Speaker 1: Hello. You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.
Greg Iwinski: Hi, I’m Greg Iwinski, a comedy writer, Writers Guild East member and host of this episode of OnWriting. In this episode, I’m thrilled to speak with Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, co-writers of Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which is now in theaters. Ryan is also the writer/director of the Creed franchise and Fruitvale Station. Joe has written for the series American Crime Story, and wrote and directed the feature film All Day and a Night. First, a quick heads up, this episode does contain spoilers for Wakanda Forever, but you should have already seen it. Ryan and Joe, thank you guys so much for being here.
Joe Robert Cole: Thank you for having us.
Ryan Coogler: Thanks for having me.
Joe Robert Cole: Yeah.
Greg Iwinski: Ryan, you are in London. You just did the David Lean Lecture for BAFTA, is that right?
Ryan Coogler: Yeah, last night, yep.
Greg Iwinski: Okay. My wife is a flight attendant, so I’ve done the cheap thing of standby flights to London and back, and just even from that, boy, that jet lag is rough.
Ryan Coogler: Yeah, it just kicked in on me today. Thankfully, it didn’t hit me yesterday when I gave the talk, but I woke up today, and I’m feeling it. Man, I feel like I’m on another planet.
Greg Iwinski: Yeah, it’s that thing where you’re like, “Wait, why…? It’s not day or night. What time should it be? My body doesn’t …” Oh, that’s rough. I thank you so much for doing this even with all that jet lag.
Ryan Coogler: That’s all good, bro. I’m happy to, man, happy to.
Greg Iwinski: I’m super hyped to talk to you guys also as a writer, as a Black person, as a Black creative, as all this, this is awesome. Can you talk to me a little bit about your writer journey, in terms of: how did you guys meet? How did this whole thing get set up, where it’s like you two guys are going to make Black Panther a thing, not just a cameo in Civil War, not just whatever, you guys are going to be the guys? How did that come together?
Joe Robert Cole: You want to start, Ryan?
Ryan Coogler: Maybe you should start, because you came to the project before I did.
Joe Robert Cole: So, when Civil War came out, Nate Moore is the conduit between us, and he’s the executive on the movies, and was also on Civil War, and he’s a big Black Panther fan. He read the comics like Ryan. I had been in the Marvel writing program and met Nate there. That’s what introduced me to Black Panther. They reached out to me and wanted to see if I would be interested in pitching to write the movie. And so I went in and I pitched. And this is a little after Ava stepped away from the project.
So I won that job, and then when I pitched, Nate had a conversation with me and said he was talking to Ryan, and that Ryan wanted to co-write it if he came on board. And I was super excited. And there’s a little bit of backstory. Me and Nate, while I was in the writer program, we had become friendly, and we had went to see Fruitvale Station together. And we didn’t know Ryan then. And the movie really touched both of us, and we were huge fans of his. So Nate said that me and Ryan would get along super well, and he put us in a room. And I’ll let you take over from there, bro.
Ryan Coogler: Yeah. We met in that Avengers conference room, I think. And one of the first things Joe said to me was he told me that he went to Cal Berkeley. And I’m from the East Bay Area. I went to high school in Berkeley. My little brothers went to high school in Berkeley. And I grew up in Oakland and Richmond, Berkeley is kind of between those two cities. He shared with me that his time spent in the Bay Area was real formative for him. And when we connected over that. And we started talking about… I think we talked more life than about the characters or anything, just get getting a feel for who we were as people. And it was real clear to me that we were going to get along. It was clear that he could write. I think I had read the outline that he did for Panther One and it was great. Were you working on American Crime at the time or you were just coming off of it?
Joe Robert Cole: Yeah, I actually came up with my pitch while I was supervising my episodes on that, and so I wrapped it up. We talked about family.
Ryan Coogler: That was really… Without getting into it too deep, but that was really what it was man. We talked family and Joe being from Cleveland. And he told me a little bit about how he came up. I told him about how came up. And if you making a Black Panther movie, you know from the comic books that all of the drama, the best books are about him and his family, you know what I’m saying, like him and his relationship with his father, who died when he was young and with the Helen runs like Shriek comes in the mix and his uncle Cheyenne and all these. It’s kind of like a palace intrigue and family stuff, and we wanted to make it real. So we knew that that would be a element of it.
We started talking about our own families and our own journeys to becoming filmmakers. And I just really was fond of him. I was happy because it’s a lot of writers in Hollywood and everybody who’s good at their job isn’t necessarily going to be somebody who you can work with or get along with because those are two different things. And a lot of times people who are really good at their job in this business are assholes. It’s actually a positive correlation. You’re fine.
Greg Iwinski: And you got to be a good hang. You got to be somebody who I want to be around you. I’ve worked in late night a lot and you talk about if 2:00 in the morning, if I see you in the hallway, I should be happy.
Ryan Coogler: Exactly, bro. Exactly. And a lot of people are imagining writers who are tough to be around. And for this one was going, it was going to take a lot of time. We were behind. I think it was a tight schedule for us to hit that release date and we knew it was going to be some intense hours, some late nights, quick turnarounds. We even talked about that and one of the first things you said was like, “Y’all won’t sleep much.” So I’m good.
Joe Robert Cole: That’s true. I remember that.
Ryan Coogler: I was like, “Great.” Because some people are like, “Yeah man, I need 10 hours a day.” It’s like, “Oh, this ain’t going to work.”
Greg Iwinski: Oh, I was going to say, so how does the chemistry and the work together, how does that play out in the co-writing? There’s a lot of different ways people co-write. Are you guys writing on stuff at the same time? Are you in the room breaking everything down or is it like, “Here’s my draft, send me notes, you send me yours,” back and forth? What’s your process?
