In 1994, Warner Bros. released Oliver Stone’s film “Natural Born Killers,” about two lovers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) who embark on a murder spree and are subsequently glorified by the media. Though critically acclaimed, the film immediately garnered much controversy for its violent content, later inspiring copycat murders, and later inciting a denouncement by Presidential candidate Bob Dole.
Writer and critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s “The Oliver Stone Experience” takes readers through the arc of Stone’s varied, dynamic career with an in-depth, book-length discussion between the author and director. In the excerpt below, Stone discusses the reaction to “Natural Born Killers,” working with Tarantino’s script, his experience on the festival circuit, and more. Also included is a 1996 fundraising letter from Bob Dole who blames the film for corrupting society.
“The Oliver Stone Experience” is currently available for purchase at book sellers everywhere. Stone’s latest film “Snowden” is in theaters now.
They’re two very different approaches to the same material, [Tarantino’s] original script and your movie.
It’s also much more of a Roger Corman film, Tarantino’s. As I remember, it’s a one-themed film, which is “Love you, love you.” I think it works, but I don’t think it had the dimensions we added with Wayne Gale, Tommy Lee, and the whole concept of what the prison was. But I liked his sense of humor and his insanity, and I liked “Reservoir Dogs,” and so I bought the script.
We were turned down by Cannes. That hurt badly. [Cannes festival director] Gilles Jacob said it was too violent. But they had Tarantino there with “Pulp Fiction” that year. They said, “We already have enough violent fare with ‘Pulp Fiction,’ we can’t do two of these type of things,” and blah blah blah.
The Venice [International] Film Festival, though, was a whole amazing other story. We’d gotten a standing ovation, a wonderful reception. The director Gillo Pontecorvo, a kind man, called me right before I was going to leave and said, “Please stay an extra two days, because it looks like you’re going to get the top prize, the Golden Lion.” So the producer and I stay, and sure enough, the decision comes down and he says, “No, I’m sorry, Oliver, they decided to give it the Jury Prize instead.” This was after Mario Vargas Llosa, who’s another gasbag — he was on the jury, the jury’s supposed to be silent until they make a decision — goes to the press; I see the headline on Saturday morning one day before the jury is supposed to decide, and it’s something like: “Over My Dead Body—Vargas Llosa!” And there was all this talk about how Uma Thurman was on the jury, and she was in “Pulp Fiction.” David Lynch was the chairman…I don’t know. That hurt.
But you know, all that’s minor compared to the lawsuits, the murders, the fallout with Warner Bros. that made the Warner Bros. relationship uncomfortable over the next couple of years.
And the ratings board! All those cuts changed the rhythm. We went back to the ratings board several times — that was always a hassle. We’d say, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And they’d say, “We don’t know what’s wrong! Chaotic. It’s just chaotic.”
I couldn’t get past that word, because I had tried to create chaos deliberately.
Did they ever say they objected to specific acts of violence?
Some, but mostly it was about the way the film was cut, the way it was balled together. They said there was something disturbing about it, so make it less disturbing! I don’t know! What the fuck? I had done it to be a satire, shocking to the eye! That’s the point of a movie like this! So having to make it less offensive to, excuse me, a bunch of puritans, or whatever the fuck they call themselves, was tougher. Really hard!
But I didn’t like the cut, the rhythm of some of the cuts, that I had to make. I had to make 155 cuts to get an R rating! I mean, it was OK because I did it; certainly the prison riot and the music worked. I eventually did one of those side deals, and I forced Warner Bros. to give me back the cut, and then I finally got it out [on DVD] unrated in 2007 or something like that.
But I didn’t want to back down. I didn’t think it was right.
Tarantino’s script was, in terms of narrative structure, more experimental than your movie — because that’s his thing, shuffling narrative around. You go, for the most part, with a more linear narrative. But visually, sonically, musically, cut for cut, it’s much more aggressive, much more alienating, than anything Tarantino has ever directed. I’ve joked to people that this is the only thirty-plus-million-dollar experimental film I can think of that was released by a major studio.
That is a high number, for an experimental film, basically, yes! (Laughs) I don’t know that Warner Bros. knew what they had. They certainly didn’t expect it, and they were not ready to sell it.
I think they were shocked and repelled by the film in some way, because of all the issues and controversies. And yet, in spite of everything, it made like forty-eight million dollars, and it did very well abroad.
But back to what you’re asking: the idea behind it? Chaos. You have to remember what was happening in this country in 1991, ’92, ’93, with the Tonya Harding–Nancy Kerrigan thing, and Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who cut off the husband’s penis, and TV coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial — I mean, I’ve never seen so much attention paid to a murder! It was a new kind of coverage. I mean, I’d seen coverage of scandals in New York, there were all kinds of shootings, this, that, and of course it makes the “Post,” the “Daily News,” but this was a national sickness, this obsession with “did he or did he not do it?” “The black man did this, the black man did that.” It was somehow revolting to me.
Why did TV news take a turn toward this sort of tabloid material, and bring it into the mainstream?
Network television sold the news out in the eighties, or whatever was left of the news. Before, it had been treated as a public trust, and there was supposed to be a Fairness Doctrine, but that went out the window with Reagan. And there was an issue with [President and CEO Laurence] Tisch at CBS, where he said, “Now the news has to make money. It’s a new division. It’s a profit-making division.” It was never supposed to have that responsibility before. Now there was this feeling that news can no longer be for the public good, and now it was, “Fuck you, it’s on us, we have to make money.”
It was a complete whoring-out of our civilization, which is what these kids [Mickey and Mallory] sensed. They were just disgusted and numbed by it all, and they were the product of a numbed-out civilization.
It’s like that quote by Octavio Paz: “The ancients had visions, we have television.” I wanted to spin this idea that Tarantino had started, about filming yourself, into something that would take on this new world that I was seeing around me. It was my homage to the end of American civilization as I once knew it.
And I wanted to make it a crime movie, on top of it. And make it a love story! And actually, it’s one of my better love stories, because the truth is, I think. And I was criticized for it, because of course they get away with it. People were criticizing that aspect, but I said, “It is a love story and it doesn’t have to end tragically, and I’d like to know that they’re good people compared to the other ‘good people’ in the movie.”
And of course, I got killed for that because the characters killed fifty-five people, or something like that; therefore, how could you say, “Well, look at society?” I’m saying, look at the cop, the prison system, this guy Wayne Gale. What’s worse, you know? What’s worse? Is it worse to kill people who actually fuck with you, or is it worse if you kill them spiritually, with what Wayne Gale does with the excretion that he mutters every night?
So this is a movie that’s about an entire civilization of murderers, in one sense or another.
Yeah, spirit killers. The situation has gotten worse. A culture of confusion, distraction, and corruption.
(Excerpt from The Oliver Stone Experience (ABRAMS) by Matt Zoller Seitz)
Image from The Oliver Stone Experience (Abrams), courtesy of Oliver Stone and Ixtlan Productions