How writing saved Stallone from ‘oblivion’

'Expendables' filmmaker talks shop with <i>Variety</i>

If you’re looking for artistic respect, being an international action film star is probably not the best place to start.

John Wayne toiled for 40 years before he finally grabbed his sole Oscar for “True Grit,” and it took “Unforgiven” for the critical cognoscenti to acknowledge that Clint Eastwood was one of America’s most distinctive filmmakers.

But Sylvester Stallone has to be the ultimate poster boy for the phenomenon.

The mega-star essentially launched his storied career with the fruit of his own formidable gray matter, getting an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay for “Rocky” back in 1977 (as well as for his acting in the film), an event that seems to have had no impact on the prevailing impression that perhaps his pecs and biceps are the driving forces behind his success.

However, if the arbiters of cinematic excellence were to have even a brief conversation with “The Expendables” screenwriter-director-star, they wouldn’t have to be Einstein (or Andrew Sarris) to figure out that Stallone is one articulate, informed and rigorously demanding master of his own screen art and image.

At his offices in Beverly Hills, Stallone tries to focus on the topic at hand, which is where writing fits into his career, but assistants are pulling him away to discuss marketing meetings with his producer Avi Lerner, and he’s clearly distracted by the behind-the-camera duties on his agenda, which today range from promotional key art decisions to overseas release dates and film festival appearances.

Looking more fit than any man in his early 60s has a right to look, Stallone finally settles into a chair with a major league Cuban cigar and tackles the subject head on.

“So you want to talk about that goddamned morose subject, writing?” he queries with a soft laugh. He explains the origins of his writing career, which, for all intents and purposes, is the origin of his acting career, as only the most avid film buff remembers many of his film roles before the self-penned boxing drama “Rocky,” which took home the best picture Oscar and firmly established him at the top of the Hollywood food chain.

“Before ‘Rocky,’?” he recalls, “I was at a crossroads between oblivion and failure. So I said to myself, ‘Let me try failure.’?”

The problem Stallone faced back in the early ’70s was the bane of every actor’s existence, which is being cast only according to how he looked and sounded. And Stallone looked and sounded like a big, brooding bone-cruncher. That might have been a terrific career choice for the likes of Mike Mazurki back in the day, but Stallone didn’t see himself that way and had bigger dreams than being the fifth thug from the right.

“There’s no doubt about it, I was stereotyped,” he says. “And I just didn’t see myself that way. In my mind, I’m a very pleasant ‘Ferdinand the Bull’ kind of guy, smelling the flowers, sensitive.”

In those pre-“Rocky” days, Stallone says he encountered filmmakers like Stephen Verona and Martin Davidson on “The Lords of Flatbush,” “who let me write some of my own dialogue. They were very supportive, and I was really introduced to the craft.” And then there were experiences on films such as “Farewell My Lovely,” where Stallone recalls, “I was a young nobody, and I was treated in a humiliating way that I still remember as a bad example of how not to treat people.”

Those bad days on the set led to what Stallone calls a “morass of despair” but also to long nights at the typewriter which he describes as “therapeutic.” Looking back, he says. “I deluded myself into thinking I could write, and I created a script I’m really proud of (“Paradise Alley”), but I did a really stupid thing and sold off control of the project for $100. But it was all part of the process of getting me to the starting gate.”

Decades later, Stallone has again turned to his wordsmithing abilities to get his creative juices going, co-writing “The Expendables” with David Callaham. For any who question his devotion to the craft, there’s a full-length documentary on the making of “The Expendables” that colorfully and explicitly details how much real blood, sweat and busted tendons Stallone put into the project, as well as the almost-fanatical rewriting and fine-tuning he did on virtually every line of dialogue in the film.

“The way I make an action film is rough and tumble,” Stallone asserts, and the lifetime of physical injuries (including a broken neck incurred on “The Expendables”) is vivid proof of that statement. But Stallone also approaches the writing in an almost self-flagellating way, proudly noting, “I did 140 drafts on this script and wrote somewhere between 1,400 to 1,600 pages, which became 112 pages. They’re all in these boxes,” says Stallone, pointing to the substantial girth of his work sitting near his desk.

Stallone speaks at length about the care he put into thinking about each of his actors, including Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke.

As an example, he explains the logic behind the way certain fight scenes are choreographed, noting, “I would have decapitated Steve Austin in ‘Rambo 2’ or ‘3,’ but now my actions have to be age-appropriate.” He also points out that Lundgren “was maybe the best athlete I ever went up against. But the guy is also a Fulbright scholar who studied for an engineering degree at MIT! So it was time to get Dolph into a role that takes him out of the box that some people have put him in.”

It’s clear that the “something under $80 million”-budgeted project is more than a payday for Stallone. As he says in the documentary, “I didn’t bleed during ‘Rhinestone’?” — one of his lesser outings that he’s probably happy to have far behind him in the rearview mirror.

His bruising screenplay differences with originating writer Phil Alden Robinson on that unfortunate country music vehicle is now the stuff of Hollywood legend, but if the star-writer of today has mellowed, he’s also lasered in on the kind of yarn that best suits his image and his personal ethos.

As an example of what he feels he’s learned since his heyday in the ’80s, he says in the documentary, “It took me 30 years to figure out it’s not me the fans are crazy about. It’s ‘Rocky’ and it’s ‘Rambo,’ and we’re now in the third generation of movie fans who respond to those characters.”

If he’s got a personal statement to make in “The Expendables,” it’s probably the one that he utters in the documentary, reflectively, almost to himself: “You got to show your soul. Otherwise, you’re just another piece of meat.”

Whether or not the film critics of the world or the fans of his previously superhero-style roles are ready for Stallone’s new “soul” movie, don’t bet against what Stallone impishly calls his “will over skill,” and don’t underestimate what an underdog can accomplish when he’s got a bigger-than-life goal in his sights.

You saw “Rocky,” didn’t you?

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