Interview: ‘Sly’ Director Thom Zimny on Making the Ultimate Stallone Documentary
Sylvester Stallone is widely known as a pop culture icon, action hero, and recently, a reality TV star. But he probably deserves more credit as an auteur. About ten years ago, I watched every single movie Stallone had made until that time as the research for a piece on his filmography for The Dissolve. I took the assignment thinking I would enjoy revisiting the Rocky movies and might find a few diamonds in the rough of a long and winding career, I instead found a filmmaker who often writes, directs, produces and stars in his own projects, and whose body of work represents a decades-long consideration of heroic ideals, and a tribute to the values of hard work and tenacity.
And even with all of that background, I still learned a lot watching Sly, the new Netflix documentary about Stallone’s life. Mostly comprised of candid new interviews with the man himself, the film contains surprising revelations about Stallone’s journey from troubled kid to one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
The doc was directed by Thom Zimny, whose previous films include Elvis Presley: The Searcher and numerous projects about Bruce Springsteen. I was impressed with Sly, so I wanted to talk to Zimny about how he what he learned about Stallone during the process, why he chose to film his interviews in such an unusual way, and whether he sees any parallels himself between Springsteen and Stallone as artists.
You had to be a Sylvester Stallone to make this documentary. So I want to know when you became a fan. What era and what movies are we talking about?
I think I started being a Sylvester Stallone fan with the first Rocky, which I came to later. Not in the cinema, but really the early days of HBO, as a kid. All of a sudden I had this opportunity to watch it again and again, and I immediately connected.
Then years later I stumbled on Paradise Alley, and I was young enough for it to make a big impression. And then, as an adult, I was seeing other films — and I think I had just enough knowledge about [Stallone] in a general way to be very interested to learn more.
That’s what you want as a filmmaker, is to go through the process, not with a set point of view; to go through the process where you can unpack stories differently. You don’t want to go in locked with one particular vision. And the biggest thing I got with Sylvester, from the very first time I was talking to him, I realized that this was a guy whose story wasn’t told yet. And I realized too that he was tying in his own life story into these storylines, characters, their motivation. So all of a sudden I realized that I knew this guy, but I didn't know him enough. And this is the journey of this doc.
About ten years ago, I worked for a film website that did a regular feature where a writer would watch and then write about every single thing that an artist had made. And when it was my turn to do one, I did Sylvester Stallone.
Yeah. And I was certainly a fan of many Sylvester Stallone movies, but watching them all together I did gain a deeper appreciation of how this guy is so often speaking autobiographically through his characters. But I will admit I learned a lot watching your film; I had no idea, for example, about Stallone’s rough relationship with his father. It made me want to revisit something like Over the Top, which is overtly a movie about a father and son who have a very rough relationship. Now that you have done this film, talked to Stallone at length, watched all these movies, what other things do you think I might find buried in these subtext of his work if I go watch them again?
Working closely with Sly and then unpacking details of his childhood, the biggest gift that he left me with this film, this process as a director, is to be able to go back and look at the work through that POV now that I've learned so much about him. So I looked at every one of his movies differently, even Paradise Alley, which was this surreal little tale [about pro wrestling in the 1940s]; I now realize that it was a fantasy version of his New York upbringing.
And it was tied into this boy’s Dead End Kids’ dream, and also had this redemption story of brothers and a family coming together. Paradise Alley is just one of the examples of how after working with him, I can't help but look at the films differently.
That's the side of the filmmaker I wanted to get at [in Sly]. I really felt like after the second interview, this is a filmmaker that a lot of people don't grasp and understand to be someone who's writing his own dialogue, telling his own story in many ways, many ways. The Rocky story was a reflection of his own experience. At the height of his stardom, he has the Rocky character going through the same things he was.
So I felt like I needed to make a film that wouldn’t down every beat of his filmography or his life; I needed to make a film that examined the journey he has had as an artist and how he's unpacked that through his art.
But yeah, suddenly all the films felt different. Nothing was just a casual hit. Cop Land was a film that I love, but going back to it now, when you realize how far he took himself as an actor. This is a guy who had demonstrated extreme strength and power in the Rambo movies, and other villains and heroes, and then took himself to this place of not being able to hear, being overweight, slouching, powerless, but then finding the sense of a hero in that character through a different way. It just showed me how how far he could go as an actor and how hard he worked towards this idea of hope and truth.
On a formal level, I thought it was interesting that you didn’t just film Stallone’s interviews in the standard, talking head sort of way. He’s never sitting down in this movie. He’s constantly on the move as he talks; walking around his house, his office, New York City. Why did you decide to shoot his interviews that way?
