The success of Rocky isn’t just due to Sylvester Stallone.
Sure, he wrote the scripts and starred in the films — and the character’s enduring popularity was due to the sequels, most of which he directed. But the first film was helmed by John G. Avildsen, who won the Oscar for Best Director for his efforts. It was Avildsen’s skillful direction — and his selection of Bill Conti for the score — that set the tone for the character.
“We thought it was going to be the bottom half of a double bill in a drive-in in Arkansas,” Avildsen said earlier this week, in town for a screening of Rocky at the art museum. “We had no expectations for it.” All six Rocky Balboa movies have been released in a Blu-ray set for MGM’s 90th Anniversary. The original movie has been restored. “I see stuff I never saw in the original movie,” Avildsen said. “Snowflakes, and breath.” The set also includes 8mm “home movies” of Rocky that Avildsen shot while making the film.
I chatted with him while he was in town about the movie and its legacy.
How did you come to direct Rocky?
A friend of mine [Gene Kirkwood] sent me a script. I told him I wasn’t interested in boxing, but he persisted. And I read it. The second or third page the guy’s talking to his turtles, Cuff and Link. It was a beautiful love story, it was a great character study on this guy. I never thought of it as a boxing picture. It’s like the Civil War is the background for Gone with the Wind. It’s not about the Civil War.
One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is Rocky’s run up the stairs. What was involved in the imagining of that shot?
It was in the script, but I had no idea how we were going to shoot that. We didn’t have a crane, we didn’t have a helicopter. While we were preparing the picture, Ralph Hotchkiss, a guy I made a lot of low-budget movies with — he was my assistant cameraman, I was the cameraman on these pictures — he and I were friends, and he told me about this friend of his who lived here in Philly who invented a camera. And would I look at his reel? And I said sure.
We’re at the old MGM out in Culver City, went to the screening room, and his girlfriend at the time Ellen is running up the steps of the Art Museum. And I said, ‘Oh, I know just where that will go.’ I met Garrett Brown, and the Steadicam didn’t even have a name at that point. He shot some on Bound for Glory the year before. So this was the second one. And on this 8-millimeter found footage that is on the DVD, you can see the thing and what it looked like. And it looked like Rube Goldberg contraption with wires coming out of it, and a little screen. And that’s how that shot came to be.
What do you think has made this film endure?
A big factor is Bill Conti’s score. Without that score I don’t think we’d be here right now. That played a huge part in the emotional experience of the movie. I think that was a big factor. Sylvester wrote a lovely character study, a love story, he was a fresh face and nobody knew who he was, and he was transformed into this character. And it was a story everybody could relate to and follow and appreciate — and all these various things fell into place. …
I had met Bill a few years before and wanted him to do the score for the Burt Reynolds picture, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. And the studio said, ‘No, we never heard of Bill Conti,’ and unfortunately he didn’t do it. But when Rocky came along, nobody cared who was going to do the score. The budget for the music was 25 grand. And that was for everything: The composer’s fee, that was to pay the musicians, that was to rent the studio, that was to buy the tape that it was going to be recorded on. If a harp had to be used, it had to be picked up from a place and brought to us, we had to pay for the truck. Everything had to come out of the 25 grand. … Let me back up.
When I got the job, I looked at some boxing movies. I had never seen a real fight or anything. But the boxing movies that I saw, the boxing looked phony. So I said to the producers, ‘If we’re going to make this look real, we’re going to have to rehearse. And we’re going to need at least two weeks before we begin to shoot so these guys can learn how to do it properly.’ And fortunately they said OK. So the first day of that rehearsal period.. I said, ‘Sylvester, why don’t you go home and write the whole thing. Lefts, rights, whatever you want. And then we’re learn that and we’ll do it like a ballet.’ So he liked that idea, and he went home and came back the next day with 32 pages of lefts and rights, and that’s what we learned. And we did it over and over and over again.
And I was shooting 8mm every day, and I was showing the guys how it looked. And it usually didn’t look so good. So I suggested they lose some weight, because that wouldn’t hurt. then I showed it to Bill Conti on my little 8mm projector and I slowed it down… and I played Beethoven’s 6th symphony behind it, and I said, ‘You see how that music is uplifting. It makes it important.’ And Bill, who had gone to Julliard, said, “Yeah, I get it.” And that’s where that score came from.
So we had one three-hour session with a 32-piece orchestra. When the producers came into the recording studio and they saw all these guys, they looked at Bill and said, ‘Bill, how are you going to make any money.’ Bill put it all into the music. When we were recording the montage music, I said, ‘Bill, you ought to put some words to this thing, because this sounds like a song.’ He said, ‘No, it’s just for the montage.’ I said, ‘Well, you got some people there and they’re recording, why don’t you get them to come up with a song, we’ve got an hour.” He said, “Oh, OK.” And that’s where ‘Gonna Fly Now’ came from.
Last year, I wrote a piece guessing how far Rocky ran in the montage in Rocky II.
I heard that! I also heard it was 40 miles. I just thought it was great. One person told me it was 30, another told me it was 40.
It was 30.61 miles, by my calculation, but who knows. That wasn’t your film, but it was a solid montage. The original Rocky and your Karate Kid movies have had memorable montages as well. What makes a good one?
I used just stock footage of popular songs. And I would cut this stuff to Bill, and when I showed it to Bill, I said, ‘This is the feel I want. But don’t worry about cuts. Because once I get the cue, once I get the music, we cut it to your score.’ It’s much easier to cut to music rather than have the music play to the arbitrary cut. It’s much easier to cut to accommodate the music rather than the other way around.
I cut it to whatever this piece was. And I kept making it longer, because I had this footage. I said, “Bill, wait, it’s not a minute now, it’s a minute thirty. Oh wait a second, now it’s a minute fifty-two.” Then eventually he got it in. And I took the footage that I had and we cut it to his piece.
Many of your films have themes of an underdog triumphing against all odds. What makes that such a good framework for a film?
I think most of ourselves think of us as top dogs rather than underdogs. We feel unappreciated it, we feel the world’s against us. I think it’s so much easier to relate to somebody. Now, when you look at Wolf of Wall Street, that guy might be somebody you could aspire to. But it’s not somebody that we can relate to.
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