Q&A: Sylvester Stallone

Actor-director receives THR's Key Art Visionary Award

Thirty-four years after Rocky Balboa first went toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed, it's hard to remember a time when Sylvester Stallone wasn't calling the shots. Whether commissioning the rock anthem "Eye of the Tiger" for "Rocky III," fighting to push "Rambo II's" one-sheet in a new direction or dreaming up a tagline for "Cliffhanger," the 2010 Key Art Visionary Award winner has been intimately involved in the marketing of his films since the early '80s.

For Stallone -- whose many hats include writer, director and, appropriately enough, painter -- it feels like old times these days. The back-to-back successes of "Rocky Balboa" and "Rambo" proved there was still life in the iconic characters he created, setting the stage for the next chapter of his career.
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Perhaps eyeing an Eastwood-like transition, Stallone has been behind the camera for each of his recent efforts, including this summer's Lionsgate actioner "The Expendables," a throwback to a physical style of action filmmaking he hopes to keep alive for a new generation of filmgoers.

As with his other starring vehicles, Stallone has been involved with the film's marketing since before the start of production, something Lionsgate acquisitions and co-productions chief Jason Constantine considers invaluable.

"Sly has consistently given audiences just the right characters and stories at precisely the right time," Constantine says. "So we have certainly trusted his instincts and valued his opinions about marketing and releasing 'Rambo' and now 'The Expendables.' He not only embodies American action heroism like no one else, he also thoroughly understands its appeal, making him a razor-sharp and endlessly valuable partner."

With this year's Visionary Award, Stallone finally takes a bow for that underrated facet of his career. He recently spoke with THR's Chad Williams about his own philosophy regarding key art, the evolution of the action film, and the tricky balancing act trailers represent.

The Hollywood Reporter:
What's the biggest change you've seen on the marketing side since your early days?

Sylvester Stallone:
They give away too much. For example, with action films you spend tens of millions of dollars and then you let people hear the punch line before they've heard the joke. When they go into a movie theater, astute filmgoers are going to say, "Oh, OK. I know what's coming. I saw this already." On "Expendables," we tried to make it disjointed so there's no steady flow to it. You go, "OK, just three-second snippets. Period." You don't focus on more than one scene and the rest is kept somewhat jumbled but exciting. I think that's the biggest problem: There's this sense of urgency to get a lot out there. And there's so much work that goes into it, the stakes are so high, that a misstep with a trailer can destroy a $100 million film.

THR: How early did you give up footage for "The Expendables" trailers? Were you still filming?

Stallone: No, it was after filming. But there was a mistake that I thought was catastrophic: There were three minutes and 40 seconds shown at Venice. It was a marketing ploy. But once it gets out there, it's gonna go viral. It's gone. And sure enough, that rough footage, strung together just for the Venice Film Festival attendees, went public and the film was suddenly not as anticipated. There were a lot of people who were saying, "Oh wow. This doesn't look anywhere near as good." Or, "That's kind of cheesy." The good thing now is, five, six months later, they've seen the real trailer and a lot of that cloud has been lifted. But it caused a lot of damage, showing something that was still uncooked.

THR: At what point in your career did you finally have a real say in the marketing elements?

Stallone: Probably "Rocky III." The image approval came about right around then. Then it just segued into "Cobra" and everything after that. I would try to write some kind of catchy tagline. In "Cliffhanger," I thought we should de-emphasize my image in favor of the mountain and the words "Go for it." Huge letters. And that's it -- "Cliffhanger." Go for it. Period. That was different, because usually there was a formula where you featured a three-quarter profile -- this image of a guy holding his gun or a knife. "Tango and Cash" is a perfect example: Three-quarter profile or a 50/50. It was your classic buddy pose. And I said, "When are we going to break away from that? It's just so obvious." And you know it's shot in a studio. I thought it'd be great to start taking stills from the movie, which eventually we started doing with films like "Lock Up" and "Cop Land." Using a grainier look.

THR: So it's fair to say you've developed your own philosophy about key art over the years?

Stallone: This is where you have to be very trusting of your instincts, because quite often I've acquiesced and ended up unhappy with the results. Even though certain films were not stellar, the way they were advertised was incredibly cheesy. And I have to take the blame, because I just went along with the status quo. In "Rambo II," the poster started out with a very blatant studio shot, with smoke in the background, and there I am holding my weapons and the hair is coiffed -- and I went "No." We ended up using another shot, not even in good focus, of me coming into a POW camp with a bow and arrow. There's nothing that says "star" about it. It just says "action," "tension." That's when I began to get away from the more campy shots. And I've done some really campy shots! Like in "Oscar," taking the Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock. Or with Dolly Parton (in "Rhinestone"), arm-wrestling nose-to-nose. Those had nothing to do with the movie.

THR: Have you ever gotten into a dust-up with a marketing boss over those kinds of decisions?

Stallone: All the time. Like "The Expendables": It's gone through a metamorphosis and now we're all on the same page. From the beginning, we said, "OK, where are we going? We're going for a black-and-white gritty look." It was very stark. Quite powerful. All the guys standing there radiate a kind of simmering violence or power. You don't have to work it.

THR:What have you particularly liked?

