In November of 1976 a small film written by little known actor, Sylvester Stallone, was released and cinema has not quite been the same since. The story of a down and out boxer who gets a shot at the world heavyweight title struck a chord and earned Rocky critical acclaim as well as 10
As iconic as the character is, it is without a doubt fair to say that the score by the legendary composer Bill Conti helped solidify the film’s legacy in cinema and his place in history of the movie industry. We chat to the man himself in this two-part interview about the 40th anniversary of Rocky and more.
So it’s been 40 years since the release of Rocky, an iconic film with an iconic score…
[Laughs] 1976, my goodness – 40 years ago. You don’t think about it – it kind of creeps up like it does with anyone that gets older! I remember someone saying to me ’30 years ago’ [laughs]. It’s amazing.
We are talking about something that is now part of pop culture. When you do a movie you do the music of the day in the movie and when do that you have time stamped your movie. I always hated the very fact of a time stamp which happens, by the way, in the rhythm sense. But here we are, 40 years later and you still hear the score occasionally.
How did you become involved in Rocky?
I was living in Rome, came back in 1973 and came to the West Coast. Then I did a film in 1974 called Harry and Tonto, then I did Next Stop Greenwich Village. The film editor in Harry and Tonto went onto to do that little Rocky movie in 1975, finished it in 1976 and he wanted me to meet the director. So I did and that’s how I got the job.
The interesting thing about the Rocky song is that it occurs in the 10th reel. Rocky was kind of a loser, a real underdog and therefore he had a very simple tune that was rather sad that I played for about nine reels. But in the 10th reel it was time for him to train and the director asked me if I could provide him with about a minute and a half worth of music so he could cut together a montage. It is easier for some directors to cut film and put it together to a piece of music that has some rhythm. I gave him a minute and a half worth of that simple tune but speeded up and it was just me playing it at the piano.
He said ‘Bill, I need another 30 seconds. Could you do me another 30 seconds?’ I put on another 30 seconds, and he said he had five reels of film Stallone running and jumping. Every 30 seconds we added we ended up with three minutes worth of music. It became the song in the 10th reel.
What was the biggest challenge or toughest part of working on this film?
The fight sequence at the end. At the early stages of the film, John shot 15 rounds of a fight. It was too long – it was endless, like watching a real fight. The producers got crazy and said this was terrible. They wanted round 1, round 2, montage and then round 12 or something. That was another case of where we had to put all of that film down to a montage in the fight and that piece was kind of hard to write
Was there anything you had to fight to keep in the film?
One interesting thing when we had in the spotting session – when the director, composer and producers all get together. I had begun the temporary track with this fanfare that begins the movie, when one of the producers heard it he said ‘Of course, we won’t do that fanfare at the beginning’. I said the director and I thought it would be kind of good, wake everyone up and say here we go. He was like ‘It really promises so much’. I said this is between you and the director.
When we did the screening for the people who had the money in the movie, United Artists, the director took a piece of paper and wrote the ‘ROCKY’ on it. With just a handheld a camera he slowly ran it across the film left to right. We did that just for the screening and the producer said: ‘Well, we’re not gonna do that, are we?’ But we kind of liked it! [laughs] Those were just little battles, it wasn’t something important but it happened.
The score in Rocky in many respects almost becomes a character in of itself – how aware were you of that?
Well, no one was aware it would become like that. When we had a screening for just the cast and crew, we [producers and director] were dubbing the picture whilst the first reels were going on because we hadn’t finished it yet. So we finished the 12th reel then ran to the theatre and they were on the ninth reel. We snuck in the back of the theatre and sat down.
It was Stallone, myself, director and two producers. They get to the 10th reel and they go to do his run and the entire audience were standing up and cheering. We were the only people seated because we weren’t there since the beginning and didn’t get the vibe in the room.
Were you given the script or shown a rough cut to try and come up with the score for Rocky?
It was the rough cut I saw. By the time they finish a movie a lot has changed so they don’t tend to show you the script and they just show you what they have. As a matter of fact, the ending of the Rocky script and the one they shot was Rocky loses the fight and then meets Adrian in the parking lot after everyone has left. The publicity pictures were of Rocky in his trunks and Adrian, just the two of them all alone came from the end of the picture.
But when I was writing the music and got to the end, I wrote this piece of music and said to John, the director, wouldn’t it be great if the film just ended here in the ring. I played the music and all you need to say is ‘I love and I love you too’ and the movie is over.
He said: ‘Great, we just didn’t shoot it!’ So we went back to the producers and said listen to this piece of music, this is what we want to do. So if you notice in the original Rocky movie, there is a big high shot and the music goes boom: ‘Da da da da da…’ That’s going but everything else is a close shot of Rocky saying ‘Adrian’, close shot of Adrian saying ‘Rocky’. Paulie lifts up the rope but there’s no one else in the auditorium because we had to go back and shoot the ending again.
When you were working on the score did you have a feeling the likes Gonna Fly Now would become as big as it did?
No no no no no – definitely not. It’s very hard to have a feeling like that. You can’t know what someone else is going to feel, you do your best and they might just like a little bit, a lot or not at all. I don’t think anyone knew it would become as big as it did.
Is it a piece of music that you re-wrote a few times before you got the finished product?
No – everything was pretty quick. I think I was on the project for about three weeks and recorded the score with the musicians in, like, one three hour session. I called my wife, who was working in an office, and asked if there was anyone there who knows how to sing. I said come over at your lunch break and bring over anyone who can sing. And that’s who was singing on the track.
It must have been quite surreal when it reached number one in the music charts?
Without a doubt. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t in America when the film came out. I was in Germany working on another picture so I called my wife from Munich and she said: ‘That picture you did came out and I think it’s doing pretty good’. Then I was gone for about a month or two then came back to America. Everyone was really excited, it changed my life and changed Stallone’s life for sure.
So you in a sense came back to America to a fanfare…?
Yeah, so to speak [laughs]. Then I went to the record company and said, by the way, does anyone want the record? Maynard Ferguson, great trumpet player, put out a record on that song and it was doing really good. But I had the original, so then we had to change houses and your entire life changes.
Your work in Rocky got you your first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Can you remember the moment you found about your nomination?
I can, yes. It was a call from my agent, and this is really terrible. It was terrible because he said you’ve been nominated for the score and song for Rocky. You know, I jumped up and down with my wife and kids. The phone rang again and he said ‘I was wrong, you’ve not been nominated for the score just the song’. I wasn’t disappointed but it was really weird.
How much did your creative process change on Rocky, if at all?
The process is pretty much always the same. You’ve got to follow the directions of the filmmakers; directors and producers who have spent maybe a year on the picture or sometimes more. They don’t think about you generally until the very end and then they bring you in. They have a lot of thoughts on what it should be and if you don’t pay attention to that then you will get into a lot of trouble.
It’s their film, their money and they have ideas about what they want from the music. And that’s not wrong and you have to catch up with them. Psychologically you have to figure out the kind of stuff they mean.
This interview appears on HeyUGuys by kind permission of Thomas Alexander. Return to the site tomorrow to see part 2 of our interview feature.