August 23, 2012 / 2 Comments

A Sly Discussion of Screenwriting

Have I mentioned that 14 has been in the top ten at for the past week or so? It’s been a pretty amazing week for me.

That being said, I’m still trying to get caught up on a few things after Ex-Communication, so I think I’m going to let the ranty blog slide for another week or so.

 The good news for all of you is that “letting it slide” means I post another screenwriter interview. Even if screenwriting isn’t your thing, you might get a kick out of this one. It’s from two years ago—me talking with actor, director, and screenwriter Sylvester “Sly” Stallone. You may have heard of him. And, yes, I was told very specifically that he does prefer Sly. I talked with Sly (see, now we’re on a first name basis) about his career and his then-upcoming new movie, The Expendables

Now, I have to be honest. While it was very cool to be interviewing Sylvester Stallone… I wasn’t expecting much. Foolish as it sounds, I’d been sucked in by his characters and figured I was going to be on the phone with Rocky Balboa or John Rambo. The guy we all see parodied on SNL and Family Guy. What I actually got was almost an hour talking with a very smart, dedicated, and funny screenwriter who loves Peter O’Toole movies and whose lifelong passion project is a biopic about Edgar Allan Poe.  

 A few points I’ve mentioned before.  I’m the one in bold, asking the questions.  Also, a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out.  A long line of dashes (—————–) means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Mr. Stallone endorsed any of the ideas here on the ranty blog.  It’s just me linking from something he’s said to something similar I’ve said.  And by the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here.  If you haven’t seen the first Expendables yet, check it out.  You’ll get a bit more out of this discussion.

            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.


So, a few background questions…  I know you studied drama at school.  Was it your major or was it a side thing you expanded on?
It was my major, yeah.

Did you study screenwriting?
Well, what happened was I wasn’t getting any parts (chuckles). I decided…  I started writing these one-act plays.  There was this group that was putting on these shows. At the time they were called “happenings” which is kind of like stream of conciousness, they were plays that were like Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” or “Rats” by Israel Horovitz. And I thought, y’know, I’d like to try one of these one-act plays. So I started writing and performing them. They were one-man or two-man shows. And that was the beginning of my love for the written word.

There weren’t many how-to books at the time.  Did you study existing scripts or just kind of wing it…?
What I did was, believe it or not, after four years of college I got a job as an usher. I would watch a show, for example let’s say M*A*S*H, and I would watch it six times a day for two months. And I would break it down and I’d see what works and the timing and I got to get a sense of pace. Or I’d see a movie that wasn’t very well received–I remember, for example, there was a Martin Sheen movie called No Drums, No Bugles, and no one ever saw it. I was like, “Why is this place empty?” So I would go home and try to rewrite scenes in the movie that was playing. Just as an exercise.

Then one thing led to another and I started writing about my experiences in school with things that I knew about. It wasn’t until I went to the New York Library and checked out a book on Edgar Allen Poe that I finally wrote a screenplay that wasn’t solely about my experiences.

I was going to ask you… I know you did some work on Lord’s of Flatbush
That’s right.

…but were there any feature screenplays before RockyOh, many.  Many.  Probably twenty, twenty-five.  I look at them now and they seem kind of quaint.  And they were using the old-fashioned format, which would be the characters name on the left margin and to the right would be the dialogue down the side.  It was pretty archaic.

Rocky got the Oscar nomination for best screenplay.  Plus a bunch of wins.  Was it intimidating having so much success with your first produced screenplay?

Oh, yeah.  How do you follow that up?  The idea of Rocky, it was pretty simple but it touched people a lot more that I thought it was going to. That kind of simplicity and rhythm, I didn’t know if I could do it again.  I don’t even know if I ever achieved it again. Usually it was something that was kind of noticeable in the subsequent Rockys, especially 2 and in the last one, that I could fall into that rhythm which I felt very comfortable with. Having a protagonist that would be that verbal. When a lot of the action comes you don’t get a chance to write dialogue.

