MS. HORNADAY: It's wonderful to see you, and full disclosure, I didn't read this book; I inhaled this book.
MR. STONE: Oh, good.
MS. HORNADAY: This is a book that our readers and our viewers are going to want to ex out your day, get a comfortable chair, and read because you take us on an incredible journey and an incredible ride, much like your own films.
And, Oliver, as you say in the introduction we just heard, this is the first 40 years, and I was really intrigued and I found it revealing that the very first chapter is called "Child of Divorce." That is clearly still a primal identifier for you, and I wanted to ask you about that. Can you kind of tell us a little bit about the before and after of that period of your life?
MR. STONE: Yeah. It's mom and dad, right? I'm an only child, grew up in New York City, and I thought my life was really beautiful. I had an idyllic childhood. I thought they had money, and it all worked for a while up until about the age of 15, and then they suddenly got a divorce. After that, it was a shock to me because I didn't know anything. I was in school, and they told me by telephone, from long-distance telephone, that it was over, and I was quite stunned. It's a trauma in your life. It's like people lie to you. My parents had been very happy together, and all of a sudden, they're telling me they're not happy.
And I deal with that, and I go into the details of it because it was quite a divorce. It was brutal, and I didn't see my mother again for a while, really, basically, and then took a while to heal. I went off into a spin into--which basically I went to Vietnam as a teacher, and then I came back to college, left again, and ended up in Vietnam as a soldier. So, my life was rather disrupted for 5, 6 years, and then I came back from the war.
And Vietnam was quite a trip too. You know, it was not easy to come back from that thing, and when I got back, I went ultimately to film school but after a rough year of adjustment. And I talk about Vietnam in a very straightforward way, which I've never done before, and I think it's very honest about what I saw over there.
Again, what happens is a lie. When I talk about the lie, I say it with a capital "L" because that's what it is. It's the lie we told ourselves to go over there, the lie that we were winning the war, and I was in the front line. And we saw a lot of combat, but it was clear that we were not winning.
I came back kind of, you know, deluded by all this, and you have to realize that in this period, Kennedy was killed too, in 1963, which was when my parents divorced in '62. So, it was quite--everything was happening at one time. The causes of Kennedy's death, I had no idea of. I accepted the Warren Commission at that time. So, when I got back to the States, I went to NYU film school and tried to funnel all this, what I had seen of the world into learning film.
MS. HORNADAY: You know, you have an incredibly vivid--and you're right. You are stunningly candid about your experience in Vietnam, and there's a haunting passage where you describe coming across a scenario, an absolutely brutal scenario of dead soldiers, and you describe it as almost a spiritual experience, that it had a kind of strange spiritual beauty and power.
MR. STONE: Yeah. And you have to realize that I wrote the book when--I'm 74, now--72, whenever I did it. When I was there, I was a kid. I was 21, and in that battle, that particular battle, I was 21. I didn't see it that way, and recounting it, looking back at it, that's what I see. It was a very strange human-wave attack actually on January 1 in 1968, first night of the year, and we were attacked by a regiment, and we were about 800, a thousand soldiers. It was quite a battle, and yet in the middle of all this--all-night explosions, I did not see one enemy nor did I fire my gun, my rifle. It was a strange experience, and I described it in the book, I think, as well as I can.
But looking back, at the time, I was just--I didn't see the war in this perspective. I saw it--I was trying to stay alive. It was a grunt's point of view, and that's what I put into "Platoon," when I did that. This is a different take. This is looking back at the war.
MS. HORNADAY: Right, right. It's incredibly powerful, and one episode that is part of your coming back from Vietnam is when you go to Mexico and you write the novel that later was published as "A Child's Night Dream," but that's where you find yourself, right? It's in that act of creation and of writing that you feel that you're not a projection of somebody else's expectations. And as a writer myself, I just feel like this book is going to be such a powerful experience for anyone who is on a journey of self-discovery and those moments that make you, you know, the moments that forge you as not just an artist but as a discrete human being.
MR. STONE: Yeah. I identified that in the book. It was the first time I was able to be honest as to who I was. I had no identity before that. I was a school product. I was trying to be a good boy. I tried to be conformed. I went to Yale University. I did everything right. I got into Yale, but I couldn't last. I didn't see the point. I didn't see the point of that whole life, and I think that's part of the problem we've had in this country, this dislocation. A lot of people have felt this, and certainly, I was one of the early people who felt this because I never recovered in the sense of going back into society in a normal way.
