Stone Soul Booksigning

Interview With Filmmaker and Author Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone at the Paramount

photograph by Minh

Oliver Stone is one of the most controversial and accomplished American filmmakers. He is the co-writer/writer and director of Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, among others. His new film, U-Turn (which he directed but did not write), is currently in theatres throughout the country. Aggressively mixing ideological polemics with a brilliant and innovative cinematic style, Stone has earned almost as many fanatical supporters as he has garnered infuriated naysayers. Some of his films have made money and won awards, many of them have gathered huge audiences, and others have failed at the box office, but they always attract attention. His films are always driven by ideas and filled with passion, much as the man himself is. At the recent Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference and Film Festival, after watching Stone patiently sign books for two hours, writer/independent filmmaker Edward Lagrossa got to talk with Stone for The Austin Chronicle.

Austin Chronicle: Do you think violent films act as an outlet to mankind's more primitive nature?

Oliver Stone: Yes, in a way. If they are well done, they truthfully reflect the life situation, which, by the way, is partly violent. We have violence in us. It's part of our reptilian brain, and, I think, we have to co-exist behind our civilized brain, the neo-cortex. But you can't just cut it off like a limb and say I'm exorcising this for my system. Buddhism teaches that non-violence is the highest virtue precisely because it understands that violence is so endemic in the world. I said to a woman today at the auditorium [the Free for All at the Paramount Theatre], you know, we are becoming Disneyish in our repression of these instincts, whether it be sex or violence. Part of what movies do is bring up the dream state. And some of that is subversive, obviously. It reminds people, it puts them back in touch with their full consciousness. And I think that this argument is really academic. It's a silly argument. It's a waste. It's scenery. Because violence is in us. Violence can take many forms. Hurting someone with your tongue can be ugly to watch.

AC: Violence does not just have to be physical.

OS: I wouldn't call it violence, I'd call it aggression. Aggression is what is in us, as was said in the prison scene [in Natural Born Killers]. My movies are well known for their violence because I lived through it and I have a sense of it. But I also in Natural Born Killers was exaggerating, specifically as a satire. In U-Turn, it's violence that comes out of the character, in my opinion. Out of the growth that leads to their actions.

AC: That was established when the Nick Nolte character says to Sean Penn's that he was the type of person who could offer money for killing his wife.

OS: That's right.

AC: You have a new book out [A Child's Night Dream; St. Martin's Press, $21.95, hard] that you wrote when you were 19 years old. In your Vietnam section, there is a lot of murder, madness, and a very callous and insensitive American army. How much of this character is really you and how much of it is fictional?

OS: I think I grew up the typical red-blooded American boy for whom, in the tradition laid out for me, the road to heroism was risking your life. Sacrifice. I was in a very tough position. When I wrote that book, and it was rejected, I had dropped out of Yale twice. It was over. My parents were divorced. It was a very strange time.

AC: You wrote that with the intention to sell it?

OS: No. It was with the intention to establish myself, my identity, I suppose. It was a desperate plea. The book was framed as a suicide note. It's got a dark side. If it appeals (in fact, I know it does because I've been to enough booksignings) to those who read it, who have experienced that age of 19 and can remember that mental state, they get it. If you can't be in touch with who you were when you were younger, it's not for you. I can tell you that it's just not going to work. Part of its beauty is its naïveté. And when I went back last year to address it and work on it, it was to make sure that the naïveté stayed there and that I wasn't revising history -- the embarrassing sections, many of which there are.

AC: Like how you exposed your soul?

OS: All I know of my soul, I think my soul is much bigger. It's benighted, too. And I don't think we see. I regard consciousness as being like the womb. It's revolving. It's not linear at all. It goes full and then it dims every month. It goes down to nothing and works its way up. Our consciousness is changing. I liken that very much to the soul in the sense that knowing yourself is a very difficult task. Part of why I did the book was to find out who I was at 19 and remember. And it was a great time last year for me to go back almost 30 years in time.

AC: To compare the young Oliver Stone and how his perspective was then, through his long travel to the present.

OS: Unbelievable. It's been a great journey and I have no regrets whatsoever. You've got to realize what a dream it is to finish this book. It was such closure for me. It had really marked my life and I had sacrificed for it. It wasn't lightly done.

AC: You threw half of it out in the East River.

OS: Not half, about a third. I was really bummed out. It really altered my, well, as I said, I went to Vietnam, probably to get killed. I never thought I'd live through Vietnam.

AC: Really? Why did you think that?

OS: Because it was a way of pulling the trigger without having to pull the trigger.

AC: Suicide?

OS: Absolutely.

AC: Was it fate that you are alive? Are you living on borrowed time?

OS: No. I lived through the Vietnam war and I realized that I have another destiny in my life.

AC: Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?

OS: Yes. I'm a practicing Buddhist or a student of it, whatever you want to call it.

AC: How would you describe being a Buddhist?

OS: It's a state of trying to reach enlightenment.

AC: Is the work you do in films part of that?

OS: Trying to. It may strike you as bizarre, but it's closely allied. My work is mostly about the spirit life. But not necessarily in the case of U-Turn. U-Turn is another kind of movie, but there is a lot of spirit in it, too, if you look at Indian [Jon Voight] and the meaning of the town and the Apache tradition.

AC: Which of your other movies would you say is more exemplary of your inner philosophy?

OS: Heaven and Earth. The beauty of the woman, Le Ly, a true story. Her ability to forgive her enemies. To transcend her pain. I think that is a great ending. It's a great moral. She was a Buddhist and she converted me. To the Vietnamese church and then I went on to the Tibetan.

AC: Last question. What does the future hold for Oliver Stone?

OS: A book and a movie at the same time is pretty wild. It's pretty interesting. There's a synergy to it that actually worked out. I didn't realize it would work that way. I thought they might distract. In any case, I'm working on six or seven projects in development. You have to realize this is research and development. We are hopeful for Mission Impossible II, which would be a combination of action-adventure and philosophy. A philosophy about the 21st century.

Edward Lagrossa is an independent filmmaker living in Austin.

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