Black Panther: Interview with Director Ryan Coogler

Black Panther

Pressures on this Film

Ryan Coogler: I think that the pressures are real.  What I try to always do is keep it as a source of motivation, and then after that just kind of try to tune it out, because if you think about it too much it would make it impossible for you to do your best work.

You can’t focus in on the details of the work and a film of this size with this much going on, there are so many small, micro decisions to be made,  so you try to keep the pressure of it out of it, so that you can make a a solid movie that works, that’s entertaining and that’s universal but at the same time it’s specific.


RC:  One of the things that I thought about was what does it mean to be African?  That question was something that motivated all the decision making that went into the film.  It is a film that deals with identity, it deals with the concept of tradition.

What does it mean to respect traditions but at the same time maybe divert from those traditions when it becomes necessary, or what does it mean to progress as a society but at the same time honor those traditions and not forget the importance in some of them.

What does this concept of being African mean, it comes with that identity.  Black is another word for somebody of African descent, and I’m sure you guys have words for those concepts and you guys, you know, languages.  But for me it was what does it mean?  That’s a question that anybody could ask themselves even with their own heritage.  This is a question anybody could take on. What does it mean to be Chinese? What does it mean to be German? What does it mean to be from the Philippines. What effect does that have on me as a person, and what effect does that have on me in terms of where I’m going and how the world views me.  All of those things went into play with the film.


Researching African Culture

RC: The biggest thing that the film afforded me was research. It was a rare opportunity to really dig into something that I always had curiosity about since I was a child.  The last 2 movies that I made I started out with questions but they were about things that I was obsessed with at the time but things that I became obsessed with in my adulthood, through experiences I was going through recently.  This idea of who am I? I had this question as a kid.  My parents kind of had to tell me: you are black, you come from Africa.  We’re here now and it was like oh, okay, that’s who I am in this world.  But I always had a profound curiosity about the continent but I’d never been until I signed onto this film,. And to this efficiently, I need to go to the continent, spend some time there, do some research and they said great. So I got to go for the first time. I went to South Africa first.  I went to a country called the Kingdom of Lesotho and then I went to Kenya, and then I came back to the States but I was able to put together some things for the story, and more than that, I was able to put together some things about myself that changed me and the way I look at the world forever.


RC: It’s a huge responsibility and it’s one I feel very fortunate to be able to do.  So for me it was something that I tried to make partial, the whole time I tried to think about the kid that I was then, the man that I am now, you know, and really who I was before and after I went to the continent, you know, I spent time there.  I think that I felt honored to be able to be allowed to make this film.  I try not to think that it was the first time that something like this was happening too much, you know, because I think that also can get tricky, you know, you think of all the pressure and everything and so I tried to stay positive and really focus in on the work; really focus in on making something that’s entertaining and I wanted, you know, and this is to Kevin Feige’s credit, the head of Marvel Studios, one thing I remember having a conversation with Kevin, he says look, man, I got a son who’s young and white, but I want him to look up to childhood as much as you would.  For me, looking at the film it seems – I mean, it’s a challenge like to as a person I think anybody could get behind, though he has a cultural specificity, you know, I think the themes that he’s dealing with, the things that he represents are universal.  I think the themes that make him cool are awesome.

Heroes–All White

When I was young, my favorite superheroes, all of them, were white.  The ones I went to movies–like the X-Men movies, I love Wolverine, I love Batman and Superman and those guys and I didn’t think about the fact that they were all white.  I just loved Batman because he had cool gadgets and had a cool suit and seemed to do what was right.  That said when you look at whole aggregate of all of this stuff you realize like wait, none of these people look like me unless you’re some representation, but when you’re consuming the stuff, when you’ve fallen in love with the stuff you’re not thinking about what they look like really.  I want to be cool like him.  I want to put the suit on.  I’m confident that it will work that way for other fans.


Choosing Locations:

RC: In choosing locations a lot of things come into play.  For us we wanted to make our money stretch the best it could, you know, and make the best decisions according to the story as well and, you know, we have a big section of the film that takes place in South Korea, you know, so we shot some second unit stuff there for the car chase.  Our landscape settings in, you know, our waterfall in the film is based on, you know, is based on Victoria Falls.  A lot of the mountainous regions in the rain forest are based on locations in Africa so we sent our play units, our second unit film crews to photograph those elements to get the people, to get the landscapes but like other Marvel films we did the majority of our work, our stage work, in Georgia, you know, due to the tax credit because it has a tax credit that really lets you get a lot of your money back because we wanted the most bang for our buck on the film.  On these films a lot of stuff comes in a plate but I was really happy with the result.  I’m happy that we were able to go to the continent and rent cameras.


