It’s been 20 years since audiences have seen Vietnam vet John Rambo kick some serious ass and now the classic warrior is back on the big screen to take on the Burmese military in the war-torn region of Thailand to help a group of Christian missionaries.
Sylvester Stallone may be in his early 60s now, but that hasn’t stopped the action star from taking the necessary risks and treading through dangerous terrority to make Rambo, the latest installment in the popular series.
Stallone talked to ComingSoon.net about why he chose the Burmese-Karen civil war, which is still happening, as the political conflict for the storyline of the latest Rambo flick and what the challenges were of bringing back the iconic character.
ComingSoon.net: What happened to the shot where you punch the guy’s head off? Sylvester Stallone: I know, that’s an optical confusion. What it was, was the knife and it was such a bad print, it looked like I punched his head off. No, that’s the shot, absolutely. I kept reading blogs and said, “Guys, look closely. No one can punch someone’s head off.”
CS: Do you ever imagine a world where you shot the ending of the book “First Blood” and didn’t have “Rambo” with you all these years? Stallone: Yeah, I think about it all the time. I had that debate with Quentin Tarantino who thought I made a mistake. I said, “You know, on an artistic level, you’re probably right.” But at the time, I had spent a lot of time doing research with veterans and it seemed like this terrible, nihilistic ending that just reveled in complete despair. At that time, we had almost a quarter of a million Vietnam suicides. So I thought, do I want to just end it on that note? Or make him more of a victim who has been created to do a job, does the job, comes home, gets “You know what? You no longer fit in.” It’s like you train a pit bull. Take a dog, turn him into a killer, now what do you do? You’ve got to put him down. What happens if that pit bull gets loose? And you realize it’s not as bad as you think. You can somehow redeem him. I thought that was more of an interesting story. Again, as Kirk Douglas says, “Not artistic, but commercial.”
CS: Did you have to go back and watch the previous “Rambo” films to get back into character? Stallone: Yeah, you know kind of just the ponderousness that comes with aging, the sense of weight, the sense of knowledge, knowing too much, the lack of naiveté which happened in my life, sort of set the stage for me. I wanted Rambo to be heavier, bulkier, that’s why his first line in the movie is pretty negative. He’s given up. He has nothing. The other Rambos I felt had a bit too much energy. They were a little too spry. I’m not trying to run myself down but there was much more vanity involved. Tank tops, it was all about body movement rather than just the ferocity and the commitment of what he was doing. This character to me is much more interesting. I like “First Blood” and I like this one, just like the first “Rocky” and the last “Rocky Balboa.” Everything in between was kind of trying to figure out what I should do.
CS: Talk about the tone, can you enjoy the gratification with the realistic depiction of violence? Stallone: If you notice over the opening credits, I had to live up to a certain kind of responsibility because people are dying as we’re making the film. Therefore, to just have me running through the film doing these extraordinary heroics I thought would demean what they’re going through. So they had to have their moment where you see a village that is decimated. That’s what happened. As a matter of fact, it’s even worse but I said, “I don’t know if that other stuff would fly today. I think the audience really wants something that’s hard hitting but has a semblance of reality.” We went too far in the old days. We got away with murder. “Jump out of a plane? Well, I don’t need a parachute. You use mine.” And you made it. Somehow you made it. You landed on a convertible roof and you did it. I said no, this time I’m going to really show it and the violence has to be extraordinarily brutal because we see people beheaded on television. How much harder can you get? You cannot water it down, at least I didn’t feel. That was a big bone of contention really. The other thing was do you do a film about a caper, like they wanted to have the corrupt CIA guy and he was trying to sell plutonium rods. I said no. The biggest and most interesting crises in the world is the human crises. It never gets boring. Just like Shakespeare. You don’t need a gimmick. It’s just man against man, just their intolerance of each other.
CS: How did all the production companies come in? Stallone: I don’t know any of them either. [Laughs] What happened was Weinstein came about 12 years ago. “Would you want to do a Rambo?” I said, “okay.” He goes, “We’ve got this great idea where Camp David’s attacked.” I go, “I’m out.” It just can’t be. There’s something about nature as part of the character. There’s something about the primitive man. He’s almost like an Indian. Set in the city, I just didn’t think it would fly. So it died for 10 years, resurfaced. At one time, Mark Burnett was talking about doing it when I was doing “The Contender” and then that didn’t work. Then I called Harvey Weinstein and talked about these missionary groups that were going to Afghanistan. I said, “This is interesting.” No, never got called back on that. So Avi Lerner bought it, New Millennium. He was open to this whole idea. The thing was, I was going to do something about Mexico. Actually the whole Coyote Mexican, remember the people disappearing in Juarez and that whole world. So we went that way and I said, “No, not working. I need something more international.” So I did research and found that Burma is one of the great hellholes on the planet. But no one knows about it. It’s exotic and it’s near Vietnam. The synergy was perfect so that’s why.
CS: Discuss location scouting before the movie and the shooting conditions themselves? Stallone: Funny you bring that up because the location scouting was truly hell. We had to go to places where we were not going to be so confrontational with Burmese agents that are all over Thailand and they’re very, very sensitive to their image. Especially down in Mae Sai where people have disappeared. It’s a serious situation. The Thais were very, very worried about their image so we decided to go up north to Chiang Mai, try to find something that would sort of be obscure to both of them. We wouldn’t be in their faces but the locations themselves were so inland, sometimes we would have to use elephants to get inland. We spent days on the river. In the mountains would have been great to go up to these areas, but just something that felt as though this would be Rambo territory, would be as rugged as his life had been and bleak, but also serviceable for some of the actors who I didn’t want to put them through the kind of hell that they had to be put through. But it was a lot of work. It took four different trips back and forth. 18 hours each way is a lot of scouting back and forth, a lot of jet lagging.
