Accompanied by his publicist and shouldering a large bag, Oliver Stone greets me with a good morning when I bump into him in Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel lift. Asking him about his readiness for the imminent interview, he nods his head and says reassuringly “It’s gonna be fun!”
Indeed, listening to Stone is as compelling as watching one of his masterpieces such as Platoon, JFK, Born in the Fourth of July or Wall Street, his knowledge as vast as an academic’s, his passion as untamed as a rebel’s and his energy as eruptive as a volcano’s. One of Hollywood’s most controversial and politically-charged directors speaks his mind openly, honestly and fearlessly about any subject that you may throw at him, sometimes to his publicist’s chagrin.
Vocal in his opposition to all of America’s wars, the Vietnam-war decorated veteran, who went from flag-waving conservative to anti-establishment rebel after witnessing first hand the waste and corruption inherent in both Vietnam and the US legal system, is now turning his unflinching critical eye on America’s war on drugs, which was declared by President Nixon in 1969 and subsequently enhanced by successive presidents until this day.
“That initiative has completely backfired and is a total disaster,” he says. “There’s more people using drugs today in high schools and everywhere than ever before so we haven’t solved the problem through prohibition.”
Stone contends that the war on drugs has created such a multi-billion dollar industry of policing and prisons that seeing the end of it has become unlikely.
“It’s like the nuclear arms industry. People are invested in it and it’s hard to stop it, so now we have a gargantua and it’s swallowing us and Mexico and it will never be won. We have done huge damage to our society by filling 50% of our jails with victimless criminals. They haven’t hurt anybody so this is a medical problem. It’s not a criminal problem,” he stresses.
The iconoclastic director has been himself one of those “victimless criminals” several times. In 1968, he was sent to jail for attempting to smuggle two ounces of pot across the border from Mexico and was arrested for drug possession twice in 1999 and 2005.
“I am not saying legalise it. That would be my choice, but I would at least decriminalise the process where you’re sending people to jail for it,” he exclaims.
Stone, however, is not under any illusion that decriminalising drugs would eliminate crime either. “When prohibition ended in 1930, the gangsters didn’t disappear. They just moved into racketeering, gambling and graft trade. So even if they were to decriminalise drugs and make them available at a marketable rate, I would imagine the population will not go back to selling tacos in their home villages,” he quips.
In his new movie Savages, Stone dives deep into the Mexican drug trade business, exposing its brutal nature and the spread of its wide-reaching tentacles into the US. Based on Don Winslow’s best selling crime novel, the movie tells the story of two young Californians, botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) and former Navy Seal Chon (Taylor Kitch), who share one girl, Ophelia (Blake Lively) and produce the best marijuana in California. Soon, their legendary weed attracts the attention of the brutal Mexican Baja Cartel, who demand to share their business.
Stone, who penned one of the most intense drug movies Scarface in 1979, was hooked when he first read Savages, which was sent to him by his agent, Brian Lourd.
“It reads like a fast paced, exciting, different thriller about drug war with a new angle. Young, independent growers in California making the best weed in the world are threatened to be pushed aside by the corporation, the large cartel from Mexico, and they fight back,” he enthuses.
Although the story is fictional, Stone insists that the best weed can truly be found in California, attributing that to the creativity of the new generation of marijuana producers. “They are smart and they make good stuff. The stuff here is better than in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Jamaica and South Africa. I’ve been doing it for 40 years and have been to all these places,” he laughs.
Notorious for rewriting everything he touches, including history, as he did in JFK, The Doors, Alexander The Great, Natural Born Killers, the 3-time Oscar-winning writer/director did the same to Savages when he adapted it to the screen.
“We worked on it and made it into a movie, because in a book there must be about 130 fast and swiftly described scenes, but a movie is very rarely more than 30 scenes. So there was a lot of decisions to be made and consolidation,” he says.
Drawing inspiration from Kubrick and Hitchcock, Stone imbued the movie with as much suspense and tension as possible. “To me, it was a sun-splashed wild ride with a lot of twists and turns, and I wanted to make it in a way that was fun to watch and unpredictable and you don’t know what is going to happen next. There’s a lot at stake and what makes a movie dramatic is high stakes for me,” he says.
To build up those high stakes, Stone often resorts to gruesome violence and brutality. In fact, the extreme violence in his Natural Born Killers has allegedly inspired several copycat crimes. But he insists that his work is merely a reflection of the world’s cruel reality.
“There’s a fair amount of savagery in my work over the years and it’s not just with guns and knives, but also verbally,” he admits. “If you don’t say that there’s violence in the world, you’re in denial and I think you’re wrong.”
Having said that, Stone confesses that violence has been inside him from his early days on the face of the planet. “It’s been with me since I bit my mother’s nipple,” he quips. “Everybody has a certain violence. What’s important as you get older is to draw a line and say what’s necessary violence and what’s unnecessary violence.”
Actually, the son of an American Jewish father and a Roman Catholic French mother subscribes to a non-violent religion, Buddhism, which he converted to in the early nineties when he was making Heaven and Earth in Thailand. Interestingly, 20 years later, his 27-year-old son Sean converted to Islam while making a documentary in Iran. Unlike his father’s conversion to Buddhism, Sean’s conversion to Islam has reportedly dismayed the Hollywood establishment. The 66-year-old father, however, is supportive of his son’s decision and hopes that Hollywood won’t punish him for it.
“He’s my son and I love him,” he says. “He didn’t consult me about his decision. He did it and I back him because I know that he believes in it. The concept being that these 3 monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism worship one God, so he doesn’t see the difference and he wants to transcend that.”
There is nothing mainstream about Stone’s life and his family. He grew up a lonely child in a privileged existence, he attended an all boy boarding school, his parents split up when he was 15, his mother showed him how to masturbate, his philandering father took him to a prostitute to lose his virginity at the age of 16, he switched the comfort of Yale for the jungles of Vietnam, he was caught smuggling Marijuana from Mexico 10 day after his release from military service with two purple hearts and Bronze Star for Valor and the list goes on. This restless, on edge form of living has undoubtedly dug the well from which he draws his creativity.
Currently, Stone is working on a 10-part documentary series titled the Untold History of the United States, which he embarked on in January 2010. He will direct every one hour episode of the series, which intends to provide unconventional accounts of the some of the darkest parts of the twentieth century history using little known documents and newly uncovered archival material. Judging from his work on films such as JFK, Nixon, Comandante, Persona Non Grata and Looking For Fidel, Stone is bound to elicit a lot of interest and spark a new fire of controversy in his new take on American history.