It is, admittedly, quite surreal to be grumbling Sylvester Stallone impersonations halfway through my interview with Juel Taylor, the screenwriter of the hugely anticipated Creed II. Though Juel certainly has the distinctive vocal tones of the Italian stallion perfected, his face cracks into a smile when describing the process of seeing this cinematic icon “saying some stuff I wrote”. He laughs again and states with equal parts humility and disbelief: “it’s strange seeing a superstar, someone you grew up watching films of, saying some of your stuff. It’s a weird effect, it’s pretty surreal”. Surreal seems to be the word that I feel epitomises the experience of writing the screenplay for one of the biggest films of the year for Juel.
The sheer hype for the second instalment in the Creed franchise, or eighth in the Rocky franchise as a whole, has reached an almost preposterous level. In this instalment, Michael B Jordan’s eponymous boxer returns to the ring for a predictably epic showdown against Viktor Drago, son of the man who killed his father thirty years prior. After the critical acclaim of Ryan Coogler’s first entry, Steven Caple Jr has taken over the directing duties whilst Taylor and Rocky icon Sylvester Stallone have the unenviable challenge of penning the script. But it’s clear from talking to Juel, that this is still a rather peculiar moment in his life.
“it’s strange seeing a superstar, someone you grew up watching films of, saying some of your stuff. it’s a weird effect, it’s pretty surreal”
“It doesn’t really feel like it’s concrete until you see the trailer and you see your name up there on the billing. I didn’t really think about it actively until my Facebook started blowing up. I didn’t want to talk about it until the arbitration came through, as before you get the credit on the film, you have all these things you have to do and all these hoops you have to jump through and any number of things could go wrong. But when the trailer came out, it was…”. He smiles to himself, realising that the same word yet again springs to mind: “surreal”, he finishes.
The almost-hour long conversation was full of intriguing and riveting anecdotes from the writer, in conversation. Juel remains a generous, humble and animated individual, still seeming in disbelief about how he managed to obtain this prestigious opportunity.
“I went to USC with Steven and it was sort of random, he reached out to me after he first signed on as Director and asked if I was maybe interested in writing; he had put my name in the hat and I was like “cool”. I really didn’t really think much of it, but surprisingly enough, they were trying to start shooting and get the engine running as fast as they could, and it all happened really quickly. From the time Steven told me he put my name in the hat to me getting the job, it wasn’t even a week. I didn’t think I was going to get it, but they took a chance. I think it was Steven being very vocal, persistent and adamant, and really wanting me to do it. They liked my samples enough and thought I could do it, but there were things that went beyond “could you write?”. There was a more political and logistical aspect, and it was more about how fast I could turn around drafts”.
The conversation shifts to Juel’s experience in film prior to Creed II, which mostly surrounded the more technical elements of production. “I PA’d on a lot of big projects, but it really wasn’t the same” Juel remarks, “I was away from all the interesting stuff, dealing with angry pedestrians mostly”. Working on the sound and editing, Taylor claims that his previous experience put him in strong stead for screenwriting, understanding the quintessential technical “nuts and bolts of a scene” and applying it during the scripting process.
Of course, one of the Creed II’s most exciting elements is the return of the iconic Russian villain, Ivan Drago, from the most emblematically eighties film in the series – Rocky IV. The disgruntled Ivan brings with him his son Viktor, who will be exchanging blows with Adonis over the film’s runtime. It feels inevitable but also rather poetic to bring the two characters together, and I was curious to know if this had always been in the narrative schematics of the film.
“The idea of Drago was in the zeitgeist, but it wasn’t like we sat down and said that we wanted to make a Drago movie – it was the direction they were leaning, and it was a natural progression of taking the pieces that were already set up. There weren’t any mandates from Ryan, he kind of let us do our thing”.
