Before Ryan Coogler directed the original Creed and Steven Caple Jr. followed up with Creed II, the two filmmakers attended USC together as film students. Coogler was a senior when Caple Jr. was a freshman, and they formed a bond that would eventually act as a catalyst for Caple Jr. — who had only directed one feature film previously, 2016’s The Land — to lead the Creed sequel.
In Creed II, Caple Jr. builds off Coogler’s rich, character-driven film with a story that greatly raises the personal stakes for Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) both in and outside the ring, while ultimately being about family. As the relationship between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) continues to grow, Rocky confronts a part of his past he’s been unwilling to reconcile with. Meanwhile, there’s a new opponent vying for Creed’s time in the ring, and it’s the son of the man who killed his father Apollo long ago.
Fandango spoke to Caple Jr. as he was getting ready to share his film with the world. Like Coogler, Caple Jr. is hungry to prove himself as a major filmmaker, and like Creed, he’s thinking a lot about what his legacy is going to be from here on out.
Fandango: So where did your journey with this film begin? Did it begin with a phone call from Creed director Ryan Coogler?
Steven Caple Jr.: Actually, before that. Me and Ryan Coogler were talking before the Creed II offer [and it] wasn’t even about Creed. We’ve known each other for a little bit now, personally, from back in the USC school days, film school. But no, it was, ironically enough, it was MGM that reached out after seeing The Land and hearing about me from another producer. And then when I spoke to Ryan, he was like, “Dude, I trust Steven, I’ve seen him grow as a film maker and I think he’d be great with it. I think he’ll collaborate with Mike B and Sly.” And so he definitely tipped his hat and did the introduction in a great way. And then, yeah, I got the call from MGM when I was on set of a different TV show, I was writing my feature film and doing TV on the side while I focused on my next feature, and this kinda interrupted everything.
Fandango: So you and Ryan went to film school together – what was that experience like? What is maybe the biggest thing that you took away from film school that you’ve applied to your filmmaking?
Steven Caple Jr.: Yeah, It’s all about your peers, man. Like Coogler, his last year was my first. And so you know, at USC [at the time], you had like four black students in the program and I connected with Coog, and I asked him, “Dude, what courses did you take? What did you find helpful?”
And the conversation really led to great things. Ultimately I took courses that elevated the craft, so to speak, and met with professors and stuff like that to really work on just directing. I focused on that. But, ultimately, it’s really about your peers. Like with Ryan, his editor and composer went to USC. Same with me – my editor, my cinematographer – these were all people I went to school with and we all work together. My producer, and my assistant on this project, too. Everybody we love. So it’s a close tight-knit network, and ultimately it’s about finding people that you can collaborate with naturally.
Fandango: Were you a big fan of the Rocky movies growing up?
Steven Caple Jr.: Completely. I don’t know if I could [do this] if I didn’t really love it, man. But, definitely, he was legit. Especially for American men across the world. I feel like everyone I met is either Team Apollo or Team Rocky, Team Clubber Lang, Team Drago. Everyone has a specific moment or a time where they watched Rocky and it really stuck with them. The themes are so relatable. You know, that’s something I try to keep alive with Creed II. Making sure that it was something that you can relate to and take home, to make it significant or good, so to speak. So, yeah, I mean definitely. It was a huge franchise, and I loved Creed I.
Fandango: Favorite Rocky movie?
Steven Caple Jr.: Mine is Rocky 1, hands down. Just because it was the start of the relationship with Adrian [and] I felt like Sly really did something special. Just the characters went against the norm of what you typically see in Hollywood. I thought he took a risk with that. I thought the whole team did. It’s just inspirational. As a former athlete and someone who loves sports, you love the underdog story. But then as an artist, you can look at it for what it’s supposed to be — it’s artwork — and you can still appreciate it.
Fandango: Sly has worked on a bunch of these films at this point – what was the most important thing he taught you about making both a Rocky movie and a Creed movie?
Steven Caple Jr.: To be completely honest with you, he taught me a lot. We had a ton of conversations before the film [and about] writing the project. Every day we would sit in his trailer and just wrap it up. He taught me a lot about the fighting, of course. The choreography. He’s a guru when it comes to that — like he’s been doing it for 40+ years, and he’s kind of mastered the art of telling a fight. Having an arc in store with each round, and getting to a certain place and the climax in a boxing match. So, that was one thing: how to shoot it. Where to put cameras going outside, going inside, just how to help with timing on set. He would always say that fighting is just a portion of it. He was like, “The fighting don’t work unless the drama outside of the ring does.” He was just super helpful, and he was a great collaborator.
Fandango: The guy who plays Drago’s son is a beast! He’s a monster in this film. How did you find Florian Munteanu?
Steven Caple Jr.: [laughs] It was a fun road. Sly had been doing research and collecting a bunch of material. He got calls from wrestlers, UFC boxers, real boxers, fighters, all kinds of stuff. So when I got on the project, he had a few people he already auditioned and he kept saying there was one guy he didn’t audition yet that he’s trying to get a hold of. He saw him in a YouTube video, and he was so excited about him. This was legit my first meeting with Sly. So we run into his office, he turned on his computer and there was Florian [Munteanu] working out, throwing weights, and picking up pit bulls. I was like, “This dude is monster – he’s huge!” Then we’re like, “But can he act?” I thought it would be hard as hell to find ‘Drago’s son. So we flew him out to MGM, met at the studio and he stayed out in LA for about a week. He talked to me, did several auditions, we brought in an acting coach. He had to meet Mike, he had to meet Dolph. The chemistry was important. And he worked, man — he was magical. He’s a sweetheart, though. He’s the sweetest guy.
