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WATCH: How Ryan Coogler Convinced Sylvester Stallone to Revive Rocky Balboa in ‘Creed’ (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

WATCH: How Ryan Coogler Convinced Sylvester Stallone to Revive Rocky Balboa in 'Creed' (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

Rising writer-director Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” opened on awards-friendly November 25. His take on the “Rocky” franchise and the seventh film in the series is already a popular hit, at $87 million domestic and counting. 
The project dates back to July 2013 when, just as Coogler’s debut “Fruitvale Station” hit theaters after touted premieres at Sundance and Cannes, MGM tapped Coogler, now 29, to direct the film and co-write with Aaron Covington. None of this would have happened if Coogler had not been able to convince writer-director-actor Sylvester Stallone to let him develop this reprise of Rocky Balboa, a character that he created almost 40 years ago. 

“Creed” is produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who produced the original 1976 Best Picture-winning “Rocky,” Stallone and Kevin King Templeton. Now it looks like Stallone has a shot at a supporting actor Oscar nomination, which would mark his first since “Rocky” earned 10 Oscar nominations in 1977, including Stallone, for Best Original Screenplay and Actor.

Coogler is the real deal. He started out studying to be a doctor at the Bay Area’s St. Mary’s College on a football scholarship. He took one creative writing class, where his teacher told him he should write screenplays because his writing was so visual. He transferred to Sacramento State on another football scholarship, where he majored in finance, then attended USC grad school in film. 

There’s a reason why Harvey Weinstein scooped up the budding Bay Area filmmaker’s “Fruitvale Station” at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, after it had been developed at the Labs. He saw Oscar potential in this heart-tugger about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, (Jordan) who at 22 years old was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer at the titular BART station on New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler cared deeply about this story and made it real. And now he’s done it again with an intensely personal father-son story that helps to heal this country’s racial divide.

Coogler has long been a fan of the “Rocky” franchise, watching the films when he was growing up with his father and later, when he was fighting cancer (which he eventually beat). “I knew the film really well, Rocky was my Dad’s hero,” Coogler said. “I came up with this idea of a young guy who interacts with my Dad’s hero, when he’s aging and dealing with his own mortality in a way we’ve never seen before.” His USC buddy Aaron Covington wrote it with him on spec while Coogler was prepping “Fruitvale.” He landed a WME agent, who loved the “Creed” concept and had him pitch it to Stallone’s agent Adam Venit, who encouraged him to pitch Stallone. “He just kind of a listened,” Coogler recalls. “Sly’s a listener. He’s not asking a whole lot of stuff. He was charismatic, and different from the characters I’ve seen him play. We’ve got a lot in common.”

They’re both athletes and writers, who come from outside the Hollywood community and had to prove themselves. “I got from him the same feeling that I had when I met Michael Jordan for the first time,” says Coogler. “They both had that’ it’ factor. I was excited about him and Mike being in a film together.” It took Stallone a while to come around. He would greenlight each step along the way, as MGM developed the script—needless to say, a fresh take on Rocky was appealing to them.

In this sequel, Balboa becomes the reluctant mentor/father figure to Adonis Creed (“Fruitvale” star Michael B. Jordan), the son of the late heavyweight champ Apollo. Against the wishes of his adoptive mother (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis heads to Philadelphia and starts training under Rocky (Stallone), his father’s close friend and fierce rival. Real-life boxers Tony Bellew and Andrew Ward round out the cast, along with Tessa Thompson as Creed’s romantic interest, who Coogler met at an afterparty for “Dear White People” at Sundance.

Filming began in January 2015 in England and wrapped in Philadelphia, where the crew converted an empty store into a boxing gym.  “It was hard to go back,” Stallone told me at a holiday party. “This time I had no physicality. I was so happy that the last one had ended on a good note, full circle, I put it to bed; I have nothing more to say about Rocky the fighter. Then along comes this kid and pulls me back in. Ryan Coogler is such a really good director.”

“[Being sick] was complicated for Sly to wrap his mind around,” says Coogler. “At this point, Sly’s at an interesting moment in his life where he was very emotionally raw in many ways. He’s such a talented actor. I never met someone who worked as hard as Mike except Sly, he could match his work ethic. This 68-year-old dude shows up and he’s got 10 pages of character work he came up with, and 100 questions…What made him excited was seeing the story from a millennial perspective. Aaron and I were born after ‘Rocky 4’ was made. He would give notes, he knows the boxing world intimately.”

The climactic long single take fight scene was a special party day, says Coogler, with everyone prepped for the long four-and-a-half minute shot. “Everyone was energized because it was Sly’s first day on the set,” he recalls. The shot they used was “the first one we nailed and got right, and when Tessa jumps into the ring, she pushes and shoves Mike, she was so excited, and then she apologizes, but he stays in it. We ended up using that. It all worked. They were fired up because it took 10 tries to nail it!”

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