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Ramin Bahrani and Matt Zoller Seitz on the Trailblazing, Polarizing Career of Oliver Stone

Ramin Bahrani and Matt Zoller Seitz on the Trailblazing, Polarizing Career of Oliver Stone

While it’s easy to conclude Oliver Stone has hit a rough patch after the lukewarm reviews and box-office performances of features such as “W.” and “Savages,” acclaimed filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop“) and critic Matt Zoller Seitz think otherwise. The two are more than just fans: Bahrani’s upcoming awards contender “99 Homes” follows Stone’s tradition of socio-economic blood-boilers, while Seitz is in the middle of editing his next book, “The Oliver Stone Experience.” In advance of all these Stone-related projects, Bahrani and Seitz joined Indiewire to start digging into what makes the “Oliver Stone world view” so singular and amazing. On Monday, July 20 at Brooklyn’s Videology Bar & Cinema, the two will join forces for a special “In Conversation” event on Stone’s career, and if the discussion below is any indication, it should only take a minute or two for them to establish that Stone has been and continues to be one of the most astonishing voices and figures in American cinema.

READ MORE: The Films of Oliver Stone, Ranked Worst to Best

Do you remember your first encounter with an Oliver Stone film? What was it about it that left such a lasting impression?

Ramin Bahrani: The first film I saw was “JFK,” or at least that was the first one I saw in the cinema. I remember it being a very big deal to go see that movie when it came into the theaters. I don’t remember what year it was. I was still in high school so it had to be 1991 or 1992, but I was completely blown away by it. I was already becoming interested in movies, but I didn’t have a clear knowledge of film language and stuff like that at the time, so I just remember it being extremely spooky. When I left the cinema I had this feeling the entire world beneath me could be pulled out at any moment, and that there was a shadow world underneath the one that was visible to me. So that I thought was very powerful.

The filmmaking was also just so impressive. It’s one of the best-edited films in the last four or five decades of American cinema. There had not really been an editing style like that, to my knowledge, in fictional filmmaking. I know he might have been influenced here or there by experimental forms of editing, but it was nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s a detective story basically. It’s an extremely simple, simple story, but it’s so massively complex, and he puts one stone on top of another stone on top of another that adds weight as to what this guy is trying to figure out. If he has to cut to something for 30 seconds or three frames he’s going to do it. It felt extremely fresh and new and smart and full of energy. Quite radical editing. 

Matt Zoller Seitz: I probably saw “The Hand” on cable when I was young, but I didn’t know it was an Oliver Stone film. The first movie where I was aware it was an Oliver Stone film was “Salvador.” I was in high school in Dallas and a friend of mine who was a big movie buff told me he had just seen this movie and that I had to see it because it was amazing. That was the movie that kind of established him as we all know him. That came out in 1986 in late winter or early spring, and then “Platoon” came out that very same year during the Holiday season. I followed his career very closely after that. He made “Wall Street” and that came in the fall of 1987 right when the stock market crashed, and I had just enrolled in SMU in Dallas, and the biggest school there was the business school. Boy was everything kind of crazy and funereal there that day! Stone eerily had his thumb on the pulse of modern day life.

Through it all, what really stood out to me was the way he showed and told. They always say, “Show, don’t tell,” which is bullshit. Some of the best movies tell, and some of the best movies show and tell. There are great movies that only show, but not too many that I can think of. Stone is in this great tradition of doing both. He’s aiming for the great American regular moviegoer, and in that way he’s kind of like the primeval Spielberg, you know? Spielberg makes a movie like “Munich,” “Saving Private Ryan” or “Amistad” and he pitches it so that he can hit the widest audience possible. They’re very complex films visually and narratively, but he pitches them at the widest audience possible — he makes sure everyone can understand a part of it so that every audience member can get something out of it. Oliver Stone does the same thing, just his movies are darker, rougher and, in terms of editing, much more sophisticated. He has characters telling you what his movies are about, and thus turning them into morality plays, but at a level of image and sound that is as complex as Godard has ever done.

Has he been able to maintain these first impressions over the years? The reception to his work post-“Alexander” has taken such an alarming downturn both critically and with audiences, which makes me wonder where he fits in the cultural landscape these days.

RB: But I think that’s so irrelevant, at least to me because I’m a filmmaker. I just don’t think filmmakers can care too much about that. It’s just so hard to survive out here. A filmmaker’s life expectancy is usually 10-15 years, and this guy is still making movies. As Matt mentioned, he’s a guy who’s put up two feature films in one year. He did it in 1986, but also again with “JFK” and “The Doors,” those both came out in 1991. He’s churning out movies, and not just any movies but these large, politically-interesting and challenging big-budget movies. These aren’t popcorn movies, these are huge, challenging films that he’s managing to get off the ground. And then in between he’s shooting these strange documentaries, which I like very much. They’re just like these weird sketches he’d go do with four people, or at least that’s what they felt like, and I mean that in a very, very good way. He was roaming around talking to leaders in South America about things that were interesting to him.

