25 years ago Sylvester Stallone became a superstar and something of a hero with Rocky. A quarter of a century on, a fit and youthful Stallone is back in the driver’s seat – literally and figuratively – in the Renny Harlin-directed race car movie, Driven.
Based on the CART open-wheel racing circuit, Stallone plays a semi-retired driver who agrees to coach a young racing prodigy in turn pitted against a champion driver. Stallone is both star and producer of the film, which took him four years to get off the ground. It was appropriate that Paul Fischer met the Oscar winning legend in California’s idyllic Long Beach, during the Toyota race trials, with the sounds of engines humming loudly in the background.
Question: 25 years after Rocky, what parallels would you draw between your character in Driven and Rocky Balboa?
Answer: Only in that he’s unfulfilled in a sense, as he says in the beginning, he’s will over skill, he has a lot of incentive and a lot of heart and he feels for people.
Question: Did you recognise any of Rocky when you were writing this script or are you simply attracted to characters like these guys?
Answer: Very much so. Initially the character was much darker and much more controversial in the sense I took a compilation of characters that had blown their careers, had been accident-prone, had become drunkards, very, very drivers that had blown their careers at the height, and HE’S brought back originally as an example of how drivers should NEVER be. That’s why Burt Reynolds brings him back because Kit Pardue’s character is going off the deep end, the champ can’t deal with his responsibilities, fear is setting in, and he’s basically setting up his own failure syndrome. I found that people literally sabotage themselves, and the young driver was sabotaging himself; he’s finding ways to fail so he doesn’t have to deal with the pressure. Then I’m brought back there as a man who did the same thing, so I am supposed to be his mentor, and guide him through this minefield from all the mistakes I’VE made. That character was extremely in the forefront, almost a one-man show with the rest of these characters sort of in the background and I didn’t think that was the way to go, so that was reduced to the point where it became more of an ensemble.
Question: Both Rocky and Driven were written at specific times in your life. Do both films reflect where you are at those points in time?
Answer: Yeah I think so. I think there’s a more contemplative aspect to it all and you become more philosophical and towering, and not so self-serving. I think if you start to will and project things, stuff could happen. I mean I think you have to be part of your own architect and you have to have the responsibility and discipline to be happy, but at the same time to be supportive of other people, because I think that’s all part of one’s success to have people also give you their love and endorsement. So that’s what I tried to do in THIS film. He is more of a big brother to these guys and he says to the young driver: As soon as you can take care of yourself OFF the track, you’ll be able to take care of yourself ON the track. And that’s my philosophy of life, the same with acting. Until you get your private life in order, you can’t keep your professional life in order, it just won’t work.
Question: Let’s talk about the process of getting this film made. You wrote it over four years ago and started shopping it around —
Answer: That’s almost a movie in itself. It’s four years of almost back-to-basics; it’s almost like starting out as an unknown, because you’re dealing with a project that a lot of people are wary of, racing. There have been racing movies in the past, but they haven’t performed as well as say, football movies, so there’s a little hesitancy. So we had to start from scratch. In this day and age you can imagine how expensive it is for a racecar film to be, so to put the whole thing together and do it within a very frugal budget, is pretty impossible.
Question: So was it a humbling experience shopping this around?
Answer: Oh yeah, it is very humbling and I think puts your life and soul in perspective, in that: This is how you started and some things that are hard fought are the ones you take great satisfaction in, unlike the ones you come too easy, like the guys who inherit $100m and end up like junkies jumping off a building. If it all came too easy, they feel unfulfilled because they haven’t accomplished anything. So I think with all these hard-fought wars, you just don’t quit.
Question: What was it about it that made you carry it for so long?
Answer: I like films that deal with two stories at the same time. In other words, you have boxing with Rocky, but it’s really not about boxing and it’s not so much about Rocky. It’s about a feeling, a kind of spirit and a dignity thing. Racing is not just about cars going on a track, it’s about dealing with your own fear about dealing with the competition, and how life is a constant race; you win some, you lose some, it’s about keeping your eye on that finishing line the whole time. It’s a metaphor, because what we do every day is race – we race from the moment we get up, race to get here, race to get the interview, race back for your deadline, right? Why do people race? They DO it all day long from the moment they’re born.
Question: You still look incredibly young and fit. How do you keep in shape?
Answer: After Cop Land, I had a bit of time on my hands, so I went back and exercised and basically changed the diet and messed around with different herbs to see what would happen, almost like a hobby. But it’s a tough hobby. I’d much rather be like I was in Cop Land.
Question: Going back to Rocky. The entire series is about to be released on DVD. What input did you have on all of that?
Answer: I had to sit through my movies, which is not easy sometimes, and narrate the whole lot of them.
Question: And you remembered it all?
Answer: It’s unreal how burned into my brain it all is. You don’t remember the off-screen stuff, the hi-jinks, especially if you’re also directing them. But man, you remember that punch and who broke that jaw and being in the hospital for 10 days here sand there; all that kind of stuff.
Question: Why has that character sustained for all these years?
Answer: Because it’s an ideology I think, rather than just a character performance. We take boxing liberties. Nobody can take those kinds of beatings, but again it’s a mythological character. That’s why we started the whole thing with the face of Christ and he comes down. It’s a parable. You can take a guy who’s downtrodden or whatever but there’s a spark of desire to WANT to rise or fail but he will never get that opportunity. Rocky is about an opportunity to rise or fail; that’s it. When I was spending years on the streets, I would relate and so when I wrote that, that was basically MY story; this one chance. The most important scenes in all the Rockies – and this is my philosophy – I know I’m going to lose, but I just want to be standing at he end, so I’m not another bum from the neighbourhood. I’m not as good, not as smart, not as gifted, but I have perseverance. And I think people can relate to that.