“Man looks in the abyss. There’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”
—Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) in Wall Street
In Oliver Stone’s new film, World Trade Center, a rescue worker stands atop a pile of steaming rubble, planning his descent into the inferno below. “I need a medic up here,” he yells. “Anybody a medic?”
“I used to be a medic,” comes a voice from the darkness.
A tiny figure scrambles up the base of the hill like a large bug. As he passes into the light, we see that it’s Frank Whaley, an actor who got his start with appearances in Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors and JFK.
“My license lapsed,” the figure says. “I had a few bad years. But I’m good.”
Such is the legacy of Stone — a towering figure in modern film who always seems to be wrangling his own personal demons — that it is almost impossible not to read a scene like that autobiographically. A three-time Oscar winner as both writer (Midnight Express) and director (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), Stone has spent much of the past dozen years surrounded by controversy or chaos: His satirical tabloid blitzkrieg Natural Born Killers caused novelist John Grisham to accuse him of engendering real-life murders. Nixon, his oddly sympathetic portrait of the ex-president, eluded liberals and conservatives alike. The jumpy, kinetic editing style he employed in the day-for-noir U Turn and the pro-football pageant Any Given Sunday inspired longtime Stone critic Elvis Mitchell to label the latter “the world’s first ADD epic.”
Then the first of two HBO documentaries (Comandante) on Fidel Castro was shelved for being too sympathetic, while a subsequent portrait of Yasser Arafat (Persona Non Grata) saw Stone’s crew fleeing Ramallah four hours before the Israeli army attacked the Palestinian leader’s compound. (A third film, expected to profile either Kim Jong-Il or Saddam Hussein, was canceled.) He has been arrested twice — in 1999 and 2005 — for DUI and possession of marijuana, respectively. During an appearance at HBO’s “Making Movies That Matter” panel at Lincoln Center in October 2001, he allegedly made inflammatory remarks regarding the September 11 attacks, earning him scorn and ridicule in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Most painfully, when Stone, in 2004, finally realized his 20-year obsession to make Alexander, a sweeping history of Alexander the Great filmed on three continents, the film failed to find a domestic audience.
Now comes World Trade Center, a delicate, contained and extremely powerful evocation of our 2001 national trauma, starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña as John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, New York City Port Authority cops who were miraculously excavated from beneath the glowing rubble of Building No. 7. In an odd way, it brings Stone’s career full circle: His first student film, Last Year in Viet Nam, made at NYU in 1970 (for film professor Martin Scorsese), opens with a panorama of southern Manhattan and what would have been the Twin Towers, except that they weren’t completed until January 1972. But in another respect, World Trade Center may be Stone’s most subversive film yet — a rousing, populist, patriotic adventure story that kicks the legs out from under the right-wing criticism marshaled against him. It could prove the ultimate irony that the bête noire of American conservatives — the man who profiled right-wing death squads in Salvador, My Lai–like atrocities in Platoon, hostile takeovers in Wall Street, the anti-war movement in Born on the Fourth of July and, most notably, the fecund proliferation of Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theories in JFK — may find his most enthusiastic audience among the very partisans who have heretofore decried his lifetime of work. As no less a cultural observer than Mel Gibson said of Stone in the 1997 thriller Conspiracy Theory, “He’s a disinformation junkie for them. The fact that he’s still alive says it all. He probably should be dead, but he’s not.”
In person, Stone has an infectious laugh, seems genuinely engaged and takes the full measure of my questions before answering, at which point his ideas often come so fast they seem to be skipping across the surface of the conversation. He’s also the most fun kind of intellectual, in that he perpetually appears to be trying to figure himself out. Briefly a classmate of George W. Bush’s at Yale, he seems — at least on the evidence of our wide-ranging, three-hour discussion — to have absorbed a good deal more of its freshman syllabus. We spoke at his West L.A. editing suite, where he is currently preparing a three-hour, 45-minute DVD-only “road show” version of Alexander, complete with intermission.
L.A. WEEKLY: Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001?
OLIVER STONE: L.A. Asleep. My wife put the TV on.
