Oliver Stone: Stoned Again
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. Recently, 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 second half appeared in the November 1997 issue.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: In part one of our interview, you talked about being deeply affected by writers like Conrad and Hemingway. What directors have influenced you?
OLIVER STONE: My influences were very collective. Hundreds of films affected me. I was influenced by The Robe as much as by Lawrence of Arabia; they were spectacles, concepts of life greater than 1950 New York City, America. Kubrick was really important. Then David Lean. On the Waterfront in black and white in ’54 affected me. I thought One-Eyed Jacks was terrific. Fellini knocked me out. So did the French New Wave–Breathless was the first one I saw, it just knocked the shit out of me. The concept of doing your own life story on film through symbols and metaphors was pretty wild to me–it was very direct as opposed to the impersonal American cinema.
Q: How important was Martin Scorsese as your teacher at NYU?
A: Oh, very, because he was one of the leading avatars of “buffdom.” Marty worshiped the director. He loved Hollywood filmmaking. He under stood style, color, camera. And he taught so brilliantly that you got inspired as a result. We would do these two-minute black-and-white pictures and he would critique them. It was hilarious–the degree of sarcasm, you had to be there. Everybody would get grilled. You put up your film and by the time it was over it was, ‘It stinks, it stinks!’
Q: How sensitive are you to criticism?
A: Less so over the years. At first, when I became nationally prominent in the mid-’80s and I wasn’t used to it, to be criticized was heavy. But then, my character was also being slandered beyond the films. I mean, my films were terrible, but my character was also defective. Which was very hard for me to accept. To be ridiculed. I hope it didn’t harden me, because that would be its purpose, to destroy your confidence and make you cynical. That’s the easy way to go. They say so many stupid things, I just have to detach myself. The portrayal of me as screaming and angry and all that bullshit–believe me, I would not have done 11 movies of this size in 10 years if I was making enemies of my colleagues and friends and actors. The director has to be the leader, the visionary. And so he has to see the problem of the ego, and we all have to get the ego together and put it in a place where we all serve the higher ideal of making the film. Jimmy Woods, who’s known me a long time–he worked with me on the first one and the last one, on Salvador and Nixon–said, and I’m paraphrasing him, “The thing with Oliver is that he doesn’t have an ego. That’s precisely what people miss; he wants to get the result and he’ll take it from anywhere he can.” But some critics have become so negative that they don’t realize how they destroy people. Kael started it, Sarris, Vincent Canby. They’re poisonous people.
Q: Even the early Kael?
A: Oh yeah. It was always about hatred, tearing down, destroying reputations, then building up a few darlings. Why should we believe Pauline Kael’s collective mythology of America? It’s bullshit. Let her go out and make Pauline Kael movies and make her dream, like I do. She never spoke for Americans. She was just an elitist bag lady. She was good with words, but so what? We need good critics who are generous of spirit and who have love in their hearts, who will take any movie and understand that the subject is not criticizable in itself, only the execution. That is the true, honest critic. Help the audience understand something in the work that even the artist doesn’t see.
Q: Are you saying if a critic doesn’t like something, he or she should pass on writing about it?
A: No. What I’m saying about critics can only hurt my reputation. I’m putting my balls in your hands. I’m not running away and giving you a bland interview, I’m not saying I love the critics. But I respect them if they’re good. A lot of the anti-Hollywood sentiment is so boring. The fact that [a movie is] made in Hollywood makes it evil–that mentality, that intellectual nihilism is everywhere. It’s insane. Any film made in a grocery store for twelve dollars is valid, whereas any film made for $25 million in Hollywood is a joke? Bullshit! Hollywood is the most democratic place I know on Earth. It’s given talented people opportunities to write and direct and produce; it’s the land of bullshit and dreams. It’s the most egalitarian society I know. And that’s why it’s so hated by elitists.
Q: Is it a directorial technique of yours that to get anger from an actor you may enrage him, to get tears you may belittle him?
A: That’s a method of directing. I don’t have conflicts with actors. I really don’t. Never did.
Q: Why, as has been reported, did a crew member on Seizure try to kill you?
