Red Lines host Anya Parampil speaks with award-winning screenwriter and director Oliver Stone about his memoir, “Chasing the Light”.
Anya Parampil and Oliver Stone discuss the legendary screenwriter and director’s experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War; his films, including “Platoon” and “Scarface”; his work on Latin America; and his views on the demise of Hollywood.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Oliver Stone, welcome to Red Lines. I know I speak on behalf of the entire Grayzone team when I say we’re very excited to host you.
OLIVER STONE: Thank you. I love Grazyone. I think it does some great work and, yeah, not too…not enough people see it, so…
ANYA PARAMPIL: Well, we appreciate those comments, and your work has definitely inspired some of our journalism. So, let’s just get right into it.
You’ve just released Chasing the Light. I’ve got it right here. It’s your memoir looking back at writing and directing Platoon, Scarface, Salvador, Midnight Express.
A major theme in your memoir —and I believe expressed through the protagonists in many of your films such as Richard Boyle in Salvador, Chris Taylor in Platoon, and even Tony Montana in Scarface —is an initial belief or desire to believe in the American Dream and America’s superficial ideals, which is eventually contradicted by their individual experiences.
You, in fact, open your memoir by reflecting on your time on the 4th of July in 1976, as you’re watching a fireworks display in New York City. And you write, quote, “I wanted to believe like them, the million people around me, but I didn’t feel it. I felt the awe, but also the profound terror. Because I’d been here before. On a night like this, I’d seen the most spectacular fireworks of all—the real thing.” That’s a reference to your time you spent as a soldier in Vietnam. You say, “So much power, so much death in one place at one time. Never to be forgotten.” How did the Vietnam War impact your view of the United States?
OLIVER STONE: A lot. A lot. I mean, I was not politically evolved. I grew up in a conservative Republican family in New York. My father was a stockbroker, my mother was a French girl he married in World War II and brought home to the US, and my view of America was still evolving in 1976, when the book opens. I’m 30 years old, I’m depressed and broke because I’ve been writing a lot of screenplays and nothing’s happened. I’m married, not going well and, in fact, my marriage is ending at that point. So, out of those depths…I’m suggesting in the book that out of those depths came this feeling that I could write another screenplay about, actually, my own experience in Vietnam, which had occurred from 1967-8, when I’d been over there eight years before this day. Why? Perhaps it was the fireworks, you know. There was so much fireworks that night in New York, it was…you remember the tall ships…aw, you’re too young. But the tall ships…there was 200 vessels of all shapes and sizes from every country in the world, practically, and fireworks were going off. And the day was spectacular, and the night was all fireworks. And I think there might have been a million people backed into Lower Manhattan. It was a lot, and there was an excitement in the air because Jimmy Carter was coming to town and the Democratic Convention was about to happen the next week.
So, I just remember all that fever, that excitement, that change, as I pointed out. And there was a change. Carter did represent in ’76 a huge feeling of we’re getting away from the Nixon/Ford era; we’re going to go into a new feeling. There’ll be more prosperity, more money in people’s pockets, more sex. Very much a feeling of being 30. On the other hand, I was going against that feeling by also feeling that my hopes were dashed. I was struggling and lost. It’s a strange feeling.
But anyway, out of those fireworks that night, I think may have come this memory [that] had been buried in me about that night in Vietnam, January 1, 1968, when I’d been in an all-night battle, from when dark came on around nine o’clock; it went to about six in the morning, five in the morning, all night. It never stopped. It was a huge attack on us. I was in the 25th Infantry. It was called Firebase Pace at the time, or…I’m sorry, Firebase Burt, but I call it Suoi Cut, because that’s the name of the village that was nearby, Suoi Cut. People will remember that battle forever. I think we were hit by a, I guess, a regiment of North Vietnamese, and in the morning…but it’s a strange battle the way I describe it. You have to read the book to understand. We killed about four to five hundred of them, and they…about 25 of us were killed and about 150 wounded. So, it was quite an all-night battle and…but I was, as I said, at the end of that battle I had not seen one enemy. I had not fired my rifle. All I’d been doing…I had been moved from one position to another, all night, never saw an enemy, never saw but heard about it all. It was all going through the radio, and it was as if I was protected that night. The truth was…
ANYA PARAMPIL: It certainly seems that way. Yeah, and the way that you describe it in the book.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say. Nothing is what it seems. And the only thing that happened was that I got concussed. I was blown into the air and blacked out by a beehive round from our own tanks, which is typical of Vietnam because we had a lot of friendly-fire casualties. And that is the basis for remembering the past and bringing it up, because Platoon grew…I wrote Platoon very quickly in that time period.
My mother’s [mom, my] grandmother in France had also died, and I go back to France to see her funeral. Jeez, she’s laid out on the bed, she’s…as they did in France in those days, it’s a custom. And, you know, you attend to the dead, you talk to the dead, you communicate with them before they’re buried. And it was a very powerful scene that evolves, where I try speaking to my grandmother, she speaks to me. I said, “You know, it’s time for me to get really serious if I’m going to go on with this dream that I have to make a movie or not.” And she’s telling me, basically, that I should go on, but I should really be more serious about it than I am.
