Reel Talk | Ryan Coogler

crowd-15by Mike Fleming Jr. | Deadline Hollywood

If Rocky is the ultimate underdog movie, then how appropriate is it that Ryan Coogler pulled off a first-round victory that would make even Rocky Balboa shake his head in disbelief?

Fresh out of film school and before he shot a frame of his celebrated debut Fruitvale Station, Coogler set out to convince Sylvester Stallone to trust him to revive a franchise that started with the 1976 Best Picture winner Rocky and spanned five sequels over the next three decades. Stallone wrote all those films and directed four of them, and in his mind, Rocky hung up the gloves for good in the last installment. Coogler not only wanted to take over those duties, he wanted the iconic Rocky Balboa to return, not throw a punch, and come down with a life-threatening disease. Somehow, Coogler convinced him.

I don’t usually interview newcomers here, but Coogler is a selfish exception because Fruitvale Station touched me personally in a way no movie ever has. I lost my father in a tragic way that was so sudden, I decided to bury my grief for the sake of my family as we laid him to rest. Six months later, at the Cannes premiere of Fruitvale Station, I fell apart in the dark theater, later wondering how the tragic death of a young Oakland man could reconnect me to my father’s final moments in a hospital when these men couldn’t have been more different. It was Coogler’s inclusive storytelling style, and while he brought that to Creed, the success of this new MGM/New Line/Warner Bros film will come from the highly personal narrative thrust informed by Coogler’s relationship with his own father, Ira. It drives the exceptional script Coogler wrote with Aaron Covington, and fuels a movie that announces Michael B. Jordan as a major leading man, and Stallone as a potential awards season candidate in his best performance since Cop Land.

FLEMING: Back when Deadline revealed you would do Creed with Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, some wondered why you would follow-up a celebrated first film with the seventh installment of the Rocky series. Why is this such a dream project?

COOGLER: I learned in film school that the type of movies I like to make are the ones that are extremely personal to me. Personal to a point they were almost like my own kids, where you are so impartial that you could show somebody a picture of your kid and hear, he’s so cute, but no matter how cute they find that kid, it’ll never be like a fraction of how beautiful you find them, because they belong to you. I would go to my teachers and classmates and say hey, I’m going to make a movie about this. They would be like, ‘huh…ok.’ It would get me down until I realized, they don’t understand it yet. But they will. I also learned that I like to make movies with questions that keep me up at night.

: Like?

COOGLER: For Fruitvale, the questions that I had, I don’t think I ever answered. How could this happen? Why do things like this happen? With Creed, the question for me started with this idea of masculinity. My father was a big Rocky fan. I’ve been watching these movies as long as I can remember, because he was obsessed with them. We would watch Rocky II and he would cry and stand up and cheer at the same spots, every time. As I got older and became an athlete, if I had a big football game or big basketball game, he would say “hey man, c’mon, we’ll take five minutes and watch this scene from Rocky so you can get fired up.” Then we’d go off and I’d play.

FLEMING: What scene meant so much to your father?

COOGLER: The scene he would always show was where Rocky is in the chapel of the hospital and Burgess Meredith, in the character of Mickey, comes in and tries to motivate him to get him out of whatever funk he’s in. Even as Rocky’s bent over, his wife is in a coma and he just had a son he hasn’t even held yet. Rocky doesn’t say anything in the scene. He just sits there and listens. Burgess Meredith goes through the gamut of emotions from frustration, to yelling. It’s a beautiful, beautiful scene, and that’s the scene that my dad always would play to get me fired up.

redeye-michael-b-jordan-ryan-coogler-fruitvale-001FLEMING: It seems an odd one for motivation, with all those action sequences in the ring to choose from . .

COOGLER: It wasn’t until later on I learned why it always made my dad cry. My dad was this big strong athletic dude from East Oakland, the toughest part of Oakland. He was one tough guy, and he would cry like a baby in these movies. I would say hey man, what is it? Again, with the questions, me being curious. Then I found out. I never met my grandmother. My father’s mom died when he was 18 years old. She initially got sick when my father was like nine, diagnosed her with Stage 4 breast cancer. They told her she wouldn’t make it through the year but she lived 10 more years in this long drawn out battle with the disease. By the end, by the time she was essentially on her deathbed, she only could lay in bed at home, and my father would help with her medicine and would sit with her. And the only activity that they could do together was watch TV, whatever was being broadcast at the time. At that time it was Rocky II, repeated on TV all the time.

The emotions that my dad was going through was really recalling his relationship with his mom. It was extremely personal to him, and I only found that out later as I got older and he shared it with me. For whatever reason, he made that tradition the same for me and my brother. And then when I was finishing up film school and gearing up to make Fruitvale, my father, this big strong tough guy, he got sick. The doctors didn’t know what the deal was. He was basically dealing with a neuro-muscular condition where he was losing the use of his skeletal muscles. They were atrophied. They didn’t know if it was ALS, or if it was PMA, if was MS, all very serious diseases.

FLEMING: How serious was his decline?

COOGLER: At the rate it was progressing, they were saying he wasn’t going to live too long. I was in this process of finishing school and getting Fruitvale going, so I would go home to work sometimes, but I couldn’t spend as much time around him as I would have liked. Every time I would go back to see him, the disease was progressing more and more. It was crazy to see this guy, who I knew as being so strong, lose his strength. Sometimes he would need help, to get from the car to the house, or to the restroom. He was too proud to use a cane. What he would do is, he would put his hand on the shoulder of me or my little brother, to walk around. It really messed my head up, but it raised questions. What makes you a man? What’s the definition of masculinity? Is it the strength that my father had when I was a kid and I ran to him and he would pick me up with one arm? When that strength goes away, is he still that same person? What is the relationship between a father and a son? For so many years, he took care of me, but now, the tides turned and I’m the one helping him. And if we go out, I’m the one that’s got to watch his back. Isn’t time something strange? These are the questions I had when I came up with this idea of something similar happening to a hero in a relationship that mirrored the one I have with my dad. I looked at myself and I said, what if my dad had never been there, and what it he was this myth that I was chasing? What type of person would I be then? What if what’s happening to my dad now happened to a hero? That was kind of how I came up with this idea for Creed.

FLEMING: Did you ever find the answer to what makes a man?

COOGLER: Yeah. It’s here [he pounds his chest where his heart beats beneath]. That was the answer that I found in making this. This is a Rocky movie where Rocky doesn’t throw a punch, but real Rocky fans will recognize him and see that he is still the same. He still has the same strength.

To read the rest of the interview, click HERE!!!