Oliver Stone, a remarkable wordsmith, can alternate from topic to topic with nary a breath in between. A simple question on working with Salma Hayek can suddenly morph into Stone remarking on the nature of masculinity in the country to his first and only encounter with George W. Bush. Add the equally outspoken Benicio Del Toro into the conversation – and it’s best just to shut up and let the two extraordinarily talented men talk.
The topic at hand was supposed to be the twosome’s collaborative effort: the unfairly maligned Savages (currently on DVD and Blu-ray); but the conversation veered from the film to thoughts on the drug war to a fourth cut of Alexander to Del Toro’s debut appearance in License to Kill to Stone’s current documentary series The Untold History of The United States, among many other topics of conversation. For highlights from Stone and Del Toro, hit the jump.
Oliver Stone: Benicio gave me the most intellectual feedback during the script. He would call me on a Sunday. And I’d go ‘Oh fuck.’ Two fucking hours later… [Benicio] tortures you for a bit, and eventually you say, ‘Well, you know, he does have a point.’ You get to that place in your mind where you overcome resistance and you go with it. Sometimes a better idea, sometimes not so, but we changed quite a bit as we went. [Lado] was very much a live character. A small thing but it’s a big [change in Savages]: the kid with him, Estaban, who was a lovely character and in the novel goes through to the end and plays a big role. We kept him because we liked him. Wonderful actor from Mexico. One day, Benicio comes to me in the middle of a weird moment and goes, ‘Lemme kill him.’ He goes ‘What’s the point of having him around?
Benicio Del Toro: Actually I would like to add a little bit to that. He was supposed to die two scenes down.
Oliver Stone: No more than that.
Benicio Del Toro: Fine. Three scenes down.
Oliver Stone: No. It’s about a third of the book…
Benicio Del Toro: Well – a third of the book. But in the movie he was going to die at Salma’s house just before O finds out. He was going to die there.
Oliver Stone: No.
Benicio Del Toro: That’s in the book…
Oliver Stone: He was there for the rape. When you raped [O], he was there in the screenplay.
Benicio Del Toro: Yeah – okay — but in the screenplay that happened in Salma’s house.
Oliver Stone: But that was very late. That’s right before the showdown.
Benicio Del Toro: Right – but I’m just saying it was two more scenes. He died in Salma’s house.
Oliver Stone: Yeah – but you killed him at least seven scenes earlier.
Benicio Del Toro: …ok. [You’re] the boss.
Oliver Stone: You see – you can never win.
Benicio Del Toro: … I’ll call you on Sunday.
Oliver Stone: In O’s head, in her mind, it’s her story the way she tells it. She has a romantic, rather hippie view of the world that she can be in love with two men. Which was also Don Winslow’s view. And in her vision of the world, the two of them would lay down their lives for the other one. I didn’t buy that. I’m perhaps too old or too cynical. I think it’s a nice vision. It’s her Butch Cassidy ending, but she says, ‘That’s the way it should have ended, but the truth has a mind of its own.’ So that’s my feeling about the drug war. It goes on and on and on. And I’m more cynical but I think the drug war is a disaster internationally for our country. The problem is that you don’t catch the bad guys. They go on and on and they make more money and people don’t go to jail. At the same time ironically, it gives the three of them a second chance. But it wasn’t done for the purposes of a happy ending. It was done because I don’t believe the two of them would lay down their lives for the third one. That’s all. They’re too young, they’re too inexperienced. And Salma Hayek confirms my point of view when she says, ‘There’s something wrong with your love story, baby.’ So I think one’s a romantic ending, and one’s a realistic ending, and I love double endings. They may not be as smart commercially, but who knows?
Benicio Del Toro On Oliver Stone:
Benicio Del Toro: I think that Oliver is good in every aspect. But it’s the writing – the story aspect, seeing how prepared and intense he was with the writing. And not just forcing you to say the lines but with the emotional journey of the piece. Understanding all the time what was important with every scene. The process that I had with him calling him those Sundays, I learned a lot. I think that’s one thing that if I was a director, I would really pay attention to. There might be a couple other things. [Oliver’s] also quick at making decisions which I really thanked him for. When you do a movie the clock is ticking… [Oliver] was very quick to say Yay or nay.
Benicio Del Toro and Oliver Stone on Working with John Travolta:
Benicio Del Toro: [I remember] being a kid and seeing Grease like thirteen times. For me it was like working with someone who’s an actor but he’s a filmmaker too. I remember when [I was] going to do the scene [with John Travolta], we rehearsed it and I pulled out the gun and [John] said you don’t have to pull the gun. I thought it was a very good idea. He was absolutely right. It was his idea to have Lado not pull the gun.
