CLEVELAND: It’s only taken Steven Caple Jr. a minute to arrive on the scene by filmmakers’ standards.

He’s gone from his first feature film — “The Land,” a movie about teens and skateboard culture in Cleveland, his hometown — to helming “Creed II,” the latest film in the “Rocky” franchise.

That would prove a daunting task for anyone, let alone a filmmaker some may perceive as inexperienced. No one could blame Caple if he approached the opportunity with some reticence. He certainly had some concern before signing on.

“So, when your name is brought up ... it's an honor. But at the same time, I'm, like, people follow Sly [Stallone], Ryan [Coogler], certain great filmmakers. You know what I mean, and they put a lot into this franchise. And so, yeah, it's like are we trying to make something better than 'Creed I?' What are we tying into, bringing back iconic characters ... What's the tone?”

For the record: “Creed II” is emotionally resonant and polished while maintaining the grit of the original, which introduced the son, Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan), of Rocky Balboa’s one-time nemesis and eventual friend Apollo Creed. Caple manages to leave his signature on the franchise with a couple of nice twists that surprise viewers and elevate the film.

Coogler’s “Creed” dealt with Apollo’s overwhelming presence, even in death. Caple’s “Creed II” presents characters confronting their ghosts throughout. By going back and bringing Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian) into the mix, drama is heightened, for Rocky and, more notably, Adonis.

Caple sat down with Stallone and Jordan to see where the series should go before accepting the gig. The most important consideration: Jordan’s input was pivotal in deciding where Adonis’ real journey begins.

“He wants to see where we can go with his character that was new and not just a revenge story,” Caple said. “So the movie is not about just getting payback. It's about how he's remembered, ultimately, and he's worried about it but he wasn't looking at what was in front of him which is always, most importantly, family.”

Family has been a consistent theme in the “Rocky” series, along with the underdog theme and others, but the franchise is also more than 40 years old. Coogler brought the series into the 21st century with his development of Adonis Creed. After the film surprised with a $110 million box office gross on the studio’s reported $35 million investment, a sequel was inevitable.

It’s also not surprising Stallone would want more involvement beyond reprising his role as Balboa. He receives a film-writing credit on this installment. There were reports that he wanted to direct, which could have shifted the tone and feel greatly for a host of reasons. It was important that someone from Coogler’s generation continue in a similar voice (Coogler is 32, Caple is 30). The movie legend came to a realization.

“I think Sly, first he wrote a draft of the script. A lot of it is still in there, the foundation is in there. He mastered that when it comes to telling an underdog story,” Caple said. “But character-wise, after speaking to him, our first convo, he's like, 'I don't know how to speak for Adonis. I don't even know the first step in that.' ”

No matter how universal a story can be regardless of cultures, differences in that realm still exist. Adonis Creed is African-American, as are those surrounding him, so it’s impossible to ignore that aspect of the character. Knowing that perspective allows for authenticity and nuance that show up in subtle dramatic and humorous ways. To his credit, Stallone recognized that.

“We got black characters that are in the lead. So to make sure that our voices stick out was important. He didn't want to fall flat in that,” Caple said. “And the studio didn't either, neither did Ryan and Mike. So, I guess I feel like I was that mesh of both.”

That need for honesty fits in with his mantra as a filmmaker: providing a voice for the voiceless. He believes he accomplished that with “Creed II.”

“That's just part of my style when I approach filmmaking. It's to find that honesty and rawness within scenes,” he said. “I'm really hoping it portrays in this one, but if I don't feel that in a movie, I probably won't even do it, to be totally honest with you.”

That begs the question: Is there any interest in directing another in this series?

“I'm interested in ‘Creed III,’ I'm interested in ‘Creed IV,’ ” he joked. “No, in all seriousness, we definitely been talking about it and trying to figure out ways, like how to push it forward.

“There's a few outlets and things that I sprinkled in this to allow us to go into places with this. So I'm excited to see where it goes. The demand's high. There's a natural progression within the story, within the characters. It doesn't feel forced. I think we'll definitely do that.”

 

George M. Thomas can be reached at gthomas@thebeaconjournal.com.