If Rocky is the ultimate underdog movie, then how appropriate is it that Ryan Coogler pulled off a first-round victory that would make even Rocky Balboa shake his head in disbelief? Fresh out of film school and before he shot a frame of his celebrated debut Fruitvale Station, Coogler set out to convince Sylvester Stallone to trust him to revive a franchise that started with the 1976 Best Picture winner Rocky and spanned five sequels over the next three decades. Stallone wrote all those films and directed four of them, and in his mind, Rocky hung up the gloves for good in the last installment. Coogler not only wanted to take over those duties, he wanted the iconic Rocky Balboa to return, not throw a punch, and come down with a life threatening disease. Somehow, Coogler convinced him.
I don’t usually interview newcomers here, but Coogler is a selfish exception because Fruitvale Station touched me personally in a way no movie ever has. I lost my father in a tragic way that was so sudden, I decided to bury my grief for the sake of my family as we laid him to rest. Six months later, at the Cannes premiere of Fruitvale Station, I fell apart in the dark theater, later wondering how the tragic death of a young Oakland man could reconnect me to my father’s final moments in a hospital, when these men couldn’t have been more different. It was Coogler’s inclusive storytelling style, and while he brought that to Creed, the success of this new MGM/New Line/Warner Bros film will come from the highly personal narrative thrust informed by Coogler’s relationship with his own father, Ira. It drives the exceptional script Coogler wrote with Aaron Covington, and fuels a movie that announces Michael B. Jordan as a major leading man, and Stallone as a potential awards season candidate in his best performance since Cop Land.
DEADLINE: Back when Deadline revealed you would do Creed with Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, some wondered why you would follow up a celebrated first film with the seventh installment of the Rocky series. Why is this such a dream project?
COOGLER: I learned in film school that the type of movies I like to make are the ones that are extremely personal to me. Personal to a point they were almost like my own kids, where you are so impartial that you could show somebody a picture of your kid and hear, he’s so cute, but no matter how cute they find that kid, it’ll never be like a fraction of how beautiful you find them, because they belong to you. I would go to my teachers and classmates and say hey, I’m going to make a movie about this. They would be like, ‘huh…ok.’ It would get me down until I realized, they don’t understand it yet. But they will. I also learned that I like to make movies with questions that keep me up at night.
COOGLER: For Fruitvale, the questions that I had, I don’t think I ever answered. How could this happen? Why do things like this happen? With Creed, the question for me started with this idea of masculinity. My father was a big Rocky fan. I’ve been watching these movies as long as I can remember, because he was obsessed with them. We would watch Rocky II and he would cry and stand up and cheer at the same spots, every time. As I got older and became an athlete, if I had a big football game or big basketball game, he would say “hey man, c’mon, we’ll take five minutes and watch this scene from Rocky so you can get fired up.” Then we’d go off and I’d play.
DEADLINE: What scene meant so much to your father?
COOGLER: The scene he would always show was where Rocky is in the chapel of the hospital and Burgess Meredith, in the character of Mickey, comes in and tries to motivate him to get him out of whatever funk he’s in. Even as Rocky’s bent over, his wife is in a coma and he just had a son he hasn’t even held yet. Rocky doesn’t say anything in the scene. He just sits there and listens. Burgess Meredith goes through the gamut of emotions from frustration, to yelling. It’s a beautiful, beautiful scene, and that’s the scene that my dad always would play to get me fired up.
DEADLINE: It seems an odd one for motivation, with all those action sequences in the ring to choose from…
COOGLER: It wasn’t until later on I learned why it always made my dad cry. My dad was this big strong athletic dude from East Oakland, the toughest part of Oakland. He was one tough guy, and he would cry like a baby in these movies. I would say hey man, what is it? Again, with the questions, me being curious. Then I found out. I never met my grandmother. My father’s mom died when he was 18 years old. She initially got sick when my father was like nine, diagnosed her with Stage 4 breast cancer. They told her she wouldn’t make it through the year but she lived 10 more years in this long drawn out battle with the disease. By the end, by the time she was essentially on her deathbed, she only could lay in bed at home, and my father would help with her medicine and would sit with her. And the only activity that they could do together was watch TV, whatever was being broadcast at the time. At that time it was Rocky II, repeated on TV all the time.
The emotions that my dad was going through was really recalling his relationship with his mom. It was extremely personal to him, and I only found that out later as I got older and he shared it with me. For whatever reason, he made that tradition the same for me and my brother. And then when I was finishing up film school and gearing up to make Fruitvale, my father, this big strong tough guy, he got sick. The doctors didn’t know what the deal was. He was basically dealing with a neuro-muscular condition where he was losing the use of his skeletal muscles. They were atrophied. They didn’t know if it was ALS, or if it was PMA, if was MS, all very serious diseases.