And at the age of 30 things changed. It’s bizarre because that Platoon script that I wrote was optioned pretty quickly by a major Hollywood producer and led…one thing led to the other. And right away I was signed up to do this new script about Midnight Express, so that was really the beginning of my career. And by the age of 33 I had gotten an Academy Award. It went pretty fast. And then I had some reversals of fortune and, basically, by…but the book ends on Chapter 10 when I’m…it’s quite an up-and-down story. There’s a lot of roller coasters here, and it ends with my making two films in a row, Salvador and Platoon in…at the age of 38, 39 and 40. And I, as you know, it’s just one thing leads to the other, and both films put me back on top.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Yeah, “On Top of The World,” I believe is the name of that chapter. And I’ll ask you more about Platoon specifically, but I don’t think people would realize that you actually volunteered for the draft as a young man. You said you wanted to, quote, “be like everybody else, an anonymous infantryman, cannon fodder, down there in the muck with the masses.” How did that time, your experience down there in the muck with the masses, later, how was it reflected in your filmmaking? Even when you’re telling the stories of very powerful people?
OLIVER STONE: Well, in many ways, that’s sort of what it is. I…you see, I had grown up in a sheltered society, I went to boarding school, I went to Yale University and dropped out. I wasn’t happy. There was a lot of problems, and my parents got a very tumultuous divorce, and it upset me because I didn’t understand anything that was going on at the age of 15.
So, the first 15 years were pretty…were a dream, and you said earlier the superficiality of the American Dream. I’m not sure I would call it that, but it was a dream, and after that I went on my own. I…there was a whole…I talk about going out to Asia, becoming a teacher. I went to the Merchant Marine. I traveled all over Asia. Then I wrote a book, a confessional book, about…as a 19-year-old boy. It was published finally in 1997. But so, I’d been through a lot and gone back to school and dropped out again, trying to adjust to society. I couldn’t adjust to East Coast society. There was something…my father’s world was closed to me. I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t like all the competition, frankly. It was too competitive, constantly competitive. And I had what you call “burnout.” They didn’t call it that in those days. I really was burned out, and I went off and I said, look, I’m thinking about myself too much. It’s about time I got real, like, in keeping with, you know, what is reality? You don’t know when you’re 17. You don’t know if you exist. You’re not sure about your identity. That’s why they [youth] have a lot of problems now as well as then. And so, I had to find myself, as they say. And I wasn’t sure.
So, going after the Army kind of threw it away. I said, okay, it’s up to God. I believed in a god at that point, and I said, you know, let the…I’ll throw the dice, you know. If I’m meant to come back from this war, I’ll come back. If not, I accept it. And I was rather fatalistic when I went in, and I wanted Vietnam and I wanted infantry. I didn’t want to fuck around and try to be an officer or anything like that. I just wanted to see what it was like at the bottom of the barrel. And out of that came, if you see my films you…I think you see that a lot of underdogs are the heroes in these films. And I think that’s become a theme in my life, that the people who are down under sometimes are the most heroic people, the most genuine people, and it’s been a battle between underdog and overdog, so to speak, in a lot of my movies.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Yeah, I think you even managed to get people to sympathize with someone like Tony Montana, who on the surface is a criminal drug dealer in Miami, but you kind of feel for him in a way. And I’ll ask again more about Scarface later. But sticking to Vietnam for a moment, you write about the bond you formed with black soldiers during your time in Vietnam, saying they taught you, quote, “a feeling for real love, the love that exists between human beings, and that’s the most important thing any soldier can keep in war—his humanity. Without it, we’re beasts.” I’m wondering, in what ways do you think race relations among average soldiers in Vietnam complemented or contradicted the experience of the United States at the time. You were actually in Vietnam in 1968, the year MLK and RFK were assassinated, leading to extreme political unrest.
OLIVER STONE: That’s a very…that’s a key question and a good one, because this was written, by the way, this was written, the book was written…this area was written before Black Lives Matter. So, I wasn’t trailing on this. My experience in Vietnam was the people who I was the most comfortable with, the most friendly were the black soldiers in my platoons, and they used to hang out in the…when we went to the rear, we’d hang out, smoke dope and listen to music and talk —and dance, too. If you saw Platoon, there was a dance scene in it. You know, men dancing together. This was…it was a more relaxed and almost feminine, at times, relationship, and that’s very important because war is so dry and hard and deadening to the mind that I think everybody who goes over into that situation changes.
