December 8, 2005 | By Holly Jonas / TotalRocky.com

Blessed to be on the scene as history was in the making, I’d like to share with you my own report from the Las Vegas set of Rocky Balboa covering December 6-7, 2005. If only more of you hearty Rocky fans could have been there with me! There certainly weren’t enough of us out there, but I hope that this report will help to give you the best picture possible of what I witnessed during two amazing days. Cameras were strictly prohibited, so for fear of being tossed out, I managed to snap only a few terrible photos of the ring from high up in the stands on December 6.

I’ll begin with the surroundings in the Mandalay Bay arena itself. As we filed into the arena itself, many of us were startled to see hundreds upon hundreds of inflatable dummies occupying seats scattered throughout the entire facility. These annoying fellows would become our bosom buddies over the course of the day. This eerie effect of a deadened house was heightened by an empty and glowing boxing ring set directly in the center of the room, lit dramatically from above.

Off set (which basically means anywhere outside of the ring itself) in a darkened area roughly 10-30 feet from the boxing ring, were many interesting items from the production department besides the standard film equipment. On a rolling metal cart sat 5 or more pairs of identical black boxing gloves and a case filled with tape for the fighters. Leaning against the cart were two prints of the Balboa vs. Dixon fight poster, one slightly larger than the other. At one point, Stallone held the smaller poster up in the air to examine it more closely before setting it back down.

Perfectly aligned in rows were 15-20 director’s chairs for the cast and crew. Each chair sported the working logo for Rocky Balboa which is printed on blue canvas. Sly’s chair reads simply “BALBOA” and the only other person ever to sit in it was Frank Stallone. Other chairs present were those meant for Burt Young, “World Champion” Antonio Tarver, Milo Ventimiglia, Geraldine Hughes, Bob Chertoff, David Winkler, Charles Winkler, and James Francis Kelly III along with several simply marked “CAST”.

Also off-set was a rolling garment rack filled with various pieces of wardrobe covered in clear plastic. Most discernable were the boxing trunks used on the two stars and the black/gold satin shirts worn by Rocky’s cornermen: Paulie, Rocky Jr., Duke and Steps. Burt Young’s shirt, however, was highly personalized with “PAULIE” emblazoned across the back as well as at least half a dozen amusing logos. One was for Pat’s King of Steaks; another for a funeral parlor.

Rocky’s shorts appeared to be made from an almost velvet-like material that was similar to that of his thick robe. The trunks, which are labeled “ROCKY” across the waistband, are close in style and design to those worn in Rocky II and are cut above the knee whereas Tarver’s white/blue trunks are the modern-style which fall on or below the knee. Mason Dixon’s cornermen wear white/blue satin shirts which boast the real logo of Socko Energy Drinks. This logo also appeared on all four corners of the ring’s mat. The center of the mat carried a large logo for a real online casino reading ‘GOLDEN PALACE.COM’. Golden Palace.com also appeared on Paulie’s black hat.

Before breaking for lunch, Stallone took command of the only in-house microphone in the arena to say a few words to the crowd. After a few pleasantries, he explained that Rocky Balboa will “be the farewell to a wonderful character” and that “they don’t make movies like this no more!”

Frank Stallone was gregarious and friendly to the max. On Tuesday, December 6, he sported an Everlast muscle shirt and jeans and spent hours on end videotaping everything in sight on his personal camera. He happily mingled with the crowd, posed for photos with those who had sneaked cameras in and ran errands for his busy brother. At one point, he joined Sly and several others in the ring during a rough rehearsal during which Sly began to play around with him and pretended to slug him several times while wearing gloves.

Toe to Toe with Mason Dixon

Sly himself is an incredible physical specimen. In the flesh, he appears years younger than any photograph taken of him. His youthful vitality doesn’t seem to translate completely into photos. When he disrobed before shooting, he revealed an absolutely massive and amazingly powerful physique. If compared to his body type from one of the earlier films, I would venture to say he now looks closest to Rocky IV. Standing next to real-life champion Antonio Tarver, Stallone’s head comes up roughly to his screen opponent’s nose, however by sheer size and mass, Sly looks as though he has the strength and muscle to break the guy in two with his bare hands. His hands, I’ve been told, are supposed to be gigantic, however, after having seen them up close, they aren’t uncommonly huge. Strong, yes, and with short fingers that when splayed out, create almost perfect circles (rather than the oblong shape that most people’s full hands create) when seen together with open palms.

