Director Peter MacDonald on Sly Stallone’s Lawrence of Arabia, Rambo III.

This interview was conducted in the Fall of 2015.

BOZUNG:   1987 was a busy year for you…You worked as the Director Of Photography on one of my all-time favorite films SHAG (1989) and then immediately went on to direct Stallone in RAMBO 3 (1988)…

MACDONALD:  Yes, that’s about right.   I literally finished SHAG, took a plane back to England, said hello to my family, changed my clothes, and then jumped on a plane to Israel to shoot the film with Stallone.

How did you come to direct RAMBO 3?

Originally, I was hired to shoot Second Unit Photography on the film.  When I got there you could sense that there was a lot of tension between Stallone and the original director Russell Mulcahy.    Mulcahy had only shot on it for about two or three weeks before he was sacked along with the all of the First and Second Unit Camera teams and a couple editors.   I had worked on RAMBO already so I knew what I was getting into! (laughing)      I had directed and photographed the second unit on RAMBO 2.  When I arrived in Israel for RAMBO 3, my assistant was ahead of me–so I landed and went directly to the desert.  I started right away shooting some helicopters in the desert.     I took over as director during the third week of shooting–and that was fine with me because both of my kids were in school at the time so I needed all the money I could get.    I was never a great fan of the RAMBO-image, so I guess I became a whore and sold myself to it.   But, it was quite an experience, because I thought that if I could survive that type of film with that type of pressure on me–and to work with Stallone who thought he was Rambo at that time–I thought that I could handle anything.   When I took over at the three-week point, they were already behind two weeks in the shooting. It was a mess.

And how does one direct Stallone?

You don’t. (laughing)   I tried, though.  I had worked on RAMBO 2 (1985) and Stallone had liked the way that I worked.  So we had a good relationship.  He was the one who persuaded me to take on RAMBO 3.   I did discuss with him the idea of making Rambo a bit more vulnerable, but also, to give him some humor in his soul.    We started that in Week 3 and by Week 11 he had thrown it all out the window…(laughing)    Stallone is a very bright man, but I think that the problem with the film–was his entourage.   They always cause the problem on a film set, not the actor.  Any problems are created by them.

One thing that strikes me about RAMBO 3–it’s a film that the critics didn’t like, but it’s a very ambitious film.  It has a very LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) quality to it.  It has a strange mix of Conan The Barbarian meets political ideology…

It does, yes.   I remember when we were shooting the film, about half-way through, I said to Stallone:  “I don’t know how many papers you read, but did you see this thing with Perestroika and Glasnost–the Russians are shaking hands…”   I can’t remember what he said exactly now, but it was to the tune of: “They’re all Commie bastards…”    They were all the enemy, and that was in the time in which the film came out.    It was a film very much of its time politically.    And there has always been a love-hate relationship between Stallone and the press, and the film wasn’t a subtle one.   And it was pure fantasy as well.  There is a scene of Stallone shooting a helicopter out of the air with a crossbow!  (laughing)  If that were possible, don’t you think the Defense Budget would be reduced to nothing? (laughing)   So the press really tore it to shreds.

I love that first big battle sequence in RAMBO 3…Where the Russian helicopters are assaulting that little village…You have that shot in there of that female villager running and screaming toward the camera holding a baby and all of a sudden she’s blown up!  (laughing)  I mean, this is a film that has a very high body count…

There’s a lot of carnage in the film. But it’s in a very comic book way…I kept a tally of the dead during the shooting of the film, and at a point, I went up to Stallone and said, “Thus far, you’ve killed about forty-seven and you don’t have a scratch…”     That’s when he wrote that scene where he has a splinter in his side.  It was the scene where he lights the gunpowder behind his back.  I was shooting that hand-held as the camera operator, and when the charge went off, it went through the prosthetic that he had on his back.  If you watch the film, you’ll see the camera shake during that explosion–because it made it look like it was super-charged, but the camera shaking was really me laughing while I was operating.  (laughing)  It was so absurd, but it was something that a soldier actually did in combat.  So, he got rid of the splinter in his side, and went on to kill another thirty or forty Russians….

