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Q&A: Sylvester Stallone


Introduction and editing by Rob Vaux (Transcript: Debbie Davis)

It's easy to laugh at Sylvester Stallone -- I've been guilty of more than my share of it over the years. And yet he has been making movies for three decades in an industry where careers are measured in weeks. And if resurrecting his moribund Rambo franchise at age 61 might invite snorts of derision, the fact that he could do it at all is a testament to his durability, savvy, and show-business skills. He's proven demonstrably critic-proof over his career, and with little competition beyond Cloverfield at the box office this January, the last laugh may once again be his. His smiling, congenial manner belies the monosyllabic automatons that made him his fortune, while his erudition speaks to a thoughtful and canny mind behind all that '80s muscle. He sat down with the press shortly after the new year to talk about his latest entry in the Rambo series, as well as other upcoming projects.

Sylvester Stallone: (Looks out the large picture window behind him.) Hey you guys didn't have to backlight me. (Laughter.) I know I'm getting older, but I appreciate it.

Question: Some of us had seen clips from an earlier reel of Rambo, and were wondering what happened to the shot where you punch the guy's head clean off.

SS: That's an optical confusion. (Winks.) It was the knife, and the early print was so bad that it looked like I just punched his head off. I kept reading the blogs and thought, "Guys, look closely: no one can punch someone's head off."

Q: Do you ever imagine what might have happened if you shot the original ending of the novel First Blood, and didn't have Rambo with you all these years? [Rambo is killed at the end of David Morrell's source novel.]

SS: Yeah, I think about it all the time. I had that debate with Quentin Tarantino, who feared that I'd made a mistake. On an artistic level, he's probably right. But at the time, I'd done a lot of research with Vietnam veterans. The original ending just seemed like this terrible, nihilistic thing that reveled in complete despair. At that time, we had almost a quarter million Vietnam suicides. [Editor's note: that number is hotly debated, though even the lowest estimates rank it in the tens of thousands.] So I thought, "Do I want to end it on that note, or do I want to make him more of a victim: someone created to do a job, does the job, comes home, and is told 'You no longer fit in'?" Like training a pit bull. You take a dog, turn him into a killer, and then what do you do? You have to put him down. But what happens if that pit bull gets loose and it's not quite as bad as you think? Maybe you can somehow redeem him. I thought that was a more interesting story and... well, as Kirk Douglas says, "Not artistic, but commercial."

Q: Did you have to go back and look at the earlier Rambo movies for this one, to get back into character?

SS: You know, the ponderousness that comes with aging -- the sense of weight, the sense of knowing too much, the lack of naïveté (which has happened in my life) -- sort of set the stage for me. I wanted a Rambo who is heavier and bulkier. That's why his first line in the film is pretty negative. He's given up. He has nothing left. The other Rambos I felt had a bit too much energy. They were a little too spry. I'm not trying to run myself down, but there was much more vanity involved. The tank tops, the muscles. It was all about body movement rather than the ferocity and the commitment to what he's doing. This character, to me, is much more interesting. I liked the first First Blood and I like this one. Like the first and the last Rocky. Everything in between is sort of trying to figure him out.

Q: Can you talk about the tone of the movie a little bit? Audiences might go in expecting the glorification of Rambo killing everyone, but the violence is much more unflinching and intense than that.

SS: I felt like I had to live up to a certain responsibility because, as we show in the opening credits, people were dying while we were making this film. Therefore, to just have me running through the film performing these extraordinary heroics would demean what those people are going through. So we had to show that, to show a village being decimated. And that's what's happening over there. In fact, it's even worse. I don't know if that stuff from the earlier movies -- that over-the-top stuff -- would fly today. I think the audience wants something that's hard-hitting, but has a semblance of reality. We went too far in the old days: we got away with murder. You just jumped out of a plane without a parachute and you made it! Somehow you made it. You landed on a convertible roof and just kept going. This time, we really wanted to show it. The violence has to be extraordinarily brutal, because that's the way it really is. We see people beheaded on television today. You can't water that down, at least I didn't feel we could.

And that was a point of contention. They wanted to have a film that was more of a caper. They had a corrupt CIA guy selling plutonium rods. I just said, "No." The Weinstein Company came to me about twelve years ago and asked if I wanted to do a Rambo movie. I said okay. Then they said, "We've got this great idea where Camp David's attacked." And I said, "I'm out." It can't be like that. The biggest and most interesting crisis in the world is the human crisis. It never gets boring. You go back to Shakespeare with it, and you don't need a gimmick: it's just man against man. Their intolerance of each other. And there's something about nature as a part of this character. He's almost like an Indian, a so-called primitive man. If you set him in the city, I just didn't think it would fly.

So the project died for ten years and resurfaced from time to time. Then Avi Lerner at New Millennium bought it, and he was open to this idea about the character. I was interested in doing something about Mexico: the whole coyote world, people disappearing in Juarez, things like that. But there was still something missing; we needed something more. Then I did some research and found out that Burma is one of the great hellholes on the planet. But no one knows about it. And it's exotic, and it's near Vietnam. The synergy was perfect.

Q: Can you discuss the location scouting and the shooting conditions for the film?

