Friday, November 5, 2010
FRANK CAPRA - IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE
by Mike Thomas
When Francesco Capra was born to a peasant family one hundred years ago in the small Sicilian village of Bisaquino, Sicily, he could hardly have imagined that one day he would so profoundly impact the course of American filmmaking that he would virtually become his own genre. For one thing, the movies themselves had just come into being, and as we celebrate the first hundred hundred years of motion pictures, it is appropriate that we also celebrate the centennial of the birth of that most American of directors - Frank Capra.
Capra wanted to become an engineer but stumbled into filmmaking when he couldn’t find a job in his chosen field. Bluffing his way into directing his first film, “Fultah Fisha’s Boarding House” in 1922 he soon hit his stride as a director of silent comedies with Harry Langdon. Capra molded Langdon’s character on the idea of the holy fool, a character who instigates nothing but merely passes through incredible situations oblivious and unscathed - the original Forrest Gump. Hailed by the press and public as a rival to Chaplin, Langdon dismissed Capra and tried to direct himself, only to see his career crash and burn.
Capra then landed at a Gower Gulch “Poverty Row” studio that was derisively referred to as Columbia - “The Germ of the Ocean”. The studio head was a gruff, belligerent S.O.B. named Harry Cohn who had a gambler’s instinct and placed his bets on Capra. Together they made Hollywood history. Capra quickly proved himself the master of every genre he tackled, whether it be adventure (“Dirigible”, “Submarine”), melodrama (“Bitter Tea of General Yen”), political satire (“American Madness”) and screwball comedy (“Platinum Blonde”). It was in that field that he scored the Hollywood equivalent of the Triple Crown when his picture, “It Happened One Night” became the first film in history to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress, a feat unequaled for forty years. It put Columbia Studios in the big leagues, established Clark Gable as the “King of Hollywood”and vaulted Capra into the forefront of American filmmakers. Capra’s films came to define that era to such an extent that John Cassavetes once remarked, “Maybe there were no 1930s, maybe there were just Frank Capra films”.
Capra’s gift for pacing and the vitality in his films is still a wonder to behold. But his greatest gift was with his actors, he discovered Barbara Stanwyck, helped launch the already successful careers of Gary Cooper and Clark Gable into even greater heights, and essentially created the screen persona of Jimmy Stewart. In the Thirties Capra’s touch was golden, from his first big hit, “Lady for a Day” he had a string of 11 box office hits in a row, and began a string of six Best Picture nominations (winning twice) and and seven Best Directors nominations for which Capra received the Oscar three times. He was president of the Motion Picture Academy for four years, during a period it was almost torn apart by labor struggles between the studios and the film industry artists. Because of his clout as Academy President, he was also, more than any other director, responsible for getting the studios to recognize the fledgling Screen Directors Guild, now the Directors Guild of America. After years of refusal by the studios to recognize or even meet with the Directors’ Guild, Capra threatened to resign from the Academy and shut down the Oscars for that year if the studios didn’t meet with the directors. Terrified of losing the Academy Awards, the producers agreed to recognize the Guild, and in a touch right out of one of his films, a week later Capra won Best Picture and Director Oscars for “You Can’t Take it With You”. If any man can claim to have established the director’s right to have his name above the title of a Hollywood studio film, it was Frank Capra.
It now seems clear that Capra was an American Aesop, spinning his fables for a still young republic, wish fulfillments for the national psyche battered by the Depression. “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Meet John Doe” paint an incredible portrait of an America up for grabs. His 1949 “State of the Union” with its themes of media manipulation, philandering politicians and character assassination only grows more timely and visionary. Capra’s protagonists are the idealized American Everyman, the common man caught up in the forces of corruption, be they fat cat press lords, scheming politicos bankers without humanity or home grown Fascists. Capra knew that a democratic republic was constantly being tested and his films echo Benjamin Franklin’s words to a lady who asked him what kind of a government would we have. “A republic, madame, “Franklin replied, “If you can keep it”. Capra may have been an optimist but he was no Pollyanna. Suicide, despair, betrayal, economic, moral and political bankruptcy are all recurrent themes in his work. He may offer happy endings but he earned that right because, like no director before him, in films Frank Capra showed the dark night of the American soul.
To dismiss Capra as sentimental old optimist is to not only profoundly misjudge his work but is to miss his great achievements as a craftsman. His films are models of economy and speed, the actors beautifully cast from the leading characters down to the bit players, his editing skills and story lines are consistently engaging, and if the world is no longer as comfortable with happy endings as it was in his time, well, that’s to our misfortune, not his. Like Walt Whitman he was large, he contained multitudes. When I met him he was in his Eighties, yet he head the vitality and sharpness of a twenty year old. Hardly sentimental, he was feisty and swore like a sailor, yet he could coolly analyze his and other directors’ films with a rational precision of the engineer he once was.
