Oliver Stone: I Refuse to Watch Nat Geo's 'Killing Kennedy' (Q&A)
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
National Geographic Channel has been touting its lone-gunman adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's co-authored Killing Kennedy, premiering Nov. 10, as "an entirely new take on the story you thought you knew." Oliver Stone begs to differ. "Am I going to watch Killing Kennedy? No," he says. "Because I don't agree with Mr. O'Reilly. I think he's taking the simplistic, Manichaean, dramatic point of view. I saw the poster, which is just ridiculous — with Kennedy in the foreground and this lone assassin in the background." Stone's own JFK, which will be out in a collectors' edition Nov. 12, made waves in 1991 for its premise that the assassination involved multiple shooters: "I think it was a professional ambush. I've always thought so."
The director, whose 10-part miniseries The Untold History of the United States will come out on Blu-ray on Oct. 15, spoke with THR about his 1991 film, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his possible Martin Luther King Jr. project.
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I recently rewatched JFK. Have your thoughts on that film changed over time?
As a dramatist, there's a few things I could have done better and I'd redo them, but historically I just think it's pretty solid. Although we were criticized for it, if you look at the film, [Jim] Garrison's position is weak and it's described as weak and he knew it was weak. He kept cutting his own throat several times. It's not like we were glorifying Garrison. We showed him losing. We showed it as it happened. And we showed the vindication for [Clay] Shaw.
JFK received some criticism for some of the dramatization. That seems to be a common occurrence with films that are based on historical events, even in the last couple of years with Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips. What are your thoughts on that pattern?
It's a specific ad hoc of the quality of the film. There are films that bothered me historically. … If you have the FBI solve the murders in Mississippi Burning that's wrong. If you have Osama bin Laden being brought down by torture it's wrong. We are showing something that we believed happened, and we're digging up evidence to support it. If you would say that I knew that Kennedy was not killed that way, and I do it in that film as a thriller, then that would be morally wrong. I'm saying that I did this with all my passion and heart.
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There have been so many books, films and TV series about Kennedy. Why do you think that is?
He was a very popular president for a reason. He was popular when he went against the Pentagon. He was popular when he pulled out of the Bay of Pigs -- initially. The reason he was killed, and it was a very important date, was that he was going to be re-elected in 1964. … It was the image of a young man seeking harmony in the world. His speech at the American University in '63 is one of the greatest speeches of the century.
Have their been actors that you felt have done a great job at playing Kennedy on TV or film?
The best one was the Thirteen Days actor [Bruce Greenwood]. But he wasn't quite as big as Kennedy.
Your next film might be this Martin Luther King Jr. movie with Jamie Foxx?
It might be. I've been working on the script -- that's all I can say at this point. It's not a done deal.
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Why do another historical story?
Frankly it was an opportunity to remember him. He's been forgotten. And there's a simplicity and a beauty in that story. It's a great story. The reasons for the holiday, the fond memory of him -- it's been lost. I think the younger generation would do well to discover it. I started this project in 1995. I was involved with two writers at two different stages, and I didn't make it then, and I left it to do Any Given Sunday -- because I didn't want to be doing that after Nixon. It came back to me. I was called up a few months ago and offered it back again. There's been eight, nine, 10 different scripts. It's been a while, but I still find it worth telling.
Are there other stories from history that you'd like told on the big screen?
I wouldn't tell you anyway. (Laughs.) It would be on TV next month.
I read a recent quote from you about Breaking Bad and the use of violence in film and TV.
My comment was really about something I'm not really an expert in. I never saw the show. I saw it here and there. I happened to make that comment -- I regret it -- gratuitously at the end of an interview about something else. And it got more attention than the Untold History, which took five years, you see. I don't see enough television, but all I can say is what I've always said, that violence has to be respected. If you do it in a movie, you have to do it with an intention to do it -- not for sensation -- but because it's accurate and shows the impact on people's lives.