And there was a lot of racism, yes. Not…it was against the Vietnamese. And one of the great themes of the war was our trashing of the civilian population. Now, that happened constantly, because I think a lot of the soldiers were racist against…they hated the Vietnamese. Now, I didn’t feel that the black soldiers hated them as much. Of course, there were different people. There’s some black soldiers [who] did, but most didn’t. And so many white people, white soldiers liked them, too, but many hated them. There were a lot of soldiers who were uneducated. They were from the south, they were tough people, and they kept thinking that the civilians were helping the enemy. Of course, that’s an ambiguous issue because, well, you know, we were fighting a people that were essentially seeking peace and their freedom from overlords and oppressors.
So, it was a complicated war, and I get into that in Platoon with the…when Barnes, one of the sergeants, kills the villagers and is brought up on a war crime for it by the other sergeant, Elias. The point of that is that we were fighting among ourselves inside each platoon. I was in three combat platoons, three different ones, different places, too. So, I felt this problem growing through September ’67, I felt it growing into ’68, and it worsened after King was killed in April ’68. It was the whole…and then Johnson, of course, quit the war, said he was not going to run again. And that was a signal that tripped off everything, that it was just a war that we were going to just try to survive in. Nobody wanted to die for this cause, even…it was, “Who would be the last American to die in Vietnam?”, became a kind of a constant.
But the black soldiers saved me in a sense because I needed some respite from it. I needed to get away from it, and in that whole world of…in the rear of music, there was love, there was a…there was a brotherhood, a bond between soldiers that would grow up, and it’s a strange bond. Never thought it would happen because I had no experience with black people before in my existence in New York, except fear in the streets of New York. So, you have to understand, it was a big thing for me, and I developed that theme in Platoon. I fell in love with this way of life. I came back, yeah, I was smoking dope, I was, you know, you can talk all you want. I’d listen to the music. I was talking like a black man. My father was furious, you know. It was a change in personality, but it was an opening up to new ways of life. Very important to me.
ANYA PARAMPIL: You referenced something in your book called “the lie of our culture.” That’s what you refer to, saying, it’s “the root of our failure.” You write, quote, “The hypocrisy—and more, corruption—sickened me then and now, which is one of the reasons why I got into so much trouble later on, criticizing our way of life —because we lie to ourselves, and we’ve confused the ordinary citizen who worries that terrorists are hiding in his barbecue pit, or that Russia is subverting ‘our democracy’ with insidious forms of hybrid warfare, or Chinese economics are eating our lunch with their chopsticks.” And I’m wondering, what do you…how would you describe that lie, the lie of our culture? And who is responsible for telling it?
OLIVER STONE: I’m addressing this issue up to where the book ends, 1986, because obviously my ideas expand as I get older. But at that time there was only…there were three, I said there were three lies that haunted me when I came out of Vietnam. And I couldn’t even articulate it like I’m doing now, at that time. I just was numb, and I was alienated. But three things were apparent.
One, I talked about friendly fire. Friendly fire is when you are on the same…the soldiers are on the same side, and Americans kill them [their own]…kill others [American soldiers].
Now, this is a very sensitive subject because parents don’t know that many of their children have been killed that way, and they would be horrified. The Pentagon would…buries this information as much as possible. The friendly fire statistics are much higher than they say, by my experience. They were…in the jungle, you don’t see very well. It’s very complicated, these fire fights. And people behind you open fire and they don’t know where you are and so forth, and then there’s a whole business with the artillery coming in, and they come in tight, and sometimes they miss and they have the wrong coordinates. I showed that in Platoon. And there’s also the air, the helicopters and sometimes the planes that are dropping bombs. That’s very tough stuff. And sometimes they drop them real close, real close, as they did that night of January 1, ’68.
So, people get hurt. I was wounded twice. I believe the first time I was wounded by a grenade thrown by a fellow soldier, who was an idiot. But anyway, he threw the grenade stupidly, I believed. I can’t prove it. But I just sense that that was what it was. And I think a lot more people are getting hurt by their own troops than you know. I estimated in the book, 15 to 20 percent. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of people, you…but officially, you know, it’s in the after-action reports; they never write that up.
In fact, I had a scene like that in Born on the Fourth of July with Ron Kovic, [where he] is sure he shot his own man. When he reports it to his commander, the commander dismisses it because he doesn’t want to deal with it. And it haunts Kovic until the moment he’s shot. It’s an important theme, and it’s very…it’s not talked about. And I think it’s true also in Afghanistan and Iraq, very much so. In fact, that famous football player who went over there…
ANYA PARAMPIL: Pat Ti…
OLIVER STONE: …was killed…Pat, what?
ANYA PARAMPIL: Pat Tillman.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, Pat Tillman, who played for the Arizona Cardinals, was killed by friendly fire. But they wouldn’t report it at first. It was all mucked up. A lot of that goes on. So, believe me.
The second lie was trashing civilians, killing civilians. Oh. We were in so many villages. We were…we’d split between jungle and village. We would go into the villages, yeah, we would investigate for arms and rice supplies, everything. We had to know what was going on. And we’d find things. And sometimes we wouldn’t find things, which would lead to frustration. Sometimes you’re losing men in the jungle to mines, booby traps, this, that. You come to a village; you take out your frustration. I saw a few incidents that were pretty raw, and I talk about that in the book. And I talk about myself almost crossing the line. I didn’t cross the line, but I almost did, because you could get really upset.
