Oliver Stone Unturned: The Natural Born Killers Director on War, Art, and Religion

A famous man’s reputation is the ambassador that precedes him wherever he goes, and like every other budding director we know, Tom and I had heard that Oliver Stone’s ambassador needed to be recalled stateside.

We’d heard how intense he is, how despotic, how he likes to make you feel uncomfortable. When we waited for him to come down from his room in Seattle’s Four Seasons Hotel late last November, I was anxious to see if the ambassador really needed a pink slip or just a good PR campaign. Over the next two hours I could see where the reputation comes from. For starters, he’s tall, and he keeps himself in fighting form. And then it’s the face, the dark, ever brooding eyes, the serious mouth of a man with a lot on his mind. And as polite as he is, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a man accustomed to getting what he wants when he wants it. (I can’t help the ambassador out when it comes to wait staff relations).

But that, of course, is only half the story. It would be highly irregular for one to reach Oliver Stone’s station in life minus a charming side. Halfway through the interview he becomes the man who looks you in the eye and calls you by name; who seems genuinely concerned about your opinion of his new movie, who lets down his guard and speaks emotionally and off-the-cuff.

He on the set of Platoon (1986) becomes the man who graciously agreed to delay his homecoming after an exhausting trip to the Orient so that two journalists he’d never met, from a magazine he’d likely never heard of, could grill him for a couple of hours.

Oh, he’s intense, all right. He’s never not intense. But when he eases up, when he starts to trust you, when he laughs, it’s all the more rewarding. His laughter is sincere and infectious, and when warmed up he can go from philosophical reflection to goofy guffaw in a flash. He’s the kind of guy you’d have called first when it was time to chug a brew or chase a skirt on campus.

I believe in the power of excess. Because through excess I live a larger life. I inflate my life and by inflating it I live more of my life; therefore, I know more. I die a more experienced man. Oliver Stone has survived horror and bloodshed and the most gruesome forms of violence. He has survived domestic upheaval, character assassination and his share of personal crises. Through it all he has not only endured, he has thrived. He remains the Hollywood rebel, unfazed, unflinching, a stone unturned. He has his fame, his fortune, and his Oscars. Still, he wants more. Like his characters Gordon Gekko, Jim Morrison, Tony Montana and half a dozen others, Oliver Stone will never be satisfied. To him that would mean gathering moss. It would mean death. And remember, this man is a survivor.

Tom Allen, MovieMaker Magazine (TA): Let’s begin by exploring the essence of your art. Do you feel fortunate in retrospect to have been through a horrible and frightening war in terms of helping you formulate an artistic vision? Do you think your experience in Vietnam was necessary grist for the artistic mill?

Oliver Stone (OS): No. I think certainly the war played a part in shaping my character, but I thought I was aggressive before Vietnam. My life was very contradictory and torn and aggressive and violent before I left. Vietnam in a sense took me to the ultimate cauldron. It showed me violence at its worst. I saw much violence, and I returned from that shaken. And in some ways I’ll never be the same. But there were other wars being fought at home. I have an abhorrence to violence in my personal life, but I cannot deny that violence is everywhere in domestic life. In other words, I thought it would be over in Vietnam, but I came back—as I tried to show in Born on the Fourth of July and many other veterans came back to a second war at home that we didn’t know was here, which was also violent in the sense that we got slapped on the back of the head very suddenly, very hard, with the realization that the war was not over. A hundred thousand of those men have committed suicide. Many of them are homeless, many of them are unhappy, many are still wounded or paraplegic. This is a continuing war and it cannot be dismissed and forgotten.

TA: And yet you thrived. You succeeded beyond what I would expect was even your wildest expectation. It didn’t defeat you, it didn’t grind you down. It gave you material, it gave you motivation.