DEADLINE: How serious was his decline?
COOGLER: At the rate it was progressing, they were saying he wasn’t going to live too long. I was in this process of finishing school and getting Fruitvale going, so I would go home to work sometimes, but I couldn’t spend as much time around him as I would have liked. Every time I would go back to see him, the disease was progressing more and more. It was crazy to see this guy, who I knew as being so strong, lose his strength. Sometimes he would need help, to get from the car to the house, or to the restroom. He was too proud to use a cane. What he would do is, he would put his hand on the shoulder of me or my little brother, to walk around. It really messed my head up, but it raised questions. What makes you a man? What’s the definition of masculinity? Is it the strength that my father had when I was a kid and I ran to him and he would pick me up with one arm? When that strength goes away, is he still that same person? What is the relationship between a father and a son? For so many years, he took care of me, but now, the tides turned and I’m the one helping him. And if we go out, I’m the one that’s got to watch his back. Isn’t time something strange? These are the questions I had when I came up with this idea of something similar happening to a hero in a relationship that mirrored the one I have with my dad. I looked at myself and I said, what if my dad had never been there, and what it he was this myth that I was chasing? What type of person would I be then? What if what’s happening to my dad now happened to a hero? That was kind of how I came up with this idea for Creed.
DEADLINE: Did you ever find the answer to what makes a man?
COOGLER: Yeah. It’s here [he pounds his chest where his heart beats beneath]. That was the answer that I found in making this. This is a Rocky movie where Rocky doesn’t throw a punch, but real Rocky fans will recognize him and see that he is still the same. He still has the same strength.
DEADLINE: What happened to your father?
COOGLER: Turned out his body wasn’t processing vitamin B12 amongst other things, so he had a vitamin deficiency and it progressed to the point it mimicked these other diseases. He was able to take high doses of these vitamins, and while he has to go get checked to make sure his body is processing them, the atrophy stopped. The muscles that he’s lost he can never get back, but he’s not going to die from this, at least. He’s been able to take control of his health a lot more and he’s doing really good. He’s crazy to see this movie. He hasn’t seen the finished product yet.
DEADLINE: Does he have to cry in order for this to be a success for you?
COOGLER: I don’t know…if he says it’s good, if he says it holds up, then I’ll be satisfied.
DEADLINE: You hadn’t shot a frame of Fruitvale Station when you set out convince Sylvester Stallone to let you take the reins of his prize franchise creation, give his character a life threatening ailment, and as you said, not have him throw a punch. What was that first meeting like?
COOGLER: I am in his office, he walked over and shook hands and I was expecting to be shaking hands with Rocky, because that was the only way I’d seen him. I was so taken aback by how different his mannerisms were, how he talked, how he walked. I’m like wow that was all a performance and this dude’s got to be a crazy good actor to be able to trick not only me, but the world, into thinking that’s who he is. Because he’s not that guy. I’m looking around his office and he’s got memorabilia, but he’s got all of these books, crazy books on DaVinci, on painting, all kinds of stuff. I’m looking all around, freaking out a bit and he says, “Yeah, so what’s up? Tell me what you’re thinking.”
DEADLINE: This was after his WME agent Adam Venit convinced him to meet you. What was your pitch?
COOGLER: I told him all about my dad, and he goes “wow, hmm, okay.” I can’t tell if he’s into it or not. I kind of got the vibe that he wasn’t, which I could understand. So I finally said, “Hey, maybe we could take a picture for me and my dad?” He said, “Man, no problem.” I’ve still got the picture. He says, “You want some stuff?” And he grabs a bunch of T-shirts and signed them all for my dad. I’m freaking out, going home with this stuff. So right there it felt like a victory for me. Just the fact I even told Sly the story that was based on me and my dad’s relationship.
DEADLINE: Still it had to be a letdown when it was clear this wasn’t something he really wanted to do…
COOGLER: The filmmaker inside of me…well, I’ll never forget the feeling I had when Sly was telling me stories. He would become so animated, he’d go across to the side of the desk and pretend to be this person or that person. I thought, this dude is an off-the-charts actor. I felt a little bit like a coach gets when he sees a greatly talented player, and I thought, if I ever had the chance to work with this dude, I’ll have to jump at it because this is nuts. I’m a Rocky fan, but this dude’s talent level reminded me of spending time with Mike. It was off the charts. I thought, if I could get him and Mike to do this thing, it would be something special and unexpected. My biggest concern was about him being able to pull off the major crux of the character, this lion in winter, whose strength and physicality is much different than it used to be. When I met him, I saw a real actor. I was more convinced than ever this was the right way to go.