By example—and we didn’t know about it then—but the My Lai Massacre in March of ’68 is all about that. In fact, when you get into the My Lai Massacre—I tried to make a movie about it, but it fell apart because it was a tough subject for people. It was in My Lai, these…there were several platoons that went into a series of villages in that province, and they had bad information. The information came from the CIA, who had just tortured a few people, and they gave them faulty information telling them that they would be at such-and-such NVA (North Vietnamese regiment) in the villages that day near My Lai. And they went in thinking they were seeing the enemy. They weren’t. They were…not one enemy bullet was fired at the soldiers. Not one. That’s what the Army investigation revealed. The only…the Army investigated itself honestly, but then the report was, of course, smothered, and all the…the guy who led the report, General [William R.] Peers was…he’s a hero of mine, he tried to bust…he indicted 25 people, all the way to the top of the division. He indicted the general of the division. In fact, it goes beyond the division. It goes to the CIA guy who was providing information to the general.
It’s such an ugly story that no wonder [Lt. William] Calley is the only guy that got busted. I mean, they get…they let everybody off the hook. But that is…here you kill 500 plus civilians in cold blood in this village, and they were slaughtered in the most brutal way, when you get into the details. It’s…that’s the worst example I know, but it was going on on a small scale everywhere, I believe. Everywhere. People were knocking off Vietnamese. Jeez, because they were another race or whatever. They were, to many of us, they were “gooks.” They were not human beings. That happens. That’s the second lie.
The third lie is the biggest one of all, is that we’re winning the war, which was bullshit from the beginning. We were never winning the war. We thought maybe we were winning the war, but we were doing everything wrong in the briefing room, in our tactics, strategy, and in our reporting. I talk about [General William] Westmoreland coming out to our battle and taking the wrong conclusions from it. Three weeks later, we had the… [crosstalk] I’m sorry?
ANYA PARAMPIL: He was complaining about your haircuts.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, well, I wasn’t there, but I heard that story, that our uniforms were not together, we’re not…we’re not bloused and all that. But we were not…we were a ragged-looking troop. We’d been in the field so long.
But the point was the strategists were not thinking about what the Vietnamese were really doing. They were worried about Khe Sanh, which was not…which was a red herring. They were really…the enemy was aiming for Saigon. They were going to cut the country at the capital, and they almost did. But the point was that we were lying about the whole war to the American people. We were inflating the body counts, inflating them enormously, and at one point in the war they were saying the Viet Cong, the NVA, are going to run out of people. They never did. As many as we were killing, of course, they would count civilians as NVA, all kinds of dirty tricks.
People were there at the upper classes to get promoted. Officers were in the field to get promoted. They’d go out when they had to. Some of the master sergeants too. It was…people knew that it was a paycheck. If you were an older, experienced soldier from World War II and Korea, you knew the score. You’d stay out of the field as much as possible but get your combat pay, get every extra bonus you can get, go to the PX. PX is a gold mine. It’s like Las Vegas. You can hit the jackpot. You buy stuff at the PX, you resell it. All kinds of games.
I mean, we were moving cars over there. We were doing…there was a tremendous amount of value we sent to Vietnam that disappeared. It went into the South Vietnamese Army pockets. It went into…eventually it ended up in this…in the NVA pockets, even our weaponry. It was an amazing racket, a huge racket.
You have to imagine a Las Vegas being sent to Vietnam, all that money, all those base camps, all those helicopters, five thousand of them got shot down, plus several…another two thousand, I believe, Vietnamese helicopters, South Vietnamese. So, we had Bell Helicopters making a fortune, Brown & Root is making a fortune building base camps. It was a racket from beginning to end. It was a lie. And to fight communism. Although as we know it wasn’t…it wasn’t communism that threatened our…it was an independence revolution fought by the Vietnamese for centuries against the French, and against the Chinese, too. They just didn’t want to be a colony anymore, and we could not get out of that mindset.
So those three lies are what I talked about, and that haunted me after the war. But it took me a time, it took me a while to come around to it. But they’re at the basis. I know how government’s official stories lie. And you have to think about that in terms of where we are now with the Iraq wars and the Afghani war. I mean, you saw the report, I think, in December of last year. The Afghani [Afghanistan] Papers came out. They were featured, actually, in The Washington Post. I couldn’t believe that! And it goes back, it traces all the misreporting that happened from Afghanistan, and the objectives and the timeline and the reality. We never faced the reality that we would never get out of there alive. It was a quagmire.
ANYA PARAMPIL: And then when it…right when it seems like it may end, a dubious story claiming that Russians are paying the Taliban to kill US soldiers surfaces, and any chance of withdrawal seems sabotaged, which I personally think was actually something President Trump did genuinely want to follow through on.
