Oliver Stone Talks 'Untold History', 'JFK', 'Breaking Bad', and a 4th Cut of 'Alexander'

Posted Mon Oct 14, 2013 at 09:00 AM PDT by
Filmmaker Oliver Stone

High-Def Digest was lucky enough to score a seat at a round table interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone last week. Stone -- who is currently developing a Martin Luther King, Jr. bio-pic with Jamie Foxx and DreamWorks -- was on hand to discuss the Blu-ray releases of his Showtime documentary, 'Untold History of the United States' as well as the 'JFK 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector's Edition'.

The result of five years of painstaking research, 'Untold History' hits streets this week, on October 15, and not only includes the ten chapters previously broadcast covering WWII to George W. Bush & Obama, but also two "prologue" chapters that cover 1900 through 1940. There's also an interview with Stone conducted by author / political philosopher, Tariq Ali. Stone himself narrates each hour-long episode, combing archival footage and historical fiction films (Stone's work, and others). Unlike most documentaries, there are no "talking head" interviews. Also out this week, The Untold History of the United States companion book, written by Peter Kuznick and Stone. I haven't read it yet, but at 615 pages (footnotes and the index take it up to 749), the book promises to be a more in-depth version of the documentary. If the Blu-ray contains 12 hours of documentary material, Stone said this book would be 25-30 hours.

Also, 'JFK 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector's Edition' will be available November 12. While the film itself is, per Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, the exact same same master as the previous Director's Cut Blu-ray, this edition includes everything from that release as well as new extras, including:

  • 'JFK: To the Brink'. Chapter 6 from 'Untold History'
  • 'JFK Remembered: 50 Years Later'. A new documentary by Robert Kline.
  • 'John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums'. A 1965 documentary produced by George Stevens, Jr., and written and directed by Bruce Herschensohn.
  • 'PT 109'. The 1963 bio-pic about JFK's World War II heroics.

The round table interview topics were wide ranging, covering a century of American History, filmmaking, conspiracy theories, politics, digital technology, and even violence in the media -- I'm sure some of you have read Stone's quote on the 'Breaking Bad' finale already. Because we jumped around a lot, I organized this transcript into different topics. Though the quotes themselves are unedited, aside from any necessary grammatical clean up, sometimes Mr. Stone returned to various topics, so I marked the beginning of each separate quote with his initials.

Here, now, is filmmaker Oliver Stone.

On blending scenes from Hollywood feature films with archival footage.

O.S.: When you look at long swatches of archive film -- I've been through hundreds of hours of it now -- you can really fall asleep. It's "how do you make this less boring?" I love history, but some people the moment they see black & white, they drift. I've had that experience. So I wanted to make it exciting. And the narrative had to be constantly re-written.

The music we worked intensely on. Craig Armstrong, who did 'World Trade Center' and recently did 'The Great Gatsby', he really worked hard on this. He exhausted himself, I think, after about six hours of the twelve. He felt like he kind of spent himself. Although we used his theme through several times, we moved on, we went to Adam Peters, who I had worked with on 'Savages'. Adam is a young, English composer. Adam actually did the movie for the last six hours, pretty much. We blended. We were always looking for ways to stimulate again. So as we went into another era, we used a different style of music as well as local songs, songs of the time period.

The movie idea came actually because we're talking about culture. About the perception of things through out the series. So why not use movie? I would have used more, but with 58 minutes and 38 seconds in every chapter, you do have a very tight window. Also, Fair Use, you can't use more than approximately a minute, maybe less. The studios won't give you permission. So we were always towing that line. But I think it relieves the sameness of it, the narrative, the voice, we had no interviews in this. I hate interviews because they really would have killed us. We never would have done this "concept" with interviews. It would have slowed [the series] down sufficiently. So we went with that and basically I would have put more films in, and I did put some outrageous examples where people said, "you know, that's too much."

Why use 'Rambo: First Blood Part II' and 'Rambo III'?

