Posts Tagged ‘Sylvester Stallone’

“Is there a confrontation scene? In a well-constructed story the audience is held in expectation of what is called an obligatory scene brought about by a reversal (or indeed, a series of reversals). Note that the obligatory scene, usually the denouement of a story, classically expresses the theme. It is an expression of the story’s central moral, the point expressed as a generalisation as seen in character-in-action. (A good way of defining this moment, in fact many moments in a dramatic narrative, is to ask: ‘Who does what with which to whom and why?’)”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
age 21

P.S. Rocky’s a movie that has a natural confrontation scene with the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed. It may be the longest obligatory scene in cinema since it lasts basically the entire third act. The reversal scene of Rocky realizing he can’t beat the champ is one of the key things that separates Rocky from most films about sports. Robert McKee says that, “Rocky redefined winning.” Rocky decides that if he can just go the distance with the champ—be on his feet when the fight is over—that he will have an internal victory.

“All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
Rocky written by Sylvester Stallone

And that personal victory, that personal redemption is the theme of Rocky. A theme by the way that never gets old. It could argued that the climax of the obligatory scene in Rocky is when he goes the distance with the champ. He’s proven to himself that he’s not a bum. He’s the flip side of Brando in On the Waterfront—he’s a somebody, a contender.

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme (tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing “Rocky”  “I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption…” Stallone
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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“Rocky’s this story of the underdog. The person who always wanted something and was never quite able to achieve that.”
Theater director Alex Timbers

It just so happens that my last post mentioned Sylvester Stallone and his screenplay for Rocky. Then yesterday I saw a full-page ad in the New York Times for the Broadway version of Rocky. I didn’t even know that was in the works.  And it’s a musical. Really. Rocky’s come a long way from the tough streets of Philadelphia.

 “I’m aware that ‘Rocky’ might be perceived as an odd choice for a musical, and there will be some raised eyebrows, but I think what people see will not be what they are expecting.”
Producer Bill Taylor

Turns out the stage version debuted in Hamburg, Germany at the end of last year. The Broadway show begins previews in February 2014 at the Winter Garden Theatre.  I’m a Rocky fan so if I’m in New York during its run I imagine I’ll check it out.  (But the real question is can On the Waterfront—The Musical be far behind?)

P.S. And Rocky isn’t the only movie to be turned into a Broadway musical. Big Fish just began its run at the Neil Simon Theater.

Related Posts:
Writing “Rocky”
Why Do We Love Underdog Stories?
Screenwriting Quote #100 (Budd Schulberg)
The Source of “On the Waterfront”
Screenwriting Quote#70 (James Dickey) The original source for the musical Big Fish was the novel of the same name written by  Daniel Wallace, but the character of the father always stuck me of having a lot of similarities to the real life of writer James Dickey. I just learned today that Wallace wrote an essay called Dueling Banjos—and Dickey, of course,  wrote Deliverance…interesting.

Scott W. Smith

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“Do you believe that America is the land of opportunity?”
Boxing promoter in Rocky

At the time that the New York Times interviewed Sylvester Stallone in 1976 he was living in a 1 1/2 bedroom apartment in LA with his wife and 6 month old baby. Rocky was about to be released and as the Times reported, United Artists was optimistic that the movie (which cost $1 million to make) was going to pull in more that $40 million. (They were right, too. Rocky made $117 million domestic.)

If you weren’t even born in 1976, one thing to keep in mind is when Rocky was released Hollywood was under a wave of nihilism, pessimism and grit.  The anti-hero had been in vogue for years.  (Bonnie & ClydeMidnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Deliverance, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, M*A*S*H, Serpico, The Last Picture Show, Being There, They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?,  Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown.) Perhaps the movies were just a reflection of the times in the United States. The Vietnam War and Watergate set the tone for the first half of the 70s.

