Though he accepted the Sun Valley Film Festival's Lifetime Vision Award with humor on Saturday evening ("It's so small," he joked), filmmaker Oliver Stone sounded a more serious note, too — returning to the criticism of a failed system that's defined his career since the release of "Salvador" and "Platoon" in 1986. Introduced by Melissa Leo, who stars as filmmaker Laura Poitras in Stone's upcoming "Snowden," as "one of the United States of America's greatest living directors," he invited the assembled guests to join him in a prayer for peace.
"The clouds are darkening around the world," he remarked. "The danger is growing. The extremities are growing."
It's a fitting sentiment, perhaps, for a man whose body of work is run through with disillusionment, from the Kennedy assassination ("JFK") and the aftermath of the Vietnam War ("Born on the Fourth of July," "Heaven and Earth") to the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon ("Nixon") and George W. Bush ("W."). Indeed, he struck this world-weary tone several times over the course of the weekend, in one of Sun Valley's famed Coffee Talks, moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's Steven Galloway, and in a more informal Q&A following a screening of his ultra-violent gonzo satire "Natural Born Killers" (1994), starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Sizemore, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Below, read highlights from Stone's unvarnished reflections
on his oft-controversial films, his disappointment in the media and the sorry
state of American politics.
How serving in Vietnam changed his life
"Once you're in the jungle, believe me, it's 360 degrees. You change your attitude about life. There's something cerebral about it. It's just a survival experience, as many of you know. Over the course of that year, I kind of became more visual. I took pictures at the end of my tour, a lot of pictures, and I started to fall in love with the camera."
Studying under Martin Scorsese at New York University
"Marty was very tough. I remember him as a bit of a New York nutcase. Typical New Yorker: Talk a mile a minute, his hair was down to here, you couldn't even see him in the morning. He'd be asleep when he had the class, because it those days they didn't have video, so he used to stay up all night sometimes just to see those late movies on television... In the end of the first I made a film [about returning to New York from Vietnam] that he liked very much, and he said to the class, I'll never forget, 'Now here's a filmmaker! He's paying attention. Make it personal!'"
The response to "Platoon"
"The moment it was seen in the world, nobody could stop it. No critic in the world could have destroyed it. People were ready for it. I can't believe how universal a success it was. I think because there had been too many Rambo films, too many 'Missing in Action' [with] Chuck Norris, going back to Vietnam to re-fight that war. Here, this is a movie that acknowledged the way it was. I love 'Apocalypse Now,' I love 'The Deer Hunter,' but they're mythic operas. They're not really realistic about the men in the field."
The thin line between success and failure
"I've had my share of flops. A flop is a movie that just doesn't open. Like 'Heaven and Earth.' I really killed myself on that movie... But also, the successes at that time were hurtful, in the sense that 'JFK' did not have an easy ride. It's regarded by many people as a classic, but my God, I had to defend it and defend it and defend it, which was a mistake. I should have taken the offense, with what I know now — I know a lot more — but then I was very defensive. I think I spent six months answering editorials, trying to take on the media. That was a mistake."
The "insane asylum cast" of "Natural Born Killers"
"Woody I thought was terrific. He's sly. I thought he had a wicked smile. He looked like a criminal, a white trash criminal. I told him this. His father had also been in jail — Charles Harrelson was a tough guy. And Juliette was perfect. She was white trash. And she played it. She was really special. So I used them counter to what they'd done. He'd done some movie with Demi Moore ["Indecent Proposal"], he was a sweet guy, but it was the wrong casting. And Juliette had been in "Cape Fear," but she was too innocent. She wasn't that at all. They hated each other, by the way. Enough time's gone by, but they didn't get along."
"That cast was pretty wild. Woody was probably the sanest, and he was smoking dope night and day. Juliette was crazy. Downey was out of his mind at that point. Sizemore was a character, as was Tommy Lee Jones. It was an insane asylum cast."
His unmade Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic
"I wanted to stay away from ['Snowden'] because I had just worked on a script — again, another failure — on Martin Luther King. I was dealing with the last three years of his life, which I think is the juicy part, '65 to '68. ['Selma'] was just coming out, blah blah, respectable, all that, but that was the Life magazine side to it, for me. But my movie was controversial... It was really juicy, in the sense of — I feel that King was a genuine seeker, and I think he reached a new level of insight into his relationship to God that was really important."
