Directing the Punches: Q&A with Steven Caple Jr.

“Creed II” director Steven Caple Jr. helms the sequel with a focus on confronting the past and legacy. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

Director of “Creed II” shares the making of a boxing drama in which, “you can’t escape your history”

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

The Rocky series of boxing films has had a long history, with its first iteration hitting cinemas on November 21, 1976. Exactly 42 years to the day, its seventh sequel arrives in the form of “Creed II” this November.

Building on the story started in 2015’s “Creed”, the sequel finds Adonis Creed, the son of the late Apollo Creed, balancing out his life as a boxer with everything else. As well as building on the original story of Adonis, this film marks the return of one of the most iconic villains in the Rocky Balboa roster, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago. His first and last appearance was in 1985’s “Rocky IV”.

“Creed II” also introduces Drago’s son, Viktor, who is played by Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu, an actual Romanian boxer and actor. How will Adonis react when he is called upon to fight Viktor? Just as important, how will Rocky Balboa react to the haunting figure of his past coming back into his life?

Afro-Latino director Steven Caple Jr., whose previous film “The Land” followed Cleveland youth in an environment of crime and skateboarding, takes up his first big budget film with “Creed II”. We recently had the opportunity to talk about his takeaways of working on the film on the eve of its release.

Among observations by Caple, he talks about the importance of the past in the story, how his love of music translates into the film, and the wonders of time management.

Thanks so much for the time Steven. To start off, what was your experience with the Rocky film franchise? Which one’s did you first watch or remember most fondly?

My first one was as a kid. I think one of the first ones I watched was “Rocky V”, and although it’s not the best Rocky, I was born in 88’ and by the time I was actually watching TV, and knowing what I was watching, I remember “Rocky V” being on TV a lot. And I think I watched “Rocky IV” before that and “Rocky”. “Rocky” is my favorite, I watched it as a kid and I think [the story] was very motivational for me. I played sports, I played basketball most of my life, in high school and my first year of college. So, [Rocky] was a true underdog story. It wasn’t until I got older that I saw that it was an auteur filmmaking driven piece, with how bold it was with the characters and some of the choices it made, so [then] I had a different appreciation for the Rocky franchise.

When you ended up getting the job as director for “Creed II”, what was your initial reaction? Did you have an initial idea of how you wanted to approach the filmmaking aspect?

I was nervous a bit. When they reached out [there] was a bit of excitement beneath everything. And then the nerves kind of kick in. It comes with some pressure obviously. With that said, it started to slow down I guess when I met Sly and Mike and saw how cool they were, and everyone was so positive about the characters and they all had the same mindset which was, “Hey let’s try to top Creed 1, or let’s try to do something better.” And you know, with Sly whose done it so many times, he’s so excited about making a project and is so excited to challenge himself in writing it and me in making it, I thought this could be a cool fit you know? And I had the support when doing it. But, when I finally said “yes”, you have that moment when you’re like, “I’m about to go out and be part of a franchise.” It’s kind of surreal. There were probably a few moments on set [too]. One in particular was when we did our first fight scene and Rocky was in the corner for Adonis, and they came out and [the audience] just roared. Just to hear the 2,000 people in the little soundstage just yelling “Rocky” and “Creed”, and chanting, you start to realize how big it really is, how important it really is.

Can you describe in your own perspective what the film is about? Especially this idea surrounding the film where regardless of where you go in life or where you are, you can’t escape your history?

The film is roughly around four years after the first one so it’s almost in real time. We didn’t want to go too far in Creed’s life without the audience experiencing it, so we pick up almost where we left off. He’s in the same apartment, he’s with Bianca. Their relationship has progressed but not to the point where you miss anything. I thought it would be nice for a sequel, to transition it to it in a way where everyone is kind of familiar with the world and the setting, rather than kind of jumping ahead to a huge mansion and the dude making money boxing for four years, etc. I wanted people to see the characters first and then take them on the journey. So that was important, and ultimately, I think everyone shouldn’t see this as a kind of revenge story but, what we’ve been calling it, a redemption story, amongst both corners.

With the Dragos, because they’re the new faces, at least Florian is whose playing Victor Drago, we wanted to make sure there was dimension behind his character. We wanted to make sure it was layered a bit so when developing the story, we didn’t want the cliché villain, so we really went in depth with how they’re portrayed and find the heart of the film, also with the themes of family and fatherhood, and legacy. What does a last name mean to you? To me? To people? I think you’ll find yourself in the perspective of Creed and Drago a lot. I try not to step out of their world too much, I want you to be inside and up close and personal, in their heads, when you need to be having moments with just them and no one else; Kind of get the motivation behind a character, that it’s more than just a revenge story. It has heart.

