Q&A: Oliver Stone

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Oliver Stone's relationship with Cannes goes back 25 years, but this is the first time the international festival has sent the Oscar-winning writer-director an official invitation. It's fitting, then, that the film Stone is showing Out of Competition -- "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" -- is an update on a milieu he first explored in 1987, with "Wall Street." Much has changed: Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko is out of prison, he has a new fresh-scrubbed protege in Shia LaBeouf and America's financial titans have blown out the Greed Is Good ethos so far that the Reagan years look like a Quaker lemonade stand. The Hollywood Reporter's Jay A. Fernandez spoke with Stone about his Cannes history, why the time was ripe for a new look at Wall Street and just how much a billion dollars is.

The Hollywood Reporter: When was the last time you were at Cannes?

Oliver Stone: There was a "Platoon" commemoration in 2006. The movie came out in 1986. Right before the movie, I showed a 26-minute clip of "World Trade Center," which wasn't quite finished, but was coming out that August.

THR: What was that experience like for you?

Stone: Charlie Sheen was there with me, and Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, so it was quite a nice reunion for all of us. The film was shown afterward. It really worked very nicely. Obviously, more people had come at the beginning to see the clip, but most of the house was full. But I got in and got out. This is my first film at Cannes.

THR: But you've been there many times, right?

Stone: We did get some passes in the past. I remember, going back to "Salvador." It was shown in some form at Cannes, I don't know if it was a finished film. "The Doors" came out approximately that same time period, in March. I can't remember if "Doors" was officially submitted or not. Sometimes you don't submit, you just feel out. Sometimes a distributor is showing it. The official heartbreaker was "Natural Born Killers." Because that came out in August and we could sure have used that.

THR: Was that submitted?

Stone: Yes. But there was an objection to the violence. And then we went to Venice and actually we got a jury prize there, in August (1994), right before we came out. And then we had "U Turn" turned down in '97. It would have helped to have "U Turn" there. Listen, those are the breaks of the game. And this is certainly a nice feeling. Because I'm 63 years old, that's why. The festival is 63 years old, and I was born in 1946, the first year of it. It will be fun, I hope. It's a bit of a zoo with all the people requesting tickets. It's like everyone wants to go to your Super Bowl.

THR: You produced "Blue Steel," which was in the Directors' Fortnight. Did you go with that?

Stone: Perhaps. I remember being with (Ed) Pressman at some point, and Kathryn (Bigelow) was there. I also went to sell "Alexander," actually. That made a big difference. It was an independent movie. We started it in Cannes, we lined up the buyers and we ended up making the key deals that made the film possible.

THR: So you have somewhat of a history with it, but not the official experience. Are you going to live it up this time?

Stone: No, not at all official. I've generally been in and out quickly. For jet lag reasons I'm going to go a little bit earlier. I'm going to bring my family. I'm going to arrive and hang out for a couple days and try to dry out, and then I'll go into the workload on Thursday. And it goes very fast -- Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then I'll probably be out by Sunday.

THR: With "Wall Street," were you reluctant at all to revisit that world and these characters after so much time?

Stone: No, not at all. On the contrary, after 2008 it made sense. You realize, the first movie was a bookend to this. We thought it was over, the history of that greed. We thought it would balance out, there would be a correction. There was no correction! (laughs) The pendulum kept going one way, and it got bigger and bigger. I only wish I had stayed in Wall Street. It got insane. And when I went back in 2008, the millions had become billions. It's an amazing story of multiplicity and greed. It's unbelievable what happened.

THR: And to think that it could go beyond that ...

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Stone: It went way beyond it. Honestly, have you ever thought about what a billion dollars is? It's like a thousand million! They used to make deals where 250 million bucks seemed like a lot of money. And now, boy, a billion dollars is an entry to a fuckin' club for a hedge fund. It's just amazing to me. And the losses as a result are so huge. When the numbers become artificial it doesn't seem like real damage is being done, but it is.

THR: Right, there's something about numbers so big you can't wrap your head around them, so you don't really pay attention.

Stone: But that's the problem. You see, we get to this place where insane speculation sets in and it destroys economies, it cannibalizes economies.

THR: So you felt that there was definitely more for you to say on this.

Stone: Yeah, that's the point. I wouldn't have entered into it as a sequel primarily. First of all, the first one would have been forgotten by much of the younger generation. We didn't want to make a sequel. We wanted to make an exploration of Wall Street at this time period, which is actually 22 years later. And I think we came up with an interesting angle, because the Gekko character is not quite what he seems. He's now been away, he's been humbled and he's a small piker in this deal. He's no longer a significant figure. So he's a man on the edges who's trying to get back in the game.

THR: Did Michael Douglas take any persuading to step back into that role?

Stone: On the contrary, it was him and Ed Pressman who were leading the charge with Fox. If anything, I had some doubts because it was 2006. I turned down the previous script.

THR: And then Allen Loeb's script changed your mind?

Stone: Allen Loeb wrote a script in March 2009 that I saw. That was the one that hooked me. Then Allen and I did a significant amount of work to update it. But no, I had passed in 2006 because there didn't seem any point. These guys were making so much money it was insane.

THR: Was there any worry that things were moving so fast -- and there was a new Wall Street scandal every week -- that this movie would seem dated by the time it came out?