You’re an actor-screenwriter who wrote two major films to rekindle his career.  I think you’re unique in that.  Did you plan Rocky Balboa or Ramboas “comeback” films or were they just stories you wanted to tell?
The power of the pen (laughs). I wanted to close out the series, and at that time I wasn’t getting much work and I thought, if I ever get another chance, I owe a lot to these two characters because both of them ended on a note that was unsatisfactory. Especially with Rocky Balboa, that’s the premise. If it works it’s the perfect closure, whereas Rocky V wasn’t.  I didn’t know if it was going to catch on. No one believed it would. It took six years to get done on a budget that was pretty meager. It was quite a long shot. Put it this way– it was  a lot harder to get done than the first one (chuckles).

Do you write all the time?  Is there always something you’re working on, or do you wait for specific inspiration?
I try to write a little bit each day, even if it’s not very consequential.  t’s like painting.  If you put a brush on the canvas a little bit every day, you’re still in the game.  Your brain is subconsciously working. —- I always look at writing in a pretty basic way, which would be like an athlete who hasn’t participated in an event, say, in five or six years. Now he has to get back in the ring and he’s very rusty and insecure. But if he had been going to the gym all that time he would be somewhat prepared.

So what first sparked the idea that would be The Expendables?
I wanted to… and this is a real complicated journey here… I wanted to do a kind of “men being men” journey. It would be escapism but there would be some profound thought going on– in the sense of what about our mortality? What about our morality?–and insert that into the action film so it isn’t just about men blowing up things.

So I thought what was a good format? I looked at The Dirty Dozen and well, that’s World War II. Then I was inspired by Dogs of War. Now, I realized that my template would be a little similar, so we had to go out and purchase the Dogs of War script because I didn’t want to be accused of plagiarizing. Then I heard there was this other script which was, in my opinion, uncomfortably similar to Dogs of War written by David Callahan. I thought, well, I knew from the past we’ll be sued if there’s anything similar. It always happens.*** On every Rocky or whatever, someone’s always had that idea first. I said, this time I’ll just go out and see what’s out there that’s similar. So that script was purchased. Then I wrote what I think is an original, The Expendables, which doesn’t use one word, one comma, one iota from either screenplay.

When was this?
About a year and a half ago. It went through–and this is for real, you can come over to my office and see–it went through a hundred and forty rewrites.  I’m not talking about three or four pages, I’m talking about major rewrites because of budget and then cast changes. For example, Forrest Whitaker was in it and he played a CIA agent. Then I thought that’s not going to work, so that entire screenplay had to be done over.  Then Jason [Statham] came in and he talks a certain way.  Then Jet Li was brought in and I had to create a character for him.  hen I thought, you know, it’d be great to have Mickey Rourke in. So before you know it… every time you bring in a major character like that it would cause these concentric circles where it just keeps going out. What started out as a little idea affects all 120 pages.

A hundred and forty drafts? Is that like, here’s these first twenty that no one’s ever going to see cause this is my stuff, or was this all in production hitting a hundred colors of revision pages?
The first fifty or sixty drafts… and I swear I’ve never seen anything like it. We have close to two thousand pages.  Typed. It wasn’t until about three months before that we went through all the colors twice. My secretary was pulling her hair out. Then I had some help from a friend of mine, Robert Kamen. Robert came in and gave me a couple of ideas and I thought you’re right, let’s try to be more economical.  He was very helpful.

Do you like to write other characters for specific actors? Was Christmas always written with Jason Statham in mind? Was Gunnar always Dolph Lundgren to you?Absolutely.  If you spend a little time with them, everyone had a rhythm to their voice and a way they feel comfortable with dialogue. It’s almost a mathematical cadence to their speech patterns.  If you can capture that, the actor feels comfortable and you also know kind of how you can a make a sentence a little more clever using his speech pattern.  For example, in Rocky, Burt Young has a very unusual speech pattern.  He inverts words.  Instead of saying “You don’t like me?” he’ll reverse it, “Me you don’t like much,” which makes it very unusual.  So I would write according to their natural speech pattern.

