Out on Blu-ray this week is Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. The twelve part documentary series, co-created with American University professor Peter Kuznick, offers an alternative historical narrative by drawing focus to the scarcely remembered moments, forces, and figures that shaped the course of post-World War II America. In celebration of the release I recently participated in a small group interview with Stone. Over the course of sixty minutes he talked about the documentary series, the upcoming re-release of JFK, his past projects, and a whole lot more.
In this first segment Stone talks about the appeal of making a documentary, the decision to integrate film clips throughout the series, the unique challenges and rewards of documentary filmmaking, how his approach differs as a dramatist and a documentarian, and more. He also talked about the level of “fantasy violence” in modern films and why he thought the Breaking Bad finale was “ridiculous”. Find out what he had to say after the jump and check back throughout the week for the next installments of the interview.
Question: I wanted to ask about the use of some of the footage that you used in Untold History from fiction films because I really liked the way that you used from Hollywood movies to comment on and illuminate the ideas. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to use that footage, and what that process was? I imagine you had to just sift through tons of stuff.
STONE: You know, because when you look at long swatches of archive film- I’ve been through hundreds of hours of that- you can really fall asleep. It’s how do you make this less boring? I mean, I love history, but I know that people- the moment they see black and white, sometimes they drift. I’ve had that experience. So I wanted to make it exciting, and the narrative had to constantly be re-written. The music we worked intensely on, and I think Craig Armstrong who did World Trade Center and recently did Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet, he really worked hard on this, and he exhausted himself. I think after about six of the hours of the twelve, we felt like he kind of spent himself. Though we use his theme several times, it’s repeated, we moved on. We went to Adam Peters who I’d worked with on Savages. And Adam is a young, English composer. And Adam actually did the music for the last six hours, pretty much. We blended constantly, and we were always looking for ways to stimulate again. So as we went into another era, we’d use a different style of music as well as local songs, of the period songs.
So the movie idea came naturally because we’re talking about the culture, about the perception of things throughout the series. So why not use movies? I would have used more, but with 58 minutes and 30 seconds in every chapter, you do have a very tight limit. Also, fair use, you can’t use more than approximately a minute, maybe less from the studios. They won’t give you permission. So we were always toeing that line. But I think it relieves the sameness of it, the narrative, the voice. We had no interviews. I hate interviews because they really would have killed this. We never would have done this concept with interviews. It would have slowed it down sufficiently. So we went with that, and basically, I would have put more films in. And I did put some outrageous examples, but people said, “That’s too much.” We always had our own sounding board. That was the way it came about.
What were some of the lines that people thought were too much?
STONE: I’m trying to remember now because it’s been a while now. I knew you’d ask something like that…what did you like in the movie? We had so much.
I really liked, obviously, some of Capra things, the Stallone stuff was terrific.
STONE: Ah, Stallone, you have to put him in because he is such a force in the 1980’s. It controlled public perception that Afghanistan was the evil Soviet empire. In Vietnam, we had to go back and get the POWs. It’s so important. Film just reaches out and it hits so many people in the guts. It becomes emotional in America. Also, don’t forget how the importance to George Bush of Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. Black Hawk Down had a huge impact as did Saving Private Ryan. Huge Impact on the culture in the 90s, at a time when we didn’t have that enemy anymore, the Soviet Union. So these films kind of filled a need. And I was there, and I remember making movies. You know, ‘JFK‘ came out in the 90s, but the Vietnam films had receded. And the last one, Heaven & Earth in 1994 was ill received in this country, did not do any kind of commercial business, which is heartbreaking to me. But after that, you start to see that surge back to the World War II generation where George Bush, the father, the fighter pilot hero, and here we go again. And they sold the greatest generation, Ambrose, who was a right winger conservative, Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw. And I do think that’s set up a climate for Black Hawk Down to be nominated, which is a wonderfully made film, but such an ill- such a horrible message to give. That US technology is, gee whiz, US thunder and shock and awe. That’s what Bush quoted. He loved that concept of awe. We’ll awe them. We’ll blow them away with our technology. That’s what I object to. One of the reasons I made the series is to get these movies in.
How careful do you have to be juxtaposing what was actually period footage of people being shot with fictional footage because you don’t want people who are watching it to go, ‘Oh, that’s just a reenactment.’
STONE: We would put reenactment if there was a visual reenactment. There are some reenactments of the Philippine war. You have 12 hours, right? I don’t know if you’ve seen them all, but the Filipino war footage is amazing of the 1900. But wherever there was a reenactment, we would put that in.
Well, did you have to be careful when you had actually period footage from documentary footage of people being killed in World War II juxtaposed with Hollywood footage from a movie?
STONE: It’s in there. You’ll see plenty of killing in there, but I don’t think we did it in bad taste. I don’t remember a piece of film coming up at the wrong time.