And what did you think was happening?
It was sensational. It was exciting. It was horrifying. It reminded me in its barbarity and ferocity of the French Revolution — the tumbrels, heads falling. And I had feelings of anger in me, and vengeance. I had a fight with my son, actually, because he was much more objective about it: “How do you know? Don’t assume anything. You’re acting like the mob.” But there were other feelings as well. You know, I realize I’m an older person; I’ve seen Vietnam and a lot of death and shit. Oklahoma City was horrible. JFK’s assassination. Watergate. The 2000 election. We’ve been through our times of shit in this country, so this was another version.
World Trade Centeris very powerful — emotionally powerful. I had a very visceral reaction to it.I think it’s obviously the film, but it’s also more than the film — it’s the fact that the subject matter is so loaded. If you make a film about fire jumpers, and a fire jumper comes to see it, he’ll say, “Well, you got this part right, you got this part wrong.’?” With this film, we’re all fire jumpers. It’s also very different from a lot of your other films — it’s gentle and contained and quiet. I’m wondering if you had to devise a different approach because the subject matter was so delicate.
I just want to say first that the way I look at myself — it’s not necessarily in the result — but with every film, I really have made an effort to make each one an island unto itself in this little sea that we go around in our ships. And every island has been a destination, a stop for a period of time. I’ve tried to take a different style for every film, because it’s the story that comes first, and the subject dictates the style. Even with something like Natural Born Killers, which seems very stylistic and eccentric, it’s still the content that I think is valid and important. With this film, certain things presented themselves: Obviously, the sensitivities of everyone involved, but ultimately that’s the sky around the project. With JFK, for instance, there were his children to think of, Jackie was still alive, Teddy Kennedy. Blowing his head off in Dealey Plaza didn’t go down well with them either. But there was a bigger story to tell.
Here we were limited by movement, so we worked out a style by which, methodically, the film would go in and out of light: Light would fight with the dark, or rather, light would try to make it up to the dark. Claustrophobia is an issue with a film like this. I did Talk Radio, so I know that feeling of being on one set the whole time. Also, Born on the Fourth of July: That was a very contained movie, in a way, because we had a young man in a wheelchair in the second half, where there’s very little movement. When I read this script, I said, “How do we make this movie watchable? How do we make the tension manageable for a mainstream audience?”
It may surprise a lot of people that you’re not using a lot of shock cuts, moving around inside the frame — what you’ve termed your “cubist” style.
Well, where can you move in a hole? A hole is limited. Finding the right point of view in the hole is crucial.
You once said about Platoon?, “I felt like if I didn’t ?do it now, I’m going to forget.” We’re five years out ?from 9/11 now, and there is much public hand-wringing about whether it’s too soon yet to deal with this ?subject matter.
I think it’s a bogus question. The consequences of that day are far worse today. More people have died since then because of the war on terror. There’s more war, there’s more fear, and there is constitutional breakdown left and right. Have the good sense to go to the psychiatrist quickly. If you’ve been raped, talk to somebody about what that day itself was like before you build up all this armor.
You pursued this film, correct?
Yes. Petitioned. My agent, Bryan Lourdes, a man of taste, said to me, “Look, I read this script two weeks ago — it stays with me, it’s emotional. I don’t know if it will make a dime, I don’t know if I can get it financed, but just read it.” So I read it, and I said, “My God, I never thought of this — to do 2001 this way.” I knew [World Trade Center producers] Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher. But no one would make it; Universal dropped it at the [proposed] budget. I was doing other things, I wasn’t stopping my life. But then it came back around. Paramount was just coming into being [under new management]. We were very lucky, because that new studio energy was coming in, and they wanted to make it so badly that it happened right away.
And did you talk with the producers about politics — ?if there would be a political viewpoint that informed ?the story?
There was no room for it, because John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno were not interested in politics, per se. They don’t talk about politics like you and I do. Their lives are not determined by it; they live according to what is given them. So it never entered into the equation. I loved the script [by Andrea Berloff] as it was. I loved the inspiration of the story. So I vowed to stay inside those parameters.
