Born in 1946, the only child of a Jewish stockbroker father and French Catholic mother, Oliver Stone was raised in the East Coast tradition of button-down conservatism. Since then he’s spent much of his life in antagonistic conversation with that background: as teacher, seaman, soldier, freak, failed novelist, decorated director and screenwriter, gangster of Hollywood. Stone dedicated both Salvador and Wall Street to his father, who died in 1985, but his mother is very much alive, and was hanging Christmas stockings when we met in December of 1990 at the Santa Monica home he shares with his second wife, Elizabeth, and their seven-year-old son, Sean.
Stone’s work tends to be loud and angry and fast, full of jagged politics and big emotions. Screen his movies in succession and you’re left feeling you’ve survived a cinematic bar fight — a bit dented about the head and heart by the velvet fist of his vision. From his pumped-up screenplays for Midnight Express, Scarface, and Year of the Dragon to the populist revisionism of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK, Stone’s films again and again show the solitary man’s fight for possession of his soul in a world which seeks to steal it, corrupt it, and destroy it. He’s a true modernist; a brutish man with the mind of an artist but the soul of a boxer. He wears his heart on your sleeve.
Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, a xenophobic, scary tale of an American dope-smuggling boy trapped in the dark recesses of a Turkish jail, won Stone his first Oscar, and his first real acceptance. His first major directing opportunity, The Hand, starring Michael Caine, was a psychological horror film about repression, projection, and evil. It left Stone crushed, pondering the question: does the sound of one hand clapping in a theatre make a noise? He recovered with a screenplay for Brian DePalma’s Scarface, brayingly displayed the elements that would become trademarks in Stone’s own pictures: overdrawn characters, heated action, controversial politics, a flaming arrow of narrative.
Then Salvador, his scrappy, leftist take on civil war in Central America, nudged open the door which Platoon, after years of waiting, marched through. Platoon was not just a movie, but a personal exorcism for Stone, and for many Americans an opportunity to finally mourn a lost war — a kind of filmic national catharsis. It won Stone great fame, and his first Best Director Oscar. He won again for the second piece of his Vietnam trilogy, Born on the Fourth of July, an epic of emotional fireworks on the domestic front. For all his heavy-handedness, Stone is hardly a one-dimensional director. Even in his weaker pictures — such as Wall Street, his moralistic bromide on 1980s materialism, or The Doors, his exuberantly romantic but hollow portrayal of one of his great heroes, Jim Morrison — Stone has the surprising ability to coax absolutely superior performances out of his actors.
For our first session, we talked between his appointments while driving around Los Angeles in his black Mustang convertible and in a barren office at his editing studio, where he was hurrying The Doors to completion. We spent our second session, in January of 1991, on the patio and in the living room of his home. Stone spoke quietly, in a kind of portentous half-whisper. He complained, repeatedly and good-naturedly, about how much time this was taking — as if four hours of reflection made for a painful wedge in his busy schedule. He seized the upper hand on the patio by suggesting I sit on a chaise longue that, to me, looked and felt wet. I protested. He waved off my complaint and sat himself on a dry one. When I did sit, I was instantly soaked, and though he did allow me the benefit of a towel, it was little help. So I went through the interview feeling as uncomfortable as many feel watching his films. Say what you will; the man is a master of tactics.
A chronological footnote: at the time of our conversations, the controversy over the historical veracity of The Doors was already beginning to brew. This proved simply the orchestra tuning up in the pit compared to the onslaught of discord attacking JFK, which was in pre-production at the time. At the end of our drive around town, I had asked him when was the last time he’d been down to city hall to have his poetic license renewed. He just laughed. And then he laughed some more.
Let’s start at the beginning, really the beginning. What’s your first memory?
[Pause. Big, exaggerated laugh.] Oh boy. Beautiful women in trees in a jungle. I had erotic dreams when I was three, four. And they’ve always stayed with me, throughout my life. Many erotic dreams.
Did you have any understanding of them? Did you report them to anyone?
No, no, I never talked about them. Not even to my mother. [Laughs.]
Were the women blondes?
Yeah, primarily blondes, but there were colored women and a lot of Oriental women, some striking brunettes. Even some redheads. I would say it got liberal. My fantasy is like that Fellini film, what was it, City of Women? I don’t think it was one of his more successful films, but I loved the idea of having a walled city [laughs] and being the only male in the whole city.
And you were a three-year-old waking up with a “woody” to these dreams?
Oh yeah, my pecker used to get hard. It was great. I think that eros is the most underrated force in the universe. I think eros carries us through the darkest hours. The deepest, darkest tunnels of the mind are the places you hide in, like Viet Cong warriors did. And the bombs are being dropped by B-52s. The VC used to build cayes — I’ve been down them and seen the maps. There’d be a first layer, then a second layer underneath, like an onion skin. Sometimes these things would go down seven or eight layers deep, and there’d be an R and R facility down in the bottom, like a golf course or something, hospitals, schools, video clubs down there. [Laughs.] Often I’d retreat to this place in my head, where there’d be some kind of sanctuary. And eros was the driving force. Eros, and its correspondent, love.
What did you do with this stuff as a kid?
Oh man, it’s secret stuff. It’s like Viet Cong tunnels, I told you. I wouldn’t reveal more than that, but it’s certainly a driving thread to my life. Simone de Beauvoir said, “Sex is the sixth continent.” It’s the place you can go for free. Everybody can do it. I like that idea. It’s a democratic impulse. I think sex is the driving force, the resistance to totalitarianism in our age. The totalitarian spirit is everywhere — in orthodoxy, in politics, in emotions, in TV. Controls, I think, are the keynote of our age. The way people have always fought back through the ages — the medieval ages, the poor people, the worst times of history — has always been through sexual freedom. Sexual impulse. It’s going on now with censorship and repression all over the world — in China, in Arabia, what they do to women. We’re fighting this on a global front. It’s just not the US. The American story is minor; the feminists are a minor thing.
Yeah. Sure. [Pause.] Okay —
[Sighs.] I see you got bored.
No, I’m not bored at all.
Yeah, you shifted the subject. I was trying to tell you that . . . I think, well, I think I said what I said. [Quietly] The sixth continent.
Some of my earliest, fondest, most nostalgic memories were France in the 1950 to 1954 era. My mom took me to France and left me there for the summer with my grandparents in a country house, and I grew up in the French style in the summers, playing around the countryside, riding bikes, hanging out with French kids, in the Algerian war days, the Vietnam days. We’d play soldiers and stuff, and I’d hear about Indochina — little did I know I’d end up in Vietnam. I remember loving my grandfather. He would tell me World War I stories. He was gassed in World War I, he was a French infantryman. And I remember my American grandfather. He was an old, old man, walking around the East River Drive in New York City. And I remember New York in the late forties and early fifties. I remember the overcoats and the hats and the ties and the cold. I remember going down to Wall Street and being knocked out by all the buildings that were so high, with little windows and no light.
Your dad gets described as distant and negative —
Not at all, not at all. My dad was very loving. Very loving man. That’s a partial description of him: he was sarcastic and distant at times, but he was very loving — he was so proud of me, he admired me, I was the only child. He just didn’t want me to get spoiled by my mom. He would take a little harder tack with me. He wanted to enforce discipline, he wanted me to learn discipline very early. He said, “Every day you got to do something you don’t want to do.” [Laughs.] And he made me write by giving me money. He’d encourage me to write a theme a week.
For your allowance?
Yeah, so I could buy comics. And he always would give me math problems to do. He was a very good writer, very intelligent. He had a warm heart, but he had difficulty — as all men, as a lot of men did of that era, the Depression era — he had difficulty expressing his feelings. He thought it was unseemly.
What did he fear from self-expression?
He was sort of a secret playwright. He had written three or four plays which he kept in the drawer; they weren’t good enough to be produced. And he was an unpublished poet. But he thought it wasn’t something you do for a living. Also, he thought a man should not be seeking visual distinction. His clothes should be anonymous, the man should be anonymous — short-haired, wear a tie. You see, I suppose I was wildly indulgent to my father.
He accused you of “showing off.”
Well, no, at first I was very conformist in my youth. I wore a tie and a jacket, I wouldn’t go out of the house. It was very difficult to live in New York because it was very conformist. But dad would be sarcastic and sometimes he would hurt people’s feelings, including my own. You had to understand how to take that kind of humor. He was a loving father.
He was “there” for you?
He was there for me.
I’m thinking of the scene in Wall Street with Bud Fox [Charlie Sheen] and his father [Martin Sheen], where they’re arguing in the elevator and then on the street, and Bud says, “You’ve never been there for me.” I wondered how much of that was autobiographical?
I probably felt that at times from my dad, because it would be very rare for him to give me any kind of compliment. I was a bum to him, especially after Vietnam, because I was dope-smoking and talking black talk and in jail and had no college education and was writing these kooky screenplays. So he thought I was becoming like his brother Joe, who he said never did anything his whole life.
Your dad was successful with his investment newsletter, wasn’t he?
Successful intellectually. And he was respected. But financially, he never became a millionaire. Close. When he died, he left my mother with some money, and I think I got $19,000, after a whole lifetime of making money for others.
You’d think that if a guy is going to be such a Republican he should do better than that.
[Laughs.] I can’t fault him. He was worried about money, but he was never ultimately that interested in it. He never had the knack for making it. He was more interested in ideas. Every investment he’d make would go south. He opened a factory in Connecticut to make machetes for Guatemala.
[Jokingly.] Probably some of the same machetes used by the death squads you were dealing with in Salvador!
That’s a stretch. He went out of business before the death squads. And then all his stock deals! Everything he’d buy for others would do well, but whatever he’d buy for himself — generally he would get hurt.
I guess that runs in the family. You had a bad experience with stocks just after you filmed Wall Street.
Every investment I’ve made on Wall Street has gone south. Never again. I’m stopping it. I don’t like it. It’s all easy money. I don’t treat it seriously.
You should have listened to Lou [fatherlike Hal Holbrook] in Wall Street.
What did he say? What was the line?
He said, “There’s no sure thing. Things take time.’’
[Laughs hard.] He was like my dad, too.
You should have taken your screenplay’s advice! But of course, Lou was not as interesting or magnetic as Gordon Gekko [Michael Douglas]. There’s probably more of you in Gekko, isn’t there?
Gekko’s another character. It’s not my dad. Gekko is a character out of my mom. Sort of flashy, flashy. My mom is more outward, external, physical, in the world — not as abstracted as my dad. She never made enemies, she made friends. Dad would make enemies with his tongue. Mom was a charming woman. To me, she’s a bit like a piece of Auntie Mame and a piece of Evita. Just larger than life. Big parties. Loved to travel, loved to tell tall tales. She’d invent anything. She was the best friend of anybody who would come into her mind that moment. She had a tremendous ability for fantasy.
Did you ever feel like a bum at home, before Vietnam?
Oh, I always felt like an outsider at school.
Just a quality of one’s character. It’s an existence, it’s an anguish that you have.
Do you think that was nature or nurture?
I think it’s nurture. I think it comes from being an only child. I think it comes from not having access to easy conversation, or easy living with a sibling — which makes you less important in a way — and I think you get more self-conscious as an only child. I was very self-conscious when I was young. I’d walk down the street and I would feel that people were condemning me, judging me, looking at me.
Back between nine and twelve years old, you did a lot of writing . . .
I wrote themes every week. In Paris, I wrote a Balzackian, romantic novel about the French Revolution. I was very influenced by Balzac and Dickens. It was more a romantic image of writing. I didn’t get very far. It just seemed that writing was a possible retreat from reality that was acceptable, in the sense that the world of the imagination was a sanctuary from real life. As were movies. I loved being in the dark, and seeing movies. It’s an escape. My mom was very much into that.
