Oliver Stone: The First Stone
Oliver Stone is a complicated and polarizing figure. He always has been. On the one hand, he’s a Hollywood liberal who is best-known for movies critical of the Vietnam war. On the other, his work is filled with sexism and he’s spending his later years cozying up to the likes of Vladimir Putin. This week, Stone made headlines for his contribution to the great Weinstein scandal. It seems like no matter who you are or where you stand, Stone has said or done something likely to alienate you.
That was less true twenty years ago, but the Oscar winning director was starting down a career path that would slowly erode his cultural relevance. But Movieline magazine still had enough interest in Stone to publish a two-part interview with the controversial filmmaker. The first half appeared in the October 1997 issue.
In front of the Santa Monica building where Oliver Stone has his offices, a man with a long white beard, dressed in flowing saffron-colored robes, gets out of a black limousine with Sally Kirkland. The actress is bringing her yoga master, Swami Satchidananda, to meet with Stone, which means my scheduled time with the director will be delayed. And so, as I sit in a room overlooking the ocean, I read the inscriptions on some of the awards Stone has received, one of which is The Torch of Liberty Award presented to him in 1987 by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California: “For your outstanding efforts to broaden the public’s understanding of civil liberties and human rights and for letting the light of freedom, justice and equality shine through your motion pictures.”
When Stone finishes with the Swami, he takes me on a tour of his offices, introducing me to his editors, assistants and company executives. In the large conference room where he holds readings of scripts with his actors, he shows me framed political cartoons that feature him as a character. In one he is being shot like Oswald was in that Dallas basement; the shooter is not Jack Ruby but the “media critics.” “There were dozens of these cartoons,” he says. “I’m glad I framed a few of them.” He shows me the rows of black file cabinets that are filled with paperwork from all his projects. “I’ve kept everything,” he say: “I’m very paper-conscious. Not that I want to one day give it away or show it. I’d have to go through it and censor myself before I did that. There’s some very naked stuff in there. The idea is, the older you get the less you have to hide. It all simplifies down to the basics. At the end of the day, you’re shameless. Maybe that’s a good thing, because you’re ready to move on to another life. It makes it easy to keep calm.”
He takes me to a narrow hallway where framed posters of all of his work are hung on both walls. “All in order,” he points out, beginning with Seizure, Midnight Express (for which he won an Oscar), The Hand, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface, all films he wrote or cowrote. Then Year of the Dragon, Salvador, 8 Million Ways to Die, Platoon (for which he won the Best Director Oscar), Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Heaven & Earth, Natural Born Killers, Nixon. These will soon be joined by the poster for U-Turn, his new film, which stars Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Jennifer Lopez, Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix.
The son of a French mother and an American Jewish father, Oliver Stone was in boarding school in his teens when his life came apart as his parents divorced and left him on his own. His search for self and adventure provoked him to leave Yale after a brief stay to teach in Vietnam, then to join the merchant marines. He returned briefly to Yale, and then returned to Vietnam as a soldier. Stone’s 15 months of infantry life changed him forever. He was wounded twice and awarded medals for heroism. When he returned to America, he was profoundly alienated and spent a number of years writing in confusion and poverty, during which time he attended New York University film school and gradually put together his career as a filmmaker.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: What is your new film U-Turn about?
OLIVER STONE: John Ridley wrote a book called Stray Dogs. The film’s essentially his screenplay, but [long-time collaborator] Richard Rutowski and I did a lot of work on it. It’s called U-Turn now, because Stray Dogs is not available–it’s a Kurosawa title. And U-Turn is what it’s about. [Laughs] It’s about the day in a life of a man where he reassesses his character. It’s a dark tale, but with a lot of humor in it. I’ve never done a picture like it.
Q: What’s the most personal reaction you’ve gotten to it so far?
A: My 12-year-old son, Sean, saw it. He gave me some shit. He said, “This is worse than Natural Bom Killers, Pop.”
Q: More violent?
A: Not violent, sex. I thought this was a tamer film. But he’s 12.
Q: I’d never let my 13-year-old daughter see Natural Born Killers.
A: He sees everything. He saw Natural Born Killers in ’93 and appreciated it. My ex-wife, his mother, hated it. Hated it. He got it and he explained it to her.
Q: Did she get angry with you for letting him see it?
