6 Filmmaking Tips From Sylvester Stallone

United Artists
By  · Published on August 15th, 2012

Sylvester Stallone is the man. An incredible intelligent writer/director and a savvy actor with chops far beyond the action genre that kept him caged for more than a few years, he’s crafted several profound characters that have stuck in our collective conscious for decades.

It’s also awesome to watch him leap from an exploding mountain while splaying bullets everywhere.

Nominated for two Academy Awards, he’s that rare mix of storytelling brains and aggressive brawn that defies stereotyping. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the erudite artist known as Sly.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Sylvester Stallone

1. Let Regret Be Your Gasoline

“Regrets? There’s tons. That is the fuel that keeps me going. It’s not success, it’s not money. It’s regret. I was on cruise control from ’85 to ’95, and it was my fault. There were a lot of self-inflicted wounds, when I was not doing any original material. I wasn’t directing. I wasn’t writing. That’s not who I am. I wish it was, it’d sure be a lot simpler, but it seems my fate is to be self-generating, produce my own films. I try to direct. That’s why I admire Eastwood. Started as an amateur and became an auteur. I’m sorry I didn’t adhere to opportunities presented, because I could’ve done so many things.”

If you’re really inclined, just the imagined regret you might feel if you turn an opportunity down might be enough to charge your batteries. Of course, on the other side of regrets are goals:

“There are always goals. If you don’t have a mountain, build one and then climb it. And after you climb it, build another one; otherwise, you start to flatline in your life. People think retiring is fun. Well, maybe, but if you have a certain kind of fire inside, there is no end in sight.”

2. Accept That the Money Game Exists, But Understand What It Can and Should Mean

“If people were to say that the money at a certain point is not important, I think they would be reveling in a serious case of mendacity. When you get to a certain level and you see that one performer is getting a number, right away you feel as though, okay, to be respected it becomes a numbers game. I think more importantly it is to the agent than quite often it is to the actor. For example, in the film I just completer, I was paid nothing. Zero. Absolutely nothing. You gamble. . . I’ve never been ‘a mercenary.’ At one time I thought I was, but it’s not about money. Otherwise, I wouldn’t waive this, and I would take the safe route. . . I have all the material comforts one needs. Now it’s all about the library of memories you leave behind.”

The commerce element of art is a difficult one to navigate, which is partially why agents exist in the first place, but no matter where you are on the financial spectrum, the sentiment of choosing projects based on the body of work you’re leaving behind (as opposed to the paycheck you might get) is a powerful one.

3. Hope Your Mother Proclaims That You’ll Fail For Seven Years

The bit about his mother reading his horoscope and telling him he’d fail comes at the 10:22 mark, but the entire episode of Inside the Actors Studio is fascinating, especially if you want to hear about Stallone reviewing his own theatrical performance for a school newspaper (it was glowing), to see images of him playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and catch his words about writing every day without fail.

4. Underdogs Can Become Champions

From a New York Times profile of the Best Picture nominees in 1976:

“You know, if nothing else comes out of [Rocky] in the way of awards and accolades, it will still show that an unknown quantity, a totally unmarketable person, can produce a diamond in the rough, a gem. And there are a lot more people like me out there, too, people whose chosen profession denies them opportunity. When that happens, their creative energies begin to swirl around inside, and erode them, and they become envious, vindictive persons who turn to drink. I, myself, turned to fighting; I averaged a fight in New York City once every four or five weeks. Now when I reflect back on it, I know it was just a release for creative energy.’’

This is perhaps the first of thousands of references to underdogs fighting their way up that Stallone makes, but the message is clear: never give up. Keep fighting, and you may be able to punch through to the top. There’s perhaps no better example than Stallone of that principle; he once cleaned out lion cages at the Central Park Zoo, and he also worked as an usher in a movie theater. He’s now made billions for Hollywood studios.

5. Don’t Foolishly Dismiss Action Movies

“There has always been an elitist attitude toward action films. Good action films ‐ not crap, but good action films ‐ are really morality plays. They deal in modern, mythic culture. The industry has dismissed that, which I think is a big flaw. Action films have been the cornerstone of this business. Without those escapist films, they wouldn’t be making the so-called important dramas.

As we’ve learned over the past forty years or so, this same principle can be applied to almost every genre. Jaws is the elevation of the creature feature. The Exorcist proves how stirring horror can truly be. At their core, the best genre stories have a human element that lives right at the pit of the heart where it meets the gut. With compelling characters and difficult choices, any genre ‐ even action ‐ can become the framework for a timeless story.

6. Start with Mimicking Then Mold it Into a Style

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

The connection between Stallone and Rocky is an obvious one because it seems so correct, but the one thing we haven’t had to see Rocky do on screen is maintain. We always jump back into the story and find out whether Rocky is living the high life or back down in the dumps, but Stallone has the privilege and challenge of figuring out what happens to the underdog-turned-champion once the lights come on in the theater. Stallone has been typecast despite his abilities, he’s made a ton of money for studios that continued to look down on a genre he loves, and he’s never quit.

The old story is that he had about one hundred bucks left in his pocket when he wrote Rocky ‐ a task he undertook because he couldn’t find good roles. Whether that’s fact or romance, it’s still the case that he made a career out of nothing but his own wits (and, you know, a heavy hobby of hitting the gym). People tend to revel at how muscular he is at an age where he could be filing for social security, but what’s really impressive is how damned smart and popularly successful he’s been.

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