OS: Absolutely. But there were many other influences. The media loves to simplify it and pigeonhole people—you know, Stone can only do Vietnam, Stone is a ’60s person, and then it became Stone is a conspiracy freak, an exploitation person. I mean, you see a whole line of accusations that have not been true because continually I’ve moved on. I used Vietnam because it was part of the passion and the peril of our time, to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was a highly significant event in our American consciousness and it changed our country forever. I’m baffled by critics who say that Vietnam is something that should be forgotten. They sound like George Bush and Ronald Reagan. How can you forget something that has affected our lifetime going into the 21st century? I mean, the fact is, we should not forget. All those men died for nothing if we forget. Some people would say, well, you did the movie Platoon, now put that behind you and move on. Well, Heaven and Earth is just as crucial to understanding what happened over there. It wasn’t just an American ethnocentric experience. The Vietnamese perspective is equally significant because we did a lot of damage over there. Now Heaven and Earth, as you know, was kind of dismissed. A lot of people haven’t even bothered to see it. Hopefully one day that will change. It was as important to me. I might even make a fourth film about it because it is important. Not because I’m a ’60s person. I’ve made, what, Talk Radio, Salvador and Wall Street, which were all about the ’80s. The Doors is really also about the ’70s, as is Born on the Fourth of July. And the ’90s, Natural Born Killers. It’s part of a circle. The ’90s relate to the ’60s which relate the ’50s and the ’40s. So I mean, maybe I’m spending too much time, but I’m confounded by the appellation that I’m only interested in the ’60s because the reality is, it’s all flowing.

Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (TR): One quote attributed to you that I love is that “the secret to writing a screenplay is keeping your ass in the chair.” Has self discipline ever been a problem for you in your writing like it is for a lot of beginning writers, and if so, how did you overcome that?

OS: Well, I must say that having gone to boarding school at the Hill School for four years got me accustomed to discipline early on. It was a very rough school that assigned a lot of homework, and this helped me form good habits in the key years of my life. I don’t know that American high schools provide that amount of discipline. I mean, I think of the Hill School as more of a Japanese samurai training course. (Laughs) But when I started writing, which was in 1966 after I came back from Vietnam the first time, I did it in Mexico in a burst of desire and passion. It was like I had to get it out of me. I wasn’t forcing myself at all; it was total commitment. I remember writing some 300 pages in 10 days. It was that kind o£ a fire. After that I began the habit of doing it every day, which means basically setting out in your mind a certain time period in which you’re going to work, and working. It requires a discipline, you’re right. And it is difficult, because it’s tiring. Some professionals have it down to four or five hours a day. Others I know write eight hours a day. It’s difficult for me to do that kind of writing now with all the meetings and phone calls they hit me with, but I do feel that the most important thing for me is to maintain that discipline. And I don’t respect myself if I slip from it.

TA: Sam Shepard was quoted recently as saying that film cannot compete with theater on the language front, that film is necessary an anti-language medium. I’m assuming you disagree with that.

OS: Oh yeah. I don’t think theater is in the same league as film. I mean, I’ve seen some good theater, but all too infrequently. Most theater I see is dull and far too long. There’s just not enough competitiveness to it. You know, anything makes it to a Tony Award or whatever now. The occasional piece of theater you see that’s startling is few and far between. I think most of the wordsmiths are in movies, are writing original visions that they want to direct.

TR: We have a lot of aspiring directors reading the magazine. When you set out to make your first film, Seizure, were you as prepared as you wanted to be in a technical sense? Anti what do you recall taking away from that as a learning experience for your next project?

OS: Seizure was an interesting idea. I had a dream one night, a nightmare, and I actually wrote down the entire nightmare and it became a movie. That’s a very rare experience, to write down a dream like that and carry it through to completion as a film. I think my problems with Seizure were that my dream was far better than my execution of it. Some of the problem had to do with money. We had very limited funds—$150,000—and it was a very ambitious scope, you know, to bring the surreal into the real. Here I was thinking of Bunuel and Dali and trying to make these effects without really having the tools to make surrealism work. So I got stuck, as I did on my next film, The Hand, in that border area, that twilight area between trying to make a horror film that would fit the conventional mode of expectations of an audience, and at the same time trying to reach for the surreal inside the mind. And I never bridged that gap. Seizure was crudely done but it still has a fire and kind of a madness to it that I appreciate. What I learned in terms of financing and in terms of how to make a movie was that it was do-able, but that I had been too ambitious. I’d set my sights too high. And I wish, I guess, I had done something a little quieter, a little more personal, a little easier, more about just the world around me rather than going for Dali or Bunuel on my first shot.

