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Interview Excerpt: OLIVER STONE

Highlights from Issue 35: Gambling

Photography by DAVID BLACK

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Friday, October 17, 2008


The complete Stop Smiling Interview with Oliver Stone appears in
Issue 35: Gambling. Here we present an excerpt of that interview

 

PUSHING THE EXCESS: OLIVER STONE

By John Buffalo Mailer

Oliver Stone is unlike any filmmaker who has come before him. A career outsider, he broke into the mainstream in the Eighties, and has managed to secure his own niche from which to make films his way ever since. His work pushes audiences and critics alike — inflaming some, empowering others. After winning a best screenplay Oscar for Midnight Express in 1978 and scripting hits like Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Scarface (1983), Stone turned what had been an unsuccessful directing career around in the course of one year. In 1986, he released both Salvador, a manic study of American journalist Richard Boyle as he clawed through El Salvador during the military unrest of 1980, and Platoon, Stone’s no-holds-barred critique of the Vietnam War, a war in which he served, receiving both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Stone ended up winning the Oscar for best director for Platoon (as well as best picture), and both films succeeded in shining a light on the darker elements of American foreign policy. Stone created his films in a visceral style, providing facts while taking novelistic liberties when telling his stories — a technique that, one could say, has become its own genre: The Oliver Stone Movie.

After the success of Platoon, Stone directed over a dozen films, including Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), The Doors (1991), JFK (1991), Heaven and Earth (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), Nixon (1995), U-Turn (1997), Any Given Sunday (1999), Alexander (2004) and World Trade Center (2006). But if you ask Stone, he’ll tell you he’s “just getting warmed up.” His latest project is a biopic about George W. Bush, titled W, starring Josh Brolin as our sitting president.

From the moment Stone enters the room, one gets the feeling that the ride has begun, and you’d be wise to strap in. There is a kinetic bounce in his step. In conversation, he will float from one topic to another and back again, as if there were some invisible thread connecting everything. Stone looks at you with an almost childlike expression when he speaks, eagerly awaiting to share in the joys of the conclusion of his point coming full circle. And just when you’re about to settle in and relax, the ride goes on.

In this deregulated media era — a time when money has outsourced quality at almost every turn in any creative medium — many artists are gagged not only by the government but by the corporate hand that feeds them. Even proven filmmakers like Stone have to hustle for financing. The thought of pulling off guerrilla shoots like Salvador and Platoon within the Hollywood system seems like a distant fantasy today, prompting the question: Can Oliver Stone even make movies like Oliver Stone? One could argue that W may answer that question.

I sat down with Stone this past spring while he was in preproduction for his Bush film. If he has things his way, W will be in theaters just prior to — or immediately following — the presidential election this November.

Stop Smiling: You once said you considered yourself a dramatist over a political filmmaker, and you’ve also been quoted as saying, “We need, above all, a theater that wakes us up.” Are you describing the cinematic equivalent of what some people call New Journalism — that blend of reality and hypothesis that can be achieved in a movie?

Oliver Stone: I think you have to shake it up. I’m writing a Bush movie now that I hope to be shooting shortly, and I’ve been hounded to death about the facts on JFK and Nixon, so I probably became very defensive about it, I certainly worked very hard on the research for JFK. We even put a book out filled with every footnote. I personally find it disgusting that we have to do that to make a movie. But at the time I felt very defensive about it. And we put it out because we weren’t ripping off, we were in the spirit of what we’d learned. We were talking to real witnesses and getting real facts, but they said that we had invented it all. It’s a cheap shot. So I became super defensive. Then on Nixon, we put out another book of footnotes to explain our reasons. Anyway, I realized it’s hopeless to get those things examined in the light of day: You’re always accused of being a filmmaker. That’s why with W I’ll probably be a little bit freer, because you know there’s not that much appreciation for all the work that goes into fact-checking. I think we can have more fun on it. I think taking a Kubrick model of doing Dr. Strangelove, which is to take a very grim idea and have some fun with it, is perhaps the best way to do it.

But I think Pinkville [Stone's film about the My Lai, which was shelved in 2007] was worth doing because it wasn’t a massacre story per se, it was about how the worst in human nature is covered up by human nature. And also about how sometimes there are heroes who do come along. In Pinkville’s case, it was a few people — it wasn’t just one. Men who did something — nothing extraordinary — but something more than ordinary to bring out the truth. And the truth is an amazing story. Kids don’t know about My Lai, they don’t have a clue. But unfortunately that’s been lost because of money. The My Lai fallout was a Wall Street deal where the studio was totally chickenshit and caved when their previous film about the Iraq war had failed. It was a total money deal. They give you a numbering system, they number off all their estimates and sales. You get the accountants saying the movie is going to do this, this and this — bottom line we can bank this, you can discount that, therefore you can get that. It’s a very tough way to work, because you’re assigning generally lowball estimates to movies. I think they have about as much chance of being right as those early poll estimates of John McCain getting the Republican nomination.

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