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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States is a 12-part documentary series that calls upon viewers to reexamine America in a way that only the incendiary filmmaker can. But Stone’s firebrand storytelling style first exploded audiences’ perception of history in 1991, when JFK took a provocative, in-depth look at the truth – and perhaps as importantly, the perception of truth – surrounding one of the country’s most shocking and tragic moments. The film was re-released this week on Blu-ray in a deluxe box set that includes a chapter from Stone’s Untold History series, as well as several other featurettes and documentaries exploring the legacy of President John F. Kennedy and the circumstances surrounding his assassination.
Stone spoke to reporters at a recent Los Angeles press day commemorating the release of the two sets, and offered some insights into the historical context not just of the events in the projects he created, but of the projects themselves. Additionally, he announced plans for yet another version of Alexander, his opus about the Macedonian king, and talked about the opportunity for filmmakers to inject social commentary into their projects, even if they involve, say, Tony Stark or Steve Rogers rather than historical figures.
As a filmmaker, what are the chief differences between documenting history as you do in your Untold series and dramatizing it as you do in JFK?
Oliver Stone: Huge difference. I mean, you have actors, you have sets, you have a script. This is all raw. All you have is the archive footage and Peter Kuznick, who is a historian. I’m a dramatist. We’re coming together. I’m trying to take this book, which is about 25 hours of film, maybe 35 hours of film, and I’m trying to simplify it down to a dramatic formula that could work. I wanted to make documentaries exciting. Now, some people say, “This is too much. There’s too much going here. I can’t follow it all.” That’s OK. I’d rather have it go faster because I have to cover so much. But I’d rather you look at it a second time because I think kids might do that. I often look at a documentary a second time if there are things that are flying by me, but we have fact-check. We have graduate students, research. Peter’s been teaching history for 35 years. He made mistakes, too, but we had a fact-check from Showtime, a very serious one. We had our own fact-checker who was also very tough. And finally, CBS did a fact-check because they own Showtime. They wanted just to make sure that legally they wouldn’t be sued by, for example, the World War II – when we went after these World War II, American corporations that were supporting fascism. They wanted to be very clear about stuff like that.
As a dramatist there’s always a challenge in balancing a great story with your responsibility to the subject matter. Have you ever found that those two clash?
Totally. That’s why this was the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on, honestly. JFK is thick, it’s complex — I mean, the amount of material we had to condense and had to combine, but in history, it was 10 times harder. There was just so much rewriting, there were times I was in complete despair; I couldn’t imagine having to rewrite again for the screen, because we’d find out things as we went. Like, we started in 2008 and sometimes, two years later, you’d find out something that would blow your theory, so you’d really have to go back and constantly reexamine it like a PhD would do. And that goes for Peter, too – I would question him, he would question me. We’d go back and forth, and it was very difficult for me. I can’t tell you. Now in film, they cut corners all of the time, all of the time, and I know that, because I’ve seen a lot of films that do that and I object to them when I see them that way. But sometimes a film provokes you to think about it, and you go back and you read more. I said that when JFK came out — OK, don’t buy the film, don’t believe it necessarily, but go out and read. Read the other versions that are not getting in the mainstream press, which is back in the “Oswald did it alone” Warren Commission theory.
Did what you learned while you were researching and making Untold History alter your opinion at all of any of your own historical films like JFK or Nixon?
No, actually. I mean, no, I can’t say so. I know what I did in Salvador — I combined a lot of stuff. I had to. I jammed it, because that was my first big film. Yeah, I would probably — but that was a film that was what it was. It was an insane gonzo film. I’d say that was the least accurate, historically, but I think Nixon, JFK and W. do hold up. So does Salvador as a film. And by the way, I agree with the Leftists in that battle. They fought a horrible war, the United States got involved, same as in the film, and helped support a repressive regime. No, I can’t back off on that. Not that I was looking at that. I would have entertained any — I would tell you if I felt differently. Except Alexander, I re-did a fourth cut. You’ll see it next year. Not for historical reasons, for dramatic reasons. I was too close to history in some ways. You’ll see it next year from Warner Bros. They did very well with the third cut in 2007 and this fourth cut is the best yet.
