'Creed' a passion project for director Ryan Coogler

By Masaki Sugimoto

Ryan Coogler is 29, with all of two feature film directing credits on his resume. But he already has checked off what for many people in his business is a bucket list entry.

“Boxing movies are always something I wanted to make, ever since I realized I wanted to make movies,” he said. “I think every filmmaker wants to make a boxing movie one day. It’s just one of those things, man. I remember being in film school and we would always talk about it.”

In Coogler’s case, he upped the degree of difficulty a bit. “Creed,” which he directed and co-wrote, is not just any boxing movie.

It is the seventh entry in the venerable “Rocky” franchise, and the first not to be written by Sylvester Stallone. Oh, and by the way, Stallone is a producer of the film. And stars in it.

Stallone plays an aging Rocky Balboa, who grudgingly agrees to train Adonis Johnson, the previously unknown — to film fans and to Balboa himself — illegitimate son of Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed, who did not make it out of “Rocky IV” alive.

Pressure? What pressure?

“We had a great asset having Sly there as a producer,” Coogler said. “He was there every step of the process to give us advice as far as what worked for him and what didn’t, but also to encourage us to try new things.”

That last part was the key to the entire production. The idea was to balance faithfulness to the well-known back story of the characters and series while updating it for a new generation.

Coogler was well positioned to straddle those worlds as someone who grew up watching the oldest “Rocky” entries with his father, a big fan of “Rocky II” in particular, even though the first four films came out before Ryan was born.

So after several feints and jabs when it appears Coogler will trot out the original theme song but does not, he saves it for just the right moment to give longtime fans a kick.

“The thing I realized in film school is no two filmmakers would ever make the same movie,” he said of the challenge of freshening the series and making it his own. “We would do exercises sometimes where they would give us one script and they would crew up five times — five different directors, five different cinematographers.

“It was the same words and just five completely different movies. And that kind of taught me that as long as you stay true to yourself and stay true to the story you want to tell and the characters, you usually end up with something unique — unique enough to stand on its own.”

Tale of the Tapes

Coogler prepared in part by “watching pretty much every boxing movie I could get my hands on,” a daunting task given the century-plus of material to wade through. He said his favorites include “Body and Soul,” the 1947 classic that stars John Garfield, and “On the Waterfront” from 1954.

“Brando doesn’t box in that one, but he is a boxer,” Coogler said.

He also mentioned “Warrior,” a 2011 film about a mixed martial arts fighter trained by his father, a former boxer.

To ensure verisimilitude, Coogler cast real boxers opposite star Michael B. Jordan. British boxer Anthony Bellew plays the foe for the climactic bout, a character named “Pretty” Ricky Conlan.

Using real fighters helped the boxing scenes ring true but challenged the actor. “One thing that’s underrated in talking about Mike’s performance is that Mike did all of his own stunts,” Coogler said. “There was never a stunt guy in the ring in his shorts. It was always Mike. Every time he stepped into the ring, on the other side of him was somebody who was a professional fighter who was very dangerous and very skilled.

“For him to come off convincing against these guys took so much work. It is really a testament to Mike’s performance. It was important to me that we had authentic guys and had a fight culture in our crew.”

The film does not shy from some of the cliches of the boxing genre in general and “Rocky” movies in particular. Coogler knew he could not avoid that entirely. Again, the goal was to find a new voice in a familiar chorus.

“We felt like the characters were unique enough that if we stayed true to what they were going through and what the story needed at the time, that we could come away with choreography and photography and stories of the fight that would be unique enough,” he said.

One element Coogler was a stickler for was making the four fights in the film look and feel different from one another. “This was an opportunity to see him start his career, so we wanted each fight to kind of be a steppingstone for the next fight, so gradually they become more and more intense,” he said.

A Warrior at Heart

Coogler does not have a boxing background, but he is an athlete. He played wide receiver at Sacramento State from 2004-07.

He grew up just north of Oakland, and his first feature was the highly regarded “Fruitvale Station” from 2013, which starred Jordan and told the true story of a young man shot to death by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer on New Year’s Day 2009.

That was an art house favorite. This is a major studio leap of faith, notably by Stallone, who gave the go-ahead after being approached with the idea.

Coogler said he has been heartened by the generally positive early response from critics. He also has gotten to enjoy some of the perks that come with the job.

A self-described “massive Warriors fan,” he has met several players recently, including at a screening where he spoke to Andre Iguodala. “Smart guy and talented and a real film buff,” Coogler said.

He is old enough to vaguely recall the Warriors’ “Run TMC” era, featuring Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin.

Now they have the NBA champs, for the first time since the year before the original “Rocky” was released in 1976. Said Coogler, “We’ve got this run now, so it’s built up a real great, loyal fan base, man.”