I was amazed to see how active Stallone remained for an entire day of shooting – over 12 hours. He never sat for more than five minutes at a time, and even then, he was working. He never took a moment’s rest and was constantly on the go, physically active, full of energy, hands gesturing into the air, jogging in place and practicing punches. Creating camera shots, he paced around the ring, repeatedly leaned over the ropes and actually lay down directly on the mat, staring up into his corner with a director’s lens. While he naturally had great assistance from a hard-working crew, he literally directed every detail that went into the shooting. Everything.

For instance, the crew spent nearly four hours setting up the very first scene in the film which takes place between the villain Mason Dixon and a hapless opponent. The scene called for a towel to be thrown into the ring and for large quantities of ice and debris to be hurled at the villain and his cornermen. Simple as these tasks may sound, the people put in charge of these jobs were performing unsatisfactorily, especially to the perfectionist director. The towel was thrown in practice close to forty times by two different people until a frustrated Stallone jumped up into the ring himself, twirled and folded the towel into a ball and tossed the rag with such grace that it came cascading down into the center of the ring with a flourish. He then spent several minutes demonstrating exactly how he wanted Dixon’s opponent to fall after having been delivered a final blow. Stallone performed a perfectly convincing reaction to a devastating hit and then fell to his knees with a dramatic thud at least three times in hopes that the actor would be able to manage something similar. He couldn’t. Sly then went so far as to venture out into the darkness of the crowd to direct five or six audience members who were entrusted with prop flash bulbs. He requested that these bulbs go off in a realistic flurry. After two dreadful takes which featured these flashes, Sly took up a megaphone and frustratedly explained exactly how the bulbs should be held and flashed. Then came the rainfall of ice and debris into Dixon’s corner. Three different people were meant to violently hurl handfuls of ice high into the air towards Tarver. Instead, cups full of cubes were unceremoniously tossed towards one area of the ring, all at once, which looked ridiculous. Back to the megaphone: “Don’t throw all the ice in one friggin’ direction!”

Burt Young appeared in full costume each time he emerged from backstage and was treated to uproarious applause by the crowd anytime he so much as moved. I daresay that more adoration was showered upon him than on Stallone himself. Mr. Young proved to be an absolute sweetheart in every sense of the word: he shook every hand offered to him, took the time to sign autographs, spent long periods of time chatting with the youngest actors on set, his loveable, thick arms always tightly wound around them. The warm relationship between Young and Stallone was instantly noticeable. Young constantly hugged Sly, put his arm around him, patted his bloodstained cheeks, smoothed his hair and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. The two seemed incredibly close and both were beaming with smiles when they spoke to one another.

During the filming that I witnessed, Burt Young had major dialogue in only one scene in which Paulie attempts to inspire a tiring Rocky back into the ring for the next round. Mr. Young did two or three takes on the same scene and performed with such vigor and enthusiasm that the crowd went wild upon hearing “cut!”. Shortly afterwards, he stepped down from the ring and slowly made his way back towards his dressing room but was stopped in his tracks when hundreds of fans began to chant “Paulie! Paulie! Paulie!”. Aglow, he stepped back around and threw kisses and waves before heading backstage.

Tony Burton arrived quietly and inauspiciously on-set, receiving only a modicum of fanfare from the audience. He looks just the same as the last time we’ve seen him, back in Rocky V (1990), now with a bit of white in his hair. An affable man, he sat quietly in Rocky’s corner for hours, often in a huddle with the two youngest actors on set – they staring up at him like impressionable children, listening to every word. Twice, he was summoned by Stallone with a friendly, “Tony!” – and up he climbed into the center of the ring toting a white towel. Burton’s simple costume consists of black trousers and a standard “Rocky” black/gold satin shirt, along with his trademark cross necklace.

In a confusing un-appearance, there was no sign whatsoever of Mr. T, who had previously been confirmed to appear in the movie reprising his role as Clubber Lang, now a ringside commentator. Mike Tyson made a cameo appearance on an earlier day of shooting, but no mention was made of Mr. T’s disappearing act. And on a related note, rumor abounds that the Spider Rico character will make an appearance in R6, though I’ve never seen any official word regarding this. At one point, several audience members shouted out “Spider Rico!” and pointed down towards the set, but I never personally saw anyone who remotely resembled the actor. Furthermore, on December 7, before Stallone began a short session with Burt Young, I could clearly hear him say to the cameraman following at his heels, “After this, I want some tights on ol’ Spider Rico.” But again, I saw nothing and no footage was ever shot of the mystery character, at least not that day.

