IAR INTERVIEW: Oliver Stone Talks 'Savages'

Sunday, 01 July 2012 19:16 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Oliver Stone Talks 'Savages'

A few weeks ago I had the rare pleasure of speaking with legendary director Woody Allen at a press conference for his new film To Rome with Love, but he was not the only iconic filmmaker that I spoke to that day. Earlier in the morning I also had the immense pleasure of attending another press conference, along with several other members of the media; that featured three-time Academy Award-winning writer and director Oliver Stone discussing his latest film Savages, which will explode into theaters on July 6th.

The film is based on the popular book of the same name by author Don Winslow, who adapted the screenplay along with Stone and screenwriter Shane Salerno. Savages tells the story on two California marijuana growers – college graduate Ben (Aaron Johnson) and former Nave SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) - who are forced to confront a Mexican drug cartel that wants to move in on their action. When they refuse to play ball with their counterparts from across the boarder, the cartel’s ruthless leader – Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) – orders her top assassin (Benicio del Toro) to kidnap a west coast hippie named Ophelia (Blake Lively), who is in a relationship with both men. In order to save her, Ben and Chon take matters into their own hands, and along with the assistance of a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta), put a plan into motion to rescue the girl and retaliate against Elena and the cartel.

Stone won his first Oscar in 1979 for writing the screenplay to director Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, and quickly followed that up by penning such now classic films as Conan the Barbarian, and Scarface. However, he finally gained attention as a director in 1986 for helming the back-to-back critically acclaimed films Salvador and Platoon, the latter of which went on to win him an Academy Award for Best Director. Stone would eventually win another Oscar for Best Director in 1989 for his work on Born on the Forth of July, and since then has made such beloved and often controversial movies as Wall Street, Talk Radio, The Doors, JFK, Heaven & Earth, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, U-Turn, Any Given Sunday, Alexander, World Trade Center, W., and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Stone has a reputation as a filmmaker for often combining different cameras and film formats within the same movie, such as in the case of JFK or Natural Born Killers. So with the movie industry beginning to move away from using film as the standard, the acclaimed director was first asked at the press conference what he expected the next generation of filmmakers to be like when actual film is no longer the foundation for filmmaking. “Wow, that's a really pregnant question and you're so right,” Stone replied. “I make a film like this every two years so every time I come back to it there's a new technology going on. Now we're moving inexorably to a digital projection because it's frankly more consistent and it's certainly better than film print projection around the theaters. The consistency of film print projection was always widely variable so I would go to the theaters in Texas or Alabama and when you would see the movie sometimes there were mistakes made. Sometimes they don't even change the bulbs,” he laughed.

“On the other hand, the irony of the whole situation is that film, in my opinion is without a doubt 20% better than the digital,” Stone continued. “When you see this movie, I hope you see it with a good projector because the colors really pop. My eye plays off film and I never know what's going to happen because your eye does wander. It's an anemographic film so there's no comparison. I've seen the digital and it's good it's just not at the same level of a life and that's because it's a medium that's different. There's something in the silver, the retention, there's something in the film stock that you cannot get on digital.”

“I was at that (George) Lucas conference early in this century, up at his ranch when he was pushing the new Star Wars films,” the director went on to say. “The LA Times wrote it up and I was the bad guy because they led with my protest against digital saying, what's going happen to film? The result is Kodak is out of business, and that's a national tragedy. We got to keep making film, I really feel strongly about it and we can't give it up! I think someday it may be like the baseball card business or comic book business. It'll be an antique, but I don't think it's going to go away. It's like books, you know? You don't always have to have an e-book; you can have a real book. I'd like to see the old way maintain. I think it will be like antique cars, it'll grow in value. I really think it's important and I don't want to live in a cloud all my life. Sorry to be preachy.”

After that, Stone began talking specifically about his new film including his inspiration for the project and the research he did before making the movie. “I did go to Mexico and talked to a few people who are heavy down there on both sides of the fence, legitimate and otherwise. We had a DEA agent, and we had computer consultants. This is a hypothetical fiction,” he explained. “This is not Traffic. Traffic was a wonderful movie, but it's much more documentary-like. This is a hypothetical situation, it hasn't happened yet and it allows us to imagine. There has not been any kind of major violence on this side of the border yet except minor events, but nothing big has broken. It's in the interest of the Mexican cartels to keep it south because if they start to move here they're going to get a lot of bad publicity and there's going to be a lot of consequences. They are here, they are growing, and we know that. We know that they have Indian land, and we know they've grown. They may have deals here in California because the best laboratories in the world are now here. All these possibilities exist, but quite frankly from all my research I couldn't find anyone who was talking about that.”

“We do have an independent growers market here, which is like a boutique business and they're very good people. They grow great stuff; the best I've ever had in forty years,” Stone continued by joking. “It's like Walmart coming to town. If that does happen, they will definitely be interested in making good product because they'll take the niche business and they'll bring it up. Mexican weed's shit, as we say in the movie, so they would be interested in growing better weed because there's money in it. We don't know the answer yet, but right now I think it's hypothetical so let's keep it that way. What became clear to me while I was in Mexico was the connection between the money and the political parties.”