Is that an answer, or is that...
MS. HORNADAY: Yes, it is because it's like it's a break. It's a break with that bourgeois track that you might have been on at one point in your life, and it's also very generational. We're here to talk about your book, which goes through the making of "Platoon," but this--I can't ignore the fact that this year marks the 30th anniversary of JFK, which I feel is such a symbolic generational anniversary, and you did mention the murder of John F. Kennedy as one of those ruptures, right? It's one of those lies that maybe you didn't recognize as a lie at the time but that you came to.
And I'm interested--obviously, we've talked about this, but, Oliver, I'm interested to hear you, you optioned--to make JFK, you optioned two books that were advancing pretty out there, conspiracy theories about the assassination. I think I and other viewers would be curious. Were you intending for JFK to meet the audience where they already were? Because more than 70 percent of Americans did not believe the Warren Commission at that time. Were you meeting the audience where they were, or did you want to change minds with that movie?
MR. STONE: No. Honestly, I was in the--right in the mass. I had no opinion of it. I was making movies. I started with--as you know, "Salvador" was my first successful movie as a filmmaker in 1985 and then "Platoon" in '86, which was a huge success worldwide. Nothing better could have happened. I mean, it was like the dream come true. I had always wanted to be a filmmaker since NYU film school at the age of 23, and here I was around 39 years old finally connecting in a big, big way. That's where I ended the book because, frankly, a lot happens before the end, and it's the right ending for that moment.
After 1986, after "Platoon," a whole other set of things happened. I make more films. I learned how to make films better. I make "Wall Street." I make "Born on the Fourth of July," "Talk Radio," "The Doors," which was a raucous, big film. I was learning each step of the way, and that's what I was concerned with at that time.
Of course, I had an outlook on the world. I was always interested in the world news and politics, but this woman, Ellen Ray, who had published this book by Jim Garrison called "On the Trail of the Assassins," which was his second attempt to write about this assassination--he had written another book in 1969, "Inheritance of Stone," but this one was "On the Trail of the Assassins." It was written like a thriller.
She gave it to me in an elevator. I mean, it was a whole story there, but I read the book not right away. I read it over a period of time, absorbed it, and it was as a hell of a detective story.
And I loved--since my film school days, I had loved the film "Z" by Costa-Gavras. I hope you remember that, 1969, I believe, Costa-Gavras. It was this story of a murder in Greece of a political murder. It starts Yves Montand, and it's a beautifully made film. It unravels as it goes. You find out more and more.
And I thought, you know, here was the basis for the movie. We could make--we have these events that happen in Dealey Plaza. We show them, the way we absorbed them on national television. We show all that, the murder and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, and the stunning series of events, the funeral. It all overcomes us with emotion, and that's the way the movie begins. And then, the district attorney of New Orleans, which is a true story, Jim Garrison thought like everybody else. This was the way it was.
But then, years later, he meets the senator, Russell, on the plane in Washington, D.C., off the plane, and they're talking casually about the assassination, and Russell, Richard Russell of Georgia, who was on the Warren Commission, tells him that he has his doubts about the film--about the shooting and why.
So, Garrison goes and he starts to read. He reads the Warren Commission book, which is six volumes, and he reads all the details, and then he starts reading all the other stuff he's read or you hear about. He digs deeper and deeper and deeper, and there's a lot of contradictions that emerge right away on the primary evidence, by the way. So, that's what hooked him, and we show that in the movie, his development, his obsession, his growth into his--his growing concern about--because a lot of these events took place in New Orleans, which is where Oswald was stationed for a while prior to the assassination before he was moved to Dallas. And there's quite a bunch of characters in New Orleans, as you know. It's a very strange and exotic city; I quite liked it. Garrison--the thing grows bigger than Garrison ever dreamed. Now, I knew Jim, and I'm telling it from his side, but it was a much bigger story.
