Rambo - Sylvester Stallone interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
SYLVESTER Stallone talks about some of the challenges of bringing Rambo back to cinema screens, his research on Burma and why the film’s violence isn’t gratuitous in any way.
He also talks about the cultural significance and influence the Rambo films have had over time and on his daughters, as well as which other of his part characters he might like to revisit…
Q. I gather this was one of the toughest location shoots you’ve done, working in Thailand close to the Burmese border?
Sylvester Stallone: I was like: “Can’t we work in Acapulco, I’ll take whatever I can. I don’t care, it’s not worth dying for this film.” I thought we could shoot it wherever we could. But then I remember when we did Rambo II, we shot it in Mexico, which was supposed to be Vietnam, and we had about 13 extras who were all part-time waiters from Thailand and I thought: “We can’t keep doing this.” So we went back there and we just dealt with it. It was a pretty intense situation, but I’m glad we did it there, I’m glad we finally got some Burmese people to agree to be in the film, because they were terrified, terrified of being in the film. I couldn’t ask for a more harsh, but more interesting experience.
Q. Is it true that a lot of the cast were hospitalised during the shoot?
Sylvester Stallone: Yeah, many, many people were on saline drips. It was very dangerous. Even the bushes are dangerous – and the butterflies. Everything. We had so many fires. It was called the burning season. In Burma, they burn the country to the ground because they don’t want to cut trees. Why? Because chainsaws are illegal! It’s OK to smash peoples’ skulls in with machetes, but you can’t own a chainsaw! Even in Cambodia and Thailand, people were having problems. But the biggest problems we had were snakes. And if you leave your chair, you came back and something huge was sitting on it with a 1,000 legs.
Q. Did you suffer any injuries?
Sylvester Stallone: When you see the making-of – I did this stupid stunt where I’m running down a hill and there’s this giant explosive wave following me and I’m rolling down the hill. All you’re thinking is: “Please don’t let a stick go through my eye.” But I was almost at the bottom when I smacked into a log. I checked I had 10 fingers and 10 toes, they were intact and I thought “perfect”! But then, bang, I smacked my head into a bamboo tree and fell onto this cactus that punctured my arm and the next thing I know I’m in the hospital with this haematoma that from hear [indicates his chest] to here [end of his arm] I was what you could call a true blue blood. It was completely blue. But accidents could happen when you’re walking into your motor home and you find something in your toilet that could eat you. You know, I saw 11 people on a moped, but no one got killed. Back home, you’re in a car with seatbelt on and one crash and bang: you’re dead. It’s crazy and yet this is how people live out there.
Q. The name Rambo has slipped into the lexicon, but has there been a change in the way war veterans in general have been treated?
Sylvester Stallone: Not really. Each generation seems to diminish the importance of what they’re doing. They’re the reason they can go about driving cars and go shopping and go to school, because these guys are willing to go out and have their bodies blown apart to defend that right. Now we’re worried about the economy in the United States and not the fact that people are coming back with half a body having fought in war that they’ve no idea why they’re there. So, what I’ve tried to do with the Rambo franchise is make it about a bitter, cynical soldier that realises he’s an errant knight who realises that all his exploits have been for nothing and he tries to pass that on to people who are full of optimism and who think that God is going to put things right. No matter what, every religion needs its crusaders – to me it’s not as simple as it appears on film. It’s economical, but it’s not simple. There are a lot of different philosophies going on there without trying to expound on them and make it like a documentary.
Q. Have you had any official comeback from the Burmese authorities, and how much did you research it?
Sylvester Stallone: Tonnes and tonnes of research. We used the Burmese Rangers and hit on all the websites and looked at all the atrocities literally hour by hour. It’s almost a teletype of horrendous activity that’s going on out there. It’s hard to believe that it’s publicised yet no one really knows anything about it. We did get many, many death threats. We had been told by many students who had contacted the Free Burma Rangers in Thailand that the real … I’m trying to find the word … it’s not enjoyment, but the pleasure is that they can now finally have something out there that’s not their stale news. They can have something that’s visually exploitative that can be seen around the world and they’re using Rambo’s “Die for something, or live for nothing” phrase… they’ve hooked onto that phrase.