O.S.: Stallone? You have to put him in because he's such a force. In the 1980s, it controlled public perception that Afghanistan was an evil Soviet Empire, that in Vietnam we had to go back and get the POWs. It's so important. Film hits so many people in the guts. It becomes emotional in America. Also, don't forget the importance to George [W.] Bush of 'Pearl Harbor' and 'Black Hawk Down'. 'Black Hawk Down' had a huge impact, as did 'Saving Private Ryan'. A huge impact on the culture in the '90s at a time when we didn't have an enemy anymore in the Soviet Union. So these films kind of fill the need…

You know, I was there, I remember making movies, you know 'JFK' came out in the '90s, but the Vietnam films had receded. My last one, 'Heaven and Earth', in 1994 was ill received in this country. It did not do commercial business, which was heart breaking to me. But after that you started to see that surge back to the World War II generation that George Bush, the father, the fighter pilot hero, here we go again. And they sold the Greatest Generation. Stephen Ambrose, who was a right-winger conservative, and Tom Brokaw. I do think that set up a climate for 'Black Hawk Down' to be nominated. It's a wonderfully made film, but such a horrible message to give, that US technology is gee-whiz, that US thunder and shock and awe. That's what [George W.] Bush quoted. He loved that concept of "awe." We'll awe them, we'll blow them away with our technology. And that's what I object to. One of the reasons I made this series was to get these movies in.

Documenting vs. Dramatizing History

O.S.: [With feature films] you have actors, you have sets, you have a script, but [documentary film] is all raw. All you have is archive footage. Peter Kuznick is a historian. I'm a dramatist. We're coming together and I'm trying to take this book, which would be maybe 20-30 hours of film, and I'm trying to simplify it down to a dramatic formula. I wanted to make documentaries exciting. Some people say, "there's too much going on here, I can't follow along." And that's okay, I'd rather I go faster because I have to cover so much. I'd rather you look at it a second time, because I think some kids might do that. I often look at documentaries a second time if there are things that are flying by me.

We have fact-checked. Graduate students and Peter's been teaching history for 35 years. He made mistakes too, but we had a fact-check by Showtime, a very serious one. We had our own fact-checker, who was also very tough. And finally CBS did a fact check because they own Showtime. They wanted to make sure, legally, that we wouldn't be sued by, for example, the American corporations who were supporting Fascism. They wanted to be very clear about stuff like that.

O.S.: ['Untold History'] was the hardest project I've ever worked on. Honestly. 'JFK' is thick, it's complex. The amount of material we had to condense, that we had to combine. 'Untold History' was just ten-times harder. There was so much re-writing, there were times I was in complete despair. I couldn't imagine re-writing it again. But we'd find out things as we went along. We started in 2008, and sometimes two years later you'd find out something that would blow your theory, so you'd have to really go back and constantly reexamine it like a Ph.D would do. And that goes for Peter too. I would question him and he would question me, and we'd go back and forth. It was very difficult. In film, they cut corners all the time. I know that. I've seen a lot of films that do that, and I object to that when I see them. But sometimes the film provokes you to think about it and when you think about it you read more. You know, I said when 'JFK' came out, "hey don't buy the film, don't believe it necessarily, but go out and read. Read the other version so you're not getting the mainstream press, which is backing the Oswald did it alone Warren Commission Theory."

O.S.: 'Salvador', we combined a lot of things, is an insane, gonzo film. It is what it is. It's probably the least historically accurate, but 'JFK', 'Nixon', 'W.', those hold up. So does 'Salvador,' as a film, and by the way I agree with the leftists in that battle. They fought a horrible war. The United States got involved, and helped support a repressive regime. No, I can't back off on that. Not that I was looking for that, but I would have entertained any, I would tell you if felt differently.

A New 'Alexander' Blu-ray?

I re-did a fourth cut of 'Alexander', you'll see it next year. [Laughter.] Not for historical reasons, but for dramatic reasons. I was too close to histories in some ways, and I wanted to. You'll see that next year from Warner Bros. They did very well with the third cut in 2007…

Wasn't that called 'The Final Cut'? [More laughter.]

O.S.: It was called 'The Final Cut', but this one's 'The Ultimate Cut'. We came up with a better word for it. What's beyond ultimate? Nothing. This is it.

[Editor's note: the exact name Ultimate Cut name may have been a joke, but after selling 2.7M units of The Final Cut, Warners is currently planning to release the fourth cut next year on Blu-ray.]

Why he decided to make 'Untold History of the United States'.

O.S.: In 2008, I had done 17 films at that time. We had been through eight years of George [W.] Bush. Whatever you feelings about George Bush, for me it was a nightmare. A personal nightmare as a Veteran of the Vietnam War. We were repeating everything we had done wrong and we're not seeing it. And I felt like I've got to do something more for my children. If I make another feature film, it might be a big hit, but it's not going to give me the same satisfaction. I'd like to be honest to my time. I've lived from 1946 to now and I wanted to understand why our country, which I love so much, and was a great country when I was young it seemed, became this monster vampire on the face of all humanity. "Vampire squid," to quote Matt Taibbi, "sucking out the juices of all mankind." Why?

