I have all sorts of guests in my weekly film symposium class at the USC School of Visual Arts: directors, writers, producers, composers, production designers, etc. But there’s no question that the temperature rises in the room when an actor—especially a movie star—is present for a q&a session after a screening of his or her latest film. The last two sessions of the fall semester were especially exciting, and rewarding, for all involved.
The week before Thanksgiving we screened Creed with writer-director Ryan Coogler, a loyal USC alumni, and his colleagues, most of whom attended school with him and worked on his first feature, Fruitvale Station: co-writer Aaron Covington, composer Ludwig Göransson, and film editors Michael Shawver and Claudia Castello. The surprise guest of the evening was none other than Sylvester Stallone, whom I introduced last, prompting a spontaneous standing ovation from my 350 students. After all, they had just seen him give a knockout performance onscreen.
Our onstage discussion lasted nearly an hour and could easily have gone longer. Each participant had interesting things to say about working on the film and tellingly, each one was influenced in some way by Stallone, who created the Rocky characters nearly forty years ago and offered useful notes.
Perhaps the most surprising statement of the evening came from Ryan Coogler. He said people assumed that Fruitvale Station was his most personal film, but in fact, this one is, because it represents a strong connection with his father. His dad loved the Rocky movies and Ryan remembers watching them, over and over, alongside his father over the years.
That feeling comes through in Creed: it’s not a contrived studio sequel, but a story told from the heart. One of my students asked why the leading female character played by Tessa Thompson has hearing loss. Ryan explained that his fiancée teaches ASL (American Sign Language) and being with her has brought him into that sphere. In other words, a significant facet of the movie is drawn from reality and is not a mere bit of business. No wonder it’s such a striking story point.
As for Stallone, he personifies the phrase “movie star” as well as anyone on the planet—and he knows how to work an audience. He was dismissive of Coogler when they first met because he had no interest in revisiting the Rocky Balboa character. Then, when he read the rave reviews for Fruitvale Station he realized that perhaps he should take the young filmmaker more seriously, and opened himself up to the idea of playing his emblematic character one more time. His remaining hesitation was portraying Rocky as an older man who is ill. “Couldn’t his neighbor get sick?” he asked, only half-kidding.
It was a memorable night for my class, following a strong semester with a wide array of guests and films, from documentarian Ondi Timoner (with her Russell Brand feature Brand: A Second Coming) to composer Harry Gregson-Williams (with The Martian), Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen (with Bridge of Spies), writer Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, who co-directed the offbeat animated feature Anomalisa. Patricia Riggen, the Mexican-American director of The 33, was a particular inspiration to my female students. The semester got off to a rousing start with Wolf Totem and its charismatic director, Jean-Jacques Annaud. The 3-D film may have its faults, but I couldn’t have asked for a better opening-night guest, a man who has made films all over the world and remains as passionate as ever about his work at the age of 71.
But there is that extra something that a movie star brings to the party, as I was reminded when Bryan Cranston came to class with director Jay Roach and writer-producer John McNamara for a screening of Trumbo. The obvious respect they had for one another spoke to the benefit of true collaboration, and each man was incredibly articulate about this labor-of-love project. (Jay Roach actually taught at USC after graduating from the cinema department in the 1980s.)
Bryan, whose daughter took my class a few years ago, couldn’t have been kinder or more generous, staying afterwards to meet every student who wanted a private moment with him. He made the point that actors are storytellers, and that’s what excites him about finding a great role to play. He also admitted that having been on a popular TV series like Malcolm in the Middle enabled him to sock away money so that now he can choose his projects without any financial burden on his shoulders.
These experiences give you some idea of why I love teaching this course, even as I prepare to start my 18th year in January. Some weeks the films are better than others, and sometimes the guests are more eloquent than others, but I’m never bored because I learn something every single night.