This feature was originally published in Empire Magazine, Issue #328: October, 2016.
He’s been hailed as a genius, a provocateur, and something of a taskmaster – and that’s just by his friends. We go in search of the real Oliver Stone…
It often feels, four decades into his Hollywood career, that Oliver Stone was born controversial. The director of Platoon, JFK and now the forthcoming Snowden is a startling series of contradictions: a philosopher willing to throw himself into physical conflict; a loyal friend who pushes his casts to breaking point; a commercially successful filmmaker who ignores studio rules. We talked to his friend and collaborators – Wall Street and W. screenwriter Stanley Weiser, Platoon star John C. McGinley, Talk Radio playwright/star Eric Bogosian, W. star Josh Brolin and Salvador star Tony Plana – to try to unravel the puzzle…
“Conquer your fear and I promise you, you will conquer death.” – Alexander (Colin Farrell), Alexander
Oliver Stone went to Vietnam to die. The 21-year-old, boarding-school educated stockbroker’s son was, in his own word, a “complicated” youth who’d already written an unpublished, 1400-page Joycean autobiographical novel and dropped out of Yale to teach English in Saigon. Directionless, he fixed on war as “the most difficult thing a young man could go through”, and realised that, as Vietnam was likely to be the only conflict of his generation, he’d better act fast if he wanted in. He signed up for the US Military specifically requesting combat duty in April, 1967, and was in the thick of it by September, not expecting to return. The 18-month experience – which obviously he did live through – saw him decorated for “extraordinary acts of courage under fire” and would inform his work and politics for the rest of his life.
Post-Vietnam, he enrolled on NYU’s film course, where he became friendly with Stanley Weiser, later the screenwriter of Stone’s films Wall Street and W. “He was certainly brilliant,” Weiser recalls. “He was an enfant terrible; provocateur; brooding loner; visionary. He was older than the rest of us, and embittered because he’d been to Vietnam, whereas all the rest of us had had the privilege of not going to war. He was certainly scarred by Vietnam and he didn’t talk about it. He was very private. To this day I really don’t know much about his wartime experiences.”
Those experiences would, of course, feed directly into Stone’s trilogy of ‘Nam films: Platoon presenting a grunt’s eye view of the conflict on the ground; Born On The 4th Of July detailing the combat and post-war experiences of disabled veteran Ron Kovic; and Heaven & Earth, which attempted to present the war and its aftermath from a female Vietnamese perspective. Tantalising glimpses of Stone’s personal experiences can be inferred from all three, as well as from the disc commentaries he provides: talking about the young Stone with some incredulity, as if he’s describing somebody else.
“I became aware of my character in Platoon, Sergeant O’Neill, being an amalgamation of a couple of people Oliver had known in Vietnam,” recalls John C. McGinley. “I thought of O’Neill as like those pilot fish that suck off the kills of the sharks, feeding off any character that can further him. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. I kind of created a back story for him that he probably wound up in South-East Asia because he was a REMF – Rear Echelon Mother Fucker – that probably was playing cards somewhere in Germany and cheated or something, and the colonel or major he cheated transferred him to South-East Asia, which he’s absolutely not equipped for. Oliver loved all that stuff. For the two weeks before the shoot, when he put us through the boot camp, this stuff was all we talked about.”
“Some say he was a fool…” – Philip (Val Kilmer), Alexander
Stone’s indelible, life-changing experience lead to some deadly serious drama, but it’s perhaps surprising to learn that he isn’t averse to some practical joking about it. Talk Radio’s writer and star Eric Bogosian remembers the director prepping Born On The 4th Of July at the same time as Talk Radio was shooting (the driven younger Stone made seven films in seven years, from Salvador to JFK). “The day we did the scene at the baseball stadium he was running make-up tests on Tom Cruise at the same time,” Bogosian recounts to Empire. “They wheeled Tom Cruise into my dressing room in a wheelchair and told me he was a Vietnam vet that wanted to meet me. I go, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and then everyone starts laughing and Cruise stands up and it’s oh-so hilarious…”
“He can be very tortured and deadly serious,” considers Josh Brolin, “but then he can turn around and be this giddy kid. I love seeing him giggle. There’s nothing better.”
“The truth is never simple…” – Old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), Alexander
The Vietnam films form part of a broader trend in Stone’s directorial work, documenting and interrogating key points in American history. JFK, Nixon and The Doors all play out in much the same era, while Salvador deals with the Salvadoran death squads and Civil War of 1979 and 1980. More recently he’s made documentaries about Fidel Castro and the successive left-wing governments of Latin America. He goes so far as to make a distinction between “films” and “movies”: the former serious and the latter comparatively more frivolous. U-Turn and Savages both explicitly carry the credit “a movie by Oliver Stone”. The author Graham Green did something similar: self-branding his lighter works “entertainments”.