Stallone: Tim Palen and Sarah Greenberg over at Lionsgate did a great poster for "Rambo," which was based on Che. You know that famous Che photo? Well if you look at the "Rambo" poster that was around town, it looks exactly like that -- like it was done with a spray can from a stencil. So it has an urban feel. It's like a kid did it.

THR: Moving away from marketing, what's next on your plate?

Stallone: I like directing actors more than acting at this point. I'm discussing some rather ambitious movies with ("Expendables" co-star) Jason (Statham) to keep the genre going. Action films have evolved. People assume that "The Expendables" is old school, but it's only old school because that's the way I know how to make an action film. It's pretty real. What's evolved in the past 20 years is this sort of "technical" action film, which is very grand and big and really unrealistic.

Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham on the set of "The Expendables"

THR: And heavily dependent on CGI.

Stallone: Completely. (Laughs.) I was trying to be nice about it, but yeah, what you're seeing can't be accomplished by a human being. Everything in "The Expendables," I tried to make feasible. If you look at people that have survived crashing in the mountains and lived up in the snow for 40 days -- it's possible to do extraordinary feats. But some things -- jumping out of a plane at 30,000 feet without a parachute -- that's not happening.

THR: Do you think that can take an audience out of a movie?

Stallone: I've got a situation I call "one stunt too far." In "Cliffhanger," I had written a scene where my character jumps across a ravine that's 15 feet across, but it's 5,000 feet straight down. That's scary. It's only 15 feet, a good broad jump for a high school student. But you also have to grip the side of the wall. It's called the "queen's leap." It's actually done in real life. (In the scene) the bridge falls and I have to jump 15 feet. When I got there, the stunt man was hooked up and he jumped, probably, I don't know, 250 feet, and lands flush against the wall with probably 8 Gs (of force), which would've smashed him like a bug. When this ran during test screenings, I'd say a third of the audience left. And I knew that was gonna happen. I said, "The scene was written for 15 feet, guys. It has to be believable." And they went back and cut like 200 feet out of the jump and the test score went from like a 42% approval rating up to 90%. Just one stunt blew the whole suspension of disbelief.

THR: Who doesn't blow it? Among filmmakers, who do you admire?

Stallone: I like Paul Greengrass. I really liked the way he moved the camera in his first or second film, which I think was "Bloody Sunday." I love the camera work in (Gillo Pontecorvo's) "The Battle of Algiers." It's not theatrical, it's not lit perfectly and the camera angles are kind of obtuse, so you're eavesdropping. I also like Adrian Lyne a lot. His use of light is brilliant. When I was doing "Staying Alive" and he did "Flashdance" (in 1983), his visuals just demolished mine. He was such a master at that. I think he's the most sensual lighter. He can make a rather unsavory subject look powerful.

THR: What's going on with another project of yours, "Poe"? The script has quite a rep.

Stallone: I don't know. (Laughs.) How could I ever live up to that rep? There's been so much talk about it that no matter what I do, it'll be anti-climactic. I don't know how I could present "Poe," especially in today's marketplace where getting financing for a biography would be almost impossible unless you've got a Johnny Depp or maybe Robert Downey Jr. Otherwise, there are no takers for it. I see it as a very visual film; I also see it as a film where you get into his mind. A lot of the film is actually depictions of his classic horror stories, so you've got that going for it. Here's the thing about Poe: Poe is kind of like "Rashomon." Everyone has a different interpretation -- he died of rabies, he died of alcohol poisoning, pneumonia, bronchitis, scarlet fever, a broken heart ... I have my own theories, but no matter what you do, you're going to have so-called Poe authorities, specialists who have literally built their lives around Poe, going berserk. I always saw Poe like an actor who wrote.

THR: What's your own writing process like?

Stallone: I don't ever write a treatment. I start with bullet points. "Man goes to here, he goes to there, he meets a friend, this happens." I'll write about 10 of those and then I'll write 10 scenes. And then I sit back and do 10 more points and write those scenes. Hopefully it comes out to some semblance of a story, knowing that 90% of it is not going to be there at the end. Same thing with "Rocky." Ninety% of it never made it out of the first draft. "The Expendables" screenplay was changed 130-140 times -- complete 100% rewrites. I had to change every word, because people were in and out. Jason wanted to do this, Mickey wanted to say that, Forest Whitaker in, Forest Whitaker out, Brittany Murphy in, Brittany Murphy out. And every time it creates these concentric circles. One scene affects every scene.

THR: Do you write every day?

Stallone: Every day. But it's like I paint every day; it doesn't mean it's necessarily good, but you feel as though you've accomplished something. Your brain is triggered to produce. Rather than just picking up a newspaper and reading other people's words or turning on the television, you've actually done something.

THR: When do you write?

Stallone: In the morning. Always. I used to write in the night. I wrote "Poe" during the night. But as I got older, I find I'm much more productive in the morning from around 5 a.m. to say 9. I go down into my office, lock the door, turn on some music and go. Sometimes I write with music on and if I'm in a good flow I don't even hear it.

THR: And you're listening to?

Stallone: Everything from Carmina Burana to classic Bee Gees, just depends on what I'm writing. And sometimes when nothing's working, you need absolute silence. That, I hate.