When Sylvester Stallone was 15, his classmates voted him "most likely to end up in the electric chair."
That's not quite how it turned out, but he did end up in the boxing ring with Rocky, the 1976 classic that won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and earned Stallone nominations for Best Actor and for Best Screenplay.
The Rocky franchise kept on going, but great movies turned to good ones, then to mediocre ones, and finally, by the time Rocky V came out in 1990, to lousy ones, leaving a bad taste in fans' mouths.
Apparently it left a bad taste in Stallone's too. Ever since Rocky V flopped at the box office and with critics, he has wanted to make things right. But MGM/United Artists, which owned the rights to the Rocky franchise, said there was no way they'd ever revisit the story again.
Stallone never gave up. He wrote a script for Rocky VI anyway, knowing it may never be made into a movie. But he finally met someone who believed in the script, who pulled some strings, pushed some doors, and put up some big money. And now the Rocky VI opens in theaters nationwide on Dec. 20.
Only it's not called Rocky VI. It's called Rocky Balboa, and Stallone, who also directed the film, says this is definitely the last chapter—not only in the story of the rags-to-riches boxer from Philadelphia, but as the end of a spiritual journey … for Rocky, and for Stallone.
Stallone, 60, says he's been a Christian most of his life, and that he tried to include spiritual imagery in all of the Rocky films—but never more so than in this new one. A Christian marketing company, Motive Entertainment, is even pitching the film to the faith community, complete with resources for the church—sermon ideas, Bible studies, leader's guides, and so forth.
In the new film, Rocky is dealing with the most difficult loss of his life—his wife, Adrian, has died. But when he has a chance to re-enter the ring and fight for the title—yes, at 60 years old—it's a lure too strong to resist in a movie that Stallone calls the culmination of "an incredible spiritual journey."
You created the Rocky character more than 30 years ago. Where'd he come from? Was he just a product of your imagination?
Sylvester Stallone: He was a product of my frustration. Since I had had so many doors shut in my face early in my career, I started to wonder, Am I alone? Or is it just really tough to pursue one's dreams? So I thought, Let me write a story about a man who's going nowhere, a man who has made some very bad decisions in his life, a man that no one has any faith in.
Where were you spiritually when the original Rocky was made?
Stallone: I've always been a Christian. I've always been fascinated with the ongoing battle in one's soul—the constant forces of temptation, and the crusade inside to override it. And the mistakes people make and then trying to elevate yourself to redeem yourself. It's back and forth, back and forth redemption. So when I write a character, that's a story point. You know the man wants to be a boxer; that's the simple part. But inside, the internal storm, that has always fascinated me. But what do we call upon to help us get through these trials and tribulations of everyday life? That's what I try to do with Rocky.
So, who's crazier—Rocky for going back into the ring, or Sylvester Stallone for deciding to put him there?
Stallone: Well, I could have flipped a coin on that one! Rocky Balboa is by far the most realistic boxing of all the movies. We're using a world champion [Antonio Tarver] in the ring, and I would say about 60 percent of the punches are, unfortunately, all too real. We wanted to do this in a way that it would set us apart from any fight film, and that the message at the end will be very profound.
The last part of Rocky's spiritual journey is at the end of the fight. The whole story [all six Rocky movies] has been this incredible journey. In Rocky I, we start with the picture of Christ [a mural of Christ in the boxing gym]. When we pick him up in Rocky Balboa, he's a broken, lonely man, grieving, full of a little bit of what he calls the beast inside. He never imagined life was supposed to be this hard and difficult, with the loss of his soul mate. Once he overcomes that, and helps a few other people along the way, his mission is basically done. And by the end, he's finally got his soul together
So did Adrian die somewhere between Rocky V and Rocky VI?
Stallone: Yes. I needed something that would relate Rocky to people. Everyone deals with loss. How do we cope with it? I felt Rocky needed something that was so overwhelming to him—and there could be nothing more grievous than the loss of his soul mate.
The first four movies did well at the box office, but Rocky V &hellip
Stallone: You can say it. It tanked!
OK, it tanked. And critics hated it. Why didn't you just shut the door on Rocky at that time?
Stallone: Because that film was not the message that I wanted to leave behind. Unfortunately, I miscalculated when I wrote Rocky V [a riches-to-rags story as the title character retires and then loses everything]. I thought, Well we've seen the upside of the man's life, we've been through the whole journey. When everything is taken away, how does he deal with it when he goes back to obscurity? And it just didn't translate. I think people were very disappointed that it was not an uplifting film.
If anything, Rocky V left us on a dour note. And that ate at me for 15 years. Every day, I would think about it. I thought if I could ever get the opportunity again … But of course my age was going against me, and they [MGM] rejected it year after year after year. But finally a miracle happened: I found one man who was willing to give it a chance. And well, here we are today. I think this one, besides Rocky I, is the best of the group.
Who is this one man you're talking about?
Stallone: Joe Roth from Revolution Films. I had been rejected by the producers, by the studio, everyone. It was just a dead issue. But when I showed Joe the script, he read it, and three days later he says, "I'd love to make this film." He says, "I'll put up the money. No one else will, but I will." And this is after eight years of me trying to get it made. Eight years.
When you wrote the first Rocky, did you have this long story in mind, covering six films?
Stallone: I had it written as three parts. But along the way, I thought I should have the character change. In Rocky II he wants another opportunity at redemption. In Rocky III he becomes a bit arrogant and he loses everything; he has to get back to basics with The Eye of the Tiger. Then Rocky IV was about sacrifice and putting one's life on the line for an ideal when he goes to Russia. So each one of them had a morality tale.