DEADLINE: Stallone was intrigued but reluctant, protective of his greatest character creation for all the reasons we’ve said. I heard his wife Jennifer had a lot to do with convincing him. How much of this were you privy to?
COOGLER: I was somewhat privy. Venit, who works with Sly and was the first guy my agent Craig Kestel introduced me to and who I first pitched, he really took this project on his back, behind the scenes, and from him I was privy to some of Sly’s feelings about it. Venit would say, I think he might be worried about this, he might be worried about that. Who could blame him? I was this kid off the street. Later, as we became closer, Sly would tell me his knee jerk reactions to stuff all the time. He’d say I’m worried about this, I’m not sure about that, this makes me scared. He would say those things, but at first it would kind of leak through other people. I heard the same thing, that Jennifer said, maybe you should do this.
DEADLINE:She was right, it might be the best acting work he’s done in a long career. What did you do that finally melted his resistance?
COOGLER: It wasn’t anything I did or said. What really helped was him meeting Mike for the first time. It was then that his persona kind of shifted to, we’re making a movie, and I felt it starting to become more real. It was a long time before he met Mike, and he was just meeting with me. I remember one day Sly said, “Look Ryan, this movie has a lot of fighting in it. You’re talking about shooting this in a different way. You’ve got to understand how much work I used to have to do on these things. Is Michael ready to do this? This is going to dominate his life. He’s going to have to eat different. He’s going to have to work out three or four times a day. He’s going to have to take punches. Do you think he’s ready to do that?” My answer was, you’ve got to meet him. There’s nobody in the world who’s more ready to do this. I’ve still got the footage from that first time that they met. I’ve got to show you this. It was instant chemistry. This was within 10 minutes of the meeting. [He shows me footage of Stallone, teaching Jordan how to throw combinations].
DEADLINE: Was Sly committed at that point?
COOGLER: Not totally. He was in, after that meeting where he spent that time with Mike. Once he was in, he was in with both feet. Once we started working, I saw the reason for his hesitancy. This was hard. But I knew Mike was up for this.
DEADLINE: He was right to worry if Michael really wanted to do this. Beyond the Rocky movies, there is a high bar for actors playing fighters. From De Niro in Raging Bull to Will Smith in Ali and Denzel Washington in The Hurricane. Jake Gyllenhaal took that to a new level with the shape he got into for Southpaw…
COOGLER: Jake’s a friend, so I know. Don’t forget Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter.
DEADLINE: Sly knows as much about getting in ring shape and staging fight scenes as anyone. How was he helpful as you figured all this out?
COOGLER: Sly made it so we never had to reinvent the wheel. He was upfront and clear about his passion for boxing. He loves talking about the trials and tribulations of those movies, what he learned each time making them, and areas he wishes he could have improved on. He would talk to you about that for a week straight. We listened to everything he said, and then tried to find ways to interpret that into what we were trying to do.
DEADLINE: What was the best advice he gave you?
COOGLER: There were so many things. The first one was this idea of shooting the fight stuff at the beginning and completely separating it from the dramatic stuff. It was an idea that I probably would have had to find out the hard way.
DEADLINE: Why was that important?
COOGLER: Because there was so much going into the choreography, and the physicality, and Mike having to be in this certain type of shape, and all of the safety and the danger of Mike sometimes catching a punch and being swollen, or his body breaking down. Mike not having to worry about lines and just being able to focus on getting that stuff right was so helpful because it’s really like you’re making two movies.
We had Tony Bellew, who was a real boxer and here was the other way Sly was so helpful. He’d look at the choreography and then say “hey, that’s too easy for Tony. You’ve got a guy who’s a real boxer.” He had worked with real boxers and actors who never boxed in their life. Carl Weathers was a football player, a crazy good athlete, but not necessarily a boxer. Then Sly worked with Antonio Tarver, he had a scene with Roberto Duran. Sly said, take advantage of the fact that these guys are real fighters and have them do difficult moves. There’s one scene where Tony was coming forward and taunting Mike, and Sly was like “Ryan, you should make him go backwards.” I’m like, why backwards? “Well because it’s hard and it looks more expert for him to go backwards and taunt.” Little nuggets like these were so helpful.
DEADLINE: You could see the benefits on screen?