But by 1976 America was ready for a change. There was a huge bicentennial push leading up to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country on July 4, 1976. I recall a spirit of optimism in the air. Stallone and director John Avildsen tapped into that spirit. And while Rocky may not be a traditional hero, I’ve always seen him as the anti—antihero.

Now Stallone from a spec screenwriting perspective is a hero’s hero. On the mythic hero level with Rocky.

“You know, if nothing else comes out of that film (Rocky) in the way of awards and accolades, it will still show that an unknown quantity, a totally unremarkable person, can produce a diamond in the rough.”
Sylvester Stallone
NY Times November 1, 1976

The awards and accolades did come. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won for Best Picture, Best Director , and Best Editing. And even if many critics at the time thought that Stallone had written a warmed over Frank Capra 1930s film, it did make the AFI list as one of the top 100 American films of all-time. (And many forget that Stallone avoided the total fairy tale ending by having Rocky lose the fight at the end.)

And the money came as well. The Rocky franchise would go on to make more than a billion dollars at the box office. Films that Stallone has starred in have made over $4 billion. Not bad for a “totally unremarkable person.”

It’s fun to imagine Stallone back in 1976 thinking that no matter how well that Rocky did that he’d already proven himself a winner.

P.S. Just to show the contrast between the two spirits doing battle in ’75-’76 check out the trailers below for The Day of the Locust and Rocky.

Related post: Writing “Rocky”

Scott W. Smith

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“If you want to go toe to toe with any foe, you’ve got to be fearless.”
Boxer Chuck Wepner

Much has been written about Sylvester Stallone writing the first version of the Rocky script in just a few days, but little is mentioned about Rocky actually being his 8th script. (The other seven were never produced.)  Stallone has also said that only about 10 % of that first Rocky script remained in the finished version of the film that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

“Since I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption, I kept saying to myself, ‘Redemption, redemption, redemption…but whose redemption?’ So I considered a gangster, then a cowboy, then an actor, all kinds of people, until I finally came back to the Wepner* fight. Why not a loser, an over-the-hill boxer? I loved the visuals, and the warrior aspect, and the grand symbolism. Bang! It all crystallized. I said, ‘That’s it,’ and I went to work immediately…I was young, and I wrote it in a fury…The original draft was only about 89 pages long, and it was rather hastily thrown together.”
Sylvester Stallone
Going the Distance article by Bill Baer
Creative Screenwriting magazine
January/February 2003

Since Stallone started with “redemption, redemption. redemption” in mind I’ll put him down as starting from theme. 

* Chuck Wepner was working as a liquor salesman in New Jersey back in 1975 when fought Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. With some odds 30-1 against Wepner, he lasted until the fifteenth round before Ali won the fight on a technical knocked out . In 2003, Wepner sued Stallone for his name and story being used without his permission in the marketing of the Rocky franchise. (Lawsuit.) In 2006 there were reports that the case was settled out of court. 

Related post: Writing from Theme

Scott W. Smith

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“They drew first blood, not me.”
John Rambo

“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.”
Joseph Campbell

The road to the first Rambo movie being released in 1982 was a long journey. The novel First Blood was published in 1972 and reports are that the property went through three studios, 16 scripts, and a lot of high-profile actors and directors before it became Sylvester Stallone’s second franchise character (after Rocky). And though Stallone had become a superstar after the 1976 release of Rocky his other non-Rocky films (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks & Paradise Alley) hadn’t faired so well. Nor was the topic of Vietnam a popular one in ’82—the last U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon in ’75. There weren’t strong indicators that First Blood was going to be a hit film.

But producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, and director Ted Kotcheff, put together a team that would defy the odds, and created not only a film that would open #1 at the box office, but one that would go on to make $125 million worldwide, followed by three sequels—all creating the rare international iconic character, John Rambo.

The movie was based on the David Morrell novel First Blood that actually had Rambo as more of a killing machine. (The first movie while having plenty of actions, explosions and injuries, actually only has a few people dying.) The changes were made to make the character more sympathetic. Morrell was a professor of English at the University of Iowa between 1970-1986, which means the chances are good that the novel was written in the vicinity Iowa City. (Just learned that today as I was doing research on Morrell.)