TA: To wind us back to writing for a moment, when you write a script, do you begin with a character or a dramatic premise? Some writers construct their story using the three-act structure and plot points and then pour their characters into it. Others like Orson Welles spoke of starting with a character and that character’s dialogue and then discovering the story in that way, through spontaneous sketching. How have you done it, and how do you find you’re doing it currently?

OS: Well each one has been different. Sometimes the character leads the way, but more often than not it’s a character and a plot and a setting sort of coming together at the same time. Up to this point I’ve done so much, how do you say, realism. The Doors was already written in a sense, mentally; it was his life through his music. The music chronologically provided a structure and inspiration. With LeLy’s and Ron Kovic’s books, I responded to a character inside a situation, so I was an adaptor. Where I wrote originals, like Platoon, that came from my life experience. Salvador was an original but was based on Richard Boyle’s experience. Natural Born Killers was an original, but again it was written by somebody else before me. So I guess you could argue that except for Platoon, I’ve adapted most of them. Scarface was an original, but it was based on a Paul Muni film. So I would say that I’m not the Wellesian type in the sense that I haven’t done those kind of pure originals. Maybe that’s a failing. Maybe I should go back now and write originals. In fact I have been going back and editing and rewriting the first book I wrote.

TA: Your autobiography?

OS: Not quite—a fiction really, based on a life, but I’m trying to condense it now and get it out in some 300-page form.

TR: From 1,400.

TA: But I read that you destroyed that manuscript on the FDR Drive.

OS: Parts of it. Parts are missing, yes. But I still have others which I’m trying to put back together in my free time, which isn’t very often. I’m piecing together a sort of Babylonian tablet, a Rosetta Stone, an original story woven into the fabric of 1960s time. I’m trying to get to the essence of growing up into your adolescence and then your 20s. I guess you can say that my approach to writing is still evolving.

TR: You’ve worked with independent filmmakers as a producer on Zebrahead and South Central among others. What were your experiences in this role, and do you plan to continue helping out young filmmakers by producing films?

OS: It’s been tough. Those two projects were particularly harsh, because they were both good films that got some very rough going over. I can remember several reviewers actually accusing me of commercialism in making Zebrahead. (Laughs) I couldn’t believe it. In both instances I was trying to help young filmmakers realize their visions. They came to me and my partner, Janet Yang, and we felt they had integrity and something they really wanted to say. We liked the subject matter and were hoping for breakthrough low budget films. South Central, which was adapted from a black writer’s book, was directed by a white man and ignored by the press. I had many black people in prisons tell me that they loved that movie, but since it was directed by a white man, it was ignored, and there’s a double standard there because it’s a marvelous movie with a point. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a solid movie. And Zebrahead too is a very interesting character study. But those are very difficult kinds of movies to make. You can never get a distributor excited about them. You’re always basically dependent on film festivals and film critics, and of course they’re a quirky bunch. Would I make them again? No, probably not, if I could avoid it. It’s too much of a headache. I’ve produced eight movies, and it really hasn’t made any difference in my career aside from helping others, which is a personal feeling. But I’d like to have produced one that made a lot of money to help pay off some of the costs. To date, though, they’ve cost more than they’ve made by far. So I have not been a successful producer. Joy Luck Club has been the most successful, Reversal of Fortune the second most successful. But even those films had to struggle.

TA: I’d like to ask you a question about religion. Were you raised Catholic or Jewish or neither?

OS: Neither. I was raised Protestant. I went to Sunday school in New York and I was a Protestant, so called, although I don’t think I was really very religious.

TA: You conclude Heaven and Earth with a V.O. narration saying: “If the monks were right and nothing happens without cause, then the gift of suffering is to bring us closer to God, to teach us to be strong when we are weak, to be brave when we are afraid, to be wise in the midst of confusion, and to let go of that which we can no longer hold….” As well as being a central tenet of Buddhism, this is also a Catholic, Christian belief. So I’m wondering why in the film you come across as being hostile to Catholicism.