CS: How do you bring back someone else’s franchise, “Death Wish?” Stallone: I think “Death Wish,” if it were done today, would be volcanic. The idea of Jeff Goldblum being a mugger who breaks into an apartment is very simplistic. It gives you an idea how bad the elevation of violence has become. I would focus on defense attorneys, I would focus on [the people] allowing this crap to happen not so much the guy on the street, it’s like who permits it. What if it happened to you, that your daughter was grabbed and her eyes were put out; would you want to sit there and defend that guy? So there’s moral questions here that are being presented that have not been answered in 30 years. So by no means is it the pacifist [origin of the original]. Also, I see I’ll give you a little hint he was a very violent human being, completely violent, an ex convict who walked the walk, was accepted back into society and did everything he could to be a [good person]. Like these thieves and junkies who now work on the side of the law, they’ve gone that way, but when something happens he reverts back to that guy. So now you’ve unleashed a man who really understands the world of violence; he isn’t burdened with this passive-aggressive, conscientious-objector kind of thing. That’s been done. It’s like what happens when the wolf has gone from wolf to wolf in sheep’s clothing back to the wolf. Now the fellow on the street has a problem because he knows how to deal with that kind of mentality because he was a prisoner. So it would be a different take [Laughs].
CS: How do you make “Rocky” and “Rambo” relevant today? Stallone: If I were trying to go after a youth audience and trying to find something hip, using certain music and whatever, I think that would be pretty obvious and be rejected. There’s some things that never change and are universal truths. As you get older, they become more and more apparent about how difficult life is and like the speech in “Rocky” about taking punches and life gives you punches. The young people who would support “Rocky” more than even people my age I think really enjoy and embrace those kinds of lessons. I think the lesson that is somewhat presented here, that war is hell and there is no winner ever and unfortunately people just have to find it out the hard way, will translate. And eventually after a man takes that journey, a woman takes that journey, you always hope that you can go back home, that there’s still some gateway back to peace, peace of mind where you can start to rebuild. That’s the only thing I hope works. I think it does work because they’re just universal truths that never, ever change. No matter what society is, just everybody wants freedom, everyone wants peace of mind but it comes at a horrible price.
CS: Was it hard to bring the movie in at an R rating? Did you want more? Stallone: I couldn’t believe it first of all. When babies are being bayoneted, I thought this will never go. We presented it but I did have a caveat with the MPAA. I said, “Guys, this is happening today. If we’re ever going to do something responsible where art has the ability to influence people’s awareness, impact the lives of these people, don’t dilute it. Don’t water it down. It’s got to be uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable. It’s miserable. It’s distasteful. It’s horrifying. But if you’re not going to do it, don’t do the movie. Don’t do violence light. It’s just wrong. Don’t cut away too soon. Just let it sit in. I want people to feel it.” To their credit, they allowed this film to be as truthful as it could.
CS: What was the most challenging in making this film? Stallone: Well, we had a crew in “Rocky” of about 60 people. There was 570. That’s how hard it was to move through the jungle and everything else. It was the hottest temperatures in 94 years. They called it the burning season. I even wrote lines in there about when they’re going up the river and it’s always hazy and foggy. That was the burning season. The entire country’s burning to the ground. They can see it from satellites. They had to send in military. It was just out of control. It was just burning and burning and burning their land. Every time we cleared it, people were just getting sick. There are 165 different snakes in Thailand, 90 that were poisonous. So we lived with the constant problem of people being bit. Centipedes which are the size of your shoe being found in your shoes. It was a rough, rough… Julie Benz coming from “Dexter” went, “What?” Welcome to action films. But it was extremely difficult. You know what it reminded me of? I was watching the making of David Lean’s film, “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” how much you just had to truck and use brutal manpower and get inland. There’s nothing glamorous about it. I’d watch these men shoulder these giant generators and cut trails with a cigarette in the mouth, no shoes. You could never have done it anywhere else on the planet. Believe me, when we were starting to get all the threats from the Burmese, I said, “Can’t we shoot this in Puerto Vallarta?” I tried, you don’t know. You don’t know.
CS: Any more “Rocky” movies on the way? Stallone: No. They talk about Son Of But no. I got so lucky with the final image of “Rocky,” the rack focus and the fade. I can’t go any further. It was a miracle that it even got done. I’m just glad. That was my finest moment. I was so happy with it. I just wanted to end it on a certain note and was lucky to get that shot.
CS: Are people surprised by your artistic motivations because the characters are so physical? Stallone: I don’t know if that’s quite apparent but I know what you mean. If there isn’t some kind of thought behind it, because muscles are easy. Anybody can do muscles. You just go violence, violence, violence, violence, action, action, action. But if you can find those little moments in between that connect to the people that aren’t so physical, that’s what takes the time and that to me is the challenge and that’s what I love about it. Anyway, thank you.
CS: You should do another little character like Shade? Stallone: I enjoyed this even though I never saw it in this form.
CS: When did you ask Jackie Chan to do a “Rambo” movie? Stallone: This was during “Demolition Man,” so 1993. Now you’ve got Jason Statham, you lucky people.
CS: This is more than just an action film, I felt. Stallone: Do you think it’s kind of like the reincarnation of “The Wild Bunch?” Remember how everybody was going along and then all of a sudden you’d have these bloodbaths. It was that part of the movie that actually he didn’t sell out. Remember in “Bonnie and Clyde,” the whole thing, what was the most important thing in the movie? So I don’t know, maybe I’m just on some kind of historical treadmill here.