“My intent in writing (First Blood) started back in 1968 when I was a graduate student at Penn State and I was watching TV one night when I was struck by the news by two reports that followed back to back. One which was of a Vietnam fire-fight with soldiers screaming, and shooting and bullets kicking up dust, and the other was about riots going on in American cities. That summer and the summer before there were many, many riots and many of them had to do with off-shoots of the Vietnam war. And I got to thinking what if we had a novel in which the Vietnam war came home to the United States and we sort of had a taste of what it would be like in our own back yard. Basically what the intent was was to write an anit-war novel about how I was not in favor of the Vietnam war. It was about how the establishment abused young men and took them over and made killing machines and then took them back and never retrained them.
David Morrell
First Blood Blu-ray commentary

His key model for the Rambo character was World War II hero Audie Murphy. Morrell has gone on to have a long successful career as a novelist. He received his undergraduate degree at the St. Jerome University (a Roman Catholic university in Canada), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Penn State. He said on the DVD commentary that he always thought of First Blood as being a western and lists The Sheepman (1958) as a film that was a sort of parallel to First Blood.

Here is a summary of The Sheepsman found on IMDB:

A stranger in a Western cattle-town behaves with remarkable self-assurance, establishing himself as a man to be reckoned with. The reason appears with his stock: a herd of sheep, which he intends to graze on the range. The horrified inhabitants decide to run him out at all costs.

Morrell also was influenced by Joesph Campbell’s work on mythology in developing his character and story for First Blood. (Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was also key to George Lucas years later as he would develop the Star Wars movies.) It’s not hard to read Campbell and understand the primal aspects that Morrell drew upon in creating First Blood. There’s the warrior fleeing into the woods, descending into the mine, starting a fire, and surviving swimming with rats, and ascending the ladder into the light. Morrell called it a “Hunter hunted story,” while Stallone has made references is to Rambo being a Frankenstein-like character.

First Blood was also a film that dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and while not giving any answers, Morrell says that he heard reports that many Vietnam vets wept for the first time since the war as the film somewhat depicted how hard it was to make the transition from solider to civilian in a country where they were often despised and rejected.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand”
Bruce Springsteen
Born in the USA 

You may be also interested to know that Morrell picked the name John Rambo as a combination of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and a type of apples called Rambo that his wife brought home one day while he was writing. Credited on the First Blood screenplay are Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone.

You can find out more about Morell, and the 30+ novels and books he’s written, on his website davidmorrell.net.

P.S. For the person who has everything…the survival knife that Rambo uses in First Blood was designed by the late Jimmy Lile who was known as the Arkansas Knifesmith. For $3,500 you can have a knife like Rambo—it’s called the New Lile First Blood.

Scott W. Smith

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“Every cell of your body has to be aligned so that you’re making the best possible image.”
Photographer and Oscar-winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos

His name is Louie Psihoyos. He won an Oscar Sunday. And he’s originally from Iowa.

That’s the short version.

If Louie Psihoyos doesn’t sound like a traditional Midwestern German Lutheran name to you, you’d be correct.  A little over fifty years before he accepted his best documentary Oscar for The Cove, he was born to Greek immigrants and raised in Dubuque, Iowa.

And it was in Dubuque were he first got turned on to art, eventually focusing on photography. In perhaps an odd connection you’ll probably only find on a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa, Psihoyos had an interesting experience with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter in of all places Dubuque, Iowa.

In the 1970s, the movie F.I.S.T. was filmed in Dubuque starring Sylvester Stallone.  F.I.S.T. was Stallone’s first film after the Oscar-winning best picture Rocky. Rocky, of course, put Stallone on the map as he was nominated for an Oscar as best actor and for best original screenplay. (F.I.S.T. also just happens to be the first script that Joe Eszterhas ever had produced.)