How often do you have yourself in mind for the lead role while you’re writing? Do you just write and then think, Hey, I’d like to play this part?

I do.  I do (laughs).  But I realized in this particular ensemble you have to give some of your better lines away.  You just have to to keep a balance, to keep the law of nature working so one doesn’t overwhelm the other character and it’s lopsided.  That was the hardest part in Expendables, that everyone has their moment.  It has nothing to do with the action, it’s just an insight into what makes them tick. Then when you combine that with the action, you say, ahhh, I understand what this guy’s all about.  I know his motive and what really dwells in his heart.  Rather than just muscles.

If you don’t mind me stepping back, in general not just with The Expendables, it seems that most of the stuff you write is for you. Do you want to write for other people?  Would you be interested in writing scripts where you had nothing to do with the movie past writing it?
Well, for example, there was a page-one rewrite…there was a fellow, Norman Wexler, who had written the first Saturday Night Fever and he wrote Staying Alive.  They brought me in.  There were some issues with the script.  The studio didn’t like it at all.  It was a very, very dark journey that the John Travolta character, Manero, was taking.  So I sat down with John and I thought let it be a bit more optimistic.  Let’s take it in this direction.  It’s about redemption and so-on.  I took the script, put it away, and started from page one completely using John’s voice.  Spending time with him, getting his rhythms, and really touching on subjects that as an actor it’s the same thing with a dancer.  The insecurities, the constant awareness that the clock is running and you have a certain amount of time to cross that goal line in your career or you’re never going to make it, so on and so forth.  I love writing for other people.  It’s much easier, actually.

Nowadays, what’s your usual writing method? Has it changed over the years? Are you an outline guy, a notecard guy, do you just start scribbling on page one?
That’s pretty much what I do.  I’ll sit down and try to find, let’s say, the first ten scenes.  And there’ll just be one word– truck, airplane, meets girl, goes home, abandoned apartment– just write those, knowing that 90% of it will be unusable.  Maybe 95%. But the process has started and then subconsciously, if I’m being honest with myself, if I’ve got a story that holds up, it starts to take a life of its own. 

I’ve never been able to write a treatment.  Ever.

How long did it take you to get a first draft?
My first draft would maybe be two weeks.  It’s pretty quick.  But I know going in that it’s far from perfect.  Some writers will labor an extraordinary amount of time on each scene  to get it right before they move on.  I assume that it’s not going to be perfect but I’ll get it the third time, the fourth time around.  It’s like cutting a diamond.  Cutting the facets.  You’re not going to cut it perfectly the first time. You have to keep going back and polishing.  Going back and polishing.

How many drafts did it take with The Expendables until you got to something solid? Something you knew was good?
I would say it took a good twenty-five before we had what I thought was a workable film.  Then the elements of budget come into play.  You have to take a situation, a locale, that maybe had three hundred, four hundred people and you realize you have to cut it down to two (laughs).  In Rocky, the ice skating scene was meant to be in Rockefeller Plaza in New York, where they’re ice skating and there’s three hundred people on the ice and Christmas trees and caroling going on in the background when Rocky takes Adrienne on her first date.

Did something similar happen with Expendables?
Oh, yeah.  Hell, yeah.  In The Expendables we’re supposed to take on Somalian pirates in the first scene.  As you know, it’s very expensive shooting that.  I had it written where they climb on board, they go across the deck, camera’s dollying in, so on and so forth.  That would take about five or six days to get that all proper.  And I thought, all right, why don’t we just establish boat, next thing is cut inside the boiler room and you see the pirates and the hostages.  So we never see the Expendables arrive or exit.  They just appear.