Ryan Coogler: Yeah, it’s all of those things man. It’s all of those things. So for Panther One, I had to get my head around it, so I asked for a little bit of time up top just to dive in. And Joe was like, “Man…” He was cool with that. I think I got halfway through a draft and then I was taking too long, so then just so Joe got in the mix. We might have finished up together. And then from there we’re back and forth. We’ll break it up, like you take these scenes, I’ll take these scenes.
Or sometimes I might have a scene but Joe will be like, “Hey I think I got an idea for that. Let me get down one.” It is that. And then it’s also a lot of us in the room together figuring it out. So it’s basically all of those things. And with Wakanda Forever, it was a lot of us literally writing at the same time with the new features from final draft. Because that was a pandemic movie man, so we was over Zooms, but we’ll be in the document at the same time with that co-writing feature. So it was great.
Greg Iwinski: It is funny that… Oh, go ahead. Sorry. Go ahead Jeff.
Joe Robert Cole: I was just saying that was fun. That was…
Ryan Coogler: It was like a video game.
Joe Robert Cole: It was a trip. It was a trip. You could see the cursors and you see… It was fun.
Greg Iwinski: So I wrote for Colbert and for Last Week Tonight and in those, there’s late night co-writing software because you have to write so fast. Yeah. So there’s a program that you use that because at a daily late night show you have the assignment comes out at 10:00, you have to turn it in at 12:30. So you have two and a half hours to write your script. You don’t have time to send each other drafts, you’re just in it together both writing. And so you’re like, “I’m going to write this one punchline. And that gives you another idea, so you write your punchline below mine.” And so when Final Draft got it, I was like finally this is what we’ve been doing forever is being, “Let’s all write.” And so then it’s crazy because then at the end of the day when you’re trying to punch a joke, 10 people are writing jokes at the same time.
You’re just watching the screen just fly. I love co-writing. I want to ask you guys, this movie is a Black movie and Wakanda is… There’s so much about this that is Black. I mean I walk out of both these movies and my friend turned to me, he’s like, “If this is how white people feel after they see every action movie, man I get it. I get how it is.” Because you feel like you’re flying and we’re winning, but also there aren’t a ton of them. And so I’ve been in spaces where I’m the second Black guy ever hired to do my job, this high profile job.
And I know there are on people on Twitter that are waiting because they’re like, “I’m watching these jokes and I know your handle. And if it’s not something that…” Black people are waiting. And with you guys this is the Black superhero. There are more, but it has all this weight on it. How do you process all the weight of having to represent, of knowing that people are waiting for the second one being like, “It needs to feel for us,” or, “We want to feel represented. And Ryan and Joe, we know you guys, so if it doesn’t make us feel represented, we’re going to come for you,”? How do you deal with that pressure as people?
Ryan Coogler: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good question, man. I don’t know Joe, you want to drop in, bro?
Joe Robert Cole: I think, and I don’t want to speak for Ryan, but I think for me, I’m just trying to pour myself into what I’m doing and stay in the moment. Each of these two films have been really personal in a lot of ways to us. When he says that we talked about family, we talked about each other, we had lots of conversations about who we were as people and who we were as children, how we saw the world and how we see the world. We’re writing with someone who had become a friend, especially by the second movie. So you are focused on pouring your personal self into the work that you’re doing and not focused on the expectations in some regards of someone outside of you.
Look, we are Black. We have that, we walk outside, that is what we are. We have been Black our whole lives. We have that lived experience. We have those shared experiences. And so as we are working, we are working with someone who understands our point of view on the world and doesn’t mean we’re monolithic, but it does mean that we have those overlaps. And I think we feel like we have that with other people of color. And so we’re just focused on ourselves, I believe, and what we feel is right, what feels right, being true, truth to our feelings and exploring and trying to beat what we have always and make it better.
Ryan Coogler: Yeah, I agree with everything Joe said. He said it perfectly. It is a pressurized situation how I like to work. And it serves me, each time I’ve been working professionally, there has been a lot of weight depending on which angle I look at it from. I have to actually look back the other films that I worked on in preparation for the lecture that I gave last night. It’s not something I often do. Usually by the time the movie premiers, I’m done with it. I don’t ever again. I move on from it. And I think a lot of that is a part of the ritual because of the pressure that I always feel when I’m making these movies. With Fruitvale, it was somebody’s life that we were trying to portray in a vehicle that’s artistic but also supposed to be for entertainment.
It was so many things was we were trying to balance. I remember some days it felt insurmountable. And I was young bro, making that movie. And it was good practice for this, which is, it’s fictional characters, but fictional characters that mean a lot to of people, been around for a long time and the things that they represent are expansive. And so I think that we are aware of the responsibility and we try our best every day to make something now that felt truthful to us. The moment you trying to make something that feels truthful to somebody else, you’ll make something that sucks. When you stretching… And you can feel it when you watch people’s stuff, when they stretching to do something that’s far from them.
So that’s what we doing man. We stepping in to work every day. Working professionals, nothing was given to nothing me, nothing was given to Joe. I can guarantee you that. We worked to put ourselves in a position and to be hired to do this. Every day we thinking, we got friends, we got kids, we got people that’s coming behind us, we thinking, “Let’s do the absolute best we can do here, not only for this project but for the next person that’s coming up, so this can be a success story.” So people will see the next Joe in a writing room or a writing program and say, “Hey man, let me promote this with this person.” So we carried that with us to work out on everything. So from there it’s like, “All right, right, let’s buckle down, let’s work. Let’s make something that’s truthful. Let’s make something that’s entertaining, that pulls from real things.” And then after that, man, people who can do with it what they want, it’s theirs now. And that’s kind of how I attack it.