Just about everything Ryan Coogler knows about filmmaking, he learned from the Rocky movies.
Growing up in Oakland, California, the now 29-year-old director would watch Rocky II and Rocky IV over and over again with his dad. He found inspiration in the underdog who somehow continued to defy the odds to take down the bigger opponent. So when his father, Ira, got sick in 2011 with a mysterious neuromuscular condition, Coogler pulled out a VHS set of the Rocky franchise he'd bought his dad years prior, and sat with him to watch the movies again.
“He would talk me through them and get really emotional, really fired up, and always at the same places,” Coogler said of his father, who is now doing well, in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “The first time I saw my dad cry was probably watching a Rocky movie. … Before I knew what a good movie was, what a bad movie was, I knew that this particular film had a profound effect on my father.”
And it was then that Coogler, who was in film school at the time, started to formulate his idea for what would become Creed.
The director first caught the filmmaking bug when he was a college student at Saint Mary’s College of California — a creative writing professor was impressed with a story he wrote about his father and suggested he consider a career in screenwriting. Coogler took the suggestion seriously and decided to give filmmaking a go, thinking back to Rocky and how it made his father experience a wealth of emotions. He wanted to create projects like that. So, he got to work.
He enrolled at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, which is where he met Aaron Covington. In 2012, the two friends began working on a screenplay about the son that Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) late, great opponent, Apollo Creed, never knew he had. The young men never imagined that it might one day come to fruition.
Three years later, Creed is getting released on Thanksgiving weekend in theaters nationwide. The movie reboots the Rocky franchise, focusing on the child born of Apollo Creed's affair, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). It breathes new life into the franchise that made Stallone famous and that helped Coogler see the power of movies.
Part of Coogler’s research when he started writing Creed in 2012 was talking to his father about his strong feelings about the franchise. He told Coogler that his own mother spent 10 years battling breast cancer, and during some of the harder days while she was bedridden, they'd watch the Rocky movies. It lifted both of their spirits, and it bonded them. When Ira Coogler gifted his son with his favorite films, he thought back on his mom's fighter spirit, and it triggered an emotional response, each and every time.
So, Coogler channeled that emotion to create Creed's key storyline: A father figure (Rocky) suddenly gets ill and has to fight for his life, while a younger version of himself (Adonis) cheers him on and follows in his footsteps.
“The only way I know how to work as an artist is to have a personal connection to what I'm doing,” Coogler said, referring to his father’s health scare and the grandmother he never met. “I was really interested in what happened to Apollo’s family after he died. I wondered what it would be like if I lost [my father]. What would life be like if I never knew him? What kind of person would I be?”
Creed became a love letter of sorts to Coogler’s father and grandmother, and that motivated him to have the tenacity and patience to make sure the film saw the light of day.
In 2013, Coogler took his first feature-length film, Fruitvale Station — a poignant rendering of the real-life events that led to the death of Oscar Grant (who was shot and killed by a BART police officer) — to the Sundance Film Festival. It won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film, and it was at Sundance that his agent, Craig Kestel, introduced Coogler to Charles King, a prominent Hollywood agent. King — who, over the years, has represented marquee names like Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey — casually asked Coogler what else he was working on. He shared with him the story of his father being sick and how he came up with Creed’s moving central premise.
“He was like, ‘Man, have you told anybody else about this?!’” Coogler recalled. When the answer was no, King decided to get Coogler a meeting with Stallone’s agent, Adam Venit. Venit liked the young director’s pitch, and he ended their meeting by telling Coogler, “I think he’s done playing that character, he’s done with these movies, but this is interesting. I’m going to try to get in a room with him to talk to him about it.”
But before he could get to Stallone directly, the next step for Coogler was pitching Stallone’s business partner, who loved the idea but wanted to know more about Coogler’s filmmaking background before taking it to the franchise’s creator and star.
“They were like, ‘This is cool. What have you made?’ I told them I haven’t made anything but short films in film school, and that I was working on my first feature film right now,” Coogler remembered. “They were like, ‘Look, man. He’s kind of tired of working with this character, he’s trying to move on, but we’ll try to see if we can get you some time with him.’”
Coogler thought the project was dead in the water. He went back to Oakland and was shocked when he got another call: Stallone read the script, loved it, and wanted to meet with him in person the next day. Coogler jumped on a plane and headed down to Los Angeles for the day to meet with Stallone at his office. The filmmaker remembered marveling at how the space was covered in books (“He’s one of those crazy guys who’s read all of them,” Coogler said), and he found himself in awe of the man whom three generations of his family had been watching.
“He's a keen listener, a great storyteller, really charismatic — that was what I got from him,” Coogler said of Stallone. “A part of me was thinking, If I ever get the chance to work with this dude, man, it could be something special.”
Stallone, Coogler recalled, was touched by the personal connection he had with the franchise, which, in part, inspired Coogler to become a filmmaker. He also told the keeper of the Rocky franchise that should he give him the greenlight to make Creed, he envisioned Jordan, the star of Fruitvale Station, playing the title character.
Stallone wanted to meet with the actor, to see if Jordan could handle the physical part of being a boxer. Coogler arranged for a meeting between his potential leading man and Stallone, who showed Jordan how to throw punch combinations. From Coogler’s perspective, the legend seemed impressed by the burgeoning film star. And it was after that meeting with Jordan that Stallone agreed to help make Creed happen, about a year after Coogler started meeting with the Stallone’s team.
The director was ecstatic, and once Stallone gave him the greenlight, he was all in and ever-present. “Sly always had our back,” Coogler said. “He had been through that himself. Obviously he’s not black, but he was young and inexperienced and someone took a chance on him when he made [the first] Rocky. If anybody understands what it’s like to have somebody take a chance on you, it’s him.”
Coogler took notes from Stallone, who helped him and Covington, 31, shape the script they'd written at USC. After six movies, Stallone mostly wanted “to make sure everything feels authentic,” Coogler said.
With the blessing of Rocky Balboa himself and Creed’s star in place, Coogler set forth to re-create the credibility of Fruitvale Station, which was peppered with local Bay Area color and almost felt at times like a well-produced documentary instead of a feature film. Creed soaks up North Philadelphia’s predominantly black scene, and it certainly has its own flavor. Dudes are popping wheelies on bikes while riding through the streets to a hip-hop beat; there’s a nod to the area’s strong neo soul and hip-hop movement through Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who is Jordan’s love interest; and while it’s referenced more than once how great of a fighter Rocky is, it’s clear, even in Philly, that Apollo Creed is the national boxing legend.
“I never saw Apollo as a villain, and I think a lot of it was being a young black man,” Coogler said. “I would see him come onscreen and just be enamored with him. I never wanted him to leave the camera.”
And with the potential for more movies about the character Coogler has created, Apollo Creed never really has to.