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Edward Snowden was given no script approval, nor did he receive any payment for Snowden, says director Oliver Stone. His new movie tells the story of the former NSA operative and how he came to reveal that the U.S. government was secretly monitoring domestic telephone calls.
The 69-year-old filmmaker and renegade met after Snowden’s Russian lawyer “contacted me because he wanted to sell me his book, which he had written about Snowden,” said Stone. “But it was a fictional book. He had fictionalized it. And it was an interesting Russian novel. Very Dostoevsky. Really it’s about a young man from America who comes over and reveals a 1984 world. I didn’t know at that point in time whether we were going to make a fictional movie with an unnamed character, or else we would make the story as realistic as possible about Snowden, because I didn’t know if Snowden would cooperate.”
STONE Did you ever see it?
STONE It was a deleted scene. He was good. He was good. I have no complaint. There was a lot of demands. I mean, he had two pages of prerequisites that he had to —
GALLOWAY Like what?
STONE Oh, you couldn’t shoot him from this side, that side, but I talked to him. And he’s a charming man in person. I mean, he gets along. You know, he’s a seller.
GALLOWAY You said he was the most confident man you ever met.
STONE Oh, as an actor. He was stunning. Yeah. No, seriously. I couldn’t believe it. You know, we did take one with Michael and [Trump] talking in a barber shop. And he jumped up after the take and he said, “Wasn’t that great?” (Laughter.) You know, he kept doing it. And we kept going because I was deepening the scene as we went. And he didn’t understand nine takes. He’d just done eight, nine takes, he’d never understand it. But every scene, he’d just jump up. He was the same way every time. He didn’t change. But I knew that.
GALLOWAY Was it good?
STONE I said, “It’s OK, Donald. It’s really good.” “But you know, I think we can just do this.” And he’d be disappointed.
GALLOWAY Why did you cut him out of the film?
STONE Because it was a writing issue in terms of — It was too late and too little for where we were, at that point in the movie. And I wasn’t thinking about his future presidency or anything like that. I was just dealing with an editing issue. I should have left it in probably.
GALLOWAY Or bring it back.
STONE You had a somewhat confrontational relationship with Michael Douglas, particularly when you shot the scene with the “greed is good” speech. Why?
STONE Not in the second movie. The second movie was —
GALLOWAY No, no. But I’m talking about the first one.
STONE The first movie. No. At the beginning, we had a rough start. Different styles of approach to [it]. He’d come from TV and he had never seen so much dialogue. And he had a lot of dialogue in the movie. And I don’t think his approach to it was working. We had a confrontation, and he talks about it quite a bit. It sounds like, you know, I’m the bad guy, but —
GALLOWAY No, no, no.
STONE We wouldn’t have been able to make the picture we did unless he changed his approach. And I think he did change the approach as a result. And that’s the way it is, you know. People don’t understand sometimes.
GALLOWAY How do you work with an actor who’s not doing it the way you like?
STONE It’s very hard. Very hard. And I’ve had that problem. There was one female who just never wanted to do that role in that movie. She just didn’t like it. I’m surprised she accepted the role. I guess you know who I’m talking about.
GALLOWAY And so how do you deal with that?
STONE Well, you can’t. You coax her. I mean, everyone on the crew — not everyone. Most of the people in my inner trust wanted to fire her after the first week. I said, “No, it’s going to work.” And I think it did. But it was always reluctant the whole time.
GALLOWAY So here’s what interests me about this film. You’ve been accused of having a somewhat Manichean view of the world.
GALLOWAY You know, there’s black and white and good and bad.
STONE Well, I put more gray in since then. (Laughter.)
GALLOWAY You mean in your films since then?
STONE The fact that you have this fellow who is played by Douglas talking about the reason, his ethos for greed, and justifying it — and there are many people who believe it, that that is the way to improve the American economy, is by whittling out the bad elements. Weed, weed the garden. Keep weeding the garden. There’s a whole argument for it. And that is not black or white. That’s gray. And it gets the sympathy of the audience. In fact, it won Michael the Academy Award. And people, many young brokers went to Wall Street to work, many whom I have met since, who have grown up and told me that they were influenced by my movie. They were going to go to medical school, and they were going to go off and do this or that. And now they went to Wall Street. So you understand, he was a kind of a counter-hero.
GALLOWAY Well, that’s exactly what I was coming to, because —
STONE Well, it’s not black and white is what I’m trying to say.