Fandango: Yeah, and with Drago, too, he’s a way more sympathetic character in this film than he was in Rocky IV. He’s not the shining star he once was, and he’s having a rough go at it. Talk about that being the storyline for his family, and how you also brought back Brigitte Nielsen – how important was it to have her involved, too.
Steven Caple Jr.: Brigitte wasn’t until later on. We were talking of the Dragos, and where they were for 30 years. We were watching Rocky IV, and we were talking with Sly. I was like, “I don’t think he’d be in Russia.” Look at where he’s at, look at where he is at the end of that film. He was in a corner with his head down. They took that same image and placed it in the movie on the TV screen for ESPN. He’s not happy. It was the only Rocky film where the two — the antagonist and protagonist — don’t hug it out.
So I thought it would be interesting to play with that, and then Sly was very much about this revenge thing for Drago, but that he’s using his son. We just kept throwing layers on top of ’em. We kept adding to this character, and wanted to make Ivan Drago sympathetic. Then I asked Sly, “If Drago could have one thing, what would it be?” And he was like, “Brigitte Nielsen.” She didn’t come until later, like right before the production. I went to Sly and told him I’d like to have Brigitte come back and what did he think. He liked it, and thought it’d make sense. Then we called Brigitte and we kind of just got the band back together. She wasn’t written into [the original script]. But we thought, for a guy who had lost everything, she would be the one thing he’d want back the most.
Fandango: What was something important to you that you wanted to bring to this series and put your mark on it, personally?
Steven Caple Jr.: Tessa and Mike’s growth in their relationship. I got married like two years ago, but I’ve been with my wife since high school. When I was watching the first Creed, it was almost like watching my own relationship. I could relate to them. So when it came to doing Creed II, I wanted to show their growth from kids who were just meeting to adults. I wanted to really focus on and highlight the ups and downs of a relationship and how to communicate – things that they were learning together. That was my focus, really, and also with Adonis. You think it’s a revenge story, but really it’s a redemption story for the Dragos and a growth story for Creed. Anyone can relate to wanting to have a legacy. I do. I think about it all the time. What’s my next movie after this? What’s this going to be? How do I advance my career? I felt like those were issues that people could relate to or questions people could relate to. I just wanted to make an honest film and I hope that comes across to people.
Fandango: What did Michael and Tessa come to you with in terms of what was important to them when it came to the evolution of their characters?
Steven Caple Jr.: For Mike I think it he was making sure it wasn’t a revenge story. He felt like Rocky had tackled the revenge aspect in Rocky IV. With Tessa, we just didn’t want to make her submissive by any means. She isn’t just a side character. I really wanted her to fight back at times, and I still wanted her to focus on her career. With Tessa we were like, “Do they have to get married?” It’s kind of cliché in every movie to actually get married. So what if we ended the movie and they didn’t get married? They have a baby, they’re engaged. It’s not a culture taboo anymore, but we just thought it was pretty cool that it fits a lot of people’s relationships today and feels a little more honest. Those were the things we were really working on together as we collaborated, Tessa and I and Mike, making sure those kind of stuck out. Ultimately, we just wanted to make sure we didn’t lose authenticity between the relationship.
Fandango: The training sequences in Rocky movies are always quintessential moments in the films. We’ve seen so many different kinds of training montages. The one in the desert in this film is terrific. Where did it come from?
Steven Caple Jr.: That was Sly. He was like, “Hey man, I did the cold and winter in Rocky IV, so we should take this to the desert. I thought that sounded dope. When I read the first draft that he wrote, it was in the desert. And then I rewrote it to fit the new format that I created, which involved him preparing to fight for the second time with a baby and family, and the prior knockdown. I wanted focus on [him accepting] pain, because that’s how he lost the first fight. If the first montage was about gaining speed, then this one would be about enduring pain. And it was hell in the desert! We were hot, it was summertime, and we were dyin’. But man, when I tell you we all were excited those days when we were out there just seeing Rocky, with Sly running around. It was an adrenaline rush, man, to swing out there with sandstorms in our face and everything. It was wild, but we eventually got it done. We just wanted to have some pretty cool, iconic images, if we could, that just stuck with people. Because the montages are always like that and they’re a big thing in a Rocky franchise.
Fandango: Do you think there are more stories to tell in this series? More Creed sequels to make?
Steven Caple Jr.: I do, I do. I think the little girl is interesting, Tamara, the newborn. Her situation with her hearing, I’ve never seen anything like that. I would just say that. So I do think there’s more to tell, but I don’t know what direction they’re going to take it. I mean, if I am involved, that’s another question. If Sly’s involved is another question. I think it has to happen organically and everyone has to feel good about it, but I think everyone would like to, but they don’t want to mess anything up. And so I’m hoping people actually respond to Creed II, and if the demand is high, I’m sure everyone will want to work on Creed III. And I’m sure Tessa will tell you she wants to knock somebody out.
Creed II is in theaters November 21. Grab your tickets right here on Fandango.