The Life of Oliver Stone

The Magazine, 25 February 2010

Oliver Stone enters the private dining nook at the Dusit Thani for our breakfast interview wearing a loosely knotted tie, pale blue shirt and a navy blazer. After removing his jacket, he sits down at the table, and asks whether I had attended his talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand the evening before. While sipping coffee and peeling a banana, Stone says he had been impressed with the calibre of the questions from the audience, who were Wsurprisingly friendly.”

The American director and producer had delivered his address to the FCCT clubhouse, packed elbow-to-elbow with journalists and the general public, on behalf of the Bangkok=based International Peace Foundation. One of the IPF’s objectives is to bring luminaries from the arts and sciences to Thailand as an inspiration for peace-building.

Stone is already in love with Thailand. Since he shot Heaven and Earth (1993), the peripatetic film mogul has visited frequently. Three years ago we met briefly when he stationed himself in Chiang Mai to begin production on Pinkville, a film about the courtroom aftermath of the infamous My Lai Massacre. Actor Bruce Willis was slated to portray William Calley, the US Army lieutenant charged with the premeditated murder of 104 Vietnamese civilians.

The project was sunk by the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike, and, according to Stone, by the failure of a US hedge fund, which left United Artists virtually bankrupt.

“We spent nearly $6 million building a replica of My Lai outside Chiang Mai. To get Pinkville going again, we would need an investor to put up the money to remove the lienn on that construction, just to begin with. Then we need the right star power, and I want to rewrite the script. It’s not so much about the massacre itself, but about how the military investigated it. It’s a story that should be told, as it was only because of one general and his staff that the story came out. That general lost his career as a result.”

War and the military are themes that run through several of Stone’s films. For two of them, Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), he won an Oscar for best director.

“Maybe you’ve noticed that three of the Academy Award nominees for best picture this year are about war,” Stone says when asked about his penchant for addressing these themes. “Film-goers love war, they enjoy violence. Violence sells, and on film it’s a form of release. A poster of a man with a gun always works. In the end, it depends on how you use it. The smart directors find a way, like James Cameron with Avatar, so that it has a message rather than just being silly.

“Part of Avator’s success around the world is that people are thinking these are American soldiers being shot down. It’s a measure of world opinion about how American superior technology is not working and is not seen as heroic. It’s a revolt against the military-industrial complex.”

I ask about the portrayal of the US military in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. “I really enjoyed it. It’s pure Tarantino, but it’s an ahistorical message – a ‘movie-movie-movie’ – and that’s what he likes to do. If you understand the cinematic techniques, I think you can go with that and enjoy it. But I hate to think of some stupid American teenager who believes WWII ended like that, and that Americans did what is portrayed in the film because it isn’t reality.”

As a war veteran himself, Stone is qualified to speak on the subject from ground-level experience. After dropping out of Yale University and teaching English at the Free Pacific Institute in South Vietnam, he enlisted for combat duty in the Vietnam War, “in order to save the world from communism,” he says now, rolling his eyes. He served as a Purple Heart, but by the time his tour of duty ended, he was no longer in favour of the war and was no longer “a believer in the American Empire.”

Upon his return to the USA, Stone enrolled in New York University’s film school, where he was mentored by director Martin Scorsese. He graduated in 1971 after directing, and starring in, a short thesis film entitled Last Year in Vietnam, about a war vet struggling to adjust to life in the city.

Stone’s lates project, a 10-part TV documentary mini-series called The Secret History of America examines the rise of the American Empire within the context of 20th century security issues, including two world wars and the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

“I’d had enough Ken Burns mythology,” the director says when asked what drove him to create the controversial mini-series. “Who are our heroes and villains? Strong leadership is necessary, but in differentiating good leaders from tyrants, you have to ask, are they doing more harm than good? Alexander certainly didn’t do everything right, but he did more good than bad. Comparing Castro to every other leader in Latin America, his record is really pretty good, yet he is constantly vilified in the US. Nobody’s perfect, but we Americans seem to have a double standard when it comes to torture, habeas corpus and other human rights violations.

“That double standard is perpetuated by the world’s major news media organizations.” Pointing to Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films, Stone says, “Film documentaries have the potential to play a bigger role in digging out the truth than the news media, nowadays.”

Asked what he does to unwind when not making films, the director responds with a surprising answer.

“Meditation has been the most helpful thing to me. I follow an American form of Tibetan Buddhism, based on the teachings of the Dalai Lama as interpreted by Pema Chodron [an ordained Buddhist nun, formerly named Deirdre Blomfield-Brown]. The goal is to apply Buddhist teachings in everyday life.”