First published on 26 Sep 2012. Updated on 1 Oct 2012.
"Obviously, my life has been interwoven with drugs and drug use,’ Oliver Stone says, flashing his famous gap-toothed grin. It’s the same smile you’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of times over the past 25 years, ever since Stone stood on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage and beamed it to millions of TV viewers, his Best Director Oscar for Platoon in hand. When he deploys the grin in person, you get the feeling the 65-year-old filmmaker is about to drop an unfiltered truth bomb.
‘It’s in my work, dating back to my screenwriting days: Midnight Express is a movie about injustice that starts with a bag of hashish. Scarface is, well, [about] Scarface – the man with his head in a mountain of blow – though really it’s a movie about power. In Vietnam, grass helped many of us deal with the situation we were in. There was a point where my personal freedom and my survival were tied up in drugs, before I went overboard. But I have a lot of gratitude when it comes to marijuana.’
The sweet leaf is about to get quite an offhand tribute from Stone, as his latest movie, Savages, features plenty of loving close-ups of prime West Coast marijuana. (The director has gone on the record to say that California currently has the best homegrown pot in the world; if the state’s tourism board were smart, it would nab Stone for a public-service announcement immediately.) His stylised adaptation of Don Winslow’s bestseller is anything but a pro-drug movie, however, even if it focuses on two young entrepreneurs – the Zen-hippie botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick- Ass) and the ex-Marine brute Chon (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter) – living the SoCal high life by selling super-weed. A Mexican cartel is interested in partnering with the dealers; when the gents’ mutual live-in girlfriend (Blake Lively) is kidnapped by the organisation’s number-one henchman (Benicio Del Toro), a south-of-the-border bloodbath becomes inevitable.
For those scratching their heads – an outré crime story about pot growers and gangsters, made by the guy who did Nixon? – it helps to remember that the often politically provocative Stone has dabbled in pulp artistry before (1997’s U Turn), and that the highly expressionistic tricks he employs in Savages (elliptical edits, dizzying camera angles, a mix-and-match approach to colour and film stocks) are the same ones he used in 1994’s Natural Born Killers.
Having read an early proof of the narco-thriller, the filmmaker immediately responded to the story’s energetic mix of genre and off-kilter romance. ‘My reaction was, “It’s Jules et Jim meets Scarface”,’ Stone says, laughing. ‘I get this! But more than anything, I just responded to how Don captured the rhythms of southern California, and the way he turns this sun-dappled paradise into the perfect setting for a cartel-noir. I also liked the fact that Don made Chon an Iraqi vet; he’s bringing the war home to roost. What’s happening in Ciudad Juárez [a Mexican border city notorious for violence] is just as bad as what’s happening in Baghdad. It’s a different war there, but it’s still a war.’
True to that last comment, beneath Savages’ surface is an element of finger-wagging at the powers that be – Stone readily admits it. ‘Prohibition doesn’t f**king work,’ he says adamantly. ‘It never has!’ But for a director whose reputation as a liberal muckraker precedes him, he clearly views this project as a chance to make a fast-moving, star-driven suspense film (the cast also includes John Travolta and Salma Hayek), rather than mounting a Traffic-redux critique of America’s unwinnable drug war. ‘What did you call me earlier? A pulp artist?’ he asks. ‘I love that. I wanted to make a Western, with bits of Peckinpah and Leone thrown in. People will say, “Here comes the political agenda”, but if I only wanted to make movies about politics, I would do nothing but documentaries.’
As a matter of fact, Stone’s next project is a series of docs about the unseen machinations behind American politics since 1945, which he’s producing for cable TV and describes as ‘a public service’. He’s not ready to stop railing against the system; the director just doesn’t want all of his work to be saddled with the burden of expectation. ‘The goal is never to cause controversy. The goal is get you to keep watching. If you look at JFK, or Salvador, or even Nixon, it still comes down to telling a good story. It’s about the DNA of drama: what happens next? Two guys are living the American Dream and then stand on the precipice of losing everything.’ Stone sits back, still smiling but now staring intensely, like a man possessed. ‘What happens next? Don’t you want to know?!’