Ryan Coogler’s had an exciting six months: He breathed new commercial and critical life into the left-for-dead Rocky franchise with Creed, which he wrote and directed. That led to the 30-year-old being tapped to direct Marvel’s Black Panther film. In addition to being one of the fastest rising filmmakers in Hollywood, he’s also one of the leaders of the Blackout For Human Rights campaign, along with Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which seeks to address racial violence in the U.S. Coogler's is an especially hectic schedule for a filmmaker who, just three years ago, was struggling to finish his indie debut, Fruitvale Station. Fast Company spoke recently with Coogler about his creative process, hiring choices, and inspirations:
Fast Company: You worked with female cinematographers on both Creed and your debut, Fruitvale Station. Are there creative advantages to hiring women to do jobs that usually go to men?
Ryan Coogler: You’re absolutely missing something [in a room that’s all men]. Too often, you find yourself in a room like that. Sometimes dealing with studios, you go to a session and there are only a few women, or sometimes there are none. That’s not really healthy for the creative process. That’s how stuff slips through the cracks. Everybody’s a prisoner of their own perspective. I can only see the world through my own eyes. The last few times I made a movie, I had a cinematographer who was a woman. And my editors, one of them is a woman, and the way those two view things and give notes are radically different, and when you have that balance, it’s really an asset.
On Creed, you were working on a serious movie in a franchise that has some pretty silly moments. How do you make that all fit together?
It was really a case of establishing what our tone was, and what the tone was with this movie. The Rocky movies each have their own tone. You got the first two, which are very close together and fit the same tone as most '70s movies, then you have the '80s movies which are real '80s. With this movie, we really were looking at what tone would be right for what we were trying to do, and we were looking for a more realistic and grounded tone. Right now has a lot in common with the '70s in terms of the cynicism and coming out of a recession and a really long war. It’s very close to what it was in the '70s when Rocky was first made, so we leaned into what fit into that tone. If stuff was more camp or larger than life, we left that alone.
There’s so much to the Rocky franchise that connects with people. When do you use an element like the theme music, and when do you let something like that go?
We were very apprehensive about the music, because it comes with so much emotional baggage and cinematic memory. It’s embedded in everybody’s minds, so my composer Ludwig [Göransson] and myself, we wanted Creed to have its own theme. We were talking about not hearing it at all, but as we worked more and more, we were finding the characters better, and it started to make sense that we would hear it. It was Ludwig’s idea to put that piece of music when Adonis stands up in that corner, and the first time I heard it, I was going crazy. Then I heard it with my editors, and all three of us stood up.
You made a lot of people excited when you expressed interest in directing a movie version of Hamilton—have you given any more thought to how you’d tell that story on the screen? I know Lin Miranda—I got a chance to meet him a few years back, and we reconnected since, and after I went to see it somebody asked if I would be interested in making it, and I said that everybody is interested in making that. Talking with Lin, whenever he decides to make it, it’s going to be so far down the road. It needs to live on stage, travel the country, and travel the world before they make it a movie.
In Creed, you put a black fighter in a Rocky movie, and in Hamilton, he put black actors in roles like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Is reinterpreting those stories so that they’re less white something you’re specifically interested in?
I have a real specific viewpoint on that kind of stuff. With making Creed, I wasn’t thinking I was gonna make a "black Rocky" movie, it was more that I wanted to make a movie about what me and my dad were going through, and my dad’s favorite character was Rocky, and it was kind of an allegory for us. And Apollo Creed was always there, and black people loved Apollo Creed. He was like a god to us, so it was another interesting way to bring that character back.
Hamilton did something different from me in Creed, and I think in many ways it’s more powerful—so often, as a young black man, black people in history were often portrayed by people who didn’t look like the real people did. You could call it whitewashing—but when I close my eyes and think of what Jesus Christ looked like, it isn’t accurate to what that guy actually looked like. When I close my eyes and think of what ancient Egyptians look like, so many movies cast actors that are descendants of Vikings or something. So what Hamilton actually did is it reversed that, which is crazy, because I’d never seen it done so well and so effortlessly. So now when I close my eyes and think of Alexander Hamilton, I think of Lin. I think of Daveed (Diggs) when I think of Thomas Jefferson, which really shows the power of images and art.
I have been on the other side of that so many times and didn’t even know it, or realize how powerful it was, the power that comes with seeing someone who looks like you doing something great. I left Hamilton feeling incredibly empowered—more empowered than I ever had in making a work of art, and I realized this is the reversal of what happens so much. Hamilton is only one story reversed the other way, but throughout history everything good done by a person of color had been reversed like that. Hamilton is so much greater than Creed and so much more important, but because they’re different mediums, movies can go out to more people at a greater rate. They get released all over the world at once to thousands of screens, and people don’t have to have access to a play to know what a movie is. I have a lot of friends with young black sons, and after they watched the movie, they’d send us video of their kids boxing and punching pillows in the house and sticking their arms up. I didn’t expect that part to be real—and just like Rocky, it’s people from all over and all cultures that love Adonis.
You’re doing Black Panther next, which has to both stand alone and fit into all of the moving parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How do you make sure that it still feels like a Ryan Coogler movie?
It’s a specific challenge. What Marvel’s doing, and what you see a lot of studios doing now that Marvel has done it so successfully, is making content that exists in a particular universe, where the characters tie in and crossover, and I think that’s a great creative challenge to me—to make this movie as personal as possible. It’s going to be my most personal movie to date, which is crazy to say, but it’s completely the case. I’m obsessed with this character and this story right now, and I think it’s going to be very unique and still fit into the overall narrative that they’re establishing. I grew up as a comic book fan, and the same things used to happen in the comic books. You’d have Wolverine’s books, and they’d be so much darker and more brutal than the X-Men books, but they’d still fit in when you open the pages of the X-Men book. It’s new to movies, but it’s not new to storytelling.
You went from Fruitvale to Creed to working on Black Panther. Are there new challenges in working on a movie that had a release date before you were even hired?
Yeah, but it’s funny, because things that appear to be challenges, I actually look at them as blessings. I’m not too far removed from making an independent film and not knowing if it’s gonna see the light of day. We didn’t know if it’d get into Sundance, or if we’d even finish it. We could have run out of money. Then you finish, and you wonder if you’ll get into Sundance. Then will anybody like it? If they buy it, will they put it out to theaters? With each step, it’s a huge victory, but the finish line was getting it out to the world. To work on a movie where before you’re hired, you know it’s going to go out to the world is really, really cool. It’s daunting, and it’s intense, but Creed was the first time I worked on a movie I knew would come out, so with this, it’s actually something that I’m looking forward to.