It's a basic question and if you live in a certain time period, you have to ask those questions. Otherwise you're not really being honest to your time. And I had the ability to [make the documentary]. I could get the backing and the trust of enough people to get this done. And I also got it on the air, which is a miracle in this country because it would never be on the air in commercial television. There's no way. Our commercial television is so limited in what it's allowed to show with a controversial aspect. They don't want controversy. That doesn't sell product. So we were able to get it out there with Showtime and that was a miracle. Believe me.

Documentaries, Movie Violence, and 'Breaking Bad' [WARNING: SPOILERS]

O.S.: Documentaries refresh you, they go back to the source. You go out into the field, you do a lot of research. In some cases, with the other documentaries, you meet people on the road and make road movies. They give you a transfusion. Living in a studio world, in a world of manufacturing resolutions, manufacturing when people feel good, only thinking about what makes the audience moved in preview cards, is okay. But it's got its limitations after a while. So you try to get back to the basic truths of life. There's too many war movies being made. Too much violence in our movies and it's all unreal.

I don't know if, for example, you saw 'Breaking Bad'. They're all raving about 'Breaking Bad'. I don't know if you saw the denouement. I happen to not watch the series very much, I'd tune it in and I saw the most ridiculous last fifteen minutes of a movie, it would be laughed off the screen. Nobody could park his car right then in there that could have a machine gun that could go off perfectly and kill all the bad guys. It would be a joke. It's only in the movies you see this kind of fantasy violence. And that's infected the American culture. You young people, Film School Rejects [.com -- one of the other media outlets attending this event], you've lost your minds and you don't even know it. At least respect violence. I'm not saying… show violence, but show it with authenticity.

O.S.: …I wouldn't criticize everything. It's the level of violence. If people really thing bringing a machine gun to your last meeting is the solution to a television series that's very highly popular, I think they're insane. Something's wrong. It's not the world that we know. But there might be an 'Iron Man', I don't know the last one, but yeah, there could be some good stories about war profiteering and some good morale tails, I agree. Comics were that for that reason. Remember the original comics. But when you've reached that high technology level of a 'Transfomers', it's just beyond… I don't understand the meaning of it and the reason for it. Except that it appeals to some visual, kinetic sense of dynamism and a need for action. But action is not always a solution. Character is. [END SPOILERS]

From the Vietnam War to NYU Film School

O.S.: I went [to Vietnam] twice, once as a teacher / Merchant Marine, and then I went back as a soldier. In between, I went to Yale and dropped out of Yale twice. I went back after Vietnam, on the G.I. Bill, to NYU. It took me a few months to get out of the mindset. Thank God, you know, for NYU because it really did help save my life. I was nowhere, I was lost. That war was very alienating. Not that I was against it or for it, I was just lost after that war. As were many Americans. Also, in America, they didn't care about the war. It's the same problem we have today, to some degree, and why we were able to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. People just don't seem to realize what we do abroad, and they don't seem to reckon with it what happens domestically. Or maybe they do now, I don't know.

The research process for 'Untold History'

O.S.: Peter's been teaching American History since the 1970s. He studied with the revisionist who originally wrote these kind of things, criticizing US foreign policy in World War II, post World War II. William Appleman Williams, from the University of Wisconsin, was very influential. LeFleur. Boy Gardner. Alperovitz. These are the revisionist historians. The anti Arthur Schelsinger types that inhabit and are read in the universities. It's very important that you get that balance of the Cold War, who Truman really was.

David McCullough is a popular historian -- he got the Pulitzer Prize -- and we think he mischaracterized Truman and mischaracterized the situation. So we attacked [Truman] and the book goes into more on this issue of who Truman really was. This is a key issue as to what happened after World War II. [Historians] give the Atomic Bomb a pass, and we really object to that. It's important to understand why we dropped the Atomic Bomb and what it's done to our thinking since then. It's corrupted it.

Should we use films, like 'JFK', in the high school classroom?