One entertaining moment in the book is when you discuss your acceptance speech for best screenwriting at the Golden Globes for Midnight Express. You use the moment to try and denounce the law-and-order era of Nixon and Hollywood’s complicity in promoting it. It wasn’t received well. You were actually…you talked about being booed off stage by your colleagues in attendance, but you add, quote, “Hollywood at that time was actually far less hysterical and more tolerant than what it’s become.” What did you mean by that? How has Hollywood changed since even that time?
OLIVER STONE: Well, first, there are two things in this issue. One, was I was an early bird on that, maybe too early. I hated the cop shows I was seeing. I turned them on, and they would always be the same theme: bad guys or drugs, sometimes more often he was black or Hispanic, but they get carted off to jail. The cops were the detectives, were doing their job. It was sold to us that drugs were bad, the drug war was necessary, on television constantly. They made money on it, a lot of money, all these shows, repetitive shows.
And I really… I was in the room at that night with the producers, and they were getting awards for making these shows. And I just thought it was hypocritical because it was easy to blame Turkey for their harsh drug laws, but we had forced Turkey into those laws because we had tried to interdict their poppy growth. It’s a whole dirty story; you can tie their poppy growth to Afghanistan, which is an amazing story, but that’s not the space for it here.
The drug war was corrupt from beginning to end. There was never an honesty about it. And. also, why did you have the drug war? Why is America lecturing other countries on how to do things and interfering in their affairs, when we…our problem is here. We’re the demand factor. We want the drugs, and the question comes up of legalization of drugs, too. These issues were in my head back then, and I was trying to kind of…unfortunately I hadn’t written the speech and I was loaded, I was drunk. I also had smoked…snorted some cocaine that night. It was a wild time in Hollywood in the late 70s, and I couldn’t get my tongue around my thoughts. So, I got up on stage, and I won this award for the screenplay of Midnight Express, and I screwed it up and I got booed off the stage. But I was a frustrated young man that way, because I wanted to get this stuff out and, like, the movie Midnight Express was being misunderstood by so many people, especially critics who were saying it was so over-violent and over-, you know, zealous and anti-Turkish. It wasn’t intended that way, but my message was lost.
Now, as the other issue which you mentioned which is Hollywood, yeah, it was more tolerant in those days. It was the 70s. There was more of everything around. It wasn’t a televised event, among other things. So now I guess it is changed a lot. I mean, the law…people are much more intolerant of other people’s behavior, they’re jumping on every word somebody says, we’re oversensitive about mistakes and there’s…it’s not as much fun as it used to be. I think it’s just bigger and more corporate…more money, and, you know, now we have AT&T, we have all these corporations moving in. It’s just moved into another phase, and it’s mostly about television now.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Yeah, yeah, I’ll ask you more about that later. But you say you made up for that speech at the Golden Globes when you wrote the monologue delivered by Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface, when he denounces Miami high society and tells them they actually need a bad guy like him, and that they’ll never get a bad guy like him again.
Al Pacino as Tony Montana, in Scarface: You’re not good. You just know how to hide, all right. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth, even when I lie. So, say good night to the bad guy, come on! The last time you’re gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you.
OLIVER STONE: That’s when I just…that’s what I was trying to say. You’ve got to pick out these villains. I mean, Tony ultimately was respected by the audience because he was a free man. He was the man. He had the guts to say who he was, which nobody else did. He was not a hypocrite. And I admired him for that. He was a free man. And if you watch the movie closely, the one thing he does that’s positive and leads to his downfall, is he refuses to kill the assassin who’s about to blow up a character based on Orlando Letelier, the Chilean diplomat who was killed in Washington DC in 1976.
Al Pacino as Tony Montana, in Scarface: Made you feel good to kill a mother and her kids, huh? Made you feel big, you big man. Well, fuck you! What do you think I am? Do you think I killed two kids and a woman? Fuck that! I don’t need that shit in my life. Do that, motherfucker!
ANYA PARAMPIL: He refuses to follow through on the assassination because his wife and children are present. So, this is a way when you start to see more humanity in Tony Montana, especially compared with the other men he’s working with.
You say in the book, though, that the Cuban exile community actually succeeded in throwing your crew out of Miami during the filming of Scarface. What more can you tell us about that?