A: No, he lives in Los Angeles. These kids are exposed to so much on television. There’s no V-chip in our house. He’s a smart kid. I talked to him before he saw Natural Born Killers and told him what it was about–that it was a send-up of what’s around us, a mirror, not condoning of killing.
Q: Is it more difficult to let your son see something sexual or something violent?
A: I don’t look at sex and violence as entities, which is how a lot of Puritans look at it. I look at it as a process. I’m much more interested that he understand the nature of the movie, the characters. I don’t like him to see pictures that are shallow, where the violence is taken for granted, where people knock each other off, kill 300 Arabs. If the sex and the violence grow out of the character in the story, it makes sense. As long as it’s rooted. By the way, Sean stays with me during weekends and he brings over kids from his class and they check through the Internet and they get into the Playboy Web site, Jenny McCarthy and all that soft-porn. It’s hard to keep an eye on that. What do you do at that age? They have adolescent urges. You talk about it, you have to deal with it. You can’t say, “Put your penis away.” There’s no such thing as wrong. It’s natural. I want to be a good, natural father and discuss things openly with him ahead of time, so then he understands what’s happening to him–these feelings, these urges.
Q: Would you show a daughter the same films you show your son?
A: Probably. I have a daughter, she’s a year and a half.
Q: When she’s eight, will you let her see Natural Bom Killers?
A: Yeah. It depends on how her development comes along, where she’s understanding nature and society. If she’s ready for it, I’d show it to her. I’m not actively soliciting my children to like my movies.
Q: John Grisham, responding to the information that Natural Bom Killers is linked to more copycat killing than any film ever made, wants you in court. He said, “It will take only one large verdict against the likes of Oliver Stone…then the party will be over.”
A: My God. Grisham’s world would be a nightmare for everyone, not just me. it would be a legal paradise for lawsuits. He’s arguing for product liability, where the products are ideas. Beethoven could be sued for inspiring violence or aggression with the Seventh Symphony. Picasso would be sued for his fractured people, for [encouraging] mutilation. Every single art form would be subject to review. It would be the end of what we call civilization. The end of civilized debate, freedom of expression. Where it becomes hate speech, there is an interesting argument, [but] Natural Bom Killers is an artistic expression; it’s a satire.
Q: When you hear that two people watched your film repeatedly and took acid and went on a killing spree, doesn’t that get to you somehow?
A: I’m not responsible for the audience and their reaction. If there’s a psycho, a moron, somebody who says, “That’s the way it happened, Mickey and Mallory are my heroes,” then that person lacks the ingredients for living in society, period. That person is fucked if he sees Pulp Fiction or Bugsy or Trainspotting— anything can kick it off. Where does it end? Who is declaring what’s responsible and what’s irresponsible? Natural Bom Killers was done as a mirror that says: this is what we are, this is what you’re getting, this is the world you’re surrounded by, this is our valueless, junk-filled society. Some people see Natural Bom Killers and say, “Robert Downey Jr.’s my hero.” I still can’t believe that! He’s a shallow, craven monster. And people come up to me and say, “He was cool. I really felt sorry when that guy dies.” What!? I’m not responsible if that’s what they think.
Q: When you were a boy, was there anybody you wanted to be like?
A: There was a lot of hero identification. First as a novelist: Norman Mailer was a hero, J.P. Donleavy, Joseph Conrad. I wrote novels when I was a kid. I read a lot of fiction when I was in Vietnam the first and second time, and when I was drifting around. I started to write my own novel, which was called A Child’s Night Dream. It was based on the language of Joyce and Donleavy and Joyce Cary. The book had different styles to every chapter. It was like a prism, like Natural Bom Killers.
Q: I read that you tossed it into a river after several publishers rejected it.
A: Half of it was lost. What was left was a bunch of pages all over the place. It was never finished. I threw away some of it. The rest was in a shoebox for most of the ’70s. Then finally in the ’90s I pulled it out because I’d mentioned it in an interview and an editor at St. Martin’s Press asked to read it. I gave it to him without sorting out the pages. He read it and he found something there that he felt was special. After Nixon came out, I took six months and reedited and rewrote some sections.
Q: Will the critical reception of your novel be as important to you as any of your films?
A: It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t judge the book on failure or success. I like it. It achieved what the boy I was set out to do. He’d be happy with it, that’s enough. I don’t care if it’s ignored. I would be surprised if it was understood and accepted readily.