It is of course, for “It’s a Wonderful Life” that Capra is now best remembered. The repeated Christmas airings have so inundated it upon the national consciousness that an objective view of it nearly impossible, in fact, it seems unfathomable to imagine Christmas without it or to even imagine a time when it did not exist. Our overfamiliarity with the seemingly ludicrous story of an incompetent angel trying to earn his wings by preventing a suicide (when Capra tried to explain it to Jimmy Stewart, he gave up in frustration and said the hell with it) should not blind us to measure of Capra’s achievement. The fact that he could take this seemingly absurd premise and turn into work so powerful that it has saved lives of people not even born when it was made is testament to its enduring impact. And Stewart’s performance of a man driven to despair and the brink of self-extinction, is a landmark in the annals of screen acting. Although he was later rightly praised for his work in the dark films of Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock, it was Frank Capra, who not only gave Stewart his screen identity but then forever smashed it in when George Bailey reaches the end of his rope. It is a straight line from the suicidal despair of George Bailey to the love-starved madness of Scotty Ferguson in “Vertigo”.
After memorably serving in the Armed Services during World War II and creating documentaries that remain classic pieces of patriotic propaganda. Capra retuned to form with “It’s a Wonderful Life”, earning him his final Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and the deft political satire of “State of the Union”. But when he signed with Paramount his judgment faltered. Projects he developed like “Roman Holiday” and “Friendly Persuasion” went to other directors and he turned out a couple of films with Bing Crosby that, though mildly enjoyable, were not Capra films. He had sold out his vision and he knew it.
In the early Fifties Capra retired to his ranch in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, and grew avocados. He made some fondly remembered science documentaries for television and then in 1959 made a triumphant return to the screen with “A Hole in the Head” featuring Frank Sinatra. Two years later filmed “A Pocketful of Miracles”, a remake of his first big hit,“Lady for a Day”, but the studio refused his first choice for the lead, an intense young actor named Steve McQueen, and forced the genial blandness of Glenn Ford upon him. The picture, though competent, lacked the spark of his finest work, and though he attempted other projects, it was to be his final film. After one project (“Marooned”) was taken away from him by Columbia, the studio he put on the map, rumors circulated Capra became so despondent he attempted suicide.
Capra lived nearly thirty more years. Until a series of strokes in the late 80s felled him, he remained as sharp and energetic as he had been in his prime, always eager to discuss his life long love of films. In 1983, I was running the San Diego Film Society and invited him, along with his long-time cameraman, (and inventor of the zoom lens) Joseph Walker, to San Diego for a lecture and a screening of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. The city where he had met his wife Lucille while shooting a picture fifty years earlier held happy memories for the still vital 86 year old and during the limousine ride through the winding mountains from his La Quinta residence he reflected on his remarkable life in this never before published interview.
What did you think of the auteur theory?
I thought it was fine when I developed it, you know. A pretty good idea - “One man, one film”. D.W. Griffith had done allright with that idea. And I was the first one in the studio system to apply that to my films. Just like one man paints a painting or writes a book. It’s to Harry Cohn’s credit that he gave me the freedom to do it that way, just as long as I kept making hits. You know those guys over at MGM made $10,000 a week and I never made $10,000 a month but I had one thing they never had under Thalberg or Mayer - freedom!
Why didn’t you become an engineer after going to Caltech? How did you become a director?
I couldn’t get a job. It was right after WWI and everything was closing down. I never saw a movie until I made one. (“Fultah Fisha’s Boarding House” - 1922) After that, I got a job for two years in a lab putting home movies together, editing them, for room and board. That was a great learning experience.
You got your big break directing Harry Langdon.
He was the sorriest case I ever met in show business. When his pictures became big and the critics began comparing him to Chaplin it went to his head. His problem was that he thought he had created his own character but since he hadn’t, he didn’t understand the concept at all. I had been reading the book, “The Good Soldier Schweik”, and I thought that kind of character, the passive man-child who loves everybody would fit Harry perfectly. With that moon face of his, he could wander through all these situations, but it was important that he not instigate any of them. He was just God’s own holy fool, protected by his own innocence. Well, when he got big, he thought he could do the thing all by himself, just like Chaplin - write, direct - but as I say, he really didn’t understand his character and it was a disaster for him. Years later, when he was down on his luck I saw him being directed by somebody who kept yelling at him, “Faster, Harry, faster!” Well, the one thing you did not say to Harry Langdon was “faster”.
Speaking of Chaplin, was he an influence on your work?
Chaplin? (Snorts) He was a bastard.
I mean, he was a great filmmaker and all, but the way he treated people...I’ll never forget when Doug Fairbanks, Sr. died, the Academy wanted to award him a special posthumous Oscar, because he had been the first president of the Academy. Well, he and Chaplin had been best of friends, so Mary Pickford and Doug, Jr. had wanted Chaplin to present the special award. Since I was president of the Academy at the time, they wanted me to go over to Catalina and ask him to present the memorial Oscar. So I go down to Long Beach and get in a boat and sail over to Catalina where Chaplin had his yacht moored. Well, we pulled up to Chaplin’s yacht and I met this big goon of his and I said, “I’m here to see Mr. Chaplin.’ The lug disappears and then after awhile returns and says, “Mr. Chaplin is not to be disturbed’. Well, I blew up. ‘’You go and tell Mr. Chaplin that Mr. Frank Capra, the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has just traveled for three hours to come to see him!’’ The guy disappears again and then returned, saying, “Mr. Chaplin is not to be disturbed.’’ So I go back to Long Beach, furious. He probably was too busy with some teenage girl. Anyway, I’m sailing back, thinking, what am I going to tell Doug, Jr. and Mary? Well, I went to see them and told them the story and how bad I felt about it and Mary said, ‘‘Don’t worry about it, Frank. We always knew Charlie was a little prick.’’ We got Doug, Jr. to present the award.
