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...
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The Independent Culture

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."