Seitz was kind enough to hop on the phone and talk about the making of his massive new book as well as Oliver Stone himself, the director of “Platoon,” “JFK” and, most recently, “Snowden.” This conversation will run in two parts. Thursday’s portion will focus largely on “The Oliver Stone Experience” and Stone’s films as films; Friday’s examines the political angle of Stone’s work.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to talk about the book as a physical object. … Between this and the Wes Anderson books, you’ve put together a couple of really monumental film books here. What do we lose when we move away from the physical book and into the digital, kind of Kindle-type realm?
When we experience books digitally we lose the bookness of books. … I was really adamant at the very beginning that these have an integrity as objects. And I have a lot of really good film books, coffee table books. But a lot of them are basically an interview with some pictures stuck in. And what I really wanted to do was make this more like the experience of watching a film, where there’s, you know, an aesthetic relationship between the book that you hold in your hand and the subject of the book.
And, in a way, in all four of those books that I did with Abrams are portraits of a subject. There’s two of Wes Anderson, there’s one of “Mad Men,” and there’s one of Oliver Stone. We really tried to make them in the spirit of the thing being discussed. The “Mad Men” book is a small fat paperback, it’s printed on the same paperstock that was used in the first edition of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and the illustrations are done in an early 1970s-style, and, in fact, they’re modeled on the illustrations in a paperback book that I had when I was a child, Ray Bradbury’s “The October Country.” So, yeah, there’s definitely a lot of, we’re thinking about it as a total experience and not just as an interview with pictures. Because if it’s just an interview with some pictures thrown in, you could go to Wikipedia.
The Stone book, I will say, was a lot of fun, because Stone is just aesthetically so different from Wes Anderson or “Mad Men.” … There’s a lot of parts where we’re having a conversation about a particular thing and then you turn the page and there’s an image that’s kind of shocking, a two-page spread that’s sort of shocking. A jumper diving out of the World Trade Center Towers — not the real one, but the one from his movie. Or a second gunman behind the fence of the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza. And those are supposed to be the equivalent of “shock cuts” in an Oliver Stone film, where somebody will be talking and then all of a sudden he’ll cut to something really bizarre or frightening, and then resume the conversation. To a point, the entire book, the idea is you’re sitting on the bench with X from “JFK” and he’s laying it all out for you — only in this case Oliver Stone is playing the role of X.
I love that analogy. It really does feel like a book with a rhythm, a book that has been kind of edited in that JFK fashion — kind of jazzy, obviously very structured but also very free flowing. One of the things I really enjoyed about this were the footnotes that Oliver Stone provides to the critical essays that you write at the front of each chapter. Was that your idea, was that his idea? Obviously this is a filmmaker you care about a great deal, both professionally and personally — was there some concern on your part on writing honestly about the art of somebody you respect so much?
Well, I have to say, Oliver Stone takes criticism way better than I do. I gotta give him that. … As for the footnotes, I showed him various versions of the book as we were working on it to get his input because I figured it was the least I could do considering how generous he’d been with his time and his materials. And he took issue with some of the things in the book. He didn’t like the fact that I interrogated him about his portrait of women and minorities. He didn’t think that there needed to be a five-page section about allegations that he’s a sexist. He was uncomfortable at first with the section on the portrayal of African Americans in his movies.
But he went with the flow and the trickiest part was the critical essays — I don’t love every Oliver Stone film, and I don’t love parts of even the films I love. And I said so. And he didn’t like that, he didn’t like that this permanent record had some parts where I said “this didn’t work, that didn’t work.” And he said, “could you please amend that, or soften it, or change it,” and I said I really would rather not. Because if you were talking about a factual issue pertaining to your life, I would say absolutely. But this is my opinion. He said “Yeah, but I think you’ve misinterpreted that or I don’t think you understand that” and I said “Tell you what: Why don’t you tell me exactly what your objection is and I’ll transcribe it and we’ll make it a footnote.” So you have these footnotes all through the book where Oliver Stone is telling me I’m an idiot or I’m full of s‑-t.
And I should say parenthetically, and this is really important: None of this stuff that you admire would exist without the designer of the book, Martin Venezky. Martin Venezky designed the Wes Anderson collection and the “Grand Budapest Hotel” book. And Martin is a fine artist based in San Francisco, he doesn’t work like anyone else. I’d say the relationship between me and Martin is very similar to the relationship between Oliver Stone and maybe Robert Richardson [the director of photography on “Platoon,” “JFK,” and many other Stone films]. In the sense that Martin is the guy with the eye — like I could come up with some cockamamie idea, but I could never do that. It’s Martin who does this, and I really want to mention Martin in this — not just because he’s extraordinary, but you know, he finished this book while his partner was dying. The book is dedicated to his partner, he died like earlier this year, and he did the final pass on the design at his partner’s hospital bed.
So did you bring boxes of material from Oliver Stone’s apartment and house to your designer and say “here’s stuff I want to use”? How did that partnership work exactly?