COOGLER: Absolutely. The biggest one, and I’ll never forget this, was when we had this high speed Phantom camera, and the whole time we were taking the necessary precautions to be as safe as possible with these punches. Legally, I’m never in the position to say hey Mike, get punched in the face. I just can’t. He’s in there with dangerous dudes. We were taking a look at a high speed shot we were doing and it just didn’t look right. I said “Sly, could you check this out?” He looks at it, we play it back, and he says play it again. We played it back, play again, play it back. He turns and looks at me and smiles and says “Mike’s got to take the punch.” I’m like, I can’t tell him that. He says, no problem. He goes into the ring and tells Mike “Hey man, you can’t be the punk who made a Rocky movie and didn’t get hit in the face.” He could say that to Mike because he’s an actor.
DEADLINE: And who’s going to say no to Rocky?
COOGLER: Mike’s like “Yeah, let’s go.” So he gets fired up, and then me and Clayton Barber, who I worked with directly on all these fights, he’s like oh sh*t. He’s got to figure out a way for Mike to get hit and for it to be as safe as possible. Mike’s really about to get cracked on. Tony wasn’t really comfortable with doing it, but we figured it out. Then Sly is like walking around, videotaping it. And he’s saying stuff to Mike like, ‘yeah, yeah, dead man walking.’ I gotta show you this, it’s Sly’s video. [I watch Michael B. Jordan trade punches, and then Tony Bellow throws a hard right to the head that, in the words of Apollo Creed, drops him like a bad habit. It is a hard punch and it looks like it hurt.]
DEADLINE: Oh my. How does Mike respond when he gets hit like that?
COOGLER: Mike’s a real actor and a real athlete, and so competitive. He’s got respect for the process, but I mean he was mixed up. He was like, sh*t. We would say, there’s a difference between actors and fighters, same as in military films where there’s a difference between a guy that’s acting like he’s going out there in the war and the guy that’s really doing it.
DEADLINE: I remember either Will Smith and Michael Mann telling me there were times in the ring where Will was really feeling it and mixing it up and throwing punches with real fighters and it got really intense. Is that inevitable, and did that happen with Michael?
COOGLER: You try your best to keep it from happening. Mike sparred with Andre Ward, but it was controlled. The type of fighters we had in this movie, these are dudes who get punched in the face for a living. That’s how they feed their kids. There’s a difference. Sometimes Mike would have to do these face-offs with these dudes and they would turn it on, and he would just laugh because it’s so intense. We never tried to play with that. I would never put him in a ring with all those dudes. Having been an athlete myself, you don’t push him right off the street and into that environment with those dudes, because they are the real thing and there is the possibility of real consequences.
DEADLINE: I’d heard Michael started working out once a day and at some point realized he needed to go twice as hard to get in the diamond hard shape we see onscreen. Was that you pushing him, or Sly?
COOGLER: It was me. Sly told me he was working out too much, but it wasn’t the physicality of it. Mike was doing his boxing workouts in Los Angeles. I went out to Philly for location scouting and prep work and I went to a bunch of gyms and saw these young fighters and how they were moving, I went back to LA and I said “Mike, you’ve got a lot to learn, bro.” We needed him to move like these kids were moving, go get as close as possible to that, whether he was shadow boxing or in the ring. There was a massive difference. I said “I want to show you some of these kids.”
DEADLINE: Michael is already working hard. How do you get him to dial it up?
COOGLER: Watch these kids. This is what I showed Mike. [He plays more footage for me on his phone, of kids at boxing gyms. These kids move like, as Mick would say, “greased lightning”]. You see this kid?
COOGLER: We needed him to be there on that level. Look at this kid, you see his footwork? We needed that.
DEADLINE: How long did it take…
COOGLER: For Mike to get close to that? It took him a long time, about a year. He was doing that in Louisiana while they were shooting Fantastic Four. He needed to look like a guy who had been fighting for years. We were fortunate. It wasn’t like Will or even Jake, in that their characters are professionals who worked at high levels when we first meet them in those great movies Ali and Southpaw. He needed to have room to grow, so he could be somewhat crude in the beginning in the movie because it fit the story. Then, he needed to get sharper, when trained by Rocky, but he’s still somebody who is relatively unrefined. He’s going by a lot of natural ability and is self-taught when we first meet him. That gave us a little breathing room. That said, he still needed to be at the level of a guy who could get into the ring with these people.
DEADLINE: Speaking of deft footwork, you managed to make me feel the way I did watching the first couple of Rocky films, but you didn’t overdo the homage stuff and turn it into some clip show and when those nostalgic Rocky moments happened, they were special. How did you figure out that balance?
