It would be a surreal experience for any director to walk into a fake boxing ring with Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan as 2,000 extras in the crowd chant “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!” But it was particularly wild for Steven Caple Jr. The 30-year-old filmmaker’s last movie, “The Land,” was his directorial debut produced for around $1 million. Now Caple is the man behind the multimillion dollar “Rocky” franchise with “Creed II,” the sequel to Ryan Coogler’s sensational 2015 boxing drama that introduced Michael B. Jordan as the son of Apollo Creed.
“It’s trippy. It’s all happening at once,” Caple told IndieWire over the phone from Los Angeles, where’s he’s still in the editing room working on post-production. Only a couple hours had passed since the official “Creed II” trailer premiered, and Caple couldn’t contain his excitement. “To have people already responding to the film in this way as we’re slowly working on it, it’s pretty dope,” he said.
The biggest narrative surrounding Caple’s involvement in “Creed II” has been that he’s taken over for Coogler, who has since become an A-list Hollywood filmmaker with “Black Panther.” The two directors happen to be friends going back to their days at the University of Southern California’s film school. Caple had the same reaction as fans did when MGM asked him to meet with Stallone and Jordan about the “Creed II” directing gig: He needed to know why Coogler wasn’t returning.
“I went straight to [Ryan Coogler] and was like, ‘Man, why aren’t you doing it? You know what I mean, because you killed the first one,'” Caple said. “But he was caught up with ‘Black Panther’ and they were looking for someone to carry the torch and able to put their own spin on it. Coogler was helpful and told me, ‘Hey, do your thing. Add your own twists to it, but make sure you follow along the lines of the Rocky franchise.'”
The “lines of the ‘Rocky’ franchise” were something Caple knew well long before sitting in the “Creed II” director’s chair. Caple grew up watching the “Rocky” franchise and something powerful happened as he got older. What he originally viewed as thrilling entertainment in his childhood turned into character dramas with real human stakes as a teenager. Caple said the best “Rocky” films, and he counts “Creed” among them, find the knockout balance between boxing hype and character intimacy. The director is roughly the same age as Jordan’s Adonis Creed, so by the time Coogler’s film revitalized the “Rocky” franchise, the series hit the director closer to home than it ever did.
“I can really connect with the level of maturity that Creed is going through, the sense of relationships and starting a family and trying to build your own name, your own legacy,” Caple said. “Things like that really touch me as I’m in that same vein as I’m trying to do the same with my life and my career. There’s the pure commercial hype of it, the ‘feeling good’ feelings that you get when watching the boxing, but the other side is purely character, purely artistic.”
Caple joined the project in December 2017, and knew he had his work cut out for him since MGM already had plans for a November 2018 release. The quick production schedule made him feel more at home, as it was not unlike working on an indie or a television series. (His TV credits include “Grown-ish.”) As for the leap in budget, Caple said he knew money wasn’t relevant to the scenes that matter most.
“What’s most important about the ‘Rocky’ franchise, which I admire the most, is that they’re so based on what happens outside the ring and the nuances and the relationships and the stories,” Caple said. “You’re looking at the budget like, ‘Oh, it’s $50 million,’ but most of that goes into the boxing, and then it’s up to me and the actors to get to the heart of the story. It’s the small moments in the film that are important, and they don’t have anything to do with budget. Those moments might as well be an independent film or a short film.”
Caple said he studied Coogler’s visceral “Creed” one-takes and watched dozens of karate films to learn the best methods for building tension and excitement in his boxing scenes. “Creed II” finds Adonis facing off against the son of Ivan Drago, the boxer who took his father’s life in “Rocky IV.” Joining the “Rocky” franchise proved game-changing for Coogler, as it ended up being the stepping stone between his first indie and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Caple isn’t too concerned with following a similar path.
“Choosing a project is about personal connections and feeling good about my environment, making sure I’m in a comfortable place to do our art,” Caple said. “With ‘Creed,’ you have people like Ryan Coogler, Mike, Tessa [Thompson], people of color, who are making a project together, collaborating. That’s important. That’s why this project particularly was important for me to do. It wasn’t a platform for my career but about saying something on-screen and off-screen. That’s more important to me than trying to do a bigger project.”
Caple admitted he’s appreciated joining the studio world with “Creed II,” but he’s not dead-set on doing tentpoles next. “I’m not necessarily chasing a Marvel movie or anything like that,” he said. “It’s about chasing projects that I’m just personally attached to.”
“Creed II” opens in theaters nationwide November 21.