Sylvester Stallone Talks Creating ‘Rocky’: “I Just Wrote About What I Knew”

Sylvester Stallone says screening the 1958 Hollywood adventure fantasy flick Hercules, starring Steve Reeves, changed his life when he was 12 years of age.

“I was very lucky, in the golden age of films, when dialogue was important. But the dialogue didn’t move me as much as the actual physical embodiment of overcoming odds,” Stallone said of movies that tap into ancient mythology during an in-conversation appearance at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday afternoon.

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He was also influenced by comic books when conjuring up action hero fantasies in his head. “Coming to the rescue, not so much as a superhero, just as a guy who was forced to,” Stallone said of early artistic inspirations.

He also talked about getting a job as an usher in a cinema house after college to do more than take tickets at the turnstile. He got an education in movie-making. “Watching those films over and over and over, you get to see the magic. You realize, here comes that scene again. And then I said, I can do better than that. And then I realized I couldn’t, okay,” Stallone recalled.

But he persisted and used the movie theater and his job as an usher as screenwriting 101. “I just wrote about what I knew. I was writing about this little kind of mentally challenged guy who happened to have a lot of heart,” Stallone said of his early Rocky Balboa character as it came into shape in his mind and on the page.

TIFF has scheduled a screening of the original Rocky movie, about an underdog boxer in Philadelphia, for Friday night and outdoors near to Roy Thomson Hall on King Street. “I wanted to write a movie about a guy who says ‘I’m not great at all, never will be. I fight great fighters. But I just want the opportunity to go the distance,’” Stallone said of his original Rocky character.

He added Rocky and the Rocky Balboa character represented the apex of his careeer, because no one at first in Hollywood wanted to make the movie. “Nobody wanted to make it. It was my best writing too,” he said.

The iconic Hollywood star, best known for his tough guy Rocky and Rambo movie franchises, also opened up about his early days an actor. “I didn’t have the bones to be a Shakespearean actor. It’s important as an artist to know what your strengths are, but more important to know your weaknesses,” Stallone said.

His longevity in Hollywood as an actor, writer and producer goes back to 1976 and covers over 50 films that together grossed about $3 billion at the box office. Stallone expressed surprise at clips of early TV appearances during the 1980s to market his early Rocky movies.

“Truly, I have to apologize. My ego was so out of control,” he said after a brief British TV appearance played on the big screen behind him. The global action icon’s discussion of his Hollywood career coincides with Sly, Stallone’s career-spanning documentary for Netflix from director Thom Zimny, being tapped to close TIFF on Sept. 16 with a glitzy world premiere at Roy Thomson Hall.

As a writer, director, actor and producer, Stallone is best known for movies like Rocky, the Creed spinoffs, The Expendables, Demolition Man, Cliffhanger and Cop Land. Stallone has now ventured onto the small screen, playing Dwight Manfredi in the Paramount+ dramedy Tulsa King, the latest heartland series from Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan.

While a Netflix title, Sly is a documentary film not covered by the SAG-AFTRA TV and theatrical agreements, so the Hollywood star wil walk the red carpet in Toronto into Bell Lightbox for his keynote conversation. Sly leads Stallone through a Hollywood journey that catapulted him to fame after his star turn in the inspirational underdog story Rocky.

“Action heroes should shut their mouth. Action guys who perform heroic deeds don’t talk about it. They just do it. And it’s that simple,” Stallone said of his action movies that told stories with physical movies and their eyes, including his 1982 action adventure pic First Blood.

“That’s the kind of thing you have to be really ruthless and not care about how foolish you look… That’s when I realized what it is to lose yourself in acting. I didn’t care. I literally was this guy for that moment,” Stallone recalled.

Stallone also said today’s Hollywood tentpole movies shot in front of green screens aren’t his style. He likes to shoot on location, rather than in studios. “I like to be out there where it’s more challenge and more real,” he insisted.

His current career resurgence on TV also includes a starring role in the Paramount+ family reality show, The Family Stallone, which chronicles his home life and just finished airing its eight episodes. It has been renewed for a second season.

The Toronto Film Festival concludes on Sunday.

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