Filmmaker Thom Zimny is no stranger to framing the lives and legacies of cultural icons for audiences, and his latest documentary, Sly, is another unique presentation of an entertainment legend. Having previously helmed acclaimed and award-winning projects such as Western Stars (2019)and Springsteen on Broadway (2018), two of his numerous collaborations with the musician, and Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018), Netflix's Sly seems Zimny turn his gaze to the Oscar-nominated actor-writer-director-producer Sylvester Stallone.
"I knew right away, from the first conversation with Sly, that he had a ton of energy. I was not going to put him in a chair, make him sit down and listen and have a list of questions and go through," Zimny enthuses. "His energy was so exciting."
As well as discussions about his work from Rocky (1976) and the Rambo films (1982-2022) to Copland (1997) and even his career missteps, the unique lens the filmmaker uses to showcase Stallone's journey includes many key intimate moments in his life, some unfolding in real-time. As well as Stallone himself, who is also an executive producer on the project, Sly includes interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Quentin Tarantino, Talia Shire, and Henry Winkler, among others.
A.frame: This can't be the first time someone has approached Sylvester Stallone about wanting to do a documentary about his life and work. He has a career that spans 50 years. What tipped the odds in your favor?
I had heard from Sly many times that this was not the first time someone had presented him with the idea of doing a doc. I didn't approach him with it. His producer, Braden Aftergood, who works with Sly directly, including on this film, approached me. Sly and Braden had seen a movie I had worked on with Bruce Springsteen called Western Stars and another I worked on about Elvis, and they really connected to how I dealt with the story and got a sense of the man. I went beyond celebrity. The next step was to meet Sly, which was the most critical moment for me as a filmmaker because it opened the door to some ideas on how to film him, which is even more important. I met him in his office with all the memorabilia, which was the space where we ended up filming the interviews.
We get two Stallone's in Sly. Being the professional he is, we get him 'on,' and he's effectively performing, giving the audience the Sly we know. What we also see in this film is a very different Sylvester Stallone, who is very sensitive, very vulnerable, and he owns mistakes that he's made in his career. He's very introspective. He probably wouldn't have done that unless he felt comfortable with how and what you were doing after that first meeting, right?
Absolutely. The trust that I was able to get from Sly made these interviews that we were doing go to the place that is beyond sound bites. It was not casual conversations but moments of reflection and revealing the happiness and the joy of his journey. I was also not interested in repeating questions I felt were what the chat shows over the years had thrown at him again and again. I was also aware of listening to the music in his voice.
That is something that Quentin Tarantino, one of the plethora of contributors featured in the documentary, mentioned explicitly.
Absolutely, yes. Tarantino brought up the musicality and the rhythms of his dialogue and voice. In my conversations with Sly, I was at a place where I was hoping for honesty and truth because we were not in an interview format. We were not contained in a format where this question would be next; this happened; there was this chapter this year, but instead, we were bouncing around the room; it was very freeform jazz. We were going from the Rocky statue on his bookshelf, telling me a story there, to a story of his childhood, and all of it was unfolding in these long sessions that would go for six hours, and we would not break.
I had my cameramen in the room with me and sound recorders out of the room, so I was in an environment that allowed us to not think about the presence of the filming. We didn't have a crew sitting across from you in a hotel waiting for the next question. I wanted to set up and recreate a bit of that first meeting, and if I could keep this energy, then the film could be a conversation and unfold that way.
You also have a handful of locations in this where you're talking to Sly. One was his house when he was literally in the middle of moving house. Was it coincidental that this was being done at such a pivotal moment in his growth and journey? I've moved house, and the last thing I want is anybody around me because it is very stressful.
It's one of the most stressful times outside of death, divorce, and a few other things, but the film Gods throw you things, and in the making of this doc, they threw me this thing of Sly's house being packed up. Sly's producer, Braden, would sometimes call me and tell me a detail he thought was interesting. He said, 'Sly is moving out of that first location,' I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is an amazing moment to capture. Do you mean they're going to wrap up the memorabilia? They're going to take that statue out of the house? I have to film that.'
