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In early 2013, Fruitvale Station premiered at Sundance. The film, which chronicles the day that Oscar Grant, a young black man from Oakland, California, was killed by a police officer, ended up receiving raves and taking home the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the festival. It’s a brutal picture, an important film, but also one that officially launched the career of Michael B. Jordan—not to mention the movie’s first time writer and director Ryan Coogler.
After making waves with his small but powerful indie, Coogler, now 29, reteamed with Jordan to make Creed, a big-budget boxing movie that also happens to be a spin-off of the Rocky franchise. Creed looks at the burgeoning career of Adonis Creed, son of Apollo, as he comes into his own with the help of Rocky—played by Sylvester Stallone. It's a back-to-the-roots reinvention of the series, hearkening back to the humble Philadelphia beginnings of Rocky Balboa.
After a press screening of the film, which makes its way to theaters on Nov. 25, we sat down with Coogler to speak about the pressures of taking on a franchise, what it’s like working with Stallone, and his inevitable future in the industry.
What made you want to take on this beloved franchise?
It was my relationship with my dad. I grew up watching these movies with him. He got me into playing sports as an outlet. I found a sense of identity through athletics and through my relationship with my dad. That was the motivation, it was what brought me to the Rocky franchise. I also knew I always wanted to make a boxing movie.
But then my dad got sick. When he got sick, the process of dealing with that, I just needed to vent. I ended up venting through my art—I ended up coming up with this concept for this movie.
What was it like working with Sylvester Stallone?
It was awesome, man. We still have a relationship. I talk to him every chance I can. Whenever I got decisions to make professionally, I hit him up. I get his opinion.
Do you have memorable onset experiences with him?
Every day with him was crazy. He’s incredibly honest. I think it’s in his experience and in his age. He pulls no punches. He gets a crack out of me too. I ask him stuff and he’ll just tell me wild stories. I’ve got so many.
A lot of them are not safe for work, man. I’ll show you this. So he had to do makeup and it was a big deal because he was getting sick [in the movie]. I’m on set and it’s really intense. Really, really intense. Sly was getting makeup applied for his sick look, and he sends me this video:
[From iPhone Video]
Stallone: Yo, bro. This thing (a bald cap) is looking pretty good. Maybe you got to get yourself down here and check it out. Go with the clean machine look. You know, like the head that keeps slipping off the pillow. You know, the guys who go bowling stick two fingers in my ear and try to throw my head down an alley. That’s what I’m talking about.
He’s great, but super intense and funny. He has such a great perspective because he’s been a professional for so long. He’s seen it all. He really likes to give advice and give back the knowledge and everything he’s learned. That was the biggest relief about him. We’d be on set and I would have questions and boom—he would be right there with the answers. He’s crazy honest and crazy open-minded too. You’ve just got to be able to level with him. You’ve got to be able to back up your ideas. Because he’s going to ask questions. Sometimes he’ll disagree, vocally too. You can’t let that scare you off. You have to be able to stand there and talk him through something. He’ll respect that always.
You and Michael B. Jordan worked together on Fruitvale. Did you write the role of Adonis for him?
This movie is also such a difference in terms of budget and production from your first movie. Were there any challenges that came with that?
It’s just more pressure. With more money comes more pressure, both internally and externally. You have more people with a great stake in it. With this, it wasn’t just a bigger budget but it was the franchise elements of it. It comes with this history and it’s a history that is not only owned by certain people who were the filmmakers, but it’s a history that is owned by the fans. It’s a history that is owned by the city of Philadelphia. To be honest with you though, a lot of that pressure was already there. These movies mean so much to me. It means so much to my dad. I couldn’t make a bad Rocky movie not just for the fans, but because if it sucked then my dad would tell me. That would be crushing.
Other than the autobiographical elements that you inserted in Creed, was there something you were actively trying to do differently?
All the films in the franchise are so different from each other. I would say the two that are most similar are Rocky 1 and Rocky 2. They came out back to back. They have very similar sensibilities about them. After that each one of those movies is very different. I would say that what we wanted to do was make a movie that was as grounded as possible. I thought the themes that we were dealing with had to be as real and close to home as possible. When you have this character who becomes an icon, we wanted to deal with his own mortality, which hadn’t really been dealt with in any of the other films as directly. Just the idea of that, you want to bring the film down to the level of personal experience. I knew this was a movie that was going to take place in bedrooms, in bathrooms, in small gyms, small bars. That made it very similar to the first one. It just made the most sense for what we were trying to do.
Do you box?
Not seriously. When I was writing the script I started to take boxing lessons. I went to a gym called King’s Gym in Oakland. I wish I could tell you I boxed every day, but I don’t. I hear Antoine Fuqua fights all the time. He works out before filming. Maybe one day I’ll get to that level.
Even if you don’t end up making a certain Marvel movie, is there a project or genre that you want to tackle in the future?
I’m open to all genres. It’s whatever is inspiring me at the particular moment, whatever I’m feeling the closest to. Making movies is such a difficult task. You want to always have stuff that you are obsessed with, that you can have the motivation to get up and grind for every day for the year and a half/two years that the project is going to consume your life. I love movies. I love horror movies. I grew up reading comic books. I’m into those. I’m into domestic dramas. I’m into them all. I’d love to make a movie centered around a woman as a lead. That’s something that I haven’t had the chance to do. As long as the challenge is something new, I’m game.