On April 22, 2016, the modern master of political cinema, Oliver Stone, visited UC Berkeley and talked about his early life, his career, his film research processes, and his political perceptions.
A hallmark of Oliver Stone’s filmography is the in-depth exploration of powerful, controversial historical events and figures, particularly “leaders who were bypassed, who would’ve changed everything if the system hadn’t screwed them” like President John F. Kennedy. Stone explained that his penchant for conducting extensive research stems from multiple forms of curiosity: intellectual curiosity from his father and social curiosity from his mother. This quest to learn, to read, and to experience life has carried Stone through many different paths in life, from completing a novel at age 19 to teaching school in Vietnam to becoming a soldier. It is as though the more experiences he has, the greater his passion for learning grows, which leads him to new experiences and continues to cycle.
Naturally, Stone was asked many questions about the making of a few of his films. I will share a few of his answers below:
- When he was making his film Between Heaven and Earth, he originally suggested including an intermission or splitting the film into two parts because he wanted to make sure the audience could absorb the information of part 1 before continuing to part 2. His desire for intermission was granted in JFK for European markets, but for some reason was not provided for American viewers.
- When asked about his general experiences making his films, Stone replied that every film is a method in its own and affects him, the maker, in some way. Each film can sometimes be painful, a “divorce” experience, but despite parting with many crew members, he still considers the process “wonderful” and “beautiful.”
- Some actors that have worked with Stone have said that he guided and sometimes terrorized them. However, despite some bluntness, actors like Blake Lively, Michael Douglas, and Johnny Depp have also shared that working with Stone has raised the bar for their performances. Stone shared that part of his secret of working with great actors involves respectful directness and “matching” the spirits of the actors with the film he’s working on.
- When asked which version of his film Alexander was his favorite, Stone detailed his perceptions of each of the 3 versions. The 2004 version was, in Stone’s opinion, not good; among other things, it was rushed, and a lot of sexual content was cut out. The 2007 iteration was slightly better because it was longer and included an intermission (please reference first bullet point above). Finally, the 2014 edition, Stone’s favorite, took ten years to make, but by the sound of it, he was able to include much more of what he wanted and was therefore able to turn Alexander more into the film he envisioned.
- Stone stated that a major component of his filmmaking process is conducting extensive research. He calls himself a “voracious reader” and admits that he thinks he does “too much research” sometimes, and in his haste to incorporate so many gems of knowledge into his work, he believes that sometimes it might weigh his work down. He also understands the importance of cutting, but he still tries to incorporate as many factual elements as possible. In his words, “dramatists know history better than some historians” due to the quality at which they wish to reproduce events; because of this passionate desire to recreate the smallest details, dramatists like Stone must harbor some amount of doubt, even toward certified historians, because everyone has the potential to put subjective lenses onto immutable things like history.
- American censorship has prevented Stone from achieving some of the results he wants for his films. For example, Comandante, a documentary about Fidel Castro, was originally going to air on HBO, but it was pulled last-minute. Some films even received such negative reactions due to the controversial topics they addressed that Stone and his associates were not booked on radio talk shows for a considerable time—a drastic change considering that many radio shows clamored to have Stone speak before. While he believes that television has amazing potential to educate American audiences about relevant social and political issues, he also sees the misfortune that films cannot criticize America too much due to censorship and sensitivity.
- Finally, when asked to give advice to young aspiring filmmakers, Stone replied that it is best to “find your way to your soul” and “get life experience.”
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and winner of 3 Oscars, Oliver Stone is credited for nearly 30 feature films, including Platoon, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Scarface, and a twelve-part documentary series called The Untold History of the United States with roles like director, producer, writer, actor, cinematographer, and more. His newest film, Snowden, releases in fall 2016. A big thanks to the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley for hosting the Oliver Stone lecture, and of course to Oliver Stone for coming to speak on campus!
– Jeana Braun