Kristopher Tapley | Co-Awards Editor | @kristapley
(this article was originally published in Variety on January 5, 2016)
With “Creed” passing $100 million at the domestic box office, it’s safe to say filmmaker Ryan Coogler is off to the races. He had already established a vital voice with 2013’s “Fruitvale Station,” and now, as he wades into the shark-filled waters of a Hollywood career, holding onto that voice is more important than ever.
But he knows that. He’s incredibly talented, yes, but incredibly sharp when it comes to navigating this business. As a deep-dive supplement to our sidebar interview with the filmmaker this week, here’s a lengthy Q&A with Coogler addressing everything from his personal connections to the “Rocky” franchise, to the importance of diversity in the film business, to when it felt right to needle-drop what might be the most iconic film music ever.
The film is doing well. Congratulations!
Yeah. I’m happy people like it. That’s always nice, man. When you work so hard on something, you never know if it’s going to connect, if people are going to vibe with it or not. It’s out of your control. So to have anybody like it is great. To have quite a few people enjoy it and to have people with a critical eye, a lot of film knowledge, like yourself, enjoy it and to see things in it, it’s really rewarding and exciting and encouraging.
SEE MORE:Ring of Truth: ‘Creed’ director Ryan Coogler makes sure to put a personal stamp on his projects
Look, you’re incredibly talented.
Aw, come on, man…
I’m telling you! I saw it twice. And it’s such a beautiful accumulation of Sylvester Stallone’s performance across this franchise, too. It keeps you on the verge of tears throughout.
Kris, I appreciate you, bro.
So I understand the “Rocky” movies meant a great deal to your father and grandmother.
Yes. It’s complicated. So my father had me when he was young. He got married to my mom — they were married for a year or so and they had me. And then we moved to Oakland. He was an athlete coming up and he was always kind of a tough, young dude, strong. We would watch movies together as a family all the time. My mom was into movies. My dad was into movies. My dad’s thing was “Rocky.” He would make me watch the “Rocky” movies all the time. So I can’t even remember not knowing who Rocky was. I was watching it probably before I could talk. He would watch the films and get really emotional at the same parts every time. And it was really the only time I ever saw my dad get choked up. It’s the only time I ever saw him cry. He’d get fired up.
When I was older, I got into sports. And he would make me watch sections of “Rocky II” before I’d go off to a game or before I had a big test in school or whatever. It was kind of a thing. When I got older, like high school, maybe, I started to think, “Why did it make my dad cry?” I remember asking him, and he didn’t come out and say what it was but I kind of asked and dug and dug and dug and dug. And then I realized that he watched all these movies with his mom. I never met his mom. His mom died when he was 18 years old; she had a long bout with breast cancer. She got sick when my father was like 7, 8. They took her to the hospital and found out she was stage four and told her that she could get treatment, but she probably wouldn’t live through the year. She ended up fighting the disease and going through double mastectomy and different types of treatment that kind of broke her body down, but she lived to the point that my dad got out of high school. And in the last year or so of her life, she was really debilitated from the disease and from the treatment. She was bedridden and my pops was her primary caretaker. And the only activity they could do together was watch movies, and “Rocky II” happened to be what was on TV a lot at the time.
So when we watched “Rocky II,” he was really having an emotional reaction to his experience with his mom. That was why they were so important to him. And then when I got out of film school and was getting ready to make “Fruitvale,” the same thing kind of happened to me. My dad got sick. He got a neuromuscular disease and they couldn’t understand what was going on and they were misdiagnosing different things. His skeletal muscles were atrophying, so he wasn’t able to take care of himself. And they couldn’t give him a prognosis. A lot of the stuff they were saying he could have was fatal, like ALS, PMA, you know, MS. So I kind of went through seeing somebody who was so strong and kind of heroic to me become frail and unable to care for himself, and our relationship changed. It was really emotionally damaging for me, and mentally damaging. It kind of broke my concept down of what a man was. Because all the things I thought my dad was — being strong and fit and able to fight and run and pick me and my brothers up with one hand — he couldn’t do that anymore. It was almost like the physical side of this man was unrecognizable. And I had a question: “Well, what makes you a man? My father, is he still a man right now even though he needs my brother’s help to get from the bedroom to the bathroom?”