GALLOWAY Right. My point was, you have been accused of making things black and white. And sometimes you’ve done that. And my point about this film being different is what’s so interesting here is that the devil is so appealing. You know, you watch that film. By the way, when you did Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, every time Michael Douglas is off screen, I wanted him back. And I realized, “Oh my God. We’re in love with the devil.” Is that dangerous?
STONE Well, he’s not the devil in the second movie. And that may have been an issue.
STONE The audience wanted him back as a young — he’s 70 years old, or 65 years old at that point.
GALLOWAY Do you know that line that William Blake said about Paradise Lost? He said, “Milton is of the devil’s party, because he makes Satan so appealing.” So Oliver, are you of the devil’s party, so to speak? (Laughter.)
STONE No, on the contrary. Barnes does the same thing. People were mesmerized by Tom Berenger because he says things that are intelligent. He talks about a reality that he knows. Let’s say he is the bad guy, the villain of the piece. Well, if he gives [a reason] why he was doing what he was doing, then I think it’s much more interesting than he’s just doing it because he’s a sadist. That’s why in Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory justify themselves in their way. And in the new movie, Snowden, you’ll see the NSA people have some very interesting arguments. And I think a lot of people in the audience appreciate that. So it isn’t black and white to me. If it were, that would be more of the comic book, Marvel kind of movie.
GALLOWAY I just want to briefly touch on Natural Born Killers, because it was a very controversial film.
STONE It sure was.
GALLOWAY For two reasons. One, you had some conflict with Quentin Tarantino, who had written it.
STONE Whoa, whoa, whoa. He wrote a script. We extensively rewrote it.
GALLOWAY Right. What were his objections, and have you ever reconciled with him?
STONE No. (Laughter.) No.
STONE I don’t think he’s bothered to see the movie.
STONE We didn’t even have to pay him because the producers had the rights. It was a complicated story, but I insisted on paying him and being honorable with him. And —
GALLOWAY There was this other issue, which was —
STONE — It’s still painful for me. He did hurt the movie everywhere in the world with what he said, but he never saw it, so I don’t understand. I think it was about an ego, because you know, he’d been rewritten. I think that’s what it was about. And I don’t think he even bothered to reread the script. But in this business, having come from where I was as a writer, you know, I’ve been rewritten. But I didn’t go public with condemnations.
STONE There’s a story in here about 8 Million Ways to Die. Now that it’s many years later, you saw how outrageous the behavior was in the rewrite. That happens in Hollywood. Sometimes people have no trust in the writer. I liked his script. It was the basis for which we bought it. I liked it. But it wasn’t going all the way where I wanted to go, which was a social commentary on our f—ed up system at that time. Which was getting crazier and crazier in 1993, ’94. The United States started to really get into a sensationalism that was beyond extraordinary to me. It was, from my perspective, it was like, “This is getting nuts now when we have all these sensationalistic trials in the news. We have no real news. We have just murder and sensationalism.” And the O.J. Simpson trial happened, which was the most prodigious event in television history in terms of money. O.J. Simpson was everywhere on every channel. It was insane. There was no perspective anymore. It’s like when Clinton, later on that decade, got impeached. It took over all the news. I mean, there was no policy discussions at a very crucial point in our history when we had to make decisions that were internationally impactful. Huge, huge impact. We were ignoring it and paying attention to the Clinton blowjob thing. You tell me. I mean, I think that is a major issue.
GALLOWAY I agree with you.
STONE That’s why I did Natural Born Killers. It is a real problem in this country. We have no attention span for news, and understanding, trying to go deeper.
GALLOWAY That intersected with a real-life copycat killing that resembled the characters in the film. Were you upset by that?
STONE No. There was no copycat killing. That’s what the press called it. There was never any proof that anyone had seen the film and acted directly upon it, any more than the guy who killed John Lennon was acting on the Bible. I mean, that was an easy shot to take. And John Grisham took it. And he supported the major lawsuit. And it went on for seven years or something like that. It was very expensive. And we had to defend our right to make the movie. Basically their argument was that the films were a product like a vacuum cleaner. And that if the vacuum cleaner blows up and hurts you, you get a lawsuit. So he was saying the movie had that effect on these people, and that we owed damages to the people that it killed, and so forth and so on. It’s an impossible argument. But he managed to string it out. And he took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They didn’t want to hear it. Went back to Federal, and eventually, eventually it was thrown out. But it took a lot of money. Also, I spent my money, too. And Warner Bros.’ money to defend this suit. It would have affected everybody in Hollywood. I mean, nobody was paying attention. They didn’t care. But you would not be able to make a movie, essentially, if you have a product liability against it.
