Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #28: Oliver Stone (1986)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

film director and screenwriter Oliver Stone

One chapter, titled The Ghosts of Vietnam, features interviews with a variety of authors (Robert Stone, Brian Fawcett) and filmmakers (Louis Malle, Robert Altman) who dealt in their work with various aspects of the legacy of the Vietnam War and how it was felt in the Eighties. The American obsession with Latin and South America during the Reagan years seemed to be an ill-advised attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the earlier conflict. One filmmaker who has continually dealt with the legacy of Vietnam and the Sixties in general is Oliver Stone. Although Stone began a profitable career as a screenwriter (Midnight Express, Scarface, The Year of the Dragon) when we met he had just written and directed a low-budget drama called Salvador, with James Woods as print correspondent Richard Boyle. In fact, by the time Salvador finally found release, Stone had already completed his Vietnam War drama Platoon which dealt with his own personal experiences in the Vietnam War.

kc: Recently there have been many movies featuring journalists, mostly American, dealing with topical issues. We had The Killing Fields a couple of years ago which dealt with Sidney Schanberg's experience in Cambodia. Under Fire recently showed us journalists in Nicaragua. All of those journalists portrayed were basically decent people attempting to do decent things. In your film, Salvador, you pick a correspondent, Richard Boyle, who is more of a scoundrel....

os: Yeah. I portrayed him in the film as a complete rascal, but he's also a provocateur. He goes after a story, but he does it in a manner that isn't a method endorsed by The New York Times. He's scrounging for money and working independently for CNN Cable News. He's always borrowing fifty bucks. So I know him. He's real. He even borrows money from me (laughs). The guy is outrageous, always looking for a new girlfriend or another bottle of tequila. But yet through all of this fooling around he does ultimately get to the truth. And that's what interested me about the character.

kc: What did you know about Richard Boyle before making Salvador?

os: I knew that he'd been to Salvador seven times basically because he found it fun and he had a girlfriend there. Ultimately though, he got involved heavily in covering the death squads, saw the truth, and he brought it to the forefront. He was one of the first journalists to discover the murdered nuns at the sight where they were buried. I found out that he had also done similar kind of reporting in Vietnam covering the Thieu government in Saigon. He was thrown out of Vietnam because he was involved with the Buddhist peace demonstrations. He also did coverage of the first mutiny of American infantry troops in 1971 at Fire Base Pace. But that's what I like about him. Nothing could stop him. He was like a terrier for the truth.

kc: After seeing Salvador, I was amazed at how little I knew about the country and the conflict.

os: It's an untold story. I'm amazed at America...at how so little people know about it. Most people don't even know about the assassination of Oscar Romero. They know about the four nuns because they were Americans. But they don't really know the story of Salvador. I think if Shakespeare were alive today he would want to tell this story. It's big, it's bloody and it's bold. And it deals with life and death issues concerning democracy and freedom.

James Woods as Richard Boyle in Salvador
kc: One of the most ironic aspects of American foreign policy is that when they try to prevent countries from going communist inadvertently, they end up supporting the regimes that drive these folks right into the communist camp?

os: Precisely. That seems to be the case currently with the contras in Nicaragua. And it's certainly the case with Salvador with Honduras probably going next. The coming turmoil will probably be in Honduras because they're also trying to militarize the country. I was there recently and it reminded me of Saigon in 1965. The populace is starting to turn against us and there are more whores, there's more troops, and the inflation is ruining the currency. All the tell-tale signs of a tragedy are starting up there.

kc: You've written the remake of the gangster film Scarface, which featured a vindictive and insatiable killer. You wrote Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon which focuses on a cop – an ex-Vietnam vet – who's obsession with breaking the Chinese-American mafia turns him xenophobic. Now you have Richard Boyle in Salvador. You really seem attracted to extremists.

os: That's good. I believe in anarchy. Anarchy always goes beyond the defined limits and reaches for something new. Only by reaching for something outrageous – and new – do you sometimes get that next stage of evolution. I've been called everything from a racist to a right-wing sexist hack. I've had every bad review in the world. Salvador has gotten its share of knocks. But the new film I just finished in the Philippines called Platoon is about my own experiences in Vietnam in 1967. It took me ten years to get this film made because I wrote the script back in 1976. Now this picture has a softer character than Richard Boyle. He's a young man who goes to war at the age of 19 who's played by Charlie Sheen. Platoon will come as a surprise to those who think I just write about people that are extremists in their behaviour. I tend to go towards issues that attract various forms of behaviour.

kc: What are the views on Vietnam that you explore in Platoon?

os: I felt that the war had been a tragic mistake – a misguided mistake – made by politicians and military people.

kc: Vietnam is a subject – both directly and indirectly – in American films that refuses to get resolved. How ready do you think audiences are now to deal with that experience?

os: I think it is the time for it. When I wrote the script for Platoon, it was merely history. The resonances now in 1986 are such that after Beirut, Grenada and Nicaragua, it's an antidote to such films as Top Gun that promote the idea that we can win World War III. So maybe there's an irony here that I had to wait so long to get that story made.

Charlie Sheen in Platoon
kc: You tend to write about other people. It sounds like Platoon is more autobiographical. Was it your intention to make Platoon a very personal story?

os: Most definitely. All of the characters in the film are based on real people that I knew. The sergeants are two people who will stay with me for the rest of my life. Many of the incidents in the film are real. There is a scene in the film when Charlie Sheen almost shoots a retarded Vietnamese civilian with one leg. That actually occurred. I went nuts one day and I wanted to kill this guy because he didn't understand me and he wouldn't come out of the hole he was hiding in. Some guy said to me, "He's scared, man!" In the movie, Sheen says, "He's scared? What about me? I'm scared!" I'm glad I didn't kill him, but I went right to the edge – and that edge could easily be crossed. And that was the point of the scene. In Platoon, I wanted to remember what it was like in a place and time. I felt that if I didn't make the picture then those kids would have died for nothing.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier began a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. Nice interview. I have a soft spot for foreign correspondent films. Salvador was one of the better ones. I've seen it probably 5 times.

    Q. Is there anyone you HAVEN'T interviewed? :-)

  2. I don't understand why being honest with yourself and the world is being controversial? I'd say Platoon came off the lips of many Vietnam Veterans that I spoke to. It resonated with them. Oliver Stone gave a voice to men who didn't have a voice. That picture of Mr. Stone is the face of a young man who has seen hell, it is haunting. As long as I am alive Mr. Stone I won't forget them either. My father was a pilot in Vietnam. I remember him telling me of the vile s of heroine found around the helicopters from the guys who came in from the bush to secure the helicopters at night. They would give them the security detail to give them a break from the jungle nightmare. I think it was then that he knew that it was a mistake, if soldiers were doing drugs to escape. No one cared not the politicians or the military. No one knew the truth with the propaganda being shoved down their throats. I still have news paper clippings of the military news and the almost split reality that people lived in. The "truth" that is being told to them and the actual truth. It was as if there were a parallel universe. I know now its just people with a conscience and people without. Its as simple as that.