“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 1, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.
Ken Paulson: Our guest today is one of America’s most thoughtful, most honored, and most controversial filmmakers: Oliver Stone. Welcome to the show.
Oliver Stone: Thank you.
Paulson: You know, one of the things that strikes me about your career is that no one ever says your work is substandard. The criticism is always that it’s too good, that movies like “JFK” and others mislead people, and that you might create misimpressions about what real history’s all about. It’s a different kind of criticism of somebody who makes movies, isn’t it?
Stone: Totally different standards. The “JFK” movie is — was a hypothesis, and it was always stated as such. To say that it falsifies history is an erroneous claim, because the movie never sets out to say that it is history.
Stone: It raises the question of, “What is reality?” More likely, “What is reality? Why do we buy certain things?” It makes us rethink what we hear from the state media and rethink it.
Paulson: You’ve had a remarkable career, and —
Stone: But I have to say one more thing. I’m sorry to interrupt you.
Paulson: No problem.
Stone: Just because it’s an important thought. You talked about respect from them towards my work. But you neglected to say there’s also a very strong portion of the reactions are not even — are silence and no reaction. So I find myself sometimes, strangely enough, after having built up a record of work, to be denied — to be denied. The films are not even seen. I’ve become a non-person in a way.
Paulson: I want to talk about that. I’m curious, though, about “JFK,” because it seems to me that you know, you’ve got all kinds of credibility in the industry, everything, you know, from “Midnight Express” on. You’re a hot commodity, a talented guy, and with “JFK,” it’s almost like a fulcrum there. I mean, that’s the one where I think you took the biggest beating and the public perception of you shifted. Is that your sense of things?
Stone: I would say that was a watershed.
Paulson: Yeah. And why “JFK” as opposed to, you know, other films you’ve done.
Stone: I don’t think I even realized at the time how deeply the picture addressed the — a nerve button for the country, not just about the conspiracy to kill the president. That becomes a ful— … that becomes a litmus test of whether you’re conservative or liberal. So you don’t have any intelligent discussion about what actually happened that day. It’s about, “Are you a conspiracist, or are you not a conspiracist,” which is an ultimately boring question. As far as I’m concerned, two people sitting down for dinner are conspiracists. You know, it’s the nature of life. But the bigger question that you ask is — eludes me. What was that?
Paulson: The whole issue of why was “JFK,” as opposed to other films which also had tough subjects — was it something about “JFK”? I mean, you later did “Nixon” and got negative reaction too. But was it something about Camelot that made that a particularly…
Stone: Because I think in a larger sense, it just questioned American history. Who is George Washington? Who is, what is the American Civil War about? What was World War I and World War II about? It started to open up that whole area. I noticed that Eric Foner has a book coming out called Who Owns History? this year. That was a comment that I kept saying at that time: “Who owns history?” The upper class, and the … press is bought for, and they basically are limited in what they … their response to anything. They box everything into categories. So it’s very hard to really have free, free speech. I don’t expect free speech to exist anywhere in the world. That’s utopia. It’s all relative, and America is better than most countries. Athens was better than, they say, Persia; but, you know, Athens was very … contentious. People were driving each other out of exile. So there was never pure free speech, I don’t think.
Paulson: And yet you’ve had — I mean, you’ve had your way with free speech from — for decades. You’ve made movies that said what you wanted to say. Being criticized for it is not…
Stone: “Nixon” was — I pulled back a little bit on “Nixon,” because I was scared. “Natural Born Killers,” after ”JFK,” knocked me for a loop again. You know, I’d set out to make an action summer movie, and it turned into a parody, a satire that was condemned and reviled by … and misunderstood. So that really knocked me for a loop. And then on “Nixon,” you know, you know, you get gun shy. I mean, we’re all human. I did say things about Nixon I felt, but I found myself again there being pre-judged, as I was on “JFK.” The Nixon people condemned the movie wholeheartedly without even seeing it, including the children and Disney’s daughter, because it was a Disney release, blasted the film. So it hurt us. Ah, the sad part is, when you see the movies, those people who like Nixon may find that he is much better in the movie than they think. And whereas those who didn’t like Nixon hate him anyway, and they won’t go to see the movie. So, very few people went to see the movie. And more distressingly, the press reaction was so muted. Some critics literally — I could tell you. You won’t believe this, but of the, let’s say a hundred critics in New York that go see movies, they run checklists of who, who came when they showed in New York. And I’m surprised at the amount of people who didn’t even bother to see “Nixon” and fled from it like it was, “Oh, no, I don’t want to get involved.”
