Like the boxer at the center of his new movie, director Steven Caple Jr. has some might big shoes to film. He’s taken over the Creed franchise from Ryan Coogler — who revitalized and reinvented the Rocky series in 2015 with Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s old rival Apollo Creed. Before Coogler, most of the Rocky films were directed by Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone — who, by the way, is still around playing Donnie’s coach and mentor, which means Caple has to direct one of the biggest action stars in history playing his most iconic character. No pressure!

In conversation, Caple doesn’t seem intimidated in the slightest by the challenge of inheriting the director’s chair of a beloved franchise — even though this is only his second feature to date. Still, Caple will admit to being a little nervous the first time he met Stallone. “I was like ‘You’re Rambo!’” he told me. “Rocky didn't even come in my head first, it was Rambo.”

Whatever initial anxiety, Caple clearly rose to the occasion and delivered a sequel that will make both Rocky and Creed fans happy. In Creed II, Donnie has found success in boxing and happiness with his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) — until Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the vicious Russian boxer who killed his father in Rocky IV, returns, now as the coach of his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who wants a title shot.

During our conversation, I talked with Caple about whether he ever had any trepidation about bringing Drago back (he did) and what it was like directing Stallone as Rocky. We also discussed his personal connections to the Rocky franchise and ranked all the films. And while he didn’t explicitly say it, Caple also strongly hinted that the Rocky and Creed franchises may split and go their separate ways, which would be a dramatic twist worthy of a great boxing movie.

People who like the Rocky franchise have very personal connections with these movies. What is yours?

I have many connections. As a kid, I played sports. I played basketball in high school and college. And as a motivational factor, it’s the Rocky movies. The first one is a true underdog story — that’s my favorite one. It’s not the first one I saw, actually. I saw the technically “worst one” first. Everyone always talks about Rocky V being the worst. But as a kid, it wasn’t bad. When you’re six years old you’re like “Oh, this is a cool boxing flick!” And then as I saw the rest of them — I saw them out of order — then that all started to make sense.

The first one touched me the most. And then as I grew as a filmmaker, you start to realize the risk Sly took telling that story, and how different Rocky was. He’s not suave and cool like every other lead in a movie. And neither was Adrian. They both had their little flaws. And it’s like “Wow, he took some risks with the storytelling.” So those were my first experiences with the franchise.

Tell me about what makes this movie — which is already a Creed film and a Rocky film — what makes it a Steven Caple film? What parts of the story really resonated with you?

Personally, it was the relationship stuff. When I got the script I was like “This is cool.” Sly was like “I think I got, like, a structure down. But I think what’s missing is the voice of this generation and Adonis’ voice. And so when diving into that I just pulled from my wife and our experience, and how we grow as a relationship and the maturity in that. The learning and growing pains. The proposal scene, that was like my experience proposing to my wife. She could hear it, but the whole like, “Quit playing! Stop lying!” reaction. Like, it just felt real. And I just wanted to really capture that — we wanted to play the real highs and lows of that.

And then the boxing stuff, of course, and the montages. Sly created this thing. He has a sort of format; how can I do something different? Where haven’t we gone before? The desert. What haven’t we done in a fight? Told the perspective of the other side, and really felt it. Everybody in that opposite corner, every opponent, was a straight-on villain. We had to beat them. This time, we have to beat them but yet there’s another arc going on in the other corner. Those things I hope people pick up on.

As someone who is a little obsessed with the Rocky movies, I loved all the little references in your movie. Like when Creed’s punching in front of like a steel drum — that’s a shoutout to the guys in the first movie and the second movie that were singing on the street.

Uh huh. Yeah, for sure. So you picked up on that? Yeah there’s a lot.

Yeah, I felt like there was. Tell me about some of the other little callbacks that are in there.

Oh man, there’s so much stuff. I tried to get Frank Stallone in. There’s a moment where Rocky’s taking his medication, and I had him singing in the background, Frank Stallone, and it was like from Rocky. People would have gone nuts, but we couldn’t get the rights to it. We had it in all the previews and everything.

But yes, I’m a fan as well. Where do I start? We had a lot of locker room moments. For me, in Rocky 1 and he goes in there and sees Spider Rico — we had a callback to Spider Rico you’ll see in the deleted scenes.

It’s funny that you mentioned that the first one you saw was Rocky V — and it’s not great, but I agree there is some good stuff in that movie. Anyway, you have Rocky say “Go for it!” which is the line and the song from that movie.

Yeah “Go for it!” [laughs] Uh, the staredown between Rocky and Drago in the ring — same angle. There’s certain lines. “Your father said it was a choice,” were the exact words he said when he was about to die. “It’s what I got to do” is something his dad said. “I’m a warrior, this is what we do.”