Can you describe what it was like working with these characters that were established in the 2015 film as well the characters that come back from the original franchise decades ago?

I can give you a difference between my first film and this one. My first film, I knew all the characters because I created them and once speaking with the actors it was definitely collaborative, but I had more input in who they are because we’re establishing them, so they could get on the same page with my vision. Whereas this one, they knew all the characters, and it was really about trying to figure out a way to grow from where they left off before. Whether it be maturity, or relationship, with Tessa and Mike, or whether it be from Rocky patching up something old.

The characters were still the same. And no, I didn’t want to change that at all because that’s what we love about the series. It’s more so the journey. Where has Rocky gone? Stuff like that is where our conversations were held. That can be challenging in a way, but it’s also freed me up a little bit, I don’t have to now describe or create these characters. They know them already, so I get to play a little bit more, if that makes sense. While I’m on set, since they know who they are, we can play with improv or I can go a different direction if I wanted to. Because I know who the characters are, and I can guide them through.

As for the Dragos, the Dragos are new faces. At least “baby Drago” is. Dolph, he knew his character, but it was new too because it’s not the same character from 30 years ago. He wanted to elevate his character as well, so we went into the backstory of 30 years. Where has his family has gone? Where is Russia? How does he feel about all these things? Whereas in “Rocky IV” he was very much like, “I didn’t need to feel anything, all I needed to know was skills and [to] break things.” In this one he felt things and projected all that anger and hatred towards Rocky and his career through his son.

And so, you get a piece of that and you develop this new world of the ‘Drago world’, and these new characters. That was so much of “The Land” experience. That takes a lot of research and a lot of conversation talking about these characters so that we’re all on the same page and that we have a journey arc that doesn’t necessarily fall flat.  

Next, I wanted to talk about the music of the film. In “Creed” there was the classic hints of the original “Rocky” score but also this great new soundtrack. How did you approach the music and score in this film?

Well, I love music and curate it in all my projects. [For] my first feature we definitely had a great soundtrack, huge artists. So, for the second one I think that it was part of the excitement for the studio, that I had a successful soundtrack in the past for a small, million-dollar movie. Now they wanted to see what I could do with this one. I think it was a nice collaboration between Ludwig (Göransson), who scored the last Creed, and Mike Will, who is a music producer.

I really try to add our culture and who we are as people of color within the film to really showcase hip hop or Jacob Banks who is out of London. We have a mixture of new talent, younger talent, and some classic stuff like Nas, who’s on the soundtrack too. So, it’s a wide mix, and we really try to focus on the soundtrack and separate [it] through rounds, like rounds of the story. There’s a love story in it so we have Ari Lennox in the soundtrack and in the film because there’s a certain tone. You have everything, [like] a workout montage with A$AP Rocky. So, I think there’s a different mood for every scene.

For the movie itself I think what we were trying to do is we were trying to keep that classical Rocky tone. So, there’s a lot of horns and trumpets that are mixed in with us, with who we are. I think they did that in “Creed” with the Meek Mill track as he’s running through the montage and so I wanted to play with a little bit of that. There are also moments that are ethereal if you will, so we’re definitely in the Creed mindset as he’s going through things, so we definitely played a more mellow score [there], something you would find in an independent film. It’s not just in your face and loud. There’s a nice balance I think through the soundtrack, and even the score, that gives you that.  

Now that you’re coming towards the end of working on this project, looking back, do you have a favorite aspect of the creation of the film, or something within the finished film itself that is meaningful to you?

I’ll give you two man. One is on screen there’s a lot of moments with Bianca and Mike and I think that’s tied to my personal life, personal to me and my wife, and I know I really relate to those moments and I think they’re pretty real. I think it’s showcased on screen in a really strong and positive way.

Then there’s elements outside of that on taking this project at such a fast pace that I feel that I’ve learned to balance things more in my personal life, and on screen, and off set. Something I’ve been talking about is just finding that nice balance between work and how much you spend time with family and time for yourself. You kind of have to have those times to really just take it in and step away and pull back from the hype and all the energy behind it, so you can just refocus. I learned that a lot on this project just because there’s so many different people on it. It’s an ensemble piece with casts, and you’re being pulled in a hundred different directions. I feel like that’s something else to apply in life. With that balance I feel like I’m constantly able to slow down things a bit, if that makes sense.

There’s a saying that when you kind of slow down a sport you can see everything on a court or on a football field and its helpful. I think quarterbacks use it a lot, the game is slowed up so you’re able to make decisions, wise decisions, because now you’re able to feel things out a little bit more, rather than feel that everything’s rushed and bump into walls and make mistakes. I feel like I’ve learned that during this process  

“Creed II” is in theaters November 21, 2018.