How the famous Rocky running scene was filmed

If you have never at least once thought while running of the scene of the first Rocky Balboa climbing the stairs of the Art Museum of Philadelphia at the end of his workout and jumping like a happy child because he made it, well, you have missed something unmissable. Especially the first few times you run, when you realize that – miracle! – you’re making it, the temptation to climb any staircase you find (even the one in the supermarket parking lot) and jump with your arms up in the air is so strong.

The oddities about that very famous training are several, and today I’m about to tell you just a few of them.

Small budget Very small

Today Rocky I would be described as an indie film: “independent,” in fact, meaning that it was made without any major studios to finance it and with a budget of $1 million. If that still sounds like a lot of money to you, think again: it was so little that all the exteriors were shot with only natural lighting and there was no catering. The only thing to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was pizza. Always.

The final fight is not so dark because of dramatic issues but because they could not pay enough extras to fill all of Madison Square Gardens and so the highest stands were left in total darkness and stock footage was used for the overall shoot. When they say “make a virtue out of necessity.”

Stallone recently recounted that the first version of the script was very dark and depressing. He himself proposed to rewrite it so radically as to leave only 10% of the original. It may well be said that he forged the character of Rocky not only through his acting proof but in a much more integral way: he invented him altogether, in short.

How the scene was shot

You probably remember especially the ending of that famous sequence, that is, the staircase of the Art Museum of Philadelphia and the dance of happiness at having succeeded. In fact, that is just the climax of a scene that has gone down in film history for pathos and relentless pacing, as much as for the quirks and sequel it had in the 1979 second episode.

Speaking of the first aspect, there is no denying that it is a very engaging sequence: the notes of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” are now in the Olympus of soundtracks, and there is a certain narrative wisdom in the unfolding: in Rocky II in particular, Rocky only leaves his house in the morning to train in the cold gray Philly (as Philadelphia is also called) and little by little he gathers a crowd of people who decide to support him by running with him to the end.

The most bizarre aspects are the ones we enjoy the most. The first is the one discovered by a Philadelphia Magazine journalist who in 2013 set out to calculate what course Rocky had run on and covering what distance. His conclusion was that this was something totally illogical for those who know the city: the places he run through were distant from each other but appeared in the editing as part of an absolutely congruent path. It doesn’t matter: cinema is also suspension of disbelief, and from a certain point on, we believe in what we see even if rationally unreal. And how long did Rocky run? According to Dan McQuade’s calculations as much as 30.61 miles, or 50 km. A bit tame for a simple workout, a monstrous distance for a boxer.

And it’s not over. The entire sequence of Rocky I was shot without asking any permission and with a very small crew. The scene at the market for example is particularly well done because the people were real people, genuinely amazed to see one running by waving at them. Those who observe it amused, participating and amazed were, in short, wonderful involuntary actors. At one point one even throws an orange at him. All staged? Not at all: it was a spontaneous gesture that Stallone was able to seize literally on the fly.

One last trivia point about the race in Rocky II and how unrealistic it was: to reach the final climax the crowd of people following it grows larger and larger. Someone counted that at the end there were 800 people-mostly children-in tow.

Impossible to resist

The fascination and worship generated by this sequence from the first and second episodes of Rocky could not help but give someone the idea to emulate the exploits of their hero. Also in 2013, 150 runners decided to walk that glorious route according to McQuade’s reconstruction, all the way up that staircase-now known to all as “The Rocky Steps.” Raising their arms to the sky in victory at the end.


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