like herself, who value its charms. “Digital can be great for a lot of things, like shooting with kids, special effects and dialog-heavy shows. It’s got its place and it’s here to stay. Film is certainly questionable at this point, but film is in my blood. My hope would be that film stays with us not just for a little while longer but a lot longer. Unfortunately, the labs don’t seem to be able to keep up with the reduced demand, which is too bad. I think you can still make a very good case for film, depending on the project. The reality is, digital tends to trump film, in both price and flexibility, more often than not.”

Watch Morrison’s latest reel, which screened during Women in Film’s Crystal + Lucy Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles on June 12. Morrison took home the 2013 Kodak Vision Award that night.