Exclusive! “King of the Underdogs” Explores “Rocky” Director John G. Avildsen’s Film Career

Jul 20, 2017 | Articles

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A fitting tribute to the man who helped launch the Rockyverse has just been unveiled by writer/director Derek Wayne Johnson. John G. Avildsen, who passed away on June 16, 2017, finally gets his props in this incredible documentary on his career as the director of such beloved classics as Rocky and The Karate Kid.

Rocky fans will soon be praising the name of Derek Wayne Johnson, the writer and director (and Rocky superfan) who has undertaken three separate filmmaking projects which tell the story of Rocky and those connected with the series. First up, “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.”

The young director first hatched the idea of exploring the cinematic journey of Avildsen, who he describes as his filmmaking hero, back in 2012.

Together with his producing partner Chris May, Johnson dug his heels into the project in early 2014 and began production. Three years later, and just a month following the passing of their film’s subject, Johnson and May are ready to release the film, which will be available to own on digital download, Blu-Ray and DVD on Chassy.com, iTunes and other digital platforms August 1, 2017.

A hardcore Rocky fan, Johnson ranks the original film (“a masterpiece”) as his favorite, followed by his guilty pleasure, Rocky IV.

Now with this in-depth exploration into the iconic Rocky director’s career, and upcoming projects on the making of Rocky itself, as well as a documentary on Frank Stallone, Johnson has skillfully set himself apart as the foremost Rocky authority in film, a title he wears proudly.

“A journalist wrote about me recently as the ‘Ken Burns of the subject.'”, Johnson says. “Man, when I read that, my heart filled with joy.”

Getting to Know the Unknown Legend Behind Classic Movies

Rocky and The Karate Kid are my favorite films,” Johnson explains. “Growing up John Avildsen became one of my favorite directors. Other than winning the Oscar for Rocky, I felt John didn’t get the credit he deserved for his contributions to cinema and pop culture. I felt it was time to show the world who the unknown legend is behind their favorite movies.”

Rare Rocky Behind the Scenes with Sylvester Stallone

“In the five years I got to know him I am most proud that Avildsen became a dear friend and mentor,” Johnson says of his directing inspiration. “He was as easy going as he was stubborn, and as pleasant as he was difficult. He and I made a great team and each day I was around him I learned something new, whether it be about filmmaking or about myself. We all miss him, dearly.”

Interviewing Sylvester Stallone

John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs features a treasure trove of exclusive, never-before-seen interviews with Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers, Talia Shire, Ralph Macchio, Martin Scorsese and many others.

What was it like getting Rocky Balboa himself on board?

“It wasn’t hard at all!” Johnson says of his experience working with Sylvester Stallone. “We thought it would be difficult at first, but the day we called and asked him was the same day he said yes. I’ve worked with him since then, but quite honestly, that first time I interviewed him was the best day I’ve ever had on a film set. Everything went smoothly and nothing went wrong. Sly has been good to my team and I ever since.”

“John was my first teacher,” Stallone reveals in the documentary, speaking of his respect for the director who helped launch his career in 1976.

Rare Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed

During the film’s production, Johnson got the rare opportunity to sit down with Sly one evening at his home for a screening of the documentary, followed by portions of the original Rocky.

“When the title ‘ROCKY’ scrolled across the screen in big bold letters Sly said, ‘That was a stroke of genius.’ Of course, you will see in the documentary that that was all John Avildsen, and Sly really acknowledges John’s contributions as the unsung hero of Rocky,” Johnson says. “It’s very clear that those two created something special and admired each other’s tenacity and talent.”

Exclusive Rocky Cast Interviews Included

Other major Rocky star interviews featured in Underdogs include actors Talia Shire (Adrian) and Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed).

“Talia is a sweetheart,” Johnson says. “There is so much of Adrian in Talia and so much of Talia in Adrian. She absolutely adored John and holds him in high regard. Remember, her two Oscar nominations were under the direction of her brother, Francis Ford Coppola…and also under John Avildsen. That says a lot right there.”

Johnson describes Carl Weathers as being extremely knowledgeable of director Avildsen’s other works aside from Rocky. In the film, he speaks at length about Save the Tiger (1983)  and how Avildsen did an incredible job directing that movie.

Additional interviews include Burt Young (Paulie); Bill Conti, composer of the “Rocky Theme” and the film’s incredible score; Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (who can be spotted during portions of the fight scenes); and Mike Medavoy, former vice president of United Artists at the time of Rocky’s original release.

Rare Stallone Filming Rocky's Run

Creed 2 and Beyond

A Rocky purist, Johnson was initially perturbed about the idea of the first Creed spinoff movie. The hard feelings didn’t last long though. “When I saw the film I was absolutely moved to tears. Ryan Coogler is an exceptional director and he did a fine job.”

And what about the much rumored sequel to Creed? “I must say, ya know, cause this is a Rocky-centric website, that when Sly told me his idea for Creed 2 I got so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night,” Johnson says. “So, my hopes are up. Way up!”

Johnson’s team is currently in production on “STALLONE: Frank, That Is” with yep, you guessed it, Frank Stallone. “This documentary will cover the life and career of the Grammy and Golden Globe nominated singer, musician and actor and what it’s like to still perform after 50 years of standing on stage singing your heart out into that microphone,” Johnson says. “Another underdog story full of heart and soul and rock-n-roll!”

Upcoming Documentary: “Rocky: The Birth of a Classic”

Of special interest in the future? “40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic”, a unique feature about Rocky which Johnson describes as being unlike any previous documentary on the series.

“Sly pitched the idea to Chris May and I and we’ve been excited about it ever since,” he says of the concept, which will feature Sylvester Stallone narrating behind the scenes footage from Rocky.

“Sadly, John Avildsen is not with us anymore to be a part of it, but his treasure trove of behind the scenes and rehearsal footage from Rocky will be thoroughly incorporated and examined.”



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