O.S.: Although Vietnam does get criticized in history books, but the Atomic Bomb doesn't get much of a major review. The whole thing has to be rebooted. It's just political now. You're dealing in politics. The books are controlled by the school board and school boards always have conservative hardliners. In Texas, you've got the worst, as you know. I don't think they're teaching Evolution quite honestly yet, are they? The best thing is to make stuff independently, have teachers bring it into the classroom, and show it. They can't take the text and put it in the classroom without permission, I believe, but you can show a film. So you hope, you get things on Showtime, and this [Blu-ray] release, you hope that it gets around. Gets talked about. This is evergreen in the sense that hopefully Warner Bros. will be selling this for the next fifteen, twenty years.

O.S.: By the way, I get lots and lots of letters for people who were young back [when 'JFK' came out] and said that, "this really changed my life. It made me think about things in a different way." It's like, I can't give you all the facts, but I can think of things in a different way. That our government is not necessarily one to be trusted. That they lie. Governments lie. That goes on all the time. And Jim Garrison was one of the first, gutsiest guys to ever bring the case in the public eye against the covert operations of this government. I think that is splendid. Now, in hindsight, although he was much criticized when our movie came out, he might be seen as more of an oracle to today's age than as a loony tune.

Dealing with Political Criticism and The "Oliver Stone effect".

O.S.: I try to go on shows with Peter and they will always have "an Oliver Stone effect". I have created enough controversy that I'm always fighting an image, yes. In a way, 'JFK' was that divide. I was criticized for 'Platoon' and for 'The Doors' before that, less so for 'Wall Street', though that was criticized as a film. But I made 'JFK' and never came back. I reached a place where I was too radical. And I was not to be trusted by critics who were saying I was making up things. Well, we researched that movie and we put out a book [of the screenplay] with a lot of footnotes. We may have made a few mistakes, nothing major, but we got it right from eyewitnesses that we talked to, and from all the information that we got.

The Assassination Records Review Board was appointed from '92 and went on until '98. They had four to five million pages and they still haven't understood it all, and they closed down because of money. But there's a lot of detail in there that substantiates, and opens up further, the holes that we pointed out. That Warren Commission is a Swiss Cheese document -- Alice in Wonderland document -- it doesn't make any sense, from Arlen Specter's "magic bullet" theory to Oswald's background. There's part truth, but there's no real basis to believe the Warren Commission. Four of the members knew that, and they said so. Most people of influence at the time, including [President] Johnson, doubted the findings because they knew it was a white wash. Any more than the 9/11 commission was trusted.

We don’t have a very good record in this country, except for the Gerald Nye Committee. It's in our book, and he did a great job investigating World War I profiteers. He found quite a lot of shit going back to WWI, with Woodrow Wilson and the Morgan Bank. But that was on the eve of World War II, so his timing wasn't very good. When we went to war, [Nye] wanted the WWI war profiteers to pay like 98% taxes on all their corporate profits at that point. It was a good proposal.

Skepticism vs. Conspiracy Mongering

O.S.: Some people say I'm nuts to say Kennedy was killed by the US Government, lead by a CIA elements. Where do you draw the line? Well, you present your case. I think Obama presented his case effectively that he was born in Hawaii, and I think we presented our case effectively. Whether it was reported so, I can't say. The media has a huge role to play. As you know, what we saw with the Snowden case, the Wiki-Leaks case, we see this constant battle between the whistleblower and the government that we're still fighting for the right to report correctly. That's a huge battle.

Digital Technology vs. Movie Theatres.

O.S.: I'll take it any way I can get it. But it's a shame. I love movies on a screen, but I understand people have different mentalities. I think on small screens they like to see action right away, or sex. It doesn't seem like very thoughtful stuff. To hold a phone and look at it for an extended period of time to entertain an argument doesn't seem quite the way it works. Where as in the dark, it seems you have the power of persuasion, the power of seduction. It's sexier.

Could you make a movie like 'JFK' today?

O.S.: ['Untold History'] is my attempt to do that. It's a bigger movie than 'JFK'. This is not about one President being killed. This is about the system being subordinated to higher needs of military industrial corporations in the United States after World War II. This is really what it's about. This is a huge subject that cannot be done as a feature film. How can you do it? Have three generations of people live through this? It would be a TV series, possibly, but it would have to be very ingeniously written.

Did you find any new movie ideas while making 'Untold History'?

O.S.: I think Henry Wallace is a great Gary Cooper character. Kennedy's a great character. I did a movie on [George W.] Bush, give me credited here. I did movies on Nixon and Bush. These are two of the, for me, most detestable men who really hurt our country. And I made movies about them from that point of view. I made a huge effort to go to the other side to understand.

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