By his mid-twenties, Ryan Coogler had already directed his first feature, Fruitvale Station, which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. He then went onto direct Creed, a critically-acclaimed film that picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Now he’s making history as the director of Marvel’s first film starring a black superhero, Black Panther.
Although still very early in his career, Coogler has a lot of wisdom and lessons to share with other young filmmakers starting out. We’ve gathered some of his best advice for up-and-comers hoping to follow in his footsteps below.
Sound is Your Biggest Tool
Film is a very visual medium, but sound is often a key element that helps move the story forward, enhancing what is seen on screen. During a panel at the LA Film Festival in 2016, Coogler stressed the importance of good sound:
“There was a saying we used to have. It was basically a concept that people will forgive pretty much every technical thing before they will forgive bad sound. Your movie could look amazing, but if on every cut the audio track is popping and making them aware of the cuts, it will pull them out. It’s so important. Orson Welles, he basically used to make movies over the radio. Really, the gateway to people’s imagination is what they hear. That’s the biggest tool you have as a storyteller.”
Don’t Worry About Marketing
For young, independent filmmakers, it can be difficult not to worry about whether or not your film will get picked up by a studio, or be a hit with audiences. However, as a counter-argument to that, after the Sundance premiere of Fruitvale Station in 2013, Coogler told Fast Company:
“It’s not the artist’s job to be thinking about money. Marketability and business is the antithesis of art. That’s why Sundance exists and it’s so popular. Independent filmmakers aren’t thinking about making money. Studios are thinking about that. My advice to people working in the independent landscape 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 care of itself.”
When working on a project that feels personal and involves your own community, thinking about how best to handle such a film can be overwhelming. After an audience member asked his advice on this at a Q&A hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2013, Coogler suggested asking yourself a simple question when embarking on these projects:
“Let me just say that a lot of my favorite films are done by people making movies about their own community. I was just talking to my buddy last night, we were walking around New York asking each other what our favorite New York movies were, and you know it’s funny because they were all made by New Yorkers. I think that my best advice to you would be: you know, number one, I can’t wait to see your movie when it’s made because I wish I could spend more time in Harlem but I can’t. But I’m going to be counting on you and your film to give me that world, to give me that transportation there while I’m watching it. I think what you should do is sit down and ask yourself, “Why?” You just told me you love Harlem. Why do you love it? What is it about Harlem that you love? And start there. Once you get that down, and I can tell you, there will be really quantifiable things when you think about it long enough, and you just want to capture those things when you make your movie.”
Watch the full interview here:
Make What’s Important to You
The journey to getting a film finished can be a long and challenging process, which is why Coogler emphasized the need for filmmakers to create something that is meaningful to them. He told Bullet Media in 2013:
“I think that the number one thing is that making movies is very difficult—and when I say difficult I don’t mean in terms of getting one made, I mean in terms of the actual execution of it. It’s a very time-consuming job, it’s very rewarding, but it’s very hard, so if you’re going to do it make sure it’s about something that’s very important you. Make sure it’s about a subject matter or a theme that you would live and die for. I think that’s what will get a filmmaker through the process, because as a filmmaker you not only have to be inspired yourself, but you have to motivate a whole team of people around you and that’s what they’re going to feed off of. If you’re doing something that you think is important to somebody else or you’re doing something for the wrong motivational reasons, I think that makes it even more difficult.”
He also mentioned this piece of insight in an interview with Time magazine in 2015, stating:
“I’m passionate about that type of subject matter absolutely. And it’s important to me to always work on projects that have things that I’m passionate about in them. This work is so all-consuming that to do this job right, you have to throw yourself at it 24 hours a day for years at a time. So that’s kind of what I use as a safeguard that I’m never on a project that I get burnt out from and stop caring because I think that’s the worst thing that can happen to a piece of filmmaking is when the director, the guy that’s at the head of the ship, stops caring and gets fatigued and is just clocking in. So I try to always make movies about something that I’m obsessed with and about things that I have questions about.”
Just as writers often advise aspiring novelists to read a lot of books, Coogler notes that watching films is necessary for an aspiring filmmaker. In an interview with DP/30 in 2013, he said:
“It definitely informs my work. I think that is the best thing for a filmmaker to do is to watch movies. I love doing it and when I see good movies, it reminds me of why I do this. There’s nothing like seeing a great movie and being a filmmaker yourself because it’s inspiring. It’s like ‘Wow, this is what the industry I’m in is capable of doing, the effect that it’s capable of having on people.’ And it makes you want to get back into the lab and get to work.”
Watch the full interview here:
Put Your Foot on the Gas
Black Panther made history, but in order to continue moving forward, Coogler advises making the most of available opportunities. He told Variety recently:
“I think progress comes in ebbs and flows. I hope things continue to open up. As more content gets made, more opportunities like ours can come about for folks. But you’ve got to put your foot on the gas when it comes to that or things can go back to where they were.”
What We Learned:
To be a successful filmmaker, you have to love making films for the sake of making them. Only worrying about earning a lot of money or pleasing studio executives can amount to nothing at the end of the day if you’re not working on a project that brings you joy. You’ll burn yourself out very quickly if you’re not making something that is meaningful to you.
The best work comes from films that have a great amount of passion and dedication behind them, and a narrative that feels unique. Don’t shy away from creating films about your own community, and don’t get so caught up in the visuals that you forget about things like story and sound. Absorb the work of others by watching a lot of movies and reading screenplays. They can provide great inspiration for you when you begin your career.