Stone: Yes, absolutely. I did a lot of research, met with a lot of people, got some very good insights from people like Eliot Spitzer -- who is back in the news -- but he was one of the earliest investigators of these cases. You remember, he was the guy who originally got the biggest settlement out of AIG back in 2006. Spitzer, among other people, told us exactly what had happened -- back in 2009. He was saying Goldman was shorting, and "Look into this AIG-Goldman thing." Which we ended up doing. Allen's script in March was about hedge funders. And I said, "Look, this is much bigger, we've got to go to a bigger level here, we've gotta go to the banks."

THR: And when you were doing that research and filming on location did you field much static from people who knew what you were doing?

Stone: Again, it was like the first film. It was really a tremendously wearying process of getting new information, meeting with people at all times, getting new takes. And obviously, sometimes financial people disagree with each other. The conservative banks would not deal with us, no. They would not let us in. Goldman sealed their floors to us. We did get pictures of the inside of it for production design reasons. They were very arrogant. But the people who talked to us were the independent guys like George Soros, Jimmy Chanos -- there was a long list of 50 people who consulted with us. Also, we met with a lot of young people who had worked through this whole period -- because we had young people for Shia. There are guys and girls who are 25, 26, and they had come right out of business school, gotten their jobs around 2003, 2004, and then -- boom -- two, three years in they hit this thing. And it was unbelievable. The old guys who normally would be the captains of the ship, most of them were freakin' out. And the young people said, "What's going on?" And the old guys would say, "We don't know. This could be it. The ship could be going down ...." So these young people got what they called in Vietnam "on-the-job training" -- you learn it as you go. We had dinner with about 14 of them one night, including some Google women who were telling us incredible stories about that mad week in September.

THR: Did you talk to any of the bankers who were involved?

Stone: We got the perspectives of some of the people who bet against, the shorts, some of the bankers who had worked there, we met with people who had worked with the old system and the new system, we met with a few people who worked at Lehman Brothers. Bear Stearns -- we met with someone there. We got an overview. But the banks closed their doors, including locations. They did not want us anywhere close. But we had decided, unlike the original, not to build the set. We set everything on location -- 43 locations in 57 days. In Manhattan, that's quite a lot. We moved constantly. And we had the permission of newer trading places like Knight, which is in New Jersey, to shoot on their huge trading floor on weekends. We got permission from Creditex to shoot on their floor on weekends. Our biggest break came when the Royal Bank of Canada called back, and they were extremely gracious, they said, "By all means, we'd love you to shoot here." The Royal Bank of Canada was one of the few banks that behaved impeccably in this period and made a profit and continued on. And everyone applauded Canada's behavior because they had different rules. Europe was going down, the whole world was affected. But here was the Royal Bank of Canada -- unlike the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was a disaster -- the Royal Bank of Canada was impeccable. (laughs) That was a wonderful break for us, because it was a classy looking bank and gave us the right feeling that we needed for Goldman -- I don't want to say Goldman, I want to say "from The Bank" in the film. Don't pinpoint me.

THR: Do you have plans to screen this for Geithner or Paulson or Obama or Greenspan or those guys?

Stone: Eventually, yeah. But I want to make this work as a movie. I think it's exciting. I want it to play for an audience.

THR: Do you expect much grief? This seems like another meatball for op-ed pages.

Stone: We didn't set out to make this a tract.

THR: No, but you and the material combined are a bit of a lightning rod. You've gotta expect some flare-up.

Stone: Yeah. Yeah. But I'm not trying to ... you know, Michael Moore made a very strong documentary. But it's not that at all. We're really here to tell a story that would last through time like the original. I think we got our hands around a story: relationships between father and daughter and the new man in her life -- there's a triangle there. There's an interesting story with Frank Langella and Josh Brolin. An interesting sidebar with Susan Sarandon. So, like the original, we based this on solid relationships, and in fact I think we developed some of these relationships to a more mature and deeper place than they were in 1987.

THR: Do you expect a different response in Europe than in America?

Stone: Man, that's always been a tough call. When I did "World Trade Center," in Europe they were really tough on me because they thought it was patriotic. And I was trying to say, "This is a true story! These two guys really went through this, it's an amazing story of survival." They wanted me to make a film that was condemning the American response. But that wasn't the point. With "W.," which was about George Bush, I couldn't condemn him enough. So you never know where Europe is going to be on America. Look, to me this is a movie that's beyond this moment in time. And that's always an issue for me when films open. Because if you make films about social issues you run into the Big Now. The Big Now sometimes can put things in a screwball way.

THR: Have you moved your own money or investments around because of the behavior of the last few years?

Stone: Oh, yeah, like everyone else I took a hit in 2008, yeah. I couldn't escape it because it was almost a comprehensive hit. I mean, the system is out of control. The solution has got to be regulation but there are other issues at stake. The nature of banking has changed. Banking when I did the film in 1987 was not this business it has become. It was boring. At least there were decent rates of return. Now there's no interest rate, they're just raking it in. This is a crazy system.

THR: Do you think there's any hope for financial reform?

Stone: Oh, yeah, I do hope so. There's a self-correcting factor in the market, but there has to be some kind of strong regulation. I really believe in that. And I don't believe these free-market buccaneers are doing us any good. The banks have become buccaneers. Essentially, they've lost their job. They've become something else. I remind you, though, you used to be able to have a savings account and make an interest rate. You cannot do that anymore. That's what is fundamentally wrong for the consumer. It makes you gamble. It makes you part of this casino crap. There are too many casinos in this country, we don't need more.

THR: Do you think you'll be revisiting Wall Street in another 22 years?

Stone: Why not? We left it open at the end in a way on which we can hang a "Wall Street 3." We'll have Gekko back and maybe Josh Brolin, too.
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