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Hello, I'm Larry Through and this is Ground It With Larry through my podcast series for Radio four, in which I get to speak to people who up until now have been too busy to talk to me.
I can see Emmys, I can see Oscars.
Many of my guests have won numerous awards. Today's is no different.
An Emmy, six Golden Globes, one BAFTA and four Oscars. What do you suggest? A jacket or more informal.
But more than that, he's also been awarded a Bronze Star for Valor and a Purple Heart with Oakleaf cluster for his service in the Vietnam War. What are you wearing?
I'm wearing a T-shirt, a black T-shirt, like a prison sentence, OK? It's my Spartan almost. Rucho is kind of a chewing of adornments. That's what I figured.
Lauded for his films, sometimes criticized for his maverick and controversial political opinions, he has recently published a fascinating first volume of his memoirs.
Where are you speaking to me from now? I'm speaking to you from the inside of Belmarsh prison. I'm sorry to hear that. The cells have got a lot nicer since I last saw them on TV.
He is, of course, Oliver Stone. I think you're in Santa Monica, aren't you? No, actually, in Mandeville Canyon, which is north of Santa Monica, I've got friends in Southern California and in L.A. They describe it as being rather apocalyptic with not just a pandemic, but a outbreak of forest fires.
It can seem that way with the fires. Actually, I evacuated my house last year. They had a fire up here. So it is getting dicey. But Los Angeles is far better than the North.
Just to do a little bit of hello and you know, thank you for doing this. I really appreciate. It's a great honor to speak to you. I'm a fan. I hope that goes without saying. And I'm a huge fan now of your book. I read it on holiday. I loved it as someone who also had a book out and struggled with writing it. I know what a huge well, I know what a huge job it was for me.
Like, I found a massive struggle, especially if you're used to collaborative working. Writing a book is kind of a solo endeavor. So it's a little bit curious how easy you found it and what your process was.
No, I'm a writer and a director, always been. So I wrote a novel when I was 19 years old. It was finally published in '97, 1997. My father paid me to write little themes when I was seven years old, six, seven years old, which is a good thing because I wanted the money. I didn't care about the writing, but it was a habit that got stuck with me. So I wrote a confessional kind of novel when I was 19, which led to a lot of problems in my life.
I ended up enlisting in Vietnam to go there because of the rejection of that novel, among other things. So writing has always been intertwined with my life. I came back, I wrote many screenplays, speculation, screenplays, and didn't get going for about ten years. They're actually eight years before I got Midnight Express when I was 30, I must have written ten screenplays in writing a memoir.
You just sat down and attacked it as a solitary, creative project. Typing away handwriting, right? Yeah. How many drafts did you go through? Many drafts. Two years. No more than five hours a day. But it was intense. Two years off and on. A little bit off and on because I take trips here and there for film. But basically it was writing in my house here. I have an office downstairs which I reserve only for writing.
I want to say that it was intense and it's very hard. You're talking about yourself. So you have to deal with this issue of being honest, going back into your past, which is very helpful for people who are older. Allow me a window into myself. When I was again, when I was young, when I was in Vietnam, as well as in teaching school and Merchant Marine, I was thinking about all these things and my parents, above all, I reexamined my parents and my strange relationship, exotic relationship, you could say, with mom and dad, both who are very interesting, strong people.
One of the big things I realized in this journey was that I was really a contradiction between the two and there was no resolving it. My father was the writer in me and my mother was a director in me because she was social. She liked people and she gave parties a lot. My father's side was darker and more sardonic, thoughtful.
So if I can zoom out for a second, when I consider your career, what I see is a series of choices. That scene one way are counterintuitive, challenging, maybe even self sabotaging that you're going against the grain in various respects, whether that's dropping out of Yale to write a book, then enlisting and going to fight in Vietnam, then the way you made your way in Hollywood, making films that very often illustrated or explored counter narratives and then bring you up to date with documentaries that explored counter narratives.
What I'm wondering is, do you sort of recognize that characterization and can you trace that back to anything?
Yeah, I don't fit in to Hollywood, and I guess I realized that over a period of years. I'm a contrarian. My father tended in that direction. But one likes to be conventional because one fits in and it's comfortable in school. I was very conventional that way and I was happy to get along. And I finally, at the age of 17, I was admitted to Yale University. My father was very proud. I was happy, but it didn't work for me.
When I got here, I realized that I was not happy. My parents had gone through a pretty brutal divorce when I was 16. I didn't know anything about it until it was over.
Yeah, I wanted to mention that because your description of your upbringing and your being a dutiful student at boarding school, you were sent to boarding school at 13 or 14. You are like an afterthought in the whole process of the divorce. Like basically you're informed of it, but you're not kind of trusted with inside information, know exactly included in the process. And all of this is, I think, destabilizing to you. And I mentioned because I went through something a little bit similar, I was a bit older.
So much of what you write about that resonated with me. What also struck me was that it's not explicitly stated, but the sense I get is that the aftershocks of dealing with that. Fed into a sense of disillusionment or sense of not fitting in, that then led you to drop out of Yale and then to enlist. I mean, is that fair?
That's absolutely fair. Yeah. And I went over there with a throw of the dice. I was a fatalist. I said, if I come back, it's meant to be. It was a display suicide. You said, let God decide. That's correct. Yeah. I mean, it's heavy stuff, isn't it? Well, it's all emotional.
It's not like thought out like a Shazad Clouzot, as you said, it's emotional reaction to the situation. And by the way, I never complained in Vietnam. It was what I wanted. You saw the movie Platoon. He doesn't complain. It's a horrible situation. And I realized right away what a lie it was. And I realized that right away. Excuse me, it took me time, but it was increasingly disillusioned by what we were doing over there.
I mentioned in the book Three Lies, Death by Friendly Fire, American soldiers killing each other by accident, killing civilians. And I mentioned the biggest lie of all, which is the American government telling us that we winning the war in the first place and inflating body counts, telling lies, huge amount of lies. These are gigantic lies. But I didn't realize this as much at the time. I just became more and more wise to the situation.
