'Creed II' Director Steven Caple Jr. On Satisfying 'Rocky' And 'Creed' Fans Alike [Interview]

Sylvester Stallone may have really thought he was saying goodbye to Rocky when he wrote, directed and starred in Rocky Balboa. Then Ryan Coogler came along with the idea for Creed. It seemed to energize Stallone again and as soon as Creed came out, he started teasing ideas for a sequel that would bring back Ivan Drago from Rocky IV.

At one point, Stallone was going to direct Creed II, but he ultimately turned directing duties over to Steven Caple Jr. Caple had one feature film to his credit. The Land was a Sundance hit that explored Cleveland with a new voice and vision. Stallone agreed Caple was the right choice to take Creed and Rocky further.

In the sequel, Adonis Creed is the new heavyweight champion of the world. Meanwhile, Ivan Drago's son Viktor has been training in the Ukraine for just the right opportunity to challenge the son of the man his father killed in the ring. Naturally, Rocky has some issues with this.

Caple spoke with /Film by phone while on the road with Creed II, including a stop in Philadelphia for a press junket. We spoke about making a sequel both to Rocky IV and to Creed and how you please fans of both. Creed II opens Wednesday, November 21.

Did it occur to you that you were simultaneously making Rocky VIII, Creed II and Rocky IV Part II so this is the most sequel any movie has ever been?

[Laughs] You have to balance the whole Rocky IV with the Dragos character being added to it so it does feel like another chapter in their life story. Yes, you're right. Also maintaining the Creed storyline, it's also a sequel to that so making sure you carry these characters over. There is definitely a blend.

Rocky IV was so tonally different than the other Rocky movies. How did you deal with those characters in the tone of a Creed movie?

We're bringing back iconic characters such as the Dragos. I think we started from there. There was a great foundation started within the Rocky franchise, Rocky I and Rocky II and movies like Creed that made it feel grounded. So when we're bringing back characters to something more drama based than Rocky IV was, we just made sure that we balanced the amount of nostalgia and I guess the intimidation factor with these being the big bad guys but also having another layer to them. I think that helped to keep the film and tone in the right place, so it took a lot of conversations with myself, Mike, the Dragos, everybody making sure we're on the same page and keep each other in check to make sure we don't go too overboard and make sure the tone felt right and felt real, but yet still entertaining, still big.

When Sly decided not to direct the movie, had he done any prep he shared with you?

One of the biggest things, also he's a writer on the script, so he had the foundation down for the storyline. One of the things he shared with me was finding Florian. He had been doing a worldwide search for this guy who was going to play Drago's son. He showed me multiple audition tapes and submissions from wrestlers, actors, real boxers and fighters. He saw this YouTube clip of Florian working out and he's like, "Man, if this guy works for you, you should definitely bring him in and meet him and talk to him, but he looks perfect." He was right. The video is an intimidating workout video of Flo. It showcases a little bit of acting chops. You can definitely tell he's scary but he was just a beast. He was just a master. That's probably one of the biggest things he left me.

Was there ever any talk of trying to find a way to have Carl Weathers back, either as a flashback or some other creative way?

Yeah, we played with different ways. We thought about it. I think in the script, there is a version where I try to at least bring his voice back. I thought that would've been cool. Didn't necessarily want to do the flashback because we felt like it had been done multiple times throughout the franchise. In the Rocky franchise, there's flashbacks to Apollo and there's also a flashback to Apollo in Creed I during the fight sequence. So for me, I was trying to figure out how to bring him back. At one point I had the voice speak into his ear but we ended up losing that concept when we felt it felt good to move forward with the franchise, not necessarily sit too much in the past.

Was it important that you don't let Ivan Drago speak until he confronts Rocky?

Yeah, definitely. I think we wanted to hold it back as far as we can. For us, it was important that his first words were extremely powerful and stuck with people. It just felt like the moment where he sits down with Rocky and explained what has happened to him for the past 30 plus years seemed like the right moment. Then everything after that was in Russian obviously. Then he had more dialogue to help with the authenticity of his character, but it was definitely intentional. It was something that we wanted to surprise audiences with because we know he didn't have many lines in Rocky IV. So in this one, let's hold back and let people think that he's not going to say something for the majority of the movie and have people like Buddy Marcelle, played by Russell Hornsby, speak for him.

