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 final segment Stone talks about the positive press Untold History has received, evolving his editing technique through the years, how socio-political critique has overshadowed his filmmaking, why he’s always developed his own scripts, what to expect from the JFK Blu-ray, the two unaired chapters of Untold History, and more. Be sure to read the first and second segment with Stone here, and check out what he had to say in this latest installment after the jump.
STONE: Did I? That’s good to hear. Oh man, I mean I was in Okinawa recently, Jeju, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and I guess the press abroad in Japan- we have a lot of bases, as you know. We have 100 bases in Japan and Okinawa. It’s a military culture there, as you know, and I was saying some very hard things about the US military and why we never gave up those islands. We never gave up. After World War II we stayed everywhere and the Okinawans are dying for independence, from Japan and us. Japan, though, is our puppet. They have a lack of identity- anyway, yes; I did get a lot of criticism from military there, from Stars and Stripes, because I was saying the military should get out of Japan, which I think would be a good idea. But I do think many people who serve in the military are honest and they see when they serve abroad what we bring to those countries. And they see the degeneration that military bases bring with them to a culture. Yes, people make money. That’s the problem. People make money. All the locals sell the laundry, they sell the sex services, they sell food, bar, liquor. It’s like Las Vegas grows up around every military base. That’s the truth. But that’s not good for the country to have Las Vegases with missiles.
I have a filmmaking question about JFK, because one of the things I love about that movie is the style of editing that you created that you then went even more extreme with in Natural Born Killers, which is this kind of subjective editing. I don’t even know exactly how to describe it, but you kind of cut in on people while they’re talking and give this sort of subjective impression at the same time that you’re giving objective impression. I was wondering if you could talk about where you came up with that.
STONE: It came out of the movie. The script of JFK was very fresh. In fact, it was so fresh that it was written in that style, that I had to go back and I took out about 30% of the cutting so Warner Brothers could understand the script. It was really more of a political decision. And then when we went back to the editing room I went back essentially to that version of cutting up things, but it wouldn’t have been understandable. You wouldn’t have been able to make it. Kevin Costner would not have committed if he’d read a script that he couldn’t understand. So yeah you could not do that on paper, you had to do it in the editing room. So we kept with that style pretty much through Natural Born Killers, to some degree Nixon, and to some degree on Any Given Sunday, but I never felt the need for that subjectivity as I did on JFK and Natural Born Killers. For some reason it was more me commenting on the material. And I got so much criticism for that that in a sense I backed away from that style and with Alexander tried to make a more objective film, as well as classical. There’s nothing wrong with classical style. I like it too. And the recent films have been mostly in that style. Maybe I’ll go back.
What does it mean for you the actual change on people’s minds that you’ve had with your films? I’m certainly somebody who was coming of age when JFK came out and that really did transform the way I thought about the government and that sort of thing. So when you know that you’re reaching people and affecting their perception, what does that mean to you?
STONE: Every director wants an audience. What does it mean to me? It validates what I’m doing. It gives me courage to go on, I would say. There’s nothing better than that, nothing worse than rejection.
When JFK came out, and a few of your other films, there’s always a debate about what’s factual or politics, is that ever frustrating as a filmmaker that they’re not looking at the craftsmanship and what’s on screen?
STONE: Yes, it’s frustrating and I think a lot of my movies have been judged more for content than for the style of the movie, and the narrative flow, and the smoothness of it. I think that’s a shame. I think in some ways I was eliminated from the list of filmmakers because I had things to say. I do. And I think it’s always nice to have a critic, a Roger Ebert, come along and say, “Look, this is good filmmaking.” I work very hard at filmmaking. I spend hours in the editing room too, and writing, directing, all that. I take it very seriously. It’s a craft. It takes skill, but skill seems to be- well it’s a new style now. It seems like people can just throw up anything, and make a movie, and it’s called a movie. It’s a different ballgame completely. Perhaps I’m past that. I’m out of it to some degree. Certainly Untold History didn’t help me, because doing something like this doesn’t allow you to develop films and to work in that environment. I was doing documentary for the last five years, I did film, yes, but I wasn’t developing new films. So yeah, I find myself a little bit confused by the landscape. I can’t follow everything. They make 16 movies a week. I can’t. I just don’t have an understanding of that.
That’s been an interesting thing about your career is that you’ve never been a work for hire director, you’ve always kind of developed material or written your own material. Why is that? Why didn’t you ever become that guy that is work for hire?
STONE: I said yes a couple of times to other people’s scripts, but I ended up rewriting a lot of it, like World Trade Center, even if I wasn’t credited I ended up rewriting a lot of it. That’s just my nature. When I direct I direct full out and I get involved in the thinking of ‘Why are we saying this?’ Why are we doing this?’ ‘Why is she saying that?’ ‘Why is he thinking that?’ It raises these questions. If you direct you direct full-on, it’s intense. Not that I mean to rewrite, it’s just the nature of this thing.