GALLOWAY Is there any movie you’ve not been able to make because you feel the system has prevented it, as opposed to, well, there’s just not the money.
STONE Well, the system doesn’t gravitate toward criticism of America, as you know from the My Lai story. In the 1970s it was different. After that Vietnam period, there was this tremendous disillusionment. And there were critical films about the United States’ way of life. Very critical. That vanished. By the ’80s and ’90s, when Mr. Reagan came in and we were glorifying the Vietnam War again, et cetera, et cetera, and we were going back into wars, we started building up our military. We sent 500,000 people to this Middle East again in 1991, because Iraq had invaded Kuwait. All of these things grew and grew. And [now] we’ve reached another level in our society of almost insane patriotism again.
GALLOWAY You know, if you are foreign, as I am, it’s very evident.
STONE Those are the issues you can’t address in movies. That’s what you were asking. That’s one of the reasons that Snowden is about an American person who, whatever you think of him, he was an American story. And we couldn’t tell it. No studio would support this movie. Why? Because he was a hot potato in 2014. And although the script was admired and people wanted to make it, they said at the studio level, whatever, they said, “Well, I have to run it upstairs,” because they no longer are in charge of their own studios. You have to realize that. So they run it to the corporate boards that run these gigantic megalopolises that own these studios. And the lawyers always say, “No, no, no. This is going to be a lawsuit, controversial.” Or, “We have a pending deal with the U.S. Government Department of Justice. We want to merge with XYZ, and that merger’s worth $30 billion or $100 billion to us. We don’t want to have any problems with the government.” So it becomes self-censorship by the private corporations not to antagonize in any way Mr. Obama or the DOJ.
GALLOWAY You’ve made three films, I think three, about presidents: JFK, Nixon, W. Was it easy to raise the money, or difficult to raise the money for those films?
STONE JFK I sold as a thriller to Warner Bros. They were excited beyond belief to make it. But they made it and we got it made. It was a delightful experience. Not a delightful, but I mean, it was a supportive experience. Then, of course, it became very controversial and Warner Bros. defended the movie. But they did not defend Natural Born Killers the same way. They didn’t promote it the same way. So by that time, I think they were exhausted over me. So my best studio relationship was with Warner Bros., but it didn’t continue.
GALLOWAY I want to show a scene from JFK. And even people who don’t agree with you admire just the sheer filmic quality of this. This is quite a long scene. Here is the moment when John F. Kennedy is assassinated, which also uses, I think, the original Zapruder film, right?
GALLOWAY And you can tell everybody about that. So here’s that sequence. It’s really amazing filmmaking.
GALLOWAY Wow. Not bad for a beginner, right? That is brilliant filmmaking. I know you don’t like hearing me saying nice things, because you say, “Oh, that sycophant” —
STONE I do. I do. Where do you get this idea?
GALLOWAY OK. I just think it’s extraordinary filmmaking, and I’ve watched that many times. It’s dazzling. How do you go about conceiving of a sequence like that that has so much going on in terms of narrative, sound, color, slow motion, music? I don’t know if that was the original Zapruder film. If so, how’d you get the rights to it, or if it was all the re-creation? Walk us through how you created it.
STONE Well, a lot of the source of this is anger. There’s obviously, you feel anger, your passion. Because I think the American public was blind. I mean, they accepted this bullshit, this Warren Commission. Anyway, aside from that, this was deep into the movie, so we had already developed this technique. It gets stronger and stronger as it goes. Remember, it’s context. So we start somewhere and this is the climax area. And by this time, we’re rolling on all cylinders, right? The staging was complicated. Yes. We had cameras all over the place. And we had to do it so many times. I have to tell you, that was hard for me, because we must have done it 20 times in downtown Dallas, with the full motorcade. So you could hear the shots —
GALLOWAY So you re-created, actually at Dealey Plaza?
STONE The karma involved. But I only would do that if I felt we were doing the right thing. If I felt this was a false narrative, I would not have done it. It’s just very difficult. Believe me. Those people in Dallas that year will always remember this movie company. And you know, we had to be very tricky, in the sense that we did get permission to shoot from the seventh floor.
STONE Not the sixth. Seventh floor. So our perspectives had to be realigned a bit —
GALLOWAY So Lee Harvey Oswald was actually on the sixth floor, and you shot from the seventh?