Milo Ventimiglia (Rocky Balboa, Jr.) spent the majority of his time in solitude; he patiently waited for hours on end either sitting in Rocky’s corner of the ring or alone in his chair off-set. He was greeted warmly by every passing cast and crew member and seemed to get along very well with the young actor who portrays the character of “Steps” in the film. Ventimiglia had very few lines to speak, one of which was, “He’s hurt! Get the doc – go get the doctor!”. Sly comically explained afterwards that we shouldn’t worry, “he’s not hurt too bad!”

Besides the “Steps” character, the only other member of the cast on set was Irish actress Geraldine Hughes, a well-known performer on Broadway who stars in her own one-woman show. Ms. Hughes is evidently portraying the character of Marie in the film. She spent the most time chatting with her onscreen son as well as Milo Ventimiglia. Sporting an attractive purple dress and a shock of lovely red hair, Geraldine had her moment in the sun when Stallone brought her directly into a group of extras just outside the ring and sat her down amongst them for her close-up shots. Down on one knee between the aisles and practically in the laps of a few lucky individuals, Sly used a director’s lens and his two fists cupped together into a pseudo-telescope to perfect his shots. When it was camera time, he climbed back into the ring, completely alone, and began to slowly jog and jab in place, directing Geraldine by name to watch him and react to camera. The final shot included Hughes, along with all of the people in her section, to suddenly stand and cheer Rocky.

Sly Screencaps Rocky II

Before shooting began on the morning of Wednesday, December 7, Sly and brother Frank huddled around the playback station to watch fight footage from the previous day. Stallone was attempting to explain to the camera crew a specific type of shot that he wanted to begin with but wasn’t having much luck in getting the point across. Suddenly, on one of the large color monitors in his playback station, Sly cued up a DVD of Rocky II and sat down in front of the screen with Frank to watch a good portion of the final fight sequence with Apollo Creed [if you’re as obsessed as I am and really need to know exactly what he was watching, you’ll find the scene at 1:46:00 on your DVD]. What a tremendous sight it was to see the two brothers sitting side by side watching II in silence. If only someone had snapped a photo!

The frame that Stallone frozeSly had an assistant freeze the movie on a specific frame and then began gesticulating about it. They went back to reference that film frame (which features Carl Weathers and Tony Burton in Apollo’s corner) frequently afterwards. Then, after Sly spent fifteen minutes directing the cameramen into a shot as he sat on a stool in Rocky’s corner with Burt Young standing by, the cameras were rolled and footage was immediately played back. Displayed on the screen was a near duplicate of the Creed freeze-frame, except that Sly’s final version is zoomed in past the Duke character and shows only half of Rocky’s face, battered and unfocused, and highlights an agitated Paulie who does his best to spur Balboa back into the ring.

The fight sequences I witnessed were mostly taken from Round 10. It was fascinating to learn how such scenes are actually filmed. The actors fight for only seconds – probably 10 at the very most, and then walk back to another area of the ring to watch the playback as assistants wrap them in jackets or towels to keep them warm. They are sprayed with a fine mist of water before each and every take to simulate perspiration. The application of Stallone’s bloody make-up took only minutes and was done off-set in his chair and was only occasionally touched up in the ring. Up close, it looked incredibly realistic, especially a stream of blood running down from his right eye.

In between rounds and while directing, Sly kept up a steady stream of punches and jabs and gently danced in place or around the ring to keep up his momentum. Tarver did much of the same, though not with the same intensity. The men did a few quick run-throughs of each action shot on their own, away from the cameras, before filming actually began. When “action!” was called and the crowd roared, the battle was on with a genuine ferocity and realism. From where I stood, this did not look like a movie. It certainly didn’t feel like one. It was real. And how incredible to be in amongst a crowd of thousands performing the ‘Rocky’ chant during an actual Balboa match – if only for seconds at a time. Definitely a sense of the surreal.

The Fight Conclusion

Four alternate fight endings were shot on the previous days. One in which Balboa wins unanimously; one in which he wins in a split-decision; one in which Dixon wins unanimously; one in which he wins in a split-decision. An ending to the match was shot on December 6 but was such a dramatic flurry of activity that many audience members were unsure what had even happened. Dixon ended up holding one of three colored belts, however, and Rocky could be heard to say, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” We’ll not know which of these many outcomes will be the final one until we see the film itself, and that makes it all the more exciting.

