Q&A: Oliver Stone
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Director Oliver Stone threw his hat into this year's U.S. presidential election with the release of "W.," his examination of the career of George W. Bush. But with Bush relegated to the sidelines during the hotly contested election, "W.," which grossed $26 million domestically, didn't stir up the controversy that surrounded Stone's previous presidential forays like "JFK" and "Nixon." The director has been touring with the film as it opens internationally and, given Bush's lack of popularity, he again finds himself in his accustomed position -- right on the firing line. Stone spoke with The Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday about the movie's design and its reception.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide the time was right for a film about George W. Bush?
Stone: I wanted to make a movie about Bush since 2001 when he assumed power. He started to change things even before 9/11. I think he had a tremendous impact on our nation and the world, perhaps greater than that of Nixon and Reagan combined. I think he was a seminal president in the wrong direction, but definitely very important. I would have done the film a year earlier if I could have, but I have to say it wasn't possible because of circumstances and also because the research did take a year. In hindsight, it probably would have been better a year earlier, because people were hungry to learn more. If you remember, there were a slew of books that came out between 2004 and 2007. Stanley Weiser (wrote) it in 2006 and 2007. We tried to get it up in December (of last year). We moved as fast as we could. We shot it in May, and we just finished it in time for October and barely made it. Frankly, I'm quite happy with the film. It will stand the test of time as they say.
THR: Why did you decide to focus on the relationship between Bush and his father?
Stone: Dealing with the issue of his character was the key. We decided to divide his life into three acts: The young man, the middle age man and the president. Act one, to put it in broadly mythic terms, would be the prodigal son tale. Act two would be the prodigal son returns, but he is not so good. And act three would be the Icarus myth worked out: The father builds the wings that the son melts when he flies too high. There was a lot of anger in George Jr. The very fact that the Bush family emphasized that they don't deal in psychobabble, that's what makes it interesting. They go to such extremes to avoid it. And the son, instead of going the opposite way, which is often the case, went more to the extremes than his father in denying an inner life, saying I don't read, my wife reads for me. He's gone to such extremes to deny his father has any f---ing thing to do with anything he decided while he's been in power. Which is odd and unbelievable, if you think about why a son, whose father fought a war in Iraq, would not even one time, according to him, ever talk to him about it. ... It's extraordinary to me, and we wanted to point that out and I think we did it within the bounds of reason.
THR: And then, when Bush becomes president, your film focuses on the decision to invade Iraq rather than any other issues.
Stone: In choosing the one thing in his presidency, where the seeds of the man cultiminate in the third act, it's the march to Iraq. In that action, lies all the problems of the son, and they become evident: His willful manipulation of the truth, his determination to outdo his father. He even said at one time, I don't turn to my father for strength, I have a higher father, by which he either meant Ronald Reagan or God, either one. He obviously admired Reagan more (than his father). Reagan and Churchill were his heroes.
THR: Were you surprised the film didn't ignite more outrage from Bush supporters?
Stone: I really think people in America are perhaps a little bit blase and glazed over by it, they are Bush-tired so to speak. I do think we hit a tough spot in the zeitgeist. I really felt that on Sept. 16th. It was a close race up until that point. (Sen. John) McCain was coming back in the polls. There was a feistiness in Bush still. And then, all of a sudden, the economy thing hit, and it changed the nature of the debate from the national security state, which is perhaps one of the most important issues that we have, along with global warming and the economy. All of a sudden the economy moved in like this big, black f---ing cloud and poured rain on everything. It made Bush, because of his misbehavior and his response to it, so irrelevant to the conversation that he literally looked like the guy at the end of the Wizard of Oz. He faded away. He literally faded away. In our psyches, he died, which was an interesting phenomenon, and it happened the month before we opened the movie.
THR: In a way, instead of representing the opposition, "W." seemed to join in the consensus that had developed around Bush.
Stone: Not consensus. No, that's not the case. We were on the side of accuracy as much as I could be. First of all, I'm not kidding myself. We are dramatists. We're not journalists or documentarians. We're looking for a larger truth. For example, the situation room scene is 11 minutes. That's not possible for those people to have stated their points of view and to reach a consensus in that amount over time. That happened over numerous scenes over the course of a year. It was a reach on our part, a heightened, exagerrated reality. It's not like we're doing a docu-drama, no, not at all. Also, those scenes behind close doors, with the parents, with the wife, all the scenes are invented based on what we think happened. Consensus, no. But I think we reached for the man, and I think that is where we came out ahead, but I think we have a balance.
A lot of Republicans have seen the movie and said good things about it. A very strong activist -- I won't say who -- said to me after seeing the movie, "I never in my life thought I would have an ounce of compassion for Bush. This movie gave it to me, it made me feel that. But it made me feel more compassion for our country." Because we walk in his footsteps as dramatists, we're not judging him. So people fall into an empathy, not sympathy, but an empathy with the guy. He has struggles with his father. We all have struggles in our lives of various sorts. He actually does struggle and he triumphs over some of the demons in his life, though not all. He earns some of our respect in the movie and that's as it should be. He was elected twice and no matter what his poll ratings are, he's still the man he always was. And he was loved by half of America.
THR: So how would you describe your final assessment of Bush?
Stone: I view him personally as a John Wayne figure. Wayne was ready to nuke Hanoi. At the same time, on screen you have to say you liked the guy. He had a certain cowboy attitude that you never back down. Go back and look at "The Searchers" or "Red River," which is my favorite Wayne movie. He doesn't back down even when he's wrong. That's the reason people don't like Bush. He never apologizes, he never said I'm wrong. He never said I thought about it, I made a mistake. But in a movie sense, they kind of like that in Americans. There is a strange story here. It's a mirror for America.
THR: Has the movie been more challenging for foreign audiences, given how unpopular Bush is?
Stone: They don't like him. I knew that on "World Trade Center." I went out with "World Trade Center" and we did more business abroad than in the States. But in Italy and Spain they said how could you do a movie that was pro-Bush. It was not, by the way, but I really ran into that wall and I overcame it. I was hoping to do the same here, thankfully. I was hoping by going out and thumping for the movie, that it would break some of the ice. But the ice is big here. Bush lost them a long time ago. He presented a terrible picture of America. I couldn't believe the hatred for Bush in France and in England. Why am I going to the Middle East? It's probably a suicide mission. They hate him too. But that's all the more reason to go.
THR: Have you been to the Dubai film festival before?
Stone: Yes, I brought "World Trade Center" there, and they gave it a wonderful reception. You don't go to the Middle East for theatrical sales. You go there to establish a long-term presence for the film. I'm proud of the film. It's about one of the most hated people in the Middle East, and I'm saying "Look, I did this movie, I'm responsible for it, here's why I think it's important, let's learn a lesson here."