Marvel Family

RC: There is a Marvel family, people who work with the studio and have made films, and when I saw the studio there’s a family atmosphere there.  It feels, I mean you think of it as a big machine because they make so much, they make such big movies but when you really go there it’s a small studio, you know.  You got Kevin who heads it up and then you got, you have Victoria Alonso, you got Louis D’Esposito and as far as decision makers that’s kind of it, you know, which is small compared to other studios.  It’s kind of like a small production studio, you know, but the film has turned into these massive like once they get going, you know, and they have folks that, you know, that work on each film.  In our case we were blessed to have an amazing, you know, an amazing executive producer Nate Moore who brought me onto the project but it is that kind of atmosphere and you work all the time, you know, so you see the guys like, you know, I will see all the time, I see John Anthony Russo all the time as they’re finishing up their film and, you know, you see the guys in the halls, the people who have done before, you know, will talk to you and give you advice, you know, here’s what to look out for, you know, here’s where it can get tough, you know, and the films are interconnected, you know, so, you know, a lot of times you got to communicate in terms of, you know, what your character’s doing, you know, where you’re leaving a character off so, you know, and in the case of our film that we were really encouraged.  Everybody was really excited to see us come in, see us get casted, you know, they kind of high five each other you know when any kind of good news happens, when the trailer gets released, you know, so it is very much you feel like you’re all on the same – a part of the same family.


Cheering in the Audience:

RC: I was a big Rocky fan.  I didn’t watch those in the theatres but I watched them at home with my dad and we would yell at the TV.  The TV was this big but movies in the theatre that we cheer.  I will say comic book movies, you know, like those were the kind of ones, you know. I loved a lot of the MC movies, man.  I remember being at like a real raucous crowd and all that’s done at film school.  I remember that like it was yesterday, you know, cheering for stuff that like seeing Ironman blast off.  The first time I saw a “Dark Knight” I saw at like 3:00 AM on an Imax screening.  It was nothing but a bunch of fans, me and my wife who was my fiancee at the time.  A bunch of fans, just going nuts every time something cool happened, it was a cool shot and Heath Ledger did something cool or Batman did something cool, so I remembered all those moments and I was like one of the loudest ones.


Female Characters

RC: We pulled them from source material.  Characters that happen to be female in these various runs.  In the most recent run, the women are really paramount to the story and what we wanted to do was, you know, build a society that’s both based off of the source material  and also pulled from historical content, you know, looking at the history of women in their role in African society, you know, specifically pre-Colonial African society and we saw, you know, tons of examples of women who had high ranking political positions, were respected as warriors, you know, and we kind of wanted to push that idea forward in this film.  For me T’Challa was basically a guy who works with his family, you know, like, you know, our film is somewhat of a family story and when you look at I mean you say African societies, you could say societies that are African diaspora but I truly believe any society that’s functioning well you’ll see that women are, you know, tend to be the backbone of it, you know.  They tend to be the ones that are doing that they work to keep the family together, you know, keep the family afloat and they keep society functioning and so we really want to represent that, you know.  It’s a movie it’s about a king but he’s able to be king, you know, because of these incredible women that are around him, you know, and these women who kind of were empowered to be great at the things they choose to be great at, you know, so we thought that could be a really interesting way to tell a story.



RC: Each person was a different process.  Chadwick was already cast in the film “Captain America:  Civil War.”  He was cast by John Anthony Russo and Kevin and Nate Moore and then his father played by John Kani was also cast in that film.  They have scenes together.  Florence Kasumba as the second in command.  She was also cast in that movie.  Saw what they looked like and saw how they interacted and it was a great rotation of what we could do and flush out the whole world, you know.  I knew Lupita, met her while I was on the press rounds for my first feature “Fruitvale Station” and she was on a press tour for “12 Years A Slave” so we would see each other and talk and, she and my fiancee would talk about maybe down the road doing something together, so when this came up I thought that this role of Nakia would be perfect for her.  Also kind of had Danai Gurira in mind for Okoye.  I had seen Danai in a film called “Mother Of George,” a small film that went to Sundance when I was at Sundance with “Fruitvale” also 2013 made by an incredible Nigerian-American filmmaker but, you know, she was great in that.  I knew she was in “The Walking Dead.”  I hadn’t seen any of her episodes because I am like not up to date on that show but I thought that she would be very perfect for Okoye so I kind of wrote that role for her.