But those sequences are really quite ambitious.  Visually, but in their execution… Did you storyboard any of that stuff out before shooting it?

No, we didn’t.   Because I was really comfortable shooting the action sequences as a Second Assistant Director.  I didn’t find them difficult, and we had very good helicopter pilots that had all flown in Vietnam.    When you have explosions and innocent people being blown up just because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time–we were very careful with it all.      At the end of the shooting, Stallone became very angry with me because when we were shooting that finale with the helicopter coming up over the hill after him on horse–and Stallone is a superb horseman–we shot the sequence with a very long lens which gave it the look that the helicopter was one about three feet behind him, but in reality, it was forty feet behind him.   But I hadn’t told him that the helicopter was going to come up over the hill at him! (laughing)  So when he ran in on horseback and jumped off the horse–he started screaming and yelling at me about it.  I said, “Yes, but look at the rushes of it.”   So I showed him the rushes and he said, “Wow, that’s really wonderful…” (laughing)  I knew that if I would have warned him that it was coming he may have left on queue on the horse and it wouldn’t have been as effective.  And to go back to what you mentioned a moment ago about the film having LAWRENCE OF ARABIA like qualities–my Assistant Director, Michael Stevenson, had worked on LAWRENCE with David Lean…

Right, and RAMBO 3 really has that sweaty and dirty/dusty look of LAWRENCE…

And once Stallone found out that Michael Stevenson had worked with Lean on LAWRENCE–he was elated.

What do you remember about the shooting of that opening stick fight sequence of RAMBO 3?

We shot that in Bangkok, Thailand.   I shot most of that hand-held myself as the camera operator because it was so carefully choreographed.  It was almost the last thing we shot on the film.   It was quite complicated so we could only shoot about four or five hits each take.   Everyone got really bruised during that–including myself.   I don’t think that Stallone liked the guy who he was fighting in that opening sequence because he had a big mouth on him and he and Stallone went at each other a couple times during that.    It was a great set and it had a wonderful mood about it.

There are some great lines in the script that Stallone wrote for RAMBO 3 as well…I love that bit a dialogue between Richard Crenna and his Russian Torturer…  The Russian says, “Where are the missiles at?”   Crenna responds:  “In your ass…” (laughing)  

Richard Crenna was a delightful man.  He was a true gentleman.  He was the kind of guy that kept everyone on that set inline.

 I have noticed a visual connection between RAMBO 3 and SHAG–two different films, as you’d agree…In SHAG you use that wonderful blue light mixed with the shadows of a ceiling fan going throughout it during many of the dance pavilion sequences and in RAMBO 3–during that opening stick fight one can’t miss the shadows of a ceiling fan above going through the entire fight…

Right, yeah.  Well, it worked for Tony Scott, didn’t it?

 In a way–those are your vertical blinds of film noir…Wasn’t there quite a bit of trouble with RAMBO 3 when it came to the editing of the film?  Aren’t there different edits of the film for the US and UK?

No, I don’t think that’s correct.   The editing of the film was done very quickly and there was no preview for the film.   It was because they were so behind on the shooting of it.   When I took over, not only was the film two weeks behind the shooting schedule, but the initial shooting of it had started later than expected.   The entire film was supposed to be shot in Israel, but because we were behind, and because of the fact that no-one had found a good location to shoot the final battle sequence, we eventually packed up everything and went back to The States.  We shot the rest of it in Yuma, Arizona.      We shot the final battle sequence with the helicopters and horseman there.   By the time the film was finished–they had already scheduled the release date.   We had three or four teams of editors working on the film at .the same time around the clock.   One team of editors would work on certain scenes, while others would work on others.    It was barely finished in time for its release date.    There was no time to produce different versions of the film for the US and the UK.      If there were separate cuts of the film for different countries–I certainly wasn’t involved with it.