Paulson: You actually pulled your punches on “Nixon”? There are things you did not…
Stone: A little bit.
Paulson: Can you give an example of that?
Stone: Well, I think the best example would be that Anthony Summers — who wrote an interesting, actually a very interesting book on Marilyn Monroe and another interesting book called Conspiracy on Kennedy — Irish investigative journalist who wrote a Nixon biography that came out in ’98 — ’99. It was ignored by the American press, totally ignored. They wrote about the scandals. They wrote about him beatin’ his wife, taking drugs, which is sensationalist tabloid stuff. But the real scandal of the book is the true behavior of Nixon on nuclear matters, international matters, being drunk, being drunk and being out of control. … Summers goes much further than my movie. And if you remember, I was lambasted for having Nixon drinking and slurring and using dirty words. Well the recent transcripts released through Kutler’s efforts, Stanley Kutler’s efforts, have revealed a man who is far more profane than any character I drew. And if you … I was criticized for that.
Stone: But there was no apology. I’ve been right on a lot of stuff.
Paulson: What’s odd is that your films — you know, they get challenged for a lot of reasons, particularly you create scenes that none of us can know whether they’re exact or they’re true or they’re hypothetical scenes. And yet I think there’s a good case to be made that you’re a revisionist in terms of history, and, and virtually every generation of historians have revisionists. That’s what they do. They rethink what the previous generation of historians said. Why…
Stone: Not quite right. I always defined myself as a dramatist doing historical drama, which is quite legitimate, and it’s been done for centuries. And I don’t know why I’m held to another standard, as if I’m a documentarian. But I try to keep to the spirit of the truth. A lot of research goes into it. Who knows what happened behind closed doors with Nixon and Kennedy. You have to go inside and use your imagination, but you should be based on research, and a thorough knowledge of what he might have transpired. I never consciously sought to distort anything.
Paulson: Have you ever —
Stone: But to combine, condense, make it work, but stick to what I think Nixon meant and what Kennedy’s death meant, etc.
Paulson: So in “JFK” and “Nixon,” you never put a scene in that you knew to be untrue?
Stone: That’s not the same thing.
Stone: I put in a scene in “Nixon” where Dean and Hunt meet on a bridge. That was untrue.
Stone: But the fact was that — the truth of the matter is that Dean paid money to Hunt through lawyers. So there’s always go-betweens. But you don’t have time in movies to shoot all the go-betweens — and the telephone calls. So what do you do in a movie? You make the choice. I said, “Well, I’ll put ‘em on a bridge together, and I’m gonna have one pass the money to the other. And blah, blah, blah.” So is that untrue? Yes. Is it a distortion of the truth? No, because they … Dean gave money to Hunt. So that’s the question.
Paulson: I’ve never seen anybody, any filmmaker spend as much time discussing your work in as thoughtful a setting. I mean, if you go back and look at clips and articles, there are 32-page articles in which you’re doing Q&A’s and responding to the community of historians. I wanted to mention this book, Oliver Stone’s USA published by the University of Kansas Press. This is a book in which a lot of prominent historians criticized, provided additional perspective on your work.
Stone: And also praise.
Paulson: And praise. And then you responded to it.
Paulson: Which — and you feel good about that volume?
Stone: I put a lot of work into it. I worked; I gave up almost a half a year. And you know, I wanted to put it down on the record, because so much has been distorted. And we should talk about distortion (it) is just as damaging to censorship as … is just as damaging to free speech as censorship.
Stone: Because distortion rules. The media … can’t get any stories straight.
Paulson: Was it historians or the media distorting in your view?
Stone: Both. … Stephen Ambrose is shameless in his distortion of what I said in “Nixon.” And many of the “JFK” people were — in repeating that I have a scene where JFK … where Lyndon Johnson acknowledges shooting Kennedy — are not watching the movie that I made. It’s very clear that the conspiracy to kill him that is depicted in the movie comes from a small clique. But they’re obviously a powerful clique. I don’t know who did it. But I’m hypothesizing in this movie.
Paulson: I know you’ve been criticized by people who said you’re teaching an entire generation a false history.