You played hooky with her
I’d play hooky with her, she’d take me to the movies a lot. A lot. On Wednesdays they’d change the movies; they’d have double features every week. And we’d go and see double and even triple featured some days. It was great. I’d go to the movies with my father, too, and we’d see Kubrick films and David Lean films, and he was always very impressive in his analysis. He’d walk out and inevitably — no matter what movie we’d seen — he’d say, “We could have done it better, Huckleberry.” And then he’d tell me what was wrong. He’d analyze the plot for loopholes, and of course, movies always have loopholes. Why didn’t so-and-so do such and such? It was quite an education.
We saw Paths of Glory together, Strange Love. I think Kubrick was my favorite in that time, when I was between fourteen and sixteen. And then David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia. One-Eyed Jacks I remember seeing and loving. And Fellini made a big impression. I remember seeing La Dolce Vita in ’59 or ’60 and that just blew me away. It seemed to be doing things in black-and-white that American films were not doing. That you could just take an ordinary person, an ordinary life, and re-examine that life in mythic terms. I think it was seven days and seven nights that he crosses the city. I loved the theme of that movie.
What kind of reality were you seeking to escape?
Oh, I think the reality of school. Rigid law, orthodoxy, oppression to some degree. I think school was rough. I went to a very strict boarding school, all boys. Had to go to chapel every morning. Four to five hours of homework every day. Five classes. Discipline. The teachers were good. The smell of locker rooms. The dank food. How can I describe the food? It was totally Dickensian.
Perfect for someone named Oliver. Apparently you had the shock of your life when you found out your parents were getting divorced.
Put it this way: the first shock of my life.
The first shock. But the first shock is really the shock, in a way.
Well, I had another shock. I had a couple of medical shocks, but I don’t want to discuss that.
I just don’t. My medical records, my tax records, I don’t think that’s really . . . I had a couple of medical things that happened, I had a few operations that really were hard. Doctors sometimes don’t tell you stuff for about ten or fifteen years because they don’t think you’re old enough to hear it — so sometimes you get some pretty good shocks. But aside from that I think my parents’ divorce was major for me.
I had thought they were very contented and that I was rich, and that we had it made. And, basically, my father said that they were unhappy and that they were betraying each other, that she was screwing around and he was screwing around, and that he was broke, in debt. He didn’t have money, he owed money: that whole concept of debt, I just didn’t understand it until that point. And my mother, according to him, was profligate in her expenses, and spent everything.
And she had a lover, she took several lovers. It was shocking. It was an interesting time. It was sort of the onset of the sexual liberation of the sixties, and couples from the fifties were starting to play around on each other. It was amazing. My father had been with other women since the forties, and my mother had had other lovers.
You didn’t know anything about this?
No, no. It was all delivered to me on a weekend in boarding school, and by phone. Nobody even came to tell me. It was delivered to me by the headmaster and that was really hard to take. My father had talked to him and he thought it was his obligation to tell me. My mother didn’t even want to come and see me; she was hiding in Europe. And you can imagine the way the headmaster tells you these things: “Buck up, young man, this is not the end of the world.” It was hard.
If you had to put it into a literary hindsight, I would say it was very close to Catcher in the Rye. A very depressing novel, but emotionally right on. I felt like shit, like nothing. Everything was metallic. All the surfaces were metallic. All the people, all the adults were dangerous, not to be trusted. The world was a very empty place to me.
I think that set up, basically, a period for me, from sixteen on, until thirty. I was going through a sort of adolescent thing, especially from sixteen to twenty-two, a sort of revolution in my life. Everything was thrown topsy-turvy. Basically, I ended up in the merchant marine, in Vietnam, going through a lot of changes. All the old rules were thrown out.
What was that feeling like at sixteen? You talk about feeling “sheltered and special” before that. Maybe in juxtaposition it was even worse, maybe all of a sudden you weren’t so special?
I went to Yale, so I was doing very well, but emotionally I could just not engage myself for four more years. I had to get out of this world. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe anybody at Yale. I didn’t believe what they were trying to turn out. It wasn’t like I was a genius and knew what I wanted. I just knew what I didn’t want. And I had vague glimpses of the world of the Far East from Conrad, Lord Jim, and I’d also read Kipling, and Red Badge of Courage, and Hemingway, and I was very romantic in my thoughts. And it was through getting out into the world, getting away from all I knew, pushing out into history — Hemingway used that phrase — that I would have nothing more to do with the East Coast, New York City, that world.
Did you feel like a bum when your parents broke up? I would think that for an only child it would be difficult not to internalize that schism.
Oh yeah. Yeah. My father moved into a hotel, where I lived with him. And my mother was moving into another kind of life, a sixties life — drugs, parties. I was really mixed. I felt I had nothing to do with it: I was an outsider. I had to find a new family in a sense. The family was over. It just disintegrated. You don’t have a brother or a sister, you don’t have any second person you can still be family with. Basically, the triangle splits and we’re three people in different places, and I’m sixteen and all of a sudden I’m on my own. Dad said to me, “I owe this and this and this, I will put you through college and then you’re on your own.” To me, it was a new world.
As a loner, I just floated out to the Far East, and to this day I think it was an orphan home for me, and became for me the means by which I began to see the world with a new family, a new light, the light of the Far East. And then the irony of marrying a girl from the Middle East when I came home from the Far East, and then I spent time in the Middle East. I really sort of journeyed, and I wandered. And through a process over a long time, I got my existence back together. And by the age of thirty I started to kind of feel it again: to feel like I used to feel, being home, and having my integrity.
The tall ships came into the New York harbor for the bicentennial and you wrote Platoon.
Yeah, around there. I wanted to go back to where I was when I was sixteen. And: be straight again, be disciplined again, don’t let this madness, this adolescent madness, this raging war — these experiences of life were like combat, spitting in my face — don’t let this blow your mind out. Because I saw a lot of that in ’Nam. People came back wrecks, carcasses, human burning wreckages of people. And I was almost one. But it took me time. I wrote. I wrote, it seems, for therapy: between twenty-two and thirty, I wrote eleven screenplays. I never stopped writing. It was my only home. Every day to write. No matter how dissolute I got — and I took a lot of fucking drugs, booze, and all that, bad —I would get up each day. Like my dad said, you do something every day you don’t want to do. I felt an obligation, to hold up my sanity, to write.
After your first period in Vietnam as an English teacher, you wrote a 1400-page novel, A Child’s Night Dream. What was it really about? It began as a suicide note, no?
Yes, it did. It was a wild sort of Hindu time story, where everything goes back and forth. It started in the present, with a suicide note, and then it went through Asia, the merchant marine, Custer’s Last Stand, James Joycean poems without any punctuation, tripping on the tongue. I was very influenced by Joyce and Donleavy, The Ginger Man. Just writing to a beat, to a rhythm.
Why was the rejection of it by the New York publishing houses so significant to you? You felt again like a complete bum.
Well, the thesis, after 1400 pages, is that the person saves himself from suicide by the act of writing. But then I played it two ways: I had him also extinguishing himself through the act of writing. He basically self-destructs at the end of the manuscript. And then there was another chapter where he saves himself through the manuscript. So I couldn’t decide which way to go. Except at the end I threw away my manuscript, destroyed it. I thought it was over for me. I was so depressed. One guy at Simon & Schuster I owe this to — probably threw it out and said it was a piece of shit. He gave me a horrible letter, said something horrible about it. Just remember that when you’re up there at the top you can break a writer’s heart. And I thought, I’ll never get anything done, with my life, with my writing. I’m sick of being special, I’m sick of the act of writing about “self,” and therefore I’m going to be anonymous. I’m going to the bottom of the barrel — what the Charlie Sheen character says in Platoon, “I’m going to be anonymous.” I’m going to go into the army, and I’m going to be totally anonymous.
How much of that was self-punishment?
A lot. I was ready for death. A lot of my book was about suicide. River’s Edge has made it popular now, but teenage suicide was not that talked about in the sixties. Nobody dealt with it, except in Catcher in the Rye Salinger deals with it at one point. It was like — people would scoff at your pain. It was just before the hippie revolution. It was just before Time magazine decided people under twenty-five matter. I remember a world where we were never consulted. It was sort of like: “What pain can you have?” My dad was responsible for a lot of that. He’d say, “What experience do you have? How can you write? What pain do you really feel?”
Is that where your anti-psychological bias comes from?
What do you mean?
What you’ve called your “animus to psychology.”
In what connection?
I could go back to The Hand —
Yes, The Hand.
Jon Lansdale [Michael Caine] says the new illustrator has “weakened” the cartoon character he draws “by making him look too deeply inside himself.”
[Laughs.] Yes, that’s right. That’s right. That’s funny. Oh, God!
So your dad was minimizing your pain, what you felt inside.
Yes, Dad was very anti-psychological. Oh, I see! That you’re not supposed to talk about your inner feelings, or show them, or be, quote, “an artist.” Showing the public — what is art but prostitution, as what’s-his-name said, who’s that great French author? The fellow who wrote Madame Bovary, Flaubert. Flaubert said, “Art is public prostitution,” and he’s right. Because the prostitute — prostituere — makes public the private. That’s what Dad was saying: art is prostitution, because you’re making public your private fantasies.
How did your dad take the rejection of your book?
Oh, he was vindicated, you see. Fuck him! I wanted to get out. I hated him.
So going to ’Nam was an actively suicidal choice in many ways.
Oh yeah. I was ready to die, but I didn’t want to pull my own trigger. Many a time I stood in the bathroom and looked in the mirror and had the razor out — part of my book was about the eighteen ways the kid tries to kill himself. I went through all the computations of death in my head. I don’t know how close I came. I certainly thought about it, and I emotionally identified with it, but I stopped myself. I said, “Look, I’m not going to die this way. If I’m going to die, I’m going to die in combat. I’m either going to make it through or I’m not going to make it through.”
Norman Mailer was very important to me at that point. I read all his stuff. I loved An American Dream. God, that was a great book. I remember the whole discussion of death and suicide in that. And he’d been in a war. Mailer had. And Hemingway. And I felt like I had to go out there and make it through. And if I don’t make it through, it wasn’t meant to be.
Would your death have been a way of punishing your parents?
[Pause.] In part. But not wholly. More of punishing myself. I wanted to prove to my father that I was as tough as he was, because he’d been through World War II. And also I wanted to prove that I didn’t need him, that I could make my own way in life by being in the army, and going to war. And being in combat, which he never was. He was always a lieutenant colonel, on the financial side of it — he was on Eisenhower’s staff, actually. He was very important.
You’ve said you knew it was a mistake, your being there — like Charlie Sheen’s character in Platoon — from the very beginning, yet after you were wounded and were put back into the rear echelon, you fought to get back to the battle. So there’s a contradiction there.
Yes, there is. When I first got there, I got scared right away. My experience was very similar to Platoon. I cut point my first day, and I got shot in my first major firefight. I got wounded in the neck, then I got shot again. So I took two hits and got out of it; they had a policy that they evacuated you to the rear. At that point, I was a veteran in a sense. I knew my way around the jungle better than when I had just got there. And I was in the rear, with a bullshit job guarding barracks, and hating it ’cause I had to spit-polish my boots. I had a fight with the sergeant, and he wanted to court-martial me — Article 15 — and I said, “Let’s make a deal.” They might have extended my time in ’Nam and I wanted to get out, so I said, “Let me go back to the combat zone and you drop the charges.”
Because death might be better than a court-martial?
No. No. [Pause.] I missed combat. The truth was, I missed it.
Yeah, there was something happening. It got me excited. I was bored shitless in the rear. I don’t know, it was weird . . . you really hit on something. I just wanted to see if I could do a better job of it than I had done the first two times. I wasn’t too proud of my first stint. You live through a lot of shit, and I was scared out of my pants, and was shot twice. And I guess I wanted to prove to myself that I was a better soldier.
I went back into the First Cav, and I was better. I wasn’t great, but I was a better soldier. And I got a bronze medal for some combat action. I was more attuned to the jungle, and I got into the jungle, heavy. The smell, the look, the feel. I remember one thing I did, toward the end. I walked up to a deer, on point. Carrying sixty pounds, with a machete. In other words, I was part of the jungle — to come right up on a deer. That’s pretty good.
