Dialogue: Oliver Stone on Creating Controversy Yet Again with an American History Documentary

Dialogue: Oliver Stone on Creating Controversy Yet Again with an American History Documentary

Oct 17, 2013

The always interesting, frequently controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone has never come up with a shortage of perspective on key moments in history. We've seen his views in a wide range of films equally acclaimed and criticized for their take on the times--Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born of the Fourth of July, The Doors, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, World Trade Center and W. (Stone’s next film, announced just days after this interview, will focus on Martin Luther King Jr.). As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy approaches on November 22, the writer-director gives some insight into two of his most colossal undertakings.

First, there’s his electrifying 1991 political conspiracy thriller JFK, being rereleased November 12 on Blu-ray in an Ultimate Collector's Edition that includes17 additional minutes of footage, new documentary material, a collectible book and the 1963 film PT 109 about JFK’s wartime heroism. And then there’s this week's BD release of his sprawling, epic 2012 documentary series The Untold History of the United States for Showtime last spring (also available as a book), an arresting look at American history from World War II to contemporary times presented as unfiltered by traditional rhetoric or revisionist leanings.

Sitting down with Movies.com, Stone took an equally unflinching look back at his own history.

On the controversy and criticism that typically surrounds his efforts:

[My projects] will always have an "Oliver Stone Effect." I have created enough controversy that I’m always fighting an image. JFK was that divide. I was criticized for Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon and for The Doors before that – less so for Wall Street, although it was. And when I made JFK, I never really came back. I reached a place where I was radical. I was not to be trusted. My critics said I was making up things. Well, we researched that movie, we put out a compendium to that movie that is still available. We may have made a few mistakes, but nothing major. We got it right from eyewitnesses and all the information that we read.

And the Assassination Records Review Board – appointed in 1992 and went on ‘till 1998 – they had four million pages that substantiates and opens up further the holes we pointed out: that Warren Commission is Swiss cheese, it’s Alice in Wonderland, It doesn’t make any sense from the magic bullet theory to Oswald – the members knew that. Even Lyndon Johnson doubted the findings, they knew it was a whitewash, any more than the 9/11 Commission was finally trusted.

On whether his film’s take on history can have a ripple effect on viewer’s opinions:

JFK has a great speech at the end: “It’s up to you,” it ends. Costner’s last summation in the courtroom is based on – almost, not verbatim – [Costner’s real-life character Jim Garrison’s] final words. Do I think it would have a result? Listen, it was there then, it is there now. I hope people can see it again. I hope you remind them of some of the power of the film. I would urge them to think for themselves.

On the growing legacy of JFK:

I think JFK had some great lessons. I got lots of letters from people back then, "This really changed my life. I made me think about things in a different way." I can’t give you all the facts, but I can think about things in a different way. Our government is not necessarily one to be trusted. Governments lie – that goes on all the time. Jim Garrison, criticized as he was, was one of the gutsiest guys to ever bring a case in the public against the covert operation of this government. That is splendid. He was much criticized when our movie came out; now he might be seen as more of an oracle for today’s age than as a loony toon.

On not viewing his theatrical films as literal history:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say you saw the history of Vietnam in my films. You saw the atmosphere of three stories that I did – my own, to some degree [in Platoon], Ron Kovic’s [in Born on the Fourth of July] and Le Ly Hayslip [in Heaven and Earth]. But they’re not histories – I would suggest chapter seven of Untold History to get a sense of Vietnam historically, and that's not complete. It’s just part of that story.

On what motivated him to explore history through documentary in recent years:

Whatever your feelings about George [W.] Bush, for me it was a nightmare, a personal nightmare, as a veteran of the Vietnam War, that we were repeating everything that we had done wrong. I thought "We’ve got to do something more for my children. If I make another feature film, it might be a big hit, but it’s not going to give me the same satisfaction." I’d like to be honest to my time – and I lived from 1946 to now – and I want to understand why our country, which I love so much and was a great country when I was young, became this monster vampire. Why? It’s a basic question. You’ve got to ask those questions.

And I could get the financing; I had the backing and the trust of enough people to get this done; and I also got it on the air, which is a miracle in this country, because it would never be on the air on commercial television. They don’t want controversy – that doesn’t sell product.

On the significant difference between dramatizing and documenting:

Huge difference. I mean, you have actors, you have sets, you have a script. This is all raw. All you have is the archive footage and Peter Kuznick who is a historian. I'm a dramatist. I'm trying to take about 25, maybe 35 hours of film and simplify it down to a dramatic formula. I want to make documentaries exciting.

On the ups and downs of following his own creative path in Hollywood:

I think a lot of my movies have been judged more for content than for the style of the movie, and the narrative flow, and the smoothness of it. I think that’s a shame. I think in some ways I was eliminated from the list of filmmakers because I had things to say. I do. And I think it’s always nice to have a critic, a Roger Ebert, come along and say "Look, this is good filmmaking." I work very hard at filmmaking. I spend hours in the editing room too, and writing, directing, all that. I take it very seriously. It’s a craft. It takes skill, but skill seems to be… well, it’s a new style now. It seems like people can just throw up anything and make a movie. It’s a different ball game completely. They make 16 movies a week. I just don’t have an understanding of that.

On what it means to have actually changed hearts and minds through his work:

Every director wants an audience. What does it mean to me? It validates what I’m doing. It gives me courage to go on, I would say. There’s nothing better than that. And nothing worse than rejection.

 

 

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