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How director Ryan Coogler went from 'Fruitvale Station' to a Rocky movie

Sylvester Stallone, left, and director/co-writer Ryan Coogler on the set of
Sylvester Stallone, left, and director/co-writer Ryan Coogler on the set of "Creed."
Sylvester Stallone, left, and director/co-writer Ryan Coogler on the set of
Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, left, and Michael B. Jordan on the set of "Creed."

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Director Ryan Coogler raked in awards with his first feature film, "Fruitvale Station," which dramatized the true story of a man's death by Oakland police officers in 2009. It was a daring project that seemed to only whet Coogler's ambition. Now, with "Creed," the 29-year-old is taking on the "Rocky" franchise. 

The first "Rocky" movie not directed by Sylvester Stallone, "Creed" focuses on the new character of Adonis Johnson. Adonis is the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's rival who became his friend and trainer, and who passed away in Rocky's arms in "Rocky IV." Rocky takes on a surrogate father role to Adonis in "Creed" as he trains the young boxer to live up to his father's name. 

"Creed" tackles the theme of legacy — both living up to it and, as is hinted in Stallone's role, passing it on. Coogler developed the idea for the movie while watching his father, a diehard "Rocky" fan, battle a neuromuscular condition. As Coogler told The Frame's John Horn, the importance of the "Rocky" films to his family stretches back several generations. 


Adonis Johnson is played by Michael B. Jordan, who was your star in “Fruitvale Station.” But I understand your interest in "Rocky" goes back. Did you grow up watching these movies?

Yes I did. My father was a “Rocky” fan. He would watch them as bonding time with me and my brother . . . We watched the movies constantly and grew to love them through my father.

When did you pitch this movie? 

It was around 2011-2012, [when] I went to film school. I was getting ready to make “Fruitvale.” My father got really sick. My world kind of crashed. He had a neuromuscular condition, so he was becoming weaker. In the process he was struggling mentally. I got this idea about telling a story about it. I thought, What if this happened to my father’s hero, to Rocky? That’s kind of when I came up with the idea of Adonis, and the idea of the movie.

What was it about "Rocky" that was so meaningful to your father?

My dad always kind of saw himself as an underdog. But I later found out it was really about him and his mom. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 8 or 9, but she fought the disease for 15 years. My father saw her as an underdog, fighting like Rocky. In the last few months of her life, they would kill the time by watching TV. “Rocky II” was on television all the time. That’s what made the movie so special to him.

If the first "Rocky" were made today, it could have played at Sundance. It was made like an independent film. I’m wondering if that same mentality informed how you wanted to shoot "Creed" — not too fancy, but a little gritty and indie-looking.

I think you’re absolutely right. "Rocky" was a United Artists movie. The producers were running around without permits. They were hiring people with weird technology, which ended up becoming the Steadicam. It was like a rebel style of filmmaking. Later on, the films took on the perspective of their era. In the '80s, they were a little more grand.

These days, filmmaking is a lot more grounded. It’s closer to how it was back in the '70s. For instance, a film like "The Hunger Games" couldn’t get a bigger budget, but you’ll see that intimate, handheld camera work, to make it almost documentary-style. It’s become the language of cinema in 2015, where we see so much shot on iPhones. That style tends to be more acceptable. 

You’ve made two features, each shot by women. Rachel Morrison made "Fruitvale" and Maryse Alberti shot "Creed." "Creed" is a very male story — it’s about guys in the gym beating the hell out of each other. Gender clearly isn’t an issue for you when you look for your cinematographers. 

No, it’s not an issue for me looking at anything. What’s funny is Rachel was going to shoot “Creed,” but then she got pregnant. By the time we got greenlit, she was like four-to-five months along. Then I wound up meeting Maryse. She had such a great filmography in the documentary space as well. She and I really hit it off. For me, gender doesn’t matter anywhere. It matters to me that our crew is as diverse as it could be. “Creed” is about male fighters, and masculinity is a theme in the movie. But to me it was important to have the perspective of women. We have great women characters in the film . . . With these boxers, you see that the women in their lives are the ones kind of shepherding them.

When you’re talking about the diversity of their crew, your movie is coming out a year after #OscarsSoWhite. It was a big deal. None of the actors nominated last year were people of color. But your film and another I can think of, “Straight Outta Compton,” were movies that were made by directors of color with lead actors of color. Are you conscious of that?

I try to look at stuff from a personal perspective. As a kid who was very much into pop culture, I definitely would notice when there weren’t a lot of characters that [looked] like me. I would often get frustrated watching a show that’s supposed to represent a large swath of America — a generic high school, or a big city — and I would feel that the levels of representation were inaccurate. It was a big reason why I got into filmmaking. I wanted to tell movies that came from the perspective of characters that I wanted to follow, that I wanted to watch. I hope we see a shift, where we see stories from a more diverse perspective. That when we watch movies, it looks like the world we live in.

Do you think that diversity is not only an opportunity, but also a responsibility? 

As an artist, your greatest responsibility is to yourself. If the work you’re doing doesn’t mean something to you, it’s not going to be good work. That being said, I think, absolutely. It always make sense to have an understanding from a social context. 

"Creed" opens in theaters on Nov. 25.

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