STONE Lee Harvey Oswald was not on the sixth floor. He was downstairs on the second floor at the Coke machine actually when this happened. And this is the great narrative that keeps getting spilled, that Oswald was there. But he wasn’t, because somebody saw him 90 seconds later at the Coke machine, and he could not have run down from those stairs and done what he did, stashed the rifle, did all this stuff. And you have to go into the Warren Commission to realize how phony it is. But it’s so upsetting. It still upsets me when I see it today. Yes. [Jim] Garrison brought out the Zapruder film at the trial. It was one of his great services. And of course, the trial, the people were found not guilty, but you know, there was so much evidence presented that’s outside the narrow confines of those people who worked for the government. It’s a much bigger story. And he allowed that can of worms a little bit of light on it. And I think that’s the greatest service he did, going public with that.
GALLOWAY But I wanted you to explain how you make this as a filmmaker? Does everybody know what the Zapruder film is that we’re talking about?
STONE The Zapruder film was shot actually there and then. That’s the real footage.
GALLOWAY It’s the real footage of Kennedy being shot.
STONE And some of the interstices, you can see that we’re using actors for some of the angles that we couldn’t get through the Zapruder film.
GALLOWAY So how do you obtain rights to the Zapruder film?
STONE Well, that was complicated. As I remember, we paid good money for it. And I don’t remember all who, exactly, but by that time, this was the second generation of JFK researchers. So there was a community of people who knew how to get these things.
GALLOWAY And did you map this out on a storyboard before you did it?
STONE Well, we did the storyboard, but it was in the script. A lot of this style was in that script. It elaborates, but the script definitely tells you where it’s going. In fact, that reminds me of a story I forgot. When we first gave the script to Warren Brothers, very smartly took out a lot of the intercutting because I realized that it was so f—ing confusing. So we tried to make it a little simpler. They loved it. And then we went back as we were shooting, and we put back the, you know, we did it that way. It’s a bit of subterfuge, but I don’t think they minded. Our budget and our schedules remained pretty good. We were on schedule.
GALLOWAY Do you let your editor have a first go and then you come in, or do you sit with him?
STONE No. First of all, there were four editors on this. All of them very good. All of them good. So we talked way before, and we’re talking, and they know what’s coming in. And generally speaking, during the shooting, they’re going at it. But no. This was a very complicated movie. Five months of editing. That was all. And we were coming out in December, which was in our favor because I said, “Listen, if we ever show this film in its completed format to the preview audience, or to the [studio], there’s going to be so many questions raised. ‘What’s this?’ ‘What’s that?’ It’s going to be a mess. We’ll never get out of a preview alive.” So by having that short Christmas turnaround, we were able to avoid that. We showed it to Warners. They liked it, except for a couple of executives who said that we needed a preview. And we avoided that death by guillotine.
STONE It took off like wildfire. I was quite stunned. I thought it was the end of my career. I mean, what the hell. Might as well go down in flames, right? Take a shot. Because you don’t want to go down for something minor.
GALLOWAY Your portrait, your sort of idealized portrait of Jim Garrison, the Kevin Costner character, was very criticized. Did you expect that?
STONE I knew Jim and, of course, I knew about his womanizing and stuff like that, but I thought he was a hell of a DA. And when I was in the streets of New Orleans — I think that he’s been judged unfairly by the elite press. And certainly the CIA played a huge role in that. And they were on this case from the beginning. They were out to derail him. But the truth was, wherever I went with anybody who — street people loved him. He was respected. And he had integrity. He was known in a very corrupt community as one of the best DAs they ever had. In fact, he was re-elected. After he had been sullied by the U.S. government, he was re-elected as a judge. Big Jim. He was a star in New Orleans. I’ll never forget that.
GALLOWAY When you thought, “My career is over,” how did you react? Did you think, “Well, I can make little indie films.” Did you think, “I’d better go back to writing novels?”
STONE You’re talking about if this film had failed?
GALLOWAY Well, you said, “I thought my career was over.”
STONE I mean, I was gambling. It would all have been a bit of a lark anyway. I’d had luck. I mean, Salvador was made under the worst conditions, with no money. You know my history of that. I mean, if I survived Salvador, I can — stumbled into Platoon, and that was very tough to make, as you know. And one thing after another. And then you know, you get a little luck, you keep riding away. Don’t stop. Don’t think. Keep moving. So I stumbled from here into Heaven and Earth right after, which was a big film. And beautiful. I love that movie. You mentioned it earlier.
