A lot of film fans had their eyes opened by the trippy blur of David Lynch, who showed them that movies need not be literal or especially concerned with losing audience members for one or two or all the moments. For me, such a cinematic shakeup didn’t come from Lynch, but Oliver Stone. Much like his underdog characters, he continually challenges the norms of his field. Throughout his career, Stone has been able to shift between yarns spun with either a calm eye or full-on bombast, whether he’s showing modern gladiators in Any Given Sunday, the fractured life of Richard Nixon, or hell’s dirty underbelly as depicted in U-Turn.
It’s also obvious that Stone is a history nut, and, with The Untold History of The United States, he spent these past four years crafting a project he’s called his most “ambitious.” It’s a comprehensive, warts-and-all look at the behind-closed-doors shaping of America, all done in an approach we’ve come to expect from Stone.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Stone to talk about that approach, his greater body of film work and his antagonism toward perfection.
I can’t recall seeing any films before JFK that had that kind of visual design. Were there any visual templates at hand, or was it all an act of exploring new ground?
I’m sure there had been experimental films done, of that nature, but not like that. I think that came out of the story. The way the script was written was very fractured: point-of-view here, point-of-view there, and very Rashomon.
I didn’t feel you could make those cuts without changing the style of the film. Between [cinematographer] Robert Richardson and the production design, we also went with the idea of Super 8, Super 16, and 35 color in different scopes and aspect ratios. I think the film opened in 1:85 and went to 2:35, right?
I believe so. If JFK were shot today, it would probably be made digitally.
[Laughs] Does that idea put a bad taste in your mouth?
I have to go with the flow. I would rather work on film. On Savages, which was my last film, I very closely watched it on film and digital, and the film was better. I don’t care what James Cameron or anyone else says, because, to my eye, there’s something about film you can’t quite get on digital.
However, there are many advantages to digital, including projection. To be honest, the old projection was superb but rare, so you couldn’t get consistent projection. Release prints were sloppily handled and not as good as they should’ve been. The digital prints make sense. Also, because it’s a more cheap and economical way to show, it makes sense to digitally project. There’s less damage to the film, more consistency, and better lighting. [Laughs] Although, I have been in some digital theaters that drive me nuts, because they do a bad job sometimes. The old mutilation of film was pretty sad, especially the release print. They made green into greenish stock. There’s no question, in a pristine room, if you put them side-by-side, you have to go with film. That was a year ago [with Savages], so maybe things have changed.
The quality changes so rapidly.
Right. Not necessarily for the better, though.
What can film capture that digital can’t?
It’s something that appeals to my eye. There’s grit, a sense of skin, and resolution. The skin looks more lived-in. The richness of the colors are so much more noticeable. You can’t get the same quality on digital. They say you can enhance it, but it’s not the same. When you have a blue dress and you light it right, it’s really blue. Savages is a good example because it’s a very colorful film. If you see a film print, it’s really good. If you see it digitally, it’s good — but it’s not the same.
It’s funny, Savages was on TV right before I came here and there’s a richness to the colors that really pops.
Good. I’m glad you noticed that. By the way, when you see the Ultimate Cut of Alexander next year, the colors are so pure. We shot it sensually. I hope to God you have a good projection.
As a director you’ve always been able to go from classically shot movies like Heaven and Earth to Natural Born Killers or JFK.
Yeah, exactly. Heaven and Earth is a beautiful film. I saw it in France recently and, to me, it’s one of the most beautiful films. Bob caught the green patty fields, the oranges, and… you just fall in love with those landscapes. Vietnam was a beautiful place. We shot the film in Thailand, but Vietnam was just a beautiful, beautiful place. I’m glad we caught that. By the way, I think that’s going to be rereleased by Warners. That’s been bugging me for 20-something years.
That’s one of your films, like Nixon and U-Turn–
[Laughs] Plenty of people love U-Turn. Those are three of your films that didn’t grab an audience in the way Platoon did. When that happens, do you see that as a reflection of a film’s quality or that they’re meant to be found later?
That’s why I think Scorsese said — and very rightly so — to never give up on a movie. A movie could have more meaning 20 or 30 years later. I just loved all those movies. I killed myself making them. You know, I care. Sometimes the marketing hasn’t been as good as the movies. You can’t fight it or think about it too much, because you’ll go crazy if you do.
Savages, for example, was a movie they loved so much they brought it up the 4th of July weekend. That’s very sweet of them and they could make a bundle, but that’s not a 4th of July movie. Who knew Magic Mike and Ted would come out a week before? There was also Batman and Spider-Man, so it was hopeless because we were in the corridor with four huge hits. You don’t bring out a relatively complex picture on 4th of July weekend. That’s too whimsical of a weekend. Anyway, that broke my heart, because I thought it could make some money.
You’ve said before how perfection is impossible. Do you still feel that way?
You have to give that up. It’s a real bugaboo for people like me. To a certain degree, that becomes self-destructive. You can’t do something 127 times. I have a much more fatalistic point-of-view: perfection has been the enemy of good. It can really drive you crazy. You need “just this much,” and you have to live with that in life. Otherwise, you can have a very joyless life. [Laughs]
How do you define success, then?
It’s a good question, because don’t you think I’ve had bad nights on Alexander, Heaven and Earth, and Nixon? As you said, Nixon didn’t make any money. Heaven and Earth and Alexander are my two biggest films that failed to make money. The other ones did okay. Actually, Alexander, despite the criticisms, has done great on DVD. With international, it’s my second-largest-grossing film after JFK. Alexander was still a bug in me, though.
I’m the kind of guy who wishes sometimes the curve of the ball went differently. I think we could’ve made some money on Any Given Sunday; we broke just enough but not enough. U-Turn was another disaster that couldn’t catch a commercial break. I didn’t have much luck with World Trade Center. Although we did make money, it wasn’t recognized by the Academy, which hurt because I killed myself making it. With the dust and the dark, it was a hard film to make. Then W. was also a disappointment, but we broke even. I liked W., but it was bad timing because Bush was very unpopular.
I think Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has qualities that are overlooked. People on Wall Street see those qualities and talk about it. That’s the Wall Street I saw in 2010, and there’s a contrast there to the Wall Street of 1987. Yeah, it’s been a hard road since Natural Born Killers, and maybe because on that and JFK I crossed a line. I didn’t find a receptive climate since Nixon to anything.
Nixon is one of your films that people really get caught up in the politics of. Do you find that frustrating, when people don’t focus on the craftsmanship?
Yes, it’s frustrating. I think a lot of my movies have been judged more for content than the style, narrative flow, and smoothness of it. I think that’s a shame. I think I was eliminated from “the list” of filmmakers because I have things to say. I think it’s always nice to have a critic, like Roger Ebert, to come along and say, “Look, this is good filmmaking.” I work very hard at filmmaking. I spend hours writing, directing, and all that. It’s a craft that takes skill. It’s a new style now where people can throw anything up and make a movie, and it’s called a “movie.” It’s a different pastime. I’m out of it, to some degree. Untold History brought me out of it, because it doesn’t help you with developing films and working in that environment. I did a film, but I wasn’t developing new films. I find myself a little bit confused by the landscape. They make 16 movies a week, so I can’t follow it.
The Untold History of the United States is now available on Blu-Ray and you can preorder JFK here.