1 Aug 2020

Director Oliver Stone on his rocky road to "Platoon"

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 1 August 2020

Multi award-winning director Oliver Stone is a controversial figure in American filmmaking, he talked to Saturday Morning's Kim Hill about the first 40 years of his career.

The Vietnam veteran's portrayals of war and violence have proved contentious, as have his political views and frequent criticism of US foreign policy. His new memoir Chasing The Light focuses on the first 40 years of his career, and ends with him receiving a Best Director Oscar for Platoon in 1987.

In it he shares stories from inside the making of classic films like Midnight Express, Scarface and Salvador, and about some of the larger-than-life characters he's met along the way.

A young Oliver Stone on the cover of his 2020 memoir Chasing the Light

A young Oliver Stone on the cover of his 2020 memoir Chasing the Light Photo: Supplied

Stone says his parents divorce jolted him out of a comfortable childhood and introduced a sense that the world wasn't benign.

Stone studied at Yale University but dropped out, and briefly taught high school students in Vietnam in 1965 when American soldiers were just beginning to arrive.

"In those days [a gap year] wasn't much done, but I needed a year off, I was just burned out. In those days we didn't talk about stress ... I was lost.

"[My father] had been to Yale and expected me to go through it, I was bred for high achievement, and it didn't work out because I dropped out a second time.

"I went into the army because I couldn't make up my mind what to do with my life, and I thought if I'm going to be killed I'm going to be killed over here, I don't want to die here just by my own hand - I was a fatalist when I went, and I woke up over there."

He went on many helicopter missions, was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery, and was wounded twice. But saw Americans behaving criminally and killing civilians.

Actors Willhem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger during the filming of Oliver Stone's 1986 film Platoon

Actors Willhem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger during the filming of Oliver Stone's 1986 film Platoon Photo: YouTube screenshot

"I came back from Vietnam a different person. You see the worst of things.

"The lie was big over there - the government was telling us that we were winning the whole time we were there, it was not the case. I came back numb, alienated."

Unsure of what to do next he enrolled in film school, and worked his way into the film industry.

"It wasn't easy, I had no connections."  

He regards Salvador as the first real film he made, which was somewhat a baptism of fire, with difficult content, logistical nightmares, and finances trickling through unreliably.

"It was the most volatile. Every movie I've made has been hard, but that was the most volatile because we were never sure if we were doing it the next day.

"It was very difficult conditions because there was so much uncertainty. The movie had about 92 speaking parts in it, it was about a civil war, it had massacres in it - there's a massacre in a cathedral, it had death squads, it was quite a show, and trying to make it for $3 million was crazy. It was a spectacle, and it was meant to be; about an epic civil war.

"But it was a real test of character, because no one wanted to make it in America, it was made by an English company. The America people even then were very afraid of talking about what was going on in their own back yard and what was going on; American soldiers were all over central America at that point too, interfering in these countries."

James Woods as photojournalist Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone's 1986 film Salvador

James Woods as photojournalist Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone's 1986 film Salvador Photo: YouTube screenshot

Once Salvador was done, he began shooting Platoon back-to back, funded by the same production company.

He says it was luck that current events and public awareness shifted in 1986, and a more critical spotlight turned towards the actions of the American government in international affairs.

"In October 1986, just as Platoon was going to come out a CIA contractor had been shot down over Nicaragua, where we were illegally shipping arms, illegally mining their harbour, doing all kinds of dirty things.

"So that story came unglued and it led to a surface examination of the Iran-Contra scandal - Reagan was shipping arms to Iran to fight their war against Iraq and taking the money, splitting the proceeds, and giving it to the Contras which were a vigilante group he was supporting to take down the government of Nicaragua.

"Some reviewers brought attention to [Platoon] as a special kind of movie, a revolutionary movie, which they hadn't seen much of. Nobody had done a movie with this kind of dark sense of humour."

He made Wall Street in 1987 and its sequel in 2010 because "the business of America is business and we never really see it on the screen much".

"There'd been some very good business movies made in the 1930s and 1950s, but not much had happened in the 60s and 70s, we'd move away from that world.

"And I thought it was time to say let's examine what America is - the business of business, and the money - where it comes from. It was a new kind of Wall Street."

Stone has now made 20 movies, and he says a recurring theme has been manipulation and lies.

"There's a lot of lying going on in any war - the first casualty of war is truth, is what they say."

His next projects are documentaries about JFK and clean energy.

American film director Oliver Stone in 2016

American film director Oliver Stone in 2016 Photo: Gage Skidmore