Q: Will you read the reviews?
A: It all depends. If they’re going to destroy me, no. But it’s well written–there’s some wonderful writing there. The problem is that it will perhaps only be paid attention to because of my film background.
Q: You’d prefer to be thrown in the ring against Conrad?
A: I was affected most by Conrad. Lord Jim put me into Asia for the first time. My book is about three continents: Europe, America and Asia. My mom was French, so I had a European [as well as American] identity. Part one is America; part two is Asia; part three is trying to get back home. So it’s about time and about adolescence. How do you bum off your old life? How do you come around to be an authentic human being? That’s basically my quest through the movies too. The novel moves by free association through time–it’s Proustian, really. In its intensity, it’s closest to Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, which very much influenced me.
Q: Is it also about all the ways your character tries to kill himself?
A: There is a strong suicide theme. We ignore it, but kids commit suicide a lot, especially now. Back then, same thing. Holden Caulfield comes from the same darkness: boarding school. I was very influenced by that–I left Hill School for two days as a result of Catcher in the Rye. Hid out in the Taft Hotel. Awful experience.
Q: You were an only child, correct?
A: I would have been a different person if I’d had a brother or sister. I was a loner. I didn’t get much input.
Q: In your biography, you said your life as a kid was marred by violence. You got into fights, got beaten up and chased.
A: Oh really? That sounds pretty dramatic. [Laughs]
Q: Harrison Ford told a similar tale–but he never fought back.
A: He’s a natural bom Buddhist. I don’t remember being beaten up as much as chased. And definitely scared, because the gangs in New York at that time were pretty tough. There were Irish gangs, Puerto Rican kids who stole my bus passes and pushed me around. In France, too, there were country gangs who chased me and my cousin in the summer. All of this is in my book, the damage. I was a forceps delivery, and that was very violent. It compresses your head, and there’s all this stuff in your body that’s the result of that: you get squeezed when you come out, you hit the light, you’ve got blood, the doctor spanks the shit out of you–it’s a terrifying experience. So when I was defending Natural Born Killers I was saying, “Who are we kidding here?” Violence is a way of life. It’s part of us. We’ve got to stop separating violence as if it’s some kind of thing you can control. When we acknowledge the violence within us we can begin the journey of having to deal with it. Buddhism is very aware of violence and talks about it, because it understands that it’s a part of life.
Q: How deeply are you into Buddhism?
A: Very much so. I practice, I do my meditation every day. I have a guru. It was always part of my life. That’s what writing is about. Writing is an act of devotion–it involves the anti-materialistic, it involves spiritual and philosophical concepts. I’ve been doing that all my life, but I could not find a form in the Christian church that worked for me. In Vietnam, we went to a lot of temples, saw Buddhism all over the place. I loved the East. It changed my life; it was an orphan home for me. My parents had just divorced and I was alone in Asia. I was really alone. So Asia became like a mother. And Buddhism was in there. When I did Heaven & Earth, Le Ly Hayslip [author of the book from which the film is adapted] was a Buddhist, and she made me a member of the Vietnamese Buddhist church. Then I was inducted by Richard Rutowski, who’s been a Buddhist for 20 years, into the Tibetan side of it, which is much more accessible to me because of its wild nature. And they speak more English.
Q: Was going to teach in Vietnam in ’65 similar to going into the Peace Corps–a sense of idealism?
A: Yeah, I think so, though it was based more on Conrad’s concept of there being something mysterious out there. That’s what drove me. Maybe I’m flattering myself in hindsight, but it seems to me that I was more interested in knowing about life. There were too many pat answers at Yale and in the East Coast of America–to this day. [Laughs]
Q: How long were you at Yale?
A: A year the first time, half a year the second.
Q: Ever regret leaving Yale?
A: At times I did. It was very scary to leave. The second time, I didn’t go to any of the classes, and the dean called me in. I realized it was over. It was sort of an epiphany. And I was scared. I was throwing my fate onto the waters. I didn’t know what was going to happen. My dad was giving me a lot of shit because he paid a heavy tuition to send me there, and the money had been forfeited [laughs], and also because it looked like I wouldn’t do anything with my life. The months before I volunteered for the draft were some of the darkest. It was winter in New York and I had little light in my apartment. I was writing day and night, no social life, no sex–pure, pure mind mind mind. It was like a monastery experience for me.