You were very involved with the Academy during some critical times.
It was being used by the studio heads to try and destroy the guilds. And they were going to destroy the Academy to do it. Well, I didn’t want to see that happen, I knew the Academy Awards are the best advertising in the world for the film industry. So we decided to try and unite the industry by honoring the man who started it all - D.W. Griffith. Except nobody knew where he was. Finally, I found him in a bar in Kentucky, dead drunk. Well, we got him sobered up and brought him back to Hollywood and presented him with a special Oscar and it worked, it helped to re-unite the industry and save the Academy.
What does it take to be a director?
The ability to make quick decisions. Everybody’s asking you questions, “Where do I put this?, “How do I play this scene?” Problems have to be solved and you have to be able to solve them immediately. If I take a penny and toss it, I’ll be right in predicting it 50% of the time. In show business, if you’re right 50% of the time, you’re ahead of the game. It doesn’t matter if you’re not right all the time but you’ve got to make those snap decisions, fast! It’s got to be intuitive.
I understand that you concerned yourself primarily with the actors and left Joe Walker to work with the crew.
Well, that’s what they’re there for, to help the cameramen get the picture. It’s the director’s job to get the best out of the actors. But I knew every lens Joe was using on every camera, I knew sound because of my engineering, I knew about everything that was going on. You’ve got to be able to inspire your crew. Everyone’s concerned with their own thing - the actors with the scene, the cameraman with the lighting, the soundman with the sound - and you’re the only one who knows where it’s all going because it’s shot out of sequence and you have to remember where it’ll all fit. In your mind you have to be able to picture the whole.
I hear it was always a happy crew.
You’ve got to treat your crews with respect. You’re not God. They’re human beings and artists and if they think you know what you’re doing they’ll follow you anywhere. I never bawled out anyone on the set. Except once, on this picture, (“Mr. Smith”) there was this English actor (Claude Rains) who I knew would be perfect for the part. I met him and he said to me, ‘‘I hear you like to improvise, I’ll have none of that. I must have all my lines 10 days in advance.’’ I really wanted him so I said sure thing and he took the part. Now, one day we’re shooting this scene with Rains and Jimmy Stewart in a train, it’s going OK but it needs to be drawn out a little, it’s going too fast. So I sat down and typed out some dialogue for them. When I handed the pages to Rains he looks at it and says, “What’s this? It’s in my contract that I be given 10 days to learn my lines”.
Well, I exploded, “What the fuck are you, an actor or an accountant? If you’re going to be counting the minutes on this picture I want you off my set.” Now, we weren’t too far along in the shooting but I didn’t think he’d leave, I hoped not because I really wanted him. Well, he took the dialogue and learned it and the scene went fine. Anyway, we go through the picture and he was fine until the last day of shooting when he came up and put his arm around me. “I want to thank you,” he said. “For years I’ve had a mental block about having to learn my lines in advance because I was afraid I couldn’t learn them fast enough and you broke me of that.” That was the only time I ever had any trouble on one of my sets.
You co-wrote most of your scripts why didn’t you sign them?
Why? I already had the name above the title. Besides, what’s a script? Words on paper. People don’t go to a movie to see words on paper. They go to see people up there on the screen. How you turn those words into life - that’s a director’s job.
Which director’s work did you like?
There were a lot of directors whose work I liked - John Ford, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Hitchcock - now, there was a fellow who liked to eat. He would drive for miles if he’d heard that some place was good. It showed. He sure knew how to make movies, though. I know a lot of people think that “Citizen Kane” is the greatest thing since the Second Coming, but nobody asked me about it.
The father of us all was D.W. Griffith. In his films you can see something you can’t see anywhere else - the birth of an art form. Everybody learned from him, and what happened to him, to be forgotten by the industry he created was a real black mark on Hollywood. Another director I liked was Eisenstein. I became friends with him when he came over to Hollywood and I saw him in Russia when I was visiting over there. He was a broken man because he had displeased Stalin. “Fronk”, he would say in that accent of his, “I am in zee doghouse.” He made some powerful films but I always thought they could have been better if, instead of the grand sweep of historical events, he could have concentrated on people. Individuals instead of the masses. People talk to me about my political films and I stop them. I never made political films. I made films about people. That’s what people go to the movies to see, movies about people.
You got some great performances from your actors. Was there a special method you had?
There was no one way in getting a good performance. Some, like Sinatra or Stanwyck, you couldn’t rehearse because they would leave their best work in rehearsals. With others you had to act as a morale booster. Jean Arthur used to burst into tears because she thought she was terrible. Gary Cooper was always insecure about his acting, so you had to give him confidence in himself, because he was a better actor than he realized. Then you get someone like Jimmy Stewart, who’s a director’s dream. You don’t really direct an actor like Jimmy Stewart, you just stand back and watch him do his thing. Generally speaking though, women make the best actors, and Stanwyck was the best I ever worked with.
What about Gable? He won his only Oscar with you.
That’s a funny story, because he didn’t want to do the picture. (“It Happened One Night”) Louis B. Mayer wanted to punish him for asking for a raise by sending him over to little old Columbia Studios on Poverty Row. So, he shows up drunk one afternoon and comes into my office and says, “So this is what Siberia looks like.” I asked him, “Mr. Gable, would you like to take a look at the script?” And he said, “Buddy, I don’t give a fuck what you want to do with it” and then left. And that was my first meeting with Clark Gable. But he was good in the picture.