“There's too much money in Mexico, a huge amount that's washing around and they need to put the money in a legitimate economy,” the director continued to say. “It was told to me that I can't make judgment on the parties, but I do think that the guy that they elected in 2006, Calderon, is a disaster. He was equivalent to George W. Bush; he did steal the election, and that party stole the election. It's a shame because he brought what George Bush brought to this country. He brought a nightmare to Mexico by declaring war on these guys. Four cartels became seven cartels and there's more violence! It's like a civil war in that country and it's a shame. I hope the new party guy is much more pragmatic and gets down to decriminalizing drugs along with the United States.”

Since the film is adapted from a popular novel, the director was asked to explain his process of elimination and how he decided what aspects of the book he needed to include in the film, and what he needed to cut due to time and in order to tell a cinematic story. “We had to make decisions in writing the script, and we made decisions in the editing process. We had to consolidate so much and there are so many things different in the movie from the book. You have to read the book to understand that but definitely the book inspired me. Don Winslow did a great job of writing it and he knew that world. It really gave me the desire to make a movie about it that was fresh but ruthlessness. In terms of deleted scenes, we have some good ones that you'll see one day, but they had to go such as Benicio's character’s home life and Uma Thurman as Blake's mom.”

Actress Blake Lively stated in an earlier press conference that Stone likes it when his actors argue with him, so the director was asked if he enjoys conversations with his cast about their characters on set. “I think it's good and I think that every actor is the best advocate for his or her own character. They are the lawyers for their own defense,” he explained. “A good actor will be thinking, and feeling, and questioning, and Blake was one of the most aggressive in terms of questioning everything in the script. She was different than the concept in the book. She was more of a flower child than the girl who was more punk rock in the book. She always wanted to emphasize the heart and the hope that she had and I liked that. I liked what she did very much. She's very elegant, sophisticated, she has a concept of script, and she reminds me frankly of a very smart Meryl Streep at that age, because I knew her when she was just starting out. If events are good to her she could go all the way, she's got the chops.”

Stone also discussed the other lead actress in his film, Salma Hayek and why he decided to cast her as the powerful female leader of a dangerous drug cartel. “I had no choice,” he laughed. “Salma’s an active will. She's tough. She came from Mexico and just propelled herself to Hollywood. I guess she didn't speak much English when she first got here. I met her years ago after I did U-Turn and the first time I met her she said, ‘You son of a bitch, you didn't even see me for U-Turn and you gave it to Jennifer Lopez!’ I was stunned. I didn't know her, but you know what, fifteen years later I went right to her. I said: this is the one. I didn't even see another actress because I just wanted Salma. I wrote her a note in Europe and I said: you're the one. She didn't remember that story I don't think. Universal asked if she was tough enough and I said, sweetheart she's tough! Salma's character has a heart in the movie. She has this strong, Latin fixation for family and I think she really puts her heart out there in a way, but is still ruthless.”

The director was also asked if he had any concerns about avoiding the common stereotypes associated with drug trafficking movies and if he took into consideration how audiences on both sides of the border might feel about the film. “Well we're going to Mexico right after we open here. That'll be our first country and we'll find out. I think people are fairly reasonable and understand the realities of the situation,” he explained. “I think we showed some of the cruelty, we didn't show all of it because it's too rough, but certainly you have to deal with it, otherwise you're just sanitizing a situation that's gotten extreme. Having made several movies about drugs including Scarface … you know, when I did Scarface you would've thought that it was a cartoon. But actual gangsters modeled themselves after him and then the Scarface character became a bit of a cliché, but so many of them acted like him. What I saw in Miami with my own eyes was larger than life, and what I see in Mexico is larger than life. I've met quite a few of the growers here in California, and it's an interesting time. The world is living in a larger life fashion in general. We are seeing entertainment become politics and we're seeing people acting out in ways that are extremely violent and destabilizing including bankers. No rules apply. We're in an era of no rules now it seems.”

Finally, without giving too much away about the film’s ending (at Mr. Stone’s request), I think it is safe to say that most audiences, and certainly fans of the book, will find it controversial. So I personally asked the director to discuss his choice for the movie’s unconventional ending. “I think you have to say that there are twists and turns in this movie,” Stone explained cautiously. “Some of them are pretty wild and there's a lot of them actually if you start counting back. A lot of relationships are discovered as you go so it does pick up its momentum. I would say there's a romantic way out, which was from the book. It's very much in Ophelia's head whether she would take her own life to join one of her lovers in death, which was the notion in the book. If you accept that you can live with that ending. I can't! I see the world a little bit more realistically but I love the ending of the book. It reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“I do think the drug world and drug deals go on and on, and there are just a lot of surprises,” Stone continued. “We all have idealism, we think we're healthy and then all of a sudden one day you have cancer. The truth has a mind of its own. I think the whole film is an argument for love or not love between three people. I don't think it's possible for people to be equally in love. It's very difficult to work out a three-way relationship. But in Jules and Jim by Francois Truffaut, it ends with them driving off the bridge. Butch Cassidy, if you look at it again, they bring it in, but they dangle it, they don't go into it and the two guys die alone. So that wasn't working either for me. I had to deal with my own conscience on it. But I would rather keep it very quiet and let the audience find its own way.”

Savages explodes into theaters on July 6th.

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