In all honesty, the first response many people had when Steven Caple Jr. was announced as the director of Creed II was "who?" He's made waves via his feature film debut, 2016's The Land, which not only premiered at Sundance that year, but put Caple Jr.'s name on the map, including Forbes' 30 Under 30 In Hollywood and being named one of The Playlist's 25 breakthrough directors in 2016. Viewers were hesitant, especially when you consider that the first Creed was a major feather in the cap of Ryan Coogler. If they'd heard that Coogler was one of the people who were instrumental in getting Caple Jr. the gig, maybe their fears might have been lessened.
Fan anticipation has been high for Creed II, with Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Creed set to do battle with the son of Ivan Drago, who killed Adonis' father in Rocky IV. Early buzz around the film has hailed Caple Jr. for the way he balanced paying homage to Rocky IV and the first Creed film while progressing the next chapter of Adonis' story. It's a film that's chock full of emotion and action and should help further Caple Jr.'s career as one of the fresher faces in Hollywood.
On a dreary Tuesday, we met with Steven in a hotel restaurant in Manhattan. He was eager to share his love for the Rocky franchise as a whole, working with Michael B. and Ryan on this project, as well as the pieces he added to Creed II, many which (arguably) turn this from a solid sequel into a major contender in the Rocky lexicon.
[Ed. Note: Spoilers for Creed II follow. You've been warned.]
How has the Creed II process been? Would you call it overwhelming?
It is, man. I mean, it was overwhelming as soon as I accepted the job. It was a lot of pressure on it, obviously, because it was the sequel. And then as we’re getting closer to the date, we’re starting to hear people talk about the film. Just even in general, it’s not even necessarily the buzz, as much as how people are responding to it. I just finished the movie two weeks ago; people don’t know that. Just turned over the film. So now, two weeks later, I’m showing you guys and you’re like "we wanna talk about the movie." And I’m like "uhh… what do you think? Did it work?” Cause I was making cuts like literally two weeks ago. It’s all scary man, that’s all.
Talk about the process of getting picked for the position to direct this film.
The process was a little different for me. I didn’t go knocking on MGM’s door or asking to direct the sequel. I think after my first feature The Land—I did the Sundance thing. Coming after that, I merely started writing. Because I write. I had done work on this Emmett Till mini-series for HBO, I was working on that. And I was also doing a feature film on Wendell Scott. He was a Nascar driver in the South, and the story was just amazing. So I was like “I’m gonna do what I wanna do,” and these are two projects that I really cared about. And a year goes by, and within that year or so, I directed a docuseries on Netflix, Rapture. I did that and I did Grown-ish just because it wouldn’t take up too much of my time.
I was literally on set, doing the season finale of Grown-ish when my agency called and was like “MGM wants you to do Creed II.” I read Sylvester Stallone's draft, and it felt like he had a format, but they didn’t have the voice. They saw The Land and they feel like [I could handle a] drama, ensemble piece. I went skeptical, as everyone else. I think everyone else heard Creed II and was like “Man…” [laughs].
Coogler's on as executive producer on Creed II, after directing the first film. He's also a busy man. What was it like working with him on Creed II?
One, he put my name in the hat. When MGM was looking for somebody, he [mentioned me]. When you kind of had that, the ultimate—he definitely gave me the [baton] pass. With that being said, during the process, I wanted to stay true to characters. Me, him, and Mike are very similar and I think that’s why we mesh so well. We're all Black kids, all of us came from the hood, we ended up going to college, we got degrees. I feel we’re part of this generation and can connect with this generation in a huge way. We are familiar with the culture. I knew what they were doing when I saw Adonis Creed. It was just about having moments to set up to make sure that it still carries over, so I would talk to him about character. What did you for sure want to [carry] over? And he would tell me about his wife, she’s within the deaf community working, does sign language. I want tomakesure that sticks out, because those are just true moments to you, and I want to do my due diligence in making sure those carry over.
I wrote the script and he would have input. Not really on Creed, it was Drago because Drago was the new stuff. He would be like “you think that Drago would do something like that,” Or “with Creed does he sound too whiny in this section?” And I would be like “yeah, you right.” And that’s how we did it. He saw all dailies as we went along, he thought it was dope and great. Honestly, it’s a rapport between me and him, Mike, and Tessa.
It’s important to have that rapport, especially with Michael B. Jordan coming off this huge franchise with Ryan Coogler directing the first one. That’s a lot of pressure.
Yeah, and he’s done his last three movies with Coog. For him to trust another director, for Sly to trust another director and turnover the franchise, it is a big deal for these guys. For me, I didn’t want to drop the ball and I knew the only way I wasn’t going to was if they allowed me to flex. To allow me to put my own touch on it and allow me to create an identity within the film that is very close to my vision.
Talk some more about the moments where viewers can see you flexing on-screen.
It's within [the fight] scenes, the spectacle, so to speak. [We] also paid homage to Rocky IV, where Apollo used to come out big. And I was like “we’re gonna have to at least be memorable in a sense.” But I also want to stay true to the character because again this is an opportunity to flex. Talking to Mike like, "you’re not Apollo Creed. You’re a little bit more put together than Apollo. You weren’t showboating. You got a college degree. You feel the pressure, and it’s a tactic and you gotta do stuff a little different; you're the champ now. How far can we go?"
It was also the emotional parts too, when you talk about stamp. There’s a moment in the swimming pool where he’s like beyond the workout, for sure, Bianca and Mary Anne are having a conversation about him and their struggles and relationship. I wanted to get inside that psyche, what it means to lose and how it affects the family.
The pregnancy scene, when they find out that Bianca’s pregnant, and the proposal scene were totally rewritten from scratch. When I first got the script, it was that perfect “Would you marry me?” “Yes!” da-da-da, and I was like I’ve seen this in movies and I was like “nah, it’s gonna be a little difficult for them. This is a big step in their lives." And then Tessa came in and added her two cents in there too. That was just an opportunity to just be real.
It definitely felt real, especially Tessa’s reaction. Even when she shut the door, it reminded me of them talking through the door in the last film.
That was an homage. Thank you. That was definitely one. People ask me what are the [homage] areas: the shot looking down when they’re with the baby, and then the “door” one definitely because she’s behind the door, she took out the earpiece because she was mad at him and now she wants to hear what he said. I wanted to pay homage to Ryan and what they did in the first one. Dude’s a brother and I love the first one. I want things to carry over that feel like it’s a Creed thing, you know what I mean? It may be a Ryan thing, he may do it also in other films, but at least for this particular one, with this being a sequel, being something he has started, I wanted—Creed III hopefully will add those same moments. Maybe there’s a door moment, maybe there’s a moment where we’re looking down, just to say that’s a moment that we all connect with forever.
Were you a fan of the Rocky franchise growing up?
Definitely growing up. It’s weird when someone says they haven’t watched a Rocky movie. When you say movies, that’s something that you just think of. It has such an impact on the people, let alone the culture. The first one I saw—I was born in ‘88, so this is post-Rocky IV—so the first one was Rocky V, and it was on TV rotation. I wasn’t looking at it as a critic, I was looking at it as a six-year-old kid like “yeah, Tommy Gunn! Aw man, he betrayed Rocky!” Like that’s my stuff.
Sly took risks, he’s bold, that’s what I like about him. So when you look at Rocky IV, the iconic Drago and he’s a robot and it’s like sci-fi, that’s the genre he’s stepping into. So I’m not mad at that at all. But as a kid, all this stuff is cool, but [as] I got older, I can appreciate the filmmaking. I've had to do a lot of interviews, and it’s like “is it gonna be as cartoonish as Rocky IV?” It made the most money because people were able to still connect with it. I’m not really looking at it as a Rotten Tomatoes score, I’m looking at it for the impact that you and I had. When I first saw Rocky IV, I was like “Po’s not dead, stop playing man. He’s gonna get up.” Then I seen it like “nah this dude is dead. Drago has to go!” That’s where we were at. [Stallone] created this very Shakespearean-like franchise.
What was it like working with Dolph Lundgren now?
Dolph, for one? The smartest guy. He plays these really cookie-cutter villain-esque characters on film, right? Very genre based. He wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. He knows how he’s looked at by the people, so when he stepped onto the project, he was like “man I’m so glad you wrote this meeting in there.” 'Cause that wasn’t in there—the whole arc with his son, the sit-down with [Rocky]—I wrote that. One of my favorite movies is Heat, and I was like I’m gonna treat it like it was De Niro and Al Pacino sitting down. When I approached the film, I really wanted to tap into that, and he was excited. He was like “bro, I have lines! Last one, I didn’t have lines. I had ‘if he dies, he dies,’ and ‘I must break you,’” which are iconic. On top of the lines, I wanted to make it authentic, so I was like “you should speak Russian.” So he learned it really fast, over 40 plus lines in Russian in the film. Some scenes we deleted out of the movie, but he learned a lot. He gave me his all. He never got an opportunity to do any of those kinds of motions on screen.
Shifting gears, I want to talk about some of the fight scenes in the film. Those scenes were pretty crazy. We were in a small screen room and it felt like you were going to see these fights live.
It’s very much in your face. I think Ryan, in his last approach, he slowed down the art a little bit, which I liked because I did that in my skateboarding film as well. Going into this one, I had to follow the character’s lead, and Drago was out there, man. He’s huge and I just wanted to make sure that you felt like you were in Creed’s perspective. You couldn’t move, you felt like you were tight, you felt like this dude was pressuring you.
My side was hurting.