OS: Hostile is not the right word. Any Buddhist would tell you that any spiritual life that works for you is good, be it Muslim, Hindu, Catholic or any other. Whatever brings you closer to an awareness of your intrinsic nature is good. And they’ve been highly tolerant of other faiths. I think the point I was trying to make was that LeLy was puzzled and I am puzzled by the Christian insistence on original sin and insistence on suffering. If you notice, all the imagery or most of the imagery in the Catholic icons is people who have been martyred, people with nails through their bodies. The Christ figure himself as I showed in the movie briefly is a figure of suffering. And it reflects Tommy Lee Jones’ response to life, whereas in contrast, LeLy’s response to suffering is not to martyr herself but to change. I think Buddhism offers a certain flexibility, an ability to change that Tommy Lee does not have in the movie. He goes from being a hero in Vietnam to returning to America and feeling the pressures of American society and capitalism, the need to make money, and he puts enormous pressure on himself and becomes rigid, goes rigid. He judges himself very harshly and I think that comes from a Christian upbringing. Whereas she is able as an immigrant to come from being a victim in Vietnam to being a capitalist here, and she succeeds whereas he fails.

TR: What attracted you to Buddhism in the first place?

OS: LeLy’s book. It was very well written. I’m a student [of Buddhism], but don’t consider me a good one necessarily. (Laughs)

TR: You do seem attracted to excess in your films and some people say in the way you live your life. Does Buddhism bring a balance into your life?

OS: Sure. Yeah, it’s a very balanced, satisfactory response. A billion people practice it, I would estimate. It’s not like it’s a minor eccentricity in the history of the world. It isn’t. It’s older than Christ. I saw it in Vietnam when I was a young man too. We went through many temples, but we really didn’t understand what was going on over there. Certainly when I came back to the (Greenwich) Village there was a lot of Buddhism going on, a lot of Hinduism. It was very hip in the ’60s. And then LeLy’s book, exposure to that, and then going to India a couple of times and then Tibet with Rutowski (one of my associates, Richard Rutowski). Trying to deepen my awareness of Eastern things has helped me, absolutely. It’s made me more aware of the culture of aggression we have here, the media, the culture of the news, the culture of money-making, the football, the boxing, the behavior between ourselves as people, the competitiveness, the Darwinism which exists everywhere in the world but which seems more vivid here.

TA:You’ve said you’re a believer in democracy, that people know best and are able to understand. Your “Mr. X” character in JFK said: “Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth. ” You also likened CBS and NBC to Pravda and Izvestia in their refusal to come across with the truth. Why do you think it is that Dan Rather, Brokaw and the other media stars are not giving us the truth? Is there something diabolical going on in our news organizations?

OS: No, no. I think you misunderstood the comment. I think that I was trying to say, in keeping with something I.F. Stone said in the 1950s—he was an investigative journalist—he said “the press is like a bunch of blackbirds on a phone line. One of them flies in, the rest fly in. One of them flies away, the others fly away.” There’s a consensus that occurs, and it’s sort of like media tends to be a first look, a first take, a superficial reaction to events, phenomena, samsara. It’s sometimes the most sensational one because subconsciously it’s motivated by the desire to make money. Each channel has to compete against the other. There’s no time to look too deep, there’s no time to penetrate, so there’s sensationalism. You go to these foreign countries, you see the press pool, and generally they’re all hanging out together and they’re all getting the same spin on the event. And it’s a question of- You know, there is truth in what they say. There are facts that occur, people get killed here, etc. But the interpretation, the underlying meaning is often missed.

TA: Or taken out of context.

OS: It tends to be a fast-moving, high-powered media culture that needs to refract issues right away, and as such it becomes consensus journalism. First take on the Kennedy killing, go with the story. You know, don’t buck the system, don’t look for somebody other than Oswald. In Vietnam the same thing happened, except for a few journalists who started to dig a little deeper. I’m sure you’ve been around news events and then read about them and they had nothing really to do with what you witnessed. That’s what I’m saying. It’s not deliberate. They’re trying in their own way, they’re working hard. The media tend to be first look. Films and books. tend to be interpretive. They go deeper and penetrate into a second, third, fourth look. So no, there’s no conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy of money, yes, in the sense that you destroy to make money as fast as possible. But it’s a self-serving conspiracy.

