Show me the money: Oliver Stone returns to Wall Street

For 30 years, Oliver Stone and his awkward movies got up everyone's noses. But as he brings a reformed Gordon Gekko back to cinemas, could it be that America's most contrary director has gone soft? Not quite...

Oliver Stone still remembers the best piece of financial advice his stockbroker father gave him. "He said, 'Never tell the truth, kiddo. It'll only get you into trouble.'" Whether Stone took heed is another matter. From The Doors to JFK, World Trade Center and W, he's made a career out of telling the truth – the way he sees it – and getting into trouble. "My father was also a believer in keeping a low profile," he adds, a wolfish smile crossing his lips, "which I didn't pay much attention to, obviously."

When we meet, the 64-year-old Stone is dealing with the aftermath of his latest controversy. Just a fortnight earlier, while on a trip to the UK to promote South of the Border, his documentary about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, he'd spent "the most dreamy three days" with his Korean wife Jung and their daughter Tara, visiting Chichester and Bath. Then came the comments he made in an interview with The Sunday Times, regarding Secret History of America – his forthcoming 10-part television series that will be, among other things, "re-examining Hitler and how he came to power".

Clumsily attempting to explain how the series will re-evaluate received versions of recent history, Stone told the interviewer that: "Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people." So why, asked the writer, is there such a focus on the Holocaust? "The Jewish domination of the media," he replied. The outcry was volcanic. "By invoking this grotesque, toxic stereotype, Oliver Stone has outed himself as an anti-Semite," noted American Jewish Committee director David Harris.

Stone was immediately forced to back down. "Jews obviously do not control media or any other industry," he said in a statement. The ferocity of the criticism directed towards him recalled the battering he took in the media 20 years ago for his conspiracy-fuelled Kennedy assassination drama JFK (or Dallas in Wonderland, as some wags dubbed it).

Understandably, Stone is reluctant to return to Secret History – "I've got into enough trouble with this one," he sighs – but was he surprised at the reaction to his comments? "Oh, yes. It's a very sensitive issue. I misspoke and I apologised for it."

What it does show is that there is now a fascinating distinction in Stone's work. Once upon a time, it was his fiction films that drew censure – be it for supposed inaccuracies in his rock bio The Doors or the violent excess of his media satire Natural Born Killers. Now it's his documentaries that are drawing fire: South of the Border was pummelled for giving Chavez an easy ride. And his fiction features? Well, the perceived wisdom is that Stone has gone soft. World Trade Center was a patriotic look at 9/11 from the point of view of two New York firemen, while W was a surprising, empathetic study of George W Bush.

Attacked for being over-the-top, then turned on for not being hard enough – it must be very tiring being Oliver Stone. "I get criticised for being who I am," he sighs, again. "I've accepted that." He admits he wouldn't mind shaking his long-held image as a controversial director. "It would make life simpler for me. I could get financed easier and move on. I think I make good movies. I can take difficult things and make them exciting, with a fluid visual style. It's a shame that I have to go through so much 'kill the messenger'. I wish I could remove myself in a sense from the argument. But it's too late. If I did Bambi, there would be an Oliver Stone 'approach' on Bambi."

With this in mind, Stone is already armed to the teeth when it comes to defending his latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The 1987 original, Stone's first film following his Oscar-winning Vietnam epic Platoon, is arguably one of his most beloved, a rousing celebration of the financial district where his father worked for 50 years. Thanks to his infamous "Greed is good" speech, Michael Douglas's corporate raider Gordon Gekko inadvertently came to symbolise an era of excess – and, in Stone's mind, predicted the current economic gloom. "It took 23 years for it to be very evident. Now people tell me it was a prophetic film, but they weren't saying it then."

If a Hollywood sequel is meant to be more of everything, then, according to Stone, Money Never Sleeps is more personal, more complex and more sombre. Set in 2008, just as the world is on the verge of economic meltdown, it sees Gekko a changed man. "He's aged," says Stone, "and is less shallow. He's a much more mature person." After serving time in jail, Gekko is now an outsider, unable to trade and looking to make amends with his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), an idealistic blogger who – in spite of her distaste for her father's profession – is engaged to a hotshot trader (Shia LaBeouf).