[Stone] said “I have some files that may be of interest to you,” and I said “well I’d love to see them, what do I do?” He said “they’re organized by chronologically, usually by film, why don’t you just tell me what films you want and we’ll bring the boxes out of storage”—he keeps them at an air-conditioned storage locker, I don’t know where they are. So I said well let’s start chronologically and work our way through, so one of his assistants went to his storage locker and brought out all the boxes pertaining to “Seizure,” “The Hand,” and “Midnight Express” and “Conan the Barbarian,” and they were like, probably, 12 boxes, just on those movies. File boxes. And they were subdivided — I’ve gotta say, he’s very organized or his people are, because they were really easy to go through. There’s one box just of various versions of the screenplays. And there’s another version with treatments. There’s another box with financial records, publicity advertising, and also usually there’d be like a big fat folder full of clippings with how the film was received. And in some cases, letters from Oliver Stone to publications complaining about articles that had been written about him. There were a lot of those. …
It was just incredible. The original draft of this book, the first draft was 880 pages, which would’ve been a 12-lb book, which obviously you can’t sell that. So we had to cut it in half. Among the stuff that got cut, there were makeup tests for John Malkovich as Nixon, he was originally going to play Nixon. There was a letter from Harrison Ford’s agent passing on the role of Jim Garrison in “JFK.” There was a telegram from Cher, congratulating him on the success of “JFK” and calling him a great American. There were, and the letters, you know, we have a two-page spread of fragments of letters written to Oliver Stone, but there’s like, there’s probably three boxes of letters from people to Oliver Stone, just about “JFK.” And there were, some of them were like “hey congratulations, great movie,” others are like “you horrible liberal traitor scum how dare you.” But others were along the lines of “now that you’ve done JFK can you please tell me who killed Marilyn Monroe,” or “I had an encounter with Bigfoot in 1978 and no one believes me, can you please tell my story.” …
You talk about the fact that he takes criticism very well, but he also kind of seems to consume — I talk to filmmakers and authors and other people and they say, you know, “I can’t read my own clips, I can’t read my own reviews.” And he seems to have a kind of encyclopedic recall of the things that people in the New York Times and other outlets have said about him. And you mention he has these boxes of clippings. … How does that affect him, do you think? Do you think he puts much stock in what critics say about him, or do you think he kind of lets it all roll off?
He says he doesn’t put much stock in it. But I think he does. How could you not? I mean, he’s still deeply wounded by things that have been written about his movies, and about him personally, from 20 years ago, 30 years ago. And he still has recall for particular phrases from negative reviews of his films. But I think almost every filmmaker has that. I think a lot of the ones who say that they don’t read their reviews are lying. And I think the ones that are honest, that are telling the truth, I think they have a more of a self-protective instinct than Oliver does. Oliver exposes himself to hurt more nakedly than almost anyone I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never met anyone like that guy, like the way he just sort of opens up his, he just opens up his shirt and says “here, shoot the arrow right into my heart, go ahead.” …
Oliver has traditionally been very frustrated with the labels that have been hung on him. Particularly after “JFK.” And still to this day, people describe him as ‘left wing, conspiratorial muckraker Oliver Stone.’ And I don’t think that’s really been true for a really long time, and I think it’s really only true for like, maybe, three, maybe four movies that he’s been involved with? I think he’s a political filmmaker. Undoubtedly. And I don’t just mean in the sense of politics, that he has a worldview that he articulates in every movie, even genre films like “U Turn” and “Natural Born Killers.” Those are political films too. But it bothers him that people don’t see anything else but that. And he doesn’t think it’s fair. And I don’t really either. That’s one of the reasons why I did this book. …
I definitely picked up a kind of “Hitchcock/Truffaut” [a 1966 book-length interview of Alfred Hitchcock by the French director Francois Truffaut] vibe in this in the sense that when Truffaut was doing that book he was trying to rescue Hitchcock’s reputation —
Yes, that’s exactly it.
So if you had to say, you know, “My thesis statement on Oliver Stone as a filmmaker is, it is unfair to say X and this is what he actually is,” how would you formulate that?
Oliver Stone is the Dark Spielberg. He has an incredibly sophisticated grasp of film grammar, but he’s shaping his stories and characterizations to appeal to the widest possible audience. He wants to be a popular filmmaker, he wants to, he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed in the art house, he never has. And that’s why his influences include everyone from Jean Luc Godard and Luis Buñuel to Stanley Kramer. …
[T]here’s a consensus that his peak was 1986 to about 1999, and I think that’s probably true, but only because the films he made during that period were kind of miraculous. Their mere existence was miraculous. That they were unusually conceived, stylish, exciting films is just gravy.
But I think that the movies he made after that are interesting too, particularly in relation to the earlier ones. I think that if we can look at the late films of other great American filmmakers and find something of interest there, we should be able to do the same thing with Oliver. I think that “World Trade Center,” “Alexander,” and “W.” and “Snowden” are at least as interesting as the last four films of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. And John Huston! You know? I mean, like, I think we’re talking about, when you talk about late Stone you’re talking about John Huston’s “The Dead” versus “The Maltese Falcon.” But “The Dead” is a really interesting movie!