Don’t be fooled by Ryan Coogler‘s laid-back Oakland accent. The writer/director may have an affable personality, but he’s also a whip-smart filmmaker whose previous two movies, Fruitvale Station and Creed, proved he was well equipped to make the jump from intimate, character-based indies to the blockbuster big leagues.
His latest movie, Black Panther, beautifully blends those sensibilities into one of Marvel Studios’ most exciting projects to date: a superhero film that embraces its cultural identity while still providing all of the action, humor, and dazzling visuals fans have come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I had the chance to speak with Coogler at the Black Panther junket, and he told me about one of the movie’s most impressive action scenes, how he and his co-writer crafted one of the film’s breakout characters (Shuri, played by Letitia Wright), the influence of President Obama when writing the screenplay, and more.
Tell me about the actual process of getting this job. I know directors often make visual sizzle reels to give a loose idea of what they’d like to do with it. Did you do that for this movie?
No. (laughs) I didn’t make a sizzle reel – frankly, I didn’t have time to if I could. I was just finishing making my last film, Creed, when I got involved with talks with Nate Moore initially. Then I went in to meet Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, and eventually Victoria Alonso. Creed hadn’t come out yet, but I had finished it, so I was prepping and getting ready to do press and all that good stuff, and we were talking. I was really interested in how they worked as a studio. I’d heard things about it, but I wanted to get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I asked honest questions, and they asked me questions about me and my process, and everything I was hearing was making me excited. The more I spent time with them, the more I felt like, ‘Yeah, I can work with these guys. I could spend some time around these guys and learn from them, and I think they can challenge me as collaborators.’ I thought it’d be a good idea to get going. All I had was a movie. I had a movie I’d just finished, and I think that was helpful.
Tell me about melding the character of Shuri from what she is the comics into sort of a female Q in this movie.
Yeah. The idea for that started when I sat down with Marvel, and they said, ‘We see this as an opportunity to be our universe’s version of James Bond.’ As soon as they said that, it was something I hadn’t thought of about Black Panther, as much as I was familiar with the characters. And I just thought that was flat out fantastic, man, because I love James Bond. I love James Bond movies. I think they’re really cool. I haven’t seen all of them, but the ones that I’ve seen – I love Casino Royale. I thought that was brilliant. It clicked in my head when they said that. It made me very excited. And I’m always impressed by creative people who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of. There’s nothing that bums you out more than hearing an idea and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, I was thinking that.’ You know what I mean? But when they said the idea and I was like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!’, that was what kinda happened.
Going through the process of writing the film and working with my co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, I thought Shuri would be a cool Q. It’d be really interesting seeing a young African teenager who’s manipulated this element in ways that nobody else could and who’s confident and able to have her own space. In our minds, Wakanda’s a place that looks at age differently than other places. It’s not a place where, because you’re young, you don’t get a chance to lead, and because you’re old, we don’t cast you aside. It’s looking at time and age more in an African sense. I also thought that as we were writing, I realized that the more stuff we can put in this relationship between T’Challa and his sister, the better off we’ll be because that’s another thing that makes him so unique. There are no superheroes that I can think of that have a little sister who they love dearly and who can bring out the best in them but also keep them down to Earth, you know what I mean? Their relationship is built on love, and out of that, so many other things grew. She became so much more than just a Q.
You’ve done some incredible single-shot long takes in your career so far. How did the one in the casino fight come about?
I kind of look at action films like musicals, and Black Panther is definitely an action film, among other things. I kind of learned this from working on Creed, and I would talk with Sly [Stallone] about this a lot too while we were making that, and I think it was advice he gave me about action films being kind of like musicals. You know how in musicals, the rule is if we’re talking and our emotions swell too much, we’ve gotta sing. You know what I’m saying? When our emotions get bigger than dialogue, it’s time to sing – you get it out, and then go back to dialogue. In a true action movie, a true fight film, it should feel the same way. We’re talking, but if it gets too intense, we’ve gotta fight. (laughs) So each fight should feel different. Each fight should tell a different story about the characters’ emotions. In my mind, I saw Wakandans as a noble people, an ancient people, but in the comics, they’ve always been people who can fight really, really good. They’re incredibly dangerous. In all of them, that’s one thing that’s consistent. You don’t want to fight a Wakandan, whether it’s T’Challa, whether it’s any of them.
The casino scene, for me, was about Wakanda’s trying to hide. They’re trying to blend in. They’re trying their best not to make a scene, and eventually, they just can’t hold it in anymore. So I wanted each one of those three characters, they way that they fought to be different, and to be equally impressive.
T’Challa is a super-powered guy who fights like a king, like an African king, and has super strength and is doing these powerful things, and everybody’s attention is probably on him. They’re trying to jump him, you know? We saw Nakia as being a spy, being craftier and grittier and grimier, kind of like Daniel Craig’s James Bond. How he’s rough and slams through stuff and breaks stuff and it’s kind of dirty and he’ll take your gun. She’s the only Wakandan that you ever see using guns, with the exception of [spoiler deleted for you, /Film reader]. So we showed her fighting style. And then we wanted Okoye, who’s the cream of the crop of the Dora [Milaje, Black Panther’s personal bodyguards], to just be doing incredible stuff. Almost shocking, how skilled she is with this spear and how she’s taking on all these people.
When I started realizing what I wanted to do – Hannah Beachler, our production designer, had built this incredible casino. It’s Korean-inspired, but it’s got a beautiful James Bond feel. I realized the best way to get the feeling of just how much ass the Wakandans kick and how different it is and where it’s happening at and the placement of their operation, is to try to do it unbroken. That’s how we can experience all these things. So that’s how the idea came up.
Among many other things, this movie is partially about the difficult and almost impossible choices that leaders have to make. Can you talk about seeding that theme into the script?
It was one of those things, man. Obama was President at the time, and we talked about Obama a lot in terms of, ‘Man, it’s gotta be crazy difficult to be the political leader of this place, and there’s gotta be conflict there.’ We talked about in the [comics], specifically in the [Christopher] Priest run, there’s references to how many tribes are in Wakanda, and how they always don’t agree, and there’s a lot of pressure on T’Challa. He’s constantly trying to escape Wakanda and go to the States in that run. If you look at the Coates run, he’s constantly right there in Wakanda, in the thick of it. He’s sitting in board rooms and dealing with riots and all of this dissatisfaction within as a ruler. So we didn’t want to shy away from that. In our film, he’s just now taking the throne. So it’s the idea of transition and what happens in that transition. The idea that you’re weak when you’re in points of transition. So things are coming up and you’ve gotta see what choices he’s going to make and how he’s going to navigate these things. We wanted to make his political seat one that’s difficult. If it’s not, then there’s not as much conflict as it should be.
Black Panther arrives in theaters on February 16, 2018.