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Oliver Stone: On Film Biography

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Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
Writer-director Oliver Stone was in the final weeks of postproduction on Nixon when this interview was conducted. Under unavoidable pressure, appearing a bit weary, Stone was nevertheless spirited, buoyant, and often jovial, prone to laughing frequently and heartily, including at some of his own foibles. In retrospect, I have the impression that he welcomed the opportunity to emerge from prolonged, intense work on the film to begin reflecting on its processes as well as preparing himself for how Nixon [1995] would be received. Stone was also very generous with his time, despite several necessary interruptions.

While projecting twentieth-century U.S. history through the biography of the thirty-seventh president, Stone also projects a veritable history of the film medium through a profusion of techniques—from the associative metaphors of Griffith to the high-tech digital matting of Industrial Light and Magic; Soviet con- struction to the deep focus of Welles; the experimentation of the 1950s and 1960s to the Saturday afternoon newsreels of the pretelevision era. Though a “calm, thoughtful” film, as Stone describes it, the freewheeling incorporation of techniques and formal devices works to hypercharge, indeed transcend what is usually one of the most staid of genres, the solemn historical biography.
Nixon also enables Stone to amplify themes at the crux of several of his other films: the ascent and influence of the military industrial complex, the Vietnam War, the CIA-organized crime coalition, the JFK assassination, how power and avarice corrupt, how mass media pollutes American culture and society, how the 1960s were a turning point in our historical destiny, how individuals must struggle for their own redemption. The issues in Nixon, however, are viewed from the apex of power, which in part shades the steep, abrupt fall of the protagonist.

Nixon begins with the beam of a 16mm projector cutting through the confines of a dark room to show a cheerfully ingenuous 1950s-style sales training film, then moves to Nixon in the firelit gloom of the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House pondering his own involvement in the Watergate quagmire. Stone once remarked that what each of his characters had in common was the fight for identity, integrity, and the fate of their soul—sometimes losing it, sometimes regaining it—and that he felt the highest virtue was the Socratic one: to know thyself. The juxtaposition between a lesson in self-promotion and the psycho- logical disability of the uncomprehending and unrepentant chief executive indi- cates that, by this criterion, Nixon committed the ultimate error. The confusion and doubt at the core of Nixon’s success is Death of a Salesman raised to something like the tenth power.

– Ric Gentry

The following extract from Ric Gentry’s interview with writer-director Oliver Stone revolves around the idea of cinematic biography, its limitations and possibilities.

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: How do you prepare for your shot?

OS: Basically it’s a changing process. It’s somewhere in between improvisation and planning. In writing, or cowriting the material, I absorb every single line, totally, as a writer. So it’s set, in my head. It’s visualized. It’s seen. I come to the set. I’m not Hitchcock. I wouldn’t be able to function under that tedium, of shooting something prearranged. So I’m always trying to refine it in my head. So as the day goes, perception happens, enlightenment occurs. That’s what makes it interesting.
Let’s say you come to a scene and you think it out in twelve to fifteen shots and all of a sudden—it clicks. You can do it in seven. Or nine. Or four. That’s when it’s interesting because suddenly you thought you had it preconceived, you thought you had it figured out and you were wrong. So you’re obviously testing yourself and it’s a game you play, a warrior-athlete kind of thing. It’s interesting. It’s fun.

I don’t use storyboards unless it’s ultra complicated and something involving armies and a lot of money. (Where there’s) a lot of money (involved), you might have to do that. But if you can shoot it—within my confines, it’s in my head—I come up with it, my shot list, shot for shot, and that’s the one that’s ready. That’s my fallback position. Rehearsal occurs. Actors bring enormous contributions and changes. This is the second set of rehearsals by the way (on the set). The first set’s already occurred before the production. This is organized. We’re very organized. We improvise off preparation...

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: How is Nixon structured?

OS: The film is the most complex structure I’ve done. More so than JFK. Natural Born Killers, if you study the structure, is also complicated. Because there are things that happen inside time, and inside of that. In Nixon, we’re outside time, inside time, outside time, inside time, it goes back and forth. I love it. It’s like going into an architecturally modern building and being surprised at every corner. Because we do things . . . there’s a newsreel in the middle of the picture [laughs] which retraces his steps. We retrace his steps two to three to four times in the movie. It is extremely complex.

RG: So you might want to go back over the same event, looking at it from a separate perspective?

OS: Yes.

RG: Like Citizen Kane in a way?

OS: Yes. It’s the totality of his life. It’s an interpretation of his life. It’s a myth about his life. [Laughs.] It’s what we choose to see Nixon as. Nixon is a prism for us, too, and looking at him we can only judge ourselves. Each person can stand in a different position and look and see and reflect and be reflected on.

RG: A man who was elected president and reelected by the most decisive margin in our history has to be a reflection of his country.