I thought Rocky suffered permanent brain damage in that fight in Rocky IV. So how can he fight again now?
Stallone: Yes, he did have brain damage. And I thought, How can I get out of this [when writing the new script]? But medical tests today are much more sophisticated, and what was considered a career-ending declaration by a doctor some years ago, now, with more specific tests, they're actually having fellows come back. What can look like a severe concussion on a CAT scan or an MRI is not necessarily career-threatening. It is something that requires a great deal of rest.
So Rocky has been retired for all these years, and he goes back for a retest, they say, "We had a misdiagnosis in the beginning." We've had a lot of misdiagnosis when it has come to brain injury, especially in the NFL. If you were to see some of the football players' CAT scans 10 years ago, you would have said they had brain damage. But now you see it's just trauma. So, that's what happened to Rocky.
I hear that Rocky in this film is a man of faith. Does that come through clearly in the film?
Stallone: Well, Rocky has always been a man of faith. He always crosses himself before he fights, and he's spent many hours in the chapel when his wife was in a coma. He seeks out Father Carmine in three of the films. But Rocky Balboa is by far the one where he really relies upon faith.
Remember the first man he fought in Rocky I, in the opening titles when Rocky's being pummeled by this huge man? Well that same huge man, 30 years later, is homeless, and Rocky has given him a home. This man, Spider Rico, is very religious, and Rocky takes him on as a spiritual advisor. Spider is reading Scripture to Rocky before he faces the most difficult battle of his life. So there's a journey in there.
Does Rocky's spiritual journey in some ways mirror your own in real life?
Stallone: Very much so. I was raised very religiously, and I went to many Catholic schools. It's always played a big part in my life. There's a divine guidance, a God-force out there that if you open yourself to it, you can actually feel the heat, the weight, the presence.
A lot of my characters, even in Rambo IV that I'm writing now, deal very much with Christianity. In Rambo IV [coming in 2008], a Christian group goes to places like Viet Nam or Burma, where [indigenous] people are being killed because of their faith. And this Christian group brings them Bibles and supplies, but the group is abducted. Then Rambo goes in there and he sees the strength of the faith that these people have. He's very affected by it and it changes his life.
How would you describe your own spiritual life through your career?
Stallone: I've always been spiritual. I've always been part of the faith. I just don't want to be obvious about it, because people often flaunt that as a publicity tool, and I didn't want to do that. So I try to do it at times subtly through my work. Rocky, for example, is very Christian-like in all his ideals, and the way he turns the other cheek all the time. He never has a malicious thing to say about anybody. And he takes such abuse, but in the end he triumphs through example rather than through bravado. He lets his actions speak volumes, rather than his words.
You've said when you first wrote Rocky, you were thinking about some of the mistakes you made in your own life. You made a porn film in 1970; would you include that in your list of mistakes?
Stallone: Yes. At that time, when I first went to New York, there was nudity on stage and nudity in films, and there were opportunities for an actor to get a job—if you were willing to take your clothes off. I was starving. I thought, Well, if it's being accepted on Broadway and it's being accepted off-Broadway, I'll go along with it. Then along came this advertisement for a nude film, not a porn film, and I said OK, and I auditioned for it. And then when I did, I went, What, am I crazy?
When Rocky came out, the people who made that first movie said, "Do you want to buy this [film] back? It will wreck your career." I said, "I will not even lift a finger. I was young, I was foolish, I made mistakes, and I've paid for it a hundred times because I have to live with the humiliation. But I will not be blackmailed." We have to stand by our mistakes and say, "I am human, and the flesh is weak." But I've moved on, and hopefully you redeem yourself by doing good deeds later on.
As you look back over the years, what are some other things that you might have done differently?
Stallone: Choosing a life's partner. [Stallone is on his third marriage; he has been married to Jennifer Flavin for almost 10 years, and they have three young daughters.] I was very insecure coming up, I didn't really understand family structure, and I wanted to be loved. I expected too much from other people, only to be disappointed. Then I started to turn inward, thinking I wasn't worth loving—all this self-doubt.
Well, luckily, I finally met a woman who I was blessed to have in my life—the most beautiful, kind human being I've ever met. It's like I was paid back for doing something right. No matter what kind of material acquisitions you have, if you don't have that love at home, if you do not have that core, that spirit, that family nucleus that is the basis for your existence, then I don't think your life is that fulfilling. I know it wasn't for me.
What do you want audiences to take away from Rocky Balboa?
Stallone: That life is full of peaks and valleys, and when you reach a certain age you have to make some strong decisions on how to live the last of your life. You may feel as though your worth has come and gone, that you don't contribute that much to society any more. But that's not true. This is about fighting for respect, the ability to go on and be a constructive and useful citizen to yourself and to the people you love.
It's a story about symbols and metaphor, and how older people wonder, "Has the best of life come and gone?" I believe it hasn't. I just want to show that the heart is the last thing to age in somebody. You still have that fire inside, and it needs to be released. But often society goes, "No, you had your moments, so just move on and watch the parade go by." I'm not ready to watch the parade go by. And what Rocky has lost in skill, he's made up in will.
Do you feel at heart like the same 30-year-old guy who ran up those steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art?
Stallone: Actually, every year I become more and more immature. Rocky Balboa ends on those steps, and the moment we ended, it started to snow, and I was profoundly moved. I said, "I've ended up here 30 years later, on the same steps." The sun was going down and I felt true sadness. But I also felt incredible joy that 30 years later, the final story, the message I wanted to leave from the beginning, was accomplished.
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