My collaboration with him was essential because he would make those things happen. So, the day that Sly was moving, I brought my crew there and went back to different painters and looked at some images that I wanted to make the moving process look like. I filmed it in slow motion, and it had all the exaggeration and drama of wrapping up his history slowed down and examined. I knew this could be a visual that could complement my themes in the cutting room later. I would return to that footage at times just for inspiration, just the movers taking down the Rocky statue; it was so powerful as a visual for me.
There are so many moments in this that offer a fascinating window into who Sylvester Stallone is. One is that he has this interview with a newspaper from back in the day that he keeps listening to throughout the documentary. He seems genuinely frustrated by the fact that the younger version of him couldn't grasp Rocky was a love story.
When I look at the scene in the doc you're talking about, and he's talking to himself, a cassette is playing his voice from when he was in his early 30s; I think that's a great example of the magic I was hoping to get. Within that one shot, you have all of it. You have the past, you have the youthful voice in denial, and then you have the older Sly standing before his own voice and declarations saying, 'That's not the way it is. It's about love. Say it, say it.' In that one moment, I included my voice because I challenged him and said, 'That guy was afraid to say the word love.' And he says, 'Yeah, you were right.' I kept it in the film because, in some ways, it demonstrated the rhythm and the conversation that was going on in the documentary. It was just such a pure moment of honesty. He's literally talking to his past and challenging it as a wiser, older man.
There's also a particularly touching scene where we see him with his father not long before he passes. Knowing Sly is a pretty private guy, I was surprised it's in there. Sharing that footage is a level of intimacy we don't often get to see, or we get a sanitized version of, in documentaries about public figures.
That's a great point. The detail of Sly's father at the end of his life, and that him sharing this footage with me, came late in the process. Once again, that came out of my collaboration with Braden, his producer. Sly mentioned to him that he had on his phone some video of his dad. I never asked Sly directly for it. It came to me by text, and the film was made. That, to me, was a demonstration of the greatest gift that he could give me: that trust that I was going to use this very precious footage in a way to demonstrate the complexities of their relationship.
For me, it was a crucial moment to have in the film because it also showed the complexities of their love. I didn't want it to be a one-sided thing that his dad was this one type of character who was critical of Sly. It is far too complex to lean on that one POV. This footage demonstrated a humanity, and pulled down all celebrity to just a father and a son having this final embrace before the end of his life. I have to thank Sly and his wife, Jennifer Flavin, for opening up their archive of family stills and images. They gave me things from the making of The Expendables and stills and stuff from other movies that give the film a texture that helps the themes and puts you in a space that is really Sly's world.
A lot of this is behind the doors of his private residence. You also have some sequences where he's on the streets in New York. What is it like taking Sylvester Stallone into the streets? He is this intergenerational hero, this internationally known actor, so it must've been a nightmare trying to get that done because people would've wanted to have their moment with him. How was that?
I've had the experience of working with Bruce Springsteen for almost 25 years, and I've been in the environment, walking down the street with Bruce, where the world doesn't notice us, and he can walk in or someone gives a nod. With Sly, the energy shifts; we would get out of a car, and in filming the doc, we were in Hell's Kitchen in front of the area where he worked, and within seconds, it's almost like an announcement was made. We did find these little corners and spaces to talk that, at times, would give us the space of no one recognizing him; it was just New Yorkers plowing through.
My favorite moment in trying to film him in New York City was also a testament to the power of who he is as an icon, which is we're filming for the doc, we're rounding a corner street, and a large family of Italian tourists comes around the corner. They just came from visiting the Rocky statue in Philadelphia, and suddenly, Sly is there. They crashed right into us. There was this moment of comprehending the level of celebrity that he has. He just came out of the sidewalk. They just lost their minds. So you would have these moments, which I used in the doc, that were unique, showing the power of his celebrity, but also the pressures. I talk a lot about how his life changed the moment Rocky broke. Filming in the streets kind of reminded me of those themes that I explored in the film.