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
OS: That would be an indication. And just his years as a politician. A great many years in public life. One person described it nicely to me in saying, in each scene you never know which Richard Nixon you’re going to meet. So, in other words, sometimes you think he’s contemptible and sometimes you think he’s magnifi- cent. And you go to the things between. So I would say, it’s purpose is character study. When I was pitching it at Warner Brothers and they turned us down, I said it was a character piece, a portrait. And I implied that they could look at examples like Patton [1970] or Gandhi [1982], and consider it that way. That’s why it was called Nixon, as opposed to JFK. JFK was not a biography. JFK’s a code. I imagined it like Z. A code for something else. JFK is not featured. I’ve done biography, with [Jim] Morrison [The Doors] and Kovic and lately [Le Ly] Hayslip [Heaven & Earth, 1993]. And Boyle, Richard Boyle, to some degree [in Salvador, 1986].

RG: And the Midnight Express [1978] character.

OS: Yes.

RG: The Tony Montana character in Scarface [1983, which Stone wrote] is situated in the context of real events. I think one of the great things about your films is how they impinge on or parallel things that have occurred, often examining political situations or cultural institutions through drama. Even the style sometimes strives to make that political or cultural situation more deeply felt with a documentary kind of camera.

OS: I’ve been fracturing biography for years. And now with Nixon, I think the first hour and a half of the movie is the antecedents of the man. It’s all the threads that lead to him. At the halfway point, you come up to the Republican convention, national convention (in 1968). Halfway, and that is when he gets the power, so we enter into another arena now. What does he do now, now that we’ve seen the antecedents of the man? What are going to be the consequences? And the second part is more linear. And proceeds in more linear fashion for that reason.

JFK (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: So that’s his administration.

OS: Yeah, but I feel the antecedents are complex. And I’m not sure that we even got them all. I think there’s more stuff we could’ve done. But given the limitations of my mind and the script—the opening is intended as antecedent.

RG: What are some of the features of the antecedents?

OS: The threads of his life: loss, death, class warfare, bitterness, Quakerism. These are some of the antecedents. Also great idealism. We must not forget. Great idealism. Invoked by his mother. But, an idealism that is more image than reality.

RG: Is the movie too complex, too confusing to an audience?

OS: I don’t know. Maybe it is. This is a gamble again. I was afraid on Natural Born Killers. That was one of the few movies I ever took out and previewed. I had time to. But I took it out quietly to Seattle and showed it two different nights to younger people, admittedly a music audience, so it was favorable in our direction, but I was enormously relieved that they understood the effect of the film, because it was extremely fast, at that point.

This was probably the first film with that amount of imagery that quick. And I thought, maybe the synapses were just going to collapse. [Laughs.] It was scary. But—it worked. I mean, we pulled back on a lot of the chaos. There was more chaos in that cut. And we pulled back on the chaos a bit.

Natural Born Killers (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: In a sense, pacing it out a little less intensely or dynamically?

OS: Yeah, yeah. And pulling out some of the wild cutting, the juxtaposition of imagery is pretty insane. And we pulled back. And we pulled back even a little more with the MPAA. So by the time it came out and everyone was saying it was such a radical film, I was shocked because we made 150 cuts for the MPAA. And on top of that we’d peeled it back a bit for Warners.

I’m glad to say the director’s cut will come out now. It was a struggle for awhile to get it out, but we’re going to get out this director’s cut of NBK. Nobody has seen that film. Those are my rhythms with my editors. That’s the way the film was submitted to the MPAA. And we‘re going to add another twenty minutes of scenes on the back of the video, scenes that were never even submitted that were shot. Some of them—crazy. [Laughs.]

With Nixon, I guess I would say that although the plot is complex, the camera is quieter. More classical. Containing Nixon. And being contained by Nixon. You understand the duality. And Nixon controls much of it. Although, there are overlays, I think, of good air. You need a breather in a word film, a film about the word. This is a dialogue movie. And character movie. Character and dialogue movie. But you need air in these things. I never liked the kinds of movies that go for Academy Award performances by putting the camera on the actor and letting the actor just like run with the ball.

Natural Born Killers (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: Just follow the actor.

OS: Yeah, it becomes to me—they say that’s nondistracting. I find that distracting. [Laughs.] Scent of a Woman [1992] is a case in point. It’s made by a very good director but because it’s Al [Pacino], he just puts the camera on Al and that’s it. There’s no judiciousness in that. So I think that attitude is important.

Directors are faced with a tremendous temptation, and choice, each moment of each day. Directors are tested in a sense—their souls are being bought and sold every day. Are they going to sell out or not? The power resides with the actor because he’s being paid more money by the system. The actor therefore dominates or can dominate. And the director ultimately must keep him happy and sometimes suit his style; he cuts his own style to fit that of the nature of the producer, or the nature of the actor, or the nature of the studio, or the nature of the story.

And then other directors maintain their own style but it takes enormous strength to do that. Because you have to resist the power. You know, directors have limited power. They do. I mean, all this nonsense about the megalomania of the Hollywood director, it’s just bullshit because the director is very vulnera- ble. It takes a long time to make a film. Each time a film comes out you’re judged and cut to shreds, or it’s dismissed, it’s nothing. An actor can do three films a year, if he has to. A director, no way. Plus the whole process is mentally exhausting. It really drains you. It takes your body and soul.

– Oliver Stone Interviewed by Ric Gentry in ed. Gerald Duchovny. Film Voices.

This post first appeared on Diary Of A Screenwriter, please read the originial post: here

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Oliver Stone: On Film Biography


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