Founded in 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is one of the most acclaimed film studios in Hollywood history, and has amassed more than 200 Academy Awards, including 14 Oscar trophies for Best Picture.
This year, MGM celebrates its 90th anniversary by revisiting some of its most beloved films, such as the 1976 Best Picture winner “Rocky,” which has been restored in stunning 4K resolution for the six-film “Rocky: Heavyweight Collection” Blu-ray pack.
Written by and starring then-unknown actor Sylvester Stallone, “Rocky” tells the story of a Philadelphia club boxer named Rocky Balboa (Stallone), who is catapulted into the spotlight when he’s chosen to fight undefeated World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on New Year’s Day 1976. The movie also features stirring performances by Talia Shire as Rocky’s shy pet shop clerk girlfriend, Adrian; Burt Young as Adrian’s occasionally overbearing brother, Paulie; and Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s hard-nosed manager and trainer.
Despite the film’s blockbuster reputation, “Rocky” was, in fact, an independent movie, which was produced on a shoestring budget of $1 million and shot in only 28 days. While interior scenes were filmed in Los Angeles, director John G. Avildsen shot exteriors on location in Philadelphia, capturing the grit of Rocky’s neighborhood and simultaneously granting an eternity of fame to locations around the city.
I recently met up with Avildsen (who also directed the original “Karate Kid”), to talk about the fictional fighter’s legacy, making a movie with no money and the smelly bathroom that spawned a classic moment.
David Onda: The new “Rocky” Blu-ray collection includes some of your personal 8mm “home movies” shot during production. What are some of the scenes that stick out to you?
John G. Avildsen: Oh, I hadn’t seen that stuff. I had never seen it and had forgotten all about it. [Production supervisor] Lloyd Kaufman found that stuff in his basement a few months ago and I cut it together and that’s what you saw. It was marvelous to see us back in those days. It was a lot of fun doing it.
Onda: Was there anything you saw that you had forgotten?
Avildsen: I guess one of the things I had forgotten – none of us ever sat down, because there weren’t any chairs. There wasn’t that kind of a budget where there was usually a prop man to take care of chairs and folding things and there’d be a craft table with coffee and donuts. That was not in the cards.
Onda: Is it true you used the 8mm practice footage of Stallone and Weathers fighting to point out that Sly needed to lose weight?
Avildsen: Yes, because I would shoot the rehearsal every day and show it to them so they could see their progress or their lack of progress. And I certainly would zoom in on some fat folds where they weren’t supposed to be. And it worked.
Onda: As a director, was it difficult to make a movie with a star and writer who had his own distinct vision for what the movie should look like?
Avildsen: No. Sylvester and I had the same vision, I think. And he was a starving actor. He wasn’t a big star. He was very cooperative and willing to try anything and not concerned with the size of his trailer, because there was no trailer. It was a joy working with him. He told me he wrote about 300 pages over the production, because we were constantly changing things and hopefully making it better.
Onda: Some of the most memorable moments in “Rocky” were born out of creative problem solving. Can you give me an example of something that ended up in the film by chance?
Avildsen: You know where “ROCKY” comes across the screen at the beginning of the movie? That was the result of somebody coming into the editing room while I was cutting [the film], and they needed a few minutes to show to ShoWest, where all these theater owners would come in and the studios would show them what’s coming for the following year. My dream was to have my own advertising agency by the time I was 30, and that was before I got into movies. When I was in that business, I made industrial films for Shell Oil, IBM, Clairol and so on. These would be films shown to salesmen to get them excited about a new product or a new deal or whatever it had to be. And I knew that these guys had all been out drinking the night before and it’s 7 o’clock in the morning and I had to wake them up. So, that’s why I had that top-to-bottom “ROCKY” go across the screen, to wake everybody up in Las Vegas when they were gonna see our little trailer. And everybody liked that so much, we kept it in.
Onda: You decided not to direct the second, third and fourth “Rocky” movies – was there any particular reason?
Avildsen: Well, I got all involved with a pretty screenwriter and that lead me to say no to “Rocky 2.” I made “Slow Dancing in the Big City” instead, which was a major mistake.
Onda: You didn’t like that movie?
Avildsen: Well, I liked the movie, but nobody else did.
Onda: You came back to the series for “Rocky V,” and I was shocked to hear you say in another interview that Rocky was supposed to die in that movie.
Avildsen: [Stallone] wrote a terrific script, it was a beautiful ending. Adrian comes out of the hospital, announces Rocky’s death, but says as long as people believe in themselves, Rocky’s spirit will live forever. And I thought, “What a beautiful way to wrap it up.” So, we set off to do that and a couple weeks later, the studio called and said, “He doesn’t die.” I think people would have gone to see that, because you don’t see that happen.
Onda: If you were watching “Rocky” with an audience and could point out some of the little things you love that they might not notice otherwise, what would you point out?
Avildsen: Rocky’s apartment was in the Skid Row part of town in Los Angeles. It looked out on some palm trees, so I had them build that brick wallpaper outside his window to make it look like an air shaft. The apartment that we rented was really a derelict apartment. And the bathroom he goes into to get away from Burgess really did smell. You didn’t wanna go in there. It was grim. So, when he goes in there and shuts the door, it really was not pleasant. We had shot the exterior here in Philly before we did the interiors. And we shot the scene where Rocky runs out of the apartment at night, runs down the street and puts his arm around Burgess. When we shot the scene in Los Angeles in January the following year, Rocky shuts the door in Burgess’ face as he goes into the bathroom. Burgess goes to leave, he opens the door and forgets his hat. Rocky thinks he’s left and he opens the door and he’s still there. Burgess gets his hat and he leaves and that’s the end of the scene as it was written.
I thought, “Now wait a second.” The next cut, we see Rocky run out and put his arm around him. Where did he make that transition? I said to Sylvester, “We never see you change your mind. It doesn’t make any sense, you putting your arm around him. You couldn’t get away from him fast enough. Why don’t you come out and stand in the doorway and vent and unload all your frustration and hatred and disappointment.” So he liked that idea. I said, “Action.” He comes out of the bathroom and he goes through that improv, mentioning that the place stunk – which it really did. And it was great. There was a tear in my eye and I said, “Cut. That was terrific!” And the sound guy said, “No, forget it.” I said, “Why? What’s wrong?” He said, “My battery died.” We had to do it again, but it was almost as good as the first one. So, when I sit there and see him standing there yelling about how it stinks, I realize he’s not kidding.
Onda: You once made a remark that, before “Rocky,” you thought it was “silly” to make a movie about boxing. Were you not a fan of boxing in general?
Avildsen: No. I thought boxing was stupid.
Onda: Do you still think boxing is stupid?
Avildsen: Yeah! It’s barbaric. There are a lot more intelligent things for people to do.
In celebration of MGM’s 90th anniversary, all six “Rocky” films are now available at home with XFINITY On Demand, and on Blu-ray with the “Rocky: Heavyweight Collection” set.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.