‘It truly is a violent ballet’: How Creed 3 created those brutal, bone-crunching fight sequences
It is often said that fight scenes in films are more akin to dances than actual combat. It is a sentiment that Clayton Barber certainly supports. “It truly is a violent ballet,” the American tells The Independent, while reflecting on his 30-year career in film and television – a career in which he has worked as a choreographer, stuntman and actor.
In recent years, two of his most prominent choreography credits have come on 2015’s Rocky spin-off Creed, and the series’ newest instalment Creed 3. Upon its release this month, the third instalment of the spin-off trilogy secured the most successful opening weekend in the history of the Rocky franchise, and it has gone on to gross $182m worldwide at the time of writing.
The film, like Creed and 2018’s Creed 2, stars Michael B Jordan in the lead role of Adonis Creed, and it also marks the 36-year-old’s directorial debut. Acting opposite Jordan is Jonathan Majors, who – at the age of 33 – has shot to fame this year for his portrayal of Marvel villain Kang in Ant-Man 3.
Barber spoke to The Independent about what it was like to work with Jordan and Majors, and what is required for a “violent ballet” to find its rhythm.
You’ve practised martial arts from a young age. When it came to choreographing boxing, did your existing skills suffice, or have you enlisted the help of professional boxers for guidance along the way?
I think my martial arts experience has always helped me in Hollywood because, when it comes to fight choreography, no matter if you use your fist, feet or a weapon, it is the same story: a violent ballet. Boxing is by far the hardest, in my opinion, because it doesn’t lie – two people in the ring, each with two fists, and one square. The environment dictates the story, and it is difficult to be original and truthful.
I like to bring in true boxers to help with training basics for the actors. They bring truth and provide confidence, so I can focus on the story, camera and characters with the director. Real boxers act as coach and security blanket in building the fight.
What is the first thing you tell anyone who is working on a fight scene for the first time?
“Don’t worry, trust the process and team, and we will guide you.” I look them in the eye and say, “We are going to sweat, suffer, and bleed together.” This is the journey and the expectation for all of us. We shake hands and make a contract for success. Then I give them a big hug and say, “Let’s get to work!”
How quickly did Michael B Jordan take to this style of choreography back on the first film, and how about Jonathan Majors on this film?
Michael is a pro at this by now. He has done this for 10 years and three films with this character, and he is basically a savant at choreography and performing. I’ve never worked with any actor with a better memory for the moves, or a stronger work ethic. It’s amazing to see and makes my job a little easier.
Jonathan Majors was new to doing a boxing movie, but he hit it head on and embraced the journey. We called him “the machine” because he never left the gym. He was there from morning until evening, always working on something. He always wanted to do one more round, one more rep, talk about the story and try to find magic. Kudos to these guys for their work ethic and dedication. They truly were the perfect pair for this film.
What are some of the most difficult elements for you, and also for the actors involved in these scenes?
One of the most difficult elements for me is to get everyone to buy into this process. After I get my orders from the director, I go out and write the physical and visual language, like a rough draft of a script.
Once we agree on this direction, I’ve got to get production design, props, make up, wardrobe and everyone on the same page. The camera operator and DP are the most important partners for my work. My goal is to get the operator to be on the same team as stunts, so we work in unison and rehearse everything.
When everyone knows the action script, the actors feel comfortable, the camera is ready, and so on. This a very efficient way to work because in production, time is not your friend. Magic happens when you prep, prep, prep. There is only a certain amount of takes that you can put the actors through before they run out of gas.
What are some of the most fun elements?
The fun is when this process works, and I see everyone grow and do something they really thought they couldn’t do. Then the journey is real.
Are there any stories that stand out from the filming of Creed 3, when it came to the fight scenes?
I really couldn’t believe what was happening when we were filming. I knew something special was happening with Michael's vision for the film and I believe they did, too, and so Michael and Jonathan were pushing each other hard. But they never went down. In the end, we all looked at each other and said, “That just happened!” We suffered together through that journey and hugged it out. Much respect to these guys for what they did and what they went through.
A lot of people say that fight choreography is in fact more like dancing than fighting. Do you agree with that analogy, or would you sum it up in a different way?
Yes, fight choreography is like a dance more than a real fight. It truly is a violent ballet. Everything must be rehearsed, memorised, and performed over and over a thousand times, because the moves must work perfectly in order to be safe. All departments must come together, from top down. When the two actors dance together in this process, you find real magic.