See the Cannes jury, led by Steven Spielberg and including Nicole Kidman and Christoph Waltz, attend the rain-drenched opening night screening at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire.
And good parents, American football and mentoring by Hollywood star Forest Whitaker are what gave him his chance.
Aged just 26, from a modest background, African-American director Ryan Coogler is being tipped at the Cannes Film Festival as a dazzling new talent.
His first feature movie, Fruitvale Station, featuring in Cannes' Un Certain Regard competition, touches on a tragic true-life story that occurred in his native San Francisco.
It recounts the last 24 hours in the life of a young black man, Oscar Grant, who is shot dead by a cop at a subway station just as he is getting his troubled existence back on track.
Riots broke out after the verdict in the policeman's trial.
Filmed on less than $1m, the movie made a buzz in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize.
A bidding war broke out, won by mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is releasing it in the United States in July.
Fruitvale Station was warmly applauded at its press screening in Cannes, where it is vying for the Golden Camera prize for young talents.
Britain's Guardian newspaper gave the "quietly gripping debut" four out of a maximum five stars.
"I was incredibly fortunate," the athletically-built young man said in an interview. "(...) It's more than you can ask for."
Coogler and his little brother were born to a couple who married young and focussed on education to help their rise out of tough neighbourhoods in the Bay Area around San Francisco.
"They put us through nice schools," said Coogler.
"We lived in rough neighbourhoods, but we went to nice schools...so I grew up with both those worlds and for a long time, I didn't fit in to either."
He didn't fit into his local neighbourhood because he was a bookworm. Nor did he fit into life at school, because he was poor.
"But I started playing sports -- and there I fitted in everywhere," he said.
With the help of a football scholarship, he went to a liberal arts school where he started taking classes in film-making.
He followed up with a graduate course at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, one of the most prestigious movie schools in the world.
There, he cut his teeth with a series of short films about life on the margins, including a piece about a young prostitute's fight to protect her daughter.
The next big break came through Whitaker, who won the 2006 Oscar for best actor as Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
Coogler said: "His company was looking for film makers to mentor while I was in film school.
"For him it's social issues.
"Forest is a humanitarian, he does a lot of work in conflict resolution in Africa and the US, so his company was naturally attracted to things that have social relevance. That's how my name came up."
In their 45-minute first encounter, Coogler sketched his idea for a film that pulls Oscar Grant out of anonymity as yet another crime statistic, and recounts the last 24 hours in his life.
"[Whitaker] said, 'I'm going to help you make that,' and walked out of the room," Coogler said.
Funding was scraped together from a variety of sources -- grants from the San Francisco Film Society and Sundance and Whitaker himself stumped up more than half.
Coogler admitted he was having a hard time coping with all the attention.
"I try to focus on the work, otherwise I think my head would probably explode."
Coogler came to Cannes to promote the film, but wants to stick around to support Whitaker, who is coming to the festival for the premiere of Zulu, which closes out the 12-day bash on May 26.
"I am still trying to find a place to stay and sort out my flight. I would love to be there."
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