I just was wondering if there was a particular ethos to make sure that people weren’t looking at actual footage and going-
STONE: I skirted that border on JFK several times, but that’s a question of editing choice. I would have to deal with that on a specific basis. What I should have done, probably- it would have been difficult- but the audio. I mean, we have a lot of real voices, but sometimes we did slip into the actor. We had actors doing some of the voices, but they were doing them very close to the spirit, we thought…So every time, I could have said, ‘reenacted voice.’ I thought about that when I was listening to it the other day, but you can’t do everything. We did as much as we could.
As a filmmaker, what are the chief differences between documenting history as you do in this series and dramatizing history as you do in ‘JFK‘?
STONE: Huge difference. You can’t resort – I mean, you have actors. You have sets. You have a script. This is all raw. All you have is the archive footage, and Peter Kuznick who is a historian. I’m a dramatist. We’re coming together. I’m trying to take this book which is about 25 hours of film, maybe 35 hours of film, and I’m trying to simplify it down to a dramatic formula that could work. I wanted to make documentaries exciting. Now, some people say, ‘This is too much. There’s too much going here. I can’t follow it all.’ That’s okay. I’d rather have it go faster because I have to cover so much. But I’d rather you look at it a second time because I think kids might do that. I often look at a documentary a second time if there are things that are flying by me, but we have fact check. We have graduate students, research. Peter’s been teaching history for 35 years. He made mistakes too, but we had a fact check from Showtime, a very serious one. We had our own fact checker who was also very tough. And finally, CBS did a fact check because they own Showtime. They wanted just to make sure that legally they wouldn’t be sued by, for example, the World War II – when we went after these World War II, American corporations that were supporting fascism. They wanted to be very clear about stuff like that.
As a dramatist there’s always a challenge in balancing a great story with your responsibility to the subject matter. Have you ever found that those two clash?
STONE: Totally, that’s why this was the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on, honestly. JFK is thick. It’s complex. I mean, the amount of material we had to condense and had to combine, but in history, it was ten times harder. There was just so much rewriting, there were times I was in complete despair; I couldn’t imagine having to rewrite again for the screen. Because we’d find out things as we went. Like we started in 2008 and sometimes, two years later, you’d find out something that would blow your theory, so you’d really have to go back and constantly reexamine it like a PHD would do. And that goes for Peter too – I would question him, he would question me. We’d go back and forth, and it was very difficult for me. I can’t tell you. Now in film, they cut corners all of the time, all of the time, and I know that, because I’ve seen a lot of films that do that and I object to them when I see them that way. But sometimes a film provokes you to think about it, and you go back and you read more. I said that when JFK came out, okay, don’t buy the film, don’t believe it necessarily, but go out and read. Read the other versions that are not getting in the mainstream press, which is back in the ‘Oswald did it alone,’ Warren Commission theory.
What did you feel you weren’t able to do in your dramatic films that documentaries gave you the opportunity to explore?
STONE: Well, in 2008 I had done 17 films, I think, at that time, and I said, look, we’ve been through eight years of George Bush. Whatever your feelings about George Bush, for me it was a nightmare, a personal nightmare as a veteran of the Vietnam War, that we were repeating everything that we had done wrong, and we’re not seeing it. And I thought, we’ve got to do something more for my children. If I make another feature film, it might be a big hit, but it’s not going to give me the same satisfaction. I’d like to be honest to my time, and I lived from 1946 to now, and I want to understand why our country, which I love so much, and was a great country when I was young, it seemed, became this monster vampire on the face of humanity- a vampire squid, to quote Matt Taibbi, sucking out the juices of all mankind. Why? It’s a basic question. And if you live at a certain time in a certain period, you’ve got to ask those questions. Otherwise you’re not really being honest to your time. And I had the ability to do it, I could get the financing, I had the backing and the trust of enough people to get this done. And I also got it on the air, which is a miracle in this country, because it would never be on the air on commercial television – there’s no way. Our commercial television is so limited in what it’s allowed to show because of the controversial aspect. They don’t want controversy – that doesn’t sell product. So we were able to get it out there with Showtime, and that was a miracle, believe me, it was a miracle. I don’t think it would have been on the air anywhere, unless it had been a major filmmaker.
What does making a documentary give you personally as an artist?
STONE: Documentaries refresh you. You go back to the source. You go out into the field. You actually do a lot of research. In some cases, with the other documentaries, you meet people on the road and make road movies. They give you a transfusion, because living in a studio world, living in a world of manufacturing resolutions, manufacturing what people feel good [about], only thinking about what makes the audience moved, and looking at preview cards. It’s okay, but it’s got its limitations after a while. So you try to get back to the bottom, the basic truths about life. There’s too many war movies being made, too much violence in our movies – and it’s all unreal to me. I don’t know if you saw, for example, Breaking Bad, but they’re all raving about Breaking Bad. I don’t know if you saw the denouement, I happen to not watch the series very much, but I happened to tune in and I saw the most ridiculous 15 minutes of a movie – it would be laughed off the screen. Nobody could park his car right then and there and could have a machine gun that could go off perfectly and kill all of the bad guys. It would be a joke. It’s only in the movies that you find this kind of fantasy violence. And that’s infected the American culture; you young people believe all of this shit! Batman and Superman, you’ve lost your minds, and you don ‘t even know it! At least respect violence. I’m not saying don’t show violence, but show it with authenticity.
