Love them or hate them, the films of Oliver Stone are as timely as they are touchy. His last three theatrical features, World Trade Center, W and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, form a trilogy of America’s last decade, a feat unmatched by his peers. Alexander’s clashing of civilizations across the Middle East bring a 3000-year old perspective to the revolutions erupting there today. Any Given Sunday diagnosed the damage inflicted on NFL players well before the league’s recent adoption of stricter player safety rules.
While Stone’s films invariably keep a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, his filmmaking is steeped in history, both in world affairs and in the movies. In this interview he links his films with his love for D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and Raoul Walsh. He also describes Alexander as a “tri-sexual” visionary who broke the mold, and introduces his controversial new project, which will counter the “pro-America slop” produced by a certain famous documentary director.
Stone will appear live in a special conversation about his films March 13 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Several of his films, including Alexander Revisited (his authoritative version of Alexander) and Any Given Sunday will become available on VOD in April.
Your last three films form a kind of trilogy that encompass major events of US history in the past decade.
I never thought of them that way. But in all three cases, I was burned by it. World Trade Center was attacked and misunderstood because a lot of people felt it was too close to the time of the event and too painful to watch. With W, people thought it was either too close or not close enough. For some the problem was that it didn’t cover Bush’s presidency from 2004-2008. Others thought, “Who cares about George W. Bush, he’s on the way out anyway!” Again, it was too close to history. But I think it will hold up over time.
With Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps it was the same issue. People confused us with the very good documentary Inside Job. But it’s a documentary, it has absolutely nothing to do with what we were trying to do, which was tell a story. It’s not about the causes of the crash, it’s about the people on Wall Street, people like Gordon Gekko who’d been there way before, the young people working now, and how life goes on, both before and after the crash. Again, when you chase something that’s in the air, people expect you to be a draft of a news report. But I’m telling a story based on current events, which doesn’t have to be the news. There’s a difference.
I think of D.W. Griffith, when he made The Birth of a Nation. That movie revolutionized the movies. And yes, it looks racist today, but you look at the time it was made, when President Woodrow Wilson was re-segregating the federal government, Jim Crow laws were all over the place and lynchings were going on. It was a different time and place. People judge movies by their own current political perspective, which is narrow.
WATCH THE BIRTH OF A NATION ON FANDOR:
It’s interesting to consider Alexander in light of the revolutionary activity sweeping across the Middle East, much of what used to be Alexander the Great’s empire. Alexander depicts an age where civilization and progress could justifiably be imposed by force. But it seems that what’s happening now at the ground level in Egypt, Tunisia and Lybia runs counter to this vision of enlightened imperialism.
The impact of Western Imperialism is clear from so many wars, and so many people go after Alexander for imperialsm and bloodthirsty conquest. But the contrary seems true to me. Alexander went to Babylon and Bush went to Baghdad, but it’s a false analogy. Alexander went with the view that he could merge civilizations, which was the opposite view of Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer, which was to go in, secure the oil and get the **** back to Washington. Every conqueror since Alexander has gone back to their home base, but Alexander never went back. He left a civilization that merged concepts of East and West, and that exists today. It’s no comparison to a lot of United States foreign policy, which is all about maintaining its own influence on the world and its resources.
Alexander goes beyond our time. His achievements are glorious ideals to live by. He was a Renaissance man. He led his men in the front, he tried to expand culture, he was a student of Aristotle, and he traveled with scientists and explorers. Were there excesses? Absolutely. They were excesses borne of conflicts from his mother and father. He was Oedipus, Achilles, Heracles, Jason and Prometheus. He lived the Greek myths in real life.
The film flopped in the U.S., but it did quite well internationally. How do you account for the difference?
Alexander was always a difficult number for the Christian church to deal with. You have to be a little pre-Christian to appreciate him. Alexander was what you’d call homosexual by today’s Christian standards, or bisexual – or even tri-sexual, as he had a longstanding love affair with Bagoas, who was a third gender. Alexander was a man who existed beyond our concepts of man. It’s as if we don’t have the capacity to understand him.
Going back to D.W. Griffith, did you look at Intolerance when you planned you own version of Babyon?
Of course we looked at it. It’s incredible. We couldn’t build quite like that, it was amazing. I hope our Babylon holds up. A lot of it was digitized but we built quite a bit in Morocco. The historians recognize that we did make a huge effort to make it right.
WATCH INTOLERANCE ON FANDOR:
You’re widely known as a historical filmmaker, but if we look at Any Given Sunday, it was ahead of its time. Twelve years ago, it seemed too extreme compared to how football was presented on TV, but now it seems no different from today’s broadcasts.
When the film came out, we had so much opposition from the NFL because they thought it was antagonizing them. But a year later, the television broadcasts had hip hop music, and the cutting was along the lines of the movie. They did take a lot of the techniques.
The editing of Any Given Sunday reminds me of Eisenstein – has he been influential in your approach to editing?
Eisenstein was a big influence on Nixon. Because we shot everything from low angle and wide shots, gigantic portraiture. But as for editing, there’s no one film that I go to. What I love about films is that they’ve become like Renaissance art. There are just hundreds and hundreds of movies. The last four or five months, I’ve been re-watching movies and enjoying them twice as much as before. I’ve been reading Raoul Walsh’s book Each Man in His Own Time. He talks about the influence of Griffith on his life and his work, and it’s a working testimonial to what Griffith was like on the set, as well as his contributions.
Can you tell us about your next project?
It’s called The Forgotten History of the United States. It goes from World War II to the present. It’s a culmination of all my work in history in documentary form. I’m working with Professor Peter Kuznick from the department of nuclear studies at American Univeristy. We started with the A-bomb and kept going into what made this national security state. No talking head interviews at all, it’s all straightforward archival footage, and we’re telling this story in narrative terms that are exciting. So many kids don’t like history, but it’s a fascinating subject. American kids have always been told history from an America-centric point of view in school. I was before I went to Vietnam; I was brainwashed. My kids in school are probably better, but not much. We’re trying to go more progressive. Howard Zinn did it, and now we’re trying to do it in a visual way. And we’re really trying to do something different than Ken Burns’ pro-America kind of slop.