Oliver Stone: Less Crazy After All These Years

"Oliver Stone"
"Oliver Stone"
 Kurt Iswarienko

Stone. despite his reputation, is not. Although he has ruffled some colleagues — possibly including longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson, with whom he “had a divorce, and like all divorces, it was painful” — he’s got his feet firmly planted on the ground when it comes to playing the Hollywood game. He knows how to bring a movie in on time and even under budget, as he did universal’s mid- $40 million drug drama Savages.

The film — about two pot growers whose mutual girlfriend is kidnapped by a Mexican cartel — stars Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and John Travolta. It’s getting the type of buzz that leads insiders to believe Stone — arguably one of Hollywood’s most original filmmakers and inarguably its most compelling personality — is back at his best.

“This movie reminds us that Oliver, when he’s working in his milieu, is one of the great direc- tors of his generation,” says universal Pictures co-chairman Donna Langley, whose studio is so confident in the film that it moved its release from Sept. 28 to July 6. “He’s been amazing to work with, exceptionally collaborative and sharp and intelligent, with a healthy dose of neurotic insecurity.”

Stone first thought of making the movie in late 2010 when his CAA agent, Bryan Lourd, sent him a copy of the new Don Winslow novel. “It was something I hadn’t done in a long time: It was contemporary, in that sort of go-for-the- ride, have-fun mode,” says the director. “After doing W and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and World Trade Center, this was like a breath of fresh air.” Stone optioned the book with $50,000 of his own money, then started to research its subject while working on the adaptation with Winslow and Shane Salerno. “We visited several ‘grow’ houses in Southern California,” he says of his team. “We went to low-budget ones, medium- budget ones and very-high-end ones, visited some beautiful farms.”

Further research took him to Mexico, where he met with a putative drug lord. “We were housed in a beautiful ranch,” he says. “Our host puts down on the table a bottle of tequila for lunch. Serves us. It goes down smooth. And he says, ‘If I sold this, it would be $5,000 a bottle.’ I’m not a great drinker, but we drank five, 10 bottles, and I was walking straight all afternoon.”

STORY: 'Savages': Oliver Stone's Stoner Fake-Out

Afterward, the proprietor showed Stone how the tequila was made and some of the ingredients that went into it, including “bulls’ penises, snakes, tarantulas, bats — all was mixed in.” Getting Savages made meant Stone had to take a relatively modest $3 million to $4 million. He also had to face losing his leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, because of her commitment to The Hunger Games. Then he had a complicated 58-day shoot that took place almost entirely in California, along with a few days in Indonesia.

“We had tight actor schedules,” notes Stone. “Blake was still shooting Gossip Girl. Travolta had other commitments. And Aaron had to start another movie. It was hard.”

Despite that, Kitsch says they rehearsed from 9 to 5 every day for two weeks in Los Angeles, helped by his military training for another universal venture. “I’d worked with Navy Seals on Battleship,” he recalls, adding he suggested that his character, a vet, be covered with scars. “Other directors would have been, ‘No, I want you to look good!’ ” he says. To his surprise, Stone agreed without hesitation.

While Kitsch notes his director has “zero filter” in giving his opinion, he was thrilled when Stone emailed him after the Battleship fiasco, writing: “With any job there is always going to be self-doubt that creeps in, but know that you are going to have a long career.”

Not that this kindness — a hint of the inner Stone that has endeared him to longtime col- laborators and is often ignored by his critics — meant the Stone of old had entirely vanished.

“God knows he’s a humanitarian, but he has a dark side,” says Michael Douglas, an Oscar winner for Wall Street who again collaborated with him on its sequel. “He isn’t as tormented and self-destructive as he was 20 years ago, but the talent is all there.”

Adds Lively: “He’s definitely not a person who is going to hold up scorecards and cheer you on. It’s like having a very silent, stoic father and wanting to crack him. But there wasn’t a night when he wasn’t with us or working.”

Location shoots in Laguna Beach, Malibu and various canyons northeast of Los Angeles went smoothly until the temperatures proved overpowering. “It was so hot in those canyons; the heat was like 95,” recalls Stone. “The humidity was throttling. People started to pass out.”

Stone caused something of a stir when he wanted to plant genuine marijuana (as THR reported May 3). “In a perfect world,” he would have done it, he acknowledges, because the plants have a specific look that was difficult to reproduce: “If you know high-level marijuana, it’s beautiful. But we couldn’t even get close to that because the universal legal team could not be involved in any way. The ‘grow’ houses had to be created out of synthetics. And we never had any real marijuana on the set that I know of.”

The marijuana incident was a brief echo of the larger-than-life character whose exploits were once Hollywood legend. “The crazy days are over completely,” says Savages producer Moritz Borman. “That doesn’t mean he isn’t ferocious and full of energy and creativity. But the crazy stuff that all of us were into 20 years ago, that’s gone.”

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