Opening in Irish cinemas on January 15th, ‘Creed’ is both a spin-off and sequel to the 1976 ‘Rocky’ movie. Sylvester Stallone returns to the franchise, winning rave reviews and talk of awards. In the film, Rocky reluctantly gets back into boxing as a trainer to Adonis Johnson Creed, the son of Apollo; Rocky’s boxing rival from the earlier movies.
What set you on the path to making Creed and why you were drawn to telling a story about Apollo Creed’s son? It started a long time ago. I’m very close with my dad, who is a big ‘Rocky’ fan. I played a lot of sports as a kid and before he’d take me to a game, he’d put on a ‘Rocky’ film to get me pumped up. His favorite was ‘Rocky II’. He was a big, strong guy, but he’d get really emotional whenever he’d watch that one. So, because my dad was so passionate about them, I had an affinity for the films too.
As I got older, I found out my dad was so into the ‘Rocky’ films because he’d watch them with his mom when she was sick. She passed away before I was born. So he was reacting to the movies, but he was also reacting to the memory of his mom.
When I went to film school, I was getting ready to shoot my first feature, and round about that time my dad started to have some health issues. I had a hard time dealing with that—him getting older and me taking care of him. As I was going through that experience, I came up with this idea of a similar situation with his hero, Rocky. It was kind of an artistic way of venting my feelings. I was so busy working on Fruitvale Station that I asked my buddy, Aaron Covington, if he’d like to write it with me.
I mentioned it to my agents at the time and they introduced me to Sylvester Stallone’s agent. This was before I’d even made ‘Fruitvale; I was still casting it. But I had a meeting with Stallone’s agent and his business manager. I pitched them the idea, they thought about it and said, ‘I don‘t think Sly wants to do anything like this.’ [Laughs]
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When did you first talk to Sylvester Stallone about making a spin-off film?
It was in July of 2012; I remember because we were getting ready to shoot ‘Fruitvale’. I met him, I pitched it to him, we talked about it, and I could tell he was really apprehensive.
I hadn’t made a feature film yet, so he was probably thinking: who is this kid coming in talking about making a Rocky movie – something that’s so precious to him? I told him, honestly, I wouldn’t blame him if he thought I was crazy. I knew when I was pitching it to him that it was a wild idea. But Sly’s a smart dude; he’s an emotional dude. He’s a thinker, you know what I’m saying? He was thinking about every different way this could work, and every different way it could fail.
What did you say that convinced him to give it his blessing?
I was just honest with him. I told him how I saw the film, how I saw the characters. I think what appealed to him was that it wasn’t a Rocky movie, in that Rocky isn’t the main focus of the film. Obviously the character was going to be heavily involved, but the focus is very much on Adonis Johnson.
In a way, your movie takes Rocky full circle in that he becomes a mentor to this young fighter in the same way that Mickey, Burgess Meredith’s character, was to him in the first Rocky movie.
Exactly. And I think that connection resonated with him.
Did your conversations with Stallone do anything to change your original conception of the story?
Honestly, his input just made it better. He had so many thoughts and ideas. He knows Rocky Balboa better than anybody. He also knows more than anybody about boxing – about the sport itself and about how to make a movie about it. I’d be writing scenes and ask him, ‘What would Rocky do here?’ He’d think about it for a second and he’d tell me. If I had ideas, he’d be the first person I’d call. If he had an idea, I’d be the first person he’d call. It was a great collaboration.
Was it always your intention to cast Michael B. Jordan as Adonis? Absolutely. Mike is so talented, man. He’s one of those guys, if he’s interested in doing something, you do it with him. He’s just that good; he’s that special. There aren’t too many actors like him. And we already had a rapport; we’d developed kind of a shorthand together on Fruitvale. Even when we were getting ready to shoot that movie, I knew if I was going to make another one, I was going to make it with this guy.
Tessa Thompson plays Bianca, a singer-songwriter who gets close to Adonis in the film. Can you talk about what drew you to Tessa for the role? It was an intense casting process for Bianca because the character is a singer who’s also dealing with some serious issues in her life. She’s got a very specific way of thinking, of talking, of dealing with people. She kind of represents the art scene, which is such a huge contrast to the world Adonis is in. We needed someone who could really sing, who could make music, but who could also stand up to two of the best actors around: Mike and Sly.