The other thing that happened was I got into grass, heavy. And then I got into music. It was a good tour, the First Cav. Blacks were my best friends, and they brought me in — believe it or not — as a sort of adopted brother. A blood. Like the scenes in Platoon, getting high, high, high, down in the hootches. At the base camp, not in the field — we didn’t fuck up in the field. And I listened to that music and it really got to me: Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations were the hottest.
I’m struck by how, when you failed so badly at creating — creating your book — you turned so fiercely to destroying, going to war. If you couldn’t succeed at creation, maybe you could succeed at destruction?
Yeah, a lot of that, that Lee Harvey Oswald thing. I saw that in this country, that’s where I learned it. Going to the dark side, you really see the underside of life. Lee Harvey Oswald. I was in that world. I know that world. I know those people. All those guys, such sad cases, going back to small towns, guys that knew weaponry, hanging out in bus stations.
The worst years of our lives . . .
Yeah! I took the bus all the way down through Oregon, California, talking to guys in bus stations and cheap hotels. And trying to get laid, with hookers in Oakland. I met a lot of Lee Harveys. I met a lot of guys who were really screwed up. The drifter mentality in American society is very interesting. But Lee Harvey Oswald is a lot deeper than everybody thinks he is, he wasn’t just a drifter; he was something else too.
How much of your drug use was —
[Upset, frustrated.] I’m trying, I’m trying to get to a point. It came out of a thing about destructiveness. Yeah, so when I got back to New York, I got a cheap apartment on Ninth Street and I painted the whole thing red. I was doing acid and stuff. I’d really get angry and I’d have rages that were uncontrollable. Like, the Black Panthers were talking their talk and I’d say, “Come on man, stop talking it, do it!” So I went to NYU film school, and there was the big mini-revolt of 1970, and the construction workers on Wall Street beat up some kids, and I thought, let’s go all the way. Let’s get some guns and let’s do Nixon and let’s take over Washington. Let’s not talk revolution, let’s go do it. Because guys like me, we knew how to shoot. So let’s organize some stuff and go do it.
It was pure destruction, not creation. A revolution has to create something, but you didn’t have a better thing to put in place of what you wanted to destroy. You weren’t even very politicized at that point. You were only anti. You were contra. I was contra. I was contra. I knew something was off in Vietnam, and I knew subconsciously that the government was really shitting us, but I didn’t know exactly how. My rage was such that I knew something was wrong. And I thought, let’s do the government, let’s take it down. What’s the big deal? Let’s go to Washington with some rockets and some mortars and fucking fight. And we can win it. I just didn’t like all the talk, all that hippie bullshit. It made me sick. There was too much talk and not enough do.
I felt a bit like an assassin. I was alone. Like Oswald. A drifter in my own culture. I didn’t know where the fuck to go. I couldn’t go back to school, I couldn’t deal with those people. And the hippies were kind of screwed up — they were into all that [sarcastically] L-O-V-E, love-and-peace. And I was more into Morrison: “Five to one, one in five, baby, no one here gets out alive!”
Eight, nine days after coming back from ‘Nam I’m in the county jail in San Diego for federal smuggling charges, coming back from Mexico with grass, my Vietnamese grass. I’m walking back stoned out of my head. It was really stupid. I’m facing five to twenty years for smuggling. They throw me in this shit hole where they’re supposed to have three to five thousand inmates. They had like fifteen thousand kids there. And they were all poor, from the underclass — Mexican, black, some Anglos. All in there sleeping on the floor. And I had this vision in the slammer. People were saying, “Where you been, man, this is the war at home. Wake up! This is happening right here in America.” I had come back with this image of Best Years of Our Lives, some shit like that, that I’d be some kind of hero, you know. It wasn’t to be. Here was my reception. Welcome back to the USA, Amerika with a capital K! The war at home, revolution, anger! Well, that freaked me out.
I got out after about three weeks, and went home to the East Village, and I got robbed. Fucking guy came up to me, stuck a knife right on my fucking stomach, said, “Gimme your money.” I got freaked out, very frightened, because I knew either he’d die or I’d die — ’cause I knew the meaning of death and he didn’t. I was so stunned. I’ll never forget it: I looked at him, and he saw my eyes, and I walked away. Just like that, walked away. And he never followed me. He left me alone. But then I got robbed about six times up in that fucking dump. Guys were breaking into my windows and stuff.
America is — what I’m trying to say is, I saw the underside. Never forgot it. Made a severe impression on me, for the rest of my life. I live relatively well now, and I’d like to stay away from it. I have no illusions about it. I’m not in love with it, as a liberal. But I see it and I feel sorry for the root causes of it.
How much of your drug use was self-medicating?
A lot of people in a great deal of pain “medicate” themselves with drugs, rather than go to a doctor. A lot of people don’t take drugs to “expand their consciousness” so much as to numb themselves out.
I think that’s a very good question. That’s a tough one, because you cross that line, back and forth, through the years. Because half the time it’s expansion of the mind and the other half of the time it sort of creeps into numbing yourself. And I certainly am “guilty” of both. I was doing grass on a daily basis, getting high, really high; doing great acid, in the Village. I would do acid anywhere, in the subway, in restaurants, I didn’t stand on religious grounds about it at all. I never picked environments that were particularly soothing. I’d do it for a rush. I had some heavy bad trips. Volatile trips. And I had some great trips. Looking for a woman, man. I was looking for a woman. Peripatetic affairs. Wild affairs. Crazy women, crazy nutty women loose across the city. One-night stands, here, there. I was just burned out — and no love in the world. I had a few friends that would do some drugs, but I didn’t have any vets around New York. My vet friends went back to small southern towns and they would write me about unemployment and drug use and alcohol. It was depressing. I didn’t have anybody. There was no network to fall back on. I was alone. I lived in a shit hole on Houston Street. I had a broken window, with the snow drifting in in the winter. I’d wake up in the morning and there’d be a pile of snow in my room. [Laughs.] I was writing, though.
Were the drugs fueling your anger or muting your anger?
Both. The alternate expansion and contraction. I’d say acid to expand and grass, eventually, to numb. And music was so important. You can’t underestimate that, in the sixties. Listening to Motown, hour after hour, on grass, getting into that mood. And the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone. The Fillmore East.
And then I met this incredible woman named Najwa, who was four years older than me and really psychologically balanced, really strong. She was Lebanese and working for the Moroccans. I married her and she did a lot to integrate me into a more orthodox kind of life. It was too orthodox eventually, and I left again.
So this woman domesticated you, in a way.
Yeah. Returned me to the fold. But ultimately I rebelled again.
Did you have a need to rebel, no matter what it was you were rebelling against?
At that time, yes. I needed to get my freedom back. I felt like my freedom had been terminated, tamed, put in a cage.
Don’t you still have to rebel? Isn’t it just “in the soup” with you?
I think it is. How do you know?
I don’t know — it just seems like that’s part of you. If you’re not rebelling against a woman, you’re going to rebel against how videocassette rights are sold or how Hollywood is structured or how critics “misinterpret” your work. You get angry about everything, but I’d also like to know, what gives you joy?
Optimism. A good feeling around you. Family. Love. Eros. A feeling that the world is a healthy place. I think that optimism is really necessary. I like to be surrounded by gaiety, by friends who laugh, who have a positive attitude towards life. I like to be surrounded by a lot of light bulbs, turn on a lot of lights. I like to have a TV on once in a while. I like to see movies that are good, that make me appreciate the possibilities of life, that engage the mysteries of life. I like good books, fine wine, beautiful women. Intelligent men. Daring men. I like ships that sail. I like children. I like toys. Material things. Spiritual things. What do you want, a catalogue? An index?
The book of joy? Joy is a mental state. You have to be healthy to have joy. The doctors are right: life seems to me to be a cycle of pain and of pleasure. It can’t all be joy. There is that pain that comes. Aeschylus said, “Suffering that falls, drop by drop, upon the human heart, until it comes to know the infinite wisdom of God.” Aeschylus! You ever hear of it? You know the line?
Yeah, Francis quoted it to me.
[Surprised, his thunder stolen.] Did he, really?
Yes, he was talking about his boy, Gio, being killed.
Well then, Aeschylus got it right, so why not quote him.
You’ve talked about failure and humiliation as a stimulus to learning. I’m interested in this vis-à-vis control. The horse’s mouth words are: “It’s wrong always to be in control. You’d never learn anything, and learning is more important than being in control. Most of the stuff I’ve learned in my life has come from humiliation, defeat, or stretching myself and making a fool of myself.”
You mean the “Who am I?” scene in Wall Street? [Laughs.]
That’s the only line the audience actually hooted on — it was a tough New York audience. I’m interested in how you’ve, as the Buddhists say, taken the poison and made it medicine.
Good question. I think I’ve told you. Didn’t I talk about coming back from ’Nam in that sense, restructuring the personality? Isn’t that taking poison? How can I elaborate more?
Well, I’m interested in how it relates to control. Okay? The value, as you stated, of not being in control. Because now you are at a point in your life where you are very much in control.
Oh, I see.
You’re sober, you’re comfortable, you’ve got a certain amount of power, and you’ve matured —
So you’re saying, how can I learn anymore? Is that what you’re saying?
How are you going to find it if you’re in control all the time?
By not being in control all the time.
How do you do that?
You have to pick your spots. You have to be in a position as a writer. As a writer, I go to the field and I meet a whole new set of people, and I listen, and I don’t judge. I don’t prejudge. And I try to be humble, because that’s the only way to approach a new subject. As a waiter, as a research journalist (not as a controlling director), that’s where you learn. So I’m out there a lot, I travel a lot. A lot of my time is spent writing and researching. Also in my home. One can have many fights with a wife, a child, where the child is the king and you’re the slave. The child reverses the roles on you.
But I think it is more difficult, I think you’re right. It’s essential to be honest with yourself as a writer. When you’re alone with the page, you can’t bullshit yourself that much. If it’s no good, it’s no good. It doesn’t matter who you are, Woody Allen or Francis Coppola. The gods of paper, the gods of movies, are ruthless.
Is it okay to fail now, though, when the stakes are so much higher? It’s one thing to fail in that room painted red, taking acid and writing the tenth of eleven screenplays, and to go out on the limb that you’re living on; but now with the structure of the deals you’re in, and who you are, and what people’s expectations are, doesn’t that get in the way, a little bit?
[Long pause.] Failure is more severe, harsher, but I like to gamble. I’m quite willing to gamble. Knowing that failure is noble, knowing that I’ve been there before with failure several times in my life, and I’ve reconstructed myself from failures, most notably, recently, with The Hand, I guess.
That was ten years ago, man.
Talk Radio wasn’t received particularly well by the audience. It was ignored. It was a good lesson. That was three years ago. Wall Street was hooted at, by snobby people. But that was fine. I learned from that experience, a lot. Born on the Fourth of July was castigated by a lot of people, I think for unfair reasons, but so be it. Each time there’s a humiliating thing that goes on.
I don’t think being at the Academy Awards and seeing all of my team on Born fail in winning awards in all categories was a particularly great night. It was kind of difficult for me to accept that. Because I wanted them to win in their categories. When the sound people lost, it really broke me up, because I thought we had a really great sound track. When John Williams lost for music, I just thought there was a lot of politicking going on. And a lot of the people that hated the movie — the intellectual circles — took what they needed from Pat Buchanan and the right-wingers to slam the film. And that hurt!
Come on, so I mean, what are you saying that I don’t learn from . . . there’s no, the control thing, I mean I get calls every fucking week from the press, with some new scandal or other. I have no control over what they’re going to say. What the hell control? What control?
Clive James, the British writer, says, “It is our failures that civilise us. Triumph confirms us in our habits.”
[Long pause.] “Corruption is more ruthless than war.” Juvenal. Yes? Yes or no?