GALLOWAY Yes. Very much.
STONE It did no business in the U.S.
STONE There was no interest in the Asian side of the story. And then I did the Natural Born Killers, which was, as I said, really controversial, too. So by that time, I got to Nixon. When I got Nixon, Warners didn’t want to do business with me anymore. There was a divorce there.
GALLOWAY You had another divorce with your longtime cameraman, Bob Richardson.
STONE Well, there’s many reasons. One of them was, he and I had been fighting a bit since Natural Born Killers, because he had reservations about making it. He thought it was too violent. And Bob got into a phase of nonviolence. He’s always been a worshipper of Hindu, of Ganesh and stuff like that. And he was a sincere man, and very disgusted by violence. Ironically, we made Natural Born Killers, and he did a great job. And we also did U Turn, which he also hated. And he became very tough to deal with for me. Very outspoken man. And there comes a point when you know, you can’t — it doesn’t work any longer. We’d done how many films together? I don’t know. Ten. And the irony of the whole thing is that later in time, he goes to work with Marty [Scorsese] and with Tarantino, and makes some of the most violent movies I’ve ever seen.
GALLOWAY (Laughs.) I know.
STONE Obviously, he had a change of heart, but I have to say, I was stunned when I saw this Django. That was it. So many people were slaughtered in that.
GALLOWAY Django Unchained. But you also shifted your style somewhat, because you went from being a fairly classical filmmaker to more impressionistic. And then to an almost hallucinatory style in Natural Born Killers. I wonder if your drug period influenced that.
STONE No. No, you’re forgetting the film that I made called The Doors, you know. In the heart of this was The Doors. And I’m sorry it got rushed in there, but it really was a huge film. To make The Doors and JFK in the same year was pretty big. The Doors was extremely psychedelic. And I’d had quite a bit of experience already with the psychedelics. And I went on with it with the Indians, Navajo and Sioux. Took a lot of trips. Went to Brazil, to Ayahuasca. You know, so I’d always been interested in that. It didn’t affect my work habits. I always kept my nose to the screenplay. Always working. And I have to say, that’s another issue about drugs, that it’s I think completely misunderstood. The cliche predominates. Like Oswald was on the sixth floor. You know, that’s a cliche.
STONE I don’t think like that. I’m outside that realm. So I can’t defend it, and no one will understand it unless you’re a part of it. But certainly, they helped my life enormously, to get through things, to understand things better. They healed the wounds, too. And I’m, see, I was able to film them, a lot of them. So I benefitted from it. Excesses did exist. Yes. My period of cocaine was terrible for me. Didn’t realize it until it was over. But that was 1979 to ’82 I suffered from that. And I thought my writing was getting worse. At least I recognized it before it was too late. And I stopped. Now, in Scarface, I did all the research on Scarface. All of it. And then when I went to write it in Europe, I went cold turkey completely. Never touched it again.
GALLOWAY Do you think of yourself as more as a writer or director?
STONE I hate cocaine. What? (Laughter.) I really do.
GALLOWAY I’m glad you told our young audience that. Do you think of yourself —
STONE But I’m saying, I think everyone has to go through it if they’re going to go through it. You have to. But hopefully you get away from it, because I don’t — it’s such a dangerous, slippery drug. Anyway, there’s — what are you saying? (Laughter.)
GALLOWAY I promised Janet [Stone’s assistant] I wasn’t going to go down this path.
STONE Oh, really? I mean, people have accused me of numerous things.
STONE Like Willie Nelson, I’ve enjoyed my life. (Laughter.)
GALLOWAY Let’s talk about Snowden, because it seems to return to classical Oliver Stone, where the editing is quite sober. There’s a great focus on character. We have two brief clips that people have not seen.
GALLOWAY How did this come about?
STONE The movie.
STONE I didn’t know if I wanted to get involved. I always certainly admired what he did because I think, I felt strongly that this was going on. I sensed it, and I think a lot of us did. And I think he proved it. And he proved it worse, that it was worse than we thought. And the depth of his findings have still to be completely revealed. It’s a monstrous turnaround for our country. Anyway, those are the feelings of a citizen. But as a filmmaker, I have another role to play, and that’s to tell a story. And I have to divorce — as you know, I did a movie about George Bush, where I was criticized for being, I think, empathetic to him.
STONE Which is to say not sympathetic, because I think he was the worst, one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had. Next to — but anyway. (Laughter.)
