No Easy Way Out: Director Steven Caple Jr. on ‘Creed II’

The story might be apocryphal, but it’s been shared at so many press junkets and nighttime talk shows that it’s become part of the Rocky myth. Frustrated by a lack of opportunities, struggling actor Sylvester Stallone happened to watch the boxing match between Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali and ended up writing the first draft of Rocky in a whirlwind of inspiration. Every studio turned him down—except United Artists, who offered him a life-changing sum for the screenplay. Stallone turned the offer down, insisting he would only sell the script if the studio cast him as the lead. UA eventually agreed—but only if Stallone would agree to the minimum pay according to union rules. Which, of course, he did. That’s the underdog story at the heart of Rocky, a franchise that has closely followed the real-life career arc of its protagonist for over 40 years. In the first half of this decade, up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler, coming off his critically acclaimed debut, Fruitvale Station, decided to take his own million-to-one shot. He pitched Stallone the idea of returning to the role and repositioning the series under the Creed banner—following the story of Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis. The film reenergized the franchise and opened the door to a sequel of its own. Creed II follows Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) as he settles into his life with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and career in boxing. His life is turned upside down when Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren)—the man who killed his father in the ring—emerges from the shadows to challenge him to a grudge match.

Boxoffice’s Daniel Loria, a life-long fan of the Rocky films, spoke to Creed II director Steven Caple Jr. about helming the latest chapter in the storied franchise.

I’m excited about this interview since I’m probably somewhere in your B-roll. I was watching the Wilder-Ortiz fight in New York when you taped the crowd scenes for your film.

You have to be on the lookout because we used a lot of crowd footage from that fight! There was an amazing energy that night, and the fight was very similar to the one we have in the movie. Creed is all about technique and speed, but Baby Drago (that’s what I like to call him) is a brawler, a bruising power puncher a lot like Deontay Wilder. It was one of those fights where everyone was looking for the big punch to get up off their seat, and that’s exactly the sort of fight we wanted to use for the movie.

Ryan Coogler launched the Creed story from a very personal connection to the Rocky movies, growing up watching the films with his father and drawing inspiration from them during a family illness. I don’t want to focus too much on his film, but I am curious: do you have a personal connection to these films? Were they a part of your life growing up?

I had the same connection to the franchise and the characters, so I was already attracted to the project in that way. I wanted to add my own spin on it and take it on as a project that would be bigger than the first one. There are still honest moments with the relationship between Tessa Thompson and Michael B. Jordan; introducing Drago and diving into those relationships—making it very layered and multidimensional. I love the first Rocky and Rocky II, those two are my favorites. And I really liked the first Creed, which felt very real to me. I felt this was an opportunity to continue that story with this project. Working with Ryan [Coogler] and Sly was a great experience [Coogler serves as executive producer for Creed II].

This is a legendary franchise that’s been around for decades but has only had a few directors: John G. Avildsen, Stallone, Ryan Coogler, and now you. What did you want to bring to the table to give this film your own stamp?

You’re right, there’ve only been a few directors, and I’m honored to be part of this project. I think one of the reasons they brought me is that the story deals with maturity during the rough phases of life, of counting on family for inspiration. I had done something similar in The Land, which was about skateboarding but really went beyond that to explore the characters. This movie works around boxing, but it’s really more about life. I feel that’s one of the strong suits that I wanted to bring to the movie, tying the film back to intimate moments. I also wanted to add a sense of poetry to the sport—similar to what I did in The Land—expressing the poetry in the moves and technique of the sweet science.

Every Rocky installment is different. Rocky and Rocky II are dramas. Rocky III follows more of a music video aesthetic and relies on montage to move the story forward. You could say something similar about Rocky IV, while Rocky V and Rocky Balboa work within the conventions of the series to reconnect with the nostalgia for the first two films. Creed invigorated the franchise by giving it a different focus. What sort of style and tone did you want to bring to this film?

I wanted to make a movie with a raw emotional texture. It’s a very moody film. I have to thank Sly and Ryan for letting me explore the tone of the movie; we set out to capture these feelings in the right way. I talked to Sly when I came on board and told him I really wanted to keep it raw. Nothing too simple, of course, especially with Drago coming back—I didn’t want to make something too cartoony. As for the boxing in the movie, I had mentioned the energy in the building of a big fight; I tried to capture that experience. It’s not just about the fight itself, it’s about the fans, the people around the fighters, and the stakes behind it.

Fatherhood has become an overarching theme in these movies, from Rocky V, which begins to develop Rocky Jr.’s story line, to Rocky Balboa, where that father-son relationship becomes the emotional core of the movie. The father-son dynamic looms over Creed, in the sense that it’s a movie about absent fathers. Rocky is estranged from his son and Adonis struggles to understand his place in the shadow of a father that was never there. Creed II takes that theme even further, bringing back Ivan Drago, the stoic Soviet antagonist from Rocky IV, and adding another father-son element into the mix by introducing his son—who, like Adonis, is driven to fighting through his father’s legacy.

It’s also something we explore through Adonis as he becomes a father himself, going through the experience of having his first child. So the film also looks at growth and maturity on his side. The story line with the Dragos looks at the father-son thing from a different angle, but it shares that theme of the power and importance of family. Remember: Drago is out for vengeance, too; they’re both kids who want to honor their fathers’ names and legacies. That’s the dynamic we wanted to create between them—and it’s something that Sly has always tapped into in these films.  

These movies have also tapped into underlying tensions in the country over the decades, such as class, race, and national identity. They’re as resonant to American society today as they were when the first movie was released.

We didn’t set out to tap into any social themes with this movie; obviously there are still some political tensions with Russia and America, but the story we wanted to tell is about the characters and not about the political situation. For us, personally—and I’m including Ryan [Coogler], Mike [B. Jordan], and Tessa [Thompson] when I say this—it was also about telling a story with black people in it that show us in a different light. And in that sense, it’s a movie about a black family and being a black father—there aren’t too many movies out there that talk about that, and it was something really interesting for us. We set out to make this film by grounding the story on Creed and the people around him.

As a fan of these movies, it’s frustrating that so many memorable rivals have faded into the sunset after a movie is over. Someone like Clubber Lang (Mr. T), he just retired after Rocky III? I want to find out more! So bringing back Drago—and his son—is a big draw for fans, who get to reconnect with these characters that we haven’t seen in 30 years. In many ways, Rocky Balboa was an homage to the first two Rocky movies. The Creed movies feel like they’re an ode to the story lines left dangling from the sequels.

We actually wanted to pick up from that moment; what happens to Ivan Drago after he loses in Rocky IV, what he’s been up to for all these years, what he thinks of himself, how he’s perceived by the people around him. Going up against Creed, it’s much more than just a fight for the Dragos. I think that makes this film layered and three-dimensional. We have this image of Ivan Drago as a cold-blooded killer, but in this film we get to see him driven by a purpose.

There’s a parallel there with Adonis in the first Creed movie; boxing is a platform for the Dragos to reclaim their name.

Yeah, and that’s something that Dolph [Lundgren] brought to the performance. I loved that aspect of telling this story, not just bringing a character back but really adding an extra layer to the movie. We were talking about father-son dynamics, and the one between the Dragos is pretty dark.

After 40 years of this franchise, why do you think these films still resonate with today’s audiences all over the world?

We’ve all been the underdog at one point in our life, and I think people can connect with the motivation that you get from it. Ryan [Coogler] did a great job of bringing that back in Creed, and now it’s my turn to keep that alive and make sure we bring back those moments and feelings in the sequel.

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