Buzzworthy ‘Fruitvale Station’ has local flavor

A Dayton native created the film’s production design.

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When Centerville High School and Wright State University film and production design graduate Hannah Beachler signed on for director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler’s debut independent film “Fruitvale Station,” little did she know her contributions would ultimately be a part of one of the most relevant and riveting films of 2013.

Arriving locally Friday and produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, “Fruitvale Station” is a gripping, gritty account based on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man fatally shot by a white transit police officer at an Oakland, Calif., BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station on New Year’s Day in 2009. Praised at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and the Cannes Film Festival in France, the movie has already wowed critics and has garnered considerable Oscar buzz in multiple categories, including Best Picture, added with the hope of attracting a larger, diverse audience in the aftermath of the controversial George Zimmerman verdict.

“The reaction to this film has been mind-blowing,” said Beachler. “One year ago this month we were filming all the BART station scenes including Fruitvale. The Trayvon Martin case had just begun to catch on. We had an idea this film would take off when the Weinstein Company purchased it at Sundance, but oftentimes well-received films at festivals do not translate to the everyday, to the rest of the population. So to see that the movie has resonated with so many people and that it might also be a catalyst for change is very special.”

The New Orleans-based Beachler, whose recent production designs include “Hateship/Courtship,” “The Culling” and “Worst Prom Ever,” worked closely with Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison to determine the proper look and feel of the film, including tiny details such as changing gas prices in a gas station scene for complete accuracy. In addition to shooting on location at San Quentin (Grant served time for drug dealing), she found the three BART station scenes, particularly Fruitvale, to be an emotional experience for cast and crew.

“I stood next to the left bullet hole in the ground where Oscar was shot,” she said. “This entire project was intense. All of us were passionate about the story and felt we needed to honor Oscar’s memory, his family, his daughter, and his community that rallied around him when he was killed. So there was a lot of pressure on set as we went deeper into the subject matter of race, discrimination and the law which was wrapped around Oscar’s humanity. Making Oscar human was what we were going for in the look of the film.”

Producing the most effective color scheme was also paramount. Attracted to the idea of certain elements failing Grant at the time of his death, Beachler instinctively felt the urge to layer institutional or rehabilitation-tinged scenes in yellow, which instantly conjures images of cautionary police tape.

“All the places that failed Oscar such as the scenes in San Quentin or even a grocery store are drenched in yellow, but the places Oscar felt most comfortable, especially his home, are given warm tones like blue, beige, green and red. And Oscar’s world, his environment, his clothes, contain gray, black and white, suggesting the gray area reflecting the transition of him becoming a man and leaving behind his past.”

Beachler discovered her love of cinema as a young child watching a drive-in double feature with her parents and also being a fan of the many beautifully decorated musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. While at WSU, where she viewed and analyzed thousands of films, she was encouraged to tailor her visual gifts to art direction.

“At Wright State, I was almost headed in the direction of being a filmmaker along with many others, but I always came back to how a movie looked, how it feeds the psychology of the characters, and how color is used to tell a story. My professors, which included Charles Derry, Russ Johnson and William Lafferty, were very vocal and vital to where my career went and how I have been moving within the film industry. Without Wright State I certainly wouldn’t be where I am.”

Beachler admits “Fruitvale Station” was one of the smallest films she has worked on, but it was an unquestionably worthwhile project that challenged her creativity and resourcefulness. She anticipates attending a Friday screening at the Neon Movies downtown and remains grateful to be associated with a movie that has the potential to spark a movement.

“I’m so proud of the film and the work we did. It’s amazing to be part of something that is much bigger than the medium it is on.”

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