With a soul-searching Gekko on the fringes, Josh Brolin's billionaire hedge-fund manager emerges as the film's de facto villain; but, according to Stone, its real targets are institutions, not individuals. He recalls a conversation with Eliot Spitzer, the former New York attorney general famed for investigating alleged fraudulent business practices in the US insurance giant AIG. "He said, 'Go for the AIGs, go for the Evil Empire' – and he was very direct about it. So that's where we went. We went after the big boys, and I'm glad we did."

Yet when the film premiered in Cannes this year, many felt Stone did not go far enough. Is Money Never Sleeps a missed opportunity? Or a deliberate move on Stone's part? After all, a film set around the recession is hardly cheery box-office fare. "Some people are surprised," says Stone. "They say, 'Wow, you're not attacking Wall Street.' Well, that wasn't the point. The point is people survive these things and find their way. That's what it's about: people who are trying to find the reasons for living, whether it's Gekko or the kids."

Of all the characters in the film, I wonder whether Stone relates most to LaBeouf's Jacob Moore, who is keen to bankroll a company searching for a solution to the energy crisis. His eyes twinkle for a second. "Actually, I'm closer to Shia at that age than I was to Charlie Sheen [who played Gekko's protégé in the original and cameos here]. It's true. I see them as quite different. Charlie was corrupt in the beginning and Shia is not. Shia's character is more of this new generation, which is idealistic, frankly."

Stone was born in New York and grew up as a "rather privileged young man", he says. His father, who worked for Sandy Weill, who built Citigroup, "was never one of the real wealthy people". Yet as a boy, Stone lived in a Manhattan townhouse, enjoyed a prep-school education in Pennsylvania and then two spells at Yale (he quit both times) where he was a classmate of George W Bush. Stone has a cousin who was a professor of economics at Harvard, so was expected to enter the family business. "I got a C-minus in economics," he grins. "My father was upset with me. But I didn't have the interest in money matters."

When he entered the New York University film school in the late 1960s, his father was even less impressed. "Oh, he was very disappointed. He thought it was bullshit."

By this point, Stone had already served his country, emerging from his 15-month tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968 with a bronze star and a purple heart. He admits it was a seminal moment in his life – and not just because it gave him fodder for Platoon, the most personal film of his career, and his two subsequent Vietnam films, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth. "I think it does make you realise the cost of war, and who the supposed enemy is, and the civilian damage."

His experience in Southeast Asia continues to touch him – Stone tried, and failed, to get into production Pinkville, about the My Lai massacre. Little wonder he remains deflated by the US's continuing involvement in foreign affairs. "The politicians are insane," he spits. "The hard-line people will fight wars and declare enemies everywhere in the world. And there's just no way we can make peace." Is he optimistic for the US? "Not at all. The Empire's in its last days. Babylon will fall. It may not fall very elegantly and on time, but it will disintegrate because it's over-stretched and over-burdened." Another truism that will get him into trouble? Maybe. But, like him or not, Oliver Stone has been on the money before.

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' (12A)opens on Wednesday

Stone alone: The director on his most undervalued films

Talk Radio (1988)

An adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play about a contemptuous talk-show host

"It was the most pessimistic movie I made at that time," says Stone. "Nobody saw the movie in America, but it did grow in cult status and it does get played on special stations."

Heaven & Earth (1993)

The true story of a Vietnamese girl who moves to America

"I love Heaven & Earth. Still, for some reason, it brings tears to me. It was an attempt to reach out to the Vietnamese people who suffered so greatly under us."

Nixon (1995)

Richard Milhous Nixon, from young boy to corrupt president

"I also love Nixon. That was not really seen. It was an attempt at a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon – the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies."

U Turn (1997)

A film noir, starring Sean Penn as a luckless drifter

"I was a little burnt-out from the failure of Nixon and I made this – a dark, perverted, crazy little movie. Everybody was a scum-bucket in that movie."

Alexander (2004)

A biopic of Alexander the Great, featuring Colin Farrell

"I made three versions and the last one is the best – the 2007 Alexander Revisited, which is only on DVD. It's three hours and 45 minutes, with an intermission. It's the way it should've been done."

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence