By Chelsea Gibbs | Total Rocky Contributor
In a time when the preferred method of watching movies is to stream them on ever-smaller personal devices, films have to work all the harder to drag people out of their living rooms and into theaters. Some movies have responded to this with the design of an epic scope or grand vistas, demanding to be seen on a huge screen. What’s harder to craft is a film that demands to be seen with an audience – a film like Creed.
This week I had the opportunity to see Ryan Coogler’s Creed with an audience of over 300 people, seated in Leonard Maltin’s Film Symposium class taught at USC. It is a rare pleasure to be able to sit in a dark room amongst mostly strangers, and all experience the exhilaration of a movie in almost the same way. We gasped, applauded, and cheered as one, almost as if we were sitting in a real stadium, watching real-life drama unfold before our eyes.
Certainly a bonus to the enthusiasm in that theater had to do with the fact that many of the main crew members of Creed – including its director and writer Coogler, co-writer Aaron Covington, editors Claudia Castello and Michael Shawver, and composer Ludwig Goransson – are all recent grads of USC’s film program. These five were also present after the screening for a Q&A moderated by Maltin. High spirits got an even higher boost when Sylvester Stallone made a surprise appearance, walking up to the stage to a tumultuous standing ovation.
To say that Stallone – or Rocky Balboa, for that matter – is an iconographic American figure is akin to proclaiming that water is wet. You would naturally assume that creating a story based in part on this character would be incredibly daunting, especially to a novice director who hasn’t even hit 30 years old yet. But when asked about this, Coogler had a touching response: “When I think of Rocky, I don’t think of a huge American icon. [To me,] Rocky is every Father’s Day. Rocky is my head on my dad’s shoulder while we’re sitting on the couch.” Coogler was raised on the Rocky films, looking up to the man his personal hero, his father, idolized.
WRITING THE ‘CREED’ STORY
Coogler got the idea for Creed while he was still in film school and his father fell ill. His creativity became an outlet through which he could exorcise the pain of seeing his strong father weakened by illness, and he couldn’t shake the idea of his father’s cinematic hero, Rocky Balboa, going through something similar. Through the crisis, Rocky would be supported by the son of Apollo Creed, the character Coogler found most electrifying in the original Rocky films. He discussed the idea of such a story with his friend and roommate Covington, and they began working on a script for what Coogler jokingly referred to as “Rocky fan fiction.”
The project became a reality when Coogler landed an enthusiastic agent at the Sundance Lab in 2012, a workshop for a selected group of aspiring filmmakers. His agent was wild about Creed and desperate for Stallone to see it – an uphill fight, they knew, since Stallone had made it clear he’d already put this character to bed with Rocky Balboa back in 2006. But Coogler’s agent’s persistence paid off, the script got to Stallone, and he called for a meeting.
If Coogler was at all intimidated by the prospect of this summit, Stallone didn’t seem to notice: “He was exuberant, just bouncing all over the place and acting out all the parts,” Stallone recalled. Though impressed by Coogler’s passion, Stallone was wary of what he thought was too ambitious and risky a project. He didn’t think that people would want to see such a dark downside to a beloved underdog’s story.
Stallone: “It’s important to do something you’re afraid of.”
But with a degree of determination that could’ve been borrowed from Rocky himself, Coogler ultimately won Stallone over. His inaugural feature film, Fruitvale Station, was a hit at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and the offers came pouring in. Among the awards and the multitude of high-paying jobs studios offered him to direct other people’s work, Coogler kept coming back to Creed. Stallone found himself moved to accept, but had a caveat: “Could someone else get sick? Could it be Rocky’s neighbor who gets sick?” This got a big laugh out of Maltin’s audience, as Stallone laughed recollecting it. But he admitted this was not a joke, that he was genuinely afraid of how people would feel seeing Rocky Balboa so ill. Stallone’s wife, model Jennifer Flavin, is the one who ultimately convinced him to get over that fear, get out of his comfort zone, and accept the project as it was. “It’s important to do something you’re afraid of,” Stallone noted. “Otherwise, you’re not going to forge ahead and do something monumental.”