I don’t know if you caught this one: Tessa, in the proposal scene, it’s just like when Rocky proposed to Adrian [in Rocky II], and she doesn’t hear it. She has her earmuffs on.

Oh! I will admit, I missed that one.

She says “Hey what did you say? I’m sorry I didn’t hear you.” And he just did this whole spiel, and they were walking in and she just says “I couldn’t hear you.”

That’s awesome stuff. And it also actually fits with Rocky because so much of Rocky is cyclical. He becomes famous, then he goes back to where he started from.

And I think for me it was trying to balance that, and then also stepping off of that and trying to establish Creed. So there was stuff in Creed that I wanted to pull from that made this its own thing. Like the shot from above, looking down. That’s how Donnie and Bianca had their first kiss. I wanted to do the same angle here, but with the baby. So it was just small moments and motifs that we want to create with the Creed franchise. Because the movie’s really about these two new characters that we introduced — the Dragos and Creed — and Rocky saying “It’s your time,” and Creed going off and doing his thing.

That was a very interesting moment, I thought. And there were a few scenes where, as a viewer. I’m going “Is Rocky going to die?” He’s taking medicine, he’s telling Donnie it’s his time now, he won’t be around forever. Was there ever a point in the creation of the film where Rocky was going to die? It seemed like you were hinting towards the fact that we might not see this character again.

We may not. We’re going to see what happens to the Rocky franchise and series and what will then happen to Creed. It was not necessarily that we’re ready to kill him off because he’s taking medication; he’s in remission. I think for us it was to get him back to his kid, and really focusing on his loneliness. What Sly wanted to do was to really focus on the fact that when you get older and you have these mistakes and regrets and you have these grudges towards people — and he’s pulling from his personal life, too — he was like “You’ve got to let go of those things. Life is short, but my character doesn’t necessarily know that. But he’s going through that crisis right now.”

In Creed, he didn’t go through the five stages of grief when dealing with his cancer. He went straight into, like, “I’m not doing it!” We never really acknowledged [Rocky’s son] Robert and that was one of my things watching Creed. “Where’s his son? Where’s Milo [Ventimiglia, who played Robert in Rocky Balboa]?” And so on this one, we had to get to Milo; the question was when.

Throughout the process we’re talking about Rocky’s arc, trying to getting over this hump and also staying in the fact that you never know when it’s your time. We wanted to keep the audience on their toes, obviously, but we didn’t intend on saying he was going to die. We really want to say “This is Creed’s franchise, and then this is Rocky’s franchise,” so it can be a true spinoff and whenever we need to cross, we cross.

So they could conceivably have two separate franchises? Is that something that’s up in the air?

I don’t know. I don’t know. [laughs]

MGM

You did mention earlier about the Dragos, and not wanting them to just be the villains. And that was maybe the thing that was the most pleasant surprise for me in the movie is it’s not that. I loved the Dragos. But when you hear “Well, it’s going to be the son of Apollo versus the son of Drago,” it could go ... it could go wrong, frankly. I think you got it right, but I wondered what your reaction to that was when you were first coming on board. Is there any trepidation about that component of the film?

Completely, man. When I went in, it was like “Hey, MGM wants to talk to you. They saw your feature. Sly’s backing down from directing. He wants to do Rambo this year and he feels like the script needs some help. Do you want to come in for it?” I’m like, “Isn’t Drago coming back?”

You’re excited, but at the same time like [grits his teeth] “Oh, I don’t know — Creed was really good.” But a part of you is a Rocky fan, and he’s excited Drago’s coming back. But how do you do it in a way that’s not ecccch, you know?

Right.

For lack of better words, ecccch is the word.

[laughs] Yes.

So we go back to the drawing board. I met with Sly and he had written a draft and he was literally on the same page. He was trying to figure out how to give this new voice to the Dragos. And honestly, it didn’t come in our conversation yet. It came up in conversation with Mike [Jordan]. I was talking to Mike and I’m like, “It begins with you, because if it’s a revenge story for you, how do we work that out? And then how would you fight for revenge? Rocky did that in Rocky IV. So why are we fighting? Why are you going to beat him up again? It doesn’t make sense.” And so it became they’re beating you up to redeem their names.

Right. It’s really their revenge.

Ultimately, working with Mike, we started thinking of personalizing.I was like, “Dude, at your point in your career, what would bother you?” And that’s where the legacy conversation comes about. He’s like, “I feel like I’m on top of the game. I’m just coming off Black Panther. But I’m still worried. I still want more. I still don’t feel like I’m it.” And I’m like “How do we get that in Creed’s mindset, so that it’s coming from a personal place?” It made sense if he’s a champion, but yet you still have this father figure who casts a big, huge shadow. It’s about building his legacy, and he thinks it’s about beating anybody that steps into his way who’s talking trash.

