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Oliver Stone: 'Film can't change things but it can educate'

Screen talks to Oliver Stone in Karlovy Vary for a retrospective of his work

The selection of work for Oliver Stone’s retrospective at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is an intriguing one.

With Scarface, helmed by Brian Di Palma and written by Stone, the ‘Ultimate Cut’ of his critically derided film Alexander and two episodes of his TV documentary The Untold History of the United States would seem to only scratch the surface of a career that includes Platoon, JFK, Born On The Fourth of July and many more.

But Stone hopes that screening his account of Alexander the Great, starring Colin Farrell, will help the film get re-appraised

“It was released prematurely to be honest,” Stone told Screen when asked about the negative reaction given to the film when it was first released.

“It was a caesarean birth … no, it was a failed birth and I know that. But certain people take a hatred to things I do, often beyond reason. I would say simply be kind enough to watch it again and re-assess the complexity of the story, which I had failed to deliver. Try and see the whole tableaux and understand the consequences of the character’s actions.

“The past is always with us, it’s in our bodies. Alexander runs from his mother and his father and he never sees them again, and there’s something in that that’s very powerful. But the further he goes away from them, the more they continue to haunt him.”

This would be the fourth version of the film and Stone is excited with the results.

“It’s the right version,” he declares. “I saw it in Shanghai and, though the projection was shoddy, the DCP is beautiful. Once you go into that world, the classical world, it’s like you’re in another century if you let yourself go. And I like those journeys.

“When I was a kid I used to go to the roadshows and loved Cecil B DeMille and films like Ben Hur or The Robe. I loved that big Cinemascope look and I just fall into it. They used to make a lot of three-and-a-half hour movies in those days. Sometimes they were not so good but they were big events.

“I remember I took all my kids friends to see Elephant Walk [a 1954 melodrama starring Elizabeth Taylor]. It was a complete flop but it was spectacular. It was exciting to go even though the film failed.”

Unflinching point of view

As much as Stone is renowned for his sense of the epic, he’s also known for his unflinchingly political point of view.

His 10-part documentary, The Untold History of the United States which Stone directs and narrates, takes an unsentimental look at birth of America and the terrible growing pains it has experienced ever since. Even for a director as fearless as Stone it must have been a rather daunting prospect.

“I wanted to stop several times,” he reveals “I really ran out of juice and felt like I was in the Foreign Legion, in the desert without water for too long. I was dying, mostly because I was mainly working alone.

“My editor and co-collaborator is on the East Coast and we’re running questions back and forth, changing narrative. And we had to make the dates. I missed Christmas completely last year, I was locked up in that editing room.

“We delivered Chapter 10 - about Obama and Bush - on January 9. It was due to air on January 12.

“But it’s not until you sit in a room for a weekend and watch all 10 episodes that you understand what a feverish dream that this is. It’s a huge hypnotic maze about how America changed. I show clips from films, to show that era and to bring you into the 1930s and the sense of the hard and austere idealism. It wasn’t a fake idealism, it was a real idealism.”

Love story

“How that disappeared so quickly after a successful WWII that we helped to win – and we lost it. It’s a love story that goes on for 70 years. It’s like watching - I’m going outside of myself here - a man, in this case the director, become disenchanted with himself because of his country and its failings.

“It’s a sad story because there is love there at the beginning and there is love at the end, but it’s a reduced love, a harder kind of love. It’s not unconditional.

“Our country could do so much better with itself. I don’t know if it’s pre-determined but it seems like were going the way of every fallen empire. Into the corruption and a byzantine sense of control. But it’s a benign control were you don’t actively see it. It’s hidden.

“Here in the Czech Republic and most other countries they’re asleep. They don’t realise how all embracing the Big Brother ideology is. And there’s a feeling that everything’s OK as long as the US are in charge and are keeping order in the world.”

Sparking idealism

Stone is still passionate about seeing things change and sees his work as something that can spark idealism

“I believe debate should be done in culture but also at the highest levels of our administration. I don’t think that film can change things but it can educate,” he declares.

“I think change has to come because of force, because of pressure. I don’t mean by using a gun. It could be a disruption. It could be cyber warfare.

“Remember when King did his boycott of the buses in Alabama? No-one believed that it would work. I think that’s what it requires: force.”

Future

But as Stone laments some of the past, he’s also looking towards the future

“I’m living week to week right now in my life,” explains Stone when asked about his future projects.

“All my life in film I’ve planned a little bit by writing ahead. I’m on the third draft of this thing – I can’t tell you what it’s about – but I really love it and it’s getting better. I used to be a six-week writer. But this was written in 2007 and 2009, it’s like history it takes a bit of time. But it’s fiction, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s adult fare.

“I think it could be fun, though in this business you’ve got to make it as tiny as possible because of the budget. You’ve got to find a partner. I think I can find a partner and a good distributor, but it has to be a good one that understands the material and willing to go there. Because it becomes harder to make films as – when you become successful – you’re judged so much by your past.

“At the same time you want to do something different. It’s scary. I think young men tend to take the bigger chances and the older men recede in risk. But I haven’t played it that way so far. I take risks: Alexander is one, Untold… is another. Sometimes you don’t succeed for all.

“Sometimes things that are good are not evident right away.”

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