Interview | Ryan Coogler on ‘Creed’ and Taking the Reins from Stallone

In Creed, the newest entry into the Rocky franchise, we see Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), as he follows in his father’s footsteps to become a champion boxer. After studying his father’s bouts, he realizes there is only one man who can train him: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

I sat down with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, to discuss the Rocky legacy, working with Stallone, and jumping from indie films to a studio blockbuster.

Related: ‘Creed’ Review | Like a Rock… A LOT Like a Rock

Crave: How did you get involved with the film? Did you always aspire to make a Rocky movie?

Ryan Coogler: I grew up a Rocky fan because of my dad. As long as I can remember, I was familiar with the movie, familiar with the characters. My dad was a big-time Rocky guy. He would use metaphors from the movie and show me the films whenever I had a big thing to prepare for. We would sit down and watch a certain section. He always had the same reaction to it: he would get fired up, or tear up at the same spots. 

The movies always had a certain reverence for me, but at the time, I didn’t know that I was going to be a filmmaker. I was a jock back then, but I watched a lot of movies because my parents watched a lot of movies. It was something we did as a family. I didn’t even realize that was something I could pursue as a career option. When it did, when I decided I wanted to make movies, I was in college. I got into watching a lot of foreign cinema and rewatching films as I learned more about filmmaking and gained a critical eye. I started thinking about making a boxing movie – that was something I was interested in. Being a Rocky fan, ideas for that [franchise] were always floating around.

Warner Bros.

When my dad got sick, right around the time I was finishing up school and getting ready to make Fruitvale Station, that was when the idea for this story clicked. At the time I had a lot going on with Fruitvale. I had a close buddy, Aaron Covington, my roommate in film school, we always talked about writing something together. I asked him to help me write the script for this movie. I didn’t know if we would get a chance to do it but I thought it would be cool to work on, and he was down. I ended up pitching Sly through a connection I made with my agent. I pitched him the idea I had worked up, made Fruitvale, then it came back around and Sly was open to doing it. I wrote the treatment, pitched Irving Winkler and the studio. They were into the treatment so Aaron and I got to work.

It still hasn’t clicked that I am doing this, to be honest. I was such a big fan of the movies and it means so much to my family that if I thought about it too much, I might be too paralyzed to work! It does mean a lot to me and it very much is a dream come true.

“It’s not like [Sylvester Stallone] needed the money, and it’s not like he hasn’t put in 40 years of work on something that holds up.”

This is a major release from a major studio, yet this is only your second feature. Was it daunting to take on this feature, or were you ready for it because you were so passionate about the project?

It was daunting, but the passion and the pressure help motivate, help focus you. It’s the biggest professional leap I had ever done, in terms of time commitment and mental pressure and external pressure. You have the pressure of the fact that it is a franchise, and the studio is investing money…. The film already had a release date! 

I went from student filmmaking to independent filmmaking, which is a massive jump in and of itself. Then from Fruitvale to this… that’s also a very big jump. The studio had enough faith in it that they picked a release date. People were talking about it before we even rolled camera… this is something you don’t even deal with when making an independent film. 

What helped me was working with Michael B. Jordan again, working with my same picture editors, same production designer…. Having Sly as a collaborator and an ally was great because he is such a wealth of knowledge. He is a great collaborator, a great artist. He had already done all this stuff, so it was a relief of pressure, you know? I could just turn to Sly and ask him what it was like when they did this, what he learned. We weren’t in a situation where we had to reinvent the wheel. 

Warner Bros.

Was Stallone comfortable turning over the reins to you?

You would have to ask him that. I can’t imagine being in his position, what that would be like. It’s a very unique thing and speaks a lot to who he is to make this movie with us, to allow us to do this. He had every reason in the world not to. It’s not like he needed the money, and it’s not like he hasn’t put in 40 years of work on something that holds up. 

In some ways, there was a lot at stake for him. If this didn’t work, or the process wasn’t enjoyable for him… he has worked a long time, had hit movies in every decade he has worked. If he called me to say he wanted to go hang out with his family [instead of coming to set] I would have to say yes because he earned that! But he showed up, ready to work, every day, ready to give it his all every day. He had an incredible openness. It was a great experience.

“Sly, especially because he’s such a talented writer, because he has been this character for forty years, you never know what he’s going to say.”

Stallone and Jordan have a great chemistry together. Was there any concern over what would happen if they didn’t have any chemistry? Did you have a backup plan if they didn’t?

There was that concern, because their relationship has to work, similar to the Adonis and Bianca relationship [the love interest]. The relationship between Rocky and Adonis is so complex that you have to believe it on so many different levels. 

I know Mike very well; I knew him on many different levels by the time we pitched. I didn’t know Sly so well when I first met him, but as I got to know him, I had no doubt that they would get along. They are very similar. They are both very charismatic, very open-minded, but at the same time very opinionated. They will tell you how they feel very quickly, but they will also listen to you. They both have crazy-competitiveness and crazy-work ethic. 

Warner Bros.

Knowing that about both of them independently, I knew they would get along. I actually have on video the first day they met. It was the first time we sat together, in Sly’s office. [Shows me the video of Stallone giving Jordan some basic boxing instruction. It ends with the two of them dissolving into laughter.]

That was on the first day they met! They hit it off immediately. Sly would often ask about Mike before he met him. He wanted to know if Mike was ready to put in the kind of work this is going to take. He has to learn his lines, his character, his emotional arc, and he has this whole athletic component where he has to learn the choreography, he has to jump in with real boxers, he has to get hit. “Is he ready to work?” I told him, “No question.” As soon as they met, it was off to the races.

Related: The Cast and Crew of ‘Creed’ and a New Generation of ‘Rocky’

On set, did they improv at all, or go off-script?

Absolutely. I am a big fan of that in my style of work. In a lot of the script, it was workshopped between them, between everyone. A lot of what we came to set with was the result of the actors playing a bit, seeing where conversation goes, where it takes them. 

My job as a filmmaker… to be honest, everyone’s job is to do their work the best way possible, and [my job is] to make the situation as comfortable as possible so they can be free. Sly, especially because he’s such a talented writer, because he has been this character for forty years, you never know what he’s going to say. When he does go off book – and I have encouraged him to do that – what you are seeing is often times very genuine.

Warner Bros.

Can you talk about choreographing the fight scenes? Did Sly help with that?

Sly has done more boxing scenes than anybody, so when we were first pitching the movie, he had very distinct ideas, methodology, how the fights should feel, what fights do we look at, which fights did we like the most from the Rocky series… these kinds of questions. 

I told him I wanted these fights to feel fresh and updated and different. What a lot of people don’t know about Sly is that, after Rocky II, he choreographed all those fights. He did an incredible amount of work on those, so I think one of the biggest things for him to do was turn that over to me. We hired a guy named Clayton Barber, an incredible stunt coordinator out of L.A. Sly has a guy we worked with named Rob who was incredible. He started training Mike as soon as we knew we were doing the movie. Rob, Mike, myself, and Clayton got together to talk about how we wanted the fights to feel, what we wanted Mike’s boxing style to be. 

Sly was always there, always checking in, wanted to see how the choreography was going, give his input. He gave us enough space, but if he saw something, he spoke up, and it was always good ideas.

Creed opens in theaters November 25th.

Top Photo: Warner Bros.

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