Oliver Stone is not a fan of “cancel culture”. “Of course I despise it,” the Oscar winning filmmaker says, as if utterly amazed that anyone needs to ask him such a dumb question. “I am sure I’ve been cancelled by some people for all the comments I’ve made…. it’s like a witch hunt. It’s terrible. American censorship in general, because it is a declining, defensive, empire, it (America) has become very sensitive to any criticism. What is going on in the world with YouTube and social media,” he rants. “Twitter is the worst. They’ve banned the ex-President of the United States. It’s shocking!” he says, referring to Donald Trump’s removal from the micro-blogging platform.
It’s a Saturday lunchtime in the restaurant of the Marriott Hotel on the Croisette in Cannes. The American director is in town for the festival premiere this week of his new feature documentary JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, in which he yet again pores over President John F Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
“I am a pin cushion for American-Russian peace relations… I had four f***ing vaccines: two Sputniks and two Pfizers,” Stone gestures at his arm. The rival super-powers may remain deeply suspicious of one another, but Stone is loading himself up with potions from both sides of the old Iron Curtain.
He has recently been travelling in Russia (hence the Sputnik jabs) where he has been making a new documentary about how nuclear power can save humanity. He also recently completed a film about Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev which – like his interviews with Vladimir Putin – has been roundly ridiculed for its deferential, softly-softly approach toward a figure widely regarded as a ruthless despot.
Dressed in a blue polo shirt, riffing away about the English football team one moment and his favourite movies the next, laughing constantly, the 74-year-old Oscar-winning director of Platoon, Wall Street, Natural Born Killers et al is a far cheerier presence than his reputation as a purveyor of dark conspiracy thrillers might suggest. He is also very outspoken. For all his belligerence, though, Stone isn’t as thick-skinned as you might imagine. I wonder if he was hurt by the scorn that came his way when his feature film JFK was released in 1991.
“I was more of a younger man. It was painful to me,” the director sighs as he remembers being attacked by such admired figures as newscaster Walter Cronkite and Hollywood power broker Jack Valenti for listening to the “hallucinatory bleatings” of former New Orleans DA Jim Garrison when JFK came out. “It was quite shocking actually because I thought the murder was behind us. I did think there was a feeling that 30 years later, we can look at this thing again without getting excited. But I was way wrong.”
Garrison, of course, was the real-life figure portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film; he was the original proponent of the theory that the CIA were involved in the killing of the US president, after his 1966 investigation. Garrison wrote the book On the Trail of the Assassins, on which the movie was partly based.
Even the director’s fiercest detractors will find it hard to dismiss the evidence he has assembled about the JFK assassination in the new documentary. Once I’d seen it and heard him hold forth, I came away thinking that only flat-earthers can possibly still believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy all on his own. It’s that convincing.
Stone blitzes you with facts and figures about the Kennedy killing and its aftermath. At times, he himself seems to be suffering from information overload. “I am sorry. There are so many people,” he apologises for not immediately remembering the name of Kennedy’s personal physician, George Burkley, who was present both at Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was first taken, and then at Bethesda, where the autopsy took place. Burkley was strangely reticent when giving evidence to the Warren Commission.
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“I think there’s still a presence out there which reminds people not to speak. I’ve heard that in, of all places, Russia,” Stone says. He was startled to discover that the Russians knew all about his new documentary long before it was discussed in the mainstream press. “They said, ‘We heard about it.’ I said, ‘How?’ They said, ‘We have our contacts in the American intelligence business. They are not very happy about it.’”
Stone believes that no US president since Kennedy died has been “able to go up against this militarised sector of our economy”. Even Trump “backed down at the last second” and declined to release all the relevant documents relating to the assassination. “He announced, ‘I’m going to free it up, blah blah blah, big talk, and then a few hours before, he caved to CIA National Security again.”
The veteran filmmaker expresses his frustrations at historians like Robert Caro, author of a huge (and hugely respected) multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson, for ignoring the evidence that has been turned up about the assassination.
“I can’t say [LBJ] was involved in the assassination,” explains Stone, “but it certainly suited him that Kennedy was not there anymore and he covered up by appointing the Warren Commission and doing all the things he did.”
Stone tried to cast Marlon Brando in JFK in the role as the deep throat source Mr X, eventually played by Donald Sutherland.
“I realise now I am grateful that he turned it down because he knew better than I that he would make 20 minutes out of that 14-minute monologue and it wouldn’t have worked.”
Nevertheless, he filled the film with famous faces. He thought that having familiar actors would make it easier for audiences to engage with what was an immensely complicated story.
Getting Stone to stop talking about JFK is like trying to pull a bone from a mastiff’s jaws. To change the subject slightly, I ask if he is still in touch with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He is and is utterly horrified at how Assange is being treated, especially given that Siggi the Hacker, a key witness in the extradition case against Assange, admitted recently that he lied. Stone praises Assange’s partner Stella Morris as “the best wife you could ever have. She really is smart, she’s a lawyer … he has two children. He can’t even touch them or see them. It’s barbaric. It indicates America is declining faster than we know. It is just cutting off dissent.”
The mood lightens when I invite Stone to discuss some of his favourite films. He recently tweeted a list of these, which included Darling starring Julie Christie, Joseph Losey’s Eva starring Stanley Baker and Jeanne Moreau, and Houseboat, a frothy comedy starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. “I love films, always have. People don’t know that side of me. I could go on forever.”
Between his darker and more contentious efforts, Stone has made a few genre films himself, for example the underrated thriller U-Turn starring Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez. He notes, though, that even when he tried a sports movie, he ended up right back in the firing line. The NFL was furious about his 1999 American Football film, Any Given Sunday. “They (the NFL) are arrogant, very rich people who close down any dissent, so I had to change uniforms and names… but they got the point.”