When you left Vietnam and decided not to go back to university, was there something in Vietnam that sparked that?
STONE: Not to go back to university? My life in Vietnam was, I went there twice as a teacher, Merchant Marine, and then I went back as a soldier. In between I went to Yale and then I dropped out, twice, of Yale. I went back after Vietnam on the G.I. bill to Yale, but it took me a few months to get out of the mindset. But thank God for NYU, because it really did help save my life. I was nowhere, I was lost, and that war was very alienating – not that I was against it or for it, but I was just lost after that war. As were many Americans. Also, in America they didn’t care about the war; they had the same problem that we have today to some degree, and why we were able to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, is that people don’t seem to know what we do abroad. They don’t seem to reckon with it, with what happens domestically. Or maybe they do now – I don’t know.
Talk a bit about what the research process was for something this massive.
STONE: Well, Peter’s been teaching American history since the 1970s. He studied with the revisionists who wrote these kind of [pieces] criticizing U.S. foreign policy in World War II and post-World War II. William Appleman Williams, from the University of Wisconsin, was very influential. Leffler, Lloyd Gardner, the fellow who wrote the atomic bomb, Gar Alperovitz. These are the revisionist historians who came into being the anti-Arthur Schlesinger types that inhabit universities and are read in universities. It was very important you get that balanced history of the Cold War – who Truman really was. David McCulloch is a popular historian, he got the Pulitzer Prize, and we think he really mischaracterized Truman and mischaracterized the situation, so we attacked him. The book goes into more depth on this issue of who Truman really was, but this is a key issue as to what happened after World War II. We give it a pass, we give the atomic bomb a pass, and we really object to that because it’s important to understand why we dropped the atomic bomb, and what it’s done to our thinking since then. It’s corrupted it.
I learned about the history of Vietnam through your movies. Do you see school re-teaching history to reflect your depiction of those events?
STONE: [Laughs] I wouldn’t go so far as to say you saw the history of Vietnam in my films. You saw the atmosphere of three stories that I did – my own to some degree, Ron Kovic’s, and Le Ly Hayslip. But they’re not histories – I would suggest chapter seven of Untold History to get a sense of Vietnam and historically, and that’s not complete. It’s just part of that story. But that was a devastating, devastating step back for the United States, and that was why we called it a reversal of fortune. There was no end to that war, and it was a huge mistake as Martin Luther King pointed out very early. But Lyndon Johnson was really committed to American credibility, and it always comes back to American credibility. And we’re hearing that today, by the way, by the Obama administration, about American credibility. And we always hear it in the newspapers – and it’s a false argument. It’s the basis of so many mistakes, tragic mistakes. But your question is about what?
I saw JFK when I was in high school in my social studies, is there a trend of schools teaching this revised history?
STONE: When it comes to JFK please look at our Chapter 6, “To the Brink”, because it shows you more contest for that period and it’s the supplement to the movie. And we’re not talking about the movie, but the movie and Chapter 6 breathe side-by-side and our revival of the movie in 200-and-some theaters in November and with the Blu-Ray release, you will see the enclosed Chapter 6, which is great. Warner Bros. has both films, so it’s a beautiful marriage.
But, I don’t think there’s a new trend. Some teachers will take the film and put it in their classroom and show it, yes, absolutely. High school teachers, that would be great, especially 11th grade… That’s perfect. A lot of kids, it will be thick stuff, but I think it will be great to teach them an alternative to the atomic bomb, on Vietnam… although Vietnam does get criticized in history books, but the atomic bomb doesn’t get a major review. The whole thing has to- but the whole thing is politics. The books are controlled by the school boards. The school boards always have conservative hard-liners and in Texas they have the worst. I don’t think they’re teaching evolution quite honestly yet. We’re got a political problem with education in this country. The best thing is to make stuff independently and have teachers bring it in the classroom and show it. They can’t take the text (points to his book) and put it in the classroom without permission, I believe, but you can show a film. You hope, and you get things on Showtime and on DVD release, you hope that it gets around and gets talked about. This is evergreen; Warner Bros. will be selling this for the next 10, 20 years.
The denseness of this material, and JFK, do you think can learn from it. Are there lessons to take away from Iron Man about war profiteering or Captain America about patriotism?
I think JFK had some great lessons. I got lots of letters from people back then that this really changed my life. I made me think about things in a different way. I can’t give you all the facts, but I can think about things in a different way. Our government is not necessarily one to be trusted, that they lie. Government’s lie. That goes on all the time. Jim Garrison, criticized as he was, was one of the gutsiest guys to ever bring a case in the public against the covert operation of this government. That is splendid. He was much criticized when our movie came out, now he might be seen as more of an oracle for today’s age than as a Looney Toon.
Look for part 2 soon.