These days in Hollywood, it’s all about the crossover. Studios buy brand names to delve deeper into worlds and stories we already know and give them even wider reach. It’s the entire ethos behind the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) that’s been tearing box office records to shreds since Iron Man (2008), and the shared universe is fast becoming the in thing.
But it’s not restricted to comic books, superhero TV series and other hallmarks of geek culture. The Rocky series had seemingly been played out by the time of 1990’s Rocky V (not that it kept them from making one more sequel, 2006’s Rocky Balboa), but it hasn’t stopped the creative brains behind festival hit Fruitvale Station (2013) bringing us Creed.
Sharing a universe with Rocky’s world rather than being about the Italian Stallion himself, Creed centres on Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan), son of former champ Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in the series) who has his own boxing aspirations. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) sees his own gritty origins in the young man and agrees to train him, becoming the erstwhile father Creed never had.
The trailer looks great and the creative team behind the film is as talented as it is accomplished. But the question remains… why? For director Ryan Coogler it’s a story about fathers and sons both onscreen and off.
“I’ve got a very close relationship with my father,” the 29-year-old writer/director says. “He was a huge Rocky fan and he would make me watch Rocky 2 with him and get emotional and I wondered why. Right around the time I was at film school my dad fell ill and I found out the reason he liked the Rocky films so much and got so emotional was because he watched them with his mother when she was dying.”
Of course, this being a Rocky movie, Stallone’s participation is as pivotal as that of Harrison Ford in an Indiana Jones project or Schwarzenegger in a Terminator film. It’s the first time Stallone hasn’t been in direct creative control over a movie featuring his most iconic role, but both Coogler and Jordan found his experience invaluable.
“He knows so much about boxing, he’s so immersed in the boxing world you’d be stupid not to listen so I took in as much as I could,” Jordan says. “We had a lot of great boxing lives around this film – fighters, trainers, managers, just people who’d been watching boxing for years. There was so much rehearsal, I needed as much as I could get from everybody and they were all following his vision.”
One thing the 28-year-old star wasn’t prepared for was the twin training regimens, one of traditional boxing that would teach him how to move and look like a fighter, and the other – movie boxing – which Stallone himself probably knows more about than anybody alive. “It was something he knew about because he went through it with his Rocky films – how to really sell it. We always train completely different for movie fights, they’re two totally different things.” Coogler agrees, calling the dichotomy of movie versus real fighting ‘two different languages’.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that when the original Rocky came out, neither Coogler or Jordan were even thought of. Hollywood’s full of cautionary tales (The Man From UNCLE, The Lone Ranger) of movies that trade on brand names so old none of the critical movie demographics of kids, teens and young adults have heard of them – or care.
Jordan and Coogler agree Creed has its own story while adhering to the style that made the Rocky series what it is, but there’s an even more contemporary aspect – just like there was to his last film at a time when racially-motivated police killings in the US were grabbing headlines.
“There’s something in the air,” Coogler says. “It’s no coincidence the biggest fight of the last 25 years just happened [the astounding audience for Manny Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas last May], and issues come and go. In 2013 we released a movie called Fruitvale Station and that year we saw a lot of films that dealt with racism.”
But there’s yet another cautionary tale here. After Josh Trank’s early success with Chronicle (2012), the director has become better known for his spectacular flameout this year, getting kicked off the Star Wars film he was lined up to make thanks to his abrasive reputation and taking to Twitter to rant against the studio butchering his remake of Fantastic Four (starring Jordan, ironically) after it bombed with critics and audiences.
After the independent spirit of Fruitvale Station, you might worry Creed will be the first stop along the way to Hollywood chewing Coogler up and spitting him out.
Actually it was a passion project developed with the same connection to the material and creative drive that made Fruitvale what it is. “This movie comes from something personal to me and every day on set was very emotional,” the writer/director says. “A lot of times they develop a franchise thing and say ‘let’s get a hot young indie guy who can come in and we can control him’.
“That wasn’t how this went down. The studio came in very late. Fruitvale came out of a question; ‘how could something like this happen where I’m from?’ This was very much about the same kind of question; ‘what kind of person would I be if I didn’t have my father in my life?’ They’re both kind of similar and I’m getting to work with Mike again so there’s that level of comfort.”