Once he had accepted Rocky’s illness as key to the story, Stallone didn’t try to fight the filmmakers on anything else. He wanted Coogler and Covington to make the story their own, to make a Rocky film for the millennial generation – and keep it Adonis’ story. He was, however, a very valued contributor during the collaborative creative process, offering his expertise as a producer, screenwriter, actor, and most importantly, as someone who’d known the character of Rocky Balboa inside-out for forty years. This knowledge helped lead to unique, character-driven moments, such as Coogler’s cited favorite: when Rocky wakes up Adonis on his first morning in the Balboa house. The script called for Rocky to dump some water on Adonis, but Stallone said that wasn’t Rocky’s style. Instead, he suggested that Rocky play old records, and that would wake up Adonis.
THE MUSICAL SOUND OF ‘CREED’
The ‘70s pop record is a stark contrast to the electronic beats that woke up Adonis in a previous scene, played at high volume by his downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Music this diametrically opposed comprises much of Creed’s score, composed by Ludwig Goransson. As a film composer, Goransson says he’s often more likely to remember a soundtrack better than a movie, and this was certainly the case for him when it came to Bill Conti’s iconic score for Rocky. During one of the first conversations he had with Coogler, they agreed that they needed to make the music for Creed original and not to worry too much about Conti’s old themes: “This is Creed’s story, so we need to tell Creed’s story musically, as well. We need to make his emotions sing. That was great to hear because it took off the pressure to fill Conti’s shoes!”
That said, Goransson certainly still took inspiration from Conti’s style. What he felt made the score for Rocky so effective back in 1976 was that in addition to using a classical orchestra, Conti chose to underlay it with music that was popular at the time – namely, a disco beat. In 2015, the popular contemporary style comes in the form of hip-hop, specifically, hip-hop produced by native Philadelphians. But of course it’s hard to have a Rocky film without “Gonna Fly Now,” and Goransson made sparing good use of it. In particular he wanted to wait to use the trumpet fanfare until the end of the film, attaching it to a scene where he and Coogler felt Adonis had finally earned his position, earned the privilege to use Rocky’s theme.
Goransson also worked on sound design for the film. In preparation for Adonis’ first fight in the ring, Goransson visited a boxing gym in Oakland to record sounds and get in the headspace of a boxer. To underlay the score of the fight, Goransson slowed down the sound of a speed bag getting punched.
THE SINGLE-SHOT FIGHT SCENE
And what a fight! It was shot as a single, continuous take, which as far as Coogler knows, is unprecedented. Rather than cutting up the choreography into smaller chunks and editing them together to appear as seamless action, Coogler’s team put all the action in one go. That was Stallone’s first day on set, and he recalled, “It was a nightmare! I felt so bad for Mike [Michael B. Jordan]. But [Coogler] wasn’t about to give it up. I kept saying, ‘why don’t you put another camera here in case you need to cut away?’ But he wouldn’t do it!” Coogler was determined to make the scene one continuous shot, taking advantage of the athleticism Jordan brings to his acting (and has done since Friday Night Lights). It also gave Coogler the opportunity to make extensive use of a Steadicam to further distinguish his style from Stallone’s.
Coogler estimated that they shot at least twelve takes for that fight, which led to many lengthy conversations with his editors, Castello and Shawver. The two of them tended to work more collaboratively than most editors do when multiple ones are assigned to a single project; Castello and Shawver would switch off ingesting every other day’s footage, but go over every cut together – and usually with Coogler – before anything was finalized. Both of them felt the pressure of editing a Rocky project, considering that the first film not only won an Oscar for its editing, but also set the bar for montages in sports movies. Creed contains three training montages, which Coogler says he and his editors were constantly revisiting and revising. Each montage has a distinctive tone, pushing the story forward. Shawver made the comment that “It’s tempting to do a montage and choose the coolest, flashiest shots and then just put some music over it, but we knew it always had to go back to story.”