Is there such a thing as a grammar of film?
Where’d you hear such a thing? You just say what you want to say and find the best of way of saying it.
You’ve met some of the most important people of the 20th Century - Roosevelt, Churchill, - it must have been something for a kid from East L.A.
Oh, yeah. Churchill was the greatest man of the century, no doubt about it, he saved Western Civilization. Roosevelt was a real charmer, he’d focus in on you like you were the most important person in the world and say something like, “Oh, yes, I know just what you mean, the same thing’s happened to me a million times!” That’s probably why he kept getting elected. But Gen. Marshall was someone I admired enormously. He was the finest man I ever knew.
He got you involved with the “Why We Fight” series.
Well, I was a stranger to documentaries, but I did know drama, I knew what worked dramatically. So, I approached it the way I would a film. But it was Gen. Marshall’s idea. We were taking these young kids off the streets, off the farms, and they didn’t know why in the world they were going to war. He knew most of those boys were going to die and felt they had a right to know why. I wanted to let the audience know what we were up against. We got some of the German propaganda films made by that gal Refinstahl and used it against them. We took those shots of the mass rallies and goosesteppers and changed the music on the soundtrack. Where they had ethereal, Wagnerian symphonic backing, we would dub in militaristic marching music that gave it just what we wanted - a terrifying feeling that these people wanted to enslave the world.
Did you ever go back to Sicily?
Uh huh. I went back a few years ago and felt nothing. Nooooothing! That guy Haley goes back to Africa and discovers he has black roots. I go back to the place I was born and didn’t feel a damn thing. East L.A. is my roots.
I’ve always been surprised at the “Capracorn” charge leveled at your films. They’re actually quite dark.
They are dark! This film we’re showing, “Mr. Smith”, deals with corruption and betrayal, he’s ready to say ‘the hell with America’, and throw it all away; “Meet John Doe” is about fascist manipulation of the common man, “It’s a Wonderful Life” deals with suicide. But you’ve got to offer the audience some hope. We originally had “Meet John Doe” end with his jump off the bell tower on Christmas Eve, but the preview audiences just wouldn’t accept it.
The continued appeal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” must be very gratifying.
Everything I had to say - that no man was born to be a failure - was in that picture. It’s amazing how often I still get letters from people, thanking me for that movie and how it literally saved their life. I tell you, there’s something in it that I didn’t put there. It has a life of its own.
You earned your wings with that one.
(Chuckles) That’s right! I earned my wings.
Saturday, September 4, 2010
photo by Meg Thayer
By Mike Thomas
Oliver Stone is tired.
“These attacks on me, they’ve aged me, they’ve taken away my confidence, and drained my energy,” he says wearily. “Sometimes I feel like just giving up and walking away from it all.”
William Oliver Stone sits in a hallway of Todd A-O sound studios in Santa Monica, overseeing the sound mix of his newest film, “U-Turn”, a wildly funny, typically intense, deconstruction of film noir. It is hard to reconcile the numerous stories of the drug-crazed, conspiracy-obsessed Mephistopheles that is part of his reputation, with the soft-spoken, well-mannered, extremely sensitive gentleman who has been sitting across from me in the hall. He smiles that famous gap-toothed smile when he describes “U-Turn”, “It’s a film soleil, a spaghetti noir.” Pleased with his mixed metaphors he relaxes a bit before returning to his main theme - the world does not seem to appreciate him and what he has to offer. Imagine, Oliver Stone, whose films have earned 28 Academy Award nominations, won him three Oscars, earned hundreds of millions of dollars, and made him one of the two or three most famous contemporary film directors in the world, sees himself as Rodney Dangerfield. He looks at me with heavy, sorrowful eyes and says, “I need a champion.”
He seems to have found one in the brilliant historian and cultural essayist, Garry Wills, writing in a recent issue of “The Atlantic Monthly”, compared Stone to Dostoyevsky. Great novels are now being written with the camera - at least when Stone is behind the camera...Stone is writing the Great American Novel every time he picks up a movie camera.”
In his films there is a reckless, go-for-broke, exhilaration that is a wonder to behold. And the best Stone films - “Salvador, “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” are brilliant, powerful works that explode with energy and passion. But his true artistic breakthrough was the film he thought might end his career - “JFK.”
It is a thrilling thing to watch an artist find his voice and in “JFK” Oliver Stone found a way of dealing with the plastic elements of film editing that has altered his approach to filmmaking ever since. With the jumbled jump cuts and mixing of film stocks, this fragmentation of narrative was an almost Cubist-like approach to reality; viewing its subjects and narrative from several alternate perspectives at once. His achievement in that film was comparable to cinematic advancements made by such giants as Eisenstein and Resnais and Godard in his explorations of time and memory and the subjective filter of reality, through the editing process. “JFK” not only cemented his reputation as one of the most daring, outrageous and controversial artists working within the mainstream Hollywood system but it made clear that Oliver Stone is one of the few artists working in cinema today that matters. In other words, he is more than Stanley Kramer on acid.