After a long and tiring day, it was purely accidental that I (along with my family of Italian Rockyites – each of us wearing one of our replica boxing glove necklaces) was moved to an obscure section of the arena where we felt certain that we’d never even be able to see the action during filming. Pressed right against a black metal fence, we were packed like sardines in the southeast corner of the arena which houses one of the four curtained exits for the athletes. Within minutes, though, we realized with a thrill that the entire crew was rapidly moving directly towards our section. We were then informed that THIS was the place to be. “Sly wants to shoot the final scene here in this hallway,” we were told by a crew member.

Soon afterwards, Stallone, now dressed in his black velvet robe and bloody makeup, stalked through the aisles and headed straight for us. He spent at least 20 minutes inspecting the tiny hallway just two feet from where I was seated. He pantomimed his ideas for the final moment of the film and his eyes darted everywhere searching for interesting angles and lighting possibilities. He had the crew mark the floor and soon had the rest of the cast join him in this area to rehearse the scene.

After requesting a few lighting adjustments, Stallone talked through the scene and explained to everyone exactly what was going to occur. He said his lines, checked several camera angles and then commenced with a full rehearsal. He stood still and was facing the camera as he waited for the crew to finish setting up. A small microphone was visible on his person – taped inside the right half of his robe, right up against his chest. As the minutes passed, he became aware of the crowd and started to indiscernibly sing a tune in a deep voice (much like he did in the original Rocky, if you’ll recall). In the silence, a fan in the higher stands shouted out, “We love you, Rock!”. Sly smiled, turned a bit and in the perfect baritone Rocky voice replied, “I love youse guys, too.” In the minutes that followed, he remained rather silent, but did manage to get out a very quiet “Yo” and after someone squealed that they were excited about R6 he said with a laugh, “Me too, and those things are on TV all the time, it’s like any time you change the channel there they are, you can’t get rid of ‘em.”

I was absolutely floored when Sly then turned towards my seat, looked up at my row and the two surrounding it and explained that he wanted several of us to hold our hands out to him in the final scene. Well, none of us could refuse that request. He shot the same scene roughly five times which translates to: I got the thrill of my life five times in a row when Sly directed us (including my kid sister and a few other lucky ones) to lock fingers with Rocky Balboa himself – in character – his bruised hands still wrapped in white tape, his eyes glancing momentarily into mine before flitting away. There are not words to describe the emotion I was feeling in those moments. I’m sure you can imagine. I still cannot believe this actually happened. And on film!

After a few takes, Sly had the crew angle a small, portable playback station towards him as he hunched over and leaned against the very railing that I was smashed into. His head was literally inches away from me, his robe peeked through the rails and his massive arm rubbed up against me as he waved his hands in the air towards the crew. From this incredible spot I was able to sit next to him as he watched the footage on a tiny 6″ color screen. I’ll testify that the shots looked terrific indeed!

While I will not reveal the details of the conclusion of what turned out to be both the film and the entire series, I will say that any fan will be sure to love the last moments of Rocky Balboa. The scene was emotionally charged to the extreme and proved to be remarkably moving, sentimental, sweet and quite simply fantastic. There were scores of teary eyes, not only from the cast, but from the audience as well. In fact, at one point, Stallone had to take hold of Burt Young’s shoulders and give him a gentle shake saying, “Don’t go all emotional on me now.”

It’s hard not to.

This was truly the greatest night in the history of my life.

[divider top=”0"]

ADDENDUM : AFTER THE FILM’S RELEASE

I wrote the above just days after witnessing it all, but now can add just a bit to the story. On opening night, my family and I were beyond thrilled to find that we’d made it to the final cut of the film. We’re all visible during the last moments as Rocky is waving to the crowd and stepping out of the arena, touching our hands as the scene fades out. And – now that we’re all familiar with the ending of Rocky Balboa – I can explain the moment that I witnessed which – sadly – did not make it into movie.

At the moment visible in the film when Rocky’s back is to the camera and he is pointing upwards with his wrapped hand, Stallone actually looked upwards and whispered, “Yo Adrian, we did it,” in the quietest and most poignant way, speaking directly to Adrian in heaven. I was surprised upon the film’s theatrical release to find that he’d abandoned this very tender ending, which brought the story to a wonderful parallel to the last moment of Rocky II, in favor of bringing the audience away from the arena and outside to Adrian’s grave. I’d loved to have seen this alternate version of the ending on the DVD release!