William Goldman on "Rocky"

July 14th, 2009 by

H/T Paul Sanford who emailed me this about last Friday’s Great Scene from Rocky, following up nicely on the excerpt from William Goldman’s book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” yesterday:

Fantastic post the other day on a film I also unequivocally love – Rocky. Here’s an excerpt from William Goldman I wanted to share with you that’s buried in his book on the making of A Bridge Too Far, in a chapter titled “Screenwriting”. It seemed too long to post in the comments, but I think it’s an interesting insight into a great moment in a film that’s filled with ‘em:

“Another problem the screenwriter has is this: people think what he does is write dialogue.

Dialogue may be among the least of a screenwriter’s contributions; it’s certainly far less important than structure.

In Rocky, Sylvester Stallone has written a stunning moment which I’ll try and describe. Rocky, a second-rate club fighter, goes to his gym for the first time in the movie, and walks to the room where the lockers are. His particular lock is a combination type, so Rocky turns the dial one way, makes the second move, the third, then pulls the lock open.

Only it’s still locked. He makes a face, spins the dial again, again goes through the combination. But it still won’t open. Now he does this great thing: he takes off his hat and pulls out a piece of paper that’s got the proper combination on it.

All right: what do we know about Rocky so far in this sequence? Well, he’s not the brightest and he’s not much at remembering numbers. But he’s not surly about it. He’s more sweet and resigned than mad; he just shrugs, gets the right combination from his hat, dials the right numbers.

Only it still won’t open.

And now he whirls, grabs the fire extinguisher off the near wall, and smashes the locker until it opens.

So what do we know now? Just this: beneath that sweetness, there is a wild anger, and they both exist inside that same skin, and it’s that mixture of sweetness and fury that makes it possible for him to survive with the champion and for us to care so about it.

The lock smashed, he yanks the door open and now we find out something more – the photos taped to the inside of the door are of black girls. Which means either that he likes black girls, which we didn’t know, or that he’s smashed into the wrong locker.

Then the attendant from the doorway tells the truth: Rocky’s stuff has been moved out, a black fighter has been given his place.

In other words, Rocky’s so washed up he’s not even worth second-rate locker space in a second-rate gym.

It’s a marvelously economic piece of writing Stallone has done – it set, at least for me, the character of Rocky for the rest of the film. It’s the moment when I really began to care for him. And it has, until the very end, no dialogue. Plus being totally excisable in terms of plot. All that needed to happen was that the attendant say to Rocky as he entered the gym, “Oh, we moved your stuff out of your locker.”

But then we wouldn’t see Rocky’s private moments, wouldn’t root for him the way we ultimately do. I don’t know the proper definition of a screenplay, but it might be anything you can come up with to involve an audience in any way you can.”

Here Goldman reminds us of a couple of important things:

* First, movies are primarily a visual medium. Dialogue is important but in most movies is secondary to what happens / action.

* Second, every moment in a screenplay universe is comprised of the External World and the Internal World; which means that when something happens (Ext World), something else is happening (Int World). This scene Goldman describes in Rocky is a perfect example. In the External World, Rocky is trying to open his locker. But in the Internal World, a “wild anger” rises up and consumes — for a moment — his “sweetness.” A character’s constant interplay between the External World and Internal World, the synthesis of action and intention is the stuff of creating a multidimensional persona.

And when we do that, as Stallone did in the scene referenced above, screenwriters can, as Goldman notes, “involve an audience.”

Thanks again, Paul S!

One thought on “William Goldman on "Rocky"

  1. Paul says:

    I also like in this scene that Rocky's gear is strung up on "skid row" with the other locker exiles, a perfect visual representation of the sad state of Rocky's boxing career…

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