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.