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How 'Black Panther' director Ryan Coogler went from living in his car to becoming Marvel's youngest filmmaker

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Photo courtesy of Getty

"Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler may not be a household name yet, but as Marvel Studios' youngest filmmaker he's already being linked to Hollywood's biggest power players.

In 2013, he gained attention and acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival with the release of his debut film "Fruitvale Station." Now, just five years later, the 31-year-old is being hailed by IndieWire as a next-generation Steven Spielberg after the success of "Black Panther," his third film, which brought in a record-breaking $235 million during its opening weekend.

His relationship with the film's storyline dates back to his childhood in Oakland, California. He tells NPR that as a kid he often hung out at a comic book shop near his school where he was handed his first copy of "Black Panther" after inquiring about comic books with black people.

At the time, Coogler had no idea that filmmaking would one day be his calling. He explains to Filmmaker Magazine that up until college he had aspirations to play football and become a doctor.

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Photo courtesy of Getty

As a student-athlete at Saint Mary's College, Coogler took a creative writing class in which he wrote about a time his father almost bled to death in his arms. Afterward, his professor called him into her office and asked what he wanted to do with his life. He explained that he wanted to be a doctor, but his professor convinced him to consider screenwriting instead.

When Saint Mary's cancelled its football program, Coogler transferred to Sacramento State on scholarship. It was there where a professor told him about USC film school.

"It was either go there or play wide receiver," he says. "I was short, my prospects weren't the highest, so I jumped off that cliff and drove to L.A."

During his first semester at USC he lived out of his car and used his experience as inspiration for a series of short films, including "Fig," which chronicles the story of a prostitute trying to positively change her life while raising a daughter.

"That film is from deep research," he tells Filmmaker Magazine. "I spent Christmas break on the streets and got a lot of stories. I never want to shy away from the truth."

After his first semester, an unarmed African-American male named Oscar Grant was shot to death by a police officer in Coogler's hometown of Oakland. The incident, which sparked riots throughout the Bay Area, inspired Coogler to bring Grant's story to life in his first feature film, "Fruitvale Station."

With a low budget of $900,000, Coogler recruited some of his friends to be producers for the project. When "Fruitvale Station" was released in 2013, the then 27-year-old director received instant recognition from several festivals and film entities including Sundance, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards.

His film also caught the attention of actor and filmmaker Sylvester Stallone, who Coogler worked with for his second movie, 2015's "Creed," a spinoff of the famed "Rocky" series.

Actor Sylvester Stallone who plays the lead role as a boxer Rocky Balboa in the popular U.S. film series.
Eduardo Parra | FilmMagic | Getty Images
Actor Sylvester Stallone who plays the lead role as a boxer Rocky Balboa in the popular U.S. film series.

"It was a leap of faith," Stallone told the Los Angeles Times of his decision to work with Coogler, who was just 29 at the time. "What Ryan was taking on was quite a lot for his second time out. You're going against a tsunami of skepticism."

But taking on career challenges is something Coogler does not shy away from. For his third film, he had an estimated $200 million budget to bring a black superhero story to the big screen.

"This is the first project that I ever did that I felt like I had to make peace with the fact that I would never be caught up in my work," he tells The New York Times. "I had to figure out how to let myself rest. You could work 24 hours a day and it still wouldn't be enough on a film like this."

On the day that he got called to direct the film, Coogler says he and his wife went back to the same comic book shop he used to visit. He tells Entertainment Weekly that after purchasing the two "Black Panther" comic books that he could find, he took a picture and sent it to the president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige.

"He's making this movie for his 8-year-old self," says Feige. "Most importantly, you do it for other 8-year-olds, to inspire the next generation the way we were inspired. And in this case, when Ryan was growing up, perhaps there weren't that many of these heroes to be inspired by that looked like him."

With a predominantly black cast and crew, Coogler and his team have challenged any negative assumptions about the success of minority films. Worldwide, the film made $404 million in its opening weekend, which Vanity Fair reports is the highest opening of all time for a film released in February.

As for a sequel, Feige says he's up for putting young Coogler back in charge if it does take place.

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