So it’s not even about the Dragos, it’s about what his mom says. “You’re the champion. You made it without your father.” And he goes, “Well how come I don’t feel like it?” So that’s kind of his personal journey. That added the layers to the Dragos, because now everything’s not about revenge anymore. It’s about the Dragos redeeming themselves.

MGM

It’s interesting to hear you talk about how Stallone had this script, but then he also felt like it needed some work, it needed the voice of a younger generation.

And black people.

And black people. But I like hearing that he is so open to that. Like, he understands that.

Sly is a huge collaborator. When I met him, we were in a room like we are now and he’s like, “What do you think about the script?” And I was like, “What do I think about the script? Oh man, to tell you the truth, here are some things I feel like we could work on, the Drago story being one, and Creed and his relationship.” And he was like “Cool. What you think about the fights and the format?” And it like, “Oh, wow, this dude is in it as a filmmaker.” And then you see he’s passionate about it. He is passionate about his arcs, his fights, his montages, his character. So when you get that, you get excited. He’s like 40 plus years in. He’s been doing it for a while. So when he tells you that, you’re like “Now I’m pumped up too.”

What is it like directing him as Rocky? Not just directing him — that’s one thing — but directing him as this iconic character?

It’s fun. There’ll be times where you’ve got to let him do his thing because that’s where the magic happens. We called it “Rockyisms.” If I write a scene I’d give it to him to rewrite the scene to make it feel like Rocky, because no one could capture the character’s voice like this guy. But I’ll give a direction and he’ll totally rewrite it, write iconic Rocky quotes, do whatever he needs to do, then come to set and then improv it. He gets into a zone and then it just became fun.

You just kind of guide him, tonally, where the scene is, but let him do Rocky, if that makes sense. And it’s the same with Mike and Tessa, because they know their characters.

Obviously boxing scenes are hugely important with this kind of movie. Tell me your philosophy about doing those.

I have a lot, man. Honestly, I think this movie has the most fights in the series? I don’t think we ever had one with three fights before. They usually start off a Rocky with the fight from the movie before. So you’ve got the Andre Ward fight, you’ve got two Ukrainian fights ... it was a lot. It’s a lot.

It’s a dance. The actors would tell you the choreography that they have to learn is like a ballet, back and forth. For us, it was really about trying to tell the story in an aggressive way. Ryan slowed it up a bit for us in Creed by staying in long takes and focusing on the misses. I focused on the hits, you know what I mean? Drago’s big. Every time he swings, I want to feel the swing. Every time he punches, I want to feel the punch.

So I spent a lot of time in the ring. Ryan in his second fight, he played it off as a real fight; the cameras were outside the ring most of the fight and only came in for specific moments. Where I was in the ring most of the time, because I want to be in your face when you feel like he’s in a corner.

Sly was very helpful because he tells you each fight has a structure. If you’re a fan, you know: Round one, you either win or lose. Round two, you either win or lose. But there’s an order. With ours, we were switching everything up. We took a bit from Clubber Lang’s format from Rocky III, but then the rounds had to switch up to more of a bit of Rocky IV format. So it was like a blend of Rocky III and Rocky IV.

And Sly, he’d be like “At this moment, montage!” [laughs] And this is where the collaboration comes in, because he’s like “You find the way to make it your thing, but I’m telling you man, it works.”

He knows what works.

He does. He’s done so many, and he’s right. It does work. There were definitely times where I was like “Man, that’s not gonna work. I’m gonna try something different.” And I did, then I go in the editing room and I’m like “He’s right, this has to be one round.” [laughs] He was right.

I get obsessed with the fights and the actual choreography. I want the punches to feel real. You’ve got them sliding under the arm, and all kinds of stuff. And he’ll be like, “Hey, it might be a little bit too many punches. Remember we have to have the corner moments.” And he reminds you that the stories in those corner moments are the stories outside the ring. It helps, because you get so caught up in the fight. And he’s like “As long as there’s drama outside of the ring, people are going to care about whatever happens in the ring.”

Okay last question. Can you rank the whole Rocky franchise?

Rocky, then ... I think Rocky II underrated. I really like Rocky II.

Why Rocky II ahead of Rocky III or IV?

It was a natural progression for me. And that’s what I tried to do in this one; I didn’t want to go too far into the future. I said [to Michael B. Jordan], “I want you to grow with him.” I felt in the first few scenes [of Rocky II] I was growing with him. He’s like, “I’m about to start my life. I got my woman, forget boxing, I’m done.” And then knock knock knock, here it goes again. That was cool, rather than starting the movie with “I want a rematch!”

So: Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky IV. Balboa Then III. And then V is last. Oh, and the reason I put Rocky IV in front of Balboa is because I definitely did cry when Apollo died.

Creed II is in theaters now.

Gallery - Hidden Rocky References in Creed II: