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Oliver Stone at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alta.
Oliver Stone at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alta.

Oliver Stone on Vietnam, Hollywood and his political journey from right to left Add to ...

The Globe’s Ian Brown sat down recently with controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone, as part of his role as the Banff Centre Globe Canada Correspondent. Among the topics covered in their wide-ranging conversation: The man his conservative father hated (Franklin Roosevelt), his classmate at Yale (George W.), and the reason it took 10 years for Platoon to get made (Chuck Norris).

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ON WAR AND BEING BORN A REPUBLICAN

“I was born Republican, raised conservatively in New York City. My father was an Eisenhower Republican, he was a soldier in World War Two, he believed very firmly in the Cold War. Despised Franklin Roosevelt, despised labour unions, and was the classic American businessman. Cuba supporters in my class, in school, we would fight and I always defended what I thought was right. I ended up in Vietnam, among other reasons, because I wanted to fight, like Tom Cruise said in the movie [Born on the Fourth of July], ‘I want to do the right thing – I want to fight for my country.’ Then the whole thing changed, I went through the looking glass, so to speak, in Vietnam. And I think ‘black is white and white is black’ – that syndrome starts to kick in but not right away. I was in shock, numbed out, trashed out, burned. Over the years, I definitely turned far more to the left.”

ON HIS FIRST STEPS TO FILMMAKING

“I couldn’t write in Vietnam, the rain was too thick, there was no paper, everything got wet. I bought a little Pentax, and I started taking amazing pictures and I really loved the visceral aspect of the thing – which is very much like a film, you see, it has to become visceral. And I think that combination of visceral and still cerebral in some way was a beautiful marriage for me. After the war I went back to film school.”

ON MAKING SALVADOR AND PLATOON

Platoon has been for me a tragedy because it was written in 1976 and it had to go to the closet for 10 years because everyone loved the script but no one wanted to make it ’cause it was considered a downer, too depressing, too realistic. They wanted Rambo, they wanted Chuck Norris movies, Sylvester Stallone movies, they wanted the Vietnam of fantasy land. So John Daly, English independent, a gambler, a real street guy from East London, he took a shot, he said, ‘Look, I’ve read both scripts, which one do you want to do first?’ So you know, as a young filmmaker, this is a shot out of left field, it’s beautiful, this is heaven. I said, ‘Well, I think if I say Platoon I know it’s going to have bad luck because we’ve started it up twice and it never got made, so I’m not going to say Platoon because I know it’s over, it’s not going to get made somehow.’ So we did Salvador in a record time, low budget, very low budget and full of difficulties, it’s a story in and of itself. But then right after, John said, ‘I want you to keep going and make another one,’ and you don’t hear that very often.”

ON GEORGE W. BUSH

“I did not know Bush at Yale, I met him when he was a candidate and he told me that he was in my class there. He was the kind of boy that made me flee from Yale. I say that not lightly, because it is easy to make fun of Bush, but I say it also about myself because I was one of those boys; I grew up, I went to a boarding school like he did, and I earned high grades, unlike him. I did get into Yale mostly on merit. But when I saw my class, this privileged class, with a sense of entitlement – that sense of entitlement scares me and terrifies me because there is a fundamental corruptness about it.”

ON MAKING NINE MOVIES IN 10 YEARS

“You get your shot, it’s like a race horse, you just go. You go out that gate and you don’t stop, man, because they might shoot you. Honestly, I was insecure but in a good way, in the sense that I was always rushing to get the next one done, but I had something to say – I wasn’t doing a movie just to experiment, I was doing it because it was a theme that I wanted to advance.”

ON WRITING VERSUS DIRECTING

“Writing is very solitary, very interior, and then you take it to this exterior place where you are working with actors in a completely different world where they have to make it work for themselves. So whatever you’ve done, no matter how good it is on paper, you have to find that sweet spot with the person who you may often detest, or maybe he detests you, but you have to work together. The other side of directing is working with a crew – the technicians are very sensitive people and they’re all different, that’s why I love it. There’s 15-20 keys who do work in costuming, in production design, in camera, in sound, in mixing, in post, in pre, in locations, all of these things require their own touch so it really is a challenge. And I suppose I like the solitariness of being a co-writer or writer and I like the mix of coming out in public and doing this broad thing, trying to get this movie across to so many people.”

ON THE HOLLYWOOD SYSTEM

“It has gotten much tighter. People have a very false image of directors and actors as the highest paid for the amount of work and time they put in – but there’s so few of them that make it to that high level, unfortunately. Most of the middle actors are really killed in this business, and they’ve been killed more by the high prices paid to the big actors, so it becomes a very select club. It seems unfair to the technicians too, and the people who do so much work. Their salaries have been very flat for a long time.”

ON COMMERCIAL SUCCESS

“If you have more people go see a movie, you feel better about what you’re doing, you feel appreciated. However, I do believe – I really do believe – that every good box-office success is the result of a misunderstanding between the filmmaker and the audience. I think Platoon was perhaps my biggest-grossing film and I think it was misunderstood in the sense that people were wanting to heap praise on the American soldier and were ignoring some of the underlying facts in the film. Some of the soldiers felt the division, the civil war in the platoon, and above all some of the treatment that was handed out to the Vietnamese – that was put aside by some viewers. But it was very much a part of what I had seen. So Platoon could be embraced by I suppose right and left. Most movies make their money in the middle, I have made a lot of money by any standard, and by the same rules of capitalism I have lost a lot of money – and not just from taxes and divorces, I want to point out.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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