Oh man, that’s where I wanted you to feel it. The rib breaking stuff? None of that was in the original draft. I remember sitting down with Mike, the first time I met him, I was like “I think the fight should change a bit. I think the first one you should get DQ’d,”—because before, it was something else. And the second one, he comes back, but there’s a rib crack in there. That’s a real thing with boxing, and I just felt like, to see it in this movie, I think people need to feel your pain throughout this process.
Throughout the corner round moments, I just wanted to make sure there was a story, because you don’t see it that much in fights. The Rocky franchise is the only one that tells stories within rounds. Sly mastered that joint. He has a formula down.
Are you a boxing fan?
I’m a huge boxing fan. I love the sport. I thinking it’s super relatable to life. I love the training aspect of it. When I do train, it’s usually boxing training because I feel like it’s one of the best training you can get, as far as stamina goes. I’ve always wanted to do a boxing movie. I did not think it was going to be this, to be totally honest.
I wanted to talk about the music in the film. What was your experience working on Creed II: The Album?
Me, I love soundtracks. My first one for The Land, Nas EP’d it. But I had Pusha on there, I had Kanye on there. I had a lot of artists. Erykah Badu. I just wanted to continue that. I feel like the soundtrack is gonna be one of the things I do with film, in general. With this one, I worked hard with Mike Will.
We were trying to figure out who should do the montage part, the desert montage. They were talking about Meek Mill, but they just did it in the first one, and Creed’s no longer in Philly, so it kinda didn't really make total sense. We wanted someone with more universal appeal. A$AP came knocking on our door, and he was like, “I’ma send you something." Ludwig [Göransson, the film's composer] was like, “I can work with this. There’s a way to chop this up to fit a desert montage.” And I just let him do his magic. I was like, I would love to see what he does with it. And we also had Jacob Banks. He’s the voice when they start to ride to the desert, that goes “Amen! Amen! Amen!” That’s him dude, his voice is amazing. Originally, in the script—because I write music cues out in my scripts so everyone knows the tone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that song—it was Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.” Just because I loved the isolated, in his head, psyche vibe. He was going through the desert, you felt the grit in her voice. I remember Jacob Banks was like “I ain’t no Nina Simone, but this is the best that I can go with my voice and my range and my cadence.” And I loved it. I felt like it just worked, it felt like it set the tone differently from any other movies, because usually when their montage is about to start, it’s like “I got somewhere else in mind.” I was like, let’s slow it up one more time. People may be pissed because I’m slowing up for the montage, but we have not been in the desert yet and I want the desert to have its own texture, I want it to have its own voice too. Music is a huge part of my DNA and definitely [my] movies.
I’m ignorant to the training game, but it was cool to see that makeshift gym area in the desert, but the thing that interested me the most was their use of the tire. Where does that come from?
I first saw it from the dude you saw him in the tire with, DJ [Walton]. DJ trains his son, and they’re this family in Atlanta. I saw him doing it with his son. I was on the ‘gram, and I was like, “yo that’s really dope.” What they were doing was, you can’t touch the head, it’s all body. So it’s about getting inside. I was like, I like that, that can work for our story. So what I did was, not only did I do it, I called up DJ. “Dude I want you to come out. We’ll fly you out. I want you to spar with Michael B. Jordan with this tire and show us how it works. Let’s get in, down and dirty.” And I loved it bro, I felt like it was so fun shooting that scene because Sly was so amped up — he throws the towel down like “let’s go!” He was ready. What he likes about it too, because he hates that Mike wants to do fake punches all time, he’s like “Mike you gotta get hit!” You can’t not fake the punches.
During production on the last Creed film, there’s that infamous video of Mike getting knocked out by a punch. Were there any situations like that in filming this one?
Oh yeah, completely. None of them had to knock him out, per se, because the last one was that one big moment when he gets punched and gets knocked out. I have a lot of slow-motion shots in the movie. I feel like I wanted that to be the speed ramp style and tone that I had not seen in a Rocky or I have not seen in a Creed. Raging Bull did it a lot. Sherlock Holmes did it, too; Fight Club did a version of it as well. That ripple effect on their face is not fake. That’s like their faces, so you got to connect. And there is no cushion in the glove. The only thing that’s fake is we would probably add a little bit of water in their mouth because when you have a mouthpiece on, you have to have so much saliva. Other than that, Mike had to take a few, man. He didn’t get hurt, but I think with us, we just want it to feel so real.
I know I did definitely hate taking real punches. He would just look at me like “man come on!” So what he did was play this game: every real punch he would take, I would take one. I owe him three that I purposefully set up because I needed them for some shots. The set bought me an engraved mouthpiece with my name on it [laughs], but Mike hasn’t called me out yet. He said he’s gonna do it soon. I carry the mouthpiece around, so at any given moment that’s the thing.