In literature and film, when the Hero accepts the Call to Adventure, frequently they encounter a Mentor (bearded or otherwise) who helps the Hero by imparting Sacred Wisdom or a Special Implement or Talisman. This process is called the Supernatural Aid by Joseph Campbell. Think Obi-wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker his lightsaber, or later Yoda riding along in Luke’s Baby Bjorn at his jungle Jedi school.
Sometime in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Hollywood co-opted this process and created something even more awesome: the training montage. Originally, montage was an early 20th century Soviet film movement (legendary directors Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin were devotees) that juxtaposed images to convey symbolic meaning. American directors caught on, but the form was not perfected until 1976, when a little picture called Rocky was released.
The classic scene of bum fighter Rocky Balboa training for his fight with Apollo Creed (one armed pushups, meat beating, Burgess Meredith, racing up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art), set to Bill Conti‘s iconic Gonna Fly Now is in our pop culture DNA. The film spawned five increasingly ludicrous sequels as well as a host of training montage imitators, from Karate Kid to Bloodsport to Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. The rule for montage theme songs became cheesy inspirational rock anthems.
As inspirational as Rocky’s story is, the story of Sylvester Stallone‘s quest to get the film made is almost as stirring. Sly was a struggling actor, mainly relegated to thug roles in mobster movies, when inspiration struck. In 1975, an over-the-hill journeyman heavyweight named Chuck Wepner lasted 15 rounds against Muhammed Ali and Stallone was in the crowd.
Before the Wepner-Ali fight, Stallone was manning the ticket window at a movie theater in New York, waiting for his agent to call. He had written over thirty screenplays and each had been rejected by movie studios. After the fight, legend has it that Sly sequestered himself in his apartment and wrote Rocky over a 48 hour marathon session. If ever there was an underdog, he was it.
And then, lightening struck. The script was picked up by United Artists, Stallone shrewdly and successfully lobbied for the lead role over Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds, and the film was a huge global hit and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976.
As October comes to a close, I am facing a formidable challenge. My writing plan dictates that I complete the first draft of my script by the end of the month, but after a very productive September, I have struggled. Family obligations, a sick pet, work commitments and writer’s block have conspired to put this project well behind schedule. So lately, I have started doing my own version of the training montage.
Whenever I need to get fired up to write, I pump the Bill Conti (Going the Distance is the Truth!), and visualize my own workout. As a writer, this montage might include:
- Brewing a pot of coffee
- Using compressed air to clean my laptop
- Irishing up the coffee
- Hands on home row: finger calisthenics
- Taking a break to charge my iPod
- Writing some sample sentences (“She sells sea shells…”)
Compelling stuff, no? Well, no. It would be a terrible piece of cinema. But the music and visualization keep me focused and productive. And I think of Sylvester Stallone, hammering out his own underdog story and beating his Dream into submission.