Oliver Stone's autobiography Chasing the Light shows a man who still runs towards the gunfire. Bryan Appleyard talks to the Oscar-winning director.
Oliver Stone is worried that Donald Trump doesn't get enough sleep.
"He doesn't sleep a lot. He doesn't take good care of his health. Don't you think there's some pile-up, if you don't sleep for several years like this?"
I feel a movie coming on. Stone, after all, made W, a film about President George W. Bush; this one, perhaps, could be The Don. Sure enough, he seems to be thinking about it.
"There's nothing that could quite capture this fellow. He's quite a whirlwind, a fascinating dramatic character. Shakespearean too, in the sense that he's so emotional — at times he creates a storm, almost purposely every day, to keep the energy going. He creates a storm inside himself. He's King Lear in a strange way too — which daughter loves me more?"
He's also thinking about the murder of George Floyd, but he thinks a black director should make it.
We are Zooming. He is in Los Angeles in a large book-lined room, I am not. He's not lost his looks — sort of handsome, friendly but in your face — and his conversation is warmly attentive.
The talk of possible films is all Stone business as usual, running towards the news and the gunfire, especially if it's American. At 73, his soul is still that of the gonzo movie-maker who turned out almost unbearably violent films such as Platoon and Salvador. But he did them because he hates film and television violence. He learned about the real thing when, in 1967, he joined up and volunteered to fight in Vietnam. He left garlanded with honours but angry.
"I was known for my violent screenplays but it came from a background of real violence. There was a lot of it I saw and I wanted to depict it accurately. I really hated that. All the TV shows — 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. Same old bulls***. I hated the fake violence, so I was trying in my movies to move away from Rambo bulls***. It just doesn't look as good as it does in the movies; it never does."
And now he's written an autobiography, Chasing the Light, covering his life up to 1986. He was 40 then; Platoon had just been released and, earlier that year, Salvador. Platoon won four Oscars, one for best director, and Salvador was nominated for two, one for best writing — Stone co-wrote it. It was, as he says, "a remarkable two-film journey from the bottom back to the top of the Hollywood mountain". He had arrived, he had been accepted. The book ends with him trailing clouds of glory.
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"I'd managed to crest into the light," he writes. "Money, fame, glory and honour, it was all there at the same time and space. I had to move now. I'd been waiting too many years to make films. Time had wings. I wanted to make one after the other in a race against that time — I suppose really a race against myself in a hall of mirrors of my own making."
Will there, I wonder, be another volume?
"Yes, of course. Why not? I think it's important for me to at least come to grips with things because it goes so fast. You don't really get it all. You don't — one event after the other. One movie after the other. You're always dealing with people, people, people. It's hard to have that solitary space."
He kept diaries "to understand myself, to understand what happened". As a result the book is phenomenally well detailed. It opens with an account of filming a scene from Salvador. It's a cavalry charge being shot in Mexico; everything that could go wrong seems to be going wrong and the money — where on earth is the money? But somehow he pulls it off. Reading that made my head spin: how could anybody live with such levels of risk? Reading his diaries made him ask the same question about himself.
"I always knew I was bold, but I never realised that I was crazy too and risked a lot. At 39, with nothing in my future, my father dying, my mother dependent on me, a new wife, a new baby — and I go and put everything I have into this idea, this crazy idea to shoot this movie."
He has, as the critic Pauline Kael noted, a divided sensibility: "He's working outside the industry, in freedom but he's got all this Hollywood muck in his soul." She never liked his films, but he accepts this judgement. The book also stands up her analysis — one minute he's the guerrilla film-maker, the next he's lapping up the glamour, the drugs and the schmoozing with stars. But the real divisions are much deeper than that. The first is the division between his father and mother.
He was born in New York. His father, Louis, was a high-ranking soldier turned stockbroker; his mother, Jacqueline, an elegant, beautiful French lady Louis met while fighting with the allies in Europe. She loved parties and glamour — Stone says she would have loved him to make a flowery, romantic film. His evocation of her character is laden with love for her. Louis was more complex, serially unfaithful and constantly at war with the demon money.
One day, when he was 16, Stone had a phone call at his private boarding school: his parents were separating. It was a pivotal moment.