Corruption is more ruthless than war?
Yeah. No, excuse me, “Luxury is more ruthless than war.”
Yes, because we go to war for it, as we’re about to in the Gulf for the luxury of cheap gasoline and big cars.
[Defensively.] Did my answer about success and failure, did it convince you? Or are you questioning it still? Do you think I’m complaining about success? I’m being too, uh . . . did you buy what I said? Did you understand what I was trying to say about control?
I think I do understand.
You had no counter-argument.
I’m not arguing with you —
No, but I mean, there’s no further point you wanted to make on that.
I felt I did understand what you were saying.
[Relieved.] Okay. Success is good. It nourishes, it replenishes the soul. It makes you feel good about yourself, and there are times when you need to do that. And humility keeps you going. Humility is what makes great films. You mustn’t believe too much in yourself; you must believe that you’re the vessel for an idea. You must believe that your team is with you. That you’re working with great people, on all fronts. I think a film is like a football team going to the Super Bowl. You got to play as a team through the whole thing, through all three acts of the movie: the writing, production, editing, and distribution. That’s actually four acts. Let’s say three creative acts, and then there’s the distribution. You’re a football team and you really have to be in sync. You can feel the energy. If one actress isn’t in sync, it really screws up the flow of the whole movie.
You write from pain, quite personally, but eventually you’re going to run out of it. What happens then? Or will you have a replenishing supply to write from?
We’ll see. How can I project that?
A lot of people end up making the same movie again and again.
Nothing wrong with that. If you can make it interesting, and dress it up in new clothes in a new way, what the hell? Madonna recycles herself every six months.
Yeah, but are you seeking to achieve the level of Madonna with your films?
No, but if you can dress up the old story in a new way that interests you and makes it interesting to the public, what’s wrong with that?
Nothing’s wrong with it, but you seem, to me, to be a guy who wants a new story.
I think I do. I might be disillusioned, I might not be the best judge. I try to write ’em and make ’em. I admire the prolificness of Balzac and John Ford — they just kept doing it. And Hitchcock. They didn’t get too much into regret or remorse, looking back. If they missed ’em, they moved on. Don’t get tripped up in your self, your own psyche, or in analysis. I do think there’s something to be said about getting out there and doing it.
Are you keeping a diary?
For years. I’ve done a massive tome. Either I throw it away at the end of the course, or otherwise I might do something else, with it.
Have you saved them, year by year?
Yes, but now it’s getting dangerous.
[Incredulous.] Why? ’Cause it’s a written document.
What are you scared of?
[More incredulous.] Why? Because it’s my most private self.
Why do you write it?
To keep a record with myself of what I felt at such and such a time.
You’re afraid that if you didn’t write it —
— I’d lose track, yes. When I was doing most of the drugs, I stopped writing it for several years, and I noticed when I went back to writing it that I felt that I was doing better work. It’s like a balancing act, and I’m evaluating day by day. I was taking the time to evaluate the day before, each day. So that it would not be an unexamined life, in a non-Socratic sense.
What did you write about yesterday?
[Long pause.] Yesterday was mainly about the Doors cutting. We made some significant cuts, roughly fifteen minutes from the film in the last few days, so it’s been a massive intellectual journey into the bowels of the movie, for me. But I’ve been doing some work on the side involving the writing of JFK. Actually, I’m making some big breakthroughs mentally there, in trimming that script. So I’m trimming a script and trimming a film at the same time. Mostly idea work in the last few days. And it’s been about that. And also who I met. I met a bunch of actors and actresses, and I wrote what I thought of them.
As a coda for today, I’d like you to enter a scenario. You’re a rebel held hostage by a regressive, right-wing government, and you know where the rebel leader is. You’re his right-hand man, you’re close to him. But they have you, not him. Now, the government men holding you know that you know where the leader is — the hero of the revolution — and they tell you that they are going to round up local villagers, and take them in front of you and shoot them, one a day, until you tell them where your leader is. What do you do?
I wouldn’t hesitate at first. I would sacrifice one villager a day up to a certain point. The leader of course would know that the villagers are being killed. He would have to show his hand. The situation would have to change in a matter of, let’s say, thirty days to sixty days. But I would make a modest sacrifice in that direction. Because if Leader X is important on a larger scale than Villager Y — I’m assuming the revolution will be good for the villagers, I’m not assuming the leader is Bob Kerry of Nebraska, I’m assuming he’s going to do something significant — then it’s worth sacrificing the villagers. And I assume they are going to catch the leader if I tell them. I would wait.
You’d be strong enough to watch people being killed under your nose?
Yes, I would.
What if you had the option of suicide?
The “option” of suicide?
Yes, let’s say your captors in some way couldn’t keep you from killing yourself. Now, if you’re dead, your captors have no leverage, and there’s no need for them to kill the villagers. They’re only killing them in front of you to try to get you to break down and give them the information they need — to make you talk. So if you die, they live. Would you kill yourself ?
I’d have to. I’d have to. If I had that option, I’d kill myself. You must be ready to die for those stakes.
Let’s go right to the films. The dominant criticism of your work is that it’s too loud in some way, that it tries too hard. I know you’re aware of it, and I want to know where you think that criticism comes from.
Probably my hearing. I think that in ’Nam I went to the ear doctor [laughs] and I thought that my hearing had been impaired over there from all the artillery, and the bombs. So maybe my mixes are too loud.
You know I’m not speaking literally.
Well, I am. [Laughs.] I think your question has to be dealt with on levels. Anyway, physically, at one point I had my ears checked and the doctor said I had very good hearing. But I feel sometimes that I can’t hear people, and he says it’s probably a lack of concentration. That I’m not listening.
Obviously, I’m aware of that criticism. And obviously, it’s in my interest to practice on myself, refine my thinking, refine my heart, refine all the aspects of myself as I get older. So I try to listen. But one thing I always felt I had, when I was doing all the writing, was a good ear. As a screenplay writer I would go down to Miami and I would listen to people talk, and I feel like after a little time with you I could probably do your rhythm in dialogue. I try to pay attention to details, I try to be a realist, dealing with real things, real people, real events. I think that that sometimes plays loud — because it’s real.
I think you have to be specific. Born on the Fourth of July to me is about a very real thing: certain families that live like this, a blue-collar existence in America. And it came from observations of Massapequa, Long Island, and hanging out with Ron [Kovic], and being in his circle of friends and family. And these people say what’s on their mind: they sometimes speak loudly, crudely, wrongly, but I’m putting it down as I hear it. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s part of the vitality of life, it’s part of the contrast. But as I get older I want to do more, I’m more and more aware of contrast. Because the older you get, the more and more contrast you get in your life. When you get older, old versus young becomes a lesson. Loud versus soft.
Is that what you asked me, loud? What was the question again?
Not the volume, but that the films in some way try too hard, that you are too much in the audience’s face, that you always use the sledgehammer instead of the stiletto. Instead of your response just to that, I’m interested in where you feel this criticism comes from.
Do you agree with it?
Sometimes I do sympathize with the criticism.
Specifically, give me an example.
At the end of Born, bringing the mother’s dream back in, her dream about Ron speaking to a large audience like Kennedy. I feel, and I know other people who felt similarly, that it was hitting us over the head with something that was already in our reading of the film.
Not everybody is so perceptive. I could argue that it was two-and-a-half hours before, screen time. It was a long film. You’d gone through so many changes. I could argue that people — maybe the majority of the audience — didn’t remember. Possibly I go sometimes for the lowest common denominator, in terms of getting the message across, in terms of getting what I want to say across. I think sometimes it’s better to be wrong on the side of clarification than of obscurity.
That’s the thing my father used to always beat on me for. Because about all my earlier writing, he’d say, “That’s too obscure.” And all my English teachers would drive me nuts: “This is too obscure. What do you mean?” Something you’ve broken your heart writing, that’s so clear to you, and nobody understands. And I wrote a lot of obscure stuff. The novel was mostly obscure, it was symbolist poetry, it was Rimbaud-like. It’s part of that Vietnam thing too — maybe my hearing — and that I just want to be clear. It’s like you have to be a commander to be a director. You have to be clear, you have to really project yourself, make an effort of projection. Because I come from obscurity and confusion, essentially, and shyness. I was terribly shy in school, always an outsider. Sort of avoided groups and cliques, didn’t want to run with any gang. Always wanted to be alone. Reconciled myself to being alone. So I think that maybe part of going the other way is trying to fight all of those earlier tendencies, where I felt like I was totally irrelevant to the human race and that I was totally obscure and confused. ’Cause my childhood was very confused.
Do you ever feel that you compromise subtlety in pursuit of clarity?
Possibly. But subtlety is a technique; I admire subtlety as I would a dance step. And there are some subtle things in my movies that I know are there, and have sort of not been seen, yet, but they will be seen eventually through time. And I think the movies will last because there are subtleties that few recognize. But as I say, what is subtlety? It’s a technique. You’re essentially communicating something, but you’re doing it another way; it’s less “in your face.” It’s pulled back. But it’s essentially the same form of communication.
And I’m all for learning more technique as I go on. But the technique should never overcome the heart of the matter, and a lot of films I see that are always getting praised for subtlety have nothing to say, to me. And have nothing to do with the life I know around me. They become abstractions. A lot of their subtleties become abstractions, and abstractions, to me, are difficult to respond to, as an audience.
When Born was screened in Berlin, you were reported to have said you had never seen the audience move so much in their seats at any of your films.
Yeah, we screened it in East Germany, and it was a very emotional crowd. And they would sigh and gasp and you’d hear them physically moan, and suffer along with the protagonist of the movie —
That’s what you want —
They shared, they completely crossed the barrier, they were empathetic in the Greek sense of the word. Totally involved! We were affecting them. It was a wonderful thing to experience, for me. I like that. I like the internationalness of film. It’s great just to get into Albania, to Greece, Japan, China. When they see me on the street, I’m a friend of theirs, you know. They come up to me and shake my hand, like they know me. I don’t know them, but they know me.
Are you ever afraid that it doesn’t happen enough, that film is “just a show” — to quote from the end of Talk Radio? All these horrible, sad, frightening, deep things are discussed on Barry Champlain’s [Eric Bogosian’s] radio program, and the kid who’s invited to the studio interprets it all in a way that completely surprises and ultimately depresses the host, Barry Champlain/Oliver Stone: that it is “just a show.”
[Laughs.] That’s a very — you’ve been waiting to say that.
So that people walk out — after this catharsis — and they’re back to square one again.
[Pause.] I think you got to the heart of it. I have an ambiguous response to it, definitely. There are times I cross the barrier and I meet a total stranger and he knows my world. He’s shared my world. And there are other times I feel that everything we do, all our efforts, are for naught. That we’re mere abstractions, that we’re mere reflections of life. We’re like a mirror that passes up to life for two-and-a-half hours, and goes into their subconscious but often it’s forgotten. And there are so many other reflections going on right now — music, video, television, all kinds of leisure forms are booming, so movies are even a smaller part of it.
And I see the day where one of two things will happen. Either movies as a form will disappear. They’ll become like antique woodworking, like cabinets, seen by a few people and brought into a few homes: very nice but expensive and difficult to come by, a rarefied art form, like opera. Or, I could see it going another way: the movie that gets released in one night on a billion screens, all across the world, and speaks a universal tongue. And will come into our living rooms on a wide screen. I’d like to have the screens curved, with a tremendous new Lucas sound system. Digital picture, digital sound. A great home experience. And more people would see it. That would be great. The future of communication. Then movies would play a central role.
I would go either way. I would still make movies. I think if tomorrow I had a series of failures and people didn’t want to see my movies anymore, I would retreat back to a form where I could do as cheap a movie as I could, like Salvador, like my NYU films.