GALLOWAY Next to who?
STONE Next to — No.
GALLOWAY Next to who?
STONE Please, Stephen. Let’s stick to the point.
GALLOWAY OK. (Laughter.) Obama? Don’t worry. I’m just teasing you.
STONE I’m trying to say that, with Nixon, whom my father had doubts about— I think Nixon was also a disaster. I really do. And he betrayed the Vietnam War completely. But in that movie, you saw a man who was suffering, much more so than George Bush. George Bush did not have that degree of compassion, degree of torture, of self-torture at all. He was not a conscious man that way. So I loved those two, they’re two portraits of people that are empathetic. Walk in their shoes. In other words, I’m not taking positions. I’m walking in those shoes. That’s my job. I’m a dramatist. Same thing with Snowden. There’s going to be arguments for, against, hero, traitor, all that stuff. I’m really not interested. I know what I think, but I wanted to show the story using scenes like that brief scene that — there was a cut in there, but it was OK — this fellow who’s talking to him, he was his teacher back at the CIA. He was his original teacher, and he comes back into the story because he works in the Intel Roundtable. And he plays the role of stating, to some degree, the NSA position here. Security. Americans don’t care about security. And that is a key argument. And he makes it. He also says it elsewhere. He talks about the Iraq War in very realistic terms. He talks about the commitment to defend the country. This is a big issue, of course. I talk to people all the time and they tell me, “Well, I want security. I want security.” They don’t realize that it’s at any cost. And anyway. The point is it’s never simple, this whole thing. And the Snowden movie was attacked that way. Let’s tell it as we think it happened, off the public sources, off journalism, off of Snowden’s observations, as well as much, a lot of the book —
GALLOWAY But you said you weren’t actually going to do it, so why did you decide to do it? What was the thinking?
STONE Oh, yeah. Well, when I met him, he certainly was — he was wary. I was wary. We met in Moscow, and it took more meetings over the course of the next few months before we both felt comfortable enough to go ahead. And we went ahead. Then it became a real slog, because it was hard work. He’s a very smart young man, and very courageous, obviously. But he wants it straight. He wants to get as much as he can straight. So he was correcting a lot of stuff in the screenplay. You know, there are so many cliches about computer work and the NSA, so we tried to make it as realistic as possible, given the means of movies.
GALLOWAY Did he have any kind of script approval?
GALLOWAY Did you have to buy his life rights from him or something?
STONE No. The book that was written by The Guardian. We paid The Guardian.
GALLOWAY So go back to your first meeting. How do you set up a meeting like that?
STONE He said, incidentally, in Comic-Con. You were there, I think.
STONE Oh, OK. Well, he did say that he accepted in his heart that a movie would get made. And he said that it was sort of an inevitability about a movie getting made, that he doesn’t have any rights because he’s in exile, and so forth and so on. So he knew that.
GALLOWAY So how did you set up that first meeting?
STONE The first meeting was set up through the Russian lawyer, who had contacted me because he wanted to sell me his book, which he had written about Snowden. But it was a fictional book. He had fictionalized it. And it was an interesting Russian novel. Very Dostoevsky in the sense that it’s all — none of it is realistic. Really it’s about a young man from America who comes over and reveals a 1984 world. Very Orwell. And fascinating conversations. I didn’t know at that point in time whether we were going to make a fictional movie with an unnamed character, or else we would make the story as realistic as possible about Snowden, because I didn’t know if Snowden would cooperate.
GALLOWAY And where did you meet, and what was that first conversation about?
STONE Where? We met in Moscow.
GALLOWAY In a restaurant? In a public place?
STONE No, no, no. In a secure place I can’t reveal.
GALLOWAY OK. Just the two of you?
STONE Yes. Yes.
GALLOWAY What surprised you about him?
STONE At the first meeting? Would be his wariness. I don’t think he was comfortable with the idea of a movie at that point. He’s into reality, and the concept of a movie is so foreign to him. I think he had seen a piece of The Untold History of the United States, which I’d done. That was that 12-part series. And I think he was impressed with it.
GALLOWAY And you said that was the first meeting. Did he change his view in the next meetings?
STONE Yeah. We got, it got warmer. It took time.
GALLOWAY Was there anything he strongly objected to in the original script?
STONE There were things, but we, you know, we talked about —
GALLOWAY Did you have to show it to the CIA or did you have to run it past any —
GALLOWAY No. (Laughter.)