MZS: He actually got things out of Fidel Castro that no one else has ever gotten!

RB: He’s managing to continue to make films and survive when it’s so hard. There’s only a handful of people who are doing it — Scorsese, Spielberg, Herzog. There’s not many who can last this long and still make challenging films — good or bad. Does the audience respond always? No, but the audience never responds always. Every filmmaker has their misses and their hits that the audience doesn’t understand. I can’t stress enough how difficult it is for someone who has had a career as long as Stone has to be continuing it, and continuing it in ways that are challenging. He’s always challenging himself with every new film.

MZS: Ramin makes an excellent point. Just a few years ago he did “The Untold History of the United States” — a freaking TV series! He directed every episode, he co-wrote every episode, he basically went back to school to get a history degree to prepare himself for this. Oh, and he personally narrated every episode. He basically made five movies on television. That’s a big, big deal. I think that’s one of his major works. It lays out the Oliver Stone worldview in a fairly complete way.

What is the “Oliver Stone worldview”? How do you define it?

MZS: I’ve spent a lot of time with the guy. I have 70-80 hours of conversations with him that we’re trying to wittle down into a book that isn’t 5,000 pages, and it’s not easy. I think it really comes down to the lesson that Ron Kovic has to learn in “Born on the Fourth of July.” It’s this: There is history and there is ideology, and the actual history of things — the facts — are usually not in dispute. You know certain things happened at certain points. But there’s always this ideology that surrounds it, and the ideology is the lie that’s told to the public to justify the people who are profiting from whatever happens. This is an oversimplification, and I’m not sure Oliver would agree to it in those terms, but what I got out of him was communism vs. capitalism, east vs. west, all of these conflicts that have animated history are a cover story and conspiracy. The meaning of them — and some people believe in them whole-heartedly, I’m not saying they don’t — but the purpose of them is too obscure the machinations of power and money.

Everyone one of his movies that has to do with current events or history comes back to this: Heroes figuring out that the official version of events that they were told are not true and they have been concocted for selfish reasons, and it’s up to them to see them through, find the truth and communicate that truth to other people. Just look at “Born on the Fourth of July,” which is my personal favorite and the one I consider to be his most important. It’s not just about Vietnam, it’s about the American character. It’s about how the American mentality and the American view itself conditions people to go to war and to be ok with war. Beyond that, it’s beyond somebody who has suffered a personal catastrophe and who has to come back from it and question how they got to be the person they are and whether or not that person is “authentic.”

RB: And in the midst of all that, I think a lot of people fail to understand that this guy is a really great filmmaker, just in terms of how he visualizes all of these themes Matt is talking about  He’s got an incredible sense of space and blocking. The lensing on the beach scene in “Born on the Fourth of July” is just phenomenal to look at. I have not seen someone use that type of lens in that frenetic way before. I had wondered if he picked something up from Sergio Leone and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” because he has this long tracking shot, but here he’s putting it on another hand and on that kind of lens — I’ve just never seen it before.

MZS: It was unprecedented at the time.

RB: He’s a great filmmaker, and I feel like that often gets overlooked in the controversy that surrounds the subject matter he chooses. Of course I like the subject matter a great deal, but he’s an amazing filmmaker. So much can be learned by any filmmaker by studying his work, in terms of blocking, staging, editing and sound.

Both yourself and Stone are filmmakers concerned with the political and socio-economic climate of our country, and yet your work is so grounded in neorealism while Stone’s aesthetic is so stylized. How has Stone influenced you, Ramin, in ways that are probably not apparent to most general moviegoers?

MZS: Can I contribute an observation here about Ramin’s work?

Of course.

MZS: I saw “99 Homes” at Ebertfest. I’m sitting in the balcony with a friend of mine and all of a sudden I get this “Wall Street” flashback because I’ve been obviously immersing myself in the world of Oliver Stone, and at the time so much of it was on my mind. The year before I had brought Oliver Stone to Ebertfest for the 25th anniversary of “Born on the Fourth of July,” and Ramin had sat at our table with Oliver Stone, and I believe that’s where they started to become friends. Am I right about that?

RB: Yeah, exactly.