Now, you kind of touched on this… is it tough on set, as the writer-director, when pretty much every actor in your film is used to being the leading man? I mean, you’ve got guys in bit parts who normally carry tentpole films. Do you like ad-libs from actors? Do you like them switching stuff around?
If they come up with something…  The format I follow is we do it as written the first take or two.  Then after that I say “Let’s tear it apart a little bit,” and I’ll purposely start to ad-lib.  Some actors are very good at it.  Some aren’t.  You have to know.  Mickey Rourke will roll with it.  Other actors are not comfortable with it and you have to write them in as they’re physically reacting to what you’re saying.  They’re looking away, they look bored, this and that, they smile.  So they’re in the mix even though they’re not verbalizing.  You have to find the strength of these stars and capitalize on them and not expect them to be something they’re not.

The names are a little silly in The Expendables. Harry Christmas.  Hale Caeser. Toll Road. What’s up with that?
Yep.  Well, it’s Lee Christmas now.  Every one of those characters is based on…  Lee Christmas is the world’s most famous mercenary, down in Honduras as the turn of the century.  I just thought, what a great name–General Lee Christmas.  Barney Ross was a great fighter in the ‘30s.  What  I was trying to come up across is every one of these guys, they don’t have an identity.  Their real name doesn’t matter.  They live in this kind of alternate universe where they have no social security cards, no driver’s license, nothing.  They’re fictional characters.  When Bruce Willis says ——-  I just love that when you have nicknames for characters that explain who they are.———Toll Road, Randy Couture, to get past him you’re going to pay a price.

We start right at the top with Gunnar pretty much snapping. Why did you want to start with one of the good guys essentially going bad?
Because you don’t expect it.  You know at one time this guy was a great warrior who, through a human frailty, a weakness, became a drug addict.  He was unpredictable.  Even though we don’t belabor the fact that he was a drug addict, you sense it with certain words.  “When a guy turns Crankenstein on you, you’ve gotta let him go.”  Or another one goes “Put a shot in speed racer’s shoulder.”  I don’t want to see him shooting up or snorting.  He just has a problem.  It could be pills or whatever, but he’s got to overcome this.  By the end of the film you really embrace the guy.  At least in the final draft.

I thought it was interesting that this isn’t just the movie title. They actually call themselves “The Expendables.”  Why did you want to have this be their real title?
Self awareness.  They realize that if they’re gone it really doesn’t matter.  They’re in an expendable business.  Every mercenary on the back of his mind must know when he goes to a foreign land there’s a good chance he doesn’t come back.  He’s expendable and he accepts that.

There’s a nice bit where Tool is talking about the girl on the bridge. It isn’t just about killing bad people–it’s about saving good ones. Where did that whole theme come from? Was it there from the start or did it develop through drafts?

It developed. Tool originally had a girlfriend who was half blind, going blind, and that was going to be Brittney Murphy. We just didn’t have it in the budget.  Brittney Murphy was also a wonderful singer. At the end of the movie people were questioning why would Tool be interested in this kind of girl when he has all these Hooter-type girls. Then when you hear her sing you think she has real soul, she has depth. That’s why he finally has come around to this kind of woman. Now when that was taken out I needed a moment when the character who seemed like the biggest bon viant, who doesn’t give a damn, in the end really is tortured because he didn’t do what he could’ve done to save his soul, his morality. And he’s saying to Barney, don’t make the same mistake. You’ve got to do something for nothing. 

No spoilers in the article, but I’d like to ask you about the ending and maybe talk around it, if that makes sense…  In the end the good guys win. Barney doesn’t get the girl and decides not to quit. Gunnar doesn’t die.  It’s almost like a reset button gets hit. Why not have more of a toll on the team?
Right. I thought about that. This is kind of a morality play where I wanted to see these men again. I always wrote it hoping there would be a backup so I could really get in-depth for the second one. I think when you’ve lived with people so long that to see them die… I don’t know, it just put a damper on the overall sense of exaltation at end of the film. That good can triumph over evil without having to cause death. I know that’s a completely unrealistic way to look at it, but I’d learned a lesson from First Blood. In the original First Blood, Trautman kills Rambo. He puts a bullet in his heart and he dies. We shot that ending. I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to do it, but that’s the way it was written. And then I said can we do an alternate where Rambo pours his heart out and he dies emotionally, but he’s given a rebirth. A second chance.  When we ran the first screening with Rambo dying, the audience was so depressed. I didn’t like the message that victory can only be achieved by spilling the blood of one of the heroes. If we could accomplish both at the same time–the bad guys are vanquished and the good guys prevail–I think in this kind of film you walk out of there feeling good, rather than walking out going “Oh, I wish Jason hadn’t died.” It puts a damper on it. I’m not trying to make a one-off statement. In Dogs of War everyone did die and it’s a whole other kind of film. This is totally escapist fair with some moral message slipped in.