To go back to the essence of the question, about the function of film. Rousseau wrote a letter to d’Alembert, about the theatre, in which he argues against the theatre. For example, you go to watch a play, let’s say its theme is about some social problem, and it’s an effective play, and you weep over the tragedy of this problem as it is displayed for you by these characters. And you feel like you’ve experienced it, and there’s a catharsis. But it’s a false one. So the man in New York City attending a play about homelessness weeps in the theatre, but then steps over a homeless person on his way into the cab that takes him home.
Well, I don’t agree with Rousseau at all. If you never had that experience in the theatre you’d run the risk of becoming a senseless human being, without any empathy or sympathy or feeling for others. And through the act of empathy you have in the theatre, you are able to remember some of the roots of your consciousness. So when you step out in the street and you see that homeless person, you may not do anything, you may step over, but you’re thinking about it, and you’re seeing life from where he is, for that moment in time. So you’ve made one small step. So it works for me, the theatre.
It also works in a negative way, I suppose, with a horror movie. You step out and you see everything in shadows, in darkness. You see vampires and you see werewolves, like my little kid does. Like I used to, and I still do actually. [Laughs.] The act of imagination, the act of seeing beyond yourself, stepping outside your ordinary, small, mundane life, living a larger life through theatre — that can only help you in your everyday life. No matter how mundane your life is, if you can preserve the imagination, it’s a wonderful thing. It will make your life so much more joyous, less painful. When I was in my worst periods, driving cabs, horrible times in the army, horrible times in the merchant marine, life was really getting to me and I was starting to feel that I was losing it, it was the retreat to a walled world, an imaginative world, that allowed me escape and freedom.
How would you assess your strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker?
[Pause.] I don’t know. Help me on that. If you want an answer to that . . . that’s a real leading question. Say anything. [Joking, with Eastern European accent.] “Well, I can press six hundred pounds. You see this bicep, here.” God, I hate that. Do I have to answer that? Can we just come around to that some other time?
Okay, we’ll try to double back to it.
You’re very noncommittal. You listen. You’re like the Citizen Kane character, in the back of your head. You don’t agree, disagree. You don’t interrupt. You don’t lead it, you’re just sort of like a Rorschach test.
Is that bad?
Well, sometimes, when you ask cold questions like that. It throws me.
Let’s talk about how you feel you’ve “redefined heroism.” That was one of your repeated refrains after Born: that it had taken you a long time, but what you wanted that movie to do was to redefine heroism.
[Chuckles.] I said that? I never said that.
No. A redefinition of heroism? It’s not a verb.
“It took us a long time to redefine heroism.” That’s a direct quote.
Is that what I said? In what context? See, that’s the thing, you’re taking it out of context.
No, I’m not. Let’s talk about it within context.
I don’t remember quite the context. Go ahead.
This is another context: “We wanted to show America and Tom [Cruise], and through Tom, Ron [Kovic], being put in a wheelchair, losing their potency. We wanted to show America being forced to redefine its concept of heroism.” Here’s the other quote, vis-à-vis vets: “It took us years sometimes. We didn’t join the protest movement. It took us a long time to redefine heroism.”
I suppose we lived — to put it in a black-and-white era — we grew up believing that to go to war, to be courageous in a war situation, was heroic, in a John Wayne sense. And when we went over there, it was more like — Marlon Brando goes to war. [Laughs.] You started questioning everything. Nothing was what it seemed to be. Ron went to the end of the road on that matter: he lost his body in what he thought was a courageous action but which he now admits was a foolish action. He came to a reversal of appreciation for what he’d done. He’d charged the enemy blindly, without any reason.
But did he think it was foolish only because he ended up in a wheelchair as a result, or because —
Well, at first he did. He cursed himself for his stupidity in the hospital. He cursed the day he did it. He rued it. He went through a heavy period of self-loathing and self-abnegation. Many times he wanted to be dead. He went through hell. Now he’s sort of reached a point where he’s accepted his destiny, and he’s said to me, many times, “I would never have learned the things I did if I hadn’t been in this chair. And now I’m a wiser person. What would I have become if I had stayed in Massapequa, and never gone to Vietnam? Would I have been like my father?”
Didn’t the political conversion come from the personal impotence? It was as if the country had promised you something out of war, out of being a man in a war — the John Wayne idea — and it didn’t deliver it, and now you’re angry as hell at the country for not giving you what had been promised?
[Pause.] I think in Ron’s case there was a lot of that. Because I think Ron was extremely patriotic in the conventional sense of the word, with a love of Motherland. And he felt he had a special bond to Motherland, and that Motherland did not pay him back. I think that was a very strong consideration. The film was criticized in intellectual quarters for not dealing with the cerebral basis of his emotional shift, but I have difficulty believing in that basis. I believe that the emotional shift, as you say, was the result of the physical condition. And also of reading books. It’s not that he didn’t read. He was conditioned by books by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, which were very strong influences.
There’s a line of thought which argues that heroism is not changed at all by the end of that movie, that the focus of it may have changed, but the act remains the same. He’s now in a wheelchair and he’s telling his comrades to fall out, to “take” the convention hall — he’s barking orders again. He’s very much in the same place, it’s just that there’s a different enemy to attack; it’s not the Viet Cong, it’s the prowar conservatives.
Is that real life, or is that drama? Is that real life, to you? Do you believe it?
Do I believe it? Yeah, very much so.
Once a leader, it’s hard not to always be a leader.
I agree with that, yes, but that doesn’t redefine heroism in any way. The concept of individual heroic action — the male animal attempting to change the world in a traditionally heroic way — is preserved at the end of the film every bit as much as it’s offered in the beginning, with Ron in the diner with his buddies, talking about going to Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism.
Well, maybe what I meant by redefinition was taking loss and making it into victory. Most people would regard loss, as in Vietnam, or as in body, as a negative, and it’s not. Pancho Villa had a great line: “The defeats are also battles.” And my life, too, has been a series of many defeats, many defeats. [Laughs.] From an early age. Divorce. Institutionalization. Insecurities, fears, failures, the army, Vietnam. Huge amount of rejections in scriptwriting, where I developed a strong rejection virus, immunity. Defeats. But I felt I was able to transcend the defeats by learning from them.
Both heroism and cowardice are reactions to fear, are they not, in your eyes?
Yes. What are you trying to get to? There’s a quote.
“Cowardice and heroism are the same emotion — fear — expressed differently.”
It would be interesting to go through all your protagonists to see how you would interpret their heroic actions in terms of what they feared.
You don’t sound like you want to do that.
[Pause.] It’s a lot of work. You’d have to help me.
Instead, let’s talk about the position of women in your films. [Stone sighs.] It’s like going to the dentist, Oliver! The world of your films is a boys’ club, really. True?
No. I’d say the boys have been the protagonists of those movies, yes, but look at the movies. They were about ideas which primarily concerned men: Vietnam, the world of cocaine smuggling, a prison in Turkey, Wall Street, which is a men’s club. But in each film there have been more women, you know. I’m not trying to deny their existence.
No, but due to their marginality, it’s interesting to see what position they have. Since your films are not exactly overrun by women, the women that do show up are going to “stand for” more, in sort of inverse proportion to their dominance in the film.
Because less is more?
Not necessarily. Look, if you have seven major women characters in a film, each one does not carry as much weight — representationally — as if you have only one.
So now. The women in your work tend to be prostitutes, bimbos, housewives, stick figures. And if they’re developed at all, they tend to be either emotionally cold or sort of along for the ride, as appendages to the male characters.
Well, Kyra Sedgewick in Born on the Fourth of July is a girl who marches to her own beat. She leaves Massapequa, Long Island, and goes to college,
and she starts to think for herself. She becomes a terribly influential figure in Ron’s life. She was the girl he never had a date with, but that he loved, that he wanted to love. He was the yearning romantic, and went back to see her after the war with the illusion that it could all still be good together. He listens to her, he hears what she has to say. From his generation, from his town, she questions the war. When he first hears it, it’s strong coming out of her lips.
I think you’re picking an exception to the corpus.
Well, it’s an important exception.
Even she, though, has an edge of coldness, doesn’t she? She just leaves Ron at the foot of the steps to the building she’s going into on campus. Of course he can’t follow — he’s just left there, in his wheelchair.
That’s right. And then the next day she holds the hand of her boyfriend at the demonstration, which drives him nuts. She just has another life, and she knows it.
I’m not going to be noncommittal now, and I want to you to address the general issue I brought up. You pointed to a female character who goes the other way — and I think we could find a few others — but the dominant feeling one gets from the work when one sits down and screens all your screenplays and movies is —
Ellen Greene. Ellen Greene in Talk Radio has an emotional attachment to Barry Champlain, comes back for him, abandons her boyfriend in Chicago, flies down to Dallas to be with him, extends her heart once more, against all her better judgment — and he breaks it again.
Yeah, she’s ready to take more of his abuse.
And, number three, Elpedia Carrillo in Salvador — she has enough of James Woods, she tells him to go fuck off, she doesn’t want him anymore, she screams at him: he’s a drunk, he’s a louse, he’s no good. He realizes he wants her, and he begins to behave in another way. He expresses his devotion, he goes to church with her, he makes a confession with her, for her, and ultimately he risks all to take her out of the country, back to America, because she in some way has graced him, has transcended him, has given him grace. And he knows it. He knows she’s the best thing in his life.
Yes, he says, “She and the kids are the only decent thing I’ve ever fucked and had in my whole life.”
Well, that’s his mode of expression, but that doesn’t change his feeling towards her. His heart has been transformed in some way. He risks taking her out. And then he has his heart broken, doesn’t he? At the end, on the bus. And she does too. He risked it and he lost it. He’ll never be the same person again. Elpedia was the driving force that changed his heart. These are three examples of women reaching out. And in The Doors, Meg Ryan, in a sense, makes Jim more human.
Okay, let’s look at the way she’s presented in The Doors. My understanding is that Pam Courson, Morrison’s girlfriend, was a lot more independent — less traditional, less monogamous — and displayed a lot more freedom than in the movie, where she is presented almost as the jealous “wife” who’s horrified when she sees him with others and who only sleeps with someone else as the “spurned woman,” to get back at him.
Well, that’s not what I heard. I heard that she may have had affairs before, but that she really was enamored of the image of a domestic life with Jim. And wanted to make a real home. And prided herself on cooking certain things for him, and giving him a warm domestic environment to his previously solitary life. He continued to live in the motel and could not stand, ultimately, domesticity. She was not screwing everything that came along. She had a crush on certain people, often in response to the way Jim was screwing anything he cared to. It was more of a reaction to that than her being that way from the beginning. That’s the impression I got from the witnesses. [Pause.] I’m sorry, but I’m trying to defend my position.
Do you feel you’ve done a good job with the way you’ve presented women in your films?
Not in Wall Street.
They’re really commodities in Wall Street.
Yes, I think that was a failure in the writing. But I admire — I adore women. I’ve lived with many women in my life. I think women dispense grace.
I tried to make Evita, which would have been interesting. That would have been my first woman protagonist. The most hated and loved woman of her time. Meryl Streep would have been great. It would have been a wonderful movie, but it didn’t happen for various reasons. And I have another project that I’m working on that has a woman for the main character [Heaven & Earth, the third film in Stone’s Vietnam trilogy]. I would very much like to make that kind of movie, because it’s nice to work with women. I had more women working on The Doors than on any other film I’ve ever done, and I really enjoyed being around them.
You know, beauty is important on the screen. I don’t want to belittle it. I realize that. When you see a beautiful face, you respond. We like to see models of our best-looking sides. It’s as old as the world. It behooves me to use beautiful faces. I could watch Garbo for many minutes. She just fascinates me. Just her face.
When I asked you what gave you joy, and you gave me a shopping list, at one point you said, “Beautiful women. Intelligent men.” There’s a dichotomy here.
And even now, when you’re talking about having more women, the locus is physical beauty, rapture, and not intelligence or action.
Oh, I have the appetite of an African chief! [Laughs.] No, I — of course there’s the other side. But let’s say, to a man, a woman who is intelligent and beautiful is very sexy, and he gets excited by her, not only physically, but in all ways — talking to her, dealing with her in business, playing sports with her, every aspect of life becomes a playing field.