I also don’t think it’s gratuitous violence [in this film]. Gratuitous violence is a guy dressed up with a meat cleaver chasing 10 teenagers around the woods for 10 hours, that’s gratuitous. This is war and civil war, as you all know, is by far the most vicious of all wars for some reason; it’s just much worse. The exploits in the film are violent, but they don’t compare to what these people have gone through. The immolation of not hundreds of monks, but thousands of monks in the last few months, they’ve just been torched off the planet. That’s the information I got, and that’s the information I believe.
Q. Have you heard anything official from the Embassy or any government body?
Sylvester Stallone: Nothing… and there’s a reason for that. The Burmese government spend tens of millions of dollars a year in Washington DC on PR firms. I don’t remember the names of the firms, I have them in my research, but they have lobbyists promoting Rangoon and tours of the country. Except you can’t go. I’ve asked: “Why don’t you let me do a tour. Go where I want to go without having a gun to my head or having to be invited.” You know, George [Clooney] can get into Darfur, Angelina [Jolie] can get into Iraq, but there’s no way I’m getting into Burma. Not a chance. I was hoping they would do it, because I feel as though I want to do more than just the movie. But I know if I go and talk to a congressional attorney, you know what’s going to happen? Zero. Zero.
Q. Now that there’s been around 20 years since the first three films, and there’s been time for some perspective, what do you make of the cultural and political impact the character had in the 1980s and, specifically, how do you feel now about Rambo III given that the film was set in Afghanistan and obviously has relevance to what’s going on there now?
Sylvester Stallone: We’ve changed drastically. I think the action films of today, the real ones like the Bourne films, are brilliant. I think Paul Greengrass is a genius, I just marvel at what he does. And Matt Damon pulling it off was amazing, especially when, at the beginning, no one thought he could do it. But it’s completely different. They’re much more technologically orientated, to keep the energy going. Back then it was pretty simple. It was much more mano-a-mano, who kills who first. So, I thought that this might be interesting to revisit today. An entire generation has no idea, really, who Rambo is; it’s like someone’s grandfather. Old school, mythic, meet you at High Noon, there’s nothing fancy about it; it’s pretty savage, and whoever is the most savage wins.
The 20 year thing, of course you’re fighting ageism, which is too bad, because about 78 million people are baby boomers and they control about 98 per cent of the wealth, and yet we don’t make films for them. I didn’t make this film for them. I thought they would go and see Rocky Balboa. You know who went to see it? 25-year-olds. It’s like: “Let’s go back and see what Grandpa used to do!”
The biggest problem in doing Rambo III was that I thought [at the time], let’s show Russia’s Vietnam. We already did our Vietnam, and of course we did a fantasy version of it where Rambo gets to fight his own war, which was a particular American dream that had nothing to do with reality. The last one, though, was almost supposed to be real and I learned the hard way that when you start making a film that deals with immediate politics… two weeks before the film opens, Gorbachev comes over and gives Reagan a hug, kisses Nancy on the cheek, the word “Perestroika” comes out and now I’m the Red Baiter. Honestly, I walked into a press conference in Australia and I got booed. I’m like: “This is Russia!” They were dropping Napalm for 10 years on the Third World. Cold War – 50 years. But they were blaming me. I didn’t know I had that kind of power. And I swear to you, I was like: “Oh my god, in Burma are they suddenly going to declare peace?” But no, I realised Burma are never, ever going to declare it; it’s a whole different trip.
Q. If it does happen this close to release, you could claim credit…
Sylvester Stallone: Yeah. I saved Burma! I don’t think so.
