The release of Rocky Balboa, in cinemas now, reminds us of two things; we love Rocky and we love Sylvester Stallone. In these days of fast-moving MTV-style action movies it’s easy to forget just how much Stallone and his contemporaries did for cinema and Rocky’s final outing is a great wake-up call. Ahead of the release of Rocky Balboa and, later this year, a new Rambo film, Rotten Tomatoes UK caught up with Sylvester Stallone who’s all set to be the biggest movie star on the planet for a new generation of cinemagoer.
RT-UK: Would you ever have imagined that 30 years after creating this character you’d still be talking about him after five sequels?
Sylvester Stallone: [Laughs] No. It’s kind of like a cinematic freak of nature, it really is. I knew it was a foolish idea to even think about it a few years ago, so the fact that it’s actually happened is just crazy. But sometimes crazy ideas are worth following.
RT-UK: You encountered some resistance from studios when making the first Rocky film. Did you experience the same sort of thing when coming back with this?
SS: The irony is that it was much tougher coming back to it even though I was known. As the business has changed so much, the character was considered passé, I was considered passé, and that was just reality; time had moved on. The studio was very upfront about that; they didn’t pull any punches. The first time it was because I was unknown but because it was possible to do at such an inexpensive price, they could take a chance. Those days are gone. There’s no risk taking. Maybe a few independent films but studios don’t take chances. People that really greenlight films today are the marketing department. Can they sell a film? So they’d ask: “Can we sell a 59-year-old has-been boxer?” It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
But I said: “You know what? Eventually everyone feels like a has-been when they’re not. That’s the whole point – that’s the premise of the story. That we all still have this thing burning inside of us and if we just nurture it, we can revitalise ourselves.” But they still said they weren’t really interested and it was only by accident…. they turned it down for over seven years. But then the studio head was replaced and the new studio head happened to walk into this small Mexican restaurant at about 15 minutes to midnight, in Mexico. I was sitting at a table feeling sorry for myself and he said: “Oh hello Sylvester.” And I said: “Oh my God, how are you doing?” He asked me what was up, I told him that I’d written Rocky Balboa and he asked to see it. I thought I was hallucinating; I couldn’t believe it was happening. So he took it home, his wife read it, she cried and the movie was greenlit. So, don’t ever underestimate women in boxing!
RT-UK: Was there ever a suggestion that someone else should direct?
SS: There were a lot of suggestions. I was in a restaurant about two weeks before filming began and John Avildsen [director of the original] walked in and said: “Why don’t you let me direct it?” He said “Your acting’s good, your writing’s OK, but why don’t you let me direct it?” But I said: “No. If it doesn’t work, I want to be responsible. If you direct it and it doesn’t work out, I’ll want to kill you… just kidding!” But I just wanted to keep it as one unit and one vision. But the idea of another director was suggested a lot because it’s a lot to chew off. A boxing film is very physically exhausting. But you know what? It was the best time of my life and last night [at the London premiere] was the crowning point of my professional career. I really wanted to savour it all. Rocky, the original, was amazing and to have that whole journey. But to have one more shot and then see an audience out there in the street that young – for an old man that’s like “wow”. That was really a vindication. I was so touched I almost cried.
RT-UK: With Rocky Balboa you’re kind of rounding things out. Does that suggest you might have some regrets about some of the sequels in between?
SS: I do, some of them. I’m not trying to be contrary but I felt as though some of them – when I look back – were a bit too focused on the fight and were maybe a little manipulative with some of the montages and the music. It was going away from the original Bill Conti music, we tried to find something trendy. They still had some emotional content but it wasn’t like the first one, which was really simplistic. I would say that maybe 90% of the movie was non-action. It was interaction with the audience and non-action with boxing.
RT-UK: When you’re choreographing the fight scenes as well as directing, how do you come up with new ways of showing boxing on-screen?
SS: It’s hard to show new ways; with the other Rocky boxing sequences I had pretty much mined out what I would consider the highpoints of boxing. I would see certain fights, classic fights, and say maybe I can borrow that sequence, or that sequence and try and put it all together. On this one, I didn’t want to be that choreographed. So, by accident, there was an injury during the sparring and we didn’t have a lot of time to do choreography. So since I was in there with the real light heavyweight champion of the world I said: “Why don’t we make it up as we go along?” That’s why there’s no boxing choreography credit.
