Looking to make a bold mark at the beginning of his career, director Ryan Coogler wants to avoid the danger of losing his artistic voice amid the maelstrom of brand-and-franchise-focused moviemaking.
Fresh out of USC film school in 2011, Coogler, at age 29, has already helmed two acclaimed features, the Sundance award winner “Fruitvale Station,” and current Rocky spinoff “Creed,” both starring Michael B. Jordan. With the boxing drama crossing $100 million at the domestic box office on the strength of glowing reviews, Coogler finds himself back at the negotiating table to direct Marvel’s “Black Panther” with more leverage than he had earlier this year when he passed up that opportunity.
“It’s so complicated living in this day and age in entertainment,” explains Coogler. “Our generation is crazy because we grew up with all this pop culture. ‘Star Wars’ isn’t just a movie to us. It’s something else, too. So I think you have that, and you also have the (Hollywood) machine. You have situations where you’re trying to make a movie, and it’s, ‘Either you jump on or we’ll find somebody else.’ It’s such an exciting time, but it’s also a frightening time. It’s a time where things move so fast and so hard with so much money at stake that an artist could lose himself.”
Choosing to make “Creed,” a project he had successfully pitched to MGM and Sylvester Stallone, was very personal to Coogler. He recalls fondly watching the original “Rocky” movies with his father, and seeing the emotional impact they had. He soon learned that his dad and grandmother, who died of breast cancer before Coogler was born, frequently viewed the films together in the last year of her life. “This franchise is something that was in my bones,” Coogler says. “Before I knew what a movie was, I knew ‘Rocky.’ I knew Rocky’s story made my dad, who was the toughest, strongest dude I knew, cry.”
It was important for the director to bring something that personal to the material. The iconic Rocky Balboa character even weathers his own cancer journey in the film. That helped drive Coogler’s passion as he crafted a love letter to Philadelphia. He was also careful that the story’s love interest be more than just a throwaway, supportive element, which is reflective of the importance he places on diversity behind the camera.
“I feel like women are better filmmakers than men,” says Coogler, who hired female cinematographers for both of his features. “They’re equipped to do this job, in many ways, better than us. They’re infinitely more complex. They’re stronger and sharper. We’re going to get better movies (if we have more female filmmakers). But they’ve got to be given the opportunity.”
He hopes to maintain that personal integrity while finding room to enjoy the ride. He’s inspired by television — and by the buzz of being a filmmaker with something to say.
“I get excited when I hear a great podcast,” he says. “When I see Aziz (Ansari’s) show (‘Master of None’), or when I see Jill Soloway’s show (‘Transparent’), I get excited. I’m interested in storytelling, man.”