Wasn’t the third cut called “the final cut”?
It was called the final cut. [Laughs] This is the ultimate cut. I came up with a better one. What’s beyond ultimate? Nothing. This is it. This is it. I don’t have any more for you. Come on, I went back for nothing and did it again.
Your films throughout your career have not just been subject to the usual filmmakers getting film criticism, but socio-political criticism has come your way.
When you do a project like this that is based on facts rather than your interpretation dramatically of something, do you react differently to that criticism?
I try to go on shows with Peter, but they will always have an Oliver Stone effect. It’s my name – I have created enough controversy that I’m always fighting an image. JFK was that divide. I was criticized for Born on the Fourth and Platoon and for Doors before that — less so for Wall Street, although it was. And when I made JFK, I never really came back. I reached a place where I was radical, I was not to be trusted. My critics said I was making up things. Well, we researched that movie, we put out a book a compendium to that movie that is still available. We may have made a few mistakes, nothing major. We got it right from eyewitnesses and all the information that we read. And the AARB, the Assassination Records Review Board, appointed in 1992, went on ‘till 1998, they had four million pages that substantiates and opens up further the holes we pointed out. That Warren Commission is Swiss cheese. It’s Alice in Wonderland. It doesn’t make any sense, from the magic bullet theory to Oswald, the members knew that. Even Lyndon Johnson doubted the findings, they knew it was a whitewash any more than the 9/11 Commission was finally trusted. We don’t have a good record in our country, except for the Gerald Nye Committee, which is in our book. Gerald Nye, in the 1930s, did a great job investigating war profiteering in World War I. He found quite a lot of shit and Woodrow Wilson and Morgan Bank. But that was on the event of World War II, so his timing wasn’t very good. If we went to war, he wanted the profiteers to pay 98-percent on their corporate profits at that point. It’s a good proposal [laughs].
In JFK, the style of editing that you created seems really unique — you kind of cut in on people while they’re talking and give this sort of subjective impression at the same time that you’re giving objective impression. Where did you come up with that?
It came out of the movie. The script of JFK was very fresh. In fact, it was so fresh it was written in that style that I had to go back and I took out about 30 percent of the cutting so Warner Bros. could understand the script. It was really more of a political decision. And then when we went back to the editing room I went back essentially to that version of cutting up things, but it wouldn’t have been understandable. You wouldn’t have been able to make it. Kevin Costner would not have committed if he’d read a script that he couldn’t understand. So, yeah, you could not do that on paper, you had to do it in the editing room. So we kept with that style pretty much through Natural Born Killers, to some degree Nixon, and to some degree on Any Given Sunday, but I never felt the need for that subjectivity as I did on JFK and Natural Born Killers. For some reason it was more me commenting on the material. And I got so much criticism for that that in a sense I backed away from that style and with Alexander tried to make a more objective film, as well as classical. There’s nothing wrong with classical style. I like it, too. And the recent films have been mostly in that style. Maybe I’ll go back.
When JFK came out, and a few of your other films, there’s always a debate about what’s factual or politics, is that ever frustrating as a filmmaker that they’re not looking at the craftsmanship and what’s on screen?
Yes, it’s frustrating and I think a lot of my movies have been judged more for content than for the style of the movie, and the narrative flow, and the smoothness of it. I think that’s a shame. I think in some ways I was eliminated from the list of filmmakers because I had things to say. I do. And I think it’s always nice to have a critic, a Roger Ebert, come along and say, “Look, this is good filmmaking.” I work very hard at filmmaking. I spend hours in the editing room, too, and writing, directing, all that. I take it very seriously. It’s a craft. It takes skill, but skill seems to be- well it’s a new style now. It seems like people can just throw up anything, and make a movie, and it’s called a movie. It’s a different ballgame completely. Perhaps I’m past that. I’m out of it to some degree. Certainly [Untold History] didn’t help me, because doing something like this doesn’t allow you to develop films and to work in that environment. I was doing documentary for the last five years, I did film, yes, but I wasn’t developing new films. So yeah, I find myself a little bit confused by the landscape. I can’t follow everything. They make 16 movies a week. I can’t. I just don’t have an understanding of that.