I had this idea that Rocky at this point should go from that corner, to this corner, to there but let’s make contact; so if I do get hit and I do get thrown back a little bit work with it. Don’t stop and ask “are you OK?” So the beauty of working with a real fighter is that he incorporated these real-life scenarios where he would counter-punch and do things that I could never have come up with.
RT-UK: Bearing in mind it’s Muhammad Ali’s birthday today, looking back what are the best fights you’ve ever witnessed as part of your research for the Rocky films? And who do you rate as the top boxer?
SS: Without a doubt, the greatest fighter that ever lived was Sugar Ray Robinson, there’s just no question. Not only could he fight, but he could take the punches and he was brilliant. As for the research, the fact that Muhammad Ali actually existed is what I think helped Rocky I happen because of Apollo Creed. I would probably never have come up with that character, ever, just in terms of that flashiness. Because there was no-one else; there was always Joe Lewis and these quiet characters. So on his birthday I give Ali a great deal of gratitude.
RT-UK: What was the experience of shooting the fight scenes in Rocky at the Mandalay Bay?
SS: I’ve shot four cinematic fights but I thought I’d like to do a real fight with a real audience and use their rules. There’s a certain way that HBO Showtime, our pay-per-view, shoot fights. So I found one of these big fights – a mega fight – which was Bernard Hopkins’ middleweight title fight in the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and there were 12,000 people. So I asked whether I could use their crowd. I said: “Right before your fighters come in, can we come in?” The audience didn’t know that, so they’d come to see Bernard Hopkins and here’s Rocky Balboa 17 years later coming in and they were like: “Excuse me? Cheque please!”
Then of course their fight went on and afterwards we asked the audience if they wanted to stick around as we’re going to have a Rocky fight. Thousands of them did. So then we also used their weigh-in and their press conferences. Everything in the film is real; the only thing fake in it is me. Everything else was real fighters, real crowd, real everything. So that’s what I think sets it apart from other Rocky movies.
RT-UK: What was the buzz like from doing that?
SS: It was amazing because these were not paid extras. So they yelled things at you that were sometimes not flattering. Sometimes they were. But it was scary because [at one stage] I was three quarters of the way up to the ring and there was no “Rocky, Rocky Rocky”. Finally, 15ft from the ring people began to start chanting and woke up. I was like: “Thank God!” I thought we were going to be humiliated. It’s tough enough doing this. So that was the first scene and I had yet to take my robe off. Put it this way, fear was the main course that night.
RT-UK: What was the training like for you this time around?
SS: The training was pretty gruelling because I’m not exactly a spring chicken. Everything you touch breaks a part of your body, so it was rough. I wanted to try to emphasise what you saw in the film we did for real. That’s training heavy and adopting more of a gruelling, less body builder, more pounding to emphasise the point in the film. That kind of training develops a certain kind of body, which is more ponderous and thick, more of a body for a beast of burden rather than a slick animal. But the injuries between myself and Antonio were extraordinary. Every day we had bulging discs, we had tendon problems, I broke two toes and my metatarsal, and he broke his knuckle. It was unbelievable but it paid off in the end. Then someone asked: “Did you CGI your body.” I went: “I wish!”
RT-UK: Your wife reportedly tried to persuade you against doing this. How does she feel about the finished film?
SS: If it had not worked I probably would be reminded about it every day. Or she would have just swept it under the carpet and been glad because I would have been home babysitting for eternity – which is what she wanted! She asked me to but I said that the girls have no idea what I do for a living. I just would love, one day, to let them see what their father used to do. They thought I played golf for a living. They’d be filling in questionnaires at school saying golfer, or does things in the yard. So one of my finest pictures is when they’re in Las Vegas with me in the ring. I think that photo ran in Britain. But that photo is amazing.
RT-UK: What made you use Geraldine Hughes? And is Antonio Carver going to make a career out of acting now?
SS: With Geraline Hughes, I had read many, many American actresses and a lot of them were putting on airs about what Philadelphia sounded like and were getting streety. Or they were too pretty. So I thought to myself: “You’ll know when it walks in the room, just like Talia Shire. When she walked in it was just like, “cast her immediately.” So all of a sudden Geraldine walked in, she was kind of shy, there was hair hanging in her face and I was like: “Oh man, if she can act then wow!” When she read it was a horrible audition outside because there was noises everywhere – a Xerox machine going, phones ringing – and she was just perfect. And she just got better and better and prettier and prettier.