OLIVER STONE: Oh, it’s just that I’ve had problems with the Cuban exiles ever since they…they have really been in my soup, in anybody’s soup. You cannot suggest one progressive idea in that community, and they go nuts. It’s true about all exiles. It’s true about the Vietnamese community in Orange County. They were very tough on people like Le Ly Hayslip, who wrote the book I did, Heaven & Earth. They don’t want any of their Vietnamese saying that, you know, that Ho Chi Minh was a good guy. You have to…people who move to other countries become the worst of the accusers. The Iranians, too, in Los Angeles, you know, they always…they say, “That country.” Or even Russians, they say, “The Russians.” You understand what happens. You always love the country of America because it’s free, gives you the new break, and then you have to blast the old…the old Europe, you know, like Donald Rumsfeld called it, or blast the Cu…they never stopped on Cuba. Cubans are very hot-headed. They hated Castro. I mean, they would…I don’t know, it just turned into a hate fest out of Orwell. I mean, America has lost its mind on Castro. We’ve had…how many years has this embargo been going on? It’s insane. Everybody in Europe thinks it’s a joke and thinks…even at the UN it’s like, why is America so stubborn about it? And that’s a good question, and I think America’s stubbornness about…we give solace, we help…we give sanctuary to terrorists, we know Cuban terrorists are on our property who go there to Cuba and kill people, kill civilians, blow up airliners. We give them sanctuary.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Certainly.
OLIVER STONE: And that goes, by the way, it goes for Salvador, it goes for the Contador groups, it goes for Argentinians, it goes for everybody who tor…every torturer who lives in this country, they come to this country because they stash their money here and they come here to live. There’s a lot of them, from all the South American countries and Central American countries.
ANYA PARAMPIL: That’s certainly…
OLIVER STONE: Salvadoran, known leaders of death squads are here. In fact, we had a lot to do with the Salvadoran death squads because we trained them from six…I forgot their names. Madonna? Medrano? [Gen. Jose Alberto Medrano]. Yeah, in ’67, we brought the Salvadoran military to Vietnam to study our techniques torturing Vietnamese so they could bring them back to Salvador. And those people, a lot of those people were involved in the Salvadoran Civil War, and they killed quite a few labor leaders, reformers. Tortured them. Sad story.
ANYA PARAMPIL: And then that even blows back to the United States today, when media…sensationalist media or politicians complain about violence in the gang community, that’s really blowback from our policy in El Salvador, where we trained many of these people and it trickled down, came back here.
People might not realize that out of all of your films that you write about in the book, Platoon was actually the most difficult to get finally made. It was passed up repeatedly, and you were working on it forever. You write about how MGM actually didn’t want the film because Henry Kissinger, as well as Reagan’s secretary of state Alexander Haig, sat on the company’s board. How pervasive is that kind of political control in Hollywood, even today?
OLIVER STONE: I can’t prove that. That’s my…I say very clearly in the book, this is my feeling at the time, because that movie was no risk at that price. They cut the budget down. Mr. [Dino] De Laurentiis was going to produce it with me and Michael Cimino, and we were…for about $3 million at that point. We cut the budget way down, which is very hard to do. I mean, it should have really cost six, cut it to three, and I was about to start it, and in the Philippines, we’d planned it all out. I had to cast it and everything. It was ’83, 1983. And all of a sudden, MGM, which was the distributor for all of Dino’s films—and he was making risky films with David Lynch; the Blue Velvet film was being distributed by them. So, there was this acceptance at that point of the video revolution. There was a new video…video was getting hot and people were making money off of it, so they would take sometimes a risk on a film like Blue Velvet and certainly Platoon. It was no problem for Dino. But they wouldn’t put up a $3 million…a measly $3 million to distribute the film. Now, you never can find out why they won’t, but you…they always say no. But I know that the head of the MGM studio was either fronting, saying no, because he was blaming it on the board, the board doesn’t want to do it. He didn’t say who, but who’s on the board? You know. And whether he was lying in the first place, I don’t know. He could have been, like, he didn’t even want to take it to the board. I don’t know, you never know why they say no. But I heard a lot of no’s in my time. It was very frustrating.
You see, because, again, they were making a fortune off Sylvester Stallone stuff. He was going back to Vietnam, you remember, to save MIAs, the missing prisoners. There was a few hundred of them, and he was saving them and for…in other words he was refighting the war, making America look like heroes and the Vietnamese looking like thieving scoundrels. So…and Chuck Norris joined that brigade and was making his version of that.
So, Vietnam had not been very well-depicted in American films, and I think Platoon was one of the first ones that was realistic about what was going on in the war. The first. That’s why it was successful. But it was made against the popular concept of what they thought would be popular. In fact, the fact that it broke through in ’86 so suddenly—and it was so popular, you realize that this film raced around the world. It made a lot of money in America, $136 million. That’s a huge amount for that time. This was the third largest gross in the country for that year, and it was a realistic film that couldn’t…it was not geared for women, it was not geared for younger children. But yet, women came in the third week. They started to come in droves. And then young kids would get in, even at 14 they’d sneak in. So, the film—and not only in America but everywhere, every country had a tremendous success with it. It was unbelievable. There was some yearning for truth. And it happened in my life once. And I, you know, and it’s happened a few times, actually, but never on such a big scale.
ANYA PARAMPIL: One of my favorite films of yours is Salvador, starring James Woods. Back in the 1980s you were skewing USAID for its hand in promoting regime change projects and war in Central America and were very interested in the clandestine activities of spooks in the region. How did you develop that perspective on the region, and how has it lasted for you through today?