So I came up with the idea of seeing that happen to his favorite film character. And it was motivation to him, as a gift to him, and a vent for my emotions at the time. And how you said you felt when you were watching the movie, being on the verge of tears — I felt like that every day at the time my dad was going through that. So it was really our relationship that inspired me to write this story and to pitch it to Sly and pitch it to MGM.
Thank you for sharing that. And I think it’s profound, to be able to find that depth of emotion and inject it into a big studio, franchise movie like this. You made it mean something to a new generation.
I’m honored to make it.
Speaking of which, I spoke to your DP, Maryse Alberti, about Philadelphia as a setting and kind of a character in these movies. And even within that, you made it about a new generation. For instance, when Tessa Thompson’s character keeps referring to things as “jawns.” It stuck out to me because I noted the colloquial stuff in “Fruitvale Station,” like the consistent use of “bruh.” I thought it was interesting you found something like that with Philly — and obviously the bike racing stuff as well, which makes the environment pop. Is this kind of thing, regional colloquialisms and such, something you’re interested in?
SEE MORE:Cinematographer Maryse Alberti on Distinguishing ‘Creed’ in the Footsteps of ‘Rocky’
Absolutely. For me, I grew up as an athlete and I didn’t travel much just because of circumstances. My parents were working every day trying to keep a roof over our heads. They put me and my brothers in good schools. Travel for pleasure wasn’t really there. But what I did do is I kind of traveled through my sport. So I played football with kids in Oakland. I was born in Oakland and lived here for a long time, and then my parents, we tried to buy a house, but we couldn’t afford one in Oakland. So we moved to Richmond, and Richmond is, like, 10 minutes away. And I’ll never forget moving to Richmond and then being around people from Richmond and they talked completely differently. You could tell that we were from the same region, but there were words that were used in Richmond that we didn’t use in Oakland. Like there was a word that was called “jawsin’,” like the shark. And “jawsin’” is you’re lying. In Oakland, if somebody was lying we would say they were “wolfin’,” like crying wolf. Just like, “Man, you wolfin’.”
So in that move I kind of became obsessed with regional differences and how stuff spreads and why. Then I got to travel more. I went to college and got a scholarship to a school where you have players from Los Angeles. You could kind of feel what was the same, and what was simultaneously different. When I was getting recruited for high school, one of the schools that I took a recruiting visit to was the University of Pennsylvania, UPENN. So Philly was one of the first places I had been to by myself, on my own, as a young adult. And I’ll never forget how much of a culture shock it was. I really liked it, but it was so much different from California in so many ways. I was around a lot of the young black folks in Philly and meeting some of the girls. My reaction to them was very similar to Adonis’ reaction when he first meets Bianca. You’re meeting these girls who were very sure of themselves, very direct. They kind of meet you head-on, and if you’re not coming right, they’ll run you right over to get to where they’re going. All those things kind of had an effect on me. But absolutely, man, there’s nothing cooler than getting into a place and doing your own type of journalism as a filmmaker. Like, let the location kind of talk to you.
How do you spell “jawn,” by the way?
It’s J-A-W-N. What’s crazy was, we had a lot of local crew and our special effects guy, he was a Philly dude and his name was Squares. And he had a bunch of Philadelphia-centric tattoos but his coolest tattoo was a compass. But instead of north, south, east, west it had J-A-W-N.
And that particular scene, when they go out to eat, it’s so real. There’s so much respect on both sides of the table. It’s not a standard romantic courting kind of thing. And she’s such a strong female character. She has this debilitating hearing condition, and yet she’s in control of that, too. I imagine that was important for you?
Absolutely. For us, Bianca represented Philadelphia today. She also represented the millennial generation. And what’s interesting about our generation is the fact that women are very career-oriented. We’re dealing with the lean-in generation, especially in the African American community. Women know what they want to do. They know what they want out of relationships. They know what they want professionally. And once they’ve got that locked in, they’re on the move, and how relationships have to work is, you know, we’ve got to be able to do what we want to do together. We might like each other. I think you’re cute. You think I’m cute. But that’s not where the conflict lies. The conflict lies in are we both going to be able to do what makes us happy? Are we going to be able to support each other in that? And for me that’s what that relationship is about.