Tony Plana, who played Salvador’s death squad leader Major Maximilian Casanova (based on the real-life Roberto D’Aubisson), remembers being immediately impressed by Stone’s “underlying push for the truth”. “I did a lot of research for Salvador on my own,” he tells Empire, “but Oliver inspired that in me. While it was obviously going to be subjective, he also wanted Salvador to feel real and tangible, which imbues you with a great responsibility. A lot of dictators and generals in Latin America were schooled in the art of warfare and the art of repression by America. I think that was one of the reasons why Oliver was interested in this story: it had a very real American connection, and you couldn’t help but be sucked into this vortex of passion, driven by historical forces and Oliver’s compelling need to expose the truth of a historical reality and bring it to life.”
Lately Stone’s narrative features have delved into contemporary events (the ancient history of Alexander remains an anomaly). World Trade Centre was released just five years on from 9/11, while his biographical satire W. dealt with the George W. Bush presidency before its dying days had even played out. His film about Edward Snowden, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the NSA whistleblower, is imminent.*
While the time frames were more modern, however, the impetus remained the same. “My major impression of him was insatiable curiosity about why people do what they do,” says Josh Brolin (W.’s Dubya). “He’s constantly trying to get deeper into the human condition, this unmasterable thing. Yes he’s intense, yes he’s left wing, yes he’s a conspiracy theorist. But it’s less that he’s on this great moral high horse and more that he’s just constantly questioning. There isn’t an answer necessarily with him. It’s more of a constant search.”
Weiser says that, even after 40 years, he remains amazed at the lengths Stone will go to immerse himself in a subject. “It’s journalism in a sense,” he muses. “When you work with him he makes you duck into every corner of your subject to write about it. When he was writing Scarface [a screenplay-only Stone gig, directed by Brian De Palma] he mingled among the mobsters in Cuba. For a time we were working on a movie about the Civil Rights Movement, and he told me I should go down and live in Mississippi for a while and just hang around and meet killers and live in a motel and travel around. He just expects people to do outlandish things like he does himself.”
“Great deeds are donned by men who took and never regretted.” – Hephaiston (Jared Leto), Alexander
Stone’s commitment to his vision extends well beyond the writing, meaning he often runs into difficulties through his refusal of any level of compromise. The NFL withdrew their support at the eleventh hour for the American Football epic Any Given Sunday, over its portrayal of widespread drug use within the sport and Stone’s blunt refusal of their suggested changes. It turned out that W. was going to be impossible to fund in the US, necessitating the scraping together of its budget from China and Europe. “Oliver’s never like, oh we have to take this one fuck out for the PG-13, or we have to cast this hot chick to get the young audience,” says Brolin. “I mean, he’ll do that for himself but he won’t do it for the audience or the studio! He wants to be appreciated but he’s not about to pander to anybody.”
Unsurprisingly, Stone expects the same level of integrity and focus from his actors. “Platoon was deeply personal to Oliver,” says McGinley. “It’s almost impossible to get films made anyway, so for him to have gotten Platoon going when he did, when nobody would do Vietnam movies, was extraordinary. For him not to have ridden it pretty rough would have been tantamount to insanity. He had to get this thing done, and he had to marshal all these men in a single direction and still realize his vision , which he did.” Charlie Sheen’s character at one point refers to Barnes (Tom Berenger) as Captain Ahab, and it’s tempting to draw a parallel. McGinley won’t quite take it that far: “I didn’t see Oliver as Ahab, so much as just a really driven storyteller and a visualist par-excellence. The really brutal cocktail was Oliver and Dale [Dye, ‘Nam vet and technical advisor] served in the same drink. That’s really volatile stuff…”
Plana and McGinley both describe incredibly difficult productions: Platoon shot in the Philippines with the constant threat of a coup against President Cory Aquino and the attendant political and military anarchy in the background. Plana similarly describes Salvador as a chaotic process where the day-to-day experience “reflected the reality that we were trying to capture”. James Woods, starring in the film as journalist Richard Boyle, was understandably reluctant to travel to set following the murder by guerilla fighters of Stone’s military advisor Ricardo Cienfuegas. Stone called Woods a pussy (although the shoot was moved from El Salvador to the safer Mexico).
