Ryan Coogler understands why most people figure his “Rocky” spinoff “Creed” was, as he puts it, a “franchise play.” After making the critically praised, 2013 indie hit “Fruitvale Station,” getting into the ring with Sylvester Stallone would be a way for the 29-year-old USC film school grad to break into the mainstream and show another facet of his filmmaking.
But the story behind Coogler and “Creed” is deeply personal, one reason why the film feels so fresh, alive and relevant. The Envelope sat down with Coogler recently to talk about the movie’s origin.
“Creed” isn’t the “Fruitvale Station” follow-up I expected.
You and me both. Never in a million years did I expect this movie to be made. I came up with the idea when my dad was diagnosed with a neuromuscular condition. The doctors said he was dying. His skeletal muscles were atrophying and ALS was one of the bigger things they were kicking around.
Rocky was my dad’s hero. We watched all those movies together for as long as I can remember. My father always saw himself as an underdog in his life. Now he’s an underdog fighting this thing. We didn’t know what it was. So I thought, maybe I come up with this story, maybe it’s something I’ll write and he reads it and gets motivated to fight.
He’d cry in the same part of “Rocky II” every time. And my dad was this big, strong, old-school masculine dude from East Oakland. Finally, one day I asked, “Hey, what is it?” And he told me about watching “Rocky II” with his mom, who passed away when he was 18. She had Stage 4 breast cancer and went through it all. Double mastectomy. Aggressive treatment. They said she could only make it a year. And she fought for 10.
Before she died, she was laying in bed at home and my father was there with her, helping with her medicine. She was really sick and the only thing they could do together was watch TV. And “Rocky II” was on almost nonstop at the time. So my father gets emotional whenever he watches those films. And then, probably because of all this, he turned watching them into a tradition with me and my brother.
Did you tell all this to Stallone when you pitched him the movie?
I did. And I think he thought I was crazy. He didn’t know who I was. “Fruitvale” hadn’t come out. I mean, the whole thing was this close to fan fiction. I took a picture with him so I could give it to my dad and he signed a bunch of T-shirts for my dad.
If it had ended there, that would have been fine. It was already a dream come true, just telling Sly that story.
How’s your dad doing now?
The doctors found out his body wasn’t processing vitamins properly and the effects of this made it look like ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] or PMA [progressive muscular atrophy]. The muscle atrophy has stopped.
What did he think of the movie?
He saw it at the Los Angeles premiere. He got real emotional. But we haven’t had the heart-to-heart yet. I don’t think it’s sunk in for either of us. Maybe in a couple of years we’ll be able to talk about it as just a movie. But right now, it all still feels unreal.