STONE You know, I went there years ago with Platoon. I went to the Pentagon. I got their notes and it was hilarious. You should see it.
STONE Every use of an expletive was — it’s an idealized form of behavior. Unfortunately, it’s taken hold in the movie business. What you’re seeing is bullshit. And a lot of the war pictures you see, you don’t get, you know, you get it after the Pentagon has sanitized it. And they lie. They lie. As long as it is pro-American, that’s all that matters. I mean, whatever. The Taliban. I mean, Lone Survivor, you can kill 20, 30 Taliban for every American who gets it. It’s overdone. American Sniper is another one. . So the Pentagon has taken over. CIA has taken over Hollywood in that sense. 24. Homeland. It’s all CIA. It’s just bullshit. I mean, honestly. We’re, we, America is fed bullshit and we buy it. No other alternative.
GALLOWAY Did you get any attempt at interference from the CIA, the NSA?
STONE Did I get interference? No. And the CIA? No. I hope not. (Laughter.)
GALLOWAY None that you’re aware of.
STONE None that I’m aware of. No.
GALLOWAY They weren’t tapping your phones while you’re talking to Snowden or anything?
STONE I assumed they might, but we proceeded on the basis of we’re making a movie. We went there on that basis and, as I said, I think the biggest problem in the end turned out to be the self-censorship of scared American corporations. And that’s the truth about our society.
GALLOWAY What is the proof of that, as opposed to maybe they just didn’t think this was commercial?
STONE Do you really believe that? At the price we were offering, and the script the way it was, it’s very hard to believe, considering the pact that they make, there wasn’t a political factor.
GALLOWAY Every studio turned you down?
GALLOWAY What about actors?
STONE No. No, it was never an actor movie in that way. I had gone to Joseph [Gordon-Levitt], who was not considered a star at that time. And I had gone to Joseph early, and I said, “I think you’re the only one who can do this.” It was probably a mistake, but I —
GALLOWAY He’s very, very good.
STONE He turns out to be very good. And Shailene Woodley wrote me a beautiful letter and wanted to be in the movie. But if I’d gone the star system, it might have been very difficult. You’re right.
GALLOWAY Last question. Then we’re going to open it up. What was your toughest moment in making the film once the money was in place?
STONE Oh, it’s a catalog of horrors, you know.
STONE But basically, you know, we made it. We started in the winter. We shot it in Germany because we based it as a German company. My producer wanted to be out of the United States to make it. And I could not get [a completion bond]. We had no money to complete. When you work for a studio, you generally can get some, right?
GALLOWAY Extra money.
STONE You get help. And during the course of the movie, I knew my mother was on her way out. And I’d said goodbye before I left, but I was in Germany when she passed. And I couldn’t go back for the funeral because I would have had to cut like four days of film. And we couldn’t afford it. We were so tight. That was hard. Among other things.
GALLOWAY Well, thank you. It’s a terrific film.
STONE Thank you, Stephen.
GALLOWAY We’re going to take questions. We have to be brief, because we started a little late.
STONE Brief answers.
QUESTION I wanted to ask a question about the — the way I thought about this was about W., which you mentioned very briefly. You know, there’s lots of complications that happen when you are making a movie for all sorts of different reasons. Financing falls through, schedules get delayed, actors drop out, whatever. But you know, the thing that I wanted to know is: You made W. before the Bush presidency was over. And it was before the entire story in some people’s minds had gotten a chance to be told. And I’m sure you had a reason to do it that way, but in general, with all sorts of different stories, you know —
GALLOWAY You must synthesize the question because we just don’t have time. Go ahead.
QUESTION Platoon, Salvador, Wall Street, W. What is the purpose of telling a story at a specific point in time?
STONE OK. Quick answer to that would be, Bush was the most definitive president we’d ever had. He took us to a new level. I was shocked by the 2004, his victory, his re-election in 2004 shocked, because he’d been — it was such a disaster in Iraq, even by then. And people were not picking up on it. As you know, the election turned on a lot of absurdity about John Kerry being, you know, a pansy, this, that. So I wanted to make it because this was a key change in our country. And I was so moved by this presidency that I made The Untold History of the United States. It took me five years. And I did it for Showtime. It starts in 1897. I wanted to know why this George Bush had succeeded. How, what is wrong with our country? So I went back to 1890s when we became an imperialist power in the Philippines and Cuba and so forth. We traced it. My historian and I, we traced it all through World War II. And then the acceleration after World War II into the national security state. I got the whole history of the U.S. And I’ve always, I never had studied history like that in college. So it was like a post-graduate degree. It was my third college experience. That’s what I meant. So that was important. But also, we went with Bush because our story ends — If you look at the film closely, it ends for sure in 2004, which is four years before we made the film. We knew the Iraq War was the key. When he went in there, it was over because it was illogical. He’d defied all sense. He got his own way. He finally won his victory. That was his victory over his father, over those years. So a lot of the movie is about how this guy got to be president. OK?
