On a bitingly cold set in Philadelphia, Ryan Coogler whispers some notes to Sylvester Stallone, who’s resurrecting the iconic character of boxer Rocky Balboa for Creed, the highly anticipated Rocky spinoff.
As he settles back into his director’s chair, the 29-year-old from the wrong side of the tracks puts his large headphones back on and pauses for a moment.
“I was thinking, ‘This life is crazy,’ ” Coogler recalls.
“I knew I still had to do my job, but I’ll be straight with you,” he says, adjusting the black cap he’s wearing, “part of me was thinking, ‘How do I say this to Stallone? How do I give him tips on playing Rocky?’ ” He laughs.
Coogler says he also felt the same way when directing another actor in the film, Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
“Both of them are incredible. We’re talking here about actors who have been working at their craft longer than I’ve been alive. So, yeah, I have those moments where it does feel kind of goofy to me, for sure,” he says, laughing again.
However, Coogler needn’t be so surprised.
He catapulted into the Hollywood stratosphere with his acclaimed 2013 drama Fruitvale Station, based on the final hours of Oscar Grant. Grant, 22, was shot in the back at the Fruitvale subway stop in Oakland, California, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer. Coogler’s film won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival as well as the Audience Award for US Dramatic Film, among many other gongs that year.
Prior to that, his short film Fig won HBO’s Short Filmmaker Award and the illustrious Director’s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award.
Today, we sit in a glass-encased office at the uber-hip Milk Studios in Hollywood. As slinkily dressed models rush by on their way to shoots in other parts of the studio, the cool and collected Coogler looks very much at home, even though it seems like a world away from where he grew up.
The San Francisco Bay Area has always been home for him. As a boy he grew up in Oakland before moving to nearby Richmond.
The area is not to be confused with the exclusive Richmond District (now known as the Park Presidio district), which lies between the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. The Richmond District was given its name by Australian immigrant and art dealer George Turner Marsh. He lived in Richmond House, which he named after the Melbourne suburb he loved.
The Richmond area in which Coogler spent his teenage years, however, was vastly different.
It is located in the eastern region of the San Francisco Bay Area and in 2004 held the dubious title as the 12th most dangerous city in America.
“I love where I’m from; it’s a very interesting place,” Coogler says, quickly coming to the defence of his home towns Oakland and Richmond. “I have a great respect and admiration for diversity because of where I’m from and for that I’m thankful. That is one thing about being from the Bay Area that I really appreciated. But at the same time, it’s also a very tough place to be from,” he says, taking a sip from his large white coffee mug.
“You get exposed to things you don’t necessarily want to be exposed to,” he says, his voice lowering. “There’s a lot of inner-city violence, a lot of fucked-up interactions with the police. All of these things exist where I’m from. All of that has informed my career as a filmmaker.”
Coming from a tough place, the writer-director credits his parents – mother Joselyn, a community organiser; father Ira, a probation officer – with showing him there was a higher path to take.
Coogler always wanted a life better than what he was surrounded by and he was determined to make his parents as proud of him as he was of them.
“My parents had a very strong work ethic and humility. They worked very hard, they’re very smart, but at the same time my parents were always asking questions. They were always trying to learn. They’re both extremely humble and at the same time confident. You can take them anywhere and they feel like they belong. They’re both dedicated. They’ve been married for 30 years in a place where that’s not easy. It’s not common. I got a lot of that from them,” he says.
After he attended Catholic school with his two brothers, Noah and Keenan, Coogler had his sights set on being an American football player.
But it was while he was attending St Mary’s College of California that his English professor, Rosemary Graham, encouraged him to try screenwriting. A world outside football opened up for Coogler and he moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s to attend the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, impressing the faculty with his finely honed skills as a writer and director.
Today, he sits in black sweat pants and T-shirt, seemingly still humbled by how far he has come.
Even before Fruitvale Station was released, Coogler was working on his script for Creed. His inspiration was his father, whom he lovingly calls Pops. Ira Coogler was battling several health issues at the time.
Growing up, he sat with his dad on the couch and they’d watch the Rocky films together, a time Coogler still smiles about when he wanders down memory lane.
“I came up with the story idea based on my personal relationship with my father. It’s one of the most important relationships in my life. He’s a big Rocky fan and when I was growing up we would watch these movies together. Any time I think about Rocky, I think about my Pops,” he says. “Sometimes I’m not even seeing the movie, I’m thinking about the times I watched those movies with my dad and the time we spent talking about those movies.”
As his father was getting sick and with doctors not initially knowing what was wrong, Coogler says he was having a hard time dealing with everything.
