“Don’t make this just a political interview, would you, please,” Oliver Stone begs me towards the end of an engrossing 45-minute chat over Skype. “They always lead with that: ‘Oliver Stone says George W. Bush was the worst President ever’. But that’s not what this interview is about. Lead with the book.”
The book in question is Chasing the Light, a memoir that ends in 1987 with the triple Oscar-winning filmmaker at the top of his game, basking in the sheer unadulterated pleasure of receiving the best director Oscar (for Platoon) from Elizabeth Taylor — “my dream girl of the 1950s and 1960s,” he writes, “still so glamorous, the heart of the movies”. He’s enjoying critical raves for back-to-back films, Salvador and Platoon, is happily married, has his sometimes raging cocaine habit under control, and has even learnt (kind of) how to avoid shooting himself in the foot in public appearances and the media.
“Perhaps that was the golden moment,” he tells me when asked if, in writing this book, a single time in his life crystallised for him as a zenith. “It was me realising I was making money, my film was a commercial and critical hit, and I’m still in health and under 40, thank God. It was quite good. And I think I knew it was quite good. ‘This is special’. I wasn’t stupid. ‘This is not gonna happen that easy again’.”
Despite the occasional glimpse of feistiness, Stone is a generous interview subject, offering long and thoughtful responses from his large, tree-lined attic office. He’s as willing to reflect on his own failings (“I always registered zero practically in the young women market,” he says at one point) as he is to rail at the world’s failure to see things through his eyes (“I just don’t think people want to know”).
And he has much to reflect upon. In the 33 years since he accepted that Oscar from Liz Taylor, Stone has had more hits — Wall Street and its sequel Money Never Sleeps, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK — some failures, a second divorce, a third marriage and plenty of controversy. He’s been labelled a conspiracy theorist, an apologist for America’s antagonists — including Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin — and a defender of an official enemy of the state, Edward Snowden. It’s been a hell of a life.
So sure, let’s lead with the book, which is a rollicking tale full of highs and lows, a little gossip (Al Pacino is a bit of a slippery customer; Midnight Express director Alan Parker a cold fish), and lots of “do what I say, not what I did” advice for aspiring filmmakers. But let’s also acknowledge that trying to separate the book and its author from politics might ultimately prove a futile exercise.
Stone was the only child of a French Catholic mother and an American Jewish father (of Polish extraction) who met in Paris at the end of the war, sailed back to New York when peace was declared and attempted to make a life of it despite their vast differences in temperament.
His father, Louis, was a stockbroker, and pretty good at it, though he never owned anything because, Stone writes, doing so “involved Pride, which came before the Fall”. He liked to write, too — both poetry and the investor newsletter he maintained until near the end of his life — and encouraged young Oliver to do likewise, paying him 25 cents a piece when he was just seven to write “about anything you want”.
“Make it two pages, three,” he would tell him. “Just tell a story.”
If it is Louis that Stone credits with making him a writer, it is his mother, Jacqueline, who gave rise to the director. She was vivacious, outgoing, loved to party. She made things happen.
Late at night, Jacqueline would crawl into bed with her young son for a cuddle. “Yes, it’s true, her ‘sexy’ manner may have given me a hidden desire for my mother,” Stone writes in one of the book’s frequent passages of self-analysis. “Possibly I adored her too much, but I’d prefer this fate to the cold, queer dislike or distrust of women I see in some men.”
His childhood was charmed, at least on the surface. Prep school, summers in France with his grandparents, the prospect of a gilded life in East Coast society. But when his parents divorced at 15, it all fell apart.
“Everything I’d believed up till then about my life — that there could be security, love and happiness between people — turned out to be a lie,” he writes. “The pain of it is still palpable almost 60 years on.”
Given the centrality of deceit in Stone’s work over the years, it is hard not to see this as the defining moment of his life. There have been others of course, most notably his experience as a GI in Vietnam in 1967-68, which opened his eyes to the insanity of war. The making of Salvador almost 20 years later inspired him to join the dots between America’s involvement in south-east Asia and its misadventures in Central America, and to find the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex behind both.
But psychologically speaking, these were arguably echoes of that first monumental betrayal.
“I was a child of divorce, and the split between my parents deeply affected me,” Stone tells me. “No brothers, no sisters, any sense of family dissolved. We were all in different spheres. So I was on my own at 15. It was a strange feeling.”
He spent the rest of his teens drifting, lost, and after failed stabs at college and at novel-writing, he enlisted for Vietnam, aged 20. He was driven, he writes, by “very dark thoughts … if I didn’t have the courage to take my own life, perhaps God, in whom I was raised to believe, would take it for me”.
There’s some self-dramatisation in this, for sure. Stone says his memoir “is also a novel”, a belated successor in some respects to A Child’s Night Dream, written when he was 19, published in 1997, and ostensibly to be adapted for the screen by his son, Sean. “I mean, you’ve got to keep it moving, you’ve got to keep it relevant. You’ve got to keep it entertaining.”
But it also acknowledges the general reality that for young men, that phase of life is often, as he writes, “a dangerous time”.
Stone’s Vietnam reality included one all-night firefight that left hundreds dead, but which he processed in his mind “as a stunningly beautiful night full of fireworks … a dream through which I’d walked unharmed, grateful of course, but numb and puzzled by it all”.
Emerging from the war, he began writing screenplays about it, trying to make sense of what he’d seen and of its strange and lingering after-effects. He enrolled in film school and made a short film called Last Year in Vietnam, which his tutor, a young former student named Martin Scorsese, hailed as proof that here was a real filmmaker. “Why?” Scorsese asked rhetorically. “Because it’s personal. You feel like the person who’s making it is living it.”
In 1976, Stone began working on another Vietnam story, The Platoon. A decade later, he would get to film this mythic tale of a good sergeant (Willem Dafoe) and a bad sergeant (Tom Berenger) and the naive young GI (Charlie Sheen) caught between them. Along the way, he would also direct two feature films that few saw and that most who did would write off as failures (Seizure, The Hand), win an Oscar for screenwriting (Midnight Express) and enjoy soaring highs and crashing lows.
If there’s a moral to his tale, I suggest, it surely has something to do with persistence, with never giving up no matter how many times you crash to the floor.
Yes, he agrees, “but what else could I do?”
By that, he means he didn’t have his father’s gift for numbers, nor a taste for the “respectable” life that briefly beckoned during his first marriage, when the possibility of going into business and “making an accommodation” hovered on the horizon.
He was driven to write and, later, to direct, and from the moment his eyes were opened in Vietnam and he began his long, slow emergence from “being a conservative, like my father, Republican”, he was driven to put what he’d learnt in front of his fellow Americans whether they liked it or not.
“I’m certainly attacking nerve centres,” Stone says of his body of work. “And I enjoy it. I think we need films like that.”
Increasingly, he’s doing it in the documentary format because making features has become too much of a struggle. “It’s very hard to do a film; it takes so much energy, and I’m 73 going on 74,” he says. “It’s nice to have a little joy in life, not to have to worry, tension and all that and being judged all the time, questioned.”
He’s working on a film about JFK, and another on energy. His most recent release, screened on Showtime in 2017, was the four-part sitdown interview with Vladimir Putin, a man he feels has been entirely misrepresented by Western media.
He’s proud of the film, as well as earlier documentaries on Venezuela’s late socialist president Hugo Chavez and Cuban leaders Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul.
“Those films are so well done,” he says. “I mean, they’re real. Those guys expose themselves, they feel they’re telling their truth, and that’s very important. One day somebody serious, a historian, will look at them with a different light, not as [framed by] America’s Cold War policy, you know.
“The fight against Castro and Chavez and Putin has been uncredible and has distorted the values of this country enormously.”
He heaps equal Shakespearean-infused disdain upon Hillary Clinton — “Lady Macbeth, the killer; she’s a war hawk, man” — as he does Donald Trump, whom he dismisses as a “mad King Lear, ‘which daughter loves me more’, that kind of thing”.
“The guy doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t exercise, he keeps the strangest schedule I’ve ever seen,” he adds of the President. “He just needs to fuel the flames. I don’t think he has time to think. He seems to have a very hard-wired redneck policy on immigration, plus the environment, plus Iran. I don’t see anything progressive. And the thugs he appoints to be around him!”
But no one has done more to undermine democratic values than the younger George Bush, he insists. “He totally overreacted to 9/11. We became another country. I mean, we always loved to kick ass, but we became seriously aggressive, doubting of ourselves and suspicious of dissent.”
Stone doesn’t have another narrative feature in development right now. But what he does have is another volume of memoir, maybe two.
“Why not,” he says with a chuckle. “Doctor Faustus is three volumes, isn’t it? It’s my deal with the devil.”
He’s been keeping detailed journals since around 1982, and he has “1000 pages of notes” towards the second book. But he won’t start writing it until he’s finished with those two documentaries and can dedicate himself fully to the task.
“Frankly, I am really looking forward to tearing apart those diaries from 1986 on, because there’s so much that happened so fast — so many films, so many awards, so much success and failure,” he says.
“I can’t remember that much of it, and I’m going to be shocked to death, which makes it fun. ‘Shit, man. I did this. I did that.’ It’s like rediscovering your country.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.