“Those are both very strong egos and they were always challenging one another; it was fascinating to watch,” Plana says of the Stone-Woods relationship. “Jim Belushi [playing photographer Doctor Rock: the Doctor Gonzo to Woods’ Hunter Thompson] was in the middle of it all, sort of commenting comedically. He was like the Fool in King Lear, making fun of it all with this wonderful, mordant sense of humour.”
Bogosian, meanwhile, had a comparatively easy ride in the safety of Talk Radio’s studio setting, but still describes Stone in military terms as “the general of his troops. He had a very intense focus, and he didn’t always know how he was going to get where he wanted to go, but he knew when he wasn’t there yet. He would keep trying to figure out how to play the scene, how to make it look right, the rhythmic thing, whatever the problem was he would keep chewing at it.”
“The dreamers exhaust us.” – Old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), Alexander
Achieving those standards can be a punishing process for anyone in Stone’s immediate orbit. “You can’t get comfortable,” chuckles Weiser. “If he’s just praised you, you know a beating is coming. But it works the other way around too: he’s good cop and bad cop at the same time. He forces you, he provokes you, he insults you, he goads you, and he knows your maximum area of vulnerability. He hones in on that and it’s really bedevilling.”
On the set of Wall Street Stone flatly told Michael Douglas that he’d been watching the rushes and Douglas was looking like a man who’d never acted a day in his life. Bogosian tells a similar story about being informed that the Talk Radio dailies were terrible and that the film was going to fail catastrophically if Bogosian didn’t raise his game.
“He said to one guy, ‘You were so good in the audition. What happened?'” Bogosian continues. “He said to someone else, ‘You’re wallpaper. Every time you come into a scene you disappear.’ Of course, people would be crushed. I asked him years later if it was a psychological thing he was doing. He said, ‘No, I meant it!'”
“He came up to me during W.,” grins Brolin, “and he goes – you know, with that squint he has – ‘Hey man, do you have something medical going on with you? What’s up? Are you feeling okay today?’ And I immediately said, ‘Don’t do that. I know what you’re doing right now, and I don’t want you to do it. I don’t like it.’ And he smiles and he goes, ‘Aw man, you’re fucking tough!’ And he never did it again. [Laughs] It was that thing of trying to keep people off camber in order to keep them raw.”
Plana turned down a role in Platoon to make Three Amigos instead: choosing a five-star hotel in Tucson, Arizona and the prospect of a more cheerful shoot over what he knew would be a gruelling few months amid ticks and poisonous centipedes in the Philippine jungle. Stone didn’t speak to him again for years, until he needed a reliable Cuban actor for JFK’s Carlos Bringuier (Plana would subsequently also appear in Nixon as Manolo Sanchez). Even then he made Plana audition, and wasn’t in the room when he did so, leaving it to his casting director. “But I was glad to get back in his good graces eventually,” Plana smiles.
“They forgive you because you make them proud of themselves.” – Hephaiston (Jared Leto), Alexander
This is typical of the way in which his regular collaborators are keen to excuse Stone’s sometimes monstrous behaviour: all insisting that his intense methods both provoke and inspire people to some of their best work. “Ultimately he’s like a really good tennis partner,” says Weiser: “he forces you to play up to his level, to do a better job than you’d do for a lesser director.”
“He called me a pussy a couple of times; he didn’t think I was coming across strong enough,” says Plana. “But he was just trying to get my goat to make me angrier: just saying stupid shit to get a reaction and intensify my emotional reality. You tend to channel that reaction back into what you’re doing.”
Bogosian says dryly that he and Stone didn’t stay in touch after Talk Radio and were never really what he’d call friends. “But we created something together I’m very proud of. That sort of bond with another person is indelible: you’re hooked to the other person forever. Oliver put a stamp of approval on me early in my career, with all the weight of his tremendous notoriety and power and fame. He set me up so that people looked at me differently, so I’m really, forever beholden to him for that.”
Brolin reaches for his phone to pull up a text message he says is “classic Oliver”. The director had popped, unbidden, into the actor’s mind recently, and Brolin wrote to him: “Just been hit with a hammer of your visage and I miss you greatly. Hope we have a chance to catch up soon. Much love.” Stone’s response: “Why ‘hammer’ and ‘hit’ verbiage? You always typecast me in warlike terms.”
“That’s him,” Brolin laughs. “You can’t fucking say anything. But I love that. I appreciate the language, first of all. And that he saw an opportunity not to be linear. Some people do it and it’s a major affectation: you can feel how hard they’re working at it. For him, it’s what comes first. He actually has to work at going, ‘Oh, wait, perhaps I’ll just answer: Nice to hear from you, I’ve been thinking about you too.’ That’s not his default. His default is skewed.”
*Snowden was released in the UK in December, 2016.