GALLOWAY Do you have another president you want to make a movie about?
STONE No. I’m done.
GALLOWAY Not Clinton. Not Obama. Not —
GALLOWAY Next question, please.
STONE Maybe George Washington.
QUESTION I just wanted to ask, you talked about how when you were beginning, you know, it was like do or die. You were starving. You were being a taxi driver slash porn director. Producer, sorry. And I just really want to know, when you were first starting out, what steps did you take to eventually get jobs writing screenplays such as Scarface, and directing Platoon and Salvador. And once you were successful, what did you do to keep yourself above water?
STONE Well, quickly, I think I said it. That I had temporary jobs. I was making a little bit of money. My wife was working. So we combined and we had enough resources to keep going. And I was writing one to two screenplays a year. Kept sending them out, sending them out. They were getting recycled. One day, it was a social connection, introduced me to an Italian producer who actually liked the screenplay. It was about the Patty Hearst kidnapping. It was a treatment. And he hired me. I wrote the screenplay. And he brought me to Hollywood. And he put me with this partner. And this partner turns out to be Robert Bolt, who was the biggest screenwriter of that time. Englishman, socialist, very enlightened man. And he had done Lawrence of Arabia, The Mission, and Doctor Zhivago, and so forth. Very good writer. He taught me a lot. He redlined my script and I learned a lot in those weeks with him, but the film didn’t get financed. That was the start of an agent, a good agent. And then one thing or another, I ended up getting the assignment. I wrote Platoon in ’76, which was very much admired, but not made for 10 years. And then I ended up, because of those things, getting an assignment to write Midnight Express on a very low budget.
QUESTION I am a screenwriting major and a freshman. And I was wondering in your opinion, what the difference is between a great story and a movie-worthy story.
STONE Oh. A great story and a movie-worthy story. What kind of answer are you looking for? (Laughter.) I mean, if I had a great story, I think it could be movie-worthy. I think they match up, don’t they? I thought the JFK murder would have been a great story. I mean, it would be a great movie, too. But I’m the only one who thought that at that time. And most people were avoiding it, right? It was too complex.
STONE And I’d never shied from complexity. The Snowden affair is so complex when you get into all the — who cares about all this computer shit? I mean, it drives you crazy. Code breaking, code writing. But it’s very serious. Cyber warfare is a very serious thing. But no one understands it. I mean, it’s really mind-boggling. So we have to deal with it. And you imagine, re-imagine it in movie terms. There’s no movie in the world right now that can show you what a computer really does. We have to use our imagination.
GALLOWAY I heard you wrote your first draft longhand, so you’re not really a computer person. Is that true?
STONE No. I write my first draft longhand always.
QUESTION Good afternoon. My question is, was there anything unexpected about the Snowden revelations?
STONE Yeah. There was a lot of unexpected —
QUESTION — given the history of programs such as Total Information Awareness.
STONE That was an old one. Yeah.
QUESTION And Cointelpro. Was this NSA spying unexpected necessarily?
STONE As I said, a lot of people suspected that something like this was going on, but we never had [proof]. In 2004, James Risen tried to break the story in The New York Times about mass eavesdropping. He had the story. The Times refused to print it, and it was right before the [re-]election of Bush. It was outrageous.
STONE And they buried the story because Bush asked them to. It finally came out in a book, and they published it in late 2005. We heard about mass eavesdropping. That was pretty good. But it wasn’t until Snowden that they really got the goods, including not just telephone, but the whole works. And cyber warfare, too. This is very important. I repeat: People are not quite aware of it yet, but it’s taken over the world.
GALLOWAY Has Snowden seen the film?
GALLOWAY What was his reaction?
STONE He saw it twice, I believe, and I think he was very helpful the first time, and I think very pleased. I’m not going to put words in his mouth.
GALLOWAY He didn’t ask you to change anything.
GALLOWAY Good. Oliver, thank you so much.
STONE I’m just happy to be here.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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