SS: The location scouting was truly hell. We had to go to places where we weren't going to be in conflict with Burmese agents, who are all over Thailand. They're very sensitive to their image, especially down in Mae Sot [on the Burmese border], where people have disappeared. It's a serious situation. And the Thais are very sensitive to their image. So we decided to go up north to Chiang Mai and try to find somewhere a little more obscure so we wouldn't be in everybody's faces.

The locations themselves were so far inland that sometimes we'd have to use elephants to get there. We'd spend days on the river. I wanted to find something that... you know, that was Rambo territory. Something as rugged and bleak as his life had been, but also something serviceable for the actors and crew. I didn't want to put them through the kind of hell that they had to be put through. It was a lot of work. It took four different trips back and forth, 18 hours each way. A lot of jet lag, a lot of scouting. But we were using these Karen natives who showed us these very obscure areas that had never been seen before. I think we found some great places.

We had a crew in Rocky Balboa of about 60 people. This was 570 people. That's how hard it was to move through the jungle. And Thailand had the hottest temperatures in 94 years. They call it the Burning Season. I even wrote lines in there about how hazy and foggy it was. That's smoke from the Burning Season. The country was literally burning to the ground: they had to send in the military. Also, there are 165 different types of snake in Thailand, and 90 of them are poisonous. That was a constant problem: people being bit. And centipedes the size of your shoe being found in your shoe. Julie Benz, coming in from Dexter, just looked at it all and said, "What?!" I told her, "Welcome to action films." It was extremely difficult.

But the Thais were incredible. I was reminded of stories about David Lean's film Bridge on the River Kwai: how much brutal manpower you have to use to get inland. There's nothing glamorous about it. I watched these men shoulder these giant generators and cut trails, cigarettes in their mouth, no shoes. We could never have done it anywhere else on the planet. Believe me I wanted to. When we started to get threats from the Burmese, I said, "Can't we just shoot this in Puerto Vallarta?" (Laughter.) I tried. You don't know how much I tried.

Q: How do you approach the challenge of making characters like Rocky and Rambo topical for today?

SS: If I were trying to go after a youth audience -- trying to find something hip and using certain music, or whatever -- that would be pretty obvious and would be rejected. But there are some things that never change, universal truths. And as you get older, they become more and more apparent: how difficult life is, like the speech in Rocky Balboa about taking punches. The young people who supported Rocky Balboa even more than people my age, I think they really enjoy and embrace those kinds of lessons. The lesson that I think is somewhat present in Rambo is that war really is hell. And that there is no winner. Ever. And that, unfortunately, people just have to find it out the hard way. And eventually, after a man or a woman takes that journey, that you always hope you can go back home. That there's still some gateway back to peace of mind, where you can start to rebuild. That's the only thing that I hope really works with this film. I think it does work. They're just universal truths that never change, no matter what society says. Everyone wants freedom, everyone wants peace of mind, but it comes at a horrible price quite often.

Q: Was it tough to get this movie in under an R rating?

SS: I couldn't believe it, first of all. (Laughs.) When babies are being bayoneted in the movie, I thought, "This will never go." But I did have a talk with the MPAA. I said, "This is happening today. And if we're ever going to do something responsible, where art has the ability to influence people's awareness and perhaps impact this situation positively, don't dilute it. Don't water it down. It's got to be uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable. It's miserable, it's distasteful, it's horrifying. But if you're not going to show it, then don't do the movie. Don't do Violence Lite. Don't cut away too soon. It's wrong. Just let the audience sit in it. I want people to feel it." And to their credit, they allowed this film to be as truthful as it could.

Q: How do you approach a different franchise, like Death Wish, where you haven't always been so connected to the characters?

SS: I think Death Wish, if it were done today, would be volcanic. The idea of Jeff Goldblum or some mugger breaking into somebody's apartment is very simplistic. [Goldblum had a bit part as a street thug in the original Death Wish.] It gives you an idea of how bad the elevation of violence has come. I would focus on defense attorneys, I would focus on the people who are really allowing this crap to happen. Not so much the guy out on the street, but who permits it. And what if it happened to you? There's moral questions being presented that have not been asked in thirty years. This guy in the version we're doing, he was a convict. He walked the walk, he was accepted back into society. He did everything he could to be a straight citizen. And when tragedy happens, he reverts back. It unleashes a man who really understands the world of violence, unlike Bronson's character who was a pacifist. It's about what happens when the wolf goes into sheep's clothing, then back to wolf: he knows how to deal with that kind of mentality, because he was in prison with it. So it's definitely going to be a different take on the character.

Q: Any other Rocky movies on the way?

SS: No. I just... no. I got so lucky with the final image of Rocky Balboa. The rack focus and the fade, it was just perfect. You can't go any further. It was a miracle it even got done, and I was so glad. So happy with it.

Q: Are people ever surprised that there's an artistic motivation behind these films?

SS: I don't know if that's quite apparent, and I know what you mean. Muscles are easy. Anybody can do muscles. You can just do violence, violence, violence, action, action, action pretty easily. But if you can find those little moments in between that connect with the people who aren't so physical, that's what takes the time, and that to me is the challenge. That's what I love about it.

Article published 02.02.2008.

Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Rambo.

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