Director Steven Caple Jr. had one feature under his belt, “The Land,” a gritty personal story set in his hometown of Cleveland. He was proud of the movie, but more importantly, it was a good representation of his voice as a filmmaker. Having only graduated USC grad school in 2014, where he overlapped with his friend and mentor Ryan Coogler during the “Black Panther” director’s last year of school, he had very real doubts about the pitfalls of taking over the “Rocky” franchise Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan had completely reinvented.
“Even taking the job there was this huge level of uncertainty: ‘Is this the right thing for me to do or should I not do it?,’” said Caple in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I don’t want to do sequels for the rest of my life. I really like the first one, am I going to drop another? What are they trying to do?”
Sylvester Stallone had already written an outline for the “Creed” sequel, returning the franchise to the “Rocky IV” storyline by revolving the film’s three fight structure around Adonis squaring off against Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) the Russian fighter who killed his father Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring.
“Sly wrote a draft of this and it just had the fights,” said Caple. “The [character] stuff in between fights wasn’t in there. That’s when the MGM was like, ‘You gotta come in, and like rework it.'”
For Caple, the story was too similar to “Rocky III” and “IV.” He didn’t want to make a film about a boxer out for revenge, and wanted more of the self-doubt that he felt made “Rocky II” a great sequel. In Stallone’s draft, Jordan’s character builds off the success he had at the end of “Creed” to become the world champion in the film’s opening sequence. From Caple’s point of view, there were parallels between Creed and Jordan himself, who was coming off playing Killmonger in “Black Panther” and establishing himself as a true Hollywood star.
“Mike was in a moment in his life where in the last year has become a world champion in the movie world,” said Caple, who at the time was trying to figure out the storyline, but didn’t think he would direct. “I wanted to talk to Mike, because I’m like, ‘This is your project, you’re doing Marvel now, this is basically your franchise. How do you feel about everything going on in your career?'”
Jordan told Caple how he looked up to African American movie stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith, but he couldn’t escape feeling like he was still under their shadow. It was an insecurity that drove the actor to work harder. Both Caple and Jordan wanted a story about that feeling of uncertainty and the need to prove oneself.
“I felt like taking that mentality and connecting it to Adonis Creed, who felt like him also taking this fight would also prove himself and put his stamp into it,” said Caple. “Ironically enough – damn, I’m just realizing this talking about it – that’s actually something that I did with this project, too. Accepting it, I felt like taking this movie that is a sequel, would allow me to like put my own stamp into the franchise, but also separate me because now I may be rolling with the Slys and the Ryan Cooglers, but now there’s an opportunity to prove it.”
Knowing Creed’s internal struggle, Caple could shape the fights themselves to fit his hero’s arc. Although Creed would win the title in the first match, the audience would be positioned, using sound, shot composition and editing, to feel the violence and speed of the fight.
“The first fight we wanted to feel brutal, this fight is supposed to be in your face, soon as the bell rings,” said Caple. “I just really wanted to find ways at, felt like you were in that seat, and that you felt punches, and that there’s a way to make it an experience. I think that was our goal, rather than just to be a warrior and just watching it from the distance. I wanted you to be inside of the ring.”
Having connected with Jordan about tapping into the character’s inner life, Caple felt free reign to explore Creed’s vulnerabilities inside and out the ring: Marriage, kids, moving out Philadelphia, deciding to fight Drago. He also knew he would need to find a parallel arc for Rocky himself.
“So I asked, ‘What’s left of Rocky’s life, what’s missing?’ And what Sly said – he knows that character inside and out – is it’s always his son,” said Caple. “When he looks at Creed, he looks at him like a son. So obviously there’s this personal connection in that and by now, he just wants to feel like it was coming together in this one.”
Caple and Stallone worked together to create a subtle narrative in the background, where Rocky’s estrangement from his now-adult son and grandson lingers over the film as Rocky struggles to support Creed’s decision to fight Drago.
“Everything in this movie is tapping into the uncertainties of life in general,” said Caple. “It came from a personal place of where we all were in making this movie.”