Filmmaker Thom Zimny shows us a new side of Sylvester Stallone

Zimny tells host Elamin Abdelmahmoud about his new documentary on the life of Sylvester Stallone, and the cinematic auteur lurking behind his muscle-bound action hero image.

Zimny discusses his new documentary, Sly, on the action hero and cinematic auteur

A still of Sylvester Stallone from the new documentary, Sly.
A still of Sylvester Stallone from the new documentary, Sly. (Netflix, Inc.)

The new documentary Sly takes an intimate look at the life of Sylvester Stallone.

As Stallone packs up his belongings in preparation for a big move, filmmaker Thom Zimny joined Stallone to reflect on his journey going from a troubled kid in New York City, to becoming an action hero and cultural touchstone.

Zimny tells host Elamin Abdelmahmoud about his approach to celebrating the cinematic auteur lurking behind Stallone's muscle-bound action hero image.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

Elamin: In the film, you capture Sly at this interesting, tender moment in his life — he's packing up his belongings at this mansion in California, he's going to move back east — which is a perfect starting premise for a movie about someone who's going to look back at their life. How did you arrive at this framework for the movie, and how did that allow you to build the movie on top of it?

Thom: Every time you step into a film, you should look at the space. Space is a character, right? It reflects the details of someone's life. I had a fantastic producer working with me, Braden Aftergood, who works directly with Sly. He told me that he was at Sly's house, and Sly was unpacking cassettes. That image, as a filmmaker, instantly I saw it as an opportunity. Just having Sly talk about, "Well, I'm going to have to take down this statue. I'm going to have to pack up these sculptures [of him as characters.]" I could just see visually in my mind's eye that this would be a powerful metaphor and visual theme of change, of his history, and also something that you can keep going back to … to trace time and also Sly's understanding of what he needed to do to shake it up and keep creative.

WATCH | Official trailer for Sly: 

Elamin: What's amazing about this is, despite all of Sly's accomplishments in his life and all of this wealth, as you start filming you immediately sense there's still a real fire burning inside of this man…. How would you say the combination of Sly's personality and physicality affected the way that you directed him in this movie?

Thom: It was a huge impact just to be in the same space as Sly, and watch him speak and physically take over a space. The musicality and the rhythm of him delivering a simple explanation … it was jazz. I could hear in Sly that I had to step away at times and just let him tell these stories so that things would unfold not in sound bites, but in the beauty of Sly's rhythm — but also film him in a way that he wasn't contained to a chair. We were not in a setup of a talking head confessing in traditional documentary language. At any moment, if he wanted to reach over to a sculpture and touch it, or if he wanted to go to a shelf and pull down a script, he could.

Right away, from my very first introduction to Sly at his house, I knew I would not hold this man back. I would not keep it contained to a linear questioning…. I would bounce all around. I would keep up with the speed of Sly. He has a beautiful musical tone in his voice, but also I could hear an honesty and a vulnerability. That only comes through a little bit of time and trust, and Sly gave that to me. So I'm enormously grateful because at the end of the day, he went to all different places and details of his life that he never touched on. I wasn't chasing anything salacious. It ended up being very organic in unpacking his life.

Elamin: Thom, can I ask: have you seen Barbie?

Thom: I have not seen it. I know there's a reference.

Elamin: There's a moment where Ryan Gosling's character, Ken, comes from Barbieland to the real world, and he's exposed to the patriarchy for the first time. It is the first time he sees men in control. There's a flash of Sly in a giant fur coat, and that's the image that Ken takes back with him to the other men to be like, "Let me teach you what men are like." There is something about Sly as the arch male figure of the last 30 years or so. How do you think he sees himself in relationship with the way that he's shaped how men view themselves over the last little while?

Thom: I don't want to speak directly for how Sly sees himself, but what I found in unpacking the '70s Sly and the '80s action figure was fascinating because, in all of it, he's challenging himself and putting himself through obstacles. In the film, he talks about how that challenge stems from when he was a kid, where he had to stand up to his father. So the male physicality, and the characters that he's creating, and the way he's pushing himself all circled back to this childhood. … He did create these iconic male symbols, but I didn't want to hold the film just to that presentation because I felt like Sly was an artist, a writer, and I wanted to get at a space of seeing him beyond the iconic figure, to being vulnerable, revealing that he has pain and the journey of his life.

Elamin: But the idea of Stallone's status as this action hero does quite often end up overshadowing the depth that he had as an artist, as an actor, as a writer. The first Rambo movie, First Blood, is considered one of the great action movies of the 1980s. But it doesn't end with bombs and bullets, right? It ends in tears, with Sly delivering this dramatic speech about the hardships and the traumas faced by Vietnam veterans. Thom, in the original script of First Blood, Rambo was supposed to die by suicide. The ending was even filmed that way initially. But then Sly comes in and insists that he's got to live. What does that approach to Rambo's story tell you about Sly's own life story?

Thom: That moment that Sly discussed, rejecting the idea of the vet being shot down, was an extremely powerful moment to film. When he revealed that, he was in my editing room and we had a whole session. We talked, and he read the speech that's at the end of the Rambo film. I realized that this theme of hope has been there throughout his life.

The power of his writing is that he steps into these characters so honestly. You really believe Rocky. You really believe the pain of Rambo because he has this power, that I felt was not being recognized, as a writer — but also these bigger ideas that he will fight for, and challenge a studio and challenge a director. He didn't want to carry on that notion of pain, that the vet would be destroyed by the world. He wanted to leave an audience with this idea of compassion. So that speech happens, and they hug. And those are the details that I felt like were getting lost in the Sly story: that this man not only had an intense childhood, but he was able to take it in his art and find redemption in creating characters that reflected the idea of hope.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Thom Zimny produced by Stuart Berman.


Amelia Eqbal is a digital associate producer, writer and photographer for Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud and Q with Tom Power. Passionate about theatre, desserts, and all things pop culture, she can be found on Twitter @ameliaeqbal.