It’s a great question. The first time I met him was at his house in the office where I filmed — where the statues, the memorabilia is. And the first time we started chatting, we didn't sit down. We stood up just the way the film has Sly doing the interviews. And I realized we were bouncing around the room going from subject to subject. And I thought to myself “This is the film is right here. This is the energy I want to hold onto.”
I wanted the idea of forgetting about camera to be the number one thing. So we needed to be ready to go anywhere at any time. And in this very large office, we did exactly that. We bounced around the room, and then he came to my edit room and he did the same thing where he saw the index cards that I had of his life, and he just responded. All that would happen spontaneously. There's nothing staged. We would go four or five hours straight and then just be exhausted. And in that four to five hours, we covered all kinds of ground from, you know, childhood to Rocky, to his happiness with his family, to his sadness in his life. Everything was mixed. And I just had to keep up. I had to keep up with the energy of Sly because you might walk in with a preconceived idea and then all of a sudden the first answer he gives you takes you down a road that you never imagined.
More than once I thought he’s almost boxing with the camera; he’s kind of dancing like a boxer.
Yeah, definitely a little bit. And his voice in responding to questions, it’s music. There’s jazz to it. So you have to get in sync with him to have a conversation.
Another interesting component is you have him listen to these old tapes he had saved from decades-old interviews with other journalists. And listening to them now, sometimes he is really critical of his younger self. Which made me wonder: Has he seen your film, and did he respond in a similar, self-analyzing way?
The cassettes that are featured in the doc came from a suggestion from Sly’s producer, Braden Aftergood, who mentioned to me that he was at Sly’s office, and he opened up this desk and there was a box of cassettes, and we both just went, “I wonder what's on there?” I think he would record sometimes himself, so he would have proof of what he was saying in the press in the early days. So it was a spontaneous moment. During the middle of an interview, I just turned to him and said, “What about those tapes?” And he literally just opens up the desk, pops one in. And as a filmmaker, that was a dream come true. because all of it was just happening there.
You have the young Sly’s voice and the older man critiquing him all within one shot. There's a beautiful thing happening in that moment. The film itself is editing itself within one shot. There’s no crosscutting going on; there’s just this real moment of me questioning him, him putting in the tape, and then history comes back and he challenges it, or he laughs at it.
When he watched the film itself, he had moments where he would have laughter and enjoy the craziness of some of the details of his life, like his meeting Henry Winkler in LA after his car broke down. And we watched it a couple times together with his wife Jennifer. And he really was great because there were no boundaries set up. There was nothing like a list of things you cannot ask people.
After screening with him, he would give me stills that no one had ever seen before. All of it just made the film richer and richer, especially the imagery of off his iPhone with his dad at the end of his life. It was a key moment in the film that Sly himself gave to me.
You’ve made several films with Bruce Springsteen, and I can see some parallels between him and Stallone; they’re both sort of gruff chroniclers of the working class. Do you see similarities between them? How do their processes as artists compare?
In making films with people like Bruce or Sly, the one thing that I find really inspirational and that I find in both of them is this idea of work ethic. Bruce Springsteen has tons of notebooks from writing the album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, where he would pour over every line. And then I got to Sly’s place, and he had a bookshelf of Rocky notebooks. That same thing; these were school notebooks, 99 cent notebooks, right? Filled with dialogue ideas, script ideas. So that work ethic is a common thread that I see in both of those men. And they obviously came from the same generation. Rocky and Born to Run both come out of that same era.
And they also have ties to a certain exploration of working men in America. And both reflect to me people still creating and still hungry to figure out both the past and the present. So for me, it's a great honor to work with them in the space of telling stories of their lives and their work, but also I'm really always influenced by that sort of passion. When you see the amount of work that these guys would do over a single song or a script idea, you can’t help but feel inspired.
Well, that connects back to Rocky. In the first movie especially. Rocky doesn’t even want to win the match with Apollo. It’s not about that. It’s about work, and proving you can “go the distance.”
At one point, [Stallone told me] he wished he could play all the Rocky films from beginning to end, because it shows that trajectory of life and the losses and the love and the changes.
We’re almost out of time, but I am curious: Because spent so much time with Stallone and his films for this, is there one of his movies you would recommend as a hidden gem?
That's a tough one. I do still think there's so much more to get out of Cop Land. I've spent a lot of time with the filmography. I've watched everything, but I look at Cop Land and go “There's still more here to explore.” After I got to know [Stallone’s] life story more, it hit me so much harder. I feel like that's the one that I can keep going back to.
Sly premieres on Netflix on November 3.