Oliver Stone
Photo by Jeff Overs

Oliver Stone: “I’m braced for disappointment”

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Short Profile

Name: William Oliver Stone
DOB: 15 September 1946
Place of birth: New York, New York, USA
Occupation: Director

Mr. Stone, have you ever acted unethically in your career?

When I was young and had to make a living, I was briefly selling drugs out of an apartment in New York. The drug was ethylamine phencyclidine. It was what they called in those days a “speedball.” It was a combination-drug of downer-upper, where you go both ways. I sold it for a while but I couldn’t make big money, because it was so good you couldn’t do too much of it. It was like a psychedelic. You can’t make money selling LSD because people don’t take that much. Whereas cocaine is where you can make money, or heroin. So I was too intellectual a drug dealer, but I met some interesting people. Call it a brief period of employment.

Why did you start dealing drugs in the first place?

I was in my mid-twenties and I really needed money. I needed money! I was driving a cab and I was doing all kinds of shit. I was trying to stay above the water level so that I could keep writing two screenplays a year with the hope of breaking through. I am not doing that anymore though. I even stopped smoking grass a few years ago.

Why did you give it up?

Because I don’t want to become addicted to anything. I’ll take sleeping pills if I can’t sleep, but I don’t want to become addicted to them. And if I have to go a night without sleep, I will. I don’t want to be a slave of anything, although we are slaves in some way. But I am really working at breaking any addiction.

Do you miss the freewheeling days of the seventies and eighties? Hollywood was wilder, and perhaps also more creative.

Corporations got bigger, the money got bigger. There are fewer mavericks in the executive ranks because they are so bureaucratized. Production chiefs don’t have the same color they used to have because now they are almost co-equals with the marketing chiefs. That is the difference that I see today. It’s a rare, wonderful feeling when a film company likes something and they really back it. Recently I worked with Terry Semel and Mike Medavoy — and they took chances! I had a good experience at Universal as well; Donna Langley, with whom I worked on Savages, is a ballsy woman. But she works for Comsat, a huge cable station, and they are conservative… So, who knows what happens over time? You can’t make certain things in the Murdoch organization. And Disney has its limits…

But that was true in the old days, too, wasn’t it?

Yeah, MGM, all of them were extremely censorious. Jack Warner had to fight like a dog to make movies about the German threat in the ’30s. They have always been cautious and scared. Louis B. Mayer was one of the worst. He had to toe the line. He didn’t want his actors do anything that would be provocative. Today you can make provocative films, but because of technology there is so many films that you have to compete with. We have seven movies a weekend; it is ridiculous. Years ago there was much less traffic.

“There are no good endings anymore. It’s the world of melancholia: you have to be a cynical realist.”

How do you feel about the current moment in film?

Well, we have reached a 100-year mark in film so a lot of the stories have been told. What do you do? These days, there is a cynicism and overall pessimism in the air, which, considering that the world is offering much more to everybody than it ever did, is surprising. For example, in Hollywood the ending can never be too upbeat: the ending has to be somewhat depressed or compromised otherwise you’re accused of being sentimental or saccharine or you are not taken seriously. That’s very much in the air. There are no good endings anymore. It’s the world of melancholia: you have to be a cynical realist.

Are you an idealist?

I am! I am also a romantic — but I’m generalizing… I do feel like overall in Hollywood, the protagonist doesn’t win, he just has to live his tortured life. There is a darkness among those at higher levels in the industry: critics, filmmakers, production companies… They want movies to be dark and depressing. Where is the joy of life? We need that. I want movies that have optimism. Movies have to, in some ways, pay homage to cynicism, and I am always not happy with that.

The seventies were perhaps also a golden age in that sense…

Don’t kid me with that bullshit! Some of the movies of the seventies are famous because they brought in a new realism to a period — it was generational change from the sixties to the seventies and that was represented, a new form of behavioral freedom — but they were generally pessimistic. Five Easy Pieces, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider ended badly. All of a sudden the world was a brutal place. But it always rebalances.

Do you have hope that the next generation of filmmakers will change things in that respect?

The new generation might well be much more optimistic, yeah. That said, my son, who is also a filmmaker, he’s got a cynical curve to him about where things are going. And I fight with him about that! I don’t think the world is condemned. We have hope.

Even in America? I’m struggling to see the inkling of hope there.

(Laughs) Well, there is no hope, except for generational change and rethinking. But that’s so unlikely, because it’s locked in so many mistakes and it mounted up over the years. If you keep smoking cigarettes, you are going to die. So, what we keep doing — we keep over binging and over involving and over stretching. It’s denial and ignorance and lack of education in the way we talk about our history. We never apologized to Vietnam. We don’t see the damage we did in Iraq.

Do you think the system considers you an antagonist?

I hope not. I love America, I always have. I could be happy in Asia. I could be happy in places in Europe. But I’m doing pretty good here. It may not be for long, it may end tomorrow, but I have been able to do business in the States. I take things as they come and I am not certain of anything. I don’t know I’ll be here next year. You have to play it that way. I have two projects coming out this year, so hopefully they’ll allow me to continue, but they may not. I’m braced for disappointment. I am braced for being ridiculed and marginalized, but I am very proud of the work.

“I’ve learned that if you feel strongly about something, you can’t back down. But you also have to realize that in America, you’ll be a marginal figure.”

You have certainly gotten your fair share of flak from critics over the years. Does that ever get under your skin?

Of course it gets under my skin. Look at Chomsky: I can’t believe that guy has been saying what he has been saying for so long, and even he doesn’t get published in the mainstream. He gets ignored! But he hangs in there. You have to admire somebody like that. You have to hang in there. There is a whole tradition of dissent in this country. The more you find out about these guys like Chomsky or George Selby or Eugene Debs… He ran for President four times! Bertrand Russell suffered greatly. I’ve learned that if you feel strongly about something, you can’t back down. But you also have to realize that in America, you’ll be a marginal figure.

Do you see yourself in that tradition?

I don’t want to be. I do have some ability to get to mainstream through drama, but you have to make relevant material. You have to make it exciting and interesting! I am just trying to take subject matter and shape it so that you can see it on the screen and you can follow it. It’s a tension thing. How do I take this boring subject matter of economics and make it tension-filled?

What keeps you going despite the criticism?

Anger. Anger at the lies! When you are born, your parents tell you lies. There were all kinds of lies: things that were done medically that you didn’t know about, things that happen to you and they didn’t tell you. They are bullshitters. Then I went to Vietnam and the lies grew. They were talking about democracy like we were supposed to be the good guys. But we were not behaving like the good guys! We were behaving like assholes! So eventually there is an anger that builds up as we see the lies go on. And now we’re back in another war. Iraq is just a continuation of the mentality of Vietnam. What’s different? Why wouldn’t I have the right to be mad? The thing is, you have to take the anger and try to make a creative anger as opposed to bitterness. But I am angry.