Eventually, it turns into another movie, as you know, where he meets Donald Sutherland at the halfway point, and Sutherland, who is identified only as "X," who is based on a multiple character called "Pletcher Prouty," who was a real man as well as another individual, "Richard Nagell." That story is much bigger than the Garrison story. It's a bigger story of a worldwide concept of foreign affairs, what Kennedy is doing in office, why was he killed, what were the motives, and that's what the movie becomes about.
MS. HORNADAY: But, again, did you set out to change minds, or did you just want--
MR. STONE: No. Oh--
MS. HORNADAY: It sounds to me that you saw a great dramatic device for sort of a great thriller rather than to say this is the way it happened.
MR. STONE: That's exactly--
MS. HORNADAY: Okay.
MR. STONE: That's exactly. That's exactly.
MS. HORNADAY: And, you know, another thing, Oliver, almost more powerful, I think, than whatever theories people want to embrace about the Kennedy assassination, because, to me, JFK always proffered multiples, it never really landed on one. It was kind of this grand sort of collection of rabbit holes.
But now, 30 years later, we live in rabbit holes. It almost feels like the rabbit hole of JFK has become our collective way of life, and the mistrust of institutions that "Mr. X" is sort of an avatar for is now among us. I mean, it's just taken off. I mean, it's interesting to me that JFK comes out in '91, the same year that the internet comes out, right, so here we are.
But tell me, what do you make of where we are now? Has healthy skepticism given way to more destructive cynicism?
MR. STONE: Well, as one of our interviewers, David Talbot, says in the film, once you kill a sitting president in high noon in Dealey Plaza and blow his head off, you're not going to go back to normal and say, "Oh, wow! We found this whacky--this crazy lone nut who killed him." It doesn't work. It doesn't really work as a narrative for this country.
What happened was much deeper than that, and there was so many inconsistencies, so many holes in the Warren Commission. I'm not going to go there, but it's very important to go back there at one point, and that's what I did in a separate film, which I'll talk about with you in a moment.
The point is that you cannot remove legitimacy from government like that and get away with it, and the people knew something was wrong. They didn't know exactly what was wrong, but they sensed that something had gone astray, like anarchy has set in. Some method of control was being exerted because forces that were more powerful than one person were able to kill him, forces that were somewhat, I mean, clearly related to intelligence agencies, to possible military agencies, and these forces came to dominate American life. Right--[audio distortion]--Vietnam shortly after Kennedy was killed, and nobody asked, you know, what was Kennedy's real policy on Vietnam? Well, it's a very interesting story, and we go into it in this documentary called "JFK Through the Looking Glass," which is coming out this year at the Cannes Film Festival, and the story of Vietnam is one of many stories in the world picture. But he was going to pull out of Vietnam. He was very clear about it, and that's what people get confused.
Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, who took over the office went right to war quickly. He went to a far more aggressive posture of Vietnam, which resulted in more--
MS. HORNADAY: But what do you make of today, though, Oliver? I mean, you have to agree we are in a completely--you know, it's gone--tell me about how you feel about the conspiracy theories, the QAnons of the world and the big lie of the election being stolen.
MR. STONE: Listen, I have no truck with that. I don't follow conspiracy theories in general. I think it just sounds silly, but I'm not going to go there.
The point is I've been interested in this case, and I've done a hell of a lot of work with it, and so has my--so have a lot of researchers. And this is a solid--[audio distortion]--where we went to a war on a false basis. It was a lie, another lie, and that war was a disaster. It resulted in many changes, but not enough changes. Unfortunately, the same forces that made that war happen continued in our life, and they controlled us and pushed us into another war and another war and another war. And soon it was in Iraq, and then it was, as you know, in Iraq a second time and then Afghanistan, et cetera, and on and on and on. We're still stuck in this. We're stuck in a military industrial syndrome where a lot of money, trillions of dollars, are spent fighting wars abroad against forces that we call "darkness" and "evil," but we don't really know who the enemy is. I think we propagandize an enemy, make him far bigger than he is, and I don't know what we're fighting. We're just fighting because the military needs to keep going and needs to be funded, as though the intelligence agencies which have enormous amount of budget.
So, these things factor in. That's what we're in. We're in this loss of purpose, this anarchy, which came about, started really in 1963 on that day. That's what the link is, and we make that link in this new film.