Q. You were once quoted as saying that studios were sceptical about returning to these characters at your age – but some of their exploits do seem to suggest you don’t know you’re 60?
Sylvester Stallone: [Laughs] No, no, no, guys – you’re a lot tougher than you think. The difference is, I’m lucky. I’m under the gun. I’m under pressure to perform. If I didn’t have this goal, believe me I’d be more than happy to sit upstairs and stuff 25 croissants down my throat and wash it down with a pint of beer. If you looked at me when I was on my way to film Rambo, I was about 20 kilos heavier, I was massive and I had to put that weight on because I knew when I got to the jungle that the heat would take it off. But again, it’s all goal orientated. If you don’t have a goal, it’s very, very hard to just keep in shape.
I was talking to one of my fellow, superstar, up-and-coming, sex-symbol actors who was losing his hair, and the next time I saw him he was covered. I asked: “What did you do?” And he said: “It’s a matter of fucking economics.” [Laughs] It’s got nothing to do with vanity, it’s to do with making a living. In my business, I’ve been identified with a certain kind of physicality. I can’t expect to be Daniel Day-Lewis or go to Russell Crowe land or something like that. I don’t do what they do, they can’t do what I do and it took me a long time to figure out that you can’t do everything. You can end up looking like a bit of a fool.
Q. You’ve returned to two of your characters – are there any other ones you’d like to revisit?
Sylvester Stallone: I think the biggest mistake I ever made was the sloppy handling of Judge Dredd. I think that could have been a fantastic, nihilistic interesting vision of the future. With all the pop culture, that really bothered me a great deal. I think Cobra could have been interesting a on certain level, only because I always thought of him as Bruce Springsteen with a badge [laughs]. I wouldn’t have minded going to see if my fellow in Copland’s life turned out okay.
Q. Where you surprised about the influence the film has had, particularly on things like forthcoming British comedy Son of Rambow?
Sylvester Stallone: I love that movie; I just saw it. And I’ll do whatever I can to support that movie. I thought it was really clever… really clever.
Q. We hear the trailer for that film is going to play in front of yours?
Sylvester Stallone: [Laughs] Bullshit! Can you imagine that? This is what you grow up to be?
Q. What do your daughters think of your films?
Sylvester Stallone: Tell me if this is bad: my five-year-old went to school and this little boy took her chair and she said to him: “If you do that again, I’ll cut your head off.” Is that bad? I think it’s time to rethink what she watches. She’s saying things like: “I’ll blow you up if you do that again.” See, what happens is that they sneak in while I’m watching the dailies at home, and they’re listening, so they think it’s normal behaviour. They’ve become little Rambettes, or Rambolinas, so we’ve had to go back to watching those Spongebob Squarepants DVDs. They used to really cry, now they’re like [yawns]: “Oh, another death.” I swear to god, I’m going to need to detox them.
Q. At the Baftas you were very enthusiastic about British films. What are your favourites?
Sylvester Stallone: Well, first of all, you’ve got to go for the obvious David Lean epics. But my favourite, talking head movie … Peter O’Toole, for me, is the main guy. He’s so incredible, so theatrical, but what he did in The Lion in Winter… I lost my mind. I’ve seen that film so many times that my wife says: “If you watch it again I’m going to stab you.” She just can’t take it any more. But what the Brits have done – and forgive me if this sounds a little self serving – but to do Rambo, you’ve got to do it for no money and you’ve got to rely on action and physicality and trying to get the most bang for your buck. In the British film industry, you’ve had to use your brains more. You’ve got intellectual endeavour and synaptic gymnastics, you have to think a little bit. Our movies are incredibly stupid. I’ll be the first one to say that. You see some things and you wonder: “How did this get made?” And then you see things over here and it’s all about little nuances and so, in a way, your making great films, but I wish you had more money so you could diversify and take the pressure off a little bit. But you’ve got the best actors in the world. Period.
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