On Friday, May 19, 2017, the American Cinematheque welcomed Stone with a screening of U-Turn (1997) and Natural Born Killers (1994).
As Stone explained, his inspiration for U-Turn had to do with the aftermath of the release of Nixon. “Nixon was not well received, it broke my heart. I wish the movie had been more appreciated. After that, I went to a very solitary place …wrote a novel…I edited, got it down to 200 – 300 pages. I was on an inner journey… I needed to get back into things so I did a low budget movie, to make a profit. I loved this thing.”
Stone said the reviews of U-Turn weren’t what he hoped they would be, “They called it slimy, seedy…it was based on a book [Stray Dogs], but we changed it a lot.”
U-Turn is set in Superior, an old mining town. Stone said the people who lived there didn’t want him to change the name of their city for the movie. He said the area’s history is full of violence, “Apaches killed themselves, miners died…incest wasn’t a problem.”
While location scouting, they went to other areas, where they were told to “get the fuck out, with a rifle…it was agricultural with an intermingling of Indian, Spanish, and white, it was scary.”
He elaborated, “Tristar said it’s much too brutal. I wanted to go to the end, why not? We’re only on this earth a short time…Bill Paxton backed out, he didn’t feel comfortable. Sean [Penn] and I had some conflicts, he was in filthy clothes which he never changes. He looked great in that last close-up.” (Penn and Stone made up and became friends two years later.)
Stone went on, “U-Turn is a continuation of Natural Born Killers. [Nick] Nolte is bigger than life, he lengthened his teeth to be more predatory….Billy-Bob [Thornton] wouldn’t travel by air, he drove to the set…they’re all nuts.”
Someone in the audience asked, “These are two of your most violent and funniest movies. You have combat experience; how did that affect your work?”
Stone replied, “With Born on the 4th of July, I wanted to show the effect of one bullet. In Heaven & Earth, the character carries violence into his house, and almost kills his wife. Although with Nixon, anger is at the system.”
Stone was a Vietnam veteran specifically. He has said that it was after he got out of the service that his passion for storytelling really ignited.
The O.J. Simpson trial TV coverage was “sickening” and inspired him to create the second movie of the night, Natural Born Killers. About those who didn’t see the humor in any of those films, Stone said, “With satire, you have to have a brain, as anyone who doesn’t get that is a lunatic. If you can’t reach ‘em, you can’t reach ‘em.”
An audience member asked Stone to talk about his editing style. Stone said, “In Natural Born Killers there are 2,000 cuts, it’s insane. Heaven & Earth is classically cut. You change, like a dance, unless you don’t like it. Don’t put stuff in your movie you don’t like. There’s the money, but don’t do it.”
Another audience question, “Did you plan the look of Natural Born Killers?” Stone said, “Are you kidding me? It was very difficult to cut…took 9 months to edit, that was not in the budget.”
Stone returned to the Aero the next night after a screening of his 1993 drama Heaven & Earth, based on the real life story of a Vietnamese woman whose life is tragically impacted by conflict in her country. Actress Hiep Thi Le, who stars as Le Ly, appeared onstage with Stone. She recalled being both “intimidated and overwhelmed at times by the part” since she was not yet experienced in the film industry.
Stone recalled that the production searched all over for Vietnamese actors in San Jose and many other places. When asked about the scenes in Vietnam where the dialogue is spoken in English, Stone said “I wouldn’t have been able to get Heaven & Earth made if most of the film had been in Vietnamese. It simply would not have gotten financed.” Apparently this was also a central issue surrounding Stone’s most recent attempt to make a movie about Vietnam, the a project about the 1968 My Lai Massacre. Apparently that film was deep into production in 2007, just before a tsunami hit that region of the world. “The money just wasn’t there after that,” Stone said. Stone commented that he can’t return to that subject matter, because it is too difficult. He has even been at odds with the government of Vietnam, because Vietnam will not recognize Heaven & Earth.
For more in-depth information on director Oliver Stone’s work, check out "The Breadth and Depth of Oliver Stone" by Jim Hemphill.
Additional reporting and editing by Désirée Hostettler and Margot Gerber.