The big thing thematically for this character is this movie has this theme of identity, right? And Adonis, even though he’s 30 years old, he’s still not sure who he is. He’s trying to find who he is in this movie. He thinks he knows who he is when he’s in the ring. Rocky is having somewhat of an identity crisis when we meet him, too, because all the relationships that told him who he was as a person, they’re all gone. They’ve kind of disintegrated around him. And he feels like the world is kind of passing him up. So he’s not sure who he is in that world anymore. Bianca’s interesting to me because she knows exactly who she is. She knows who she wants and that’s really what attracts Adonis to her. She has this strength.
He wants her confidence.
Exactly. And a man — not Adonis, not Rocky — is not going to change Bianca. The only person who’s going to change Bianca is Bianca. So I was so excited to work with a character like that. And I thought Tessa brought such strength and at the same time vulnerability to that role. And it was very interesting with progressive hearing loss. My fiancée is a sign language interpreter and her mother has hearing loss. Her younger sister has hearing loss. So it was great to kind of bring awareness to those folks.
There’s so much of you in this movie. I think that’s brilliant. Talk about Maryse a little bit. My jaw was on the ground when she told me you guys really pulled that single-shot fight sequence off in one take. I imagine “The Wrestler” is what attracted you to her for this project?
Oh, for sure. That was the work she had done that I was most familiar with. And then I did research on her other movies, because I wanted to know what her story was. I wanted to know why she did so many documentaries. So I talked to a few people that she worked with and she has such an incredible story where basically she kind of made a choice that when she had her son, she chose to do more documentaries so she could be around more, which I thought was really cool. This is before I talked to her on the phone. She’s such an interesting person. This is my second time working with a cinematographer who’s a woman. I worked with Rachel [Morrison] on “Fruitvale,” and Rachel was pregnant. She was having her son at the time [I was making “Creed”], so I got the opportunity to work with Maryse on this one. And she sees the world in such a unique way. She’s one of the most open-minded people that I’ve ever met. But at the same time very strong and always looking for story, which is always great to have in collaborators.
One thing I was interested in crewing up from top to bottom is always trying to have as much diversity as possible. But I think diversity in gender is so important in filmmaking. Especially looking at boxing, because it’s very easy to say, “Yeah, we get a bunch of dudes in there to tell their story.” But she would see things that would happen and have ideas about things that were just so awesome, things I would never see. It was incredible. She was able to form a great relationship with the actors and it was a really incredible process working with her. I mean, look, her work ethic was amazing. We were able to pick up a great camera crew. Ben Semanoff was our “A” camera operator and he was just outstanding. And a big question that Maryse talked about was — we watched a lot of movies together. The big one we watched was “A Prophet,” which is probably my favorite movie. We watched it and we kind of talked about when are we going to use Steadicam? When are we going to be handheld? When are we going to be on tripod? Sometimes we would talk at ends about it and what was crazy about Ben was that his handheld was so good, oftentimes we’d have to tell him to breathe a little more.
To give the image some movement.
Yeah. For instance, the Tijuana scene — we did a lot of oners in the movie. We had that oner in that fight. We had a lot of them. So in Tijuana, when Adonis walks out of the dressing room that he was sharing with the other fighter, you go up the stairs and that’s all handheld. I remember watching dailies back and I’m like, “Geez. I saw him holding the camera while we were on set but this feels like it could be Steadicam.” He was really that good. And it was great because Maryse really was in command of her crew. And in command of them in a way that would enable them to be artistic and creative. They weren’t just marching and following orders, which is the way I like to work as well.
I’m glad you brought up Rachel and diversity. I spoke to Maryse about the importance of hiring female crew members so they can build up the body of work and transform things like the ASC, where the percentage of female representation is so very low. There are only 12 or 13 female members or something. But it’s important for people like yourself to afford these opportunities.