MS. HORNADAY: I want to talk to you about the documentary. In recent years, you've left the narrative feature space and gotten into the documentary space, making films about people like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez and most recently about Vladimir Putin, and you've been criticized for not being as confrontational with them as you sometimes are with people here. And I just wonder how do you--let me proffer this: Reading your book, I realized that--did you go into those interviews less as an adversarial interviewer than as a person investigating character? I mean, tell me a little bit about what you thought you would--what that style of interviewing, where it got you.
MR. STONE: Well, I think you're talking about a lot of people that I--every time, I was going in as a dramatist, and I never pretended otherwise. I didn't say I'm a reporter from The Washington Post or from CBS News.
If you look at the reporting from all of our major networks, it's very hostile when it comes to people who we deem to be enemies, whether it's Chávez or whether it's Castro or Putin. I've never seen an interview done from the American perspective where they allow the subject to express himself in what he was seeking to do, what his purpose was.
Castro was very articulate, and so was Chávez, and so was Putin in his way, and I think I gave them a chance to talk and also in their native language. We never hear Putin speak in his native Russian, and we had a very good translator, interpreter working with him. I think it's crucial to understand Putin's point of view as it was Castro's, Chávez's. And also, Yasser Arafat, too, was in another one of my documentaries.
Now, you're going to fault me for not being adversarial enough, but those interviews never pay off. Those, I've seen where Mike Wallace goes in and beats them, beats Noriega on the head or whatever. They don't work. You don't get anything out of it, except a position. This is our position. Why are you this way? Why are you not behaving better? It goes nowhere. There's nothing learned.
So, I think I've been very humanist in my interviews and allowed the subjects to express themselves and ask very intelligent questions. It's not necessary to be their enemy. It's necessary to get them to express themselves. That's my point of view, and I guess you could say I'm a dramatist. And I think they're great stories. I'm very proud of those movies. I took a lot of heat, flack for the last one for Putin, but frankly, I'm very proud of it. It's a record for all time of a man who very few people have gotten to. Even the Russians tell me they've never seen their president so frank as he was on that interview.
MS. HORNADAY: Well, I could go on and on about just that alone. I'm curious if you--with the new news about the Colonial Pipeline hack and coming out of Russia, I mean, very little happens in that country without him either knowing it or sanctioning it. I'm curious if you think you see any of his fingerprints on there, having come to know him so well.
MR. STONE: Listen, there's been a campaign, a war against Russia going on for a long time. It started again in the United States around 2006, '07, when he made that speech in Munich, but I think there's no evidence really of the aggressiveness of Russia. The aggressiveness is truly coming from the NATO forces that have encircled Russia and that are also, by the way, encircling China. You know, this is a big policy point, huge, of huge importance, and if my life has any importance, maybe I'll come to a place where I can deal with it, confront it.
In this book, I only go as far as, as you know, 1986, and I was a babe in the woods. I've grown up a lot since then, seen the world in a much harsher light and more realist light, and we have to have people in the United States who speak up for the peace point of view, for let's make progress with the world. Let's get along with China. Let's get along with Russia, Iran, and so forth. We have to change our point of view because we are seeking to still be the only power in the world that is in control of the world. We cannot continue on this path; it's a suicidal path. And I think many Americans agree with me, but it's never been allowed to be stated politically. People who say this type of stuff never win elections because they're ridiculed or marginalized in the press, to be honest.
MS. HORNADAY: Again, I could go--I wish we had more time, but we don't, and I do want to return to the book. And I want to return to this amazing journey that you traced, that you take us through, because in a lot of ways, Oliver, this is a portrait of a different Hollywood, you know. I mean, this is a time when you had a champion in someone like John Daly, this great producer who allowed you to make those movies you wanted to make and championed you, advocated for you, stuck by you. Is there a place for you in today's Hollywood, both artistically and just as a business?
MR. STONE: I think, you know, you've put your finger on a pulse. Ann, I'm not sure I have the right answer, but I do know that it's been--I've been very lucky in the sense that I've been able to make 20 films--well, actually, the films after "Platoon." I've been able to make the "Platoon"--"Salvador," "Platoon"--about 18 films the way I wanted to make them, which is quite incredible.
And also, I sought out the financing for each one of those films. None of them were easy to get made. None. But I always stuck to what I had written or co-written, and it was very important for me. I never became a hire director. I never did basically a job outside my own mindset, my own writing, co-writing.
