CS Interview: Director Ryan Coogler on Creed and the Rocky Legacy

Exclusive interview with Creed writer/director Ryan Coogler

Although only 29-years old, director Ryan Coogler is roughly the same age as Sylvester Stallone was when he wrote and starred in his breakout film Rocky in 1976. Four decades later, Coogler is picking up where Stallone left off by continuing the saga of boxer Rocky Balboa in the new film Creed, which follows the progeny of Rocky’s opponent/friend Apollo Creed (originally played by Carl Weathers) named Adonis (Michael B. Jordan).

In the film, Adonis seeks the mentorship of an elder Balboa, and with the help of the legendary champ begins his own rise to the top. With a degree of gritty realism not seen in the franchise since the original ’76 film, Coogler manages to balance the legacy of the six previous films with a new character who faces internal and external struggles unique to this generation. Featuring fully-committed performances by both Jordan (who worked with Ryan Coogler on 2013’s Fruitvale Station) and Stallone, Creed sets a high bar for the series and leaves the door open for future installments.

We got the chance to sit down with Coogler in Philadelphia, home of Rocky, for an exclusive conversation in which the Creed writer/director (and former Sacramento State football player) discusses fight choreography, how his relationship with Stallone mirrors Adonis and Rocky, and the film’s touching tribute to the late Sage Stallone.

Creed1ComingSoon.net: One of the things I remember from watching the original Rocky movies as a kid is turning the sound off during the fight between him and Apollo and thinking, “Man, they’re not even coming CLOSE to connecting!” They’re throwing punches a foot away from each other, its all sound effects. In your first fight scene with Adonis you have that one long shot that is clearly well choreographed, connecting offscreen or right when he moves in front of the camera.

Ryan Coogler: It’s very important, man. It’s a different language. I had a great stunt coordinator, Clayton Barber and a boxing coach for Mike. I knew I wanted Mike to be there, I didn’t want to do any face replacement or doubling. I wanted it to all be him, and it was a process. We worked all the time at it. We picked out what style we wanted to shoot, how each fight had to tell a different story. We picked a fighting style for Mike and once we knew we were doing this I worked with a pre-visualization company because the last fight would need some VFX for the location. We worked with a company called The Third Floor over in Los Angeles and pre-vized a version of the final fight, but for the other fights in the movie what we did was write the fights out as a script and I got with my editors beforehand and handed them a list of fights to look at, and then we cut together versions of our scripted fight from the real footage and put together our choreography from that. The fighters and the actors worked on it and the biggest thing was a safety issue because we didn’t want Mike to injure one of the fighters.

CS: Or for somebody to injure your star!

Ryan Coogler: Definitely didn’t want one of those, ’cause when those guys punch it’s for real. A simple connection could hurt Mike. Even if it’s a minor injury it could throw us off schedule, Mike was in pretty much every scene in the movie. We couldn’t afford to have that, but at the same time he wanted to take some shots. It was a real interesting process and it exhausted everybody, but I think in the end it was very much worth it.

CS: You took an interesting risk with the screenplay, because the easy/hack approach would have been to have Adonis be this kid struggling on the streets of Philly who finds out he’s Apollo Creed’s son, but you didn’t go that way. You had him come from the life of privilege and education and CHOOSE to take up the mantle. How do you have him gain the audience’s sympathy without making them feel that he’s entitled somehow?

Ryan Coogler: I think the character is not entitled at all, he’s complicated. He obviously has a complicated history, and we wanted him to be as complex as possible. What you see in today’s society is everything is grey area. With technology, with where we are as a culture nobody is all one thing anymore. For him he obviously has a complicated upbringing because it wasn’t always a life of privilege but that was his reality at a pretty early age. In his search to try to find himself he has to cast that away and make his own way. That’s something people can relate to. I actually think it’s better that way!

CS: It’s almost like an Excalibur story.

Ryan Coogler: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a mythology here, and something that millennial generation that can relate to. “Who am I gonna be?” That’s a question a lot of people our age ask themselves and how it relates to what my parents saw and what they do. “Am I gonna find work in that field? Am I gonna go out and do something that’s totally different? What’s that gonna do to our relationship?” These are all things that the characters struggle with, but I think this is one of those situations where the more complex we can make it the better the audience will relate.

Creed2CS: About ten years ago I worked on Sly’s reality show “The Contender” and during the casting in L.A. there were all these different fighters. Some of them came from very challenging backgrounds and then there’d be a guy reading a Jane Austin novel between training. What do you think is the common denominator between the guys who come from the street and the ones who, like Mike’s character, choose it?

Ryan Coogler: Right. I would say the common denominator is a love of the sport. For whatever reason they love it, ’cause you’ve gotta love your sport to get far in it because it’s such a punishing sport. You pay such tough prices with it, so you have to love it. There’s also this sense of having to prove something, internally. I make no qualms about it, I did a lot of research about this, most boxers come from humble beginnings, there’s no question that’s where the majority of them come from. It’s a sport where in many ways the people who are the best are the people who didn’t have an option. This is the only way they were gonna get out. That was the only way they could see, but you do have those few who choose it, who had other options and still came to this. I feel like those are interesting stories. I was an athlete myself for much longer than I’ve been a filmmaker.