Just okay. Just to stop for a second from the get go. And certainly when Platoon appeared, it seemed to be one of those factoids that appealed to everyone. The idea of the director not only served in Vietnam, but chose to serve, actually enlisted as a child of relative privilege. Right.
It's a unique story, you know, of any other directors or even actors that served in Vietnam.
I don't I don't know of any. They were in front line units. They may have been, but no. And that's the problem of my generation, because my generation in school that I saw was rotten. It's a rotten generation. That's why we have so many problems in this country. And, well, I don't want to get too big on you. But, you know, George Bush was in my class at Yale at freshman year. Did you know him?
No, I didn't. But I know the type because they were many of them there. They were kids from good families, sheltered, privileged. George Bush didn't go to Vietnam and of course, ended up being a big promoter of war. Neither did Bill Clinton. He didn't go to Vietnam. Neither did Donald Trump. Many people in my generation, they avoided it because they were able to. And it was an inconvenient war to them that was interrupted their careers.
I had a different approach and I think it helped me to see through the lies that these people have embraced. So just mixed in with that impulse to put your life on the line, you know, for reasons of, I guess, self destructiveness. Was there also a patriotic dimension, you because you describe yourself as having been a Goldwater conservative at one point?
Yes, I was. I like Goldwater at that time because I didn't know anything. I was a Republican. My father was a Republican. He was an Eisenhower man. He'd been on the staff. That's the world. I grew up in Wall Street. Goldwater was a man who seemed to be like, as it is today, the same thing. He came to be talking straight. You see, that's why people liked him. I didn't know that he wanted to blow up Vietnam, but we liked the idea that he was a straight shooter.
And that's what appealed about Trump in 2016. It's the same thing. Straight talking America, the old Western ideal. Even Ronald Reagan got that kind of reputation strong you as a just war that time.
Yes. Yes. My father was an anti-communist. He wrote about the communist worldwide conspiracy. We bought that in America. I don't know about the intellectual classes in England, may have had doubts about it, Harold Wilson and so forth. But in America, it was pretty solid. You know, nobody turned against the war, in my opinion, from the establishment until much later in the 68 period. So I bought it and there was some degree of patriotism, but I was not Ron Kovic, who I described in detail.
Later in Born on the Fourth of July, Ron was from a smaller town, Massapequa, Long Island. He believed in everything. He believed in everything. They told him he was not a man who questioned authority. I was more complex than that. But I did buy my father's patriotism that this was a necessary war and the process of seeing it is something else.
How long did that take? What was that process? It takes time. First of all, you come back. No, you're alienated. You're not really cogent in that way. We're talking now. I mean, I was angry. And, you know, being in civilian life is very different than the military, especially in a prospering civilian life in New York, where people are making money, big money was being made for the first time. I met a woman who my first wife, Najwa, who was working at the Moroccan mission to the United Nations.
She was Lebanese and she helped me come back to civilization. In a sense, you'd be in the street and I'd hear a backfire of a car and I'd be on the sidewalk.
You know, that kind of nervousness you're very candid about, I guess, the aspect of war that's invigorating. And you write at one point, soldiers might say it was hell, but I saw it as divine. The close the man would ever come to the Holy Spirit was. A witness who survived this great destructive energy. Yeah, I think many people who are in combat will tell you later in their life that they will always remember those moments, you know, moments that stay with you forever.
This night I'm describe me. That night was my experience of an all night human wave attack, which is very rare. You don't see those very much in Vietnam because the enemy is not interested in human wave attacks. There are too many casualties, but for some reason, because they were on the trail down from Cambodia into Saigon and they were planning for the Tet Offensive at the end of January and this was a night of January one, 68, they came at us pullout from the moment and dark fell till dawn.
It didn't end and the battle was amazing. The power, the force, that battle, it was like a hurricane being in a hurricane. And of course, the irony of the whole thing is that this is the largest battle I'm in. But I don't see one enemy. I don't fire my rifle. All I do is get blown up by my own side. I'm concussed. I'm thrown in the air, I get up, no blood. And I go back into the field.
I report to my line, whatever it was called, my perimeter didn't see one of them the whole night. People were scared. I mean, these guys were the NBA were inside the perimeter at times. It was very close fighting. But I was spared. I compared it to Greek mythology, where a palace, Athena, comes down and cloaks one of her no dishes that type in her mists and takes him away from the battle, lifts him off away from the dangers.
There was a godlike intervention, strange night. And that's what I was talking about. Powerful night, stayed with me for the rest of my life. Still is with me. After that, it got dirtier. I was wounded twice and I got involved in a lot of dirty combat. One time I saw an enemy soldier about ten feet away behind an anthill. I was behind some kind of protection, but I had an AM 79, which is a different type of weapon than the 16 needs.
50, 60 yards exploded. You can't exploded at ten feet. Those kind of incidents are crazy.
It seems double edged for you because on the one hand, it was a war that you came to recognize as fraudulent and waged under false pretenses. But at the same time, it was a foundation stone for what you became right in your life. And it was a launch pad.
Well, I didn't know that at the time. I was just happy to go back to the United States. You know what happened? I went back and went to jail and it was another America. I went back to. Frankly, what I saw in jail was an America with a K in the sense that that was a Jim Morrison period where people were rebelling against the man, the authority. And that's what I saw in Vietnam, too. I didn't talk about this yet, but the first real human contact I had as a soldier was with fellow soldiers who were black.
For the most part, I didn't know black men. It was scared of them because I had grown up in New York. But when I saw them there, they were the most human with them. I smoke dope. I listen to music, danced, laughed and humor. These were very important moments to relax, to feel the connection to the human bond. I couldn't feel that with the normal routine the white soldiers were undergoing, which was drinking alcohol and sort of a dull kind of dialogue, a kind of patter that you get in the Army films, the old Army movies.
So I found my connection there. They were anti the war, but it was unstated. They were against the man. They knew it was a fraud. This war, they knew they were fighting for bullshit cause for a white America, trying to kill the yellow people. And we used to kill them. We used to go to villages. We'd burn them down. We salute them not always, but there was always occasions of this. And the My Lai massacre is the worst example.