"I was naive. I thought it was a happy, loving family and I was very privileged to have that. The divorce was cruel in the way that it was done. It was brutal, and it shocked me because I was naive. The whole world fell apart. They split, and there's nothing else. There's no brothers, there's no sisters. There's no home. And as a result you become an orphan of the storm. If Charles Dickens were writing it, it might be an Oliver Twist story … I used to get kidded that my name was Oliver. And maybe I did feel an identification with him."
His education faltered. He went to Yale but never completed his degree. At 18 he started wandering the world and at 20 he enlisted, then apparently forced himself to see the worst things that could be seen in Vietnam. The book starts 10 years later when he is at his lowest ebb. He speaks of himself in the third person while talking about this moment.
"He confronts his failures in life. He sees that he hasn't gotten his dream, what he wanted to do. And his grandmother dies. He had gone to see her on this deathbed in Paris and he talks to her. And she communicates to him, and she tells him how he must live his life the way he is doing it, he's following his instincts. And she loved me, and she'd always loved me and believed in me. That was a big thing. Something happened at 30 with her death. And I became more mature, and my success started to flow from there."
His attempts to reconstruct a family have been patchy. His present wife is his third, he has two sons and a daughter. There's a moving moment in the book when he holds one of his sons, Sean, in his arms.
"If ever there was proof," he writes, "we are born with a sweet nature, this was it; the veils come later."
He has a Wordsworthian sense that we arrive trailing clouds of glory but somehow the world takes all that away. So does he think we are born good? "Yeah, I think so. A baby is innocent, beautiful. You see it in baby animals. They don't know what the world is."
The second division is America. He came back, he says, "very divided and alienated.
Nobody was walking around over there saying: I'm against the war. No. A lot of us knew the war was bulls***. Certainly the black soldiers knew that, they didn't really believe in it."
Stone became an American exceptionalist. Usually that means somebody who regards the US as an especially good country; Stone regards it as especially bad.
"The divide was growing when I came back and that's still with us. You see it coming down to us to this very day. We have a law-and-order candidate in Mr Trump. He talks like a fool, but he talks like many people — more military, more power, more application of force, more violence."
From Salvador and Platoon onwards, Stone's work became an angry charge sheet, an indictment of US post-war politics. His 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July, attacked the treatment of veterans; JFK (1991) embraces conspiracy theories about the death of Kennedy; Heaven & Earth in 1993 skewered the behaviour of Americans in Vietnam, and so on. Post-war American history became, for Stone, a descent into insanity.
"America just goes mad after the Second World War — it just goes mad. Under Eisenhower the beginning of this madness sets in. The question we have to ask ourselves now is: was there really an enemy? Russia was not the threat to Europe we pretended it to be. And, for that matter, China neither. And we created this post-war scenario that was culminating in this economic concept that had come out of the Depression, that we cannot go back to the old way again and have to keep going. We have to put money into this military economy, to keep the country pumped. There's been no end to that, no end at all. It just keeps going up. It doesn't matter who the president is in the end. It's the system. And no one can beat that system. No one can control it."
This is, you will gather, a tremendous book — readable, funny and harrowing. It's also full of movie-making gossip, scandal and fun. If you want to know what working with a truly difficult actor is like, read his account of handling James Woods on the set of Salvador. Nevertheless, Stone sticks with Woods because "he is a genius". Also if you want to know what it's like to be so intoxicated at a Golden Globes ceremony that your speech is so bad and almost denies you an Oscar, then you need this book.
There is much to disagree with about Stone's politics — America's iniquities in the postwar period are nothing next to China's — but his anger is his art. It's a way of balancing out the deep divisions in his character and his feelings.
For the moment he is not too worried about the pandemic, but he is taking on a new cause: nuclear power.
"The virus seems to me the ongoing business of history. It's just ... there are so many viruses. I don't see it as an existential threat to the world. It's more of a mood thing. No, I think the real issue is global warming."
He is making a documentary, A Brighter Future, about the need to deploy nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions. "Renewables," he says, "cannot solve it."
There he goes again, running towards the news and the gunfire, like Oliver Twist always asking for more.
© The Times of London