At the same time, you know as well as I do that a beautiful woman without a brain in her head can still be exciting to you. I don’t know if Marilyn Monroe was smart or dumb; my impression is that she didn’t have much of an education. But she turned many men on. Carole Lombard had intelligence and beauty and I find her ravishing, as I do Katharine Hepburn. Greta Garbo is primal. Garbo never showed her intelligence, she never had to: you imputed it. I loved Irene Dunne, because her spunkiness was great. I always loved her. She was smart, she was fresh. She talked back. I liked Myrna Loy, because she was bright, more on the refined side, more sophisticated. A little coldish, not animalistic, but that was certainly an East Coast woman to me. I loved Ursula Andress too, because of her animalistic qualities when she was young.
Now, today, actors are like new breeds of flowers: they come up each season. There are many I would like to work with. From Meryl to Glenn Close, Julia Roberts is wonderful, I can’t even name them all. Debra Winger is great, she’s intelligent, she’s fiery; she has both sides. I always had a thing for Jane Fonda, when I was in Vietnam. I still do. I think she’s an incredibly vital woman. Working with Meryl was so exciting because she’s so bright. She’s got a mind like a rapier.
And women think differently than men. All the signals that are given — you have to be a railroad man in this life to figure out all the signals.
Anthropologists have actually studied pick-up behavior in bars, and they’ve been able to catalogue a series of gestures that a woman will perform if she’s interested in the man. There’s a whole ritualistic physicalization of desire, I guess, the semiotics of attraction.
I think Carole Lombard was about as perfect as they came.
That’ll be the last word on this subject.
Do you feel I was trying to answer it, or do you think I was . . . ?
Yeah, I think you — I think you tried.
I think there are some unresolved things with my mom, that I always had. Because of the divorce. She was a bit of a foreign — how do you say? — a foreign queen. She was like a queen to me when I was a kid. She was sort of living in a fairyland. She’d come and go. She was sometimes distant and sometimes very close. It was like ECUs [extreme close-ups] and long shots. It was consistent, or steady, my relationship with her, and it turned into a messy thing later on in my adolescence, and I think there are still many unresolved problems with my mom, uh, as there were with my dad. [Pause.] I always married, I married my opposite, I mean, the opposite of my mom, which is interesting, too.
Showing maybe a kind of contrary dependence?
Yeah. A contrary dependence? How do you define that?
If you reject a certain model — and by doing that need to seek the opposite of the model — you are actually just as dependent on the model as if you were slavishly seeking to duplicate it, as in, let’s say, the man who seeks to marry his mother. You still may be equally dependent on the mother, only it’s a contrary dependence.
I see. Well, I think I have that. [Laughs.]
Speaking of parents, do you think your career would have gone in a different direction if your father had still been alive?
[Long pause.] No. I think it would have been the same. Because he died right before Salvador came out. I’m sorry he missed it, because he would have enjoyed being surprised. [Laughs.]
He’s certainly the only man in history who’s had both a movie about leftist rebels and a movie about Wall Street made for him. Both sides of the dialectic . . .
[Big laugh.] And now I’ve got to do some things for my mom. She always wants me to do Gone with the Wind. “Oliver, why don’t you do something romantic? Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, two people in love!”
Well, you’ve threatened to do a great love story.
That’s something to look forward to. That’s something to try. When I’m ready. Well, Born is a love story: it’s about a boy’s heart and his feelings for his country. It’s sort of a love affair. The best love stories are — how do you say? — unrequited. Ron’s unrequited love for America. [Laughs.]
Richard Boyle in Salvador has some of that too, no? He’s hurt by the deceptions of America when he sees her behaving badly. He, says, “I believe in America. I believe we stand for something. For a constitution, for human rights, not just for a few people, but for everybody on this planet.” Are you at one with Richard Boyle on this?
It’s a nice thought. Without becoming an “ism” I would agree with it.
You really think America has betrayed a kind of grand benevolence?
I don’t think benevolence was ever the motivating factor in American political history. I think it was already a tough place. I think there were always neo-, nascent fascists in America. I think half the people during the American Revolution were pro-British.
It was an economic revolution.
The Stamp Act, man. It was about autonomy, but not about universal freedom or human rights.
I haven’t studied it, but I think that we all as filmmakers and literati and politicians refer to an idealistic America as we do to an idealistic Greece. [Stone’s wife Elizabeth walks out of the house, towards the garage, and tells him she’s going skating. Then she kicks a huge blue ball across the lawn at us.] That’s a David Lynch image: blue ball coming at you, blonde wife, retriever by a car.
Where’s the garden hose?
[Laughs.] Then a gardener walks out behind her with one eye and a scythe in his left hand and starts to fuck my wife right in front of me!
[Returning to the subject.] It’s an idealization, but I do believe in those concepts. I do believe in democracy. I believe the people know better. That people have a cognitive function, that they’re able to understand. I don’t believe in the secrets of governments. My greatest fear in the twentieth century is totalitarianism. Totalitarianism feeds off of war. War gives the state the authority to control its citizens. It becomes the organizing principle of society, the war-making power.
I fear that governments have too much power and are getting stronger. I resent the liberalism that casts the responsibility onto the government, because it always sets up a new set of problems. I think that governments generally do badly with money and with human functions, though there are examples of their doing well. And the Constitution has been usurped. It was usurped in Vietnam when they declared war, when they declared war —
We never declared war!
Excuse me, when Johnson declared unilaterally without Congress. I think the Constitution — I think there was a coup d’état when John Kennedy was killed. So, the ideals of democracy and freedom are ideals we return to like a Frank Capra movie, because we have to believe — it’s this battle between hope and despair. The end of the world versus the birth of the world.
So you would favor continually remythologizing American history because we need a better “good” to believe in than the one that we have?
Yes. That’s a good point. But at the same time, a balance: you show the truth, but you try to show a goodness in the truth, too. It’s an argument you have with yourself. It’s an argument with yourself, a movie, a screenplay.
[It has gotten cold, and Stone asks that we go inside. We sit in his living room, flanked by two large Julian Schnabel paintings. Stone picks up a little sculpture on the coffee table in front of us.] Sleeping Buddha from Cambodia. It’s a national treasure. I took it out.
Bad, bad boy.
Let’s talk about another major theme in your work: the dominance of death. In all of your films, save Wall Street, the protagonist kills, or is killed, or barely, barely escapes death. Clearly, in some very fundamental way, it’s a moving force in what you do — both obsession and wellspring.
“Death shall have no dominion.’’ [More dramatically.] “And death shall have no dominion.” Who said that?
Beats me, dad.
You don’t know? You don’t know? God, it was a great poem by Dylan Thomas. You should hear him do the audios of it, he does his own poetry. He was a man wracked with death, as was Jim Morrison. I admire both of them as giant men who lived in the shadow of death. I feel much less enamored of death than they did; or else I’m running from it and not admitting it. I think it’s a strong force in my life. I’ve used it. It’s there. I’ve thought of death, often. At the age of eighteen I went to Vietnam as a form of death. I was ready to accept death. I saw much of it in Vietnam.
I think the Mexicans are so damn right, I have that thing in my office — a corpse, a skeleton. It grins at me: keep death around as a reminder, make it part of your life. Not to mystify it, or make it something horrific, but to live with it on a daily basis is, I suppose, to prepare for it, to get ready for it. And probably when it comes the ideal position is to want it: to be tired of life, to have exhausted the variations you intended to play as a human being. And then to go back to the womb. You want to be nascent again. You want to be quiet. You’ve had enough. You’ve seen enough people, you’ve seen enough colors, you’ve lived through enough lights and . . . [Sighs.]
Death is a framing experience of life and birth. Everything is seen in that light to me. I’m very aware of it, on a daily basis, driving around. Looking out the windshield, I see violent accidents in my head. ’Cause I saw a lot of that in Vietnam and I see death around me — quickly, obscenely being cut off. Every time I get on a plane I have to deal with the concept of death — I have to redefine it for myself, for everyone, for my child, in terms of him being hurt.
So I guess what I’m telling you is: it is a steady and mundane presence in my life, and no, I haven’t come to deal with it completely. But I like Dylan Thomas’s line, “And death shall have no dominion.” So that when it comes, it will come as a friend and not as a dominant master. It will come as my equal. My spirit will be equal to my death. I will be wanting and willing to die. That would be nice.
You’ve said you feel it coming on.
What do you mean?
Even on “60 Minutes,” you said you feel the approach of death.
Yeah. I was talking in terms of the feeling of it, yes. I didn’t mean that it was going to be on Tuesday. The older you become, the more measured your days. You understand . . . you see the lengthening shadow.
Is your work against death in some way?
All work is. William Butler Yeats said, “raise your raiments to the sky, raise your colors, raise your raiments to the sky.” Parade yourself, parade what you know, parade your human being-ness, have fun, stir some shit up, rattle some cages. “The Soft Parade.”
In Jim Morrison, you finally found a protagonist who’s as death-obsessed as you are.
No, more obsessed. I think more so. Jim lived it. He loved to walk with it.
“The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death.”
[Laughs.] Is that Jim?
Something he wrote while at UCLA.
The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death? God, what’s the context of that? Is it from his Lords and New Creatures poems?
No, I think it was in a paper for a film class.
Well, everything with Jim is death. A bottle of whiskey is death, a woman is death. Death is in every poem. Cinema of course has death in it. So do snakes, fires. [Laughs.]
Well, Roland Barthes argues in Camera Lucida that the very act of photographing is tied to the idea of mortality — you preserve the image past —
Yeah, you’re aware that the image will never return again.
So that by making the image move, and not be a static impression, you suspend mortality all the more. A denial of, and a pushing past, death in some kind of way.
Well, when each film comes to an end, it always feels like a form of dying. Making that one stamp through time. We all come together as a collective, all these people agreeing to do something, and we share this life experience, and we know we will never do this the same way again. So it’s a memory — the moment you shoot it.
Let’s focus on you and your protagonists. You very closely identify with your protagonists, I would say as much as any director now working, and I’d like to go through them and have you tell me what’s you in them.
There’s a soft parade of assholes you’ve presented us with: Tony Montana in Scarface, Stanley White in Year of the Dragon, Jon Lansdale in The Hand, Matt Scudder in 8 Million Ways to Die, Richard Boyle in Salvador, Barry Champlain in Talk Radio, not to mention Gekko in Wall Street and Barnes in Platoon, who are not protagonists but leading men. And then there are the innocents: Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, Conan in Conan the Barbarian, Chris Taylor in Platoon, Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July. And now you’ve finally come to the innocent asshole: Jim Morrison in The Doors.
The Holy Fool.
Let’s look at these guys, one by one.
[Long pause.] David, help me.
Tony Montana, let’s start with him.
Okay, use some adjectives. What are you looking for?
No, I want to know where you identify.
How I identify myself with Tony?
There’s a lot of you in these characters, no?
Come on, yes.
Tony Montana. Tony Montana. [Pause.] Well, he was an outsider to the system. He came from abroad. He jumped tracks. He was unorthodox. He was a rebel. A nonconformist who at the end of the day wanted to be a conformist. [Laughs.] And bought into the dream of the wife with the blonde hair and the mansion [laughs, looks around at his house] and then started putting security cameras outside his gates to watch the cops watching him. And then he starts to freak out on drugs.
“Me, I want what’s coming to me, the world.” Ambition too, yes?
[Laughs.] Well, there’s a little bit of a gangster in me, there’s no question. I like that grandiosity of style. I like the excess. The concept of excess works in a lot of these characters. In Gordon Gekko and Jim Morrison. Jim says, “I believe in excess.” In the power of excess. Because through excess I leave, I live, a larger life. I inflate my life, and by inflating my life I live more of my life; therefore, I know the world more. I have more experience of the world. I die a more experienced man.