But it's not atypical. The whole thing was built on this racism, basically, and that's what the black soldiers were realizing, not the officers, the soldiers. So there was a whole cynicism about the war. And, hey, I'm just getting out of here in 365 days and that's it. That's my tour. Well, that's not the way to fight a war.
Do you think you came back with PTSD? Yeah, but they didn't call it back then. It's a vague definition, but definitely I was disturbed in some way. I was very violent and angry at first and also unstable in what way? In my emotional relations with people, I would have disagreements. I couldn't have no relations with. My former schoolmates just didn't understand them. They didn't understand me. I eventually ended up at film school where I was an outsider.
It was a bit of a pariah, you know, the unspoken one. Were you a little older because of your experience? Yeah. And you were taught by Martin Scorsese, among among others. Yeah. Yeah.
He was a very good teacher, very energetic and inspiring. He loved movies. And it was to him it was a religion. And that made a difference because I really loved writing and I was learning the movie. And it takes a little learning. You have to you know, you make these lousy movies, short films. And, you know, we did it the traditional way. You work your way up to a little longer. A few more minutes.
A few more minutes. You learn how to cut your own film. You learn how to shoot your own film. You do it all. He made some movies at that. Course, he made who's that knocking at my door and then he was about to make mean streets, so he was on his way and he commended one of your short film student. Yeah, it's called Last Year in Vietnam. And it was about a veteran who returns to the city.
He confirmed to me that I had the ability to be a filmmaker and that was important. It was like a diploma. But when I read that, I thought like, oh, maybe all of us could slipstream behind Martin Scorsese, like he would take you under his wing and somehow that would lead to you making your break. But it didn't quite work like that.
No, it doesn't work like that. Marty was out for himself. It's a very Darwinian system because there were no jobs in the film business. And going to Hollywood or moving to Los Angeles was a big step for us. So most of us went out into the city and didn't do that. Well, I was a cab driver, among other things. I had several jobs, but my wife was working, making better money than I was. And I got the GI Bill at school.
So all these things kicked in. But it was, you know, as Spartan existence. And it was a nice struggle. It was a good struggle, but it was really painful because I couldn't sometimes take rejection. Any novelist or writer knows. You're right. You're right. People don't publish it. And you don't listen sometimes to what they're saying about the criticism or you misunderstand it because you're wounded. It hurts your pride. A lot of that was going on.
It takes time to learn. But Robert Bolt, actually an English writer, screenwriter, one of the top ones of his generation, of course, who wrote A Man for All Seasons, Four Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia. Zhivago took me under his wing for a few months because he loved the treatment I'd done on cover up on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. He loved it. It was a story about early story about my political awakening, the true story of Patty Hearst.
Was it the guy who led the ring? The gang? Donald DeFreeze was a government FBI informant. He'd worked for them.
This is the story of Patty Hearst, the heiress who was kidnapped by a very weird underground paramilitary group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Yeah, that's correct. And she was an heir to the Hearst fortune.
And then famously, whether you'd call it Stockholm syndrome or not. Yeah. Kind of went native and turned up robbing a bank. Great story.
Who made the movie of it eventually was made by Paul Schrader years later. Right now. That's right. But it was a different theme. What Robert liked was that it was about how the government could use a security situation like that to enhance its power. That's what excited him. He was seen what happened in 2001 years ahead of you mean a kind of Reichstag fire type scenario. Do you take that view of 9/11? I don't know enough about 9/11, but what happened with our government was it took advantage of that situation in all ways.
The Patriot Act, war on terror, to change the backbone of America, in my view, never let a good crisis go to waste. Exactly. Well, they were ready for it. Why would Donald Rumsfeld say, sweep it all up, include Iraq? You know, why would he say that? Why were they thinking that? There was quite a bit of ideology that had been published in the neoconservative wing of the Project for the New American Century was correct.
They dusted off a document that had a plan for invading Iraq and paying for it with the oil that they would get hold of.
Yeah, I don't think you can dispute that they did take advantage of the crisis.
So as a person with some British heritage, like, I'm always interested in how the UK or London is depicted. First of all, we have this experience of collaborating with Alan Parker in London in the late 70s, 1978. And you don't seem to like Alan Parker very much. No, maybe I'm being unfair. Is that right?
That's more or less right. Yeah, no, I mean, I'm being honest. The whole thing about writing these memoirs is you have to be honest. Have you had much feedback from people? You know, because when I was writing my book, I'm going to lift it up now because I love to plug in so many of the themes are similar. This is embarrassing to even to say to your book, but it's like a tin whistle version of a sonata, right, that you play with a full orchestra.
Did you get much feedback from these sort of little thumbnail sketches you provide of people? Was there anyone who was offended? No, Jimmy Woods called me a few weeks ago and he said, Oliver, you know, I mean, it's a half bullshit, but it reads great.
And I, like Jimmy would sing for the younger audience is the star of Salvador and now is a latter day indefatigable Trump propagandists on Twitter.
Have you noticed? Yes, I have. He's made himself so relentlessly tweeting. He's a character.
What's that all about? Right. Where's that coming from?
Well, you're taking me off the track. Your original question was about English. I was. Yeah, you're quite right. Let's stay focused. Sorry about that. I've got a bad habit of doing it.
So basically, you had a bad experience in England, more or less. That's characterizing it a little bluntly.
But wait a second. First of all, I've had three experiences with England. Two of them have been great. Three all three have worked out. Robert Bolt was English. He taught me a lot about screenwriting because he was intense and he worked with me in the same room. Going over the script that I had written and amending it, it really was at the end of the day a code script between Robert and me, and they learned a lot there.
And then with the Midnight Express, it was a fortuitous break in my life, very important. Alan Parker did a good job with the movie, no matter what our personal relations were. And it was cold for me. And he didn't want to share the spotlight at all. But it was a good experience overall and it led me into the higher ranks of screenwriters in Hollywood. The third experience was a crucial experience. It was in 1985. And I talk about John Daley, John Daley, who's a key character in the book.
He sort of opens the door for you. In a way.