That said, according to Castello, the hardest scene to edit was the final fight between Adonis and Pretty Ricky Conlan. In contrast to the first fight, shot in a single take with one camera, this one had nine cameras going. In Coogler’s words: “It was bananas, man.” Castello and Shawver were tasked with going through no doubt hours of footage and trimming it down to the film’s climax – and doing it twice. Two endings for the fight were shot, and both were previewed for test audiences. One version is what we see in the film, while the other version had Adonis winning the fight. Audiences responded to both endings equally well; personally, Stallone is glad it went how it did.
In Sly’s words, “It’s not about whether he wins or not. In life, you usually don’t win. Life means you keep going up that hill. Is it perfect? No, life doesn’t work that way. I adhere to the theory that everyone here is an underdog – and the fact that a man loses, but comes closer to his goal? That’s winning to me. What you learn every time you fail, that’s what makes you successful the next time.”
Coogler was satisfied with the ending because to him, Adonis doesn’t care about winning or losing, doesn’t care about money; he wanted an identity, a sense of belonging – which he found, even if he technically lost the fight. The real ending of the film comes after the fight, and Coogler felt if they did their job right, then you wouldn’t even remember or care who’d won.
That last scene, of course, involves Rocky and Adonis climbing the famed steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Covington says that this was how they had always planned to end the film. For Coogler, the thematic significance of that scene resonates with the reason he wrote the film in the first place: “My dad was always strong and athletic, and when he got sick, he was too proud to use a cane. So sometimes he’d put his hand on my shoulder, or my brothers’ shoulders, and we’d become like a human cane.” This is how Rocky and Adonis progress up the stairs, Rocky’s hand clasped on the young man’s shoulder as Adonis lightly teases him for the pace. It was one of the last scenes shot over the course of filming.
The director recalls: “Seeing Sly and Mike do that climb, seeing the relation they had formed, seeing Rocky – this physical specimen who could take a beating, who could beat Drago and Lang – seeing him have his physicality change but still see the fighting spirit? My eyes got a little watery on set!” At this point, Stallone teased him, “Nah, you were crying. You’re not as tough as you think you are. You’re very sentimental.”
Stallone was very moved by the scene himself. From his perspective, steps were a big motif in Creed; he loves the symbolism inherent in climbing stairs, taking steps that bring you higher. He also appreciated the ambiguity of the scene: it doesn’t tell you whether Rocky’s health is deteriorating more or if it’s on the upswing. It is a conclusion which says upfront that not everything is perfect, but it still strikes an optimistic note.
Sitting in that audience, the respect between Coogler, Stallone, and their crew was more than evident. Beyond that respect, there was affection – affection which begat the camaraderie Coogler cites as the most necessary ingredient for a good film. He urged the film students in the audience to make friends out of their colleagues, maintaining that sincere mutual admiration makes projects far more rewarding than does mere networking. Humility was displayed by both director and movie star, with Coogler denying the idea that a director is god of the set (“Filmmaking is not painting; everyone comes in and puts their stamp on the project”) and Stallone expressed his belief that nothing kills the poignancy of a film like star vanity.
In the end, Stallone credits Coogler and Covington for “bringing back the fighting spirit I had when I was just starting in the business. Keeping it real.” Maltin explained to the mostly-millennial audience that when Rocky had come out in 1976, viewers were applauding not just Rocky Balboa but Sylvester Stallone for triumphing against all odds to appear in the film that was so personal to him. It was that same determination to tell a personal story which drove Coogler to make Creed, drawing from his own life when he included an ailing Rocky and also Bianca, Adonis’ girlfriend who suffers from progressive hearing loss (a condition he and his fiancé, a sign language interpreter, have encountered within their own families). In Maltin’s words, the film is “effective because it comes from an honest place.”
That personal touch and real-life connection is what helps Creed stand out as a unique product in an age of perpetual sequels and revamped commodities. As was inevitable, an audience member asked Coogler if a sequel was in the works. “No comment, no comment!” he laughed. Whether a cycle of Creed films is released or not, it is clear that at least with this film, Coogler has proven he can go the distance – and then some.