Is part of the teacher in you hoping that this release maybe enlightens the public again?
JFK? I don’t know. JFK has a great speech at the end: “It’s up to you,” it ends. Costner’s last summation in the courtroom is based on his final — it’s almost, not verbatim, but it’s based on his final words. Do I think it would have a result? Listen, it was there then, it is there now. I hope people can see it again. I hope you remind them of some of the power of the film. I would urge them to think for themselves. How we can get a true candidate for reform is an issue in this country. How do we get away from a two party system to a third party, which would truly be a reform party, is a big question. There’s ways the world changes without domestic issues; the ways that they change externally. Maybe the Chinese in some way can affect the United States economy and help us to see ourselves in a better light. Maybe more Chinese, Asian immigrants, more Hispanic immigrants, it’s very helpful to pushing the United States away from a rigid, white mentality, which seems to be what we’ve seen in Congress.
Is it possible for you to make a film like JFK today? Or do you see a film like Savages having a commentary now that maybe JFK had when it came out?
No. I think [Untold History] is my attempt to do that. This is a bigger movie than JFK. This is not about one president being killed. This is about the system being subordinated to higher needs of military, industrial, corporations, and the United States after World War II. This is really what it’s about. This is a huge subject. It cannot be done as a feature film. How can you do it? Have three generations of people live through this? It would be a TV series- possibly as a TV series, but it would have to be very ingeniously written.
Meanwhile, Hollywood makes more and more big-budget action films. But are there lessons to take away from, say, Iron Man about war profiteering or Captain America about patriotism?
I wouldn’t criticize everything. It’s the level of violence. If people think bringing machine guns to your last meeting is a solution to a television series that is highly popular, I think they’re insane. Something’s wrong. It’s not the world that we know. But, I don’t know the last Iron Man, but yeah, there could be some good stories about war profiteering with good moral tales. Comics were that for that reason. Remember the original comics. When you reach the high technology level of a Michael Bay with Transformers, I don’t understand the meaning or reason, except that it appears to be some visual sense or kinetic sense of dynamism and a need for action. Action is not always a solution. Character is.
I think JFK had some great lessons. I got lots of letters from people back then that this really changed my life. I made me think about things in a different way. I can’t give you all the facts, but I can think about things in a different way. Our government is not necessarily one to be trusted. […] Governments lie, that goes on all the time. Jim Garrison, criticized as he was, was one of the gutsiest guys to ever bring a case in the public against the covert operation of this government. That is splendid. He was much criticized when our movie came out, now he might be seen as more of an oracle for today’s age than as a looney-tune.
You said during the making of JFK how you thought that movie was going to be the end of you. Do you always get that kind of feeling making a movie?
Well, I was gambling big stakes, and I just knew that I was going to get — I was just up against a big … it was a big appetite there. Alexander was the story of a man who set out to — who did explore to the end of the world, conquered, too, and never lost a military battle; tremendous man, interesting, also an educator. He never went back. He never looted the places and went back to Macedon or Greece like most of the conquerors did. He actually tried to integrate that which he conquered with what he knew. He intermarried his armies, his generals, the culture. Of course he pissed off a lot of people doing so. In other words, he was integrating the world, which is a wonderful idea, and I think leads to peace. And he was a peacekeeper in the end. In fact, his battles were very economical in terms of what he lost. He preserved life. He really was a peacekeeper, in my opinion. That’s why I made the movie. And the fourth version you have to see, please. Its only three hours and 26 minutes, but you must see it. It’s one of my best films.