Oliver Stone: John’s done a lot of movies – but he hadn’t done one for a while because of the death of his child. This was his first movie [since] and he was very excited and he brought that enthusiasm to the set every time. For him it’s like a religious experience. He loved every face on the set. All the young people – Blake, Taylor and Aaron. He just loved being around that. But he was only working three weeks. I got him to play the way he looks as opposed to the way he disguises himself. So essentially that’s his real look. And I love it because he has such a strong face. The eyes – there’s yearning in those eyes.
Benicio Del Toro: Salma’s a tough cookie and very funny.
Oliver Stone: Salty. She slapped the shit out of you [for a take].
Benicio Del Toro: My question for you – is did you enjoy it? Because you kept the scene going…
Oliver Stone: You made it special.
Benicio Del Toro: We did seventeen slaps. We got it on slap number four.
Oliver Stone: Actually that’s not true. You said ‘More… More…’ It’s interesting the macho thing is very important in Mexican culture. Everywhere in the Latin world. Pretty much everywhere in the American world too.
Benicio Del Toro: No one’s more ‘macho’ than the USA.
Oliver Stone: When you think about George Bush – forty-three – is a very interesting character. He’s this guy that swaggers in like a cowboy, tells the whole world off but then he goes home and Laura’s the queen… I met [Bush] once. I thought he was a very dangerous man. I knew he would be elected. It was clear he had confidence. He had money and confidence. There’s a swagger to Bush that works when you meet him. He’s also charming. He knows your name and all that shit. He went to Yale with me in ’68 so he knew that and he was dropping names and stuff.
Q: Have you met Obama?
Oliver Stone: Yes – twice. Also when he was running. They never meet me after they win. Obama was very idealistic, and, I think, a great person. I think something weird happened when he took the money from Wall Street, and PhRMA [in the first election]. Something happened late in that campaign, because he was definitely on the right track. And he knew he was on the right track when he went after Hillary Clinton. He was going to win. He got scared. It was too much for him. I think somewhere along the way, he got scared…
Oliver Stone on Taylor Kitsch and Whether or Not His Presence Had An Effect On The Box Office Gross:
Oliver Stone: I’m told it might have hurt us – but frankly I really enjoyed the experience working with him. I also thought [Taylor] did a really great job in the movie. But you never know because that’s image… I don’t care. I think he’s a good man. Solid man. I wish I had done some other things as a director but that has nothing to do with him. I think of all the six characters, he’s the least vulnerable and I wish I had worked with him on that vulnerability but I was busy with Benicio on those Sunday afternoons.
Oliver Stone: There’s nothing better in my opinion, next to going to a theater, than Blu-ray. And I’m not hocking Blu-ray… It’s like a preservation for me. Every filmmaker is horrified by what happens to film and we’re all horrified by what happens in some of the theaters. Projection used to be horrible. It’s gotten better with the digital projection. No question. But the making of the film, the production values – is still film. I probably sound like an old hat, a dinosaur — but I do think film is twenty five percent better. You put up the best of film and the best of digital side by side and look with your own eyes, you can see the difference. I hope film doesn’t die. I think it will always be there. I can’t believe people would give it up. It would be a shame. Criminal. It would be like taking away sight away from the human race. But as far as digital goes, Blu-ray is really superb… It has to stay grainy [though] because that’s what film does. We have true grit in our faces. We have skin and skin has to register. So do eyes. Eyes are the most crucial. There’s not enough range in the digital versions. So as far as that goes – you take the best you can. Digital is good. I’m very proud of all my films on digital. I just said thirty years from now when I’m gone and you’re still around, the Blu-ray will be the last hardware available to serious collectors. And they’ll be buying up the creek. I bet they’ll be paying eight hundred dollars for a copy of your Blu-ray of Savages or maybe a thousand. Whatever the currency is. Because it would be worth that much. Hardware is disappearing. Everyone talks about cloud computing. You trust it. I don’t. I want to have my comic book, I want to have my baseball card. And the baseball cards are a good point, because look at those baseball cards from the early ’50s. They’ve gone through the roof.