Yet his batting record has been shaky of late; “Nixon” was a misguided attempt at compassion for an opportunist who never felt pity for anyone but himself, and this time Stone’s psychedelic editing style didn’t mesh with the terminal squareness of Nixon himself. “The Doors” was a rather conventional show biz bio-pic goosed up with Dionysian pretensions, and “Natural Born Killers” was an uneasy grafting of Stone’s passionate energy onto Quentin Tarantino’s cool, hipster satire about violence and the media, resulting in an unholy mish-mash that reminded one of the old James Agee line about coming out of a movie theatre and wanting to ring a bell and shout, “unclean, unclean!”
Yet there is always something admirable about the audacity of Stone’s efforts, win or lose. There is no one in working in Hollywood today who consistently takes the chances he has or risked more than he. He works at a furious pace and walks the highest tightropes without a net; he is not afraid to put himself in the line of fire. He has created a new form of film grammar and he is one of the few in Hollywood of whom it can be said, here is someone whose films aspire to Art.
With his Steve Cochran tough good looks, thinning jet black hair, busy eyebrows atop eyes that retain a pained innocence and that big, Alfred E. Neuman grin, Stone would seem younger than his years but for a world-weariness that accompanies him like so much psychic baggage. He is tired, as if all the acclaim and attention cannot assuage the pain of becoming Oliver Stone, the media’s favorite Vietnam Vet space case and conspiracy crackpot. His voice is soft and gentle and, unlike his films, he makes you lean forward to hear what he has to say.
But today, his attention is focused on his new movie, “U-Turn”. At a press screening, Stone is pacing back and forth, as anxious as any expectant father awaiting delivery. Here come the credits....An Oliver Stone Movie....Hmmm, that’s a good sign, nothing too pretentious gonna go on here....and then the fun begins. Suffice it to say, that “U-Turn” is Mr. Stone’s Wild Ride, a wickedly funny, yet typically intense, deconstruction of film noir. With a plot that invokes everything from “Detour” to “Red Rock West,” with pit stops at “Bad Day at Black Rock” and even a tip of the hat to “Duel in the Sun,” “U-Turn” tells the familiar story of a stranger in town, who, due to a disastrous series events, of one damn thing after another, a season in hell in the course of a day in Superior, Arizona, can’t get the hell out of town no matter how hard he tries.
Sean Penn gives a smoky, shell-shocked performance as the unfortunate pilgrim but the film’s true delights are to be found in its Heironymus Bosch rogue’s gallery of supporting players - Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, Billy Bob Thornton, Julie Hagerty, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Daines and Laurie Metcalf. Each player gets a turn to strut and shine and they all do so with undisguised glee and it is one of the best pieces of ensemble acting to be found in recent movie memory.
If a funny film noir seems like a contradiction in terms, what about a funny film noir directed by Oliver Stone that’s laced with irony? Is this one of the seven signs the end is near or is it simply another artistic step forward in one of the most audacious careers in American film history?
As the sun drops behind the mountains that touch the beaches of Malibu I sit across from Oliver Stone in his office in Santa Monica. He calls for an assistant to bring some wine and lower the shades. He asks if the publication I’m going to submit the article to is keen on his work. “Do they like me? What’s their take on me? What would they say if I gave it all up?” These are recurring questions, and one would think, questions that a man of his achievement would have long ago stopped caring about. But he is intensely interested in what people think about him; it is obvious that he has read every review and has retained every slight. He gestures at the tape recorder and asks if I need a back up? “I have a pretty good memory,” I offer. “I don’t,” he says. I reply, “Well, that’s because you’ve taken a lot more acid than I have,” and he laughs and we’re off and running.
MT You’ve managed to create an astonishing body of work in 20 years. What is it that drives you?
OS A need for approval. I want to be loved, to be accepted. I was from a broken home. When my parents divorced my world fell apart. I went to military school. I rejected my upbringing and I went to Asia where I was welcomed and given acceptance. I discovered sex and tasted its sweet delights. I joined the Merchant Marine, came back, dropped out of Yale, wrote a book, threw it away, went to war, returned to America, got thrown in jail, went to film school where Marty (Scorsese) was a great inspiration - his energy. But I didn’t really feel connected to my generation in school because they hadn’t been in combat. Made my first feature, went to Hollywood to write scripts, became a director. I’m just wandering in the desert of my life, trying to figure out where to go next. It’s confusing. You can never see the direction to your life. Hindsight gives you a sense there are patterns in the past but I don’t believe that we ever really know.
MT But you haven’t been co-opted by the trappings of success, you’ve been very prolific.
OS It’s always been about the work. Not about material things. I just sold my house in Colorado today, the money exchanged hands. I’m divesting myself of these possessions. I would like to be an optimist and believe in the best. I would like to believe that the glass is half full, I would like to believe that the best films I can make are to come. These are exciting times we live in. When I’m not making a film, when I’m engaged in normal life, I miss it. The excitement of making a film is so incredible, when you’re making a movie that you can wholly and passionately believe in and you’re taking a crew of people out there and doing something against the gods.
MT Is the title “U-Turn,” a reflection on your career?
OS It’s not a reflection on anything. I don’t know what I’m doing with my career. But I did realize when I won the Oscar I had a certain momentum and that I could use that to get “JFK” made. I thought that movie was going to end my career, so I just made it the way I wanted to and nobody was more surprised than I was when it became a worldwide hit. So I used that momentum to get “Heaven and Earth” made and to get “Nixon” made. I’ve never thought about things like that. For this one, I just went to Mike Medavoy and said I have a great script and a budget of $15 million and he said make it. With or without stars. Two other studios had already passed on it.
