The Rocky tale began in 1976 with the release of the first film, starring Sylvester Stallone as the Italian Stallion. It ran six movies long, wrapping up in 2006 with Rocky Balboa, which as far as Stallone was concerned, was the end of the story.
So when he was approached by Ryan Coogler, who had an idea to extend the franchise for a whole new generation, Stallone initially passed.
"I was so happy with Rocky Balboa and the conclusion, I thought the story was over and we didn't need to go any further with it," Stallone said at a press conference in Philadelphia to promote Creed, the film that almost didn't get made.
Stallone may have thought that was that, but Coogler wasn't going to take no for an answer. He went away for about a year and half and worked on the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station, but then he came back and presented his idea once again.
"He was very adamant about doing it," Stallone recalls. "Then I thought, 'My story has been told but it is two generations since Rocky started, and [the next generation] story has not been told.' I thought [the idea] was very ingenious. I agreed to do it after I was shamed for my ignorance."
So what was the ingenious idea? Coogler, who co-wrote and directed Creed, had always loved the character of Rocky's arch rival-turned-best-friend Apollo Creed. Thus, he was inspired to create an illegitimate son for Apollo, named Adonis "Donny" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who is compelled to follow in his father's footsteps. When no one in Los Angeles, where Donny was raised by Apollo's widow Mary Anne, is willing to train him, he heads to Philadelphia and approaches Rocky, whom he considers family.
Coogler's goal with Creed was to create a film that would be satisfying to both Baby Boomers, who grew up with the original movies, and Millennials, who may never have seen a Rocky movie in their lives. He did that, possibly laying the groundwork for a whole new franchise, and here is how:
Creed Re-Envisions the Ultimate Underdog Story
Rocky was a trailblazer when it was released. Underdog stories were nothing new, but Rocky had so much heart to it that it was as if it created a new genre. Audiences were moved to cheer for this aspiring fighter from Philadelphia, who, after much rejection, finally gets a shot and makes the most out of it. Creed, which is the first Rocky movie that wasn't written by Stallone, captures that same sincere feeling but with a story that is very current and of the moment.
The Fatherless Son
Coogler also managed to capture another element from Rocky, which was the father/son relationship that Rocky had with his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith). In Creed, Donny never knew Apollo, who died before he was born. Still, he is trying to follow in his father's footsteps and live up to his legacy. So, he turns to his father's best friend in this instance — who he calls uncle — and who, as Donny's trainer, becomes the father he never had.
"It is very much a movie with a father/son theme," Coogler says. "The Rockys have that in their DNA and the sport of boxing has that. You have these really strong guys that come together in the ring, they are by themselves with these gloves, they can't even use their hands to get a drink of water if they wanted to, they are really incapacitated, so it is a sport where you really need to lean on other people, so fighters have this bond with their trainer."
Adrian and Bianca
Rocky, of course, had Adrian, the love of his life, and in Creed, Donny falls for the girl downstairs Bianca, (Tessa Thompson), who is an on-the-rise singer from South Philly. The two have their own struggles — how to make their careers mesh — but it is definitely Bianca, whom Donny turns to when he has personal decisions to make.
"Adrian was the heart and soul of the whole thing," Stallone says. "I was just thinking the other day about how everything I have is from the genesis of Rocky, but what is amazing is this character and these stories have stayed around without any special effects, or car chases, or blowing anything up, which I usually do. No bullets, no cursing, no sex scenes — up until now — but it wasn't Rocky."
It is Donny and Bianca, of course, who take the love story to a more physical level than Rocky and Adrian, but their relationship is about more than that, as Thompson points out:
"When I read the script, I discovered this wonderful story of finding family in unexpected places, which is something I think people can relate to," she says. "In fact, what I've always thought to be so special about the Rocky movies is that they're not really about boxing; they're about love, about self-belief, endurance, perseverance, following your dreams. Those are things, I think, everybody can get behind, whether you watch boxing or not."
The Training Sequences and the Boxing Matches Ring True
In Creed, Adonis, who has really only boxed in Mexico, takes on three fighters, even though he's clearly not in their league. And in real life, Jordan, who learned to box for Creed, faced fighters out of his league in the form of three real-world, professional boxers: Anthony Bellew, Andre Ward and Gabriel Rosado.
"Every time Michael steps into the ring as Adonis, he's fighting real guys," Coogler says. "They're phenomenal athletes, but there's a difference between boxing in life and boxing for the camera. How they punch is very economical; they don't punch in a showy way that sells it on film. A lot of times, these guys move so fast and so efficiently, the camera won't even pick it up. They had to be taught how to sell it, to open up. That was the learning curve for them — and it was very dangerous for Mike because if these dudes catch you for real, they can really hurt you."
Creed composer Ludwig Göransson understood that the theme from Rocky, written by Bill Conti, is an integral part of any Rocky movie, and Creed would be incomplete without its inclusion. But Göransson was smart enough to use it sparingly and when it counted the most.
"I knew the music was going to be challenging because there is no movie with more iconic music, but Ludwig found a way to give Adonis his own theme, and he worked with Tessa on making original music for Bianca," says Coogler.
Creed, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures film, opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 25.