New York is probably the most liberal city in America, and yet the 9/11 attack has been so politicized, its imagery considered so proprietary, that right-wing skepticism has been mounting steadily against you since this project was announced. A story in The New York Timessaid the film is being strategically marketed to right-wing opinion leaders using the PR firm that advised the Swift Boat Veterans group. It even quoted the conservative National Review Web site as saying, “God Bless Oliver Stone.”
I knew [the studio] was doing grassroots marketing to everybody — Hispanics, cops, firemen, teachers, church groups. I didn’t know that they had hired a specific firm; I found out that day. I’m pleased they like it, because it goes beyond politics.
Could you foresee a left-wing backlash against the film?
If people on the right are responding with their hearts, I’m all for it. But if they’re making it into a political statement, it’s wrong. Those on the left might say, “Oh, this is a simplified context, and these are simplistic working-class values. You’re not showing a wider political context.” Or secondly, that we’re sentimentalizing the event — which would be unfair, because I think there’s a lot of grit there. But this is a populist film. We’ve said that from the beginning. In our hearts, it was a Frank Capra type of movie. And he didn’t necessarily get great notices.
In an odd way, I was reminded of Preston Sturges’ ?Hail the Conquering Hero — a wartime comedy that pokes fun at the notion of patriotism and, by extension, patriotic movies but which, by the end, almost subversively, fills you with this patriotic fervor. I’m wondering if you see this as your “Nixon in China” moment: Only the director of Nixon and JFK could get away with a film where the most heroic character is an ex-Marine who consults with his pastor before putting himself in ?harm’s way.
That character, Dave Karnes, is an unlikely hero. He goes to church — that’s a documented thing; he checks with his pastor in a born-again church before he goes down to Manhattan. He evaded the authorities. Get it done; that’s a Marine thing. I think you can argue that the Marine is an ambivalent character, because at the end of the movie, this sense of vengeance is what fuels the wrong war in Iraq.
But for him it’s the right war.
For him it’s the right war. That’s correct. I think if you really look at JFK or at Nixon, which are the two political films I did uncensored in my career — which is amazing unto itself — JFK is neither right nor left, and was attacked equally by the left, who did not like the Kennedy figure of 1963. It was done in the centrist tradition of American dissent: It questioned government and the authority of government. So I was taken aback that the right made such a big issue out of it. I suppose, because they were in office [when the film came out]. But they had never done that historically. They would have been on the side of the investigation; [Barry] Goldwater may well have been. JFK was not a bunch of fantasies strung together. It involved an enormous amount of research — as much as World Trade Center, if not more.
You could make the same argument about Nixon?. You took the dominant political figure in our lifetime and gave him the Shakespearean treatment his life cried ?out for.
It was a psychological point of view. The right wing thought it was going to be a hatchet job; instead, it made him a human being. Unfortunately, in my career, I have spoken out between films, and that’s what’s gotten confused with the films themselves. I think the focus has been lost. Somewhere along the line, I guess, I said, “Look: I’m a filmmaker, but I’m also John Q. Citizen, and things piss me off. I have a right to say, if people ask me and they’re interested, what I fucking think.” And that’s the line I’ve always gotten in trouble with. It’s always between the films, if you look at the statements I’ve made. There’s nothing in the films themselves, as far as I know, that’s really offensive politically.
How much of the criticism against you do you think is organized for partisan political gain?
I’ve always wondered that — especially in the ’90s, after the JFK situation. You have to wonder: Will it come out one day in a government file? You hear about those programs from the ’50s and the ’60s. I was so grateful that Michael Moore came along. He helped me.
He seems to enjoy it. Maybe it’s the counterpart to how the left treats Charlton Heston.
Charlton Heston once said in an interview, “People like Oliver Stone would never hire me in the new Hollywood.” And I went out of my way on Any Given Sunday to hire him. I loved him. I said, “Forget politics, I love your character.” Political reputation pigeonholes you, and in a society that’s very busy, it’s an easy way to get rid of having to think too much about people and what they’re saying. I’m a dramatist; I’m a humanist. I protest.
