The Shadow League Backstage: A Discussion with Director Ryan Coogler

By now you have already heard what an overwhelming success Creed has been. The new, hip addition to the Rocky franchise stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad and Tessa Thompson, but the mind that brought this highly celebrated cinematic offering to fruition is director Ryan Coogler. Coogler has been eyed as one of the top young minds in Hollywood ever since the release of Fruitvale Station, another Michael B. Jordan starrer. As a journalist and a fan of cinema, it was an absolute pleasure to sit and talk with Coogler about Creed, the performances therein, as well as some of his strategy for staging a convincing film on location. In this case the location was the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, PA. He was a familiar brother. I had never spoken to him before but I knew dudes like him. A sponge of knowledge to his craft with the vocal cadence of a underground rapper. Like hearing Rakim in ’88, we might be witnessing an all-time great. 

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I went to Sly and told him I wanted to make a movie how I wanted to make it, said Ryan. Sly said that Rockys arc was done. Rocky Balboa was the sixth movie he had done, he directed it himself and he thought it was the proper send off for his character. I think that the biggest thing he liked about the movie is its not Rockys movie, its Adonis movie. The driving narrative behind the movie, and he liked that idea.

Though Creed is in the Rocky family of movies, it is very much a Black film. It is one of the things I admired about it most. I asked him what Sly thought of the idea in the very beginning.

As far as the film being a piece of Black cinema, that kind of came with me as a filmmaker. It came with Mike and it came with us looking at this side of Philly that you havent seen before in the Rocky franchises.  And it is a side that was always been there, no what I mean? And Sly was into that.  The words this movie is too black, would never come out of his mouth.  How he is as a person is hes such an open-minded dude and he always has his ear to what is happening in Black culture. Hes a 69-year-old dude and you wouldnt think that, but you would know if you spent any amount of time around him.  He was the one that actually trying to push the envelope more.

He was like Hey man, put some more rap in it. It was fun working with him. We formed an interesting cast. It was a very multicultural set. Men, women, Black people, White people, Hispanic. The crew looked like the cast. It even had young and old altogether. Sly, thats his world. He has young daughters that listen to all kinds of music.  So, it was almost like he was home to be honest with you. It was fun. That part of it was a good time.

Another one of the special qualities about Creed was the authenticity of it all. I asked Ryan what his strategy was for capturing the soul of Philly on film.

All filmmakers have different styles. You have filmmakers that work on sets that make beautiful stuff. For me, I really like to get on location and let the location inform the story as much as possible. Philly was a place that I hadnt spent a lot of time in before I went out there to start filming. I wanted the film to pass the locals test. When the locals go see the movie I wanted them to say this is legit. So, what I did was surround myself with a lot of local crew and ask them a ton of question.  I got the head of our Teamsters and the locations director in my office with a map and gave them a set of markers and told them to mark it up. It all had to do with the story of old and new. What stuff changed and what stuff stayed the same.  What does stuff look like now compared to when we saw it in Rocky?

You see Adonis running on the Schuylkill River but hes running next to solar panels. Philadelphia is rapidly changing, but some things remain the same. Like, the Liberty Bell and Declaration of Independence will always be there. William Penn will always be here.  But we wanted to capture what was changing too.  We wanted to see what the young Black folks was doing. What type of bar was they going to? Where are they hanging out?  I get energized by specificity of location.

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One of the most powerful characters in the film was a young soul singer named Bianca. Played by Tessa Thompson, the character of Bianca added yet another layer of reality to the film.

She was a character that developed a lot.  Boxing films have a very rich tradition.  We didnt want to reinvent the wheel in terms of the tradition of the way they are structured. What we did want to do was show characters you never seen before in this situation. We wanted characters to reflect different things in the film. With Bianca, we knew we wanted a strong actress that would bring life to the role and we needed who could sing and perform and make you believe in this artist. For Bianca a big thing was independence and identity. This is a thing that was very important to me story wise. 

Adonis doesnt know who he is. Its very much of a coming of age story even though this man is essentially 30-years-old, Rocky is a character who is having something of an identity crisis. Everybody who he found his identity in are gone.  So hes kind of buying time until he passes away. But Bianca is a character who knows exactly who she is. I think thats what attracts Adonis to her.  The fact that shes one of those people whose fully aware of who she is, accepts it and is unapologetic about that. Even though she and Adonis are the same age shes so far ahead of him in life. In the film, Adonis doesnt change Bianca. Shes on her path, shes doing her thing, and he can either get with that or get gone.   For me, that was kind of what millennial love is.  Especially amongst young Black folks.

Indeed, not only was the character real but everything about her screamed of the modernity of Creed.

Oftentimes, you will see women that are on their own path, be it spiritually or professionally, you see women that know exactly what they want. For us, showing a character like that really excited us. Getting back to specificity of location, it was very fun to play with the idea of east coast versus west coast culture.  If youre not familiar with it, if youre from the west coast like I am, it can almost look offensive. We wanted Bianca to represent that. That directness. Adonis, every time he comes at her he gets rerouted. He doesnt really know how to handle it. We had to do that in a way that was natural and believable.

Often in fight movies, you see the love interest being the one trying to convince the guy not to fight, right? In getting with these fighters and getting to know them, it was very rare that you hear them talk about a woman thats asking them to do stuff like that.  They understand these dudes and they understand that these guys are fighters. We wanted Bianca to be somebody that just gets them.  Shes curious about it, but as she gets to know him shes not judging me for what makes him happy because she doesnt want nobody judging her for what shes doing. It was really exciting for everybody involved. I think Tessa did a very good job.

Creed set records right out of the box when it debuted on November 25 and has earned over 73 million worldwide at the box office. This is testament to the labors of a creative genius from Oakland, California.  The scary-good part is hes only 29-years-old. Ryan Coogler is currently rumored to be in talks with Marvel Studios to direct the upcoming Black Panther film.  We will keep you posted on that story as it develops.  

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