There were rumours of a fourth Rambo movie for nearly 20 years. What took you so long?
Ages ago I wrote a draft where Rambo was living in Seattle, he’s got this nine-year-old kid and he’s a divorcee, but then the head of MGM studios left and a new guy came in. His wife read my Rocky Balboa script that the previous head of MGM had rejected, and the new head gave me the thumbs up to make it. So I switched projects. Then when I came back to Rambo, I called Soldier Of Fortune magazine and they said Burma was the foremost area of human abuse on the planet, so I started on that tack instead.
What was the most disturbing thing you discovered while doing research?
That this oppressive situation in Burma has been going on for more than 60 years. The government puts people’s heads on spikes, the army use rape or the prospect of getting raped as a psychological tool and in one case a man was forced to eat the flesh of his own family members. But there’s no doubt about it: when the Burmese government see this film, I’m going to make some serious enemies.
Did you actually see any atrocities while filming on the Burmese border?
Shots were fired at our heads and we were told we could get seriously hurt if we continued filming. I also witnessed the aftermath – survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of land-mine injuries, maggot-infested wounds and ears cut off. We hear about Vietnam and Cambodia, but this was more horrific. It really is a hellhole beyond your wildest dreams. All the road trails are mined so the only way into Burma is up the river.
In retrospect, Rambo IIIi was absolute pants, right?
It had too much action and no story. It was terrible. Back then I thought it was brilliant. Now I think, ‘What a crock of crap this was.’
So how much arse does Rambo kick in this instalment?
Well, at first he’s very pessimistic about the world. His philosophy is that we kill and kill but the world never changes. It’s only when he’s approached by a Christian missionary who needs him to sail her into Burma that his attitude changes. She awakens in him the last flicker of humanity left. And that’s when he unleashes hell. Because sometimes to do God’s work you need to summon the Devil.
Nice line – we’ll be using that one in the office. Aren’t you too old to be running around a jungle though?
I just try to ignore the scepticism like I did with Rocky Balboa and get on with the job in hand. But I had to really watch my diet. For three months I ate the same food every day for every meal: lobster, mushrooms, eggs, a mango and a protein shake. The only problem was that I was so busy the whole time shooting and planning the movie that I never got any time to work out. In two months, I must have worked out five times. You just don’t get the time.
You look massive in the movie. Did taking steroids help?
Human Growth Hormone isn’t a muscle-builder like steroids. I have a prescription for it, and it reinforces your tendons and helps with arthritis. I’d recommend it for everyone. My mother takes HGH, okay? My mother. But because bodybuilders have been known to use it, it all gets lumped in together.
Is it true your mum really reads people’s fortunes by staring at their backsides?
My mother has led a very colourful life. Besides being a one-time trapeze artist, she is the first woman I can recall who had a televised bodybuilding show in Washington DC in the ’50s. She’s also a world-class astrologist, palmist, and yes, she did invent ‘rumpology’. Yes, we do have a close relationship and no I did not allow her to read my butt because the story may have a depressing ending.
You wrote, directed, produced and starred in Rambo. Aren’t you ‘getting too old for this shit’?
I really underestimated how hard it would be. Filming Rocky Balboa was very simple, it’s a lot more stripped down. This is 20 times harder. Plus you’ve got to manage a crew of 600 people, all with different ideas on the direction of the film, so it’s definitely been stressful.
Are we going to see any flashbacks of Rambo’s mentor Colonel Trautman?
There was the temptation to do that, but in the end I decided I wasn’t going to make this for the old school Rambo fans. I want to make this for the younger crowds. Plus I learnt a valuable lesson from Rocky Balboa: most of the people who went to see it at the cinema weren’t the people who’d grown up with the character. It was the younger generation.
Who’d win in a fight between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal?
At a party in my home in Miami in 1997, they were all there – Arnold, Bruce Willis… it was a heck of a party. But Van Damme was tired of Seagal claiming he could kick his ass, so he offered Seagal outside into my backyard. Seagal made his excuses and left. But Van Damme, who was berserk, tracked him down at a nightclub and offered him out again. Again Seagal pulled a Houdini. Van Damme was just too strong. Seagal wanted none of it.
Talking of Arnie, in the film Twins his character walks past a poster of First Blood, looks at your muscles, looks at his own, and then laughs at you. Offended?
No, we used to be enemies because we both wanted to be the world’s biggest action hero, but we’re good friends now. And besides, I got my own back in Demolition Man by laughing at the fact they named a library after him in the future.
So who do you reckon won that battle between you and Arnie in the end?
I’ll leave that up to the public to decide. But Arnold definitely played his career better than I did. I think he’s a freak of nature. He’s brilliant – he’s had three stellar careers. And he was the epitome of greatness is each of them. ?His ambition is frightening. If they changed the US Constitution he could become President.
While we’re on battles, didn’t you and Richard Gere once get into a punch-up?
We worked on the ’70s movie The Lords Of Flatbush but never hit it off. During lunch once, I was in the backseat of a Toyota when he climbed in with a greasy chicken snack which dripped on my trousers. So I elbowed him in the head. He still thinks I’m responsible for the gerbil rumour. Not true, but that’s the rumour.
You were one of the biggest stars in the world in the ’80s. Were you a bit of an ego-monster?
Even my wife told me I was a truly horrible person and insensitive to everything except things that involved me. So now I listen. You should see my house – all women. Even the dogs are female, and so’s the housekeeper. ?I don’t win one argument. Then, 95% of the time, women are right. They can be emotional, but when they say your shoes are shit or your tie is wrong, they’re often right.
Original interview by Ben Wilson in the March 2008 issue of FHM UK magazine