There’s one line in World Trade Center — I think we hear it on a TV monitor in an office at the Port Authority — where the announcer says, “. . . the shock of the explosion that was coincidental with the two towers coming down,” and then you move on to something else. Was the suggestion that an unexplained explosion might have accompanied the towers’ demise the one seed of doubt you intentionally planted in an otherwise apolitical movie?
Well, I think that all reality is questionable, as you know. Frankly, I’m not an expert on that at all. And I haven’t pursued it, because I think the consequences of where we are now are far worse. But even if there was a conspiracy, it wouldn’t change where we are now. We’re into another place, where there’s more war, more terror, more bankruptcy, more debt, above all more constitutional breakdown and more fear than ever before. That’s very serious. And we’re on the edge of possibly something bigger and very dangerous. Richard Clarke’s book [Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror], at least, is about a true conspiracy that we know existed, of a small group who took over the government and did it their way — manipulated, created the war. It’s 30 or 40 people, right?
Sy Hersh says it’s 11 guys.
It was a conspiracy, and it was basically at the top. It’s Cheney and Rumsfeld influencing Bush. Cheney and Rumsfeld go back to the Ford administration, and when they got their way, they kicked butt. That’s a great story. But that’s not even all of it. When you’ve got a guy like Representative Pete Hoekstra from Michigan, who was a friend of the Bush administration — who had approved of the Patriot Act, the eavesdropping, the taxes, the bank records, all of it — saying in the press that there’s something worse that he’s pissed off about, because they hadn’t consulted him. Something worse? I mean, all the cards are not on the table, right? This is a big story. And we’re living it. How can you write about it? We’re fucking rocking in the boat. It’s like trying to write a great war novel when you might be going into World War II.
Were you at Yale the same time Bush was?
I was in the same class, yeah. I don’t remember him. I was never in a fraternity. I went twice — I dropped out one year and then went back for half of a second year and dropped out.
But at one point Bush requested to meet you, didn’t he?
Yeah, I met him. It was a political breakfast speech here in California at a club, the Republican right wing. They invited me — they’ve always had fun with me, I don’t know why — and it was a big hotel room and a speech about tough love and justice in Texas. He was governor then, around ’98 or so. I swear, I knew in that room on that day that he was going to be president. There was just no question. He had that confidence, and they adored him. There was an organized love for him. He asked for me to come up to the podium and we had a one-on-one. I was in the Bush spotlight — that thing where he stares at you and he gets to know you a little bit.
Assigns you a nickname.
There was one funny line. He knew I’d been in Vietnam. Actually, I didn’t know he’d been at Yale. He told me he’d been in my class; it was a surprise to me. But then he said he’d had a buddy who had been to Vietnam who’d been killed. “Buddy,” he said. It was funny — it was on his mind, he raised it. And it was the way he looked at me: I just felt like, boy, I bet you he’d rather his buddy had come home than me. But he was very friendly, very charming — a very sociable man.
Have you ever thought about going into politics — running for office? Would you consider doing that in a later part of ?your life?
Not seriously, no.
Orson Welles wrote a weekly political newspaper column during WWII — he was friends with FDR through Sumner Welles, a distant relative of his and a presidential adviser, and at one point he considered running for the Senate from California or his native Wisconsin.
Politics is about raising money and being popular and shaking a lot of hands and spending a lot of time with people. Those are not my strengths. It would be exhausting and would completely destroy my ability to do what I do.
You were pro-Vietnam before you enlisted in the infantry, right? You were fairly conservative?
So we could say that you spent the entire 1960s across the political divide from most of what you’ve now come to stand for?
My story is complicated. I did write a novel about being 19 called A Child’s Night Dream. My parents divorced when I was 14, and being the only child, there was no family to go back to. Basically, going to Vietnam was really throwing myself to the wolves. It was a form of rebellion and suicide.
I’ve read a quote to the effect of “I felt like I had to atone for the act of imagination.” Was it actually the failure of the novel that sent you over the edge?
