Ryan Coogler MFA ’11, the writer-director of Creed, the latest chapter in the Rocky Balboa boxing saga, returned to the USC School of Cinematic Arts with members of his creative team.
Co-writer Aaron Covington MFA ’11, editors Claudia Castello MFA ’11 and Michael Shawver MFA ’12 and composer Ludwig Goransson ’08, who played the same roles on Coogler’s first film Fruitvale Station, joined film critic Leonard Maltin for a screening at the Theatrical Film Symposium on Dec. 3.
Perhaps the night’s biggest surprise was the presence of Creed producer and co-star Sylvester Stallone, who was greeted with a standing ovation. Together, the group talked to Maltin about working on their reincarnation of the hard-hitting franchise.
Coogler had the idea for Creed just before he went into production on Fruitvale Station. True to the original, Creed is an underdog story that chronicles the emergence of Adonis, the son of the late boxing champion Apollo Creed. Adonis is trying to establish a legacy of his own, away from the shadow cast by his father’s illustrious career.
The evening’s Q&A began with Coogler commenting on the hype surrounding the film, with Maltin asking if the young director experienced any intimidation working with the iconic Rocky character.
“No worries,” said Coogler, jokingly at first. “But look at the shoes we’re trying to walk in,” he added, gesturing to Stallone, who was sitting beside him.
Coogler described their working relationship as “a constant collaboration.” However, he added that Stallone encouraged the young filmmakers to bring their own interpretation to the series.
“He wanted us to make this our own — everything came from that perspective. He was always saying, ‘I want it to be a millennial generation story. This is Adonis’ story. I want to see it from that perspective.’”
In the same vein as his title character, Coogler is establishing his own vision of the series while paying homage to the original movie.
I give these young people a lot of credit for bringing it back to what I felt like doing Rocky and just keeping it very real.
Stallone, who wrote every other installment of the series and directed all but the first, was invaluable to getting the film made. Stallone said he agreed to the collaboration after seeing Fruitvale Station and felt that, with Coogler, the Rocky franchise was in good hands: “I give these young people a lot of credit for bringing it back to what I felt like doing Rocky and just keeping it very real.”
An important part of the Rocky lore is, of course, the iconic theme song “Gonna Fly Now,” composed by Bill Conti for the first film. The original plan was that Creed would use all original music. However, when composer Goransson’s first score failed to match the climactic tone of the film’s championship fight, he realized the scene (and therefore the film) would be incomplete without a proper ode to Conti’s enduring composition.
Goransson surprised Coogler with his substitution.
“I knew the music better than I knew the movies,” said Goransson of the choice.
The students who packed Frank Sinatra Hall for the screening erupted on hearing the opening measures of “Gonna Fly Now,” and Coogler believes the reaction to the song is, in part, because of its relation to Adonis’ journey.
“He earned it. [Adonis] earned that position to be able to borrow that [theme music] from Rocky for a bit.”
Never forget the story
The homecoming for Coogler and his classmates wouldn’t have been complete without some advice for the students in attendance. Editor Shawver said the great thing about working on the film with Coogler and Covington is that it harkened back to their time as SCA students and the greatest lesson they learned — always focus on the story.
“When something wasn’t working, we’d always go back to what they preach here,” Shawver said. “It always has to go back to the story. The first montage … we wanted people to have fun with it and enjoy it. But we also said, ‘What is the story here? What does Adonis have to do, and what does he have to go through to do that?’”
Of course it doesn’t hurt when you look forward to showing up to work every day.
“I’m really fortunate to get to work with people I like spending time around,” Coogler said. “And what’s better than that?”