I think Sean Penn is wonderful in it. He’s become a real leading man, sexy like Mitchum or Bogart. And Jennifer Lopez, I caught at the height of her sexuality, she really carries the picture. And Jon Voight - I wasn’t sure if he could physically play an Indian, but he said to me, “I can do this.” And he did. Nick (Nolte) was marvelous, playing an older man with that set of dentures. And Billy Bob really got into the weirdness of that character. He’d played those kind of parts lots of times before and he said, “I know this guy,” and went and wrote some of his own dialogue. That scene where he was playing that game of Twister, he came up with that on his own. I didn’t even know what the fuck Twister was.
MT I thought it was the funniest scene in the movie, especially since he’s playing it by himself. And that line, “I’ve got a waitress coming over later.”
OS (Laughs) It was a lot of fun to do. John Ridley wrote a great script.
MT You’ve written scripts for other directors, you’ve written them for yourself to direct, and now you’ve directed a script someone else wrote. What’s your take on the auteur theory?
OS It’s all a collaborative effort, whether you write or direct it yourself or you work with another director as a writer. I had a good relationship with Brian de Palma on “Scarface.” He made it a little more operatic than I would have, with the 50 machine guns coming to kill Tony at the end and nobody reloads. But it was a good experience and it was a huge influence on the whole “Miami Vice” thing. Boy, I wished I’d had a piece of that. “Year of the Dragon” was another influence on the whole Hong Kong school, the shoot-out in the restaurant. Working with cimino on that was a good experience as well. That’s why this thing about the film being the director’s or the writer’s is such bullshit. It’s a collaboration between everybody, writer, director, producer, cameraman, editors, actors.
MT Even critics of your work admit you get terrific performances from your actors.
OS I like working with actors because I like people and I think that transmits itself to the actors and inspires them. I get that from my mother. She was a real people person. I hear there are some directors who are cold and distant but I don’t work like that.
When I did my first feature, “Seizure,” I was very intimidated by the New York actors that were in the cast - Jonathan Frid, Christina Pickles - they’d worked in the theatre and I was intimidated by that, since I’d never directed professional actors before. I hadn’t done any theatre, I was a writer. But I got over that and I enjoy the process very much, the collaboration. I like to give them the freedom and the confidence to bring things to the role I might not have thought of. You know who my favorite actors were as a kid? Ronald Colman and Fredric March.
MT What movies were early inspirations?
OS Oh, Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood” and “Adventures of Robin Hood”, westerns like “Union Pacific,” by DeMille, “Hondo,” with John Wayne, “3:10 to Yuma,” Randolph Scott pictures. I was just on a plane to Telluride with Richard Fleischer, he did “Barbabbas,” “The Vikings.” Directors like Wellman, Wyler, Stevens, Milestone, Robert Wise. And later, I was influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague - Godard, Resnais, Resnais, and the others.
MT Do you storyboard your films?
OS No. Well, I might storyboard certain sequences. I used storyboards for the battle scenes in “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” but in general I don’t. I wrote the scene, so I can see it in my head. The camera is another character, another actor in the film. I can tell in the first 9 or 10 shots of a film whether the director knows what he’s doing, if he’s any good. Ultimately, what you’re seeing is the mind of the director.
MT There is a saying around town that if you’re an editor and you work for Oliver Stone, you win an Oscar.
OS Well, four of them have. Joe Hutshing and David Brenner went on to become big editors, Pietro Scalia became Bernardo Bertolucci’s editor, and Claire (Simpson) won for “Platoon”. The problem is, I keep losing editors. Some of them want to become Valley editors - you know, only work 5 days a week, have a life, a girlfriend, a Porsche, a home in the Valley. Over at Fox, when we were doing “Wall Street” they locked up the editing room at 5pm on Friday afternoons because of the unions. We had to break in to edit our picture. Finally, we had to go elsewhere. But the editing is so important, it’s a visceral process, it’s where you re-write the film. But we don’t just go in there and throw the film up in the air and pick it up off the floor. It’s thought out and we arrive at it through a long process of many hours of hard work.
MT One of the things I find so odd about being a filmmaker these days is that you have to balance these polar opposites, being an artist and self-promoting businessman - in order to get a film made. It’s schizophrenic.
OS It’s exhausting to get a film made in today’s climate. It’s like what Billy Wilder said in your article, by the time you get through with putting the deal together, you’re too tired to make the picture. You have to create your own studio every time you make a picture now. It’s so much easier to attach yourself to a project that someone else is developing and ride their energy. Tom Cruise wants me to do “Mission: Impossible II” and I’ve got an idea for that; it would be tempting to just go with a project that already has its own momentum.
“Nixon” was the reason I left Warner Bros. I had to develop it from the ground floor up on my credit card. I spent $2 million in development money before Andy Vajna - God bless him - came to my rescue. I only had a narrow window of opportunity to use Tony Hopkins because he was shooting that Picasso movie right behind us and we had to release him by a certain date.
Warren Beatty aid something very nice about “Nixon,” he said he couldn’t believe the energy of the film. And it has a lot of energy, even though it’s very reflective. We read all the books, we did our homework during the course of the research, and no ever really talked about the relationship between Nixon and his mother. Edward, the older one played by Tony Goldwyn in the movie, was supposed to be the golden boy, just like Joe Jr. in the Kennedy family. Death paved the way for him. That’s what that movie was about.