The influence of the O.J. Simpson trial
"'Natural Born Killers' was made in the early '90s, when the media had gotten wilder and crazier, interested more and more in sensationalism. [The film concludes with a montage of real-life murder suspects, including Simpson.] O.J., of course, was the biggest violent moneymaker of all time. The trial occupied America. I cannot tell you how much advertising revenue went to all the networks that featured it. We're talking billions of dollars. It was ridiculous."
"For me, it was a silly trial. It's another murder story. All of a sudden, every murder becomes sensational because it's a potential story, and to no good end, no salutary end. I don't think it's a healthy thing for the culture. I don't think the television networks should be allowed to do that. I think there should be all kinds of government regulations on this so it doesn't become this zoo. And it's gotten worse, no question about it. Now we have [presidential candidates] running on title cards, basically. It's not about anything serious. It's capitalizing on suffering, on misery. Leonard Cohen was prophetic when he said the future is going to be murder."
Learning on the job
"I think of each film as being its own teaching vehicle, an obstacle. You rise to the occasion. There's always stuff that you've never done before. You have to feel your way with each actor. Some actors protest, some actors fight you; other actors insist on doing it their way and then do it their way, and then you have to fight them back... I don't feel like I've ever sat there on a set and said, 'I think I've done this before and I'm repeating.'"
Being a "misunderstood" filmmaker
"It's really been hard for me. 'JFK' was a tough one, very tough. 'Nixon' was misunderstood. It didn't do business. Certainly 'Any Given Sunday' was regarded as, again, far from the truth. That was tough for me, because the NFL was so against us. 'Alexander,' I've done four versions. The last version, in 2014, ten years later, is the version that I'm proud of, the one I stand behind. 'The Doors,' because of its drug nature, was not understood by the majority."
"Godard said that a film is only successful if there's a misunderstanding at the intersection of the audience and the filmmaker. Even 'Platoon,' in which the enemy was us — we were fighting ourselves — I don't think that was understood. We were torn apart in 'Platoon.' That was a civil war story. And that's what's going on in this country today. Nothing has changed. It's that old red versus blue. It's the same mentality. But 'Platoon' was regarded as more of a veterans' picture, honoring the veterans."
"'Snowden,' this newest movie I'm finishing, although it will be misunderstood by some of the conservatives now, I do think it's a broad, human picture."
The phases of the filmmaking process
"Writing is a bit like editing. It's very much the same thing: you're alone with it. When you do the production, you're the host of the party. It's a gigantic social contract that you enter into, so you're talking to everybody, and you have to keep them united, and that's tough sometimes. Sometimes it becomes dissension. People fight with each other — crews, departments. It's a big job, directing, and it's exhausting, I have to say. It's like going out on the hunt, and spending 5,000-calorie days, or 10,000-calorie days. You're so grateful when it's over, because there's silence, and you can retreat, and I think that's a wonderful moment, by the way. Until you start to put your first cut together, and then you hate it again."
Financing "Snowden" and free speech
"We moved to Germany because we did not feel comfortable in the U.S. We felt like we were at risk here. We didn't know what the NSA might do... These problems were consistent, and out of the blue. It felt really wrong. All the studio heads, the script was good, but then they say, 'Okay, I'll get back to you with numbers.' That's what they do. A few days go by, you don't hear a thing. What happens? It goes upstairs to all these corporate boards that run this country, and these corporate boards all said no, because some lawyer somewhere, somebody who hates Snowden, took exception."
"It's a very strange thing to do an American man like this and not be able to finance this movie in America. It wouldn't have been made [without foreign financing], and that's very disturbing, if you think about it — its implications for any subject that is not, call it 'overtly pro-American'... They say we have freedom of expression, but thought is financed. Thought is controlled. The media is controlled. And this country is very tight on that. There's no criticism allowed at a certain level. You can make movies about civil rights leaders who are dead, but it's not easy to make about a current man."
If his films have had any political impact
"I don't think people have learned much from film. You make Vietnam movies, you tell them about Vietnam, and they go right back into Iraq and Afghanistan. It just doesn't end. Veterans are very depressed by this. We don't learn anything. The new generation, they come up, most of them they love the same old thing, the same old violence. It's the system that we have. We don't have knowledge of history. We don't go back. We forget. All you can do is, you make a movie and you hope you connect to the hearts of other people. But I don't have high hopes for this country."