We do this with many actors from the '80s and '90s in the action genre, where we don't give them enough credit for being smart. We hear a lot from Sly about how he played with roles when he was doing it with The Lords of Flatbush and with Robert De Niro in Copland to get the performance Sly wanted out of De Niro, so he tested him and went off book. Is it fair to say that we don't give him enough credit for his smarts of understanding the craft?
One of my main goals was to try to put in the film what I was experiencing in the space with him during these interviews, which was this was a writer and a filmmaker who was not understood. He was creating these characters and writing them himself in a way that he was creating a world that would be inspired by some of the traumatic experiences that he had. The act of him being that screenwriter, putting those words into those characters, having the trajectory of all the Rocky characters grow old with us, and the same thing with Rambo; that I think just gets lost in the shorthand that he was the Rocky guy who made a bunch of franchises. I started to hone in on the idea of explaining who he was as an artist because, at times, he got a shorthand version of his journey where he got lucky with Rocky and then made all these franchises.
His exploration of character by taking on roles in Copland and working with actors like De Niro, I wanted all those scenes to play out because, to me, it demonstrated a truth of who he was in front of me. I also had a strong desire to say, 'Stop and look, this is a real filmmaker, this is a real artist with a very complex life and childhood, who happened to create the most powerful, iconic characters that are inspirational, the complete opposite of what he went through.' I wanted to stand in Stallone's shadow in some ways. I wanted the doc to live in the space of being inspirational in that you could be a casual fan of Sylvester Stallone or an uber fan, learn something new, but at the end of the film feel like a presence of your own life, and much like Sly's characters feel inspired. That hones in on what Sly always ends up with, which is the theme of hope. Hope was everything, and all his characters maintain that.
There's a moment of realization for Sly in this documentary where he gets a check on his career, and it's around making Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, a role that he took so that Arne, his friend and rival, couldn't take where he kicks himself. He really regrets taking that movie. He positions it as a real moment of clarity for him. How did that potentially somewhat awkward conversation come about?
Sly would drop by my edit room and the scene where he discusses that film was in my edit room. He went up to the index card, and I asked an off-camera question, which was, 'Which film took you furthest away from your true character?' He immediately went to that card. The index cards are used for me, as an editor, to build the sequence in an old-school fashion of moving pieces around in my mind's eye. The beauty of that moment is seeing Sly reach for that and then tell the story of taking that film and it being a disaster, but also taking it was just based on the rivalry and energy he had with Arnold, wanting him not to have that role. Those moments would happen organically; it was a really important element to show his entire body of work in front of him and give him a moment of what I see as humor. He's laughing at himself for these choices.
Right at the beginning of our conversation, you spoke about winning Sly's trust for him to be able to open up. At the end of the process, when the camera stopped rolling, how did he feel about the decision, the process, and the journey you'd gone through together? Did he find it cathartic and helpful? Was it the experience he wanted and needed?
I had a recent experience with him at the Toronto Film Festival, and I can paraphrase some of what I was hearing to give Sly's POV of the filmmaking process. I heard that he was very happy with this film. At times, he wasn't even sure how it happened because we were in a space of conversation, and he went out making this film, doing the one thing, which was he wanted to try to speak truthfully and honestly and just let the story be told.
Since the film has been out there in the world, we've had a couple of conversations that have confirmed for me that it has been a great experience for him. It's seeing an audience take in the story, but also just having this moment of looking at his life through the detail of what makes an artist and a man. He's very happy that it's not a film that just broke down every movie from every year and that we went in together. He gave me no parameters and didn't hold me back in any areas.
He was a collaborator in the sense that he collaborated with me by giving me time, and that was the essential thing: sitting with me for over two years for these interviews that went on for six hours, covering anything I wanted to throw at him. I'm enormously grateful as a filmmaker because I couldn't dream up this scenario, and I'm just happy to see it out there, and I'm so happy that he's proud of it, too.