At first blush, Ryan Coogler’s new movie, Creed, the seventh installment in the Rocky series, has little to do with his debut, Fruitvale Station—the true story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black man killed by a white officer in Oakland. But Coogler says both projects are deeply personal to him and his family. As a Bay Area native, he was compelled to make Fruitvale Station, and Creed was inspired by his Rocky-loving father. Coogler talked to TIME about the connection between the two films and their star, Michael B. Jordan, as well as living up to Sylvester Stallone’s legacy.
I understand that you started thinking about the movie when your father was sick.
Yes, yes. That’s exactly what happened. He used to play them before I had football games to pump me up, and he would get really emotional watching the movies. He used to watch Rocky II with his mom while she was sick and dying of cancer. She passed away when he was 18 years old.
And so when he got sick he was losing his strength because he had a muscular condition. He was having trouble getting around, having trouble carrying stuff. I started thinking about this idea of my dad’s mortality. For me he was kind of like this mythical figure, my father, similar to what Rocky was for him. Going through it inspired me to make a film that told a story about his hero going through something similar to kind of motivate him and cheer him up. That’s how I came up with the idea for this movie.
Obviously the Rocky figure resonated with your family. But the character of Apollo Creed’s legacy looms large over this film. What was your relationship with that character watching the Rocky films growing up?
Watching the movies I always loved Apollo. I never saw him as a villain. It might be because I’m a black man myself so I related to him every time he came onscreen. He was kind of everything that you wanted to be. He was smart and business savvy and incredibly athletic and confident and very knowledgeable. He was very much inspired by Muhammad Ali, and Muhammad Ali is like a god in the black community. Especially in the community of black athletes like I was myself. I related to Apollo so much, man.
The movies worked so well for me because I wasn’t cheering for or against either one of the fighters. I wanted them both to win in all those films, and I was very interested in what happens to Apollo Creed’s family after he dies in the ring like that. What happens to the people that he leaves behind? I wanted to explore that in Creed and this idea of not knowing your father. The relationship I had with my father was such an important factor in my life. So I kind of ask myself the question, what if he wasn’t around? What if he passed away or wasn’t around for some other reason—which is something so many of my peers dealt with?
You’ve collaborated with Michael B. Jordan now on two films and are collaborating on a third, Wrong Answer, which follows an Atlanta teacher caught up in a test cheating scandal. Clearly you two have a chemistry. What made you click?
It was one of those things I sensed immediately. I wrote the script to Fruitvale Station with him in mind, just from his body of work. I hadn’t ever sat down and spent time with him before. But based on his body of work I thought he’d be the right person to go to for the role. But I wanted to sit down and meet him first because I learned in film school that I like to work very closely with my actors. We have to have chemistry for us to be able to work.
So I met with him and it was one of those meetings where as soon as you meet with somebody you kind of connect. We connected about our parents because we both have very close relationships with our parents from similar environments—Mike’s from Newark, I’m from the East Bay area. Similar cultural politics. Similar conflict in the places we’re coming from. We’re both former athletes. We have similar tastes in film and books. And then once we got to work on Fruitvale—we were in the foxhole of independent filmmaking—we realized that we both had a similar style of working as well.
Your two feature films so far, Fruitvale and Creed, are very different from a story standpoint. Do you think there’s anything that connects the two, that makes them both Ryan Coogler films?
Well, I see a connection between the two films partially because they both come from a very personal place in my heart. If you were to peel back the layers, the movies on the surface are very different. If we did our job right as filmmakers in both films, they should leave you with very different feelings walking out of the theater.
That being said, the themes, there are very similar themes in the movies: the themes of family, identity, the idea of fatherhood and what that means, specifically how important it is in the African-American community. For Oscar, his most important form of identity was as Tatiana’s father. And a the end of the movie Tatiana is robbed of her father. And this movie starts with a kid who has been robbed of his father, you know? It kind of starts where Fruitvale leaves off but in a different context. So I think at the surface you’re right. But there are things in this film that cross over.
The character in this film is born with a silver spoon but decides to start from scratch. Why did you decide to have the character start over?