Last year, Stone published the first volume of his autobiography, Chasing the Light, which took him from childhood up to his Oscar triumph with Platoon. It was well received but it didn’t make nearly a big enough splash for his liking. “There was a curtain of silence about that. Maybe it is Covid… it was not reviewed by many people,” he says. “I wish the timing had been better. The publisher was terrible. They didn’t really promote anything. So now I have to start over again if I am going to do a second book, which I would love to do. But I have to find the right publisher.”
The book contains a barbed account of Stone’s experiences as a young screenwriter working in London for British director Alan Parker and producer David Puttnam on Midnight Express. “I wrote about it in the book, so you got my point of view. They were not very friendly people. I gave my criticism of Parker that he had a chip on his shoulder. He was from a poor side of the English. There is this phenomenon you see in England of hating the upper classes until they approve of you.”
No, they didn’t stay in touch. “And Puttnam is a Lord, right? He reminds me of Tony Blair. He is such a weasel.” For once, Stone feels he has overstepped the mark. He doesn’t want to call Puttnam a weasel after all. “Put it this way, Tony Blair is a weasel. I wouldn’t trust Tony Blair. Puttnam is a supporter of Blair. Let’s leave it at that.”
On matters English, he isn’t that keen on soccer either. He watched the semi-final between England and Denmark but had no intention of tuning into the final.
“Soccer is a different kind of game. It’s a different aesthetic. It is constant movement. The United States game allows you to re-group after every play and go into a huddle and so it becomes about strategy. I still enjoy it although people think I am brutal.”
Ask him why he so relishes American Football and he replies that he “grew up with violence in America … we were banging – cowboys and Indians, a lot of killing and that stuff. How do you get away from that? We weren’t playing with dolls.”
Stone’s feelings about the US are deeply ambivalent. He is old enough to remember a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s when “everything in America was golden” and part of him still seems to love the country but his mother was French and he talks about the US as a nation now in near terminal decline.
Perhaps surprisingly, his real political hero isn’t JFK. It’s the former President of France, Charles de Gaulle. “He said no to NATO and he said no to America. He understood the dangers of being a satellite country to America. You have no power in Europe. Don’t kid yourself. The EU is just an artificial body that was amazingly stupid in cutting off Russia and cutting off China too now.”
He doesn’t much like Boris Johnson either. “Boris, listen. He’d simply throw you in jail in a second.” He rails against the English for holding Assange in Belmarsh prison.
When he is not on a crusade or unravelling a conspiracy, Stone relaxes through Buddhist meditation. “Moderation in all things,” the man who came up with the phrase “greed is right, greed works” says with no evident sense of irony. He enjoys hanging out with his friends. “I have a nice life. I’m lucky,” he says before quickly adding, “I wish I had been more honoured and respected in my lifetime, but it seems that I took a course that is in conflict with the American Empire.”
Stone’s films have had relatively few strong female characters. Ask if he welcomes the #MeToo movement and the challenging of old gender norms and he gives a typically contrary answer. “It cuts both ways, though. There are reasons for patriarchy through the centuries,” he says. “Tribes tend to have a strong leader. You need strong leaders, but I do see the feminine impulse as being important, especially when situations become too militant. The feminine impulse, I’m talking about the maternal impulse not the Hillary Clinton/Margaret Thatcher version of feminism. They’re men. They’re not women,” he says. “I don’t want women in politics who want to be men. If a woman is a woman, she should be a woman and bring her maternalism. It’s a leavening influence.”
The director deplores the rush to judge historical figures about past misdeeds from a contemporary point of view. “I am conservative in that way… don’t expect to rejudge the entire society based on your new values.”
He met with Harvey Weinstein in Cannes a few years ago to discuss a potential Guantanamo Bay TV series. “At that point, maybe he knew he was on the ropes; he was delightfully charming and humble.” The project was scuppered by the scandal that that engulfed the former Miramax boss, who is now behind bars as a convicted sex offender. Stone’s gripes with Weinstein are less to do with his sexual offences than with the way that he attacked films like Born on the Fourth of July and Saving Private Ryan to boost his own movies.
“The press loved him [Weinstein]. Don’t forget, they loved him in the 1990s,” he says, remembering the disingenuous way in which Weinstein portrayed himself as the underdog taking on the big, bad Hollywood system.
“I think he robbed Cruise of the Oscar, frankly,” Stone huffs at the intensive Weinstein lobbying which saw Daniel Day-Lewis win the Academy Award for Best for My Left Foot, denying Tom Cruise for Born on the Fourth of July in the process.
Stone acknowledges his status in Hollywood has diminished. “All that’s gone. The people have changed,” he says of the days when the studios doted on him and his films were regularly awards contenders. Now, he’ll often finance his work out of Europe. He is developing a new feature film (he won’t say what it is). “Never say die, never say it’s over,” he says of his career.
Stone is based in Los Angeles and also has “a place in New York”. During the pandemic, he still managed to travel to Russia to make his nuclear power/clean energy documentary. “I got my shots over there because the EU is so f***ing stupid,” he says of the of the Europeans’ refusal to recognise the Sputnik vaccine. “It’s ridiculous, part of the political madness of this time.”
Now, he is putting all his energy into his new documentary about nuclear power. He waves away the idea that the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters show what can go wrong – they were accidents.
“Accidents you learn from. If there were not a few crashes, how would you fly?” he says. It’s a line that somehow seems to express his entire philosophy of life.
‘JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass’ will be released in the UK later this year
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