Antonio Tarver, I said to him: “After that last fight, you’d better consider acting!” I told him that he’d put on too much weight. What had happened was that he’d got up to 230lbs. I saw him at the premiere and he thinks he’s going to fight again. He thinks he’s going to fight Hopkins again in a rematch but I don’t think he’ll ever be able to get down to 175lbs again, ever. So he’ll have to fight cruiser weight. But he will fight.
RT-UK: Boxing always lends itself very well to cinema. There have been a lot of great movies. Why do you think that is? And do you have any personal favourite boxing movies?
SS: The idea that boxing lends itself to cinema so well is because it’s usually a morality play – good against evil, insecurity and triumph, fear strikes out, so the audience can really get drawn into the drama of it. Also, it was sensual and very primal. I think subliminally we do two things – life is a fight, life is a struggle and we understand that from our early, early, early ancestors, and life is a race. That’s why there’s a lot of racing films because I think we identify with the race. It’s like “will I finish, will I cross the finish line?” So it’s those two sports that I think we’re really in touch with on a primal level.
There aren’t many fight films like Rocky. Rocky is more of a fantasy in many ways. This one and the first one are the most realistic. The other ones tend to be a little bit more fanciful. Most fight films, gritty ones like Fat City by John Huston, the really good fight films, quite often the subject is sad, or really depressing because a lot of fighters have these horrible lives. But there’s been a couple of good ones. James Cagney did a great one and The Champion, which was excellent. And Raging Bull is fantastic.
RT-UK: When you’re walking around Philadelphia, how much is it about Rocky and how much you playing the role?
SS: In Philadelphia, there’s no delineation, they address me as Rocky, for real. They’ll say things like: “Rocky, do you like this coat?” Or: “Rock, say hi to my sister, Rock.” Or: “Yo Rock, I know a great restaurant.” There’s no Sylvester. Even the Mayor goes: “It’s good to have Rocky here today.” I knew it was over when I went to the Senate and I was in the Senate building and Senator Ted Kennedy said: “I’d like to welcome Rocky Balboa…” Oh my God.
RT-UK: How does your real-life relationship with your son compare with the one on-screen?
SS: Well, what you see in the film is the relationship I have with my son, no question about it. That’s why I think it rings true. I don’t know if that bridge will ever be connected. There will always be that kind of friction. Honestly, it’s the truth. But I learned from my mistakes. Maybe I wasn’t around enough. When you’re younger you just want to go out there and make your mark in the world and doing that, quite often, the people that you love the most and the people you should be closest to suffer from estrangement. I’d be gone nine months a year, so how do you know anyone? When you come home you’re a stranger.
So this time, I live for my children. I dote on them. They’re the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night. It hurts me to be away from them for a few hours. It really does. I love them and they’re girls, so they know how to push my buttons quickly. But I’ve learned a lot and I have to thank my wife for that.
RT-UK: What’s the state of play with Rambo?
SS: Well, I signed up to do Rambo almost a year and a half before this film, otherwise I never would have done Rambo and Rocky together. The idea of Rambo is kind of intriguing as a closing chapter, like this film. When you shoot a film as a sequel to do another sequel it’s a whole other tone. But when you know it’s the final chapter you try and put in there as much emotion and understanding and closure as you can. So, I thought: “I’m going to do John Rambo, I have to do it, and now I’ll try and make the best of it and bring out a really dark character.” Whereas Rocky is a light character, and optimistic, Rambo has been up to his waist in blood for 30 years and guess what? Nothing is solved, the world’s still rough, the world’s still broken, so what does it all mean? It’s that kind of anger. And now he lives in the Far East.
So that’s going to be some kind of Joseph Campbell journey back to home. I’m going to do that and then I really have very little aspirations about acting because I think that probably the best things have come and gone. I would like to focus on writing and directing. I wouldn’t turn down a good Mafioso part, let’s put it that way, but I love writing and directing even though writing can be incredibly painful and lonely. I get great satisfaction from doing it.