What did you do about it?
I liked movies, but I never even knew what a screenplay was. I went out to Best Buy and bought a DVD pack of "Pulp Fiction" that had the screenplay in it on a CD-ROM. I put it in my computer and saw a screenplay for the first time. I opened up Microsoft Word and tried to duplicate the physical structure of it, started doing my own script, and I really liked it.
From St. Mary's you went to Sacramento State and then the USC film program.
That was the only place I applied to!
Tell me something about your student films.
"Locks" was about a guy in Oakland who wakes up one morning and decides to cut all his dreadlocks off. "Fig" was about Figueroa; when I found out that it's Los Angeles' prostitution hub, I found it ironic that it's the same street where Staples Center is located, where USC is located. You go farther south and there's these women selling their bodies, on the same street.
Where were you when Oscar Grant was killed at the BART station?
I was back home [in the Bay Area], working as a bouncer at this rave. At juvenile hall, one of my co-workers has a security company, and he always hires me so I could make money on the holidays. One of my buddies said in passing that someone had got shot at one of the BART stations. Over the next few days the story came out.
Grant's killing was recorded on a cellphone. How do you tell such a story when people can find the real thing online?
You go to the Internet, the only thing you see from his life are those few minutes on that platform. What I was interested in was what people didn't see, from his life. You find out he did do time in prison, he did have a relationship with his daughter, he'd done many domestic things [the day he died]. It's an opportunity to provide something different.
Did you have nervous butterflies as the project picked up steam?
I am nervous right now! I was nervous when I pitched it, then when I met Forest [Whitaker, the producer]. I've had butterflies with razor-blade wings these past two years.
How did you persuade BART to let you film at the station?
They were apprehensive, but talking to them, they realized the film wasn't so much about the platform as about the guy, his relationships, so they were on board with it, even though it was difficult. And having Forest backing the project really helped.
You shot three half-days at the station, and began every day with a moment of silence. Was it hard to see that scene of his death over and over?
I've seen it too many times. It takes a little bit out of you every time. You never want to let yourself get callous to that kind of stuff.
Are you still working at juvenile hall?
I haven't in a while. I miss it, though. I look forward to going back as soon as I can. My dad's worked there ever since I was young. I used to go there with him. Any job where you're working with kids is good. It keeps you youthful, keeps you having perspective. It's not the easiest job in the world, seeing kids dealing with things that would break down most adults, kids who are throwing their lives away. But there's a lot of beauty in the kids.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.