The sucker punch that put Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky back in the ring in Ryan Coogler’s Creed
“No, no, no.” That was Sylvester Stallone’s initial reaction when writer-director Ryan Coogler came to him with the idea for Creed.
A spin-off from Stallone’s career-making, Oscar-winning Rocky franchise – the first film of which debuted 39 years ago this week – Coogler’s notion was to follow the rise of Adonis, the delinquent son of Rocky’s late, great boxing rival Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers in the first three films.
“I dismissed his idea,” says Stallone. “But he was very, very adamant.”
Coogler, who grew up watching Rocky movies with his dad, was indeed adamant. At the time, he was fresh out of film school and prepping his debut, the gritty police brutality drama Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B Jordan.
With just a week to go before the shoot, he was “feeling completely overwhelmed”, when he received a call from his agent.
“He said, ‘Hey! Buy a plane ticket. Sly has an hour free. I want you to come down and meet him’,” says Coogler.
Planning to pitch Jordan as perfect for the role of Adonis Creed, Coogler flew to Los Angeles and met Stallone in his Beverly Hills office.
“I met my Dad’s hero. I met Rocky,” Coogler says, with a wide smile. “And it was nothing like how I imagined. I imagined Rocky coming over, going, ‘Hey, how ya doin?’ I was shocked at how different he was from the character.”
While the pair got on well, the 29-year-old Coogler says that “the whole time, I could tell he was thinking, ‘This kid don’t know what he’s talking about’.”
It’s understandable. Rocky is Stallone’s baby. He wrote all six prior episodes and directed four of them.
“What’s amazing is this character and these stories have stayed around without any special effects, any car chases, without blowing anything up, which is what I usually do,” says Stallone, with a laugh. “No bullets, no cursing, no sex scenes.”
For him to relinquish artistic control was never going to be easy. What’s more, having given his prizefighter one last outing in the ring in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the series, Stallone felt like the Italian Stallion’s story was done.
Then Fruitvale Station won two major awards at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize, and Stallone started to reconsider.
“I was shamed,” he says. “Shamed for my narrow-mindedness.”
With Stallone on board and agreeing to return as Rocky Balboa, Jordan joined the cast, embarking on a crusade to get into peak physical condition.
“To be trusted with these characters that Sly built his career on is an honour,” says the 27 year-old, who made his name in television shows, including The Wire and Friday Night Lights. His film credits include the found-footage superhero movie Chronicle and he was most recently seen playing the The Human Torch in Fantastic Four.
“But with the team that we have, our cast and our fearless leader, Ryan, I never felt more safe and willing to take risks and chances and experiment,” says Jordan.
“Sly did the biggest thing for me, which was to take that pressure off me, and not worry about competing or trying to live up to what the Rocky [films] were, just to be myself.”
Jordan’s Adonis seeks out Stallone’s Rocky, now retired from the ring and quietly running his Philadelphia restaurant Adrian’s (named after his deceased wife), to be his trainer. It neatly puts Stallone in the position of Burgess Meredith, who played Rocky’s loyal trainer Mickey in the original films – at 69, Stallone is now the same age as Meredith was when he played Mickey in 1976’s Rocky.
“Fighters have this bond with their trainers,” says Coogler. “We saw it with [Mike] Tyson and Cus D’Amato, we saw it with Rocky and Mick. It’s a very special bond.”
Mickey is not the only character from Rocky’s past referenced in the film. Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington smartly weave together audience-pleasing nods to a host of characters, from Adrian to Apollo Creed.
But it’s what they do with Rocky that really astounds, portraying the once indomitable Italian Stallion as all-too human, vulnerable and ageing.
“It made me realise the clock is ticking,” says Stallone. “Any day, age can flip the coin on us and take away our health.”
In the end, even Rocky has to throw in the towel.
• Creed is out in cinemas on Thursday, November 26
Updated: November 25, 2015 04:00 AM