Stone: Howard Zinn wrote me a beautiful letter. He’s a great historian in his way. Many people disagree with him. But he said, you know … art is subversive. It’s emotional. It raises — it challenges the official truths of the establishment. And he says, “How the hell can you posit that anybody comes to a film with a blank slate? What are they, stupid? They were uneducated by the state?” Everybody comes to the “JFK” movie, if anything, buying the 20 years of propaganda that we sustained from the Warren Commission. So I’m fighting against a huge lie to begin with. Whatever poor weapons I can manage to make people think about what they read, think twice — all my victory is to make people think. That’s all. No harm in that. Socrates’ idea had the same thing. Why can’t films be more Socratic? Most American films right now are really in a rut.
Stone: They’re buying into this militarism. They’re buying into this easy … answer to all questions. Very depressing to me, because all my films, all my body of work ultimately, if you think about it, including “Natural Born Killers,” was intended to make people not only enjoy the movie, but to think about it.
Paulson: Are there topics you would like to make?
Stone: I would have liked to have done Martin Luther King. He was a character study. And there, if you talk about pre-censorship, this is, a lot of that goes on. As you know with “JFK,” The Washington Post pre-censored the movie, as did many other … Time magazine —
Paulson: Meaning what?
Stone: Well, they sent a reporter to the set —
Stone: — who had a stolen first draft of a screenplay. We were working on the seventh or eighth draft when this guy showed up. Now, that’s not fair. And then he completely tore us apart in a Sunday article, a huge article, based on the first draft. I’ll give you another instance. What happened to be an FBI guy, a monster in my opinion — his name is, ah — he worked out of the New York office. He came after us when we were doing a TV thing on TWA 800.
Paulson: Oh, I really want to talk about that.
Stone: And he was quoted in The New York Times saying I was a scumbag, blah, blah, blah, profiting off the … grief of the victims’ families. And the grief of the victims’ families… . We interviewed 100 witnesses who were never interviewed by the FBI and, you know, I mean, the grief of the victims’ families is basically, from his attitude, is, you know, “Shut up,” you know, “You heard the story. It’s over. Here’s the flowers. Here’s the funeral.” I felt sorry for him —
Paulson: For those, for those who haven’t — who are not familiar with it, because it made a brief splash — you had a deal. Was it ABC?
Stone: Yeah, a brief splash. You raised a good question. On Friday afternoon, I got a call from the Times. I got about 20 minutes to respond to a complex issue about what’s going on. And I don’t know what’s going on, because the network is shifting very fast. It took three days after the FBI agent spoke. The network caved completely. And this is — I’m talking about everybody at the network knew that I was making this, except the top, top dog. Suddenly three days later, “You’re cancelled.” I have no … I can’t interpret history, but something happened.
Paulson: So this is the story of TWA Flight 800—
Stone: Yeah, which is a sham.
Paulson: And, and you called it — I think the title — working title was “Oliver Stone’s Declassified.” Was that right?
Stone: Yeah, it was part of a series we were doing for … a very provocative series we were doing for ABC about all … it was called “Disinformation.” It’s about the way the media spins the world. From ABC, through all of them, you get a pro-American, America-first ethnocentricity that drives most people around the world nuts —
Stone: Which is why Americans don’t understand why there’s a lot of fundamental dislike for our arrogance, ethnocentricity. But in this case…
Paulson: It was never aired? What would we have seen on that show?
Stone: You would have seen the opposite of “60 Minutes.” You would have seen three or four segments a week, tick, tick, tick, tick, where we went at it a completely different way, by letting the real people talk, not putting the spin on it.
Paulson: But we would not have, I mean if it had been on the air, would we have any new insight into what brought the plane down?
Stone: Of course you would have, because the witnesses are the ones who had brought the insight, not me. There was, actually, a helicopter pilot saw it go down, rocket engineers, people with very mechanical skills, who understood what they were seeing. It’s a very disturbing, very disturbing… . And as the media conglomeratizes, gets smaller and smaller, it becomes more disturbing, more Orwellian. And I do see a Minister of Communication. I mean, the government is coming in. They are … when all the American … all our boys, you know, all this fuss that the media made about American … Hollywood supporting America, it’s a very dangerous … collusion of forces. I think these people have to see America from outside in to understand how dangerous this game is.
Paulson: You’ve had some strong words about what you describe in terms of media control of information we get. I think you — you’ve used the word “fascism” in terms of media and government together controlling what we see.
Stone: Definitely. Fascism is described classically as the corporate control of the state. You know, you could argue that we’re pretty close to that right now. Enron is just one, the tip of the iceberg. But the corporations have been the big players, and they’re the lobbyists. They’ve driven out the personal individual lobbyists.
Paulson: But I’m curious. I mean, you talk about the press sort of being controlled or controlling, and yet you’ve known, I’m sure, many reporters in your life—
Stone: Who were good.
