|You had a hard time selling the idea for Rocky Balboa, which in a way took you full circle. Talk about your struggle to get the original Rocky made in 1976.|
No one wanted it. Hollywood had made hundreds of boxing films with every actor you could think of, and they were all horrible. I’d say, "But this isn’t a boxing film. He’s a boxer, but it’s about a journey, an ascent. It’s about redemption." So finally these two producers put up $950,000 and gave us 25 days to film. The character wasn’t what they expected, and they tried to fire me on the third day. They were gonna put another actor in the title role. They were really taken aback by the opening shot, where Rocky’s standing over a guy he just conquered and there is an image of Jesus above him. It says Resurrection Athletic Club. And it’s like the character’s life starts changing from that moment on.
Speaking of change, what do you think of how movies have changed since then?
Time moves on and so does the business ethic in Hollywood. Now it’s become all of this escapism—what I call soullessness—where movies are about nothing. They’re $200 million shows about nothing, and we wonder why our industry is shrinking. But I think there’s a lot of young filmmakers coming up that have a great view of faith. They believe in the teaching of Jesus and Christianity, and I think that more than anything, Hollywood is going to have a revival. They’ve hit the bottom. They really have, and there’s such panic now. Studios have gone from an average of 18 films a year to seven or eight, and they don’t know what to do.
How has religious faith impacted your life?
I was raised in a very strict Catholic family and went to Catholic schools until fourth grade. Then my parents got divorced. I was a troubled child and started to go astray. I grew very disillusioned and rudderless, but I’ve been developing a new appreciation for those spiritual roots. In the new film, right before Rocky fights, he has a Scripture read to him, and the first thing he does when he leaves the ring is point straight up to the heavens. He understands where his strength comes from.
It looked like the franchise was done. How did you pitch Rocky Balboa to the studios, and what was their response?
I went to them and said, "I got this idea for a 59-year-old fighter." It didn’t meet with incredible enthusiasm —as if we were gonna talk about him getting lung cancer or something. I just wanted to look at an older guy who still had something inside him but no outlet anymore. You feel very alone, and maybe the thing you’ve loved and relied on has been taken away. There’s grief. It’s not that he wants to fight as much as he has to. I’ve found that as I get older, things don’t get any easier; they get more complicated. But hopefully you have more wisdom and learn to manage it.
In this film, Rocky is living on memories of past glory, and he’s lost his wife to cancer. It seems as if change has made the champ an underdog again.
The best has come and gone, and now he has to rebuild his life. He has to move on past his grief. He’s not a whole man unless he’s part of someone else. I’ve made that same mistake of not believing that family comes first. I thought it was all about accomplishment. We’re all parts of a puzzle, and together that puzzle makes sense. It’s about compassion and second chances. Rocky brings a lot of broken people together, because he’s broken himself. And I felt the same way. When things didn’t work in my life, and ego and temptation took over, I spiraled out of control. I needed to go through my trials and tribulations before I could be man enough to know how to write the kind of story that Rocky Balboa is.
Why did you choose to estrange Rocky from his son, who resents growing up in Dad’s shadow?
I wanted to show that this is a very normal situation. This kid needed to stop blaming other people. It doesn’t matter how miserable your life is—and some people have had a horrible upbringing—you can’t blame your failures on somebody else. That attitude is a setup for complete disaster. Like I tell Milo [Ventimiglia, the actor who plays Rocky’s son], "Life ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you get hit and keep moving forward." I love making those get-up-again films because that’s a theme that resonates with me. When I die I’m gonna be known for Rocky, and hopefully Rocky is gonna be known for leaving those kind of messages. Y’know, there was a time when I wanted to be looked at as more than Rocky. I saw that role as limiting my career opportunities. What was I, crazy? To be identified with such a noble character has been such a blessing to me.
Published March 2007