Suffice it to say Steven Caple Jr. felt somewhat daunted by the enormity of the task before him. Around Thanksgiving last year, the then 29-year-old writer-director (who had previously directed just a single feature film, the 2016 Sundance Film Festival-anointed skateboard drama The Land) was shocked to discover he was in the running to direct Creed II, the second spin-off installment to the blockbuster Rocky film franchise.
2015’s Creed had, of course, grossed a robust $173.5 million worldwide (on a $35 million budget), turning its lead Michael B. Jordan into an international superstar and vaulting its director Ryan Coogler onto Hollywood’s top filmmaking tier, ultimately laying the groundwork for him to claim directing duties on Marvel Studios’ cultural juggernaut Black Panther. But Coogler had recused himself from directing the Creed sequel. And Sylvester Stallone — who has variously written, directed, produced and appeared as Rocky Balboa in all the previous movies — had recently decided that he didn’t want to direct Creed II either. Executives at the film’s distributor MGM asked: Did Caple want the job? If so, he’d have to go into production almost immediately and deliver the finished movie in under a year.
Caple — a friend and classmate of Coogler’s from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts — wasn’t so sure, admitting to Vulture he initially felt “uncomfortable” with the offer. He seriously thought about passing before reconsidering the wider cultural implications of his attachment. “To be honest with you, they had to persuade me to take the job,” Caple, now 30, says.
Hitting theaters just ahead of the holiday break on November 21, the boxing drama follows Adonis Creed (Jordan) as he prepares for the fight of his life: a heavyweight title bout against Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Russian heavy puncher who killed Adonis’s father Apollo Creed in the ring in Rocky IV. And as one of the most high-profile filmmakers of color hired to a position of prominence by another filmmaker of color, Caple is happy he stayed the course. “To be able to have this platform to express ourselves the way we want to, as black people — I think it is crucial,” he says.
You and Ryan Coogler went to film school together — a connection that certainly helped you land this job. But take me through your process: how do you go from directing a low-budget Sundance indie to directing a $50 million studio franchise like Creed II?
After The Land, I wasn’t racing to do a studio film. I got picked up to write the Emmett Till mini-series. I was really passionate about it so I took a year to write that, while writing another feature at the same time. I directed a docu-series for Netflix on this guy named Logic, it’s called Rapture, also a few TV spots. But all that was just to keep developing my craft. When I got the call from the studio, they said they had just seen the feature film. Then Ryan Coogler obviously kind of gave the head nod to do the project. And these guys are like, “Oh we heard about you, we would like to come in and meet with you and meet with Sly and meet with Mike.”
That says a lot about Ryan’s standing in town — that he could say to MGM, “I think this is our guy.” What was your meeting like with the studio executives? How much persuading did it take to convince them that you were the right person to handle this job?
To be honest with you, they had to persuade me to take the job.
I was uncomfortable with it. One, I had just spoken to Ryan a few days before. I was doing Grown-ish and he was doing Black Panther. I saw a few scenes he was editing. We were just talking about sports, just hanging out. Then three days later, I get the phone call, and I’m like, “Wait, what? I was just with Ryan he never mentioned anything about a feature!”
I called Ryan immediately, and I’m like, “Hey man, what’s going on?” And he’s like, “Yeah man, you know, I wrote a draft of the script, the studio wants to develop it more, but they definitely wanted to shoot this year. Mike doesn’t want another year to pass. But he’s also looking for a director who can elevate the script and keep our voices alive.”
I was excited but at the same time I’m like, “Man, this is a franchise that’s good. I don’t want to hurt it. I don’t want to risk it due to the short time window we had to shoot. And I don’t know whether or not they’re gonna allow me to be me. I really want my voice to come off.”
Ryan understood that. He didn’t want me to make Creed all over again. He said, “You definitely have to do you in order for us to win.” That was the same attitude Sly had. He was like, “Hey man, for this movie to do well, it has to have your stamp on it.” That made me feel comfortable. Before Thanksgiving last year, I had these meetings on a Tuesday and a Wednesday. Then the city shut down. And Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I was just with my family really contemplating whether or not I was gonna take this project or not.
Your concern was totally valid. Because the way these sequel meetings usually go is, the studio executives say, “Okay, make the same thing all over again — only different.” So how do you go about putting your own stamp on this material while honoring what Ryan did and while staying within the parameters of the larger Rocky franchise?