MT I thought you let Nixon off too easy. He had moral choices to make and he gave in to the dark side at the very beginning of his career by destroying the reputations of people like Jerry Voorhees and Helen Gahagan Douglas. I don’t want to get too Freudian here but to me, the movie, like “Wall Street,” seemed to be more about you coming to terms with your father.
OS Well, you’re right, I was trying to come to terms with my father’s death. We never had a chance to resolve our differences, it was an attempt at reconciliation, a benediction. I think I did go too easy on Nixon. He knew everything about Cuba, he had been in on all the plots since 1952. But the critics were expecting an “Oliver Stone” movie and didn’t know how to deal with me treating him with compassion, they didn’t know what to make about that.
MT I get the feelings the attacks really bother you.
OS There’s so much bullshit written about me. They say I’m an egotist. They attacked me around the time of “Platoon” saying I was never in Vietnam because they couldn’t find any record of “Oliver Stone” having served. They never looked under “William Stone”. They wrote a bunch of crap about how we abused the actors in “Platoon” by making them go through boot camp. They grew to love that camaraderie. Time Magazine reported that we defaced some sacred Indian caves during the making of “The Doors,” we were their “Losers of the Week.” The paint washed off in three days! They never bothered to check. There was a script stolen from the set of “JFK” and the next thing I know this guy George Lardner is blasting me all over the pages of “The Washington Post.” Then, after “Natural Born Killers” they accuse me of causing some murders. Why is all this bad karma attaching itself to me? Why?
MT Perhaps because you make movies that implicate members of the government in the JFK assassination; you make a psychedelic satire about serial killers, you take on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America....
OS Because I make films that challenge assumptions? what would they have me do? Make films about myself? Fellini can do it, but if I did it, they’d say, see - he’s an egotist. I’d like to make pictures like Spielberg, I admire him very much. But I can’t. I think he had a happier family than mine. My childhood was more screwed up.
They say I’m an agitator. If I was that political, I’d run for office. I’m a filmmaker. I’d love to do a picture that everybody loved. I’d like to make a musical. I’m sorry I didn’t do “Evita,” I didn’t like the way it turned out, I would have made it darker. But I’d love to make a musical like “The Sound of Music.” Robert Wise was the Spielberg of the Sixties, that movie became the biggest grosser of all time, it outgrossed “Gone With the Wind.” It was “Jaws,” the “Star Wars” of its day. It played for years and people still love that movie. There’s room in this town for the Quentin Tarantinos and the Robert Wises.
I was at Telluride and a French film critic came up to me and said he’s read my Cahiers piece on Wise and “The Sand Pebbles” and - you know the French are, only the most obscure films have any merit - and he said, “Ah, yes, Wise... “The Sand Pebbles”! But you must see “Captive City”! It is his most personal film!” (Laughter) Film Comment wants me to write a piece for their “Guilty Pleasures” column and I think I’m going to write about his “Helen of Troy.”
MT You know I always felt that a re-telling of “The Iliad” would be a great film project for today. It’s full of violence and you could get the popcorn crowd by using Stallone and Schwarzenegger as Hector and Achilles.
OS How about Brad Pitt as Paris?
(Stone jumps up and runs over to his desk and begins writing notes to himself.)
MT Speaking of violence, what about the attacks you’ve taken on that subject?
OS Life is violent. The Greek plays were violent, they had eyes being gouged out. We should learn to take it in, like Asia. Who’s going to censor it? It’ll be the National Socialist Republic when that happens.
MT OK, let’s get a plug in for your book.
OS A plug for the book? (Laughs) On the next Oprah - Olive Stone and “A Child’s Night Dream!”
MT When I first started reading it I was put off by the density of the language. I guess I was expecting a more conventional narrative. But then I realized you were going for a poetic, lyrical, stream of consciousness approach, and when I understood that, I was able to absorb the rhythms of the writing and really appreciate the wordplay and delight with language. Kind of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Stone.”
OS It is poetry. I got a great review from Ferlinghetti: “I have an idea that this is a great book.” And Mailer sent a very nice quote - “Stone’s writing is phenomenal....If Oliver Stone had spent as many years in literary work as he has in film he would probably be by now a major American writer. I know of no other movie director , no matter how talented, of whom that can be said.”
MT Pretty impressive.
OS Garry Willis didn’t quite get it in his New York Times review but the L.A. Times book review by Aram Saroyan was a love letter. Though being a poet, I’m surprised he didn’t pick up more on the poetry. I was very much influenced by Gerald Manley Hopkins, do you remember him? And Eliot, though he is so pessimistic. And Tennyson! The rhythms of the book are very much inspired by Tennyson. And Coleridge.
MT And Conrad.
OS Very much by Conrad. Not the language but the idea of Conrad. I first read “Lord Jim” in 1965. It gave me idea to join the merchant marine and ship off for lands across the sea. That chapter in the book, “The Boilers of the Moon,” was obviously influenced by Conrad, particularly the introduction of Samuel Crummy. And Joyce, of course. The book is “Portrait of the Artist,” but written in the style of “Ulysses,” and “Finnegans Wake.” Celine was another one, “Journey to the Center of the Night.” And Rimbaud.