A: Which one? [Laughs] The guy who almost killed me was a special effects man from New Jersey. He had a long pigtail and a machete. He was drunk and chased me–he wanted to kill me because he was fucking my lead actress, Martine Beswick, and he was jealous of me. She had eyes for me and I had eyes for her–and we ended up together after the film. He was out of his mind during the whole film–he was fucking the lead actress and started to believe that he was a star. [Laughs]
Q: I’ve read you had disagreements with Michael Douglas during Wall Street.
A: The whole film depended on credibility and I had some problems with what he was doing. We had a showdown after three or four days. I went to him and said I wasn’t convinced that he had gotten the character of Gordon Gekko. We worked it out. I think his ego might have been hurt by some of the things I said about his previous performance–I didn’t say this to him, but in my mind I was thinking that he was resorting to television things he did on The Streets of San Francisco. He got more intense and serious as a result of that. Whatever we did, he got the Oscar, right?
Q: What was it like being with Al Pacino when he was playing Tony Montana in Scarface?
A: Well, Al is a very interesting character. I was young working on Scarface, and he very much intimidated me.
Q: Did you know Scarface is Pacino’s favorite movie?
A: No, I didn’t. I knew it was good at the time. Talk about getting bad reviews–awful things were said about me, and I was just the writer. There were great lines in that movie and they were not all mine–I took from wherever I could, from Al, from [Scarface producer] Marty Bregman, [Scarface director] Brian De Palma.
Q: Did you have any sense that it would become a cult movie?
A: Yeah. I thought it was a terrific picture. It was highly original for its time. Still is. It was picked up on back then, on the streets of New York in ’83, ’84, you’d hear it–black kids were getting it, the future rap kids. [But] Scarface didn’t do me much good because it was perceived as very violent and brutal.
Q: Was this your personal farewell to cocaine?
A: I was doing cocaine during the research phase. I went cold turkey during the writing in Paris. That’s why I went to Paris. I couldn’t break the habit here–Florida, L.A. and New York were the three hot spots.
Q: Scarface‘s producer, Martin Bregman, once said he was your rabbi–were you that close?
A: Rabbi? That’s a good word. No, I think that Marty thought he was my rabbi. My break came a little bit from everywhere. My first break came off of Fernando Ghia and Robert Bolt in ’75. Bolt signed me to William Morris and taught me something about screenwriting. Shortly thereafter I wrote The Cover-Upfor Robert’s company and Fernando Ghia produced it. Then I wrote Platoon on my own as an original. Marty bought and shepherded that, but unfortunately he didn’t get it made. But Peter Guber loved the script and hired me to write this low-budget movie, Midnight Express, in England. The picture was a huge hit.
Q: When Midnight Express came out, the star, Brad Davis, looked like he was the next James Dean. What happened to him? Was it a lack of direction?
A: Lack of sophistication. I knew Brad. When the movie was being made he was a very sweet kid, very lucky, grateful. Next thing you know he was a big superstar and he couldn’t be approached at parties–he’d be in the corner with his entourage; doing his coke out in the limousine. Then years later, his agent brought him in for something, and he was a very bitter young man. I’ve seen so many actors repeat this–a little bout of success goes to their heads and they believe they’re immortal. The media promote these people like hotcakes, and they believe it. Next thing they know, they haven’t done anything significant, because they haven’t really been honest with themselves. Those who don’t seem to get aware die along the way pretty fast.
Q: Did you ever fear that could happen to you?
A: It could have.
Q: Many people consider Salvador your best film. Where do you place it?
A: That’s an elitist point of view–Salvador is the littlest seen of my films, and it’s the first. I’ve grown so much since then. I’m not the same filmmaker. If it happened to catch the zeitgeist of that moment, great, but that picture’s as flawed as any I’ve done.
Q: Do you think it wasn’t commercial because it lacked a big star?
A: Look, you had Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford in The Devil’s Own. That was as purely unsatisfying a movie as has come out, and it had the two biggest stars. Both with guns. It had all the ingredients.
Q: During the filming of Platoon in the Philippines, did your Filipino crew go on strike because you kicked the head crew person in the ass?
A: That’s exaggerated, but I booted him in the butt because I had gotten fed up with the numerous fire engine delays. We had huge special effects, and water towers and fire engines were required, and every time the water truck was late. I d had enough and booted him in the ass. Apparently he had a gun and was going to shoot me.