He is a character. He was lower class Cockney out of London. He'd been a fight promoter and worked in the angle on the Zayer fight with Muhammad Ali. And he's had a lot of ups and downs, John. He ended up bankrupt after making platoon Salvador Hoosiers and Last Emperor with Bernardo. He was one of the first to finance those films. I owe him a lot because he believed in me after all these people in Hollywood, it kind of turned on me after the hand.
For those who don't know the early films of Oliver Stone, There's The Hand, which was the second movie you directed, which had Michael Caine in it. I've never seen it, but it looked kind of fun, like his hands chopped off in it. Then it comes back and attacks him.
A lot of people love it. Michael Caine has his hands severed in a traffic accident. He feels his young wife is leaving him because of the accident. He doesn't trust her. And this distrust leads to a massive paranoia. Before you know it, he's killing people left and right who are he thinks are against him. That's fascinating psychological story that got a little bit out of my control. There was a lot of pressure to make it more of a horror film.
I wanted to keep it more of a psychological thriller, which I think it could have been. But be that as it may, it did not succeed. And I was shamed. I was in the Hollywood terms. I was turned on and, you know, I can't direct and blah, blah, blah. And it's an interesting film. I wish you'd see it.
You know what? Now that you've said that, I will see it. Among other things, you depict Hollywood and what comes across is the fickleness of it and the fine line between success and failure.
Exactly. And I've seen both success teaches you how to deal with people and teaches you the public relations aspect of the business. It makes you smarter. It gives you access. Failure teaches you humility. It teaches you the marrow of what screenwriting is about, how you need to create a script. It shows you the flaws that you made in your story. Very important to learn from failure. And that's a point I would like to make. Just briefly, is it all through film school?
I'm one of the few people who actually went to screenwriting class. It's funny that in that period when the auteurs swept Europe, all the famous auteurs, film students no longer cared about screenplays. Well, I'll make it up kind of thing. There was an improvisatory quality to it. We'll do it on the set because I had a writing background, I went to screenwriting class and I wrote screenplays in there.
It's important screenplay writing is very important and the Robert Bolt experience cemented that you kind of arrived in Hollywood twice, figuratively, first with Midnight Express as a writer and then with Salvador Platoon as a director. That's correct. And between those, you had a kind of period of I don't know what to call not obscurity, but a feeling of professional, you know, language. Well, it's an interesting, fruitful period because it was the winter. What happens in your mind is I'm working on Scarface.
That's a huge job. And then I'm working on You're the Drag with Michael Cimino. So I learned a lot from those experiences and I suffered a lot. I also went to Russia and wrote about the dissident movement there. I talk to all the dissidents during the 1982 period, right before the end of the Soviet Union, I was learning, I was growing. I got married again. I wanted desperately to become the man I thought I could be.
So this is why the age of 30, I realized that I haven't achieved anything at thirty that I'm happy with. And parenthetically, my grandmother dies. I go to Paris. I have a scene out of almost last tango in Paris. She's laid out on the deathbed and I'm talking to her alone and I'm sharing my deepest feelings and my feelings of having let myself down. And I would say a new kind of emotional intelligence sets in sensitivity and a desire to really go further, to do better, not to give up.
I always felt that that's a turning point for me at that moment. I wrote Platoon in that period right then and there, and platoon was like a new level of screenwriting for me. It was more personal than ever. There wasn't so much a movie as much as a personal experience that led to Midnight Express because the script was popular, but nobody wanted to make it. There was much too depressing and realistic at that time. That was became another source of great frustration no matter what.
The success I had, nobody would touch one of the Fourth of July or platooning, both of which had been written in the 70s. You can understand my frustration when Sylvester Stallone is making this ridiculous Vietnam movies. The American cinema did not want to deal with reality. Thank God for England that actually reads the scripts and says let's make them. And it was John Daley who read both scripts and said to me, Oliver the great, which one do you want to do first?
Now, that's quite a shock if you've been starving to jump in.
So what is the problem with Hollywood? Can I put it like that?
But there's many good things because you have a chance to do things, so it's hit and miss. That's a huge question. You're asking me who the problem will be.
I guess I just meant in the context of what you experienced and it's seeming unwillingness to take a chance on you or maybe that's being unfair to Hollywood. And it was your unwillingness to take a chance on yourself until you embraced Salvador, right?
No, I mean, I had written Platoon and born on the Fourth of July in the 70s. They wouldn't take a chance on reality because they were scared, their risk cautious. They tend to make what has been made and has been successful. But Hollywood throws away people with ease because I was outspoken, because I was a man who had my own opinion. I had a reputation for being difficult and all that stuff that they give you. And well, I just want to thank England anyway.
Well, I appreciate that.
I could see it made me feel it's like watching one of those movies where you know what someone's destiny is like. When is Oliver Stone going to get to be Oliver Stone? I like that. I think you're right. I think there is a destiny. I don't know why it's a mystical idea, but I always felt there was a destiny that I would arrive, that my dream would arrive. And the beauty of this first book is that it arrives at the end of it.
The last two years of it is complete chaos, battles, wars, civil war in Salvador, jungle fighting in the Philippines, constant problems behind the set, low budget films, helicopters almost killed bombs, death squads. My God, the most incredible two, three years of my life. And both films realised under impossible circumstances and they both worked. That's what's amazing.
It's beautifully structured. And that was one of the things I was jealous about with your book. It was a brilliant move ending it. You know, at that point, you didn't have that petering out. Not to say your career did. Peter, you know what I meant to talk about?
You can't have. And then I had another success and then I had a disappointment, but then I had another success. Like, how many times do you want to go on that journey?
Listen, I'll take it any time. It was the most incredible worldwide success. Platoon was a low budget, realistic film. They'd never thought women would go or children. You know, it would be a limited interest. It cost nothing. John Daly must have made a fortune because it made one hundred and thirty nine million dollars. He was a phenomenon.
I remember when we came, you came out and I was probably eighteen, seventeen, eighteen. You know, we got high and watched it and it was intense. It was amazing.
They went around the world. It was successful in every country. That's what's amazing. It was a Cinderella story that's unbeatable. It's fantastic.
Well, the only point on this is totally parenthetic and forgive me for shoehorning my book in again, but I took mine up to the age of 50.
And so it's got 25 years of work and it's too much there's too much success in the book. I'm being slightly facetious.