In terms of the JFK Blu-ray has there been any re-mastering done for this release?
STONE: Can anybody answer that at Warner Bros?
WB publicist: No we haven’t restored it, but we restored it the last time we released the Blu-ray so we’re taking the old master and putting it into this release, and you’ll see that we’ve given this a good treatment. We have beautiful packaging for it.
STONE: We added Chapter 6, “JFK: To The Brink”, which is in Untold History. That is very important to me but I don’t know about the extras. There was a documentary right? Didn’t Bob Kline do something?
Do you have a say in the collectibles in the box set?
STONE: I have a say, yes. I tell Ronnie ‘Yes’ or I say, ‘That sucks’ or ‘This is good.’ No, they always consult me. They’ve always been very good, they try to make me happy. Right, Ronnie?
As you think about your next step, what’s on your mind?
STONE: I can’t tell you, I have to keep it a secret otherwise it would be on TV next week. You understand that it’s the nature of the game. It’s espionage. I’m working on something as a writer, yes. I’m working on something but it may not happen, this is a tough business. But I gave my all for this, this is it. I’m still out there, I’m going on Bill Maher Friday night, still doing stuff in New York, I’m still pushing Untold History. I’ve been to Spain and Japan. We’ve been doing a lot of Untold History [press] all around the world. We opened on German TV this week, I believe in France in January I’m going there Spain, this week we opened. It just continues to play, I want to make Russia my next objective, and China, I’m going to try and get in there, it’s hard to get into China because of the sensitivities politically.
Do you find that international markets or audiences are slightly more open-minded or receptive in digesting it?
STONE: To some degree. In Japan they’re more open to our history than they were to their own. The Japanese have the same problem we have, because we occupied Japan until 1953 or 54 we didn’t allow- we censored everything. They couldn’t even use the word ‘atomic bomb’ until 1953. The Japanese don’t know anything about the atomic bomb and the secrecy of our pacts. The Japanese government and us have been in collusion to use Japan as an ally. They have a peace constitution but they’ve been violating it since then because of American interests. We brought nuclear arms into Okinawa during the Vietnam War. We’ve always been using Japan as a bulwark against China and North Korea, basically against Communism, since 1945 and the Japanese never changed. Japanese governments have folded one after the other, when that guy Hatoyama tried to allow- he objected to the new building of a base in Okinawa. He tried to change something. and Obama ate his lunch and he was voted out of office within a month or two. The new guy is a militarist. His grandfather was a war criminal in Manchuria and he was exonerated, because the U.S. did not want to see war tribunal crimes against certain Japanese in Manchuria because they knew we had done a lot of terra bombing in Japan so they didn’t want the question of terra bombing in China to come up…The Fukushima thing is directly descended from Eisenhower. Eisenhower when he launched his Atoms for Peace program to sell atomic weapons around the world, to sell the idea that atomic weapons were safe, they launched nuclear energy in Japan. This is not meant to be ironic, but the first site they wanted to build on was Hiroshima. Needless to say, Fukushima is the result of this. It’s an earthquake-ridden country with Tsunamis, as you know, and look what happened- they’re pouring 300 tons of radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean, I’m told. It’s a disaster, this is worse than Chernobyl.
STONE: No. Snowden changed the world. He’ll be in the history books.
But the U.S. came after him…
STONE: Yeah, look at the U.S. power in the world, isn’t it amazing? That he can’t get asylum except in 3-4 Latin countries? Europe in the old days would have given him some asylum. France would have, Switzerland should have. Look how scared they are of the U.S. And yet he told them that we’re spying on every one of them, it’s sad. It’s ironic that in 1945 you’d be coming from Russia to the US, and in 2013 he’s fleeing from the US to Russia.
If somebody reads your book, sees your series and has a desire to change things, what do you hope people do with that?
STONE: Learn, educate, join groups, protests, write your Congressman, do all that shit. Do everything you can within reasons of your, the limits of your energies. You should write about it, you could be an enlightened critic.
The two prologue chapters, why didn’t they air?
STONE: They’re really good chapters. I’m really proud of them. Essentially they’re very complex chapters; they involve WWI Empire and Russian revolution and the causes of WWII. In those two chapters there are a lot of different names and alliances. We thought that for the teenager, the college audience in America to start with WWII, because at least it was recognizable names that we would do better- Truman, Eisenhower, Roosevelt. If you start with WWI, you start with Wilson, McKinley, the Russian Revolution- it’s a little off putting. We made the decision to make it simpler for the American audience, probably it was not a great decision, but television… Would anyone have watched the first two chapters and come back for the third chapter, I wonder, it was more of a bang start? That’s my decision creatively.