Oliver Stone: Cutting-edge filmmaker or political provocateur?

Oliver Stone discusses his upcoming memoir, Chasing the Light, in which all his questionable bravado and self-admitted insecurity are on full display
Oliver Stone: Cutting-edge filmmaker or political provocateur?
Oliver Stone is as known for his political views as for his acclaimed films. Picture: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images for ZFF

Beginning in 1986 with the release of his films Salvador and Platoon, Oliver Stone kicked off a decade of remarkable success.

His controversial and stylistically brash films of this era were box-office hits and established Stone, who twice won the Academy Award for best director, as a bold generational voice. While Wall Street and Natural Born Killers didn’t have particularly nuanced takes on the rotten amorality at the core of US society, and the treatment of the country’s self-deceptions in Born on the Fourth of July and JFK wasn’t especially subtle, Stone’s work spoke to the US’s dreams and nightmares.

Since then, though,  Stone's standing as a finger-on-the-pulse filmmaker has been subsumed by the image of him as a political provocateur, thanks to his documentaries about  Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin.

But it’s the long lead-up to that golden year of 1986 that is the focus of Stone’s upcoming memoir, Chasing the Light, in which all his questionable bravado and self-admitted insecurity are on full display.

“I never wanted arguments,” Stone says.

“I never wanted to provoke. I was just seeking the truth.” 

Q: You’ve made a lot of movies and documentaries based on other people’s lives. Did that experience help you tell the story of your own?

A: Well, I thought of the book as having the structure of a novel. You set up a problem in the first chapter: The protagonist is in a box. He’s in New York City, 1976. He’s broke. He feels like a failure and has to take his whole life into account. Then, the novel winds its way into the 1986 period. It’s a picaresque. It’s a bit like a Thackeray novel.

Q: Should I be reading into the fact that you’re calling your memoir a novel and referring to yourself in the third person?

A: You can read what you want. It is 'me,' but you have to distance yourself from yourself. That’s not to say you’re fictionalising. If I write another book, which I hope to do, it’d be nice to get closer to where I am now. I’m not there yet. Making a film to close out your life? I don’t know. There might be a way. There have been some very nice farewell films. Mr Kurosawa did Rhapsody in August,  a very nice and gentle film.

Q: Would you close out your life with a nice and gentle film?

A: You think I’m so ungentle?

Q: I don’t know if gentle is how I’d describe your sensibility.

A: Fair enough. But even in Natural Born Killers,if you look closely, there’s a tenderness there between Juliette and Woody. Or the Bush movie that I did, W, at the end, it’s very tender with him and Laura.

Q: I know you’ve felt marginalised by Hollywood in the past. Do you still?

A: I don’t think they think about me. I don’t feel bitter about it. Savages was my last movie in the mainstream, so to speak. I thought it was mainstream, and Universal did, too, up until they distributed it. They decided to move it at the last second from fall to summer. So they put us in the middle of a schedule that was pretty tough. Ted was there. Remember that movie? It was hilarious. You don’t want to open against Ted. I do still get offered stuff, but I’m not inspired to make a movie. I don’t feel anything inside me, fire for going through that pain and misery. The last film I did was Snowden. 

It was so difficult to make. We struggled to get financing — I believe — because of the subject matter. But I’m still keeping my hand in with documentaries. 

I am working on two right now. One is on JFK. Since the film came out, in 1991, there’s been quite a bit of new material revealed that people have basically ignored. It’s a hell of a story.JFK: Destiny Betrayed is what we call it. Then I’m starting A Bright Future, which is about the benefits of clean energy, which includes nuclear energy. 

These are documentary subjects and aren’t necessarily going to be popular, but they’re important to me.

Q: Are you poking the hornet’s nest by going back to JFK?

A: I’m not scared of that. I’m past that age. I don’t need to make a Hollywood movie. I don’t need to get the approval of the bosses.

Q: Do you think you’ve made your last Hollywood film?

A: I would have no problem doing another one, but I don’t feel it right now. Frankly, I did 20, and I got worn out.

Q: You had about a 10-year period, starting with Salvador and Platoon and going up to Natural Born Killers or Nixon, when your films felt like these major statements on the country and the culture. When that zeitgeist-y period ended, which it inevitably does for artists, did it change how you approached your work?

A: I recognise the impact I had, but, at the same time, I enjoyed doing the films I did afterward. 

In 1999, I did Any Given Sunday. I get so much attention for that. World Trade Center was one of my most successful films financially. So the parade continued. The problem is in Hollywood. It’s just so expensive — the marketing. 

Everything has become too fragile, too sensitive. Hollywood now — you can’t make a film without a Covid adviser. You can’t make a film without a sensitivity counsellor. It’s ridiculous.

Q: Why is that ridiculous?

A: The Academy changes its mind every five, 10, two months about what it’s trying to keep up with. It’s politically correct [expletive], and it’s not a world I’m anxious to run out into. I’ve never seen it quite mad like this. 

It’s like an Alice in Wonderland tea party.

Q: In what respect?

A: Oh, David, don’t go there. That’s going to be your headline. You know, I just read something about how films are going to be very expensive to make now, because you need to take all these precautions, and a 50-day shoot becomes a 60-day shoot, and social distancing for actors. That’s what I’m talking about.

Q: Tell me more about your JFK documentary. Is there a big revelation in it that you can share?

A: I would be doing an injustice to say there’s one big one. There’s no smoking gun. It’s accretion of detail, David. Please watch the film when it’s out, and write me an email when you see it, and tell me if there’s cogency in it.

Q: Does it turn out that the bullet went back and to the right?

A: We can make fun, but let me give you some quick points about what is in the documentary: There’s no chain of custody on the magic bullet, which is called CE-399. There’s also no chain of custody on this damn rifle, the Mannlicher-Carcano, which Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of shooting. I don’t want to go into the details, but we can’t account for who was in possession of the bullets and the rifle at various times. It’s a mess.

Then we got more detail than ever showing that there was a huge back-of-the-head wound in Kennedy, which clearly indicates a shot from the front. It’s also clear that the autopsy from Bethesda, Md., was completely fraudulent. And there’s Vietnam. No historian can now honestly say that the Vietnam War was Kennedy’s child. That’s crucial. The last thing is the CIA connection to Oswald.

We have a stronger case, not only for post-Russia, but also for pre-Russia. In other words, he was working with the CIA before he went and when he came back. Those are the main points. I don’t want to criticise your paper, but if it was honest, it would be doing this work, instead of just saying, 'It’s all settled.'

Q: But on some level, you must know that we’ll never be able to tie up all the loose ends of the Kennedy assassination. So what do you want people to take away from your new work on this?

A: Those who are interested will find it’s pretty clear that JFK was murdered by forces that were powerful in our government. We point the finger at a couple of individuals. But I don’t want to get into that here. Now, why do I have to do this? I’m doing the documentary for the record, so that you can see for yourself what the evidence is. That’s all. We’re just finishing it and beginning to show it. It will be out. Even if it’s on YouTube. Or in Transylvania.

Q: So many of your movies, JFK in particular, are about presenting counter-evidence to the sort of officially sanctioned grand narratives that America tells about itself. Can you think of any areas where your belief in the importance of counter-narratives might have been detrimental to your own political thinking? I’m thinking here about your series of interviews with Vladimir Putin, where it seemed that you were more interested in letting him lay out contrary perspectives to the popular American view of him rather than really challenging him on anything.

A: I don’t think president Putin’s views from the 1999 period to the 2016 election period were ever presented honestly to the American public. The documentary is a great work of scholarship. It can be studied, because he’s saying a tremendous amount that was fluffed off: 'Oh, Oliver Stone is an apologist.' 

I’m not an apologist. I’m always probing, and that’s why he liked me to the degree that he did. He didn’t think I was a patsy. 

He was a very patient man. He reads. He prepares. He’s not like so many of our fool politicians, and that’s why he has lasted for 20 years. But the American press has demonised him.

Q: Even though he benefits from American destabilisation and therefore tries to foment it?

A: I don’t think he thinks that way. I think he sees American destabilisation as a dangerous thing, because he thinks about the safety of the world. If anything, he would like a balance of power to exist and he would like to have a nuclear treaty with us. It’s very difficult to talk when America doesn’t talk. It hasn’t been dealing honestly with him in a long time.

Q: Putin is obviously a canny politician. What do you suspect he believed he had to gain by talking with you?

A: I think his intention, as he forthrightly says again and again in the documentary, was: Let’s talk. Let’s be mature. Let’s be adults in the room.

Q: Could it have been something else maybe? There’s that term 'the useful idiot.'

 A: First of all, you should just look at the documentary.

Q: I’ve seen it.

A: Where is it clear that I’m an idiot? I think it’s a very articulate dialogue. I would also point out that when we started, which was in 2014, roughly, the relationship with the US was not as bad as it would become. Things got much worse. In 2017, we went back to him, and you have on the record what he says about Donald Trump and the American election. 

I don’t think Russia has the desire or the money to spend on 'destabilising' an entire election. And how can you even compare it to what we’ve done in other countries?

Q: But two evils don’t have to be equal for them to both be evil.

A: We’re getting too much onto Putin. That’s not in this book.

Q: This is mostly related to the book: How present in your life is your experience in Vietnam? Is it still with you from day to day?

A: It doesn’t disturb me. In the book, I talk about everything that I felt over there and how strange it was. Vietnam influenced my work, because of my feelings about war and peace in this country and militarisation and where we are now. If I can do any good in this world, it would be to pass some of that message on to younger people, so that they recognise where we’re going with continued militarisation. 

But, no, the war doesn’t personally disturb me. I’ve reached an age of acceptance.

Q: I have a meta question for you: It seems, at least at this point in time, as though your political opinions have almost overshadowed your achievements as an artist. Does it bother you to think that your willingness to get into it about politics might ultimately obscure or distort your legacy as a filmmaker?

A: I’ve negotiated my way, sometimes with great controversy, through life. My domain is wide. I enjoy give-and-take. I learn from people. I will continue not to run away from who I am. I’m going to own who I am.

- (This interview has been edited and condensed, for clarity, from three conversations.)

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