After doing so many action movies–as the writer and the star–is it tough to come up with “new” action scenes?
Very hard. What we did with this one was just go back to very simple mano e mano, man vs machine. Very little CGI, and everything in the film is do-able by a professional.  Everything here could be accomplished. Barney is the greatest shot in the world. He’s so fast with the pistol it’s hard to believe. But I went on YouTube and researched the fastest shot in the world. There’s a man who gets off six shots in point-nine-tenths of a second and hits his target. So everything in there is achievable, it’s just so fantastic it’s hard to believe.

Last questions… in the past couple years you’ve done The Expendables, Rocky Balboa, I’ve heard you’re working on another new Rambo script… 
I’m not sure about that one. The last Rambokind of tied the ribbon on the whole journey. I don’t know if coming back out could spoil the whole thing. What more can you possibly do?  Really?

You mentioned Poe at the start.  I noticed you’ve got a Poe project in the works on IMDb. 
Yeah.  I’m really worried about doing it, though, because I’ve been talking about this since 1976.

So it’s the same thing?
It’s the same thing. Every five years I’ll look at it say  “Boy, it’s sort of dated.”  Even though it’s a period piece, the writing styles have changed so much and the audiences way of percieving films is not the way it was in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  A Lion In Winter is one of my favorite films, but it’s all dialogue.  It’s incredible dialogue, but that school of acting has fallen by the wayside.  Now you have to think visually, too, and that diminishes the amount of dialogue.  For example, the inner workings of Poe’s mind.  We now get into his subconcious and you actually see his great gothic stories unfolding in front of you.  You take a journey through his mind at certain points in his mind and see the black cat, see the House of Usher, you see where it came from.

Looking back thirty-odd years… have you learned anything about screenwriting that you really wish you’d known back when you were writing Rocky?  When you sat down to work on Poe for the first time?
I guess… I believe your first instincts, when you write with passion, are usually the best.  Quite often in multiple rewrites you become a little too slick, if you know what I mean.  You become a bit too polished and predictable.  When I was writing Rocky I just let it go.  For example, the speech in Rocky Balboa with his son, I wrote that while I was riding in the back seat of a car, just bouncing around.  One take, one time.  I was just writing from the heart rather than trying to get the audince on my side, trying to manipulate the audience.  I just wrote from my heart.  So to answer your question,  I think what I learned is try to get back towriting purely with your gut more than your brain.

Was there a point in there when you kind of forgot that?
No question about it. Rambo III became about the events around him and not the turmoil inside of him. For example, I do a little painting, but I’m not a photorealist. So people will say what is that and I’ll say it’s a flower.  “Well that doesn’t look like a flower.” And I’ll say no, it’s what the flower’s thinking. It doesn’t have to be so perfect. It’s what I think is going on inside of the subject rather than on the exterior. 

It’s all motivation. If you know why a guy is going to war, really understand, that you’re with him on the journey.  When you know Rocky goes there, that he realizes that he is a bum and he’s never going to win, he’s going to get killed.  But, if he can just stand up, that to him is championship.  The audience is not expecting him to win, but they’re with him on just surviving and that is a great moral victory.  So that kind of thing.  It isn’t just random.  Why are you here?  Why here and why now?


(***It’s worth pointing out that, ironically, Stallone ended up getting sued over The Expendables.  Because of this interview I was subpoenaed twice and deposed once.  He won his case earlier this year.)

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