It's just like the architecture is a little off because you're saying the book had the right architecture because there's two commercial successes and enough failure elevons out. It's like solid. Exactly. You've got the right rhythm to the whole, you know, hero's journey. I felt that when I was writing it, I felt that. And I didn't think it should go on because here I end up with an Oscar for best picture. Best Director Elizabeth Taylor's kissing me. I'm kissing her on this stage in front of millions of people.
My God, Elizabeth Taylor was a siren of my youth. She was a movie star. And it was just such a beautiful moment in time. And there's no better ending. After 40, there's going to be twists and turns, enormous ideas, his movies, quite a journey. And it would have been much too long and it would have been for me trying to combine the Iliad and The Odyssey. Consider this The Iliad.
I love that Homeric. You do like your classical allusions. Was that something you studied in school? No, I didn't have schooling for that. I did. When I came back from Vietnam on the GI Bill, I went to NYU and I got among the courses I took outside the film school was one on Greek mythology, which was eye opening, because what this wonderful professor was telling us was that behind every ordinary incident in our lives, the realism of our lives, a mundaneness was a mythic tale, was a mythic person.
And I began to see the war differently. Among other things, the Vietnam War. I went back and. I had I thought about these two sergeants that I served with in two different units, combat units, and they were so opposite in intensity that in my mind I combined them in the same unit and I put myself my imaginary self in that unit. And then I had my three characters for the core of this movie. I wanted to write about the the civil war that we were fighting among ourselves.
The enemy was in, as I say, at the end of the movie. It's a very important theme to me.
You're talking about Platoon now. But just briefly, I was interested in some of the little missteps. Right. So, for example, born on the Fourth of July was briefly going into production in the 70s, if I got that right, with Pacino in the Tom Cruise role.
That's correct. But it was not briefly. Yeah, it was two weeks, three weeks from being shot. We were rehearsing the whole movie. I learned a lot. That was another process, working with Pacino, working in the rehearsal period. I learned a tremendous amount about screenplay writing from those rehearsals. Pacino is great in the movie. He was too old for the part, but he was great in the rehearsal that I saw. He would have needed to play, what, an 18 year old 17?
Well, that was a problem. I mean, Al did look much younger then, but still he was about 38. It would have been tough, but the money fell out, too. So it was a heartbreaking incident for me and Ron Kovic, who I became very tight with. That was part of my process of coming back from the war.
Ron Kovic, who was the guy who whose story the whole movie is based on?
Well, Ron introduced me to the world of paraplegics, the veterans world of Southern California. And through him, I got to know a whole group of people in that working people. And that changed a lot of my thinking about the war. I began to understand that it was not just about one unit me. It was about all these men had come back to a country with the same poison in them that I had. Hi, me again. We're more than halfway through the podcast, by the way, you're listening to Ground It With Me, Louis through.
And yet we've only just reached the point where Tom Cruise enters the story.
Now, I know that Oliver Stone, my guest today, rates him highly as an actor. In fact, he nearly cast him for the lead role in Wall Street. But having made my own little film on Scientology, I'm keen on any insights Oliver can offer into Tom's beliefs. Whether Tom ever talked to Oliver about Dianetics. No, no, he never brought it up.
Tom was an intense individual, extremely competitive. When all out with as much intensity as Ron Kovic had, he would bring to everything he did. His devotion to that role was I don't think he looked up for months. I think he was learning the wheelchair living, meeting everybody. He was living that role. Whenever I would push him to some degree, he would resist. He said, Oliver, I'd put enough pressure on myself. I don't need more pressure, you know, that kind of an idea.
So he was very responsible for his own behavior, very responsible, almost, in a sense, overdoing it. And I think sometimes too intense for his own good, because as a human being, you wonder, you know, maybe he needs something like Scientology as a framework. His character is a person I can understand. But I did appreciate him as an actor in this role.
Am I right in thinking you dabbled in Scientology? Back when I came back from Vietnam, I. Well, frankly, I was numb and alienated. And I went with many women, many young girls. And there was a beautiful girl that was going to Scientology. She was she was far along in her training and then joined for about a month or two. I think the cost was pretty high. I didn't stay with it. You understand? There were a lot of parties and I had fun.
Was that New York or L.A.?
New York. Right. I would love to have you in that fold, but your experience was relatively positive. Yeah, well, I mean, I don't have much to say about it. It was only two months. I don't remember much about it except the dial and the tests, the Dianetics of it. They got you on the E meter and.
That's right. And they said like, tell me about a time when you were very sad growing up. And then you'd say it again, again until the needle stops wobbling.
That's right. I had far more colorful experiences that I, I was a nobody. Then there was just a few bucks in my pocket.
So let's talk about Salvador for a second, because that was more than platoon, in a way, the gateway. That's correct. It was a moment when you felt professionally at a low ebb, although if you looked at it another way, you could say, well, you were an extremely successful screenplay. Right?
Listen, when Salvador started, it was my dream. I will did into being there was no way that American studios were going to touch a story about Central American Revolution, where the United States was criticized for their role in repressing the reform elements. This is in Nicaragua and in Salvador and in Honduras, too. I mean, and Guatemala, four countries that the United States was very active against the reform movements in those countries.
It was CIA driven, meddling due to kind of over inflated fear of what a domino theory, like the idea that one communist regime would lead to another without the same motivation that made them very worried about Castro and why they passed the embargo. I mean, Castro has been around for sixty some years and the United States is still attacking him because he's a bad example. He scares them.
But is it a military threat or is it a fear of losing markets for U.S. businesses, markets and ideology? They see it as communism and call it socialism, really. And they've always treated Latin America and Central America as our backyard, as if we have the Monroe Doctrine, the right to intervene in anything we want. And we're still doing it. I mean, when I just south of the border in 2008, I interviewed six left leaning presidents in six different countries.
Wonderful moment in South America and change. Venezuela was leading the Brazil, Lula, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay. All those leaders except Venezuela have been, how do you say, eliminated by the United States efforts. And in Brazil, we saw the result of it recently with the forced resignation, impeachment of Dilma and Lula. Lula was put in jail even. But he's back. Is he out of prison now? Yes, he's out of the prison.