The last film I did, "Snowden," which is in 2016, came out, was financed by French and German and some Italian sources. We finally got some financing from the United States, but frankly, we were turned down by every studio. Why? The "Snowden" script was a good script, and his story, it was told--it was done with is input. It was his version of what happened, and he was an American. Whatever you think of him, hero or you can call him a traitor if you want, but whatever you think of him, he made the news. He had impact on the world, and that was a story I chased. And I did it authentically, and I think the movie is accurate. He says so, and it didn't--it didn't get any--much distribution in this country. It was much better received in France and Germany and Europe--not in England but in Europe, so I'm puzzled. I am puzzled.
You can argue that the film on its merits--you're a film critic. I don't know what you said about it, but those are the kinds of movies I want to do. I think the Assange movie was important. It was done, but it was not done in the proper way. I do think there's a very important movie in that film, and maybe I'll come back and do that. But it's a struggle every time. Every time.
MS. HORNADAY: Well, and there's no denying--
MR. STONE: But this is engaging.
MS. HORNADAY: Well, and I feel like, you know, I became a critic very soon--you know, in the '90s, and that was when it all--that was when the tent poles took over, right? I mean, I feel like you were kind of riding a crest of a wave where the whole culture of Hollywood changed. The culture of moviegoing changed. Audience expectations changed, and so maybe these more--I call them "dangerous movies," right? These are the more substantive, sharp-edged, zeitgeist-capturing films that you have done just consistently and that this book is the beginning of.
And that's where--we are close on running out of time, but you are so great in this book about writing about the emotional highs and lows. There are moments in this story where you don't think you're going to be able to live another day in terms of making your next film, and then it ends on that triumphant Oscar night when "Platoon" wins best picture. And it's just such a vivid--it's just a beautiful ride, and of course, like all great screenwriters, you leave us with a cliffhanger. So, I must ask, is there a sequel coming?
MR. STONE: Yes. I'm working on it. You forgot I got a kiss from Elizabeth Taylor that night. That was also very important, and it was the--
MS. HORNADAY: I mean--
MR. STONE: Because she was the movie star of my youth that I most was awed about, and to get a kiss from her, it was an amazing night. And it capped--it was the flower on the cake, the cherry on the cake.
So, after that, where do you go? That's a real high. You have to remember I also got an Oscar before that for "Midnight Express," so this is my second one. But this one was the one.
Now, it becomes an interesting story, though, because how do you--where do you go after your dream is achieved? I've made the film I wanted, the most important film, because I had been in Vietnam. So, what do you do next? Well, I'll tell you what you do. One thing you do is you learn how to make films better, and I went right to "Wall Street" because my father had been in Wall Street. I knew something about it, and I wanted to do something about that world because it hadn't been done in a while. And that's sort of what I've been doing ever since, trying to keep something fresh, do something that hasn't been done. "Talk Radio" was next. No one knew about "Talk Radio," and then "Born on the Fourth of July" was the story of Ron Kovic, which was a sad, sad story about Vietnam and about the country and about what we went through.
So, I followed my path that way, and I'm very lucky, and I'm very grateful. And I guess if I can't make the movies that I want to make, I'll write the book about making those movies and tell the truth about them and tell the truth about the obstacles I faced and the difficulties this country is facing.
MS. HORNADAY: Well, I'm glad to hear there is another one coming because to anyone who is interested in finding yourself, perseverance, creative audacity, and political courage, I would say read "Chasing the Light" and then read the next one.
Unfortunately, Oliver, that's all the time we have today.
MR. STONE: I appreciate it.
MS. HORNADAY: I can't thank you enough for joining us.
MR. STONE: Appreciate you having me. Thank you, Ann. Bye-bye.
MS. HORNADAY: Thank you.
And thanks to all of you for watching. You can tune in at 11:00 Eastern Time tomorrow when my colleague, Robin Givhan, will interview the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie Bunch, and Anthea Hartig, the director of the National Museum of American History, as museums around the country prepare to full reopen.
And, of course, you can always head to washingtonpostlive.com to register and find more information about upcoming programs.
For now, I'm Ann Hornaday. Thank you again for joining us today.
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