MT It’s amazingly frank in describing your sexual adventures - masturbation, Asian whores, Oedipal fantasies.
OS What’s the point of writing a book unless you go all the way? Remember, I was 19, I was taking Dostoyevsky seriously. Fiction does not allow for personal exemption. But the writer is exhausted, you can see the whole book is his suicide note. It was the writing of the book that saved me. I was holed up in Mexico, writing three thousand words a day, some days ten.
MT A friend asked me what the book was about and I replied, “Oliver Stone digests 4000 years of Western culture and then regurgitates it.”
OS Thank you, I might use that line. I was alone a lot as a kid, I read a lot. It comes out. There are a lot of references, influences.
MT Who’s Julie Christmas, the movie star you lust after in the book?
OS A composite of Julie Andrews and Julie Christie.
MT I think a lot of guys had impure thoughts about Julie Christie in 1965.
OS And Julie Andrews, too! There’re a couple of references to her throughout the book. I remember seeing the lines for “The Sound of Music” in Tokyo where there thousands of these little guys in white short sleeve shirts lined up to see it. And “Mary Poppins.”
MT Hmmm. Mary Poppins in stiletto heels. I think I see your point. “You will take that spoonful of sugar!” (Laughter) After reading your book, it led me to re-read, Nietzche’s great essay about art, “The Birth of Tragedy,” and the struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
OS Well, I believe in the Hegelian dialectic - thesis, antithesis, synthesis. But my life is Dionysian, my films are Dionysian, the characters are Dionysian, Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” is Dionysian. Morrison, obviously. Barnes and Elias from “Platoon,” are they both Dionysian?
MT There’s that famous quote by William Blake - “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” - do you subscribe to that?
OS You might say I’ve spent my life investigating that proposition.
“You know about the George Bush-Oliver Stone connection, don’t you? Stone is a disinformation flunky. I mean, if all that stuff he was saying were true, you don’t think they would let him live, do you?”
- Mel Gibson, “Conspiracy Theory”
Once again, America likes to reduce its artists to a punchline. But it does seem like everybody has an Oliver Stone story. There have been almost as many Oliver Stone sightings as Elvis. Some have him whacked out of his mind on Bali, or in some Asian brothel or wandering out in the desert, tripping. If he was at all concerned about having his name become household currency, he has succeeded brilliantly. He may well be the most famous director, after Spielberg, on the planet. Even though there may be a certain amount of notoriety he carries with him, Oliver Stone has become a brand-name, like Tide or Pepsi.
And whatever you say about that trademark Oliver Stone is true. Artist, charlatan, gentleman, madman, businessman, tortured genius, visionary,. He is equal part all those things and more. But of all his peers in Hollywood, Oliver Stone is without doubt, the most heroic director around. With a Promethean daring, he has forced his will upon the world, and made his vision ours, a vision that has shaped our history and our image of ourselves. To borrow a metaphor from Stanley Kubrick, he has flown like Icarus but his wings have held. Every age gets the art it deserves and Oliver Stone may be the artist for these troubled times.
His body of work is a brilliant, at times overwhelmingly powerful, testament to the scope and ambition of his talent, and in their own way, very patriotic. Just as John Ford and Frank Capra painted pictures of America for an earlier time, Oliver Stone has painted his visions of an America at war in far, distant lands in “Platoon,” America at war with itself in “Born on the Fourth of July,” an American financial establishment consumed with avarice and materialism in “Wall Street,” an attempt at understanding of the American Richard III in “Nixon,” an America awash in bloodstained violence and the media’s complicity with “Natural Born Killers,” and an America coming to terms with its psychic denial of the great traumas of the latter part of the century - the Kennedy assassination and subsequent war in “JFK.” He has a lover’s quarrel with his country and has forced it to look at the dark recesses we might prefer to forget. Aside from being a great artist, he is also a patriot and we are in his debt.
His novel, “A Child’s Night Dream” is filled with a youthful talent that will not be denied. “A real mindfuck,” as he described it, it is also proves what a gifted writer he is. Dazzling in its wordplay and candor, the author stands naked in his art. It is a disturbing, narcissistic, yet ultimately gripping, self-portrait and it deserves to be taken seriously as one of the great pieces of confessional literature of the 20th Century.
The book documents the battle between the French socialite mother who called him “Oliver,” and the repressed stockbroker father who called him “William.” The struggle continues to this day, raging in the cauldron of his soul - the male & female, Apollonian & Dionysian, the proper little gentleman from the Upper East Side battling the social rebel who ran away from home to become a teacher, a seaman, a soldier in distant parts of the world. The yin & yang, East/West dualities within him all seeking dominion over his soul and he is split right down the middle of his psyche and his therapy is his art. And we are the richer for it.
But that is small comfort to the man himself; for the fame, fortune, awards, have done little to assuage his pain. There is still a war going on inside him, a battle for his soul - only it’s right on the surface and it’s fascinating to watch the struggle with his innermost demons so openly. So, if you happen to be in a bar in Santa Monica and you see Oliver Stone bending an elbow, or if you are tripping in a mescal-induced hallucination out in the desert sometime and he appears wandering about in the distance, or if you happen to be in a bordello in Bangkok and look over and see him receiving some R&R, pat him on the back and and tell him how much you like his movies. He’d really appreciate it.