Psihoyos was a teenager at the time F.I.S.T. was being filmmed but was already an accomplished photographer having won some contests and somehow was able to met and photograph Stallone. (Update: Photographer Brian Smith actually said Psihoyos appeared in the film so I looked into it and found on Psihoyos’ website the Stallone photograph and this account by Psihoyos: “As a photographic intern for the local newspaper, I was sent to stake out Stallone at the local hotel where the crew was staying. He came in from the airport dressed in costume and I took the photograph in a hotel elevator. Stallone loved the photograph and invited me to stay on the set… He put me in the movie F.I.S.T. as his wedding photographer. I have one speaking line, ‘smile now!'”)

Psihoyos went on to graduate from the highly esteemed journalism school at the University of Missouri and won the National Geographic annual College Photographer of the Year contest. That helped him launch into a long career as a photographer for National Geographic.

A couple years ago he decided to turn his talent and resources into his vision of what became the documentary The Cove.

So once again while Psihoyos appears to be another filmmaker who won an Oscar with his first film—there is a 30+ year accomplished creative career behind him. Here’s some advice from him;

“What I like to tell newcomers is that there’re about 30,000 working photographers in Manhattan. Those are people who, by their IRS statements, are making a living and are profitable, and a lot of them are pretty damn good. You have to give of yourself 200 percent in everything you do; then the right people find you like a beacon.”
Louie Psihoyos
2006 Interview with Ted Fry

Psihoyo’s acceptance speech was cut off during the Oscars broadcast so here is what he intended to say;

“We made this film to give the oceans a voice.

We told the story of The Cove because we witnessed a crime. Not just a crime against nature, but a crime against humanity.

We made this movie because through plundering, pollution and acidification from burning fossil fuels, ALL ocean life is in peril from the great whales to plankton which incidentally is responsible for half the oxygen in this theater.

Thank you, Black OPS Team for risking your lives in Japan — and thank You Academy for shining the brightest lights in the world on THE COVE……

Japan, please see this movie for yourselves!  Domo Arigato!”

Psihoyos is based in Boulder these days. I don’t know if he has reasons to come to Iowa anymore, but I’d thought it interesting that he got his start here. Much in the spirit of screenwriter Diablo Cody who graduated from college in Iowa where she developed her skills on her way to writing the Oscar-winning script for Juno. (Which I should mention to any new readers is who inspired me to start blogging two years ago.)

Scott W. Smith

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Writing action in a screenplay is not to be confused with car chases (though it could be a car chase). The action, or as it is also called the narrative, is simply what’s supposed to be happening on screen. More often than not it is a few blurbs rather than thick paragraphs. If there is a lot of action it’s best of you can break it down into short paragraphs. Keeping the action to a minimum helps to keep the screenplay vertical, which keeps the reader of your script heading down the page. Here are how some memorable scenes looked like on the page:


Cameron has kicked the Ferrari off the jack. It squeals out the of the garage in a cloud of blue smoke. A $50,000 unmanned investment heading backwards down a driveway.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
                                    John Hughes       


It is twilight and Rocky is alone at the very bottom of a huge flight of steps that seem to stretch into the heavens…Rocky takes a deep breath and sprints up the never ending stairs …Halfway up, his body shows the strain. Nearing the top, Rocky pumps with all his strength and arrives at the very top…He looks down the steep stairs and swells with pride…He is ready.
                                    Sylvester Stallone

As ANNIE swings, the sledgehammer makes contact with the ankle. It breaks with a sharp CRACK.
PAUL: CLOSE UP, shrieking.

                                     William Goldman 

He wades upstream, ripping his clothes from his body. He gets his shirt off, spins it through the air over his head, flings the shirt away. He raises his arms to the sky, turning slowly, feeling the rain washing him clean. Exultant. Triumphant. A FLASH OF LIGHTNING arcs from horizon to horizon.
                                      The Shawshank Redemption
Frank Darabont

Notice how it doesn’t take many words to convey a lot in a screenplay?

Scott W. Smith

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