OLIVER STONE: Well, I took a trip there with Richard Boyle. Now, Richard’s an interesting pariah of a journalist. He’d been…he’s covered Vietnam, he covered Ireland, he’d been in Beirut. He always went for the wars. He went for the most dangerous assignments. And he’d spent some time in Salvador during the 1980 period, when that war was intense, at its most intense civil war. And he knew the region, so he took me down there. I went to five countries with him, and sure enough, you know.
I’d been in Vietnam in ’65 as a teacher. I’d seen the growth of the US community there. I saw the spooks, the guys who work in intelligence, the guys who sometimes wear uniforms, sometimes not. They were all over the place. And then the soldiers come in. They came in about June of ’65, into Saigon. So, I saw the beginning of a war. And then when I went back, I saw the real thing.
What happened was, the same thing was going on when Reagan, if you remember, Ronald Reagan wanted to destroy the revolution in Nicaragua. He thought it was a communist front and that they would cross…he literally said they could be crossing the Rio Grande any day from Nicaragua, which is insane. But he had that power to and he sent money illegally to the Contras, who were a terrorist group that were infiltrating Nicaragua and killing, blowing up hospitals, doing anything to destroy the revolution, cutting telephones wires down. It was an ugly, ugly war. Many civilians were killed.
He also was mining the harbor in Managua, which the World Court [International Court of Justice (ICJ)] condemned him for. Anything to destroy this regime. And he was doing it illegally because Congress did not pass the Boland Amendment and did not want him doing this.
But he did it, underneath the rug. And how did he do it? One of the ways was he sold weapons to Iran—which became the Iran-Contra scandal—to the Iranian government, who he believes was supposed to be a national security threat, too. And then he would take…he took the money from the Iranians and split it. Took…gave 50 percent of it to the Contras through his Oliver North scheme. It was a dirty, dirty, dirty operation. And he would have gone down for it, I’m sure. It was a treasonous behavior. Illegal. Wholly illegal. Reagan would have been impeached in a second if the Washington press corps hated him as much as Nixon. But they didn’t. Katharine Graham and The Washington Post did not want to have another Watergate. This is, quote, she was quoted as saying, “We can’t afford…the country cannot afford another Watergate.” Which is nonsense because it was worse…it was a worse scandal than Watergate.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
OLIVER STONE: George HW Bush was involved heavily and knew all about it but got off the hook with that one.
It was… and anyway, so I was there and saw all this going on, and I felt it was going to happen. I knew this was going to be another Vietnam, and there was going to be a dirty war, too, because Nicaragua was not going to give up. They were tough fighters. So, I was in Honduras, among other places. I could see they built up Salvador. You could see the buildup. They would… they were cheating on the number of troops just to avoid Congress, you know. And in the streets of Honduras you felt the vibe, that we’re going into Nicaragua. Thank god the CIA blew it when one of their pilots got shot out of the…on a cargo flight over…got shot down and revealed everything, like typical CIA screw-up from…it just happened several times in our history, actually. Indonesia, it happened.
And that became a scandal, and Reagan had to change his whole policy. He had to back off. First of all, they were going to impeach him, but he didn’t want that. So that was…he had to deny everything. And the support for the war in Nicaragua vanished during that period, when Platoon came out in October, started to happen in October ’86. And I think if it hadn’t happened, I think there would have been another Vietnam down there.
ANYA PARAMPIL: That’s a scary thought.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, the hatred for any revolutionary movement in South America or Central America is intense. I mean, we saw they removed the leader of…they’re going after Venezuela, horribly, you know, every day. It’s just…I hope to god it doesn’t blow. But they got the Bolivian leader, they got the Ecuadorian leader, they got the Paraguay leader, they got the Brazilian…I mean, they’ve done a great countercoup recently against the leftist revolution in South America. I covered that on in my documentaries.
ANYA PARAMPIL: And that’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about, because you did travel to South America and profiled a number of left-wing leaders, from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, the Kirchners in Argentina, Correa in Ecuador, Castro in Cuba, Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. And the reason I list them all is to make that exact point you just brought up, which is that, unfortunately, only the governments of Venezuela and Cuba have remained revolutionary to this day, thanks to these coups and lawfare campaigns waged by the US government. So, I’m just wondering, why did you decide to make that film? Because it really…it had an impact on me, and I found it so interesting to see these leaders demonized in US media to be walking the streets freely among their people in a way that US presidents would never be able to do.
Oliver Stone in South of the Border: Who is Hugo Chavez? Some believe he is the enemy.
CNN clip: He’s more dangerous than Bin Laden, and the effects of Chavez’s war against America could eclipse those of 9/11.