Stanley White is based on a character I know called Stanley White, an LAPD
homicide cop. Stanley’s a colorful ex-Vietnam veteran marine, and I spent a lot of time with him in the streets, going around. His view of the world is not like Tony’s at all. It’s much more narrow and in some degree, vicious. Dog-eat-dog world, very tough, very street-oriented. You would not like to meet Stanley White in a fight. A real scrapper, willing to step outside the law to get the job done.
I’m talking about him.
I want to know about you. I don’t want glosses on these characters. I want to know particularly what you feel is your connection to the character.
Oh, I see.
What of you lives in that character?
Well, not much. Michael Cimino wanted him to be Polish, so he was more of an ethnic blue-collar than I was. I think I identified with the sense, the Dirty Harry sense in the film, of wanting to clean things up, of cops not really doing their job. The Chinese were pouring huge amounts of heroin in — which has been proven, by the way! — but at the time the film got a lot of flak for supposedly making up these stories about the Chinese. He was a wounded animal, Stanley, who didn’t have that much understanding for himself. He was looking desperately for love with a woman, but I don’t see that much closeness to me.
Okay, Jon Lansdale in The Hand.
Boy, that was a strange movie. At the time I thought he was the farthest thing from me, and I still do, I guess. Of course, you could say that that’s me, too. If it is, it’s certainly my darker side. Intense jealousy, paranoia about his wife, which I’ve never felt in my personal life, but maybe I’m denying . . .
See, what’s interesting about Lansdale is that everything he denied was true. He was an interesting psychological man, because he repressed everything, as we all do. We all repress something. And everything that he repressed was coming out.
It’s all about control, and what you can’t control. Very tellingly, the first panel of his cartoon strip that the camera lingers over in the beginning of the film says, “For now that I control you, I must consider how you can best serve me.”
[Laughs.] That’s right!
Which kind of serves as a metaphor for your relationship with the camera, too.
I never want it to be static, to watch the other. That the self and the other are moving at the same time — that’s the way I see the camera moving.
As a participant and not an observer.
Yeah, I always respected the camera as another actor. I hate the type of direction that makes the camera a slave. I always respect the camera. I walk on the set and I see the actor, I see the camera, and I see myself: I see a triangle. So that the camera, although inanimate, is as much a human participant to me as I am. It’s an interesting relationship. So often the camera will speak to me on the day, and say, “Not this, that.” And it will become clear to me. So I might sit here and for days make notes on what I want to do, as I would with an actor. But when I have the actor and the camera there, they start to talk, and sing, a different kind of song. The camera is different in each scene. The camera has an eerie kind of power. It will often suggest to me a better way of doing it.
So you grant it a kind of autonomy.
Yes. Exactly. Thank you for understanding me. Whereas, I’ve noticed, some directors will treat their cameras like slaves, like fascists. And I think that’s so wrong! The camera becomes an object of power, like they’re wielding a gun. I’ve noticed that attitude on a lot of sets. But I haven’t thought about it until you raised this question today. It’s interesting. Because obviously all our politics, our emotions, our sex lives are all there, aren’t they, in our relationship to our cameras.
So you’re looking for what might be described as an “unrepressive” camera style.
Yes! Totally free. I never saw this before. And I’ve tried a lot, if you look at the pictures, an enormous number of different moves. It’s very complicated stuff, too, that we’ve tried. On Born, Bob [Robert Richardson, Stone’s cinematographer] and I were really out there. On The Doors, too. It’s gotten wilder! Bernardo Bertolucci came up to me after Wall Street and gave me a wonderful compliment I’ll never forget. He just said, “I love what you do with your camera in Wall Street.” And he’s an expert of the technique, he has a love of camera, you feel it.
Some people react differently. Instead of being elated by so much movement, they find it —
[Strongly.] It’s not about movement. He was saying, “I love the camera, what it did.” It’s not about a move, it’s about what it did. Even when it’s standing still, you pick that moment to stand still.
Some people feel that your camera is pushy, that they almost need to wear a seatbelt watching your films.
That’s their problem. The world is spinning much faster than my camera and myself. Some people probably find it too slow. I think movies have to break through the three dimensions, as close as you can get. I think you go for every fucking thing you can to make it live. “You can’t shoot Buñuel-style anymore. You can, if you have very little money you can do that; I’d do it if I didn’t have the money. But it’s not enough. We’re into new technology. Use everything you can. Make it breathe, make it coil, make it live.
On the other hand, I just want to say that if the movement is wrong, it’s bad movement. If it’s still and it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It’s not about movement, it’s about the camera doing the right thing. And there’s a right thing for every scene, for every shot, for every moment. And if you’re a good director you might hit it more than sixty percent of the time. But sometimes you can make a film and your camera is in the wrong place twenty-five percent of the time. And you know it. Maybe it’s not that interesting unless you’re a real buff, but I know where it’s in the wrong spot. I can see a movie for three minutes and if the camera is always in the wrong spot, I know it, and I know I’m not going to like the movie. I think filmmakers have a thing — they can tell a bad movie from shot number three or shot number five. It’s that precise.
Louis Kahn, the great American architect, talked about trying to make each building “what it wants to be.”
Yes. And each film, each character dictates its own specificity to me. I have a kind of blank-slate approach to it. I walk out of the editing room, I say a bunch of things to the editors. I walk back the next day and I’ve forgotten what I said. I want to rediscover the same thing with the camera. I’ve forgotten the last way I shot a film. And that’s what makes it so interesting and fresh to me, because the next time every camera movement is discovered for the first time. Not knowing how I’m going to do it is so much a part of the pleasure of making a film. In my earlier days, I would often rush to get all the shots the way I wanted and to get everything defined, and I think I lost a lot of the magic and feeling.
You’re learning more about jazz, then.
Yeah. The nature of improvisation. Definitely.
Let’s take another protagonist, Barry Champlain.
He’s a . . . I would say — I feel very stupid talking like this because sometimes I’m repressing things that are there, that I don’t see — but I would think that he’s the furthest away from me. [Big laugh.] I could never get on the air and do that, that blatant confessionalism.
But it’s a show for him —
Yeah, that’s what’s interesting.
In his big speech, he says, “I’m a hypocrite. I ask for sincerity as I lie. I denounce the system as I embrace it. I want money, power, and prestige. I want ratings and success.”
Yeah, that’s a very bald speech. That’s an embarrassing speech. You’d think after that confession he’d get fired, but they love it. They love it. That’s the new media age. You can go further and further– until you hang yourself on the air. I should have had him shot in the studio, you see; that was stupid.
He also says his greatest fear is being boring. That’s a fear of yours, no?
I think my greatest fear is being bored. [Laughs.] Marianne Moore had a great line, “The best solution for loneliness is solitude.” So boredom is something you fight, and it’s important you fight it by finding some other aspect, some other level that you’re not paying attention to. One of the most recent boring things I’ve done — going to a cocktail party, I find it so boring. The conversation is never very interesting, it’s always about surface things. And I always get asked the same questions, what am I doing, what have I done? People know more about me, through my films, than I know about them. I prefer to do most of the talking — I prefer to inquire about other people than to have to answer questions about myself. Gore Vidal said that to be interesting you have to be interested.
But Barry is too much on the nose. He’s too out there. Anybody who has to do a talk show has got to be suspect. What do you think Johnny Carson’s mind is like at this stage?
Let’s not even hazard to guess. Why did you pick that project? It was so clearly someone else’s vision — Eric Bogosian’s — maybe there was a kind of freedom for you in doing it.
Maybe there was. It was an alien vision, and yet I loved the mood and the atmosphere, and I loved the concept of being able to say anything I wanted to say politically, about the state of the country. I loved the concept of not seeing the calls, of playing off audio. I loved the concept of making a movie in a claustrophobic space. Like Das Boot or an elevator movie, Lifeboat. I saw it at the time as a film noir, very much a film noir of the late forties. No hope. Claustrophobia. Despair. Protagonist being killed. Destructive affairs with women in his life.
And yet, he’s offered a rope, speaking of Lifeboat, by the Ellen Greene character.
Yeah, she’s sort of like a B-character from the forties, a Veronica Lake type. The woman in the dark who comes in, the ex-wife, who offers you a lifeline and you don’t take it, because you’re Edmund O’Brien in D.O.A.
And why not? Because as a woman caller suggests, Barry doesn’t love himself. That the reason he creates so much misery for other people, and is so mean to them, is because he doesn’t love himself. That’s not in Bogosian’s original play.
No, that’s not in the play. I think I realized that through the years. I suppose I was like Barry — you’re right, I’m hiding it. When I was younger, I was very dark, I was a B-film character, driven by a lot of self-loathing. And I think Elizabeth, my wife, has made me more aware of that, and made me a happier person, too. And my son Sean has. I’m getting sentimental, I don’t want to get that. [Laughs. Stone calls Rosa, the housekeeper, and says, “Agua.”]
I want to ask you about the videocassette of Platoon.
Jesus, here you go again. This is exhausting!
Now, in The Doors you are rightly horrified at the notion of the band selling “Light My Fire” for a car commercial, and yet there’s a Chrysler commercial at the beginning of the Platoon cassette. Lee Iaccoca comes on and says, “Platoon is a memorial, not to war, but to all the men and women in a time and in a place nobody really understood, who knew only one thing: they were called, and they went. It was the same from the first musket fired at Concord to the rice paddies of the Mekong delta. They were called, and they went. That, in the truest sense, is the spirit of America.”
[Stone laughs.] Is that so dishonest?
Is that so dishonest? Isn’t it true?
That’s the spirit of America for you, Oliver? That citizens are just the mindless body attached to a head telling them to do something that may or may not be just, right? I was staggered at the notion of picking up a copy of Platoon and seeing this guy doing a fucking commercial — first of all, just that fact, but then for him to politicize the commercial by saying the “true spirit of America” is to be called and to go. To me, that’s not the spirit of America. The spirit of America is questioning, skeptical. If it weren’t, we would never have broken away from the British, we wouldn’t even be a country.
We went around on that, you know. The first copy [for the ad] was unacceptable. The first copy dealt with Americans only. I think the opening line is about . . . what is the first line?
“This Jeep is a museum piece, a relic of war. Normandy, Anzio, Guadalcanal, Korea, Vietnam. I hope we will never have to build another Jeep for war. This film, Platoon, is a memorial, not to war, but to all the men and women in a time and in a place nobody really understood,” etcetera.
I think you’re right. I think I shouldn’t have done that.
What was it doing there? The film made $180 million!
It was a small English company, and it had a lot to do with the video release of the film. It was a good guarantee for Hemdale. And I wasn’t that involved. I didn’t take a stand on it. I just changed the copy. I said, “This copy is unacceptable,” and they came back three or four times with different copy, and I finally signed off on it. I was probably wrong. The copy should have been better. I learned a lesson.
What about the actual act itself of selling a product, or in this more sophisticated case, the image of a company, and attaching that to a work of art?
[Long pause.] Yeah. In America, we’ve been so packaged. You go to a theatre and you see the distributing company logo, and you see Universal’s logo. You accept labeling, you accept being packaged. The videocassette comes in a wrapper and it’s being advertised like Kellogg’s cereal. They’re patrons for artists; it’s like working for the pope.
But you seem to be embracing it, not merely accepting it.
No, they came to us.
But the whole idea of attaching a corporate identity to a work that was so personal, and so political; and it seems like in The Doors you really come down on Morrison’s side about this song, to the point where you —
Well, it happened that way. He was very sensitive about that issue.
I know, but Oliver, there are all sorts of ways you could have presented that material. And if you hadn’t thought that Jim was correct, I don’t think you would have made a special point of it, to the point of showing a commercial in the movie that never was actually made!
Well, it was trivialized, see: they took the music that he had written. [Robby Krieger actually wrote the music.] They didn’t do that in this case, they didn’t take Platoon and turn it into a commercial. They separated the two.
I understand the difference.
