Netflix’s ‘Sly’ Documentary Reveals the Traumatic Inspiration Behind Rocky Balboa

In “Sly,” director Thom Zimny (“Springsteen on Broadway,” “Elvis Presley: The Searcher”) captures a side of Sylvester Stallone seldom seen. The 95-minute docu exposes a relatable, vulnerable man who is often thought to be the movie characters he made iconic — Rocky Balboa or John Rambo.

Born in 1946, Stallone grew up in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen with little money and a father who might have hated him. Zimny’s docu reveals that the fraught upbringing turned out to work in Stallone’s favor when it came to Hollywood. The star’s background not only drove him to be a success, but also inspired many of the roles he made legendary.

Unlike many celebrity docus, “Sly” isn’t a valentine to the star as much as a retrospective of the Oscar-winner’s unlikely, but highly successful 50-year career.

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Variety spoke to Zimny ahead of the Netflix premiere of “Sly” on Nov. 3.

I’m sure many filmmakers before you have approached Stallone about making a documentary about his life. What made this the right time for him?

When I first had a conversation with Sly and his producer, Braden Aftergood, the one thing that they conveyed to me was that they were ready to start to consider the idea of a documentary and they liked this one film that I made with Bruce Springsteen called “Western Stars.” But the key thing was the conversation that we had. I told Sly that I was really interested in telling a story that was more than just his filmography. I really wanted the doc to be a space of a story that you could step into either knowing a lot about Sly, or knowing a little bit about him.

What attracted you to this project?

I wanted to unpack how the events and people in Sly’s life influenced his art and created characters that millions of people all over the world find inspiration in. He grew up in a really traumatic household, had a traumatic childhood, and in some ways cinema was a healing force for him. I wanted to tell the story of his life so that you understood him more, but also you understood his films deeper. You got a sense that, “Wait a minute. ‘Rocky’ goes beyond just this boxing picture.”

Was any topic off-limits?

When I stepped into this project there were never any boundaries, like, you can’t talk about this, or you can’t talk to this person. I didn’t expand out to every film or every detail of his personal life, or every marriage or details of his family currently because I felt like that stuff is available. What’s not available is the story of an artist on a journey exploring his place in the world. The hard thing to get as a filmmaker is having an iconic person like Sylvester Stallone look into the mirror, look at photographs of his life and speak truthfully with a rhythm of confession, but also with the sound of happiness and joy.

Stallone is very candid in the film and even admits to having regrets. Did that surprise you?

I was completely blown away the very first time we started filming, because it went on for five hours straight. It was not a traditional sit-down interview that was structured with me holding a pad going from question to question. It was freeform jazz. You had to keep up with Sly. My job was to keep up with him and hear details and follow those details. I was chasing after a narrative that was unfolding in what I felt like was a confessional conversation about who he really was; what experiences he really had. I didn’t want to put him in a chair and contain him with a crew staring at him. I just wanted to be able to have him tell these stories and be ready to respond, but also give him enough space to improvise.

Quentin Tarantino, who you interviewed for the film, provides insightful commentary on Stallone mystique. What made you think of Tarantino?

I read his book (“Cinema Speculation”) and the chapter where he discussed Stallone’s influence and I thought, “This is the perfect voice,” because I really had a criteria about the voices that were going to be in “Sly.” They had to be people who had experiences with (Stallone), were there in the moment with him, or had their lives completely changed by the art of Sylvester Stallone. Quentin was able to go in and give multiple POVs of the Stallone story. He could reference the importance of Sly as a screenwriter. He could also discuss the excitement of being just a fan and discovering this new actor, and he could also trace the trajectory of the franchise of “Rocky” and how each one changed. So he was enormously helpful.

Would you agree that this doc is as much about Stallone’s career as it is about the trauma he experienced early on in life and what he did with that trauma?

One of the biggest discoveries I had in my conversations with Sly was when he was revealing moments of details of his childhood and some of the trauma and experiences he had with his father. He never gave the impression that it defined him. He would discuss how he used it in his art again and again. In many ways, the guiding force of the edit was to look at his stories from his life and then to go back and look at the films through that POV. Oh, okay. So Rocky goes beyond just a film about a fighter. It’s a man finding a place in the world. Well, what does that mean when you think of Sylvester Sloan’s childhood? He was rejected, like this fighter. Sly didn’t have a close relationship with his father. What does he do with his pen? He creates a character called Mickey, who believes in him and gives him the chance. Sly, again and again, demonstrated to me that he was processing and at times overcoming or giving a sense of coming to terms with some of the difficulties of his life through writing. Through creating these stories.

Stallone executive produced this film. What was his role in the edit, if any?

He saw cuts early on and every time he saw a cut, he would feed me with amazing images and stills. He never once discussed removing this or this can’t be said. This was not in any manner, like a celebrity driven puff piece where he was controlling the universe. If anything, he was contributing more.

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