Q: Did the guy get to slap you in the face to save face?
A: Perhaps so. It was no big deal to me. I apologized to him.
Q: Didn’t Val Kilmer like to mess with your mind on The Doors?
A: We fought a few times. He did hurt me, but it wasn’t anything dramatic. They hurt me more in the press. I always thought I had a good relationship with Daryl Hannah and Meg Ryan, but I was surprised by what they said in the press. I really was hurt. It came out of the blue. The press looks for that, especially with me. How many people have said nice things about me that never get in the press? Anthony Hopkins said marvelous things about me as a director–but I never read one word about it. People are only looking for negative images of me.
Q: Norman Mailer didn’t care for The Doors, but wrote that Born on the Fourth of July came near to being a great movie, and he said of JFK, “The first thing to be said about it is that it is a great movie, and the next is that it is one of the worst great movies ever made.”
A: [Laughs] That’s very funny. What do you say? Mailer writes well, and it was kind of him to do that to help the movie because it was being attacked quite a bit.
Q: He said something else about you: “He is one of our few major directors, but he can also be characterized as a brute who rarely eschews the heavy stroke. All the same, he has the integrity of a brute, he forages where others will not go.”
A: [Laughs] Those are funny lines, I forgot that. What he’s saying is that with subject matter I’m very frontal, like an infantry soldier. I’m going after big game. It’s ridiculous for me to defend myself, but don’t you think van Gogh could get the same attack? In those days they probably were saying he was a brute. That intensity that van Gogh had–he was so lonely and isolated in a strange way. But when painting was flourishing and all painters were starting to be recognized, he was having to go through this horrible period of abnegation and denial and no money and no recognition. That must have been terrifying. And his madness, too–I can understand that.
Q: You hoped that JFK‘s mythology would replace the Warren Commission Report. Think you succeeded?
A: Unfortunately the Establishment media went after it big time. They saw the danger in it before I saw it. I thought they were overreacting–I hadn’t realized how deep a nerve this was. Who knew that it was that deep? I thought you had to be a moron to accept the Warren Commission. I still do. Look at the Zapruder film, which is the most beautiful film made. It should have gotten the Best Short at the Academy Awards for ’63.
Q: Six years after all the hoopla regarding JFK, do you think any minds have changed?
A: Oh sure, I opened some minds.
Q: On the issue of historical responsibility, you’ve pointed out that directors Bob Zemeckis in Forrest Gump and Ron Howard in Apollo 13 have not exactly met theirs. What disturbs you about those films?
A: I like Ron Howard and Bob Zemeckis, they’re really good guys. I don’t want to make any sub-headlines here. Gump was brilliantly done, but I do fault the historical message. It was an avoidance message. An avoidance of our past. It’s brilliantly conceived, but it bothers me, the moral essence of it. There was no responsibility for Vietnam, and, also, Vietnam was rendered in a very pictorial, romantic way, as a baptism by fire for poor Forrest. Apollo 13 was very well done, but again, at its essence it was a blind celebration of America. There was no critical standard applied to American consciousness. It works at the box office, but what are the moral consequences of that? These directors make a lot of money, but they are promoting, especially Apollo 13, a surefire brand of patriotism that I don’t think is correct. We have to move beyond that to a higher consciousness to save this planet.
Q: At the Academy Awards, gay protesters yelled “Shame, shame” at you because of how you portrayed gays in JFK. Do such protests annoy you?
A: They said the homosexuality was gratuitous, but it was not gratuitous. And I got the same thing again with Larry Flynt, from women against pornography. By now I would imagine that there are very few people left who can go see my movies. [Laughs] I need a new generation.
Q: Did you go after Marlon Brando to play the mysterious character Donald Sutherland ended up playing in JFK?
A: Yeah. He first called me because he liked Platoon. He wanted to meet me. I came to his house, but he wouldn’t talk there–he felt the government was picking up the airwaves. So I had to follow him in his car down into this canyon next to his house. He was bare-foot and he walked over to some bushes and he sat there, and I had to sit in the bushes with him. We started to talk and people would walk by in this park and they must have looked over at the two of us in the bushes and wondered, Who is this guy, is he crazy?