Rocky Balboa takes his next cinematic step today in Creed, the new film from Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan.
In the film, Jordan stars as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's opponent-turned-friend. Stallone reprises his role as Rocky, who is called upon to mentor "Donnie" as he tries to break into the boxing world and try to get out from under the shadow of his famous father.
ComicBook.com spoke with Coogler earlier this month during the Creed press junket in Philadelphia about his approach to the film, which I called "a masterpiece" in my review last week.
There are two things that really struck me in terms of directorial choices that I hadn't seen a lot in the run-up. Both the score and the fight choreography both harkened back to what they'd done in the past, but put your own spin on it. Was that a tough balance to find?
Yeah, it wasn't easy. For the final fight, we had to give ourselves a lot of options. For Creed's second-to-last fight, when he fights Sporino, we knew we wanted to do that in one take. Because boxing's been done so many different ways, that's the challenge of it. Boxing works, if you can find it. People will go with you. It's such an incredible sport.
But it was a challenge. We kind of challenged ourselves: how do we make this new? How do we make this fresh? What can we do? And with Mike, Mike's a phenomenal athlete, you know what I'm saying? Aside from being a great actor, he's very athletic and very competitive and likes challenges. But we had real boxers, so we were like, "Let's make a oner." A two-round oner. And it was very much about how boxing works.
The story of that fight was Adonis's first fight with a real trainer, and a weird thing about boxing is, you leave your trainer and you're on your own for three minutes, then your trainer comes back for one minute, and then you're on your own again for three minutes. So we kind of wanted to see what that's like -- that push-pull of that. So that was how we kind of came up with that idea. I like to research stuff and see if the answer presents itself through the research.
I really liked, too -- and this was more the final fight than the Sporino one -- where Rocky would tell him something really specific like "go to the body," and he would say "Yes," and he would agree with him, but then he wouldn't actually do it when push came to shove. Was part of that to throw off the audience a little?
Yeah, sometimes. Because sports is like that. A lot of the time, your coach can make something sound real simple, but then you go in there and try to do it and it's not as easy as it looks, you know what I mean? That was definitely something, and me being an athlete myself for so long, that's one of those things that you look for.
There's been hundreds of sports movies -- and sometimes I watch sports movies and I wish I could relate more than I do. So I took a lot of inspiration from that, with the nervousness that I actually could feel before an event or that idea of your coach telling you to do something exactly that way, but it doesn't work out that way sometimes. Sometimes when Rocky tells him to do something, it does work out. So you have those hits and misses, and I'm trying to capture that.
I really liked your portrayal of the female characters in this film. I always liked Adrian as a fan of the franchise, but she was often really simple. Both Mary Ann and Bianca were really fully realized and had their own things going on. How important was that to you?
It was very important. It was very important from the outset of the film that these characters not only felt real, but had agency and were complex, you know what I mean? I wanted them to be...you don't always like them, you know what I'm saying? Watching the movie, you don't always like what they do or what they have to say to the character.
And for boxers, one thing I realize -- I know this from researching and having conversations and going to gyms -- is these people, they lean on the women in their lives greatly. You often go into a gym, and the owner of the gym points to his wife for sign-ups, and you realize this woman runs all the numbers at this gym. This woman is the manager of this whole facility. You'll find fighters who, their wives are their managers.
So what I was interested in was: Apollo Creed's widow, what is she like? What are her attitudes toward the sport of boxing? Her husband died doing this thing, but this thing also gave them this life that they have, so her feelings toward it have to be complex. And, she fell in love with a fighter. So she has to kind of know what that lifestyle is like. She can't be completely naive about her son.
With Bianca, what we wanted to show was what love looks like in this age. What does love look like in the mid-2010s? And in this day and age, relationships are complicated because women are professional. Women are going off trying to get it, just as much as we are, and she's in an industry that's just as hard if not harder to make it in than boxing; she's a musician, and the clock's ticking for both of them because they're not spring chickens when we find them; they're late '20s, early '30s. And she's trying to make it in her thing, he's trying to make it in his things and they've got to line up because if they don't, then it won't work out. And maybe that's fine. So it was that kind of relationship that we were also interested in.
We were also interested in a character who was okay with him fighting. She meets him as a fighter and she's not ever at any point, "Hey, man, you need to stop doing this." Because you see that so much in movies. And the reality is that boxing is a damaging sport, it's a sport with great consequences, but at the same time, a lot of things are that way. When you see these relationships, sometimes, you see women who support their dudes in this thing, even though it is something that can go wrong in a big way.
Without going too deep into spoiler territory, I can say that the last bit of this film would be a fantastic final shot for Rocky Balboa. Do you think that if there's more to come, there's a future for this franchise without Sly?
Ah, that's a complicated question, man. I don't know if I can answer that. I can say everybody involved made this movie like it was going to be the last movie, though. That was the approach we took; we put everything into it. As far as what the future holds, that's not for me to say right now, but I think you're onto something with that last shot, there.
That last shot leaves enough ambiguity to the end of the film, in a way, and I like that because you resolved the ambiguity from the end of Rocky III. I felt like you took that one mini-mystery away and you left us with another one.
[Laughs] Right. I'll say it was intentional.
The last thing I'll ask is about the score. How hands-on were you with that? I thought it was beautifully executed, the way it was threaded through the old music and Bianca's music and that the score itself built to the point where it felt like the traditional epic.
My composer and I, Ludwig Goransson, we're very close friends. We have a long working relationship, and how we work is, he gets the script. He gets the first draft as soon as it's done, and we talk character, sometimes before the characters are even cast, and he's working on developing music. So it gives us a long time to develop and find what we're looking for and we knew that with the fanfare, with the old Bill Conti music, it's fantastic, it's phenomenal, it's probably the most famous music there is, as far as movies go, and with that, it comes with a lot of baggage. We knew that we had to be careful and respectful of it and respectful of Adonis's own journey and his theme and his music. So it took a while, and it was an exact science. It was like chemistry, going back and forth. I'm not a musician myself, but I'm definitely an audiophile and I'm as hands-on as possible, and we've got a great working relationship, Ludwig and myself.