And that’s something that’s going to change. There are so many that are so good. The thing about them is you’re going to see a lot of them transfer over into directing. You’ve got Reed Morano. You’ve got Rachel. You’ve got this woman named Natasha. I forget Natasha’s last name.
Yeah. And then you have – do you know Adam Arkapaw?
His wife, she shot “Palo Alto.” She’s incredible. She shot second unit on Arakpaw’s new movie with Derek Cianfrance, “The Light Between Oceans.” I’ve seen her work and it’s just outstanding. I mean, it’s something that needs to change fast. But the ones that are doing it are so talented I feel like they’re going to become directors. That’s the thing.
That’ll be important, too, though, because then they’ll be in the position to make those decisions and diversify their crews. A guy like you finds himself in a position to be courted by things like the Marvel machine and I just kind of want to selfishly encourage you to maintain this identity you’re forging amidst all of that. It seems to me that talented young filmmakers can be at risk of getting lost in the maelstrom, you know what I’m saying?
I know exactly what you’re saying, Kris, no question. I think that it’s so complicated living in this day and age in entertainment. It’s encouraging but at the same time it’s scary. And on the surface — like when I wanted to make this, I would talk to friends, people I trust, and they didn’t understand why I wanted to do this. At first they thought it was MGM trying to figure out a way to redo “Rocky.” Like they called me. But this franchise is something that was in my bones. Before I knew what a movie was I knew Rocky. I knew Rocky’s story made my dad, who was the toughest, strongest dude I knew, it made him cry. It was something that I knew. Our generation is crazy because we grew up with all this pop culture. Like, “Star Wars” isn’t a movie to us. It’s something else. So I think that you have that and you also have the machine. You do have situations where you’re trying to make this movie, and it’s, “Either you jump on or we’ll find somebody else.” And then you also have television, where so many auteurs are gravitating.
Are you interested in that?
Oh yeah. I’m interested in storytelling, man. I get excited when I hear a great podcast. When I see Aziz’s show or when I see Jill Soloway’s show. It’s like, holy smokes. I get excited. I remember I was watching “Master of None” with my fiancée. We’re lying in bed and I’m watching it, and I get halfway through it and I pause it and I’m on IMDb. I’m like, “Who directed this?” And it ends up being Jimmy Ponsoldt. That’s somebody I know! And I’m emailing Jimmy, like, “That is just phenomenal.” It was like halfway through, and I’m like, “This is a movie. It’s one of the most cinematic things I’ve seen this year.” So it’s such an exciting time, but it’s also a frightening time. It’s a time where things move so fast and so hard with so much money at stake that an artist could lose himself.
Absolutely. Well I think as long as you keep doing what you did on something like “Creed,” putting yourself into it as much as possible, making it personal, I think that’s the secret. When did you graduate from USC, by the way?
I came out in 2011.
You came right out of the gate!
Yeah, I was fortunate, man. I was fortunate. I was talking to my brother about it because, what was fortunate for me was I kind of found out what kind of movies I wanted to make and how I wanted to work at film school. I grew so much. I came into film school and I had this preconceived notion about what an actor was, before I even sat down and had a conversation with an actor. I wanted to work with non-actors. When I started film school, they make you audition and meet people, and all of a sudden I fell in love with acting. And I realized that this was the only way I could work, with folks I could form close relationships with and enjoy spending time with them, investigate ideas with them. And I learned that in school. I’m fortunate to be able to work with Mike [Jordan], who is just phenomenal, and also a close friend. I’m fortunate enough to work with Sly on this, and Tessa and Phylicia [Rashad].
Were you at the Governor’s Awards?
No, I watched on YouTube.
So you saw Spike’s comments on diversity. Ava DuVernay and I had a bet as to whether he would get controversial or not. I said he would.
You won the bet!
I won the bet.
Yeah, Ava’s a good friend. A special person, bro. I really feel like, you know — this is off the record — I feel like women are better filmmakers than men.
You really don’t want that on the record?
Yes, you can put that on the record.
I think you should put that on the record. It’s a powerful thing to say.