He sent me a beautiful birthday note. You can see it on my Facebook page. Wonderful man. He's a great warrior, a lion. But let's go back to Salvador.
And just for a second. So you'd been reading the reporting of Ray Bonner in The New York Review, among others. Yes, among others. Would you describe as controversial?
Did you mean controversial in as much as it was telling the side of the story, which involved American interference and the backing of death squads and American interference directly with military aid to the government in which there were many right wing elements in that army, in that military? We went down there with a crazy idea, Richard Boyle was a journalist who I got to know, amazing man, a crazy man, too eccentric in the Hunter Thompson tradition. You know, he'd go right into the hurricane and see what happens.
He took me down. I was financing the whole experiment. And his idea was that we would get the Salvadoran government military who he knew to finance us with the anti rebel section of the movie. They would lend us helicopters. We would have Apocalypse Now in the sky, is his description. The Salvadoran government, which in a way you were exposing, was going to be enlisted to help make the movie. Absolutely. And we got permission, sort of a permission based on a dummy script that Boyle had prepared to please them.
The Communists are bad guys and so forth. And the idea that Boyle will finish the film in Mexico with the elements, we will go back and portray the rebels as the good guys, the FMLA, and it was called that. And here in these countries, when I traveled around, I met these people. It was here that I really had an epiphany because in Honduras you can see the repression. We was fearful and there was a lot of spook's, a lot of American military in Honduras getting ready to invade Nicaragua.
In 1986, under Reagan, Reagan saw Nicaragua as the biggest threat of all is communism. Crossing the Rio Grande days away, he described it. He called the Contras freedom fighters.
Why did Reagan see Nicaragua as such a big threat?
Because they had had a successful revolution in 79 against the dictatorship that had lasted some 70 years and had been brutal.
So Daniel Ortega specifically was in power, right? Yeah. He was subsequently voted out of power, wasn't he?
Yeah, he was voted out democratically. Yes. He allowed the election. What regime that gives up, you could pause. That is a failure. But I guess in a bigger way, that's kind of a success, right? Well, it was a failure because the United States guaranteed its failure economically by behind the scenes doing everything possible to destroy the revolution. Using the World Bank, using the IMF, United States plays dirty games, covert games never gave it a chance.
Ortega was voted out. Then he was voted back in and now he's again, they're at odds with the United States. The United States never wanted the Nicaraguan reform movement to work. No land reform, no labor reform. These conditions in these countries is terrible. I saw this with my own eyes, and that's when I realized that I had to make Salvador. My destiny was becoming clear. What I had seen in Vietnam in 1965 as a teacher was happening again.
I was seeing the Spook's, the soldiers, the usual American contingent that goes down into these things right before the war starts. I could see the Nicaraguan invasion happening from Honduras. And what happened was that Reagan was foiled. His plan was foiled in October of eighty six. Salvador had come out in April. Eighty six platoon came out on December 86. At that crucial juncture, the CIA screwed up again. This is not typical. And it led ultimately to Iran Contra Gate, where Reagan was nailed for selling weapons to the Iranians who are enemies to fight the Iraqis.
Taking that money give me fifty percent of it to the Contras under Oliver North to fight an illegal war banned by Congress against the government. I remember this. Iran-Contra was a big thing. It's the biggest scandal, much bigger than Watergate and its implications much bigger. Basically, he should have been impeached and thrown out, but they liked Reagan. They liked Reagan. That's a difference. Nixon, they did. So Reagan finished out his term, but he was a lame two years.
Nothing happened. There was no invasion of Nicaragua, which would have been another Vietnam if it happened. That's what made me want to do Salvador and that's why I did it all. The odds were terrible. It was a horrible way to work. And I described the details of trying to get that movie made. But it happened for me. It was it was a good film and a hit. It's a terrific film.
I really watched it last week or the week before. It really holds up. And what it has is a kind of texture. It feels almost like, I want to say an art film or an Italian neorealist film where the locations are so vivid and the sense of it being made on the hoof and somewhat improvised really works in its favor and gives it so much heart and flavor. We shot it in Mexico and we had problems with the sensor again because we were making the streets dirtier and more like Salvador and she would kept busting us for it.
That film was made on a shoestring and we barely got out of there paying our bills. Eventually finished the film in America, where we had ten days more of shooting to do in Vegas and San Francisco. I love that film. I love the spirit of it. It's got heart, as you say. It really does. But it was scene after platoon came out, I think even before among a certain caliber of cognoscente, what would now be called Hipster's appreciated its politics and its intelligence.
No, it was very appreciated. And sometimes I'm sad to say, and it's not really included in my. Because it's forgotten, but it's very important to my development. So having made those films, you're then Hollywood royalty and yet it's not that simple, is it? Because some films are successful, others less. So I just wonder whether you can reflect on to what extent you feel like a Hollywood insider, someone who is sort of allowed to follow his creative bliss or whether that wasn't the case.
And if not, why not?
Well, that's the subject of another book, frankly. It's a whole story unto itself. And I've been in both places. I've been inside and I've been outside. You could call me a pariah in many ways because I've rejected the system. I did make films with studios, but I continue to make films that I wanted to make and some of them were not financed at all by the system. My last film, for example, Snowden, absolutely no interest in this American hero to my mind, no interest in my country to make that film.
We were turned down by every studio. This is concerning to me. I mean, I could say to you that I know the CIA, the National Security Agency, do not want that film to be made. And I think they do have contacts in Hollywood because we know that from several books have been written about it. Now, there's a wonderful book called The National Security Cinema by Matthew Alfred. He's a co-author. You should look at the book, The Detail eight, some 800 films, numerous TV shows where the CIA has really taken apart, as well as the Pentagon.
It's a bigger racket than you think, bigger money than you think. You cannot do something critical of the military or the CIA anymore like I was able to.
But those who don't recall Edward Snowden, obviously whistleblower who actually you lifted the lid on mass surveillance, a level of data capture that extended to. Yes. All kinds of devices in your home, right? That's correct. Including Samsung TVs and apparently was in some of the small print of your TV when you bought it. It was like, you know, your TV will be recording and listening to things you say in the house is actually in a little leaflets.
