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To Ryan Coogler, Creed is as personal as Fruitvale Station

See the trailer for the new video game, ‘Real Boxing: CREED’

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Rocky Balboa films are famous for culminating in boxing matches so intense and violent that the combatants have to be virtually superhuman to withstand the pulverizing punishment. It’s almost like they’re video game characters who absorb mighty haymakers and just keep moving forward. It’s part of the movie fun, of course, but it’s also why that version of life in the ring is perfectly suited for a video game. On Nov. 19, six days before Creed opens in theaters, the videogame Real Boxing 2: CREED becomes available to fans of the sweet science.

In the new film, Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis, the troubled son of the late great Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who tracks down an aging Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia and asks him to help train him to be an elite boxer. Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed Fruitvale Station, which also starred Jordan, came up with the idea of revisiting the Creed bloodline while watching old Rocky movies with his father. His original pitch to Sylvester Stallone was greeted with a certain degree of skepticism, but after Fruitvale Station became a critical darling in 2013, the two filmmakers got on the same page. 

The character of Apollo Creed was one of the most dynamic in sports movie history. Based in part on Muhammed Ali during his heavyweight reign in the mid 1970s, Creed was a flamboyant showboater and a precision instrument of inflicting pain colorfully known as the King of Sting and the Master of Disaster. Played by the magnificent Weathers, he was the perfect antagonist to Balboa, the rugged, flat-footed, monosyllabic challenger. Fans came to respect and ultimately adore Apollo, so much so that he and Rocky teamed up in Rocky III to challenge the vicious Clubber Lang (Mr. T). Ultimately, he was given a warrior’s death, dying in the ring against the Soviet robot Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) to defend our American way of life in Rocky IV.

Ryan Coogler knows all the Rocky movies by heart, and to him, Creed is as personal a tale as Fruitvale Station. He spoke to EW about his excitement to play the new video game, getting Jordan in shape to resemble Carl Weathers, and his professional options for the future. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I grew up spending hours playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! on an old Nintendo. Was that before your time?

RYAN COOGLERYeah, I played Punch-Out!! when I was real young. Then, when I was in high school and college, there was a game called Knockout Kings from EA Sports that was real big. We all played that. Then it turned into Fight Night, as it got older. That was the boxing game we played. This game, Real Boxing, reminds me a lot of that. Really exciting. When Michael and I found out that there would be a game coming out with Adonis and Rocky as characters, I was really fired up. They told me about Real Boxing 1, so I immediately downloaded it and I’ve been playing it ever since. I’ve since beat the game, so I can’t wait for Real Boxing 2: CREED

When was the moment when you decided to pull the thread of Apollo Creed from the Rocky films and make it its own thing? 

I thought about it when I was in film school. My dad got sick around that time. My dad and I were really, really close. I came to love the Rocky franchise through my father. He fell ill right around the time I was making Fruitvale and I was finishing up film school. That was when I kind of had the idea to tell this story. I would say that was late 2011. Right around the time we were in prep [on Fruitvale] was when I told my agents about the project. And then I got a chance to pitch it to Stallone. After Fruitvale came out, Sly reached out again, and we met again, and we started to figure out whether we could make it work. 

There are tons of boxing movies, and some great actors who get in the ring. But in my opinion, Carl Weathers is the greatest, smoothest, most realistic boxer that’s been in any film. He was an athlete like yourself and he didn’t need to be taught how to look like a pro. That only raises the bar for you and Michael. How would you grade Mike on his ring skills? 

Mike has great ring skills. He really worked hard at it, and he’s already on athlete. He wasn’t like Carl Weathers, who played in the NFL. But he was a really serious athlete for most of his life, so there was already an element of athletics there. And Mike’s really competitive and really dedicated, so right when there was a stark possibility that this movie would happen, he got with a boxing trainer and a bodybuilding coach and just working really hard immediately. And he fights a lot in the movie, so we put him in the ring with real boxers, real pros. He fights Gabriel Rosado, he fights with Tony Bellow out of the U.K., he fights with Andre Ward. He would spend time with those guys and our stunt coordinator throughout the prep process, getting into the ring, moving around, sparring, all of those things. So by the time the cameras rolled, he was pretty formidable. Now, we find him at a different point of his career then you see Apollo Creed. By the time you meet Apollo in Rocky I, he’s already like 40-something and 0. He’s the top pro fighter in the world. In this situation, when we first meet Adonis, he’s a professional boxer, but he’s nowhere near that level of skill. He’s not that far along in his career. He grows through the film, especially getting under the tutelage of Rocky, but there are still aspects of his boxing game that are crude. 

