The drama Savages, from three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone, follows entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively), who run a lucrative business raising some of the best marijuana ever developed. But, the legendary weed of these Laguna Beach heroes soon catches the interest of the Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by the merciless Elena “La Reina” (Salma Hayek). Along with her brutal enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and her head attorney Alex (Demian Bichir), Elena demands a partnership which she ensures by kidnapping that which they love most, and what was once a peaceful and easy lifestyle becomes a high-stakes battle of wills.
At the film’s press day, director Oliver Stone talked about shooting Savages on film, his motivations for the unconventional ending, how possible he thinks the portrayal of the cartels could be, that he likes his actors to be the best advocate for their characters, and whether or not he took the different perceptions that both sides of the border might have about the film into consideration. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: Now that the industry is moving away from film as the standard, what do you expect the next generation of filmmakers to be like when film is no longer the foundation?
OLIVER STONE: Wow, that’s a really pregnant question, and you’re so right! I make a film like this every two years, so every time I come back to it, there’s a new technology going on. And now, truly because of the projections system, we’re moving inexorably to a digital projection. 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. I would go to the theaters in Texas or Alabama, and sometimes there were mistakes made. Sometimes they don’t change the bulbs.
On the other hand, the irony of the whole situation is that film is still, to me, in my opinion, without a doubt, 15 to 20% better than the digital. In its range and its blacks, and the depths of its blacks. When you see this movie, if you see it with a good projector, the colors pop, and I love that. My eye plays off film. I never know what’s going to happen because your eye does wander. It’s an anemographic film, so there is no comparison. I’ve seen the digital and it’s good, it’s just not at the same level, and that’s because it’s a medium that’s different. There’s something in the film stock that you cannot get.
People say that it’s so much better, and [James] Cameron, Michael Mann and George Lucas all led the way. My protest against digital has been me saying, “What’s going to happen to film?” The result is that Kodak is out of business. That’s a national tragedy. We’ve got to keep making film. I really feel strongly about that. We can’t give it up. It may be like the baseball card business or the comic book business, and it’ll be antique, but I don’t think it’s going to go away. It’s like books. 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’m going to hold onto my Blu-ray collection because I really think it’s hardware and it’s important. I don’t want to live in a cloud, all my life. Sorry to be preachy.
All of the twists and turns with the ending are very interesting. What was your motivation for that and your decision to do that?
STONE: There are twists and turns in this movie, and some of them are pretty wild. There are 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. I see the world a little bit more realistically. I love the ending of the book. It reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I do think the drug world and the drug deals go on. 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 the love or not love between three people. I had to deal with my own conscience on it.
Do you have a fear about something really happening with the drug cartels, like what’s shown in the film?
STONE: It’s prophetic. I did go to Mexico and talk to a few people who are heavy down there. We had a DEA agent, and we had computer consultants. This is hypothetical fiction. This is not Traffic. Traffic is wonderful movie, but it’s much more documentary-like. This is a hypothetical situation that hasn’t happened yet, and it allows us to imagine. You can imagine the worst, but there has not been any major violence on this side of the border yet, except in Texas. There have been minor events so far, 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 are going to be a lot of consequences.
They are here and they are growing. We know that. There’s been buzz. We know that they have Indian land, and they may have deals here in California because the best laboratory in the world is now here. All of these possibilities exist, but quite frankly, from all my research, I couldn’t find anything like this that had already happened. No one 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. It’s the best I’ve ever had, in 40 years. It’s like Wal-Mart coming to town. If that does happen, Wal-Mart will definitely be interested in making good product because they’ll take the niche business and bring it up. Mexican weed is shit, as we say in the movie. 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. Let’s keep it that way. What was clear to me, when I was in Mexico, was the connection between the money and the political parties. There’s too much money in Mexico. There’s a huge amount, washing around, and they need to put the money in a legitimate economy. When you hear people say that one party will favor this cartel or that cartel, you get a picture of why Elena might be dead meat. She was losing her power.
In this movie, you have so many layers between the story and each character. As a filmmaker, how did you prioritize what had to be there and the amount of room you had to play?
STONE: We cut a lot. The book is 120 scenes and, in a movie, we had 30 scenes to play. We had to make decisions with the script. We made decisions in the editing. We had to consolidate so much. There were so many things that were different in the movie than the book. You have to read the book to understand that. But, the book definitely inspired me. Don Winslow did a great job of writing it. He knew that world and it really gave me the desire to make a movie about it. We have some good deleted scenes that you’ll see one day that are fun, but they had to go. Benicio’s home life was among them. And Uma Thurman was Blake’s mom.
As far as how the actors see their roles versus how you see them, do you like that conversation with your actors?
STONE: I think it’s good that every actor is the best advocate for his or her own character. They are the lawyer for their own defense. A good actor will be thinking, feeling and questioning, and Blake [Lively] 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 what she did, very much. She’s very elegant and sophisticated. She reminds me of a very smart Meryl Streep, at that age. She could go all the way. She’s got the chops.
What led you to cast Salma Hayek to be the head of a drug cartel?
STONE: I had no choice. When you meet La Reina de la Sur, she’s tough. Salma came from Mexico and she just propelled herself to Hollywood. I guess she didn’t speak much English when she got here. I met her years ago, when I did U-Turn. The first time I met her, she said, “You son of a bitch! You didn’t even see me for. You gave it to Jennifer Lopez!” I was stunned because I didn’t know her. But, 15 years later, I went right to her. I said, “This is the one.” I didn’t even see another actress. I wanted Salma. I wrote her a note in Europe and just said, “You’re the one!” When Universal said, “Is she tough enough?,” I said, “Sweetheart, she’s tough!” Now, Jennifer Lopez is going to come after me. She’s got a heart in the movie, though. She has this strong, Latin fixation for family and, when she tells that story about her husband and children, I think she really puts her heart out there and transfers it to Blake while still being ruthless.
Do you think things can ever be resolved in the drug war?
STONE: There is no closure in the drug war. Unfortunately, the truth is that people do go scot-free and it’s unfair. A lot of the top drug people who have been arrested are also free. There are deals made, all the time, and there’s a lot of corruption that works both ways. By creating that false environment of a war on drugs, and cruel and unusual punishment with these crimes, 50% of our U.S. population is in jail without having hurt anybody, mostly for drugs. This is a tremendous inequality in our system, and it’s been written about. The truth is really ugly, so if you make a movie where you romanticize the truth, you don’t get your revenge on these kinds of things.
How concerned were you with avoiding some of the common stereotypes of drug trafficking stories? How did you take into consideration the different perceptions that audiences on both sides of the border might have about the film?
STONE: Well, we’re going to Mexico, right after we open here. That’ll be our first country, so we’ll find out. I think people are fairly reasonable and understand the realities of the situation. We showed some of the cruelty, but we didn’t show all of it because it’s too rough. You have to deal with it, otherwise you’re just sanitizing a situation that’s gotten extreme. I’ve made several movies about drugs, including Scar Face. It’s funny, when I did Scar Face, you would’ve thought that it was a cartoon, 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. We are seeing entertainment become politics and we’re seeing people acting out in ways that are extremely violent and destabilizing. No rules apply. We’re in an era of no rules now, it seems.