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Natural Born Killers marked its 25th anniversary with a screening to close out Los Angeles’ Beyond Fest 2019 — but it wasn’t the cut filmmaker Oliver Stone had hoped to show audiences Tuesday night.
The anniversary Q&A that also featured stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis and producer Don Murphy felt eerily timely. Natural Born Killers — about a couple on a murder spree — was one of the more controversial films of the 1990s for its portrayal of violence, as some in the media worried that the pic would — and even suggested that it did — incite violence, or copycat crimes. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Todd Phillips’ Joker, which broke records over the weekend, has sparked similar worries.
It’s a comparison Stone brought up Tuesday night, particularly in regard to worry from Warner Bros., which released both films. The director wanted to show the unrated, “much more violent” cut of Natural Born Killers at the Egyptian Theatre screening, but apparently, the studio wouldn’t let him.
“They’re still fucking scared of the movie,” Stone said. “This is 1994. This is 25 years later. They’re so scared of it. They opened Joker this weekend and they’re saying, ‘Well, you can’t show the unrated.’”
It wasn’t the only controversy Stone addressed. The original Natural Born Killers script was written by Quentin Tarantino, who would go on to disown the film after major changes were made to his screenplay. Murphy recalled buying the script before Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs made him a hot commodity, and Stone interjected with his take.
“We did a lot of work on the script,” Stone said. “It was a story by this guy and we took it and we turned it inside out, and we turned it into something else. By that, I mean three of us. [Screenwriters] David Veloz, Richard Rutowski and myself. We worked very hard on it. People always confuse that and it annoys the shit out of me. So I just want to get that straight.”
The topic only seemed to further set Stone off, as the director continued on a spiel to major laughs from the sold-out crowd.
“And by the way, it was a very complicated deal. These two [pointing to Don Murphy and referencing his producing partner Jane Hamsher] made it very difficult because there was a whole legal trail of shit with Mr. QT and blah blah blah. All the bad mouthing. I’m glad the film got made … because nobody at Warner Bros. wanted to make this film. Nobody. Woody was the last choice on their list, thank God. And I got that by. You were number six or something and the other five, of course, passed.”
Harrelson went along with Stone’s energy. “I was just happy to be in the top 10,” the actor quipped.
Stone seemed to cool down after he recalled how he and Lewis got in a few arguments about her physical fitness for the film, with the actress later recalling that the helmer set up a bar in his office for her to do chin-ups.
If the Q&A seemed like it was reuniting a crew of people who went to war together, it was because the making of the pic was almost like that for them. During the filming of the notorious prison sequence, Lewis even had to deal with health issues.
“I had walking pneumonia,” she recalled.
The prison sequence was shot at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, and Stone used real convicts as extras. “The warden was very enlightened,” said the filmmaker. “He said, ‘Let them have fun.’ … The prisoners got their jollies off. They loved it. They got to beat up the cops. They got all this violence. It was fun for them, smoking out the prison.”
Murphy brought up the Unit F as what attracted Stone to the prison, who revealed a dark fact about the men on that unit.
“You find out that every prisoner in Unit F has at least two life sentences,” Stone said.
For Harrelson, the energy in that prison riled him up. “They kept yelling at me, ‘Skinhead!’ and calling me things, and I’d go in and I’d get so mad and be yelling up at these prisoners. I don’t know what the hell was going on,” said the actor.
“I remember when you did the auditions with the prisoners,” Harrelson recalled of Stone. “And so you’d have them do a scene, and they would start improvising and then they would always end up in some kind of violent altercation between themselves. It was fascinating. Really, that was amazing. And he ended up casting quite a number, and some of these guys had done some harrowing things.”
Natural Born Killers was Harrelson’s first time working with Stone, but he revealed he had auditioned for Platoon, Stone’s 1986 war drama. “I had met him years ago, which he probably forgets,” Harrelson said with a laugh. “This is a weird time to tell you.”
For Lewis, it was a pivotal journey as a young actor.
“Our experience on this, if anybody believes in Mercury being in retrograde, it sort of was that kind of set,” she said. “But for me, I was all of 20, going through a nihilistic rite of passage and so it was the perfect film to have a kind of exorcism.”
For Stone, Natural Born Killers was an attempt at exorcising the demons he saw in the media at the time. “The media was bugging me,” he said. “I thought America was going down the tubes with the culture. Everything was changing. It was becoming more and more sensational. Television … has ruined this country.”
In particular, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, of which Stone includes a snippet of at the end of the film, was a major moment of change, where “every station” was broadcasting updates to capitalize on ratings. “Television, as well as entertaining, should be a tool for disseminating some kind of intelligence in the world, and I just think it lost its way,” Stone said.
Stone also did not hold back when speaking about how he thought Warner Bros. handled the anniversary event. “They’re worried that there might be a riot in this theater because of tonight,” he said. “That’s how corporate it gets. And they’re being bought out by AT&T, so they’re scared shitless of AT&T.”
The director even tried to ignite that rebellious fire in the audience: “If you guys riot … so what I’m saying is, riot!”
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