Oscar-winning film-maker Oliver Stone, who is half-Jewish on his father’s side, has written, produced and directed some of the most critically acclaimed, and controversial films of the past few decades. He and historian Peter Kuznick talk about their recent series Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States [divider]
OLIVER, WHAT WAS THE HARDEST PART OF MAKING THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES?
Oliver: Making it exciting; this stuff can be very official. The narrative is very nicely written, a combination of Peter and myself. The movie clips help enormously too. We’re trying to make history flow, so it flows right, and so that before you know it, the hour is over and you say, “Wow! I may have missed half of that but my God it was exciting, and I want to see it again”. A lot of people have responded that way.
THERE’S A LOT OF DUMBING DOWN ON TV, SO IT’S GOOD TO SEE A SERIES THIS INTELLIGENT
Oliver: This is ‘dumbing up’.
PETER, WHAT ARE THE ORIGINS OF THE SERIES?
Peter: I first met Oliver back in 1996. I began teaching a new course at American University, called Oliver Stone’s America, which was looking at history through Oliver’s films. Oliver came into the class to speak to the students. That’s how we first got to know each other.
I suggested a theme for a movie – the atomic bombing and Henry Wallace as Vice President, how he became Vice President again in 1944 and how he should have been President in 1945 instead of Truman.
Oliver liked that idea a lot, and we wrestled with it. We tried to do something with it, initially as a feature film. We were unable to do it, and when this project began, Oliver went back to that theme and we thought we were going to do a one part, one hour or 90 minute documentary about Wallace and the atomic bomb, and it turned into a much more grandiose project.
WHO IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
Oliver: The idea is teenagers. I kind of positioned it so my 17-year-old daughter could understand it, and she could. You may not get it all, but you want to go back. That’s the idea.
Peter: The other thing that Oliver didn’t mention is the narration (by Stone) is fabulous. He’s being complimented all the time on the narration.
Oliver: It’s like a good dentist voice. Or a doctor giving a colonoscopy.
Peter: We’re giving the United States a colonoscopy (laughs).
OLIVER, WAS IT A DELIBERATE DECISION NOT TO FEATURE TALKING HEADS LIKE SIMILAR DOCUMENTARIES?
Oliver: Yes, that was a conscious decision because of time, and we have a narrative to tell in 58 minutes, each chapter, and in order to tell it even, we had to drop a lot of significant stuff.
I LOVE DONALD SUTHERLAND’S MONOLOGUE IN JFK, WHICH SEEMS TO HAVE INSPIRED THE UNTOLD HISTORY…
Oliver: That was a bit of an experiment back in 1991 to see what people could absorb visually while they’re being fed audio information, and I think we did it again on this series. But I think we really pushed the limits because I do think it takes concentration to get through the 58 minutes, but it’s okay because we are dealing with ‘pregnant’ material. Anyone who’s serious about it will come back and look at it a second time.
AS IT’S THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF JFK’S DEATH, ARE THERE ANY PLANS TO RE-RELEASE THE FILM?
Oliver: We are releasing a limited release, three cities on November 6; Washington, New York and LA.
If anything I think the ‘noise’ is going to be going the other way. The networks are going to release big time the 50th anniversary of the assassination with the usual, conventional explanation.
NOW THERE HAS BEEN A TWO DECADE GAP SINCE YOU MADE IT, WOULD MAKE YOU WANT TO DO AN EPILOGUE TO JFK?
Oliver: I would be intrigued by that, yes.
DO YOU REVISIT ANY OF YOUR FILMS AND DRAW INSPIRATION FROM THEM?
Oliver: Yes, I have a fourth version of Alexander coming out next year called The Ultimate Cut. It’s basically closer to the 2007 version. This film to me was always three hours, it had to be a three hour-plus movie, and trying to bring it out as a two hour 40 minute film never did it justice.
YOUR EARLY WORKS SUCH AS THE HAND, SCARFACE, CONAN THE BARBARIAN AND PLATOON ARE FASCINATING. WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF THEM?
Oliver: I remember everything. I was at a horror conference recently with Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi, and they were both going on about The Hand. Commercially I got burned on that; My career got stalled. Scarface and Conan were my pre-progressive days, but I appreciate it anyway. My memories are good for all of my movies. It’s a road. It’s a river that’s taking me on this journey.
YOU MADE NATURAL BORN KILLERS IN YOUR FORTIES, YET IT HAD THE ENERGY OF A FILM MADE BY SOMEONE HALF THEIR AGE. CAN I HAVE SOME OF WHAT YOU’RE HAVING?
Oliver: (Laughs) Yeah, well it came from an anarchic place. It’s always sort of been there; I still have it. And that same spirit is in history. ‘Don’t buy the bull-s**t. You’re all asleep. You’ve got to wake up’. Certainly that was the idea behind Natural Born Killers.
WILL WE EVER SEE YOU DO SOMETHING LIGHTER LIKE A ROMANTIC COMEDY?
Oliver: I don’t know that I could do one. I have a sense of humour, but I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.
MANY BRITISH MOVIE LOVERS WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU WORK IN THE UK AT SOME POINT
Oliver: That’s very kind of you. I’d like to do an Upstairs Downstairs movie. Actually Gosford Park was so amazing that they gave it to (Robert) Altman.
Peter: It could be in the tradition of Kubrick making (Dr) Strangelove in England.
Oliver: Yeah, why don’t I do another Altman number? Come over and make the best of the English actors, and a screenplay by Julian Fellowes.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History Of The United States is out on DVD, FremantleMedia International