Paulson: Free spirits, aggressive people —
Paulson: — Who are pursuing the truth. So where’s all this happening? Is there a filter at corporate headquarters?
Stone: It’s happening. Oh, yeah, there’s a big… . What are you talking about? Every Time magazine guy for years was rewritten by New York. There’s an editor in New York, Washington, who rewrites everything. The editors control the story. I’ve had so many stories, interviews cut or omitted. I’m shocked. And the reporters always come back to me sheepishly and say, “I tried; I really wanted that story to play, but — ” They just, they give you economic reasons. They always … you never know the reasons. The reason is because you said something that pushed a button. And they don’t like that. And that goes on with me a lot. But I’m sorry for the kids, because… . I’m glad those “South Park” kids are doing what they should be doing, but we need more, oh, boy, we have to think differently. How do we think differently if we’re educated by a model in which America is God’s nation? How do I — how is that going to work?
Stone: We’re self-deluded: “America is the center of the world.” It isn’t.
Paulson: You know, you’ve tackled a lot of tough subjects, (but) never to my knowledge religion. Have I missed that? Is that a topic you’re —
Stone: That’s a tough topic, isn’t it?
Stone: You think I’m going to do “The [Madalyn Murray] O’Hair Story”? No, I think she’s an interesting lady. She had a crazy life.
Paulson: Yeah. The fact you’re doing documentaries now, does that mean that you will never do a major motion picture again like “Nixon” or “JFK”?
Stone: No, not at all.
Stone: You know, I —
Paulson: There hasn’t been a chilling of investors because of the —
Stone: No, no. I mean, it’s all how you do it, you know? If I wrote the script and it was brilliant, I bet you people would line up. You have to be smart. You have to be smarter than the system. And, unfortunately, it’s harder for me, because I’m very … spottable, you know? I can’t change my name and do another film under another name. But I will never give up. And I love big subjects. I’m doing Alexander the Great right now if we can work it out. We’re trying very hard. It’s a great subject. One of the first international universalists, believers in mating the races, in finding world government. Interesting story. He was stopped.
Paulson: It’s fascinating, because so much of your work is truly from, from the ’60s on. You reflect — I mean, “Platoon.”
Paulson: And so much of your work is driven —
Stone: Time to go back and see the whole. Right now, we’re at a stymied position. We’re about where we were with the ’80 to ’85 period in the arts, I think. I think there’ll be a breakage by 2005. I think we’ll get bored with Bush. Hopefully most of the sitcom audience will. And maybe we can move on. I think there’ll be a break. Things change. But we’re definitely in a retroactive period.
Paulson: Were there dynamics in Nixon’s story that made that —
Stone: Oliver North is workin’ again. He’s back —
Stone: After jail. And lying and all the things he did. He’s back as a commentator at Fox.
Paulson: And doing very well.
Paulson: Were the dynamics in Nixon’s story that made that workable as a movie, and would Reagan’s story be a film?
Stone: I think Reagan’s story is a great story. It’s a great story, ’cause he was a great communicator. And damn it, the man was charming.
Stone: He had an Irish thing about him, I … . We made a movie about him called “The Day Reagan Was Shot” for Showtime. Cyrus Nowrasteh wrote it and directed it. It was very little money. It was brilliant, though. I urge you to watch Richard Crenna. And Richard Dreyfuss is superb. Very well done.
Paulson: I’d like to talk to you about “Natural Born Killers.” Because it’s a film that provoked strong responses, as all your movies do, but also provoked litigation. There is a lawsuit filed against you in Louisiana after a person was a victim of a crime that they said was inspired by two young people watching “Natural Born Killers.” What was your reaction when you first heard that your art was being accused of being responsible for this grave injury?
Stone: Well, now, the press was — it’s interesting. The New York so-called quote “liberal intelligentsia” was … calls after me for … and I participated in one unfortunate article in Vanity Fair. And the reporter was a typical liberal in that he tried to divide the responsibility between me and John Grisham.
Stone: Grisham had started the whole thing by saying that movies should be outl— but should be judged as, as if they were defective products, industrial products. In other words, you could sue a moviemaker in the same way you could destroy — you could sue a car company for making a defective Ford Pinto. Very serious idea —
Stone: Making art into a material, idea that you could be sued. So at stake was quite a lot. And nobody seemed to be aware of it, because nobody in the media wrote about it except two or three people in very obscure places. But it’s serious law. Supreme Court turned it down. It went on for five years, six courts. It’s still going on. But it … we … thank God we finally had a major victory. And after spending 1 to 2 million dollars, Warner Brothers and myself, doing time with the … all the litigation, all the waste of energy, you know, what you have to ask yourself, “What if it was a smaller company? How would they defend themselves?” There’s no way. You see, we expect litigation to cost a million dollars. It’s insane. As a result, the “R” — the R-rated movie, whether it’s my movie or Matt and Trey, is in jeopardy, because the lawsuit issue can only be handled by big companies.
Paulson: When you first heard about this —
Stone: And by the way, just to answer specifically your question —
Stone: The positions on “Natural Born Killers” and my responsibility, I denied responsibility. I said, “How can I take half responsibility with John Grisham?”
Stone: How can I take half responsibility in any way? The kids were screwed up for years. They took drugs. One of the killers, the male, admitted that the girl was making it up. Blah, blah, blah. And they were … they had a history of psychotic episodes. And my point is, the Bible forced John Lennon’s killer, or whatever. You know, it doesn’t matter what your spark is. But they, they … the issue was distorted in the media. The media — it’s a better story if Oliver Stone and Warner Brothers are half guilty or guilty or run the — than just, “Well, this is a ridiculous suit. We should laugh it out of the courts.”
Stone: So it was simmering for a long time. And a lot of money and time was wasted.
Paulson: And to be clear, you won on traditional First Amendment grounds.
Stone: Finally —
Stone: — after six courts. Do you know how much paperwork is wasted?
Paulson: Oh, sure.
Stone: And the money and the time, the depositions?
Paulson: It’s a, it’s a bloody movie that you intended to satirize — in which you intended to satirize bloody movies.
Stone: I satirize much more than that.
Paulson: You, you — well, society and you name it. But —
Stone: Listen, the whole culture was screwed in that movie.
Paulson: But the violent culture —
Stone: It was a satire. And a satire in this sense is not — is outsized. It doesn’t mean funny, necessarily. Some people may not find that movie funny. I don’t care. Satire is just outsized, grotesque, exaggerated, so as to make you think. So here we have the classic two killers. They kill 60 people. But even worse than them is the … the warden and the media, Wayne Gale and his desperate search for profit. And of course Tom Sizemore plays a perverted detective. In a way, the state becomes worse than the killers. And I think that really angered a lot of people. And then the killers get away at the end. That was the icing on the cake. I was dead meat.
Paulson: So what is your take on violence in films when it’s not being used as a vehicle for satire? I mean, there are a lot of violent movies being made, not all of which are art — or high art, I should say. Is it too — is it too violent?
Stone: What is?
Paulson: The culture, the popular culture? Which would be the Lieberman argument. You’ve had some strong words for the senator.
Stone: Oh, Lieberman and … yeah, this is very dangerous. Because by taking away the “R” rating — they took away the “NC-17.” That belongs, that was the adult category. That was quite … what happened was that the Wal-Mart people, you know, the usual conservative elements in the South, and so forth, started to come up with a concept — great concept: “Oh, we can’t get a lease in the insurance — in the mall because of the insurance company, because we’re running ‘NC-17’ porno films.” It’s not porno. That was another category. “NC-17” is adult. They stole it from us. We’re the American public. We have the right to see “NC-17.” You cannot see sex in America with any significance or the way we can see it in most developed, civilized countries. And violence is given more play than sex. So — and yet we don’t want too much violence—
Stone: As we certainly don’t want too much sex. So we’re really screwed, because we’re a culture like the Romans in a sense that we’re not showing the full range of human activity. We’re … it’s … fascistic means, corporate control of the state. In a corporate situation, nobody misbehaves. They get fired. Everybody’s scared there’s no boss. “Who owns my company today?”
Stone: So there’s this sort of conformity, this fear. And fear dominates the American social and cultural landscape at this time.
Paulson: After, what, 10 Academy Award nominations and three wins, you … you’ve got a wonderful track record, and you have almost always used your art to say something. But there have also been times when you’ve said, “You know what?” I think your quote was, “I can’t always lead with my chin.” Are you wearing down?
Stone: I fought a lot of battles. I think … you know, it’s … I think you save yourself. Now that I know more and have much more experience, if — I would be stupid not to rethink everything a little bit more, but not, hopefully, over think it. But if there’s a battle that I can add something to it and it’s worth fighting, I should still do it.
Paulson: Yeah. We can’t do justice to your career in 30 minutes. But, we sure enjoyed talking to you.
Stone: Thank you, Ken.
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