Director Oliver Stone advances an idea as moderator David D'Arcy looks on at SFIFF54.

Stone not Cold in Castro Conversation

Dennis Harvey April 28, 2011

Oliver Stone came to the San Francisco International Film Festival last night to accept his Founder's Directing Award, and, in a sense, the results were unsurprising: One of our most wide-ranging, politically engaged directors provided one of the most wide-ranging, politically engaged festival evenings in recent memory. This sharp, succinct, hugely knowledgeable director offered a whole lot of razored insights along with candid commentary.

After a career-highlights clip reel, Stone and journalist David D'Arcy took the stage, D’Arcy asking Stone if he had enjoyed the fact that San Francisco Film Society Deputy Director Steven Jenkins' introduction of the director omitted an adjective inevitably applied to the director. Oh yes: “'Controversial' does set up a battlefield idea right away,” he replied.

D'Arcy suggested he'd continued work steadily while some other major veteran directors now struggled to find funding. Stone took exception to some names dropped—notably Scorsese, who is “still making huge projects” —while admitting “I've had ups and downs…so many times....People say I'm history, I'm washed up all the time.” His early filmmaking years endured several long “lulls,” and when the box-office underperformance of 1995's Nixon lowered his stock, he used the downtime to write a book.

But most of their conversation—and the audience Q&A afterward—abandoned discussion of how things work in Hollywood (or even on his own sets) to focus on political issues. This despite Stone, asked how he could make critical yet sympathetic films about Nixon and George W. Bush, saying, “I'm a dramatist first of all, not a political filmmaker. I empathize. You're not being pro or con, just understanding...trying to walk in [your subject's] shoes.”

(He did, however, opine that Nixon was “I think, one of Satan's spawn,” yet also a figure of complexity and intellect compared to some successors. He also said he's heard W. was secretly screened at the White House, and its subject “liked Josh Brolin's performance” as himself, if not the movie. Stone also has it on good authority that Nancy Reagan “loved” W.—because “she hated the Bushes.”)

A Vietnam vet himself who's made three films to date about what that country's citizens call the “American War” —Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July (both winning Best Director Oscars) and Heaven and Earth—Stone was asked how he felt when that era's lingering cautionary message about reckless US intervention abroad was flaunted by Iraq and subsequent conflicts. He said, “America loves war, depends on war. The military industrial complex requires it. The public is captivated by it.” He also noted that after a number of antiwar historical films including his own, a “worship of [military] technology” and heroism “started to come back in movies in the late 1990s,” citing such disparate films as Black Hawk Down, Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan.

His interest in history is profound and urgent. “This whole American dramatic experience in my lifetime has been a nightmare. What a ride!” He called JFK's assassination “a tremendous setback for the cause of world peace” we've never fully recovered from. Lamenting “a certain sobriety and respectability that's gone” from the American political landscape of his youth, he joked, “Maybe it's time to move back to Vietnam” if a Donald Trump can actually become Chief Executive.

As for President Obama, he shrugged “He has to play to the media and not do anything that provokes them. It's a media state [we live in].” The decline in journalistic standards and related corporatizing of news sources concerns him, but then he considers that a long-term problem, citing “alternative” historian Howard Zinn's work as one valuable resource against the “tremendous gap between belief and reality” for Americans long “brainwashed” by popular media and line-towing educational systems.

Stone has made several documentaries in recent years, all “controversial” —including two extended sit-downs with Fidel Castro. He's entered that realm “to refresh the source” of his creativity, confessing after a while making narrative films “does become something of a gig.”

His latest in that vein is South of the Border, an acclaimed look at rapid changes in South America, which the US too often neglects as its own “backyard,” but whose peoples and interviewed leaders are now turning against their former Big Brother ally.

Next will be The Untold History of America, an ambitious nonfiction examination of “forgotten history” from the atom-bomb era through recent years of “national security”-driven policy. It's already occupied his time, on and off, for three years, and is currently planned to premiere next January.

Meanwhile, there's Savages, which he describes as “a wonderful adventure in the drug trade” pitting Laguna Beach pot growers against a Mexican cartel. Cast with a lineup of New Hollywood talents including Blake Lively and Taylor Kitsch, this violent comedy starts shooting in July. Stone is also plugging the Blu-Ray release and few bigscreen showings of his re-edited, expanded historical passion project Alexander, an expensive critical and commercial flop several years ago. He now admits, “I failed in the original 2004 attempt—I rushed it to make a marketing deadline,” and cutting it to the studio's preferred length. It's now a full hour longer, 3 3/4 hours with an intermission, which “allows it to breathe.” It's a maligned film that he is clearly very proud of.

The audience Q&A was lively, even if some people seemed to take Stone—granted his unusual credentials as an overtly critical lefty in the Hollywood mainstream—as an oracle who might somehow redress concerns from unequal taxation to self-sufficient organic farming. He deflected these sallies with good humor and sharp observations. Asked about his dual Wall Street movies, he said, “This whole society has gone to shit” since the 1980s re: the placing of greed above all other values. “I'm not saying the 'Old Money' were better—but they were! Even if they were robber barons.”

“The only conspiracies that really matter are the ones that create war and financial fraud. But we get distracted by bullshit,” he said. Queried about younger generations' fixations on social media and trivial “news,” he observed that pop culture and tabloid gossip are hardly new to American culture, but rather date back over a century. “There are more people who are shallow than concerned about politics. That will always be there,” he said. Asked one more very general question, he ended the evening with a polite sigh: “We have a lot of problems. What am I gonna do, solve them in one movie?”

There followed a screening of Stone's 1986 Salvador, a remarkably head-on political critique of recent U.S. policy for its era (given a then more-than-indie $4.5 million budget, limited theatrical release and broad VHS exposure) that kickstarted Stone's career as cinematic rabble-rouser. Few who've seen it can forget the scene in which American nuns are raped and then executed by a US-supported National Guardsman—dramatizing what actually happened to Jean Donovan and fellow missionaries in 1980 El Salvador.

“What drives me is anger [even if] it's been sublimated through time,” the director/co-scenarist said last night. “Memory is the thread of civilization. Without memory we become barbarians.”