TR: Quentin Tarantino was highly critical of Natural Born Killers when it was released. From your perspective, considering your company purchased his script, was he really upset about the changes you made, or was it just part of a strategy to help him market his film, Pulp Fiction?

OS: I can’t believe the things he said about our film. All over the world—everywhere we went—we were hurt by the critics with him saying we had rewritten the script. He hadn’t even seen the movie, but he was commenting on me, saying stuff about my films. It was just outrageous. First of all, he sold us the first draft about three years ago, we did not “steal it.” There was a chain of evidence, contracts and everything, and a lot of money was paid by us to them. His script had the Wayne Gayle (Robert Downey Jr.) character as the main character, and Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) as supporting characters. I was more interested in developing Mickey and Mallory as the lead characters. We (Richard Rutowski, Vilas and myself) added another level of sociopolitical commentary which positioned the movie inside the 1990s, which was my personal style and the way I wanted to do it. I wanted to do a gangster movie. Basically, you know, I wrote Scarface and Year of the Dragon. I’ve always been interested in the genre. And I came back to it in the 1990s. I thought that Quentin’s first draft was the perfect instrument because it took a look at the criminal subclass and the road movie concept, but through the mirror of media. So I thought that was a wonderful twist. In Scarface we didn’t have such a twist; it was the rise and fall of an immigrant. Here was a chance for us to do a classic gangster film but with a new filter, and that’s what we did. We tried to refract the movie through television imagery and schizophrenia, and so were all over the place stylistically on purpose. It’s a very unconventional gangster film, but I think it makes a statement about the ’90s. It’s a mirror to a society, a culture, that’s going to hell. Exaggerated yes, that’s why I called it a satire, because it’s exaggerated, like a fun-house mirror. But it makes you think about your relationship to violence and your relationship to television. Quentin objected to that without seeing the movie only because we had rewritten scenes. All I can say is I understand his objection from a screenwriter’s point of view, but going all over the world and trashing the picture in newspapers and magazines was very unprofessional, and appalling in the sense that he had not seen the movie. I don’t think it’s right in our filmmaking culture for filmmakers to trash other filmmakers. I think it’s wrong. We take so much shit from press, so much, especially if you’re established, that it’s, it’s mean-spirited. I wrote five screenplays for other directors which were produced. There were many changes made in those movies that I didn’t approve of, but I never went public with it. I never went out with a hatchet for the director, because I understand the nature of the medium, which is that it is the director’s call. So, you know, these things come full circle.

TR: Did you see Pulp Fiction?

OS: Yes.

TR: What’d you think of it?

OS: I think he has a lot of talent. I think he’s a very talented filmmaker; a great combination of humor and violence. But just finishing that last question, I think Natural Born Killers, because it is a harsh reflection of the age, may be more difficult to digest now than in the future. I think that like all good time-capsule films, it might be viewed in 2020 in another light, or even 2010, after we’ve moved on-viewed as a reflection of the decade. But it can be so hard when you’re in the middle of it, you know? I remember when Wall Street came out, the reviews were very bad for the most part, but so many people through the 1990s have come back and said that it held out, it captured the 80s. My point is that when you’re a messenger inside something, it’s not easy to survive it.

TR: You talk about yourself as a messenger, and clearly your films have messages. Do you think films are really relevant as far as changing the collective consciousness about issues, or do you think they’re forgotten but stick in our subconscious?

OS: I think both. I think that they’re forgotten and remembered. It’s a flow, an unconscious flow. Many films are forgotten and deserve to be, but others gloom onto the DNA or the consciousness in some way and they remain and they help shape the collective conscience. It’s a very profound question. What are we here for? What is the purpose, the sum effect of our work? That’s not to say films shouldn’t be fun and entertaining and filled with all kinds of riddles and codes either. A message is not necessarily delivered Western Union-style. A message is inherent in the canvas that you paint. I believe the foreground and the protagonist’s story is the most important. The tension that exists in the plot is what carries you. But then hopefully it telescopes out into a wider canvas where you have a foreground that takes you into a background. When both are working in a film, that’s the ideal, because then you have an age, then you’ve caught an age, by pushing the medium to its limits. MM

Top image from Platoon courtesy of Orion Pictures.

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