Cinematographer Maryse Alberti on Distinguishing ‘Creed’ in the Footsteps of ‘Rocky’

Also: Why the industry needs to work harder in providing equal opportunities for female DPs.

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti on Distinguishing 'Creed'
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti admits that she might not have been the obvious choice for Ryan Coogler’s “Rocky” spin-off “Creed,” but in many ways, she was a no-brainer. A 25-year French veteran of the indie scene whose work has always been geared toward realism, she provided just the sort of visual divergence needed to distinguish the film as its own thing outside of a well-known, well-worn iconic cinema franchise.

How did you get the gig on “Creed?” How did you first meet director Ryan Coogler?

When I first heard I was considered to do “Creed,” a follow-up on the franchise of “Rocky,” I kind of had a little smile. I said, “Well, this is a long shot.” If you look at the movies I’ve done, I’m not the first choice to do “Rocky.” But I talked to Ryan a few times on the phone and I met him and we clicked. It was such a great working relationship. He’s very smart. He’s talented. He’s generous. He’s respectful of everybody working around him and genuinely interested, and a great collaborator. He’s a strong director.

Did you guys look at the previous “Rocky” movies for some visual guidance or did you want to avoid them somewhat?

We looked a little bit at some of the boxing sequences and the icons of the movies. I think that “Creed” becomes its own film, but in respecting the iconography of the older films. So yes, we did look at the “Rocky” films. But a strong influence for us was a French film, “The Prophet,” just for the use of steadicam, handheld and static shots. So we looked at that a lot. And then different boxing movies.

Speaking of iconography, the setting of these movies, Philadelphia, is obviously a crucial ingredient. How did you want to incorporate that?

That story is so grounded in Philly, so you have a couple of locations. Like Mickey’s gym is the location from the first “Rocky” movie. The stairs, of course. The restaurant. There are a lot of locations from the original movie. And then Ryan finds the locations of his own story, of Creed. Creed is a young African American man, so the sequence with the bikes, the club where his girlfriend sings, that’s very much of his generation and his world.

How about the city’s architecture? I’m always interested in how environments like this help shape films visually.

In Philly, there is beauty in the architecture and the modern buildings, but also in the street scene. There are pretty run-down neighborhoods and hard-working people and I think we wanted to capture that. What I didn’t know and what a lot of people don’t know is the wealth of murals in Philly. When Creed first comes to Philly, he’s in a taxi and he goes by all those murals. We had done a few more scenes to show the wealth of these murals that didn’t make it into the film. The film would have been three hours long! So that was a big thing, too.

I found that there were several sort of instantly iconic images in the film. Like Rocky standing there with the old fight posters behind him stood out to me.

The gym is basically — that’s the real thing. Not much production design was added. Maybe changing a few posters, but that’s all a real gym. And one of the trainers in the gym, like the pad man, he’s the real guy. He’s it. Ryan really wanted to find the real people and give the movie authenticity. The kids, the young men and one young woman on the bikes, are the real thing. They are in Philly and they ride those bikes. So we tried to find as much of the real Philly and the people as we could. All of the fighters and boxers training in the gym are real people.

Readers can read our discussion about the riveting single-take boxing sequence, but another image that really spoke to me was Adonis shadow boxing with his father amid the projection of Apollo’s fight with Rocky.

This was Ryan’s idea. He’s 29 and comes from a generation where a lot of people his age have projectors instead of screens. So that came from that and gave the opportunity of Adonis boxing with his father. Technically, I had to find a projector that could produce the clarity of this image and the intensity of light to record this image. Home projectors are, I don’t know, two feet by one-and-a-half feet, and they look very cute, but they don’t have the power necessary for a camera to record. So we had to bring in a projector that was, I don’t know, five feet long by three feet wide and weighed a ton and cheat a little bit. It was a matter of finding what size image we want and what projector was going to give us that and the intensity to record it.

For obvious reasons, it’s such a thematically potent image.

This young man is immersed in the idea of boxing. That’s what he wants his life to be, and all of a sudden he’s in it. He’s in that world. And the ghost of his father is right next to him, or right on top of him. Throughout the movie, it talks about having to make your own legacy, how to get from under the name of Creed, to take the name, but make it your own. That was a very important image.

Finally, I was very excited when I saw you’d be shooting this film. I’m a fan of your work, but I also love that Ryan is consistently working with female DPs. He used Rachel Morrison for “Fruitvale Station.” The percentage of women in the ASC is so low. What do you think about that?

Personally, some people have written, “Why is she not invited into the ASC?” I was invited. But I never made the move to go. But I think we have to start before the ASC. There aren’t a lot of female cinematographers [who are hired]. Though it is changing. I started to shoot 25 years ago and there was really four or five of us. Now it is growing. It is growing very slowly, but it is growing. I have to credit first Ryan and then Sly [Stallone] and the producers and MGM for choosing me for this movie. I am not the obvious choice. I’m an indie cinematographer.

So what we’re saying here is the issue is broader, that filmmakers and producers should give female DPs equal opportunities and that will trickle into the ASC and other such organizations.

Yes. More women need to be trusted and chosen. And it is slowly happening. But what’s really off-balance and really outrageous is the number of women directors. Because that has not grown at all, and probably on the contrary, has receded. There are a lot of women directors who are talented and ready to work … But once there are more women cinematographers [hired], the ASC will have more women. There have to be more women working and shooting movies and building a body of work.