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Rocky in a hard place

It takes a lot to get a gang of grizzled journos to burst into a bout of spontaneous applause, but when Sylvester Stallone passes through the hack holding pen, that’s what happens. They stop short – just – of chanting ‘Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!’ but we know they’re probably chewing their cheeks to stop themselves. Mind you, a few minutes into our interview, TF wants to start chanting too – Stallone is refreshingly honest, pleasant and – shock, horror – funny. When he leaves, everyone wants to shake his hand. We can understand why...

Can you believe that 30 years after creating this character you’re sitting here talking about him after 5 sequels?
It’s kind of a cinematic freak of nature, it really is. I knew it was a foolish idea to even think about it a few years ago and the fact that it’s actually happened is just crazy, but it proves that sometimes crazy ideas are worth following.

Do you regret any of the sequels in between?
I do, I do regret some of them. I’m not trying to be contrary, but I felt like some of them when I look back on them were a bit too focused on the fight, maybe a little bit manipulative with some of the montages and the music, going away from the original Bill Conti music and trying to be trendy.

Who’s your favourite fighter?
Without a doubt, the greatest fighter that ever lived was Sugar Ray Robinson, there is just no question, not only could he fight, he could take a punch, brilliant, just unbelievable.

How do you come up with new ways of shooting the boxing scenes?
Well, on this I didn’t want it 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, and since I was in there with the real light heavyweight champion of the world, I said, ‘Why don’t we kind of make it up as we go along?’ That’s why there isn’t a boxing choreography credit. The beauty of working with a real fighter is that he incorporated these real-life scenarios where he would counter punch that I never would have come up with.

You encountered some resistance making the original Rocky. Did you have similar problems coming back to it?

The irony is it was much tougher coming back to it, even though I was known. The business has changed so much, and the character was considered passé, I was considered passé, time moves on and the studio was very upfront about that; they didn’t pull any punches.

The first time, it was because I was an unknown, and because it was done at such an inexpensive price, they could take a chance but those days are gone. There’s no risk taking, except for maybe a few independent films, but studios do not take chances. The people who really greenlight films today are the marketing department. Can they sell a film? They say, well, can we sell a 59 year-old has-been boxer? It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

But, I said, you know what? 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, it can revitalise us. And they said, well, we’re not really interested.

They had turned it down for almost seven years and then the studio head was replaced, and the new studio head happened to walk into a small Mexican restaurant, at about 15 minutes to midnight, on New Year’s Eve, in Mexico.

I was sitting at a table feeling a little sorry for myself, and he goes, ‘Oh hello Sylvester’, and I said ‘Oh my god, how’re you doing Joe?’ And he goes ‘What’s up?’ And I said, ‘I wrote this sequel - Rocky Balboa.’ ‘Can I see it?’ I’m like, I’m hallucinating, I can’t believe this is happening, ‘Yeah.’ He takes it home, his wife reads it, she cries and the movie’s greenlit. So, don’t ever underestimate women in boxing.

How did your wife feel about you resurrecting Rocky? Was she supportive?
Oh, if it had not worked I probably would have been reminded of it every day; ‘I told you so, I told you so’ or she would have swept it under the carpet and been glad because I would have been home babysitting for eternity, which is what she wanted. She said ‘Stay home, stay home’ and I said ‘I would, darling, but the girls have no idea what I do for a living, I just would love one day to see what their father used to do.’ Because they thought I played golf for a living, for real.

Rocky’s relationship with his son is a big part of the film – does it reflect your relationship with your own son?
What you saw in the film is the relationship I have with my son no doubt about it. That’s why it rings true. I don’t know if that bridge will ever be connected, there’ll always be that kind of friction.

There’s been a lot of great boxing movies – what is it about the sport that works so well on film?
The idea that boxing lends itself to cinema so well is because it’s normally a morality play, good against evil, insecurity, fear strikes out, you fight against a fearful opponent – so the audience can get really caught up in the drama. And also, it’s sensual – a man in shorts and sweating; it’s primal.

And I think, subliminally, we do two things; life is a fight, life is a struggle, we understand that from our early, early, early ancestors, and life is a race – that’s why there’s a lot of racing films, a lot of racing, horse-racing every kind of racing – because I think we identify with the race. Will I finish? Will I cross the finish line? So it’s those two sports that we’re really in touch with on a primal level.

What fight films do you like yourself?
There aren’t many fight films like Rocky, Rocky is kind of a fantasy in many ways, this one is the most realistic, and the first one, the other ones tend to be a little bit more fanciful. Most fight films, gritty ones like Fat City by John Huston, are really good fight films. But quite often, the subject is sad. It’s really depressing, because a lot of fighters have these horrible lives. There’s been a couple of good ones, James Cagney did a great one, The Champion was excellent, Raging Bull is fantastic, fantastic.

How was training this time ‘round – that’s one impressive montage...
Training was pretty gruelling, because this time I’m not a spring chicken and everything you touch breaks another part of your body – it was rough . I wanted to try and emphasis what you saw in the film we did for real, which is train heavy; less body building, more pounding – that’s the actual gym that we trained in, we used that barrel – to emphasise a point in the film but also, that kind of training develops a certain kind of body that’s more ponderous and thick, more of a body for a beast of burden than a slick animal.

The injuries between myself and Antonio just were extraordinary, every day; a bulging disc, a tendon problem, I broke two toes, I broke a metatarsal, he broke a knuckle. It was just unbelievable, but it paid off in the end. Then somebody goes, ‘did you CGI your body?’ I wish. I wish I could.

There are rumours that you wanted to retire after Rocky – say it ain’t so! What about Rambo 4?
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, even though the idea of Rambo is intriguing as a final closing chapter, like this film.

When you shoot a film, to do a sequel, it’s a whole other tone, but when you know it’s the final chapter, you try to put in there as much emotion and understanding and closure as you can.

So, I thought, okay, I’m going to do John Rambo, I have to do it, and now I’ll make the best of it to try and bring out a really dark character, whereas Rocky is a light character, optimistic. This is a man who has been up to his waist in blood for thirty years, and guess what? Nothing’s changed. The world’s still rough, the world’s still broken, so what does it all mean? So it’s that kind of anger, and he lives in the Far East, so that’s going to be some kind of Joseph Campbell journey back home.

I’m going to do that, and then I have very little aspirations to act, because I think the best things have come and gone and I would like to focus on writing and directing. I wouldn’t turn down a good Mafioso part, put it that way.

Click here to read our Rocky Balboa review >>