MZS: So I’m sitting in the balcony a year later watching “99 Homes” and thinking, “Holy shit! Michael Shannon’s character reminds me of Michael Douglas in ‘Wall Street’ and Andrew Garfield is Bud Fox.” There’s also something about the rhythm of it and the way they speak. I turned to my friend and said, “This reminds me of ‘Wall Street.'” Then during the Q&A, Ramin mentioned Oliver Stone and how Stone was a big influence. I went up to Ramin afterwards and said, “You know I need someone to write an introduction to my Oliver Stone book.” He wrote the introduction. But yeah, generally Ramin is more realistic than Oliver in a very general sense, but in “99 Homes,” in particular, he uses realistic locations in a way that brings out their blatant metaphorical value, and that’s something that Oliver Stone has always been great at. I don’t know if you’d agree with that, Ramin, but that’s what I got out of it.

RB: Well certainly, yes, and I spoke a lot about this with Matt, but I did look at a lot of films before “99 Homes” and “Wall Street” was one of them, and I told Oliver very clearly that that was the case. If you look at “Platoon” even, I like the film very much and it was very powerful and very important for that time — and it still is today — but if you look back at it it’s really a lot of mood and atmosphere. It’s what makes it so much different than “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and… what’s the other great one that’s slipping my mind?

MZS: “The Deer Hunter”? “Coming Home”?

RB: Yes, “The Deer Hunter.” Each of them are so brilliant in their own way, but what’s so different about “Platoon” is you know the guy was there. You know whoever made this film had really been there. The scenes of Charlie Sheen in those camps with those guys, and the hanging out, and the way he filmed the jungle and the battle scenes, you actually can’t tell what’s going on — no one knows what’s happening. There’s no clarity. You don’t know who’s shooting — it could be your own man shooting at you. You can’t even see in front of your face. You can’t see in front of your sweat. All that stuff is so believable and palpable and real and raw. 

MZS: Those were the first combat fire fight scenes that were shot 360 degrees, so there was no sense of side to side. 

RB: Yeah, and that’s because he was there. The filmmakers of the prior generation who had made war films, maybe they would have done that too but just the technology wasn’t there. There are obviously great filmmakers who have been to war and made great war films, but what I like about it is that he managed to capture huge ideological ideas but still tell a great story at the same time. 

MZS: Did I tell you about what Oliver told me about the explosives in “Platoon”?

RB: No

MZS: He detonated them himself. He was dealing with a pyrotechnics guy and he was saying, “No, no, no. I need them to be this very particular way because of the way we’re moving the camera.” And the guy wasn’t understanding, so finally he said, “Give me the detonator.” He did it himself! I said to him, “That’s a little dangerous, no?” And his was response was: “Well we didn’t have all day and I used these things before, so I got it done. And nobody was hurt and it was fine.”

I feel like that’s an anecdote that speaks directly to who Stone is, both as a person and a filmmaker.

MZS: It absolutely is.

You mentioned you had 70-80 hours of conversations recorded with Stone, so what are you planning for the upcoming book?

MZS: The book is called “The Oliver Stone Experience” and I don’t know how long it is going to be. I’m actually in the editing room right now looking at a printout of a rough version of the book. It’s kind of an illustrated critical biography of Oliver Stone, in which Stone himself is the main storyteller. He actually asked me when I was visiting him in Los Angeles last year, he said, “Matt, I got to be honest with you, I really don’t understand what kind of book you’re making.” I told him it was an Oliver Stone movie about Oliver Stone in the form of a book. He was just like, “Ok. I think I can see it in my head now.” It’s pretty wild, and it’s nothing like the Wes Anderson book. There’s no whimsical margin illustrations. It’s an R-rated book. You’ve seen his films, so the images are intense. He’s also just lived an incredible life. He’s pushing 70 years old and he’s probably gone through five, six, seven incarnations personally. He’s been through so many experiences. The Vietnam experience is just the beginning. He’s been all over the world, he’s had three marriages, he’s worked for probably every major studio in existence, and he’s made not just war films but crime films, historical films and documentaries.

On top of that, there’s this burgeoning interest in history. J. Hoberman once joked in a review of “JFK” that Oliver Stone’s take on the conspiracy in “JFK” ultimately came back to the question of “How did I end up in Vietnam?” I think he probably meant in a joking way but it was probably true. Stone did go to Vietnam and it was probably ideology that made him enlist. His dad was a Nixon man, so he had these very anti-communist views when he was signing up. Like Kovac, he spent the rest of his life figuring out how much of him was really him in this post-Vietnam landscape. How much was him and this ideology that was encrusted on him since birth? That’s been his struggle his entire life — to uncover this authentic self, and he’s gone about it in a lot of different ways, and some have worked better than others. Some have been disastrous while others have been glorious, but you know, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” would be his theme song. He’s quite a guy. 