Oliver Stone on the Drug War:
Oliver Stone: I see the issue on a bigger level. I see nutcases joining the DEA who are militarily inclined. McCaffrey was one of the original DEA chiefs. The guy would be in Iraq, in Afghanistan; he’d be fighting Russians in Russia. It’s that mentality that leads the DEA, which is take the war anywhere where we can get ahold of the drug guys. Well, drugs are part of the endemic problem of poverty, part of a culture and part of a need. Americans need drugs and they want them and they’ll pay for them. So who’s kidding whom here? Why do we have to go intervene in foreign countries? Let’s look at the drug war as more of a political thing where you send a lot of people down to these countries – Mexico, Honduras, Columbia, wherever you can get your people in. It’s also a political tool. It becomes a form of espionage. You investigate their military, their police, you invoke them, you provoke them to do more. You become involved, as we did in every country in the world. That’s the way we got involved in Vietnam. It’s the same old story over and over again, whether it’s drugs or terrorists or communism. It’s the same story to me. And it’s a sick one because it doesn’t lead anywhere good… Two and a half million people are in jail at state and federal. Federal is fifty percent drug related, state is twenty percent. This is outrageous. It discriminates against drugs, which is essentially a non-violent crime. Also class and race. I think nine hundred thousand [in prison] are black. You’re blighting an entire generation of young black people and white people. And out of the system of criminality, they become criminals. They’re not when they go in. I see it as if you’re a Texas teenager smoking dope on a date one night and all of a sudden you’re arrested by some cop, you’re life is wrecked. It’s insane.
Oliver Stone: I’d have to rethink that. It never occurred to me. It seems to me our heroes have to be human. I thought Battleship, although it was criticized, at least had human heroes. They solved their problems in a human way. Old fashioned – but I like that. [On the other hand] Batman – this one I didn’t enjoy at all. I was tortured through it. I thought it was completely overrated. I enjoyed the last one [Nolan] did but this one I thought was stuffing. I thought it was a completely incompetent script.
Benicio Del Toro on starring in License to Kill:
Benicio Del Toro: I did a James Bond movie in eighty-nine… I grew up in Puerto Rico and in my room I had a lobby-card of Thunderball. I grew up with James Bond… And then I went to study acting and within a year and a half I’m in a Bond movie. It was demented. So I really thought that I’d made it. I think I cleared $20,000 and I went and bought a painting for $8,000. I thought I was going to be the next Bond. I didn’t work again for about a year and a half or two… But the experience was fantastic.
Oliver Stone On Alexander and a Fourth Cut of the Film:
Oliver Stone: On Alexander, I released a shorter version [in theaters] because of Warner Brothers issues. And I [was] also rushed. [When] I released the director’s cut – it wasn’t called a ‘director’s cut’. It was called ‘The Final Cut’ because [earlier] there was a rushed director’s cut that I was responsible for. My third version three years later in 2007 was called ‘A Final Cut’ and I actually added forty some odd minutes – which I think makes the film better. [I didn’t go back] for money. I just did it because I didn’t feel I had finished the movie, and I felt like I was rushed… It took three years [for me] to fully understand [Alexander]. I’m going to go back next year actually. I’ve been asked by Warner Brothers because they did so well with ‘The Final Cut’. They actually sold more than a million copies. They’ve asked me to go back next year and do a fourth version.
Frankly, it’s a movie about history and I just feel like I can add something more. I wouldn’t do it otherwise… I don’t need more footage. I want to cut it down now because I added too much. I want it to come back a little bit. There’s some trimming [needed]. Have you ever heard of Abel Gance and Napoleon? Coppola actually brought back a version in 1980 at Radio City Music Hall. Huge, black and white, silent movie and it worked. It was magic. Gance had like thirteen versions of the film by the time he died because it was done in triptych in those days. They did three screens. This version that he did was unbelievable. I’m not saying I’m going to have thirteen [versions of Alexander], but I just think it’s important to me, this film. DVD has given it that second life because all the people that have seen it, that million people adds up to a huge different base and they get it.
Oliver Stone: It’s been four and a half years. It’s taken my life. And I have to finish. I haven’t finished yet… It’s one hour for ten weeks until January. Every Monday. 8PM on Showtime… So you can understand, I’m a little bit on edge. I’ve delivered seven episodes, but eight’s almost done, and nine and ten are still in the process. When you see one hour, you’ll understand the work that goes into it. It’s like ten movies. It started as an atomic bomb movie. I was curious because I was born in that age. I wanted to know why they built it… I thought it would make a great film, but it would also make a great documentary. One thing led to another and we decided [to add on to it] because of Bush. It was 2008, and I was so upset with the nightmare our country was going through. I decided to expand [the documentary] to understand George Bush, and how he could get away with this. The 2004 election seemed to me as crooked as the 2000 election was. With the 2004 election, ‘How could we vote this guy into office [again] after what he’s done?’ That was an amazing moment in time. Four and a half years ago we committed to this thing and we’re almost finished. It’s detoured me from my film career. I could have done five movies in those years instead of three. But I’ll be back, I hope.
Savages is currently on DVD and Blu-ray everywhere. The Untold History Of The United States airs on Showtime every Monday at 8PM.