Oliver Stone, the master of war movies, is back with a new film about another armed conflict: Mexico’s Drug War. The Oscar-winning director and screenwriter is known for hard-hitting, politically charged films, including 1986’s Central America drama Salvador, the 1986 and 1989 Vietnam pictures Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, 1987’s Wall Street and its 2010 sequel and the 1991 assassination tragedy, JFK. Savages, which opens July 6, is more in the vein of Stone’s crime movies, 1994’s Natural Born Killers and 1997’s U Turn, but it also covers topical subject matter. In Savages, two SoCal marijuana growers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) and their mutual lover (Blake Lively) tangle with a Mexican drug cartel. Benicio Del Toro plays cartel chief Salma Hayek’s enforcer, while John Travolta is a DEA agent. Savages comes hard on the heels of the presidential election in Mexico, where the murderous Drug War looms large. In this candid conversation, Hollywood’s iconic iconoclast — who has also directed documentaries on Cuba and 2010’s South of the Border, about Latin America’s leftist leaders — holds forth on film technique, his actors, Mexico’s narco-politics, torture, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — and Brahms.
Festival Of Films: Hi, Oliver. How are you?
Oliver Stone: Good. I hope you’re not going to soak my brain too much with this. [Laughs]
FOF: Why did you direct Savages?
OS: Come on… That’s a tough question for anybody to answer. You looking for the usual superficial reasons?
FOF: Never, never from you — always the inner —
OS: The profound ones, which is it excited me. [Laughs] It was a passion. It was something — the material spoke to me directly, clearly. It was fun — it was a novel by a crime novelist, very talented, Don Winslow. The material was very original, fresh…
I’m not going to repeat stuff you should know. Some guy with a black radio TV show, no, a radio hip-hop show in New — he was asking me what Savages was? I don’t know if he even read the book or knew the movie or anything. It was a weird show. Would Kubrick go through that? Just joking.
FOF: I got you. Savages is being released right after Mexico’s presidential election.
OS: Yeah, but it isn’t political, Ed — I know that’s what you want. But you know, it’s really a ride through six people who go through enormous changes. Three young, three older people. No, I mean, they go through changes — some of them profound, some of them not so. What I’m saying is, it’s inside the Drug War. The legalization issue is minor, because in California, you can grow the stuff, but it doesn’t really impact that heavily on the story.
FOF: What do you think of the way the Drug War is going in Mexico now?
OS: Aside from the movie business [laughs], it was a tragedy under [President Felipe] Calderon; he militarized it more. I don’t think that militarization works. I think that decriminalization works better, overall. As well as tolerance. But these are very hard qualities to achieve in a modern era.
FOF: Do you think that the [apparent] election of the PRI’s [Institutional Revolutionary Party] candidate [Enrique Peña Prieto] will have any effect at all on the Drug War in Mexico?
OS: I think that’s a spooky question. Frankly, uh, the PRI is, you know, what it is. It’s the way Mexico’s been governed since 1910. And you can reach accommodations in that Mexico that were apparently better than the accommodations that could be made in present-day Mexico, with Calderon and [Vicente] Fox [both members of the PAN, or National Action Party]. So, it’s kind of like the old guard is being readmitted, because you could do business better. That means that cartels will finally be tolerated, because by cutting off the cartels and chasing them, you created a Murder Inc. environment, and also, you added more cartels, like an octopus head. So, it became more of a problem, rather than less. So, anybody who’s smart about this knows to keep it cool and under the table and don’t talk about it like in your press announcements all the time.
FOF: Was the Drug War one major reason why you did little, if any, shooting of Savages on location in Mexico itself?
OS: Uh, yeah. I shot there for Salvador in the ’80s; I enjoyed it very much. It’s a wonderful industry. But, you know, I would have gone [to Mexico] if I could, but the insurance industry makes the deal in this country. The insurance people tell you where and what you can do. So, we had to be limited by that. You have to pay an enormous amount of money to shoot there. It’s sensitive, also politically. You know, there’s all kinds of issues.
FOF: You’re known, among other things, for your choices of music in your films. Describe the music in Savages.
OS: Ed, as an old hippie, you’ll appreciate it. It’s a variety, it’s a mix, it matters. It really is fun, because it goes from classical, from Brahms to more neoclassical, Tavener, to Massive Attack, Mexican hip hop, which is strange indeed. And wonderful work by a new composer called Adam Peters, an English composer, I very much — I found him on [The Untold] History [of the United States], which he’s working on still, but he’s really special. And some good needle drops, from some ’80s, ’90s and this decade groups.
FOF: Are Savages characters Ben [Aaron Johnson] and Chon [Taylor Kitsch] the Ben and Jerry of weed?
OS: Yeah, something like that. You got it.
FOF: JFK famously won an editing Oscar. Discuss the use of montage, multiple images, black and white and color in Savages.
OS: I don’t overly use it. No, I mean it’s in there, it’s part of a vocabulary which I use, but I feel free to come and go. I’m not — it’s a difference — every movie has its own style. I repeat this, and some people don’t believe it, but if you look at every one of my movies 20 years later or something, you might understand that the story dictates the style. And the Savages story with six people — the story has six intertwining relationships — is fascinating unto itself. It’s good, good storytelling by the screenwriters [Stone shares writing credits with Winslow and Shane Salerno], including myself [laughs], and it just weaves a narrative that holds people. People who see the movie just tell me they get gripped, you know?
FOF: In Savages Salma Hayek plays Mexican drug cartel head Elena. What is Salma Hayek like?
OS: A hot chili pepper in a blue dress.
FOF: [Laughs] Is Salma’s hair cut deliberately like Uma Thurman’s in Pulp Fiction?
OS: No, actually not. I think it’s different, if you examine it in detail. But Salma dug up the wig, worked on it to death and got what she wanted. And I showed it for what it was in the movie when it came off.
FOF: John Travolta plays Dennis, a DEA agent. What is Travolta like?
OS: Oh — a dancing man. A wonderful sprite, spirit, above the clouds. And I love him for it. He understands the divine principle of love, in some basic way.
OS: Oh, well, my casting agent should have told me that [laughs], because I didn’t make a connection, frankly… Maybe I made a mistake, but everybody seems to be enjoying him in the movie. It’s not a huge role, because he was the second uh — but he really adds weight and consequence to the actions. He plays a very important role — a North American-based cartel lawyer — no, accountant — no, not even an accountant, I’d just say a manager. Call him a CEO.
FOF: And Benicio Del Toro, Mr. Che Guevara [in two Steven Soderbergh films], plays Lado, Elena’s enforcer. What was it like working with him?
OS: Unto itself. Unique. Every moment is his own moment. Benicio takes everything like a sponge and transfers it into a — and you can quote me — a Benicio moment. [Laughs]
FOF: Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively plays Ophelia.
OS: Gossip Girl is no gossip girl anymore — she’s a young lady, blooming unto herself. Unique beauty, cool, elegant blonde. To me, a good actress and growing because she’s only 24, she’s smart as a wh[ip] — and gets it and can really put it on film. She lives for it. You know what I’m saying? Lives for it.
FOF: And Taylor Kitsch, who plays Chon, the ex-Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and Afghanistan?
OS: He’s a solid, solid leading man. Reminds me somewhat of a young Charlton Heston, and I think can have a long, long career, in spite of all that bulls**t about, you know [John Carter and Battleship, two box office underachievers]. I mean, it was hard the way he started — you know, think about Paul Newman in [the 1954 Biblical epic] The Silver Chalice, too. You gotta figure out he’s just got the chops for the long term.
FOF: Discuss how explicit the sex and nudity are in Savages?
OS: Ed, there’s a limited choice in the U.S. We have something called the MPAA, and they give us ratings. If you do certain things you don’t get the rating. Also, you have all kinds of issues with parents and [sighs] actors themselves. You want to make everyone feel comfortable as a family and work as a group. So, we worked inside the restrictions of an “R” rating, and I’m happy with the result — I think it works. But it’s not for porno seekers or Peeping-Tom types — it’s not that kind of movie.
FOF: Tell us about Savages’ ménage à trois relationship.
FOF: Magda [Elena’s daughter, played by Sandra Echeverría] is tortured in Savages. In recent years, there’s been lots of torture in American movies and TV shows. Why?
OS: [Pauses.] Maybe because it’s happening, Ed. [Laughs] We’re dealing with a subject matter — I don’t know, I can’t speak for other shows… We’re talking about the cartel here. There’s practically 50,000 murders on the record here, involving mostly civilians, and many of them have been tortured to death. So, what are we talking about? What about Iraq? What about what’s going on in the Middle East? What about our wars? Wars come home to roost. Who the f**k is kidding who?
FOF: What about Guantanamo?
OS: Exactly. We can go there, too.
FOF: When will your 10-part documentary series, The Untold History of the United States, 1900-2012, be aired on Showtime?
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College. Rampell first interviewed Oliver Stone in 2010 for The Progressive Magazine. Rampell is the co-author of two film history books and the solo author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States. He appears in the 2005 Australian documentary Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise.