How 'Creed II' Director Crafted His 'Rocky IV' Successor

Creed II Still 9 - Publicity - H 2018
Barry Wetcher/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures
"I wasn’t hesitant about making the jump. More so, I was trying to make sure I had all my boxes checked," says Steven Caple Jr. of jumping into the studio system.

Steven Caple Jr. is an unabashed fan of Rocky II. "I always considered that an underrated Rocky," argues the director of the 1979 return to the ring, which would be the precursor to four subsequent Rocky Balboa battles. His love for the sequel makes him a fitting choice to tackle MGM’s follow-up to Rocky progeny Creed.

Caple Jr. was working on Black-ish spinoff Grown-ish when he got a call that patriarch Sylvester Stallone and the franchise’s current torchbearer, Michael B. Jordan, would like to meet with him. "They wanted it to be its own thing," the director remembers of the meeting. "That made me feel good about the process and took away some of the pressure."

Creed II would be the Ohio native’s first foray into studio filmmaking. He was best known for his feature debut, The Land, which follows four Cleveland teens as they go up against a local crime boss. With Creed II, Caple Jr. would be making the same indie-to-studio jump that Ryan Coogler made when he directed Creed, his first studio job after directing the critically acclaimed, Jordan-starring Fruitvale Station. Caple Jr. and Coogler were also classmates in the graduate program at USC’s school of cinematic arts.

The movie — part revenge story, part coming-of-age tale — sees the return of Jordan as Adonis Creed, this time set up to battle the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian boxer responsible for his father, Apollo’s, death. This time, he'll face off against Ivan's son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Ahead of the film’s release, Caple Jr. talked to The Hollywood Reporter about toeing the line between nostalgia and progression, and wanting to make Ivan Drago more than a villain.

What was your personal experience with the Rocky franchise, prior to any of this? Were you a Rocky fan?

I think everyone sort of is. I have not met one person who didn’t like a Rocky movie. I’m waiting for that. I watched them as a kid and, as I got older, I started watching them with more of a filmmaker’s perspective. At that time, [Stallone] was taking a risk. He was bold in creating this character that was so flawed. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t suave and he made mistakes. I think people can relate to that, and I think that’s what makes the franchise so unique.

How was that process of developing a Rocky movie with Rocky?

That whole process was fly. [It was] two guys geeking out over the franchise and finding the right moments to pay homage to the nostalgia of the series. Coming off of Creed I, we wanted to keep the essence of the characters alive. So, that’s where [Stallone] really wanted help. Having the voice for Adonis Creed in that world, and making sure we spoke to a younger generation.

Were you hesitant about making the jump from indie to studio filmmaking?

I wasn’t hesitant about making the jump. More so, I was trying to make sure I had all my boxes checked on what I was supposed to do. I had a lot of mentors to help me out.

Did you ask Ryan Coogler for any advice?

Definitely. He’d read the script and I was like: "If there’s anything that’s out of character, point it out." I felt like we had similar tastes when it came to Adonis. [He] felt like us — coming from the neighborhoods that we come from, and yet, trying to pursue this dream. Those felt like emotions I could capture. Also, the fight scenes. I’d ask him how to shoot it and how to shoot it efficiently to make day. Sly was on set a lot. He obviously helped too, because he started this thing. He knows the in and out. I had a great support system making this project. But, I also had a lot of creative leeway. They definitely left the door open for me to do whatever it was I needed to do.

How did you toe that line, those nostalgia plays and moving Adonis’ story forward?

I pulled a lot from Rocky II and Rocky IV.

Stylistically, I took a lot from Rocky IV. I wanted to mimic certain shots, certain moments and lines. The "Break em'" line and "I have to fight him. I don’t have a choice." It was stuff that Apollo Creed said or that Drago said that I felt would stick out to the fans. I found stuff from Creed I that pulled from, so we could start making a lane for ourselves that was specific to just the Creed franchise. There’s certain shots or character beats that I moved over to Creed II. Then, when there was an opportunity to add me to it, I made sure to take full advantage of that.

What were you hoping to put your spin on?

The Dragos, in particular. I wanted to fill out their storyline. They’re different. They have an arc. They’re layered. My previous film, The Land, was an ensemble piece and [Creed II] carried that same kind of format with all its characters. I wanted to open the movie with them in a way that you felt the villain’s side of the story. You felt their dynamic, with Dolph’s character being like this pageant dad.

It’s like the dance mom of the boxing world.

Exactly! When you introduced the characters like that, you have a place to go now and have conflict. I really just wanted people to feel for both characters at the end of the film. It was hard to do because the scale of the project is so big — bigger controversy and bigger fights. So it became about finding moments on the other side of the ring, with the Dragos, to elevate the story and the stakes. They, especially, have a lot to lose and a lot to gain. At the end of the day, it was just about making sure that there was feeling behind everything. Everything felt human.

Can you speak a little bit to that and bringing the real-world elements of the contemporary boxing industry — promoters and big pageantry — into the movie?

We have Russell Hornsby playing Buddy Marcelle, and he was a Don King-type promoter. He was really just trying to have a great fight. He wasn’t on Florian’s side or Creed’s side. Now, you can win dirty fights and lose zero, and still be tested all the time, like Andre Ward. You have to win like 50 fights and be undefeated, like [Floyd] Mayweather, to get recognition. It’s just a matter of fighting the right fight. For our fight, it was about trying to sell the fact that this is the fight of the century. We did not play it as a revenge story, but more so a testament to [Adonis’] character and whether or not he can be the best fighter or is he just labeled the best fighter in the world.