Yeah, I think Adonis’ situation is a little more complex than if he had been born into that money. Because in that situation [as the lovechild of Apollo] he doesn’t fully feel like it belongs to him, and I think that it is very complex what his background is, and I thought it was interesting to explore that different perspective, when he’s 30 years old and choosing to walk away from this particular life and hit the reset button. It’s something a lot of folks in our generation, the millenial generation I guess, you see that a lot—finding your passion and throwing everything else to the wind and diving into it. And sometimes your loved ones don’t support it. You’re a writer yourself, I’m sure you had to make that decision yourself at some point, right?
Of course, yeah.
And were your parents okay with your becoming a writer?
You know, my mom sent me emails about law school sometimes.
Right, exactly, exactly. How old are you if you don’t mind me asking?
Oh, exactly. So you’re definitely a member of that generation. There’s so much information out there for us and the world is so much bigger for us than it was for our parents in many ways. So in that world of information, there’s more pressure on us to try to find ourselves and find our passion. And a lot of times with the generation before us, it was just about finding a good job. Do whatever is safe, right? But in our generation, it’s like, do what makes me happy. So it’s very much about that conflict as well.
It seems like you also have felt that conflict personally.
Oh yeah, for sure. Interestingly enough I felt it the most with my father because my dad wanted me to play football as long as I could. He wanted me to try to play professionally when I got done with college. And if I wasn’t doing that, he wanted me to fall back on the degree I earned through my scholarship, which was a business degree. He wanted to see me do something else familiar.
When I told him I wanted to make movies, he thought I was crazy. We got into arguments about it. When I moved to Los Angeles he was really upset because I didn’t have anywhere to live just yet. I was going to go take on all this debt in film school. He completely didn’t get it. It was such an unnecessary risk in his mind. And I did it anyway. And as crazy as it is now he’s my biggest fan. He’s so excited about this movie. He’s so supportive. But it was one of those things. I think there’s also a level to Adonis’ story that our generation can relate to for sure.
This is only your second film, and you were taking on this huge, storied franchise. Did you feel a lot of pressure?
For sure because people have so much ownership over this story and this world. Sly has ownership over this and the studio, but also people like my dad. To him this character is a hero. And he started this love in the city of Philadelphia. People don’t want to see this stuff done half-assed. They want to feel the legit motivations behind it. From a cynical perspective, we don’t want to see another franchise movie, another reinvention. You’ve got to be able to do something that’s worth watching.
It’s a lot of pressure there, but I started from the inside out in terms of looking at filmmaking. I knew this was a story that was incredibly important to me, became incredibly important to Mike on a personal level. So we had the most pressure from ourselves to do our best work.
One of the main themes of the movie is Adonis struggling with whether to use and accept the name Creed. Michael has had his own struggle sharing his name with the basketball icon Michael Jordan [though there is no relation]. Is that just a coincidence?
[Laughs] It’s half and half, you know? It’s a real thing for Mike. He’s named after his father. Mike was born in 1987 before Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan, so how crazy is that that all of the sudden over his lifetime this guy would become his icon? Mike would tell me stories where he couldn’t order a pizza because he’d say, “The pizza is for Michael Jordan,” and they’d hang up on him. So I think it’s a little bit of a coincidence. But we talked about that and Michael pulled from that, this idea of having a name that you’re almost ashamed of for the attention that it brings.
And it’s also the concept of heritage and inheritance. It’s a complicated thing for people to wrap their head around inheritance. How much do I take from somebody who did work before me? This idea of taking on credit for something that he didn’t do. Taking on a name that he doesn’t feel like he deserves or earned.
Your next project with Michael is a movie called Wrong Answer about a school testing scandal. When you’re coming up with project ideas, is it important to you to examine social issues?
Yes. I’m passionate about that type of subject matter absolutely. And it’s important to me to always work on projects that have things that I’m passionate about in them. This work is so all-consuming that to do this job right, you have to throw yourself at it 24 hours a day for years at a time. So that’s kind of what I use as a safeguard that I’m never on a project that I get burnt out from and stop caring because I think that’s the worst thing that can happen to a piece of filmmaking is when the director, the guy that’s at the head of the ship, stops caring and gets fatigued and is just clocking in. So I try to always make movies about something that I’m obsessed with and about things that I have questions about.