Oliver Stone: Some believe he is the answer. But no matter what you believe, in South America he is just the beginning.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, my problem is I like underdogs, and it’s cost me because I’ve always gone for that. I just don’t like bullies, and I’ve hated them all my life. And that’s what we are. The underdogs have had very little chance, and they’re struggling, scraping out these revolutions. Reform is so difficult down there because they have so many…such an upper-class system that discriminates against people of color, discriminates against poor people, and you see it everywhere. And land reform is one of the hardest things to pull off, and that’s, as we know from Castro in Cuba, he…they still hate him for that, that he changed the equation. And, of course, Chavez, too, he changed the equation enormously. He brought out of extreme poverty a huge population, and they’ve never forgiven him for that.
So, actually these films that I’ve done have not…are not profitable. The United States’ average citizen doesn’t care about South America. It’s treated like an overgrown weed in the backyard for us. We never think about these people, but this is what we’re doing in our backyard, as if we owned the place. It’s one of the saddest stories of my lifetime that I’ve seen, it just…and my Salvador film was not that successful at first, only because of Platoon that it did carry; it was ignored. Same thing for South of the Border, Comandante, the two major documentaries I made. It’s been hard to do those subjects, very hard.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Yeah, but I do think you’ve made a difference in making the public care more about the region, so I appreciate that.
I wanted to close by asking you to…go ahead.
OLIVER STONE: I’m sorry, I just wanted to say that the name of the Chavez film was South of the Border, and I had interviews with eight presidents as I went around. It was an amazing sweep, a new social movement that was sweeping South America.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Yeah, it was a beautiful film. And it was amazing. It was an amazing time to think that all of those people were in power. And it’s really heartbreaking to see where some of those countries have since ended up.
But I wanted to close by just asking you to talk about Hollywood, because your former professor at NYU and fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese has caught attention for pointing out that the blockbusters coming out of Hollywood as of late have lost their sense as an art form, really, and he expresses real sadness over the fact that companies such as Netflix and Hulu as well as superhero movies and franchises seem to dominate the industry. Do you share his sentiment, and how do we get Hollywood back?
OLIVER STONE: Don’t ask me. I’m a pariah in the business, I suppose. I just don’t understand…I agree with him. It’s, you know, first of all we have to get theaters back. Right now, with COVID there’s no theaters, so there’s no even standard to go…there’s no movies until there are theaters. Because movies are collective experience, and you hope for the best when you have a collective experience, that other people have joined in and you have that sense of bonding whether it’s a comedy or a drama film. You feel it, an audience, it runs through the audience’s spine. That’s missing. Watching a film at home on a screen, even on a large screen, is not the same thing, unless you invite 100 people into your living room.
So, it’s difficult. When they do come back, the theaters, if they do, which I think they will, it’ll still be the same problem. It’ll be blockbusters because the kids go, and that’s…they want to see fantasy and big action. But the human dramas, which are often smaller in scale, are going to be more difficult to get through the system. It’s a tough problem, and it’s an art form that’s kind of disappearing, as all art forms do in some way or another. They get, you know, they get repurposed and, you know, there was a run on classical art, and there’s a new kind of filmmaking that will replace the old films. But I still love the old films. I mean, we have created in 100 years in the world, we’ve created a new enormous treasure of cinema, great stories that people don’t even know. I mean, they could sit at home and watch these movies they don’t even heard of, and they would be entertained. But that’s gone. It’s like fads have to…what is it, you know, what is time, but the new things come into being and sometimes they’re not as good, but they’re considered to be popular.
ANYA PARAMPIL: Yeah, yeah, in reading your book I definitely started to miss going to the movies. Just this…the feeling that you described just now. And also considering what you’ve just said, which is that films were very different, I think, when you were making the ones that you’ve written about in this book, and now we just don’t get the same level of quality, I feel. And the obsession with, like, made for TV Netflix, that kind of thing, I think we are losing an appreciation for these films. So, I would hope that viewers get your book, read it, and then also spend some time going back and watching old films. It’s a great way to spend quarantine. It’s definitely what I’ve been trying to do while stuck at home, and maybe your book will inspire people to look back at some of your work and a lot of the other films and directors that you speak about. Because they just stand the test of time.
OLIVER STONE: Also, another thing you could think about, I think, it’s very evident, is since 2001 the degree of patriotism of the films supporting the United States is evident. The Netflix world don’t really tolerate intense criticism. You have to check this out, and you’ll…very few films are honestly critical of the…call it the military or the foreign policy structure in this country, as my films were; they’re not being made. And there’s a reason. Either it’s self-censorship or because you just can’t get on…you can’t get a streaming service to back it. This is a serious problem.
ANYA PARAMPIL: It is, and I guess it’s in some ways up to the consumers to really demand a break with what we’ve got and show that we still have an appreciation for what used to be done. Because I think that’s the point of film, right? Is to…what you were doing, with criticizing the war in Vietnam or casting a light on just US society in general. I think that’s why we watch film. And so, I appreciate you making so much time for me this afternoon. And thank you for writing this book. And again, I hope viewers will read it and watch some old films.
OLIVER STONE: I hope so, too. Thank you very much.