It’s definitely a balancing act. As a fan of the series you try to pull what you can from the old Rocky, without trying to mess up the tone. Especially with [Creed II’s connection to] Rocky IV, which was kind of over the top — the rivals came off a little cartoony. He went for like a sci-fi, very hard core genre-esque film.
I tried to pull from Rocky IV, some of the nostalgia. But for me, it’s all about stories. If you’ve seen my first feature film The Land, it was sort of an ensemble piece and everyone had an arc. For this film, I saw opportunity to do the same thing. I dug into the drama of each character. I kinda elevate the drama in a sense to where they had a layered storyline that’s really dimensional. And then the fight sequences, I took Sly’s format, the science that he broke down for these fights and just found areas to be creative, try new things, be bold. I was looking for a spot where hey, what hasn’t been done before?
Michael B. Jordan is also an executive producer on this. What did he articulate to you about his ambitions for the sequel? And how did you help develop the script?
He had a lot of input on it. He was working with Sly on the script and they really went this revenge route. They really went and told the story about this guy [Adonis Creed] trying to rewrite history, by fighting his rivals. I was concerned because that didn’t make sense to me. Rocky got the revenge in Rocky IV, so it can’t be a revenge story.
I was like, “Mike, what’s going on in your life?” I went out to meet his mom and dad. We’re talking about his career. [Mike] was talking about he was growing as an artist and how he looked up to certain celebrities like Will Smith and Denzel. Now [Mike’s] name is being brought up in those categories. This whole thing was like, this is his time. He still feels like there’s always more to explore. As a person, he always feels like there’s another level. What does that mean? When it’s your time and you feel like you still not pulling your chance. That felt like it tied in to the script. It felt like I could take the character there. You feel tested when Drago appears. It became something beyond just a revenge story — something more personal to Mike with the legacy aspect to it. That wasn’t in their original draft.
You signed on as director in December 2017 and now the movie comes out almost exactly one year later — a relatively fast turn around. What was the biggest challenge in having such a compressed window within which to shoot?
The schedule, obviously. Just trying to get all the story into one film. I had a narrow window to try things. With that kind of schedule you can’t really make too many mistakes.
There were only so many things that I could only prep for. Believe me, there’s tons of stuff I watch in the film, I’m like, “I still want to try that one thing with the camera for a fight scene.” I didn’t have much time for preparation, so I had to go off a lot of instinct. It can be scary at times. I thank Sly and Mike and all these guys for believing in me. That was pretty intense.
Creed obviously transformed Ryan’s career. And Creed II has the potential to do the same for you. How are you taking all that in?
The analogy is the treadmill: when you’re just running, sprinting. You’re not looking down because you know you’re going to get exhausted and tired. You thought you’ve done ten miles and you’ve only done half a mile. It was one of those scenarios where I just didn’t look down.
Now I’m having the opportunity to look up. I just finished the film two weeks ago. Literally now being here, and people are now seeing it? It’s a little nerve-wracking. I’m just trying to take in the moment and see how people respond. Me and Coogler were talking just before you called. He’s like, “Man, try not read any scripts because people will be coming at you this way and that way. Take time with your family.” We’re both married, we’re both young and so we know what it means to do a project like this. It takes a toll and you’re going to have to stop life for a little bit.
He was just saying “Enjoy this moment.” That kind of advice is always helpful.
It’s remarkable that we’re in an era when successful filmmakers of color are finally in a position to provide a leg up for other up-and-coming filmmakers of color. Throughout most of Hollywood history, that certainly wasn’t the case. What are your thoughts on that aspect of you getting this job?
I think it’s more important than the movie itself. To be able to have this platform to express ourselves the way we want to, as black people — I think it is crucial. And it’s important when you see a black producer on the project — or two of them: you’ve got Michael B. Jordan and you’ve got Ryan. They bring someone on like myself. Then MGM allows me to hire another writer, and he’s black. That’s strong. I didn’t see much of that growing up. Now to have the opportunity to do so with this kind of project, it means a lot to us because we’re setting the movement. We have to be here for each other. To show people that our stories are universal and to get to the masses. I’m very proud of that.
I love the fact that we have these comraderies. That played a part in me taking the project. It was an opportunity to also collaborate with black filmmakers and say, “Hey look man, Spielberg and Lucas did it.” You’ve got Martin Scorsese, you’ve got Frances Coppola; they used to watch each other’s films back in the day. They’ve taken over Hollywood. I was like, “Why can’t we have that same thing?”