In the history of the Academy Awards, only 18 men have ever won the Oscar for best director on two or more occasions. One of those was Oliver Stone – winning in 1986 for Platoon and 1989 for Born On The Fourth Of July. I was thrilled to catch up with this acclaimed filmmaker about his new film, Savages. You can check out my review here and the transcript of the interview is below.
You can download an audio extract by clicking here.
Matt: I’ve talking with Academy Award winning director Oliver Stone – the man responsible for such films as Platoon, Wall Street, Born On The Fourth Of July, JFK and Any Given Sunday. His new film, Savages, is now in Australian cinemas and so I say hello to Mr Oliver Stone, how’s it going?
Oliver: Hi Matt, I’m fine. And yourself?
Matt: I’m very well. Don Winslow’s book was first published only two years ago and now here it is as a major motion picture. How did you first get involved with this project?
Oliver: I bought the book cold with my own money. It was different. I’d never read anything quite as unique and it had no clichés. It was about the contemporary drug landscape of California and Mexico. On top of that, Don added the story of these three young people who are taking on the older generation. It becomes quite complex and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Matt: As a filmmaker, you mentioned that you read this book. Do you read a lot of books trying to look for that next possible movie?
Oliver: Not really. My agent rarely sends me things unless he truly believes in them. He said you should read this and that it’s really different. I read it, bought it right away and then worked with Don Winslow and Shane Salerno on-and-off for about a year to come up with the script. It had a lot of sex, drugs and violence that would scare most of the studios away but we did get a buyer and we ended up making the film.
Matt: So how does it go working with Don? It’s his novel and I’m sure he was very attached to it.
Oliver: In the film world, the film director / co-writer becomes the next step. It is painful for a writer but Don was a mature man and we agreed on most of everything while disagreeing on a few other things.
Matt: You mentioned the violence and sex that’s in the movie and I know it’s always a delicate balancing act trying to get films past the censors with an appropriate rating. What was your thought process at the start about you wanted to illustrate the story’s violence on screen?
Oliver: In my opinion, it comes down to the tension of the piece. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is as long as you keep the audience wondering what will happen next. You wonder “who are these people?” and form relationships with your characters, whether you like them or not.
Telling a story that was honest to the spirit of this time was essential. I didn’t know these three young actors. They were all fresh to me – Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch. The three older actors I had in my mind when we were writing the script because they were so defined – Benecio Del Toro as the henchman, Salma Hayek as her boss and John Travolta in a surprising turn as an over-the-hill Drug Enforcement Agent who is actually smarter than he seems.
Matt: Let’s talk about the cast and for me, the star performance came from Salma Hayek. You sense her vulnerability but she’s such a vicious, calculating, manipulating character. Was she easy to get on this project?
Oliver: She was my first choice and she was happy to do it because she liked the material. Benecio, Salma and Blake changed their roles the most through their personality. It is how the filmmaking process goes – I work with the actors and I learn from accommodating them.
This movie came alive for me and I’ll remember it for a long time. It certainly fits the “beach mode” and I thought maybe the Australians might like the homage to beach life.
Matt: It does look great and I love the way you’ve used film as opposed to digital.
Oliver: Yes. There’s a huge difference still – at least 25% in terms of resolution, depth and grit. There’s nothing quite like film.
Matt: I realise you had Jennifer Lawrence originally on board for the Blake Lively role but she dropped out to do The Hunger Games. Does changing an actor like that dramatically alter the film? Do have to rethink certain scenes or other actors because of that fact?
Oliver: Oh yes, that was a big thing. She was certainly smart because The Hunger Games was already a famous book. It was a good move for her. Blake Lively has a different sort of personality from Jennifer but I liked them both. With Blake, she took this in a different director and we did rewrites with her in mind.
Matt: For me, the film didn’t seem to be trying to preach too much in terms of the war on drugs. It’s more of an entertaining, “who’s really in control” kind of story. Was that the intention? Or is there an underlying point here that I didn’t quite catch?
Oliver: No, you’re right. This is a film about power. It’s about the relationships between people and how they change. It’s also about how you don’t know who you’re really dealing with sometimes.
A good example is the character of Aaron Johnson. I won’t say where he goes to but he starts the movie as a peace-loving man who wants to make a deal with the cartel. Blake Lively is similar. She’s very much a “beach bunny” but where she ends up in the end is very interesting. It’s very much a surprise ending.
Matt: Yeah, the ending is interesting. We probably better not talk about it too much because we don’t want to give it away but is that how it played out in the book or did you change it?
Oliver: No, it wasn’t in the book. There were many different elements in the film that take the best from the book for movie purposes and runs from there.
Matt: You obviously had the content of Don’s book but you do any of your own research on the marijuana business, the drug cartels and the corruption within the DEA?
Oliver: Yeah but I didn’t have to look too far. I went down to Mexico with Benecio and hung out with some heavyweights. We spent time with an agent who’d been with the DEA for 30 years who helped us enormously. We also hung out with a lot of independent growers here in California where marijuana is legal under state law. They have some great yields and they grow their product very scientifically with good technology.
Matt: I’m curious about what it was like down in Mexico. Was it a drug cartel that you were with?
Oliver: Yes. It’s a different approach down there though. Mexican weed is created at a very cheap price and it’s very impure. California is different in that it’s not a very big market but it’s more of a connoisseurs market – like a wine.
Hanging out in Mexico, I can’t tell you too much who but there were some enormous lunches on incredible estates. The difference between wealthy and poor is shocking in Mexico.
Matt: You’ve been making movies now for over 30 years. Are you still as passionate and energised by the industry as when you first started out?
Oliver: I think each movie is its own world and I adopt the approach of an actor in the sense that I enter into the subject for that period of time. Whether it be one year or two, I sort of become that and leave a small piece of myself behind.
When I come back to the world, the business has changed a little. There are new studios heads and people have moved around but I think what most people respect is a story. It doesn’t matter who young or ancient you are, there’s a collective consciousness about great stories.
Matt: I guess I’ll finish up by asking about The Untold History Of The United States. It sounds like a fascinating project. What can you tell us about it?
Oliver: Thank-you. You’re very well informed and I appreciate it. It’s my latest project and I’ve been working on it off-and-on as a documentary for about 4.5 years with Peter Kuznick of the American University. It’s starts in the 1940s and goes through until now and goes through things we were not told in school about history. It looks at history upside down in a sense.
It’s about what children really don’t know and the mythologies that are allowed to grow. In typical Oliver Stone fashion, I’m trying to make people rethink what they assume to be.
Matt: It sounds great and I can’t wait to see that as well but in the meantime, Savages in now in theatres in Australia. Oliver Stone, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Oliver: Thank-you Matt, you were very kind.