“Natural Born Killers” arrived in multiplexes in 1994 like a molotov cocktail. Despite being dropped by Warner Bros. into the late-August graveyard of release dates, Oliver Stone’s serial-killer satire ended up at number one at the U.S. box office, and has remained a cult favorite since debuting 25 years ago.
As part of Los Angeles’ Beyond Fest, the film will screen in 35mm, in its unrated version, Tuesday night, with director Oliver Stone in attendance at the Egyptian Theatre. In a recent telephone interview with IndieWire, the notoriously prickly director insisted on keeping the Q&A on topic with “Natural Born Killers.” With regards to his upcoming Hollywood memoir slated for 2020, ill-received comments about anti-gay propaganda in Putin’s Russia, or Stone’s relationship to Putin as evinced by his 2017 documentary “The Putin Interviews”: Stone’s answer? “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Okay, then. Shocking to this day in its lurid violence and evisceration of the media’s obsession with murder and death, “Natural Born Killers” in many ways presaged the wave of true crime and serial-killer stories on our screens and in our earbuds today. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play psychopathic murderers on a vicious killing spree who become irresponsibly glorified by fetishistic media coverage. Sound familiar? The following year after the film’s release, the O.J. Simpson trial came to dominate the culture as no media circus ever had before.
“In 1990, I felt the media landscape was really changing, especially the coverage of violence,” Stone said. “It always existed but it became more geared towards profit when the O.J. Simpson trial happened. I’d never seen anything like it. Growing up, I’d seen a lot of sensationalism. We have a sensation-daily world, but it’s bigger than ever, and television made it so. The O.J. trial was covered to the exclusion of almost all news. It was wall to wall. I don’t think television ever made more money in revenue, and I don’t think they ever went back. It’s been that more or less since then, [though news coverage] moved out of the field of murder and into politics as entertainment.”
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Amid accusations of romanticizing criminality, and giving a voice to mentally ill protagonists from damaged backgrounds, “Natural Born Killers,” it’s been said, stoked a number of copycat crimes following its release. In March 1995, teen lovers Ben Darras and Sarah Edmondson went on a killing spree throughout Middle America, and had prepared for their trip by dropping LSD and watching “Natural Born Killers” on a loop.
Stone insists to this day, however, that he did not intend the film as a celebration of violence. “Its violence was satiric. I had a history of making films with realistic violence, and I thought it was clearly not literal, but metaphoric, over-the-top, not even close to real,” said Stone of the hallucinatory film whose violent set-pieces are indeed too outrageous and deranged to be taken literally. “Rodney Dangerfield drowns in a fish tank!”
Revisiting “Natural Born Killers” undoubtedly brings to mind a certain controversial movie now in theaters that everybody has an opinion about. But as of the time of this interview, Stone hadn’t seen “Joker.”
“It sounds interesting… like maybe it’s going to be about an orange-colored president,” Stone said. “We’re living in the age of the Joker. In terms of sensationalism and violence, I imagine that it treads on those themes [of ‘Natural Born Killers’].”
Stone also said he doesn’t watch shows like “Mindhunter” or true-crime series, but acknowledges that the myth of the antihero continues to own the output of what we’re seeing on film and television. “You see it everywhere. I’m not saying that’s what I want to see. But the future is murder,” he said. “Natural Born Killers” ends with the Leonard Cohen song “The Future,” where the folk singer/songwriter echoes that very claim.
Melding multiple styles, from the docudrama to the sitcom, “Natural Born Killers” was ambitious and difficult to get made — and not to mention cast, as most actors didn’t want to go near it.
“It does in some way predict the violence that has come down on our century, the violence in the air and the violence on American television. [Look at] the cutting of commercials — the style has devolved to become busier and busier, more sensational. We did that on purpose,” Stone said, referring to the film’s frenzied editing technique.
Regarding getting the film off the ground, “I had problems, believe me. We barely got it made to Warner Brothers,” Stone said, which is the studio that distributed his Kennedy biopic “JFK” (1991) and third anti-Vietnam film “Heaven & Earth” (1993). “I wanted to make ‘Natural Born Killers,’ and they did not. They were worried about the violence. They gave me a list of actors and they were all impossible to get into the movie because they’d all turned it down.” But finally, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis signed onto the film, and Stone and his crew went off to make it in New Mexico, Arizona, Indiana, and Illinois.
Another person reportedly unhappy with the movie? Quentin Tarantino, who had written the original script. Though still the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox, the script was heavily revised by Stone, along with screenwriter David Veloz, and associate producer Richard Rutowski, with Tarantino ending up with a story credit.
“He wrote the original script, and we bought it. It was all done legally. A lot of money was paid. His opinion, yeah he didn’t care for it, but I don’t know if he ever saw it. He went around and said that and I don’t think it was the right thing to do. But that was one of my many problems. We did well in spite of it all,” Stone said.
The 73-year-old director affirms that “Natural Born Killers” still holds up as “original and strange,” and even prophetic.
“It was intended to poke fun at the madness of our system,” he said. “American life is lived on television. In this climate, these fucking ridiculous shows, people divest their lives away in pursuit of money, in pursuit of love. People don’t have a life. They have a fake life. Reality TV is fake. It’s acting. What’s real? How do I know.”