Considering Creed II‘s strong reviews and box office knockout, now seems like the perfect time to get to know rising filmmaker Steven Caple Jr.

With Creed mastermind Ryan Coogler opting not to return for the sequel (he’s still a producer) and Sylvester Stallone bowing out of the director’s chair (he’s still a producer, co-writer, and, you know, Rocky), Caple, 30, was brought on board to guide Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson’s next round. The match of the director of the acclaimed 2016 indie The Land and the ultimate indie-turned-blockbuster franchise proved to fit like a glove.

“No detail is too small for him,” says Thompson, who stars as Bianca, of Caple. “He really is happy to get in there and talk about everything from hair to wardrobe, set design. He really advised me to be a part of those areas, really in a collaborative way. It will start with us always. What do we want? What do we see? Then how to communicate that to the rest of the artists that are involved in satisfying that vision. So it was really just great.”

Added Jordan, who plays the titular Creed, Adonis: “We definitely were excited to see him do his thing and put his own twist on it. I think it would be pretty stale just to repeat what somebody else did.”

As part of our Creed II cover story, EW Features Editor (and Rocky diehard) Sarah Rodman chatted with Caple — who hopes that the film’s success will give renewed interest to his Emmett Till miniseries that has been passed on by HBO — about his own Rocky fandom, collaborating with Jordan and Thompson, and creating Creed‘s own themes separate from the original franchise.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Stallone was originally announced as the director and then it was decided that you would be taking the helm. His thinking seemed to be that somebody of this generation should direct it. I’m guessing you were grateful for that.
STEVEN CAPLE JR.: Definitely. He had a serious conversation with Mike and [they] both agreed upon the structure of the script, and it felt good. Then he wanted to do Rambo… and he wouldn’t be able to do Creed [II] and do Rambo as a director. On top of that, he’s like, “I know I’m missing the voice of Adonis and Tessa and [Wood] Harris and some other characters.” It was a great conversation.

For a lot of fans, this is a very special franchise. Ryan had the first swing with Creed and succeeded and then the pressure was on you to keep it going. How intimidated were you going into this? Or did you feel confident from the jump?
You hit it right on the spot. I’m confident in my abilities. The question was how do you take that and step into a franchise. There are so many expectations on the Rocky-level where people expect a certain kind of formula or feeling. Then Creed came in, and it has its own little spin on it. Coogler and I are close in age, and so we have similar tastes. I was like, “All right, how do I keep myself separate from that?” That’s where the pressure came in, to make sure I was able to not only put my stamp on it but make the film great.

The pressure went away in actually talking to Sly and Ryan and hearing them say, “Hey, this only is going to work with you doing your own thing because if you try to do what we did, it won’t necessarily work.” I know it’s the same advice that Sly gave Ryan. Even today, I think [Sly] is still a filmmaker at heart, and he sees us for that. I think that’s pretty cool.

Had you been a Rocky fan before this?
I was a fan since I was a kid. Rocky is one of my favorite films in general, but it’s my favorite one out of this series. I remember as a kid it motivating me. Then as I got older, it was very much an artistic way of looking at a film. I was able to appreciate it for its filmmaking execution, done by Sly and the whole crew. This whole story behind getting it made. You appreciate it on another level.

When you think back on it, the first Rocky movie really was a scrappy indie movie. We think of it now as this big blockbuster…
No, no, it was an indie film. The texture was there. I don’t know if you knew this, but it was one of the first movies ever to have the steady cam. It had this grit to it. You’ll see a running-up-the-steps montage where [they’re using] the steady cam or the camera is actually inside the ring. You’re like, oh wow, this guy is doing something new and different. They really challenged themselves on that level.

In talking to Michael and Tessa, one of the things we discussed was how this mass appeal franchise has pivoted to a black point of view without fanfare. It is a continuation with callbacks as well as a new story that pushes forward. The film is for everyone, but you all managed to thread in moments specifically for black audiences.
Culturally specific. That’s something I liked in Creed, and then when we tapped into Creed II, [we thought] how can we go about these scenes and moments in our lives and make it so relatable and so appealing to anyone? We are black, so we are able to find those moments where we’re able to embed the culture and who we are with improvising, with how we play out jokes, letting scenes naturally come about. That was cool.

That was a huge thing for us in front of the camera and behind. We always spoke about it. It was like changing the narrative on screen, seeing us as different people. Seeing us as a family. I know Mike is big on that. I think you can really say that we really tried to maintain that from Creed.

I remember talking to Mike and Ryan about it. I was like, “There are moments I want to bring back in Creed as well, man, so that way people can feel that.” Not just Rocky nostalgia, but start to create Creed themes.

Michael and Tessa have something special onscreen that’s hard to quantify. As you watched them through the lens and directed them, what was it about their chemistry that worked so well?
Mike feeds off of Tessa a lot. He’ll tell you this. They have two different approaches to acting. Mike, when he steps on the scene, he’s like, “Brother, tell me where you want me to stand, what you want me to say, and I’ll do it, and I’ll give 110%,” and he will. If you want him to cry, he’s going to go there. If you want him to stand still, he will stand still. Want him to take a punch, he’ll do it all.

Whereas I love free flowing with Tessa more. When she comes to set, we talk about characters in the moment. She’ll just play in the moment. Somehow that works with those two.

That’s something I picked up really quick. If Mike needs to get there emotionally, she will go there emotionally with Mike every take. When he needed help to cry, she would just deliver it in every take. You could tell they had this sort of relationship.

When you have these moments, you just create the environment, make them feel comfortable and then hopefully let them allow them to trust me. Then let them do their thing.

— Reporting by Sarah Rodman

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