COOGLER: It was a process of experimentation. How do we acknowledge it in the most natural way possible? Any time it felt like we were going too far, we would always rein it in. We embraced the millennium perspective and made the movie from Michael’s character’s point of view. You see Philly from the point of view of an outsider who’s trying to fit in. His relationship with his father is basically through his legacy and through technology. If somebody told my 23-year old brother, watch this Ali fight, he’d pull out his phone, type in Ali Fight on YouTube and watch it on his phone. How crazy is it that you watch a fight from the 60s on a cell phone? But that’s our reality, so we embraced the cell phone, computer-oriented lifestyle, the one that allows Tessa Thompson’s musician character Bianca to record and produce music in her apartment. That’s how it’s done now. What happens when these characters bump up against Rocky, or somebody who’s kind of stuck in the past? It’s the same way we approached the music in the film. We wanted it to feel current but at the same time fit in the Rocky mythology.
DEADLINE: Just to play devil’s advocate, you would not see a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie without those theme songs that go back to the 1960s. Why didn’t you wrap this movie in that unforgettable Rocky theme?
COOGLER: Because it’s Creed’s movie, and he needed his own deal, even though Rocky’s in it. If this was Rocky VII, and we were still following Balboa as a protagonist, then if we didn’t use that theme it would be crazy. Because it’s this kid’s movie, and as he exists in this world Rocky is part of, I think it only makes sense that we give him his own music that touches on stuff that still feels like his, and somehow feels current.
DEADLINE: They re-shot the original Rocky ending. I heard you filmed multiple outcomes for Creed…
COOGLER: Without spoiling anything…the studio wanted both endings, which I understand. Upfront I felt like we only needed to shoot one version, but in the end I’m glad we did shoot both. We ended up with the version I think is right for the movie and right for the story. The way you decide that is you go with your gut in doing what you feel is right for the character and the most satisfying payoff for the story and I think we found that.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that Rocky scene in the chapel that meant so much to you and your father. Give me your top five Rocky movie moments, which means, four more.
COOGLER: Two I’m poaching from my father, and the second is in Rocky II after his son’s been born and Adrian tells him come here, I want to tell you something, and she kind of gives him her blessing to go fight. And then Mickey freaks out and says, “What are we waiting for?”
In the first Rocky, Rocky’s talking to Gazzo and he pulls out his glasses and he’s trying to write down the names of the people who Gazzo wants him to go shake down. I just remember feeling so much empathy for the character at that moment. I realized that he was relatively illiterate, that he needed glasses to see, and I think he was a good guy that shouldn’t be doing this. It was one of the things that made that performance profoundly heartbreaking.
Staying with Rocky I, there’s the scene where Mickey comes back to his apartment and tries to convince Rocky to [accept the challenge from Apollo Creed], and then Rocky has that breakdown where you see his anger and you realize how broken he is. Also in Rocky I, the first time you meet Apollo, on the TV in the bar, and he tells the kids to be a thinker and not a stinker. You learn so much about Apollo just from that black and white TV image.
Then I would say the scene, in Rocky I again, where Rocky goes into the arena for the first time and sees that they painted his shorts the wrong color. And he realizes that he’s not going to win the fight. This is very silent, very subtle, and I learned later that it was a mistake and they just painted the shorts wrong, and then they just worked it into the movie. Those are some of my favorite scenes.
DEADLINE: It must say something that you didn’t cite one action sequence in the ring. Michael has grown up before our eyes in The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, but he has been the star of both of the movies you’ve directed and you are teaming again on a movie about an Atlanta teacher caught up in the city’s test cheating scandal. You seem headed for the kind of relationship that Martin Scorsese built with Robert De Niro, and John Woo with Chow Yun Fat.
COOGLER: Hopefully we keep working together. It doesn’t feel like work with Mike, it’s just life and we’re just two dudes. I’m from the Bay area and he’s from Newark. We’re just two dudes that somebody was stupid enough to give us jobs doing this and we slipped through the cracks and are doing what we love to do. When I show up and I’m working with him, it’s not work, it’s something else. I felt that way with Sly, and Tessa. With Mike, man I hope it continues.
DEADLINE: What’s the biggest disagreement that you guys have had?
COOGLER: Oh man, we have them all the time. I would say the biggest was in Fruitvale. He wanted to kill the dog.
DEADLINE: You mean that early scene where his character, Oscar, comes upon the dog that was dying in the street.
COOGLER: He wanted to mercy kill the dog and I said…no.
COOGLER: I don’t know. It just didn’t feel right. That was probably our biggest disagreement. We have them all the time though. It’s a friendship, you know?