CS: College football.

Ryan Coogler: Yeah, and it was a similar thing. I grew up with Marshawn Lynch, I grew up around Maurice Jones Drew, Thomas DeCoud, all these players that ended up going on to do things. In Marshawn’s situation even when we were young football was his way out of his reality. When you’re dealing with players like that, man, when it’s time to tackle that guy he’s running with so much more! With Adonis our whole thing was finding that, what is the fire inside of him. What is it inside of him that makes him want to go, and it’s that struggle find that identity and he wants to connect with his dad, you know what I’m saying?

CS: There’s this really touching scene in the movie where Rocky looks at the picture of his son. Is that Sage in the picture?

Ryan Coogler: It is, it is.

CS: Can you talk a little bit about what was going on with Sly in that scene?

Ryan Coogler: Absolutely. Sly’s an amazing actor, an amazing artist. I got the chance to really see how he works as an actor, which is really incredible.

CS: You got a good performance out of him.

Ryan Coogler: Oh absolutely, he’s a terrific actor, man. He’s got a great dexterity to him. He can make a scene intended to be dramatic funny, he can make what’s funny dramatic, and he can very often make scenes both with much ease. He uses substitution a lot in his toolkit, he’ll use personal substitution, and I think he works that way as a writer as well. I talked to him a lot about his life, and the character of his son in all those movies there are shades of Sage there. I mean, Sage played him in “Rocky V.” It meant a lot to me to have that photo in the movie. I know it meant a lot to Sly. I wanted a picture of him and Sage and he picked that picture specifically for me. It’s a beautiful picture and simultaneously heartbreaking at the same time. It’s one of the most incredible photographs I’ve ever seen. That scene is very much about Rocky and very much about Sly as well. He’s great in it.

Creed3CS: He’s fantastic in it. How was that for you? There’s been John G. Avildsen, Stallone and then you and that’s it. These are the three caretakers of this franchise! What is it like coming in… you’ve gotta have a lot of chutzpah to go in there and say, “I think I know what to do with Rocky!” That’s his baby.

Ryan Coogler: (laughs) With this I think it helped that it was about a different character. This movie’s about Adonis. Rocky’s in it, he’s got a major role in it, their relationship is at the forefront of the movie but it’s Adonis’s movie. I think that helped, that the focus wasn’t on that character. That made Sly ready to give us some agency there, but the biggest thing was just having him involved. He was always there. It was always a collaboration. That helped me and it helped him, because if it was just us running off to make this away from him I wouldn’t have been comfortable with that and I don’t think he would have either, but because he was there and it was always a situation where he could give his input. He gave us full reign and that made the process easier.

CS: In a lot of ways your relationship with him mirrors Adonis and Rocky.

Ryan Coogler: Absolutely! It was definitely art imitating life with this film and we all became very close, we became a very unconventional family on set, Rocky and Mike and myself and Tessa. We were all very close out of the process of making this film and I found myself going to him for advice professionally. The last few times things have come up for me and I had questions about stuff, was unsure about moves I found myself calling him. He had great insight, very similar to the movie. Even us going to him and him being somewhat apprehensive and then jumping in feet-first it’s very much art imitating life, life imitating art!

CS: The fact that so much of it came from your own background -your work with at-risk kids, your athleticism, your situation with your dad- that personal aspect of it keeps it from becoming fan fiction.

Ryan Coogler: Yeah right, absolutely. That was the biggest thing we wanted to bring to it. That’s what Sly brought to Rocky, that’s why he worked so hard because in many ways that was his story told through his artistic lens. Even though Sylvester Stallone and Rocky are completely different as people it’s very much his life story told through his artistic lens.

(*SPOILER WARNING* Do not proceed below unless you want to read discussions of critical events in the film.)

CS: Sly famously wrote “Rocky V” to have Rocky die at the end, and then at the last minute he changed his mind. Obviously we got “Rocky Balboa” and now your movie and you hint at the possibility of that with his cancer treatment but you don’t go there. Is Rocky’s mortality something you don’t think is palatable for audiences, to see that character…

Ryan Coogler: Perish?

CS: Yeah.

Ryan Coogler: Aww man, that’s an interesting question. That’s an interesting question, man. (laughs) I think for us and for me this film is about embracing the mortality of someone whose mortality you never even considered. For me it was my dad. For me growing older I never imagined seeing my father’s health compromised in a way he would need me or my brother’s help to walk from the car to the house. When that happened something shifted in my brain, something broke, even though you know that’s the reality of all human beings. My dad’s hero is Rocky! That’s his hero, his favorite movie character, his fictional idol. For me this film was about that, looking at this character who was the pinnacle of American masculinity. He was the pinnacle of strength, and what happens when this guy gets older? What happens when he’s not only emotionally broken but physically broken. What happens? Just the idea of mortality to me was more interesting than the finality that we all know is coming for everybody.

Creed opens everywhere tomorrow.