Daniel Kaluuya

RC: I knew his work from quite a few films before “Get Out” came up.  The most recent thing he had done was “Sicario” and I loved him in that so I thought that he would be great for this role of W’Kabi so I kind of wrote that role with him in mind.

Andy Serkis was already cast from “Age Of Ultron” so he was already on call and then Martin Freeman was already cast as well as Agent Ross.  He played in “Captain America:  Civil War” so I inherited those guys.  Letitia Wright who played Shuri we had to find.  It was really intense, you know, auditioning process to find her.  I’m thankful that we did because I thought she was really right for the role and Winston Duke who plays M’Baku we also had to find.  We needed somebody who has the right stature and also a great physical presence, you know, that contrasted with T’Challa so we were happy to find Winston so that was kind of the story of how we cast the main leads and Angela Bassett who played Ramonda we needed somebody just with a queenly stature and presence was kind of what we were looking for and somebody who is in the comic books Ramonda is quite a bit younger than T’Chaka so we wanted somebody who kind of reflected what she was in the comics but still had, you know, the presence to demand  respect like almost instantly from anybody else in that cast, you know, and that was kind of how we ended up with Angela and it was really, you know, I had met her in Victoria Alonso, one of our producers, like, you know, I really thought that she would be powerful as well, you know, so we were able to get her here and (inaudible), you know, it was really just, you know, knowing that the role of N’Jobu was right for him, you know, in going from there.


Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Oscar Nominee

RC: Rachel Morrison who’s our cinematographer I worked with before on my first film and she’s extremely talented.  I was kind of in awe of how good she was.  But she got pregnant right around the time we were shooting so she wouldn’t have been able to shoot it so I ended up working with Marisa Alberti for that film and for this one when the time came around to crew up for this one Rachel wasn’t pregnant, you know, and so we hired her.  It was kind of that simple. There’s nothing specific where you could say that’s a woman’s perspective.  I think, you know, Rachel she’s really good at her job, you know.  She lights beautifully.  She does have different, a different aesthetic that you will find in superhero films which I thought was cool, you know, but she can light anything, you know.  You can do it any way you want, you know, so it’s kind of, you know, she’s very versatile and I think that the way she runs our crew is really that’s probably where you could see a woman’s touch I think, you know, in terms of just how respectful she is, how everybody feels, how everybody feels, values on our crew, you know what I mean, and they respect her tremendously and she never has to raise her voice, you know what I mean, she’s very strong and in command but in a way that’s totally grateful, you know, and she has so much talent that you just got to respect it.  You know, she can move, she can light very fast, she can deal with incredible hardships very quickly, you know what I mean, and able to make snap decisions that are kind of always the right way and when things get stressful you know she has a centering, a very centering quality to her, you know.  We can make it easier on a film I think, you know, and in terms of Lesotho, you know, I found a lot of incredible things there like there was a tribe in Wakonda whose look was inspired by, you know, the people that I saw there in the Lesotho tribe with the blankets, the elaborate blankets.  Yes.


Comic Book and Town of Black Panthers

RC: More than anything we based the film off the comic book, you know.  I think that the comic book came on the same like 1966 was around the same year that the organization in my hometown came up, I mean was formed should I say.  I think Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in all of their work I think that they were inspired by real world issues and real things that were going on.  I think it was kind of a zeitgeisty, you know, kind of idea to have a character like this at that time and I think some of the issues of, you know, African people all over the country definitely, I mean, all over the world definitely influenced their work there but more than anything I think this is a film that’s, you know, it’s a Marvel movie, you know, first and foremost, you know, it’s going to occupy the space in the MCU and T’Challa always has been a political leader even in the comic books, you know.  It was a book where, you know, you didn’t shy away from things that were going on, you know, politically because he is a king, he is a politician, you know what I mean, who has to deal with those things and he is an African man, you know, but I think as far as inspiration, you know, I think that this is pulling from the culture and things that are going on in the zeitgeist in the ’60s when the character was formed and, you know, we pull from the culture now.