Rocky III famously ends with a friendly fight between Apollo and Rocky, and that is referenced in your film. You’ve seen Michael up close in the ring, so let’s just say… if you were boxing him, what would be your strategy to beat him?

If I was boxing Mike? [Laughs] My strategy? I would have to get in better shape. Mike’s in a lot better shape than I am right now. My strategy would probably be to grab him and hold on.  

Just to see Apollo’s red, white, and blue boxing trunks in the film’s trailer gave me a chill. What did it feel like to see Michael march out in those trunks?

It was intense. As a director, I can’t take too much time to be in awe, especially when we’re up against the clock. But it was kind of surreal. It’s almost coincidental, but from certain angles, Michael looks a lot like Carl Weathers, especially when he was really in shape and wearing those shorts. You had to be able to believe that this guy was Apollo’s son, just visually. That part had to work, and I think he pulled that off.

And you have Stallone in the movie and this is a world that he created. What’s it like to direct a guy in that environment? Do you dare give him a note on how to play Rocky?

It’s a very unique position to be in. It was awesome to have the honor of directing him in this role. Of course, you give notes, but the notes always have to come from the right place. They can’t be false notes, because he’ll sniff that out. And most of the time, my notes were questions. Because he’s such a wealth of knowledge on the character, he knows all the backstory and the history and pretty much everything the character is feeling. So my notes really were questions, like, “Can we do this?” “Should we do that?” “What about this?” And Sly was always down to do lines with various readings. He’s always down to improv and see how far things can go. Scenes that originally were written to be dramatic would become funny; scenes that were written to be funny became dramatic. He’s a consummate actor and performer.

This is your second film with Mike, and you might be doing a third. How do you describe your rapport with him that makes you want to keep working together?

I think it’s a few things. We have a lot in common. We’re roughly the same age; I think I’m a year older than Mike. We both are very, very emotional guys. We love a good story. And we’re both workaholics. So those things together, man, we’re always trying to make things the best they can be. We really, really are passionate about what we do. We love what we do. So that’s a great starting point. At this point, having made two films together — two really, really difficult films, in terms of what I have to do as a director and what he had to do as an actor — we developed a shorthand, which is very helpful. As soon as we get to set on a project, we know immediately how to get to work on it. We have our communication at a really high level so we can move fast, and it helps to make other actors and other artists that we’re working with comfortable, because we’re so comfortable with each other. So I hope to continue to work with Michael as much as I can.

Mike took the leap into the superhero world with the Fantastic Four, and maybe it could’ve been or performed better. Is there anything that you learned about the industry just from watching that experience from afar?  

As far as learning what you get out of that experience, it’s kind of stuff that you already know: that all you can control with something is how hard you work on it, what you put into it. There are several things about these movies that are outside of your control, and the biggest one is whether or not the audience responds to what you’re doing. It’s not exact science.

Is Wrong Answer your next movie?

It’s tough for me to answer that. I feel like I’m still working on Creed, so it’s tough for me to answer questions on what’s going on next.

I know there are big opportunities out there for you. Are you intrigued by the superhero genre?

I think for our generation, most of us kind of grew up reading some sort of popular fiction. We all read comic books whether we admit it or not. We all played video games. We all read Goosebumps books and Fear Street. I was definitely one of this kids that had a comic-book collection. I was in the comic-book store quite a bit. So those types of films are etched into me because I have a familiarity with them. That being said, films like Wrong Answer, like Fruitvale, they interest me just as much, if not more. 

Did you have a favorite comic-book hero? 

Growing up, I was definitely a Batman guy. I think he was the most popular amongst the folks I was around. We also were really heavily into X-Men too. But then I got into weird indie comics. I would go to the comic-book store between school and basketball practice, because we had one right across the street from our school, called Dr. Comics and Mr. Games. It’s still there. Whenever I’m back home in the Bay, I stop in there. It’s a great comic-book shop. But we would go for Batman, X-Men, and whatever X-Men spinoffs they had. But I think it’s interesting how the [movie] industry moves and how different projects can be viewed. Like, the Rocky franchise… it has fans and it has history very similar to comic-book movies. So I’ve had people come up to me when they found out I was doing this movie, they would say, “So what was it like when MGM came to you with this and they wanted you to reboot this?” But this project was just as personal to me as Fruitvale was. So when a filmmaker brings them an idea that’s deeply personal to him, that’s when those [big] movies work.