“The doctors didn’t know what it was. He was having a host of issues, man,” he says matter-of-factly.
“He had diabetes, he had a tumour which developed in his spine, and then he was dealing with some neuromuscular thing. We found out it was a vitamin B12 deficiency, but at the time they were thinking it was all kinds of different things. At one point, we were told by doctors they weren’t sure how long he was going to live,” he explains.
The effect it had on Coogler at the time was immense. “It damaged me, mentally. It came at a time when I was really busy with work so I wasn’t able to spend as much time with him as I would have liked to. Out of that feeling, I came up with this idea of this young guy who formed a relationship with this character who was his hero,” he says of the script for Creed.
“I liked the idea and I thought it was worth doing so I told my agency about it and they said, ‘Great, we’ll get you with Stallone and see if he’s into it.’ ”
In true Hollywood style, a meeting was set up with Stallone and the up-and-coming director in LA. Coogler was excited about meeting his childhood hero, but the initial meeting with Stallone didn’t necessarily go as planned.
“Well, I pitched it to him,” Coogler says, and laughs as he remembers the meeting. “We hadn’t made Fruitvale yet and he was a little apprehensive. He was receptive though.”
After the release of Fruitvale Station, Stallone knew the film would be in good hands.
“We talked again and he was a little more into it and we kept talking. Eventually he and Mike [Michael B. Jordan, star of Creed as well as Fruitvale Station] met and that was it. He was into it. I wrote it with my buddy Aaron Covington who I went to film school with. We wrote the script and we got cracking,” he says, smiling.
Once the Hollywood heavyweight had given his stamp of approval, things started moving quickly and, in his mission to keep everything as real as possible, Coogler immersed himself in the boxing world.
He signed on professional boxers Andre Ward, Gabriel Rosado and Tony Bellew, among others, to be in the film. Coogler says his interest in the controversial sport has now reached fever pitch.
“I feel like now I’ve entered the boxing world I’ll never be able to escape,” he says, his enthusiasm clearly evident. “I’ve become particularly close to Andre and took my parents to his fight in Oakland recently, and I’m close with all of the boxers we used in the movie.
“I talk to those dudes a lot now and they invited Mike and me to fights now and we’ve formed a close bond. I feel so close to the boxing world now it’s almost like glue. Once you’re in, that’s it. I can see myself being 50 or 60 years old and still going to these fights and still being incredibly passionate about it. My little brother is getting into it, too.”
The little brother Coogler refers to is Keenan, who is an actor and starred in Fruitvale Station.
Of his brother’s directing style, the younger Coogler says: “He’s like a fairy godparent on set. He’ll come in and whisper over your shoulder to give direction. You’ll never see him yell. That’s just not who he is.”
Mention that to Coogler and he agrees.
“I wasn’t taught to direct that way. I think you get far more out of people if you work together. I try to stay close to the actors physically so I can talk to them. I just try to stay alert. With these actors, they’re all very smart, very creative people, so I was just trying to find what they do. I try to see if they can spark something new in me and if I can spark something new in them. Filmmaking for me should be as collaborative as possible. I try to keep it as relaxed as possible on set. That’s the best way to do it,” he says.
Clearly, his way is working. Forbes named him as one of the 30 most influential people under 30 in Hollywood last year, but Coogler insists he’s still finding his way.
“I’m still figuring this whole thing out,” he says. “I’m learning every day, still. One thing I try to do is pick projects I’ve got a real personal connection with because that’s where I find motivation. At times this business can get really tough, so I need that motivation.”
In the spinoff, which was in the final editing stages when we spoke, Creed follows the story of Adonis Johnson (played by Jordan), the son of heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. He goes to Philadelphia where Rocky sees something in his former-foe-turned-best-friend’s son that makes Adonis believe boxing is in his blood and that he can carry on his father’s legacy.
“It is an intense movie. It’s also very much about relationships. It’s very funny in parts, very heartfelt. This is my first time making something PG-13. I’m really excited for younger people to see it, but at the same time, to tell you it’s not intense would be lying to you. Boxing is a very violent and controversial sport. In our lead character is somebody whose father was killed doing this very sport and you see the impact it has on him. You see the impact it has on his family,” he explains.
For Coogler, whose Pops is telling everyone he can about his son’s latest film (“He’s not the type of man who can keep a lid on something like this”), the young director is making the sort of films he feels will proudly tell the story of where he’s from.
The former counsellor who talked to troubled youths in San Francisco says he hopes he will be remembered for bringing people together.
“I would say that I hope my legacy is one of community building,” Coogler says. “You know what I’m saying? I hope I’m known for my hard work and dedication to my community. That’s what means the most to me.”