After I left Yale the second time and finished the novel — I was writing the novel instead of going to class, and that’s why I flunked out — my father was supporting me, and that’s an impossible situation: 19 years old, your father is furious at you for the tuition that he’s lost, and you’re living in his apartment trying to finish a novel. It’s like Jack Kerouac moving back home with his mother. But I really believed in it: I was insane with passion. It was the only thing I had. I had no woman friends in my life. I had nothing to support me beyond that. And when that failed, I went into the Army with the idea of “Let God sort it out, whoever I am.” It’s egregious to think that you can be on the level of Mailer or any of your heroes — Hemingway, or Joyce; I was into Joyce heavily at the time.
Part of the fun of watching someone like you working without a net, from a distance, is charting the rises and falls of your career. And sometimes there are films that don’t hit right, that suffer because of the moment or the context — the sky around it, as you put it. I’m thinking specifically of Nixon, which was a commercial failure, but seems to get more sophisticated every time I see it. Or, more recently, Alexander.
I’ve had three big setbacks, in terms of being completely dismissed: Heaven and Earth, Nixon — by many people, at least — and Alexander. On Alexander, it was just devastating, because in America and England, the numbers were so tough. It wasn’t just that people didn’t like it. It was ridiculed. It was destructive criticism. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world we were connecting, we were among the top 20 films of that year in the foreign market. We did better than four of the five Oscar nominees abroad. It was well respected.
Why didn’t Alexander connect? Do we agree that it didn’t connect with English-speaking audiences?
I like the director’s cut better than the first version, because I had more time to prepare it. And the structure is different. It wasn’t because of the homosexuality — that’s a red herring. The mother’s back story and father’s back story, which are really essential, don’t come in until later. We’re doing a third, expanded version now — we’re going all out. This is not for theatrical; it’s for the people who love the film who want to see more of it. It’s the Cecil B. De Mille treatment — three hours and 45 minutes. What I’m doing is going back and showing the whole thing in its sumptuousness, really going with the concept that it had to be an old-fashioned movie, with an intermission, like a road show. Be a showman, instead of trying to be a responsible filmmaker. Go all out on this one. This is my Apocalypse Now, my De Mille epic. [The first time] I was trying to step up to the plate, so to speak. I should have pulled it back, taken an extra year like Marty did with Gangs of New York. But it would have cost a lot of money.
In Oliver Stone’s America, the documentary included with the DVD box set of your films, you say, “I’ve always admired Alexander because of the momentum and the speed with which he traveled and conquered. In my small metaphoric way, I would say the countries were films, and I moved through them like him . . . he’s striking everywhere. I think it was great. We had a great run. But it’s definitely a new phase.” Is Alexander the figure you most closely identify with?
I am a Method director to a certain degree. I do become part of what I shoot. And I think with Alexander, the perception is of hubris, certainly — “Alexander the Great? Who the fuck is he? He thinks he’s Alexander.” I could see that coming. But I always knew who Oliver Stone was. I never lost track of that. And I made the film humbly, in 94 fucking days on three continents. I ran the crew like I always run the crew. Nothing changed in my habits. I walked in the deserts, we shot in a sandstorm once, and it was the same old Oliver who did Salvador. Hubris is taking 110 days on some stupid comedy. That’s an insult to filmmaking the way I was raised. I’m sticking to NYU principles, and I still do to this day. Movies are a tradition; we didn’t invent it — we take it from somebody else and pass it on.
But with Alexander, you faced a challenge like you’ve never faced before, because no matter how bruising the attacks on JFK and Nixon, your core audience was always still with you. For whatever reason, Alexander failed to connect with an audience.
Yeah. In America.
In America. I don't wish to judge it; this is an empirical observation.