Was it fun to have a twist on his famous line, "I must break you," without saying the same line again?

We definitely kept playing with different versions of how to say the line. We played with it in the script and also on set. There was a certain point where I kind of went overboard, kind of overdosed on the "break you" line because I was placing it in all these scenes. There was a moment where I had it at the weigh in, the moment he's talking to Rocky sitting down, the moment in the ring at the fight. I'm trying to figure out when was the right moment to deliver it. It felt like "break your boy" was a great moment for Dolph to say it and then in the fight itself to say, "Break him" but yet be on his son's face. There was where we felt it was organic enough but still had the homage and nod to Rocky IV.

Creed II featurette Adonis

Sly had once said that he felt Drago committed suicide sometime after Rocky IV. Did he give you any insight into how he reconsidered that?

He didn't. For us, before I came onto the project, he had already developed the Dragos. I think for him, we were kind of just going off the image that we last saw of Drago which was Drago with his head down and Ludmila sort of behind him but not very supportive. That one image alone kind of gave us the entire backstory. We just developed from that moment, the last image that you had and we actually place that image in the film, on TV during the press conference. He never told me that he killed off Drago. I don't remember ever talking about that.

Did you ever consider exploring how different politics between the U.S. and Russia are since 1985?

No, Sly didn't want to go that direction. I was glad he didn't. I think for us, we definitely wanted to keep it a human story. We wanted to focus on the characters and not necessarily make a political statement. It just didn't feel like it was the movie to do so. It didn't feel like the platform. When I got into the project, I thought he was definitely going to dive into it a bit, but he didn't want to dive into it at all. He really wanted to focus on his character, what Rocky was going through and he wanted to add some emotional state and layers to it, and textures to the country in Russia but not necessarily the politics. He wanted to keep it about boxing and people because we have so many pieces moving in this film. That would have probably taken away form the focus. It just didn't feel the right fit. No, we didn't want to dive into that.

Did you want to bring back more of the Bill Conti score?

Yeah, it was tough. There's a Bill Conti score throughout and making sure it was in the right moments, especially when it comes to Rocky. There's a Bill Conti score within the series so I kept going back to those where I felt like it was his moment or their moment, but we also have a Creed theme. We really want the Creed theme to stick out, this being the sequel and all. So we really found places to slow up the Creed theme and speed it up. We were also trying to find a balance in which you felt that classic Bill Conti throughout, the slowed up version, the emotional version, the love story version of it and then ultimately leading you to the classic version or rendition towards the end that everyone's waiting for when the trumpets get loud and it gets you all pumped up and excited. So yeah, we just wanted to space them out. We didn't want to go too overboard with it.

Are the photos of Rocky and his son on his refrigerators pictures of Sly and Sage?

I believe so. They're the ones that were used in the previous film. We just continued to use the same photos to stay true to his character, stay true to Sly. It's like a nugget as well. It helps him bring to it a personal connection. We asked his permission obviously if it's okay with him and yeah, it adds another layer to what's happening in a scene.

I loved how you presented Cleveland in your first film, The Land. How were you able to portray Philadelphia in a new way?

It wasn't necessarily trying to portray it in a new way. That was something that Creed did, the first one. Creed had that identity. For us, we wanted to stay true to that identity the city brings. Also, he's going through a transition that he moves to L.A., back home. That's something we were focused on too, Adonis in that transition so we were more so trying to focus on how can we give a little bit of L.A. the identity and texture that it needed for people to believe where he's from and where his father grew up and his gym.

How do you direct Sly to play Rocky?

Get out of his way, to be honest. He knows this character for 30 plus years. He's always excited it seems like to step into it. There's just nuances and special Rocky moments that you don't necessarily write on the page. You kind of just give a small push and guide into the direction, as I would do when directing him on set. Actually, we do a lot of improv'ing. We talk about what works and what doesn't. We talk about jokes and moments that may kick. He always has an ear for what's relevant or what's hot right now, so we would have jokes that may land and speak to our generation and our culture. It was just one of those collaborative things, figuring out where we can take this character. Again, he's played him about eight times now so he just wants to do something new every time and challenge himself every time. Now it's just really about setting him up in the right position, the right themes and making sure he's comfortable and everyone needs what they need to do their work. That goes for all of them. They all played these characters before so it was just trying to take them to new places, elevate any tension and stakes and emotion.