Put it on the record. I mean, it’s true, bro. In film school, life, whatever, they’re equipped to do this job, in many ways, better than us. They’re infinitely more complex than we are. Stronger and sharper. So, you know, we’re going to get better movies [if we have more female filmmakers]. The industry would improve. That’s the best thing I could say about that. They’ve got to be given the opportunity.
Finally, I just wanted to circle back on one last “Creed” thing here. The music and the musical identity of the movie is interesting. Of course you had to get The Roots in there. And Bianca’s musical situation as well, recording her own music. Tell me about all of that.
Just from the gate, music is a big part of “Rocky.” It’s a massive part of “Rocky.” It’s arguably the most famous film music in pop culture. Definitely the most used, I would say, and the one that carries the most emotional baggage. You play that at a football game, you play that at a baseball game, you play that on your iPhone when you’re working out because you know what that is. Your body recognizes it. And Philadelphia is a city that’s known for its sports and it’s known for its music. So those two things are always there. It was something that always had to be dealt with from a filmmaker’s standpoint, but from a story standpoint as well. So that’s how Bianca’s character evolved into this musician, and a musician who makes her own music. She produces her own stuff. She leads the band, and that’s very much a part of the now, how music is made now with technology. It’s DIY, you know? And our composer produced Bianca’s songs. He and Tessa made all those songs. Our composer is Ludwig Göransson, who I went to film school with. We met at USC. He’s done all the music for every short film I’ve ever done. He’s incredibly talented and we’re very close friends. We work together really well. When I’m in Los Angeles, 50% of the time I’m staying on his couch. And how he approached this was, at first we were saying — Ludwig gets my scripts [early]. As soon as MGM got it, as soon as Sly got it, he got it, so he could start working on music for the characters and themes. And because we started working early, it was able to evolve into what we have now. At first we thought it would be very different from what the “Rocky” films were. Because usually when we work together, it’s very minimalist. So he wrote an initial score that was pretty minimalist, a theme for Adonis that was kind of minimalist and downbeat. And when we put it with the movie, it didn’t work. But eventually we just embraced the mythology and the DNA of the old. The more we did that, the better the score got. The scene where Adonis’ theme first took life was when Adonis was shadow boxing.
Which is an amazing shot. I write a top 10 shots of the year column every year and as much as I love the oner in the ring, I might choose that shot of the shadow boxing. It’s so thematically potent. The whole movie is in that shot.
That’s what’s up. Yeah, exactly. I was really excited, man, and I agree with you. The whole movie, probably, is in that shot more so than in the oner. That was a shot that birthed the score. We realized that Adonis is kind of this mythological character, and he doesn’t really know it yet. Nobody knows it yet. But when he’s in that room and he’s able to close the door and kind of just do something when nobody else is watching, you see how much he loves it. You see how much it bothers him that his dad isn’t around. And when we did the take, at first he was going to shadow Apollo, but then it was, like, “No, he should fight against him. He should fight against this phantom.” And Ludwig nailed the theme, and it grows and grows. And right as it starts, it goes away. He realized, he said, “That’s it.” Once we embraced that, it got really exciting. We were able to record with a full orchestra at Warner Bros. It was awesome.
And when you do use the Conti…
…he earns it. Yeah. And that was all Ludwig. It was like, “Where do we put it in?” And it’s got to come when he earns it. At that point and from being an athlete, man, it’s nuts. Because when you’re dealing with athletes and you’re dealing with boxers, you’re dealing with hard, hard, men, bro. Hard men. And their concept of masculinity is usually warped. They don’t show emotion. They’re very caged off in their lives. But for whatever reason, when they’re on the gridiron, when they’re on the sidelines, when they’re in between the ropes, all that emotion comes out, and in very direct ways. You see them kiss their teammates. You see grown men cry. You see people say sh-t that you would never imagine them saying. I remember my football teammates would say sh-t while we were on the field or in a game, and it’s like, “That’s f-cking crazy.” Like, “If you said that outside of this, you would weird me out.” But, you know, he says how he feels about himself. Rocky recognizes it. Rocky tells the kid what he means to him. And at that moment, for a split second, we feel like we earned it, to hear that music