I’d met Tessa at Sundance when her movie, Dear White People, premiered. It’s an amazing film and she carries it. It’s an ensemble movie, but she still carries it. So, we were blessed to get Tessa; she was the best candidate by far. She took the character of Bianca and really fleshed her out.
You’ve also got some real boxers in the movie. They don’t come much realer than three-time ABA heavyweight champion Anthony Bellew taking on the role of Adonis’s rival, ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan. We’ve got a bunch of real boxers. We’ve got Tony Bellew from the UK; Andre Ward, who is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet [ESPN’s #2 pound-for-pound boxer globally]. He and Mike have a really intense scene. We’ve got Gabriel Rosado [former WBO Light Middleweight champion], so every time Mike steps into the ring, which is a lot, he’s fighting real guys.
And, of course, they all had to learn to movie box, right? They did. They’re phenomenal athletes, but there is a difference. How they punch is very economical. They don’t punch in a showy way that sells it on camera. A lot of times, these guys move so fast and so efficiently the camera won’t even pick it up. They had to re-learn how to sell things, to open up. That was the learning curve for them, and it was very dangerous for Mike because if these dudes catch you for real, they can really hurt you.
Did that happen? I made sure things were as safe as possible for the actors and the boxers as well. They all have active professional careers; they had to go fight right after the movie was finished. They don’t want to go into a fight already banged up because that’s their livelihood. And no one was ever seriously injured, thank God. It was complicated, but we had a great stunt coordinator, Clayton Barber, and a great stunt team who worked tirelessly – trying to get the story points across, trying to keep it exciting, trying to keep it fresh, a new take on a craft we’ve seen many times before.
That’s a whole new level of pressure, making it look new. Creatively, we were walking on razor blades with this movie: how do we capture the essence of Rocky but give people something new, something they haven’t seen before? How do we show this character, who is part of American culture, in a different light?
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As you said, Stallone knows real boxing and movie boxing inside out – and there is a huge difference between them. What was it like for you, learning how to portray boxing on screen from the master? Well, first of all, I had to learn both. I was an athlete for longer than I’ve been a filmmaker. I’ve been an athlete since I was six years old. Sports are something I can relate to, but boxing I was not so familiar with. I had to study it. I took classes while I was writing the script. I wanted to learn the basics so I could put myself in Adonis’s head, then Sly brought the professional element to it. He would get us tickets to see fights; he’s got so many connections in that world. And he’s got a whole library of books on boxing.
Then, when it came to movie boxing, that’s a whole different thing because you can’t just ask guys to go out there and take real punches [laughs]. I have a very authentic style of filmmaking, so I had to find a middle ground. I had to make sure everybody was safe, make sure they felt like they were giving it their all, but, at the same time, make sure it looked real.
Has your dad seen the movie yet? No, he hasn’t seen it yet. If I showed it to him too early he’d tell everyone the whole movie [laughs]. But he’s seen bits and pieces. The crew had tee shirts and sweatshirts made and he’s got all of those. He wears one every time I see him.
Did he get to meet Stallone? Yeah, he got to meet Sly. You know the restaurant in Rocky Balboa [Adrian’s]? We shot some scenes there. My dad came to Philly for those scenes so that’s where he got to meet Sly.
Did you shoot most of the movie in Philadelphia? All of it. It was intense. I’m from California so that was my first prolonged experience of cold like that. But it’s a lovely city.
Do you think if you’re making a Rocky movie it’s mandatory to shoot it in Philadelphia? Oh, yeah. And we used a lot of the original locations – we used a lot of new ones too. But if you’re a Rocky fan you’re going to recognize some places. They’re in there.
There is a sense that the torch is being passed here. Does holding the Rocky legend in your hands weigh heavily on you?
Absolutely. It’s interesting because the first movie I did, I was dealing with a real person’s life. It was almost the complete inverse of this. With Oscar Grant [the tragic central character of Fruitvale Station], people knew who he was in the Bay Area, though not necessarily in other places. But he was a real person. I had to take his life and portray it as honestly and as accurately as I could. There’s a lot of weight there. With Rocky, he’s a fictional character, but everybody in the world knows him. And you don’t want to be the guy who messes it up.
What’s your sense of how you did? I think it’s in safe hands. I’ve been a Rocky fan since as long as I can remember. I know those movies like the back of my hand. I hope we captured that spirit.