But who reads the instructions?
It's surveillance society and a cyber world and much more than we ever thought and knew. And Mr. Snowden really lifted a huge lid on the pit of vipers. I mean, it's ugly. Do you think that's still going on? Of course it is. The United States is practicing it so thoroughly. It's penetrated so many countries. Chinese cyber hacking. Tell us, what the hell are you even doing? You think we're asleep? And the British, too, by the way, the British are involved up to there.
Hang on. The British. I was with you until you said the British were doing it. And now I'm beginning to worry about your judgment, not the British.
Anyway, the British are very involved with the NSA and you know that. And the electronic circuits run through Britain.
I'm sure you're right. I'm sure you may be right. This is BBC program. So I have to hedge myself with all kinds of impartiality clauses. These do not represent the views of the BBC. There we go. Here we go.
Do you think a lot of is chronicled in Laura Poitras is film Citizen four. But that being said, I was slightly naive about these things.
I have a bad habit of trusting authority figures like part of me thinks either A, that data so boring. If they find out that I look at Internet porn, how big a deal is that? Or number two, you know, maybe they've stopped doing it or either of those two scenarios making sense to you? Well, I understand the attitude, but it's a bad habit you have. We're all retroactively on record here. They can get you on anything.
And we all know that they can get any piece of data that you've been talking about emailing. And the problem is that if you ever have another ambition in your life that, say, to run for office or to be more of a public figure, you're vulnerable because they will find out that I once you know, it's the shaming culture.
Right. Used it in group.
What do you think is going on now? You're shaming culture is a good word, but technically, they're not allowed to look at the content of the emails, but they have it.
It's not a good situation. It's well beyond Orwell. Orwell didn't even dream of this.
I'm reading Snowden's book at the moment and what struck me is not yet. I'd like to see it.
Oh, well, you have to understand the movie because it goes into even larger areas. It goes into destabilising other countries. It talks about Brazil and what happened in the car wash investigation. It's a very devastating indictment of where the United States has come to who paid for it in the end. In the end, it was it was not the U.S. government. It was a good script. And we had enough money to make it in France, Germany.
And then at the very end, a small U.S. distribution company came in, got made. And I'm very proud of the movie. It's one of the things in Snowdon's book, he says that there's a clause in the Constitution, as you will know, that talks about unlawful access to personal information, something along those lines. And Snowden says that the construction that the intelligence agencies put on that was that the information hasn't been collected until a human sees it.
So in other words, it's not uncommon. Situational, because if a machine is gathering up all your emails, it hasn't actually been accessed, which I thought was a kind of ingenious and legalistic workaround.
Well, you know, that's what it is. I mean, that's not really going to stop them from getting to the meat of this affair. No, but I just like the idea.
It's not totally, flagrantly disregard. They find creative ways of interpreting. Yes. All the time. And that shows you how a security state can drive anyone crazy like they did in Orwell when they got the Mandera. They can break you down with words that have no meaning anymore.
Are you friendly with Assange? I met him a few times. Yeah, I admire him. How did you meet him? I went to see him in the Ecuadorian embassy. I think he's very smart. I think he's has integrity. He's been doing it for years and he's information he's given. The world has been most revealing and rendered many of these governments, Western governments and Eastern governments vulnerable. And that's at the crux of this case. They're trying to get him.
And it's a set up. It's just persecution of a publisher.
Essentially, we should touch on drugs because they feature in your book quite a lot. And what strikes me is actually how you combine them with being productive. And even when you talk about taking Quaaludes in the morning and cocaine at night, you say, but you'd work all day and go for a run at lunchtime.
Yeah, that was a period in my life after the hand came out and although I had started to indulge in cocaine back in the late 70s, you see, that was going around Hollywood. It was a recreational drug. At that point. It gave a lot of energy. Let me just preface it by saying I've been smoking dope since Vietnam when I started and I took a psychedelics. The drug war to me was another sham, another force. I was beginning to see that much more clearly.
All those kids that I met in jail, 5000 of the 2000 person in jail, they're Hispanics and blacks there and busted for non-violent crimes and they were being sent away. This was back when you were arrested bringing dope over the border from Mexico and you went to jail in L.A. or San Francisco. Yeah, county. You know what I'm saying is I didn't believe in the drug war and neither did the people who knew what was going on. Really.
A new generation was rocking with the cocaine revolution of the 70s into the 80s. I started recreationally taking it and I didn't see any harm with it. But it became addictive. More and more. I was under its control. I had no control over my life. I didn't feel like myself. My writing degenerated my brain cells. I feel like my brain cells were being affected. There was the first time I had that kind of reaction with drug and getting off.
It is not so easy. You have to get away from the Melio. You have to get away from your people who are taking it around you because all your friends are taking a lot of your friends are taking it. So I did get away from Los Angeles by doing the research on Scarface, which came in handy because Scarface was offered to me, which happens to be about a Coke dealer. And of course, I put a lot of my knowledge of drugs into that movie.
And the moment the research was finished in Miami, I moved to Paris, my mother's city, and weaned myself from and I stopped cold turkey. How do you know when you're addicted? You know it if you're smart, if you're self conscious, remember self-consciousness. That's what the mythology teacher was saying about Odysseus. He came back from the wars. Why the. So he asked us why this is the only one who survives in his own consciousness, he said and he was talking about Lefay, the concept of sleep that we're all asleep, beautifully done.
Lethe was the river of forgetfulness. If you drank from it, your memories and hence your identity would melt away. So a lot of people on drugs didn't. They got swept up in that river. And I could feel myself going that way, too. You were doing it every day? Oh, yeah, sure. When you're addicted, you need it. You planet, you schedule it. And of course, being very disciplined in my origin from way back from boarding school, I'd say I would schedule my Coke dosage and what hours of the day I would work and and it was working fine.
I was being very productive, but I thought the material was getting worse. But you say that you didn't completely you never went wholly abstemious. In other words, there's a suggestion that through your life, you never threw off drugs entirely. That's I'm being honest and telling. You know, I got over the addiction, which is to say I didn't need it anymore. Now, I could do it socially after that. And I did it socially, but I never was addicted again.
Do you still indulge? You see, I'm here. I'm pretty old. I don't look so bad, do I? Don't look great. No, no, absolutely. Compos mentis. Everything is present and correct, from what I can tell.
Took an LSD trip. Supervised one actually not too long ago. Yeah, but not coke. No Coke is it. It's an energy thing. That's all you can do it for. But it's not. It doesn't help me. I don't feel it's a good drug, but a lot of people actually are still doing it from the 70s. They're older and. I'm amazed that they managed to survive maybe their brains revegetating, I don't know. And there's mention of heroin at one point that you would maybe smoke or snort heroin.
Yes, smoke once a while, but snort it. Yes. What's that? Like your English? You would know this. The English are very good at this. Didn't Portugal legalize all this stuff in 2001 or you'd be in favor of legalizing? Absolutely. Where are you on guns? You're not going to be able to take them away from Americans. No way. It's just ingrained in our system will never be Japan or England. So we have to live with them.
I would prefer to license certainly automatic assault rifles with 50 load clips. I don't see why you need that to kill animals or hunt. You're not going to use a machine gun. It's ridiculous. I understand hunting, but not magazines were able to deliver 50 bullets. That said, we're way past 90 minutes.
Sorry, I'm getting wrapped up in that. Can I wrap it up then with a question that we end on a kind of a high, as it were.
Here we go. You ready? I hope so. Trump, any thoughts of many thoughts?
I mean, the man is fascinating. And of course, it's playing out like a Shakespearean play. He's a character for all time and he keeps the balls in the air, as they say. You know, one thing happens and he manages to keep another ball going. He's a player. He's a producer of chaos. And having been a film director, I kind of understand that because you do have to keep the troop moving and you keep shooting and you get great stuff.
But he's not doing that. He's making a movie. He's running the country. I mean, two times now in this century, America has elected a president who was not the popular vote, but won the electoral vote. Which brings us to George W. Bush, who I have to repeat again was, to my mind, the worst president the United States has ever had. The damage he did was far worse so far than what Trump has done. Far worse.
Bush put this country in a new direction. He's the one who started the major mass surveillance and the wars.
Of course, you made a film about Bush, of course, a terrific film. You also made Nixon a wonderful film. Could you make a film about Trump, do you think?
Well, yes, of course you can. But I would suggest you wait because the man is a great creator of stories. So anything you tried to do, he'd figure out a way to make another story. I would wait till that narrative is over. In the Bush story, I set out to end the movie with 2004. When he goes to war in Iraq, the theme was complete. He completed what his father had started and he found his confidence, his macho, his mission by going to war.
After that, I wasn't interested in the disaster that resulted. I was very happy with that film. But Trump is a King Lear. I mean, he needs to be loved. Which daughter loves me more, you know, of course he picks the wrong one. He doesn't understand. But his policies on immigration and on climate change are repulsive to me. Completely loathsome.
Do you think Trump is a disruptor? Yes. And he set out to be he said so in his inaugural. And his campaign was based on changing things, shaking up things. I mean, it started, I believe, with immigration. And he's gone that way. He's delivered so, so to speak, or tried to deliver for his base. So, yes, he is a disrupter. That was his goal. Has he disrupted? Sure. A lot of damage.
And that raises the main theme that the Democrats are going to restore normality. But I think you have to ask yourself, what is America? Normality in American normality is proven to be wars in the Middle East, neoliberalism, economies that are eating away at many countries, a reversal of the tide in South America. Back to the old ways. I'm not so sure what that normality is, what this world needs. I wish America had somebody was talking about cutting back the military budget that's killing America.
This trillion dollars a year that we're spending on making war is insane when the climate itself is disintegrating, climate change is the issue. And until we deal with it in that regard, Russia and China are the main partners in this possibility of solving it. They are the most advanced in terms of putting money into climate change solutions in a peaceful world. In an ideal world that I see, they could be the partners of the United States instead of the United States making them into the enemies.
And that's sort of what I have to say. But I think we should end it there.
Perfect. If I'm going to watch either the hand of Snowden or I've also never seen Midnight Express full disclosure.
Let's I'm going to watch all of them because it's polite.
But which one should I watch first then, of course, know for your sake for Snowden, because I think you're out of date on the on the surveillance issue.
And that's it for this episode of Grounded With Me. Louis, through my guest was Oliver Stone. By the way, can I thank you for this book.
It's an amazing book. I wish I'd read it before I wrote my book. Because I think I would have had the confidence to embrace more of my own angst, to share more of my own soul, if that doesn't sound too trendy.
It's very kind of you to say that this has been a mindless production for BBC Sounds and radio for Cobbled Together Remotely by Paul Kobrick and Catherine Mannan. And good luck with your show is very thoughtful. And I enjoyed your interview, especially with the young actress there, the not the young actress Helena Bonham Carter. Was that one that said, yes, hear other episodes of featured Rose McGowan, McKayla Cole and Rylan Clark Neal. They're all still available on BBC Sounds.
Or wherever you get your podcasts, just search for ground it with Louis through and subscribe.
Very cool. I'm sorry to longer than I expected.
So we're just going to gently glide out of this process. Hello, this is Jane Garvey and with my broadcasting friend Phee Glover come in. Oh, thank you, darling. Thank you. How are you? Oh, all right.
We do a podcast together called. Fortunately, it has been surprisingly successful. And you'd be honestly, you'd be really quite, quite choked with emotion to discover that other people have found us. Some of them have quite enjoyed it. Other people like carping. We welcome all comers. We don't care who you are, where you are, what you do or what you think, as long as you're prepared to join with us in. Well, what do we do?
We kind of unravel. We unburden, we unload. What do we do?
We're a self-help group of two that other people quite like to witness. And we don't really mind if you laugh with us or at us. You're just welcome aboard a slightly rickety midlife ship which occasionally has guests who are far more successful than us, but we try not to let that get in the way.
We'd love you to join in. A.P. says be a part of it. All you have to do if you want to subscribe is to BBC sounds and search for. Fortunately, it could not be more simple than that.