RB: And he just keeps going! That he keeps making these films in his way is just astonishing. Look at “Snowden.” Of course it’s a hot button topic, and of course people are interested — I get it — but I think we have to accept and understand that large budget films don’t look like that anymore. Anything that doesn’t involve a very easy to digest superhero is considered “challenging” for some reason, and the fact that he’s the one doing it, I can’t stress enough how huge it is. Matt said he’s 70, and Herzog and Scorsese are probably the same age, and the fact they’re making films that still feel like them, like they were years ago, that’s astonishing. Any filmmaker could only dream to be Stone’s age and be making films they really care about — even if half of them don’t work. 

From the critical and audience perspective, his recent efforts just don’t seem to be connecting as well as they did in the days of “JFK” and “Platoon.” Why are we not embracing Stone in the same way we used to?

MZS: I’m not so convinced its audiences, let’s say, who are sort of squeezing him out. It’s the industry. Something very curious happened to Oliver Stone in 1995, and it’s that he came out with a film called “Nixon,” which I think is one of his masterworks. It didn’t do very well at the box office. It was an expensive film that didn’t make a lot of money. The studios almost seemed as if, by collective agreement, to pull the plug on Oliver Stone’s big-budget, star-packed historical dramas. Don’t forget, this was a mode he had worked in very successfully. His films, his political films, whether set in the recent or distant past, had done very well — critically well and, in some cases, financially well. “Platoon” was huge, “JFK” was huge, “Born on the Fourth of July” did very well and got him his second Oscar for Director and the first nomination for Tom Cruise. He’s guided a lot of actors to Oscars. But the studios after “Nixon” just pulled the plug.

At some point, and I think it really started happening in the mid 1990s, the studios made a decision not to care so much about the adult moviegoer, and by adult I mean the mentally adult moviegoer. I know this sounds like a kill joy thing to say, but I think there’s a painful truth to it. I think a lot of it has migrated to television — not all of it—  but something like “Hatfields & McCoys” would’ve been a movie 20 years ago. There are a lot of things I see on television that I know would’ve been films two decades ago in Oliver Stone’s heyday. I think he would’ve continued to make movies like he did if the studios let him.

Movies like that can make money today, look at “American Sniper.” “American Sniper” made a ton of money: There’s no superhero, there’s no Godzilla, but people went to see it because it struck a chord, and it struck some of the same chords as “The Deer Hunter” did. There’s a place for Oliver Stone to make these movies, and I think “Snowden” is going to be that movie. Honest to god. I’m not allowed to say exactly what’s in the script, but it is the Oliver Stone you remember. It’s the “JFK,” “Born on the Fourth of July” Oliver Stone. Boy is he coming at you with guns blazing in this. It’s very exciting. 

RB: I also think, speaking to your point about “Nixon,” that people also just got so angry after “JFK” and got angry about “Natural Born Killers,” and something happened. People got angry and didn’t want to let them go. But this “Snowden” thing looks great. I saw the teaser on Indiewire, actually.

MZS: And let’s be specific here. The teaser isn’t just of a flag, it’s the upside down flag, which is a symbol of distress. If you show that — if you hang a flag upside down and it’s not an actual military emergency and you do it for rhetorical reasons — a lot of people get seriously angry at you. When I saw it I got a smile on my face because it means Oliver Stone is back and he’s in your face and he’s pushing buttons and he doesn’t give a fuck about what you think about it.

RB: Exactly! I saw that and I was just like, “He’s back.”

MZS: It’s a movie for a state of national and international emergency. Tthat’s what the teaser tells me.

You guys are obviously fans and are so familiar with his style and filmic language. Before we end here, I’m very curious as to what event you’d like to see under the Oliver Stone lens that we haven’t gotten already.

MZS: Hmm… Gosh, that’s a great question. I would like to see Oliver Stone do his My Lai film that fell through. 

RB: What’s that?

MZS: This My Lai Massacre film called “Pinkville,” which fell through in 2007. I read that screenplay and it’s an incredible screenplay. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to see that in a theater. I think it would be as powerful as “JFK.” I would also like to see him do a film about the abolitionist movement, and not just people reading from the Bible and imploring people to find their conscience I’m talking about the guerrillas of the movement who had machetes and hacked up slave owners. That’s a topic I don’t think any filmmaker would probably touch but Oliver Stone. 

RB: Yeah, wow. I’ve never thought to ask that question, and thinking about it now it’s a really interesting one. I’d be curious to see his take on the Native American experience, and I think that’s something he touches upon in his films. There’s something, I don’t want to say mystical, but there’s something spiritual about Oliver Stone as well, and he knows how to handle the darkest parts that people don’t want to talk about. The Native American experience is something that’s a continued amnesia in this country that we just don’t talk about it. I think it would be great to see what he would do with that. 

Join Ramin Bahrani and Matt Zoller Seitz at Videology Bar in Brooklyn, New York for more of their thoughts on the films of Oliver Stone.

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