I’d rather have Born on the Fourth of July on television with schlock commercials in between than not have it on at all. We’ve grown up with such a corporate culture that one doesn’t think twice about it.
What about posing for the Gap ad? Did you think twice about that?
The Gap ad I enjoyed doing, in terms of just a vanity/ego thing, I suppose. I got paid $700. I didn’t do it for money. I was at a certain age, I thought those photographs were incredible and I’d like to have a decent photograph of myself at the age of forty-three in my life. Just as a marker. I like the clothes. They’re cheap. It’s not like working for Armani. They gave off an image of playfulness, an egalitarian image. What did I do wrong? [Laughs.]
I just wonder if you consider how you “commodify” yourself?
I agree. Yeah. But there’s some interest in doing it. I have an Andy Warhol attitude — we’re postmodernists. Look at Andy, he sold everything. He sold his toilet paper, probably.
But he didn’t win all the “Man-with-Most-Integrity of the Year” awards that you do, Mr. International Integrity!
[Laughs.] Does that means that I have to hate integrity?
[Laughs.] Give me a break! Somebody gives me an award, so now I have to have integrity?
You get a lot of awards, man.
I don’t solicit them.
Do they mean anything to you?
I can’t remember which one it is. Some of them do.
Do you feel the same way about your work that Warhol felt? You’re selling one idea today, another one tomorrow. No need for consistency, integrity? Are you interested in the Warhol ethic?
I don’t want integrity to block my creative growth. Each time I’ve worked on a film I’ve put my whole being into it, and hopefully there will be some kind of consistency at the end of the day.
But I know how strongly you identify with Morrison, and I can’t see him posing for a Gap ad.
That was the sixties and they were very anti. The war was on, too. There was a different feeling. Look at the way movies are made. Who makes them? Chryslers, Jeeps, whatever? It’s the same thing. What does a filmmaker do? He goes to the highest bidder and he whores out his services. He gives his privatest fantasies public being — he prostitutes. So I don’t have a very high self-esteem, maybe that’s what you’re saying. Maybe because I see myself as . . . an artist basically begging for a patron. I think there’s a lot of that in me, that I feel very lucky each time I get the money to make a picture.
When you read me those lines now, they certainly sound like they’re in bad taste — that Americans should just go and serve. I think the text is wrong. But is the act of having done it for Chrysler any different than the act of having done it for Matsushita?
Does the irony of your being at Carolco impress you — since they were the people who brought us Rambo?
That’s the nature of the business. In the thirties and the forties they would make the potboilers, the formula fare, and then occasionally they’d take a shot at something else. I’d rather be allied with a successful company that can get it out in the marketplace. The irony of it? Yeah. I think that Mario Kassar [the head of Carolco] was certainly aware of it, because he made his fortune with Stallone. [Laughs.]
The very thing that you despise and oppose.
[Long pause.] Listen, I can’t say I despise it. I said Rambo is a comic book, I never took it beyond that. I did not do Platoon as an antidote to Rambo; I wrote Platoon way before Rambo ever fucking existed.
You said, I quote, “Platoon is an antidote to Top Gun and Rambo. It will make them think twice before they go marching off to another war.” And then you called Top Gun fascist, and I assume you thought Rambo was equally fascist.
It was. It was a fascist comic book.
As you know, Oliver, people are always most interesting in their contradictions. As you are probing some of Morrison’s, it only seems fair that we probe some of yours.
I like Carolco because they put up the money quickly, and they gambled. And there’s not much interference. There’s one man, that’s Mario. He’s like an old-time filmmaker. He’s the boss. And it’s great to deal with him instead of a bureaucracy; that’s why I’m there. He likes directors. He likes movies. He really enjoys watching them. He watches his own movies, the ones he produces, six, seven, eight, nine times. He sits there, and he gets a lot of the details.
A question about verisimilitude: the demands and responsibilities of doing historical fiction. You’ve been criticized for taking too many liberties with certain things.
The death squad burial site in Salvador, which I don’t think works in the context of the film, because if you had that image, hundreds and hundreds of bodies spread out at a burial site, it would be on every front page of the world. That’s not what those burial sites looked like, so I thought the inaccuracy compromised the integrity of the film. And people also complained about your putting the rebels on horseback, as a shameless romanticization of the rebels. I know you’re going to get criticism for the Doors film over the commercial, which you show on TV, but which Morrison stopped before it ever became a commercial. So I’m curious as to the process of justification: how you justify — or don’t justify — altering reality so that it will play differently in the film.
I justify it . . . I suppose [pause] with Born, for instance, I justified it at the time as being true to the spirit of the times. Ron was not actually wounded in Miami — gassed and beaten in the street — but he was gassed and beaten other places. But there were riots in Miami and many people were arrested, vets. There was fighting. I think I did the right thing. There was no riot at Syracuse, and the Syracuse police department got all upset, but there were riots that week at many colleges all over the country because of Kent State and the Cambodia invasion. He never went to Georgia to confess his crime, but he wrote about it in his book, didn’t he? Which was a confession to him, a very strong confession. So I took the liberty of taking that confession — which was the most important thing in the book, the theme of the book — and externalizing it, having him go to Georgia and telling these people that he killed their son.
Why are we never aware that Ron Kovic/Tom Cruise is conscious of the selfishness of that action?
I think he is aware of it. I think he knows he’s hurting those people. I think he’s so desperate that he has to; he has to either save himself or hurt them. But it’s more important that he save himself. And they’re not going to die from it. I think those people would get over it. I think anybody knows that you go to war, you go to war; if you’re killed by friendly fire, or enemy fire, does it really make a difference?
In their minds it probably did. They had a certain kind of illusion about what happened to him.
Maybe we should shatter their illusion. War shouldn’t be illusion. They should see the corpses. Therefore, it was the greater good versus the greater horror. Ron had to save himself, he did it. He subordinated the harm done to them to the greater good it did him.
I’m more interested in how you grapple with subjects that are very rooted in history, and how you make decisions on when to stray in service of your fictionalized narrative.
I would probably do the two Salvador things differently now. I think at that time, being an unknown filmmaker, I wanted to have maximum impact right away for a subject that would not interest most Americans. I probably got carried away. I put the rebels on horseback because I loved the imagery of the tank versus the horse. I used the maximum number of people in the death field because it would have visual impact. I would probably do those scenes differently.
In The Doors, Morrison’s line “I’m not mad — I’m interested in freedom” is like an epitaph for this film. He’s not mad as in “crazy,” but he is mad in the sense of “angry,” isn’t he? My question is, if you need to rebel, to shock authority, to piss on people’s carpets — and it seems like Morrison had that emotional or psychological need — are you really free at all? Aren’t you just a slave to something else — your own rebellion perhaps — just as much as people who are slaves to conformity?
Contrary dependence? The role of the rebel as essentially a slave?
Maybe. I don’t doubt that Morrison was interested in freedom, but he was most certainly quite mad — at least in the sense of angry. There’s all sorts of hostility radiating out of this guy; that’s one of the things that makes him so interesting.
He was interested in freedom from his own madness.
Maybe that’s the resolution. He was very conscious of his own will to self-destruction. After Joplin and Hendrix died, he’d tell his friends, “You’re drinking with number three.”
Yeah. Yeah. I would like to believe that he went out smiling, he liked it, he enjoyed it as it happened, because he was in love with the death experience. He wanted to experience it, and he did. He had busted the limits on sex, for himself; on drugs, he’d taken every kind of drug; on the law, he busted the law, which I think hurt him the most, the trial really beat him down and tired him out, made him more aware of orthodoxy and the inevitable triumph of orthodoxy; and I think he busted through on the concept of success. He had success, he was God on earth for a while, he had everything he wanted, and he got bored with it. I think he became enamored of failure. He went on a failure trip, too, and I think he enjoyed busting through on the failure trip, by making a fool of himself in public, many times. He wanted to be an asshole, he wanted to be hated.
Because maybe then other people’s opinion of him would confirm his opinion of himself?
Partly. And when he was a young lion he had a higher opinion of himself.
Where did all his meanness come from, his abusiveness?
Meanness? Abusiveness? The only abusiveness I know of — from all the witnesses — was when he was drinking. The Irish asshole side, the Dylan Thomas side, would come out, and he’d rant and rave and get into fake fights. And he got his ass busted a couple of times by guys who took him seriously. He would make an asshole of himself in public to go through all forms of experience. He wasn’t about reserve and dignity, which his father had represented to him.
It seems, though, that when he was sober, or was on other drugs, that he would be one of the gentlest souls. Everyone would refer to how gentle he was, how sensitive, how well-spoken, how shy. He certainly had two sides: he’d go from being the most sensitive, loving, caring person, who talked to everybody — he was very democratic in his approach to life, which I love — and then when he performed, he would go into a shamanistic, devil thing, and then when he was drinking, he would be a monster at times. I also heard that when he was drunk sometimes he would behave very sweetly. So everybody attests to Jim’s kindness. He gave away everything, you know. There was a Jesus quality about Jim. He gave of himself: his body, his life, his possessions. Nothing was his. He was a sharing person. It’s the Irish dichotomy, I suppose.
Were you trying to dramatize that dichotomy in the film?
We tried, you know. That’s the hardest stuff to do. To show the holy and the fool at the same time. I tried. Probably, people might say I didn’t get enough holy.
Do you view your task as an artist as more demythologizing him or remythologizing him?
That’s a good question. Aren’t they the same thing?
Give me some help here.
Demythologizing is stripping away the myths that have been built up around him, either by the person himself or by the forces of the day, media, friends, some of which he may have been trapped by himself; stripping those away to show the real human underneath them, in all his spectacular peculiarity — the person. Remythologizing is taking the corpus of Morrison, twenty years later, with the Doors selling more records than ever, and glorifying and glamorizing the artist as victim, as hero — the myths which Morrison himself was conscious of. He says, “We got to make the myths, we got to make the myths.” Well, you’re a mythmaker too, you’re a filmmaker.
I suppose my answer to that is that we were remythologizing, keeping the myth. Keeping the myth. But to me it includes demythologizing at the same time. I don’t know why, it just does. It’s not like he’s any less a person for being demythologized. We show, certainly, the asshole part of Jim, but to me it only makes him more mythological. So they perform the same function for me, I don’t know why. If you try to strip away from a person, you end up making him greater. By the fact that you’re trying to strip. Why? You think you’re taking layers away, you may be adding layers. [Laughs.] You understand what I’m saying?
“The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” How can we be so sure?
Maybe it leads to the palace of disintegration? Of psychic fracturing? Of death?
You need strong cojones to take that medicine. You risk becoming larger than life. I guess you could become grotesque. It’s a road to travel warily, no question.
Are you at the palace? You’ve certainly lived through a lot of excess.
I don’t know. I’m at mid-life in my journey, that’s for sure. [Laughs.] I’m in a dark wood, babe. I feel often like a neophyte on the road, I really do. I don’t say that immodestly. I still feel very innocent, in many ways.
Do you feel like a great artist?
[Long pause.] God, if I told you my true feelings about that, they’d never let go of me — I’d just be setting myself up.
You’re thinking about what “they” are going to think. I want to know what you think. I want your true feelings.
My true feelings? [Pause.] I never doubted it, from day one. When I was eighteen, I just felt like I had a call. Like I had a call. And living up to that call has been the hardest part. I’ve got a lot of work to do on myself, on what I’m doing, on my craft, but I never had a doubt.
That confidence must be a gift.
Yeah, I’m sure it is. Oh, I’ve had periods of doubt and lack of confidence. I wasn’t prepared for all the shit that’s thrown on people by others. I always thought it would be just a celebration of joy to do good work. I didn’t realize that doing good work is often not enough, that there’s a fashion to the times. And there’s such a thing as luck. We get buffeted by the storms of temperament — they send us astray for months, sometimes years, at a time. But we all must naturally return to our natural temperament. And when we do, we find ourselves again. Our life is the working out of our destiny, our character. I believe you have a certain character.