No, it didn't connect. Alexander is the high point of my life, and it always will be. I’m not asking for universal love on that; it’s just impossible. It’s not paced to the American style, nor is he a conventional hero. He’s filled with doubts. But Alexander is a beautiful story, and I think I did him well. I mean, I wouldn’t have released it [otherwise]. But I can’t give up; I would never give up. I would be all wrong in my assessments of myself as I work. You have to hear your own self, follow your own drama, or whatever Thoreau said long ago at Walden Pond. [“Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.”] Alexander was a huge setback for me, and it certainly hurt me in this business. But you have to understand that people have been saying bad things about me for years. I don’t listen; I have to try to keep going.
I don’t want to make specious connections, but you’ve had several high-profile drug arrests in the last few years. Before that, you were making supernihilist films in an edgy, frenetic style. I'm wondering if these are all moving parts of the same phenomenon.
I’ve smoked dope and drunk alcohol most of my life, okay? Getting pulled over and arrested is a fault, it’s a mistake — a wake-up call. I did get busted a couple of times. One was at a roadblock, so it’s not like I was endangering anybody’s life. The other time, I got pulled over by a civilian cop; I was actually busted for driving too slow. And when the tests came back, I was below the intoxication level. Nobody knows that, because it never got published that way. I should get a chauffeur is what I fucking should do. [Laughs.]
But nobody cares if you smoke pot. They care if it affects the work, if it’s part of a larger problem.
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Okay, but I don’t feel bad. I got heavier, physically, at certain points, and I think that gives the appearance of degradation, like Jim Morrison. But I did have a pre-diabetic condition through my mother, and I was on too much sugar. Any Given Sunday, I love that movie, but it was more effort than you think — it was like a three-ring circus, to make five football games in five stadiums work. It took so much energy. There were some problems with the crew on that film. So by the end of that movie, my doctor said I was too stressed, and at my age it was dangerous. There were some issues of medications and stuff, no question about it. But sports people love that movie. With Alexander, there’s a fan site where there are people who have seen it 50 times. They go to the sites in Macedon. They love the romanticism of it. So it’s confusing to me. I’ve tried every fucking time to get it right, even if I haven’t been in my best physical shape. I will get it right. Not everyone is going to agree with me, but I’m going to get it right.
With World Trade Center, it's your first time to deal with studio financing in a decade; you look better, healthier. Has your life changed? Is this a new start?
Your story is a journalistic narrative, and it’s a good one, about Oliver coming back after Alexander, and how there’s a change in his life. And I’ve somewhat agreed with it, but I’ve also pointed out that my methods have stayed the same. But it is about your storyline, in a way — about life. If you go to film school, and you think about your career traditionally, you arc up, in the sense that your budgets get bigger, the stars, whatever. There’s a nice arc to a man’s life. You make your better films later — it’s horrible if you’re Orson Welles, if you make your best film first. And Alexander was a chance to do something on another level entirely. So I reached a peak of ambition. And the ambition was perhaps not matched by my execution, although there are points in the execution that do match the ambition, I think. So then it died a metaphoric death. Point of view died with it, as it died when Heaven and Earth came out. That [movie] was a very sensitive side of myself that I loved — it was tender, and the woman was tender. And it was ridiculed and killed, and part of me, you know . . . those feelings were hurt and eradicated for a while. Same thing with Nixon. You want to get rid of the person after you finish. You want to go back to being who you are, but you’re no longer the same person, because your journey has changed.
And part of me did die [with Alexander] — that part that was enamored of “my very important storyline,” end of quote. Me being the storyline. I played it out. I did all my biographical figures. I have no need to be John or Will. I had a need to be Ron Kovic. I had a need to be Alexander. I had a need to be Nixon and Morrison and Garrison. That’s the change. So now I can be myself, maybe. I can be more authentic to myself. I think there was an attraction to go from the past into the contemporary world in its most hellish moment. It’s like I dropped out and I couldn’t get back in, until by going back to 2001, I could come back into this era. I feel liberated, in the sense that, not that it would be next, but I feel I could do a movie about those next five years. Not that I think it’s complete yet — I think there’s a lot going on that we don’t know about in the government. But I think there’s something in the air. I smell it, and I feel fresh again, having done something — my new, 24-hour, humble microcosm of that day. Wherever I go with World Trade Center, it’s going to spin off to wherever I go next.