Of course, the conversation naturally progresses to working with Sylvester Stallone and how the two developed their own writing style together. “Sly is the voice on the mountain top, if you think about it” Juel begins “A large part of the writing process was synthesising what Sly wanted to do, he’s the Rocky encyclopedia – Sly is literally Rocky. Steven and I are two young black dudes that have two different perspectives. It’s a blend of his understanding of lore and canon and things that you don’t necessarily see in the previous Rocky films, and it was us picking his brain too and asking him, when you wrote it, what did you think about x, y and z?”
“I had no idea what scripts even looked like when I was 18. I didn’t get into film stuff until I was halfway through undergrad in college when I was an art major. I wanted to make videogames which is film-adjacent, but it was a lot of random and serendipitous events that got me into film”
On the aspect of co-writing, which is an often idiosyncratic and varied procedure depending on the screenwriters involved, Juel explains that “the writing process evolved over the time of writing the script. At first there was a pre-existing draft that Sly had been working on, but then I’d do a draft and then Sly would do a pass on the draft. It was never a “you write this scene”, “I write this scene” sort of thing. But then we would get notes from Sly, notes from the studio, notes from the Producers. But then as we got closer to production, we would go out to Philadelphia and talk to him about it, it was granular. I didn’t know what Sly was going to be like, but he was very cool and really chill. He has a writing hat, it’s like there is Sly the writer and then there is Sly the movie star”.
We then begin to discuss the early part of Juel’s career and he talks about being a relatively “green” writer. “I had no idea what scripts even looked like when I was 18. I didn’t get into film stuff until I was halfway through undergrad in college when I was an art major. I wanted to make videogames which is film-adjacent, but it was a lot of random and serendipitous events that got me into film”. There’s something actually quite inspiring regarding Juel’s self-taught method of screenwriting, as he states he had no formal training but that the best thing he did was to “just start writing”. He claims that “positive reinforcement gets you to keep doing it and then I bought a book from Amazon and wrote my first script like you would write a play, the formatting was totally not what a script looked like, but I bought a book about it, downloaded Final Draft and started writing”.
I asked him what he wishes he could’ve known when he was younger as an aspiring filmmaker and he states that: “the main thing is not waiting for permission to do it. I just started picking things up along the way. If the instincts are there, then just keep writing scripts, who cares if they suck!? It’s the repetition that brings the mechanics. It’s the iterations that breath quality, it doesn’t have to be awesome immediately. Nine times out of ten, having something there, even if it sucks, is better than nothing. Give yourself permission not to like it. Most of the time it’s not that people can’t think of something to write; they think it’s bad”.
I had watched Juel’s earlier student works and I ask if the transition onto Creed II was jarring and he clearly points out how the scale is just one of the many facets that change when working with a budget that’s eight digits long.
“It is strange seeing a superstar, someone you grow up watching movies of, say something you wrote. But also, the scale and the engines of the movie studio, there’s so much muscle behind it and super organised. There’ll be a technocrane on standby, but if you want even something like a Steadicam in film school, it’s a case of ‘how the hell do we get that?!’ Even the small technical flourishes need so much planning. But you mention it on Creed, someone is going to bring it. When you’re writing, you’re sitting on a couch, laughing about something, but someone is having a heart attack trying to get THE black car. You say, wouldn’t it be cool if he was underwater and then someone is getting grey hairs trying to find you the right pool.”
I ask him if he’s seen the finished edit of the movie, and he responds that he’s yet to see the film with all the various parts in unison. “I have seen cuts of it, but I was busy when they did the final test screening, I haven’t seen it with the music, the mastering, the mix. I’ve heard the music but haven’t seen it all together. It’ll be a crazy experience, but I’ll still have some measure of surprise”.
As for what’s next for Taylor, he states that a lot of projects are still in gestation, awaiting to be green lit, but it can be at a moment’s notice when all the pistons of the Hollywood machine will suddenly be working at maximum. He asks me to let him know my thoughts on the movie when it releases in the UK on 30 November, and I eagerly accept. Things may be feeling surreal for Juel at this present moment, but for him, much like the title character of Creed, things are only just getting started.