Oliver Stone is a film writer and a director with 3 Oscars on his shelf: Best Screenplay for Midnight Express (1978), and Best Director for Platoon (1986), and Born on the 4th of July (1989). After Midnight Express, his writing mind created scripts like Scarface (1983) and Conan, the Barbarian (1982). This last one he quite disowns, as he doesn’t like what director John Milius did with it. For more details read the book where Stone himself tells all: Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game.
This autobiography covers only the beginning of his career, and I hope it won’t be his last book about his life and vocation. Not only because is very good but because we’d like to know as well about the making of JFK (1991), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Wall Street (1987), The Doors (1991)…
Yeah, and the dates above are alright. Stone directed 5 feature films between 1986 and 1989. Plus 2 in 1991. Oliver, make another installment and tell us about it!
What is this book about?
This is a story about making a dream at all costs, even without money. It’s about cutting corners, improvising, hustling, cobbling together workarounds to get movies made and into theaters, not knowing where the next payday is coming from—or the next monsoon or scorpion bite. It’s about not taking “no” for an answer. It’s about lying outrageously, gritting it out with sweat and tears, surviving.
It goes from a magical New York childhood to the Vietnam War and my struggles to come back from it, ending at the age of forty in the making of Platoon. It’s about growing up. It’s about failure, loss of confidence. And it’s about early success and arrogance too. It’s about drugs, and the times we lived through politically and socially. It’s about imagination, dreaming up what you want and going out to make it happen. And of course it’s full of deceits, betrayals, crooks and heroes, people who bless you with their presence, and those who destroy you if you let them.
The book draws a deeply felt portrait of his family story. As far as movies go, it starts with his first and not very successful films (for a variety of reasons, go to the book for more) Seizure! (1974) and The Hand (1981). Never heard of them? Don’t worry. That is what biographies are for. Then, in parallel to his experiences as a screenwriter, came his first 2 successes as a writer and director: Salvador and Platoon.
Stone fought in Vietnam. His stories about it are chilling.
Men who died grimacing, in frozen positions, some of them still standing or kneeling in rigor mortis, white chemical death on their faces. Dead, so dead. Some covered in white ash, some burned black. Their expressions, if they could still be seen, were overtaken with anguish or horror. How do you die like this? Charging forward in a hailstorm of death into these bombs and artillery. Why? Were you terrified, or were you jacked out of your fucking mind?
The making of his first successful film as a director, Salvador, feels like a Hunter S. Thompson book. To be honest, I have to admire Stones’ second wife, Elisabeth, for putting up with the string of very peculiar characters that, through Stone, spend time in their home. Characters crazier and bigger than life, making decisions that could never work out. Stone and Richard Boyle (whose actual story is told in Salvador) tried to trick the Salvadorean military into making the movie, showing them a fake script so that they believed they would be seen in a positive light.
This book deals, more or less extensively, with the following Oliver Stone films:
Before Born on the Fourth of July was born
Long before Born on the Fourth of July was actually filmed, Stone wrote the script with Ron Kovic, telling Kovic’s war experiences that put him in a wheelchair and his trip back to society. It was Stone’s second script about Vietnam, after Platoon, yet to be made at this moment in time.
I worked faithfully for months with Kovic, reliving his rise, fall, rise again. It was at times so difficult for him; he’d act out entire scenes for me in his head, sometimes crying quietly from the pain remembered. His young life on Long Island, the isolation of the veterans’ hospital, the alienation of coming home, the lack of contact with his past, his old friends from school, a desire to flee to Mexico.
A scene with his devastated Polish Catholic mother and working-class father, or confessing he’d shot his own man. He’d go there in his eyes; I’d follow. It was difficult to watch and share. Every moment anchored to that wheelchair was an echo chamber for Ron, every sound, every feeling existing “from here to eternity.”
(…) He’d been driven crazy by this wound to his spine—half-dead the rest of his life. When later I studied Buddhism and they talked of “mindfulness” as a supreme virtue in this life, I thought of Ron and the necessity of staying in his mind to survive. So many vets in wheelchairs died early because they wanted so badly to get out of that confinement through drinking, drugs, excess, whatever. I would have. I would have died.
Trial and success
Platoon was the script that (along with Born on the Fourth of July) Stone was convinced that it would never get made. He tried a few times before it actually happened. When it finally did, Platoon resulted in an extremely difficult shoot that took place at the same time that Salvador, against all odds, was becoming a hit. Salvador’s ultimate success was a surprise to everyone, not the least Stone himself. Fantastic stuff.
But it wasn’t easy. Oliver Stone, in the first half of the 80s, wasn’t in high spirits. Despite having one Oscar, this is how he was feeling:
I’ve risked so much. How many times have they said I couldn’t direct? I’ve had two film failures I’m nearing forty. I’ve been trying to make my own movie since I was twenty-three. I’d written more than twenty screenplays by this time—but this was the break point. Hollywood hadn’t supported me, they didn’t believe in me or believe that a film about a “shithole” country like Salvador would have any interest for an American audience, much less a film with revolutionary sympathies. In their eyes, I was washed up at forty. And I knew it. I’d made too many enemies, burned too many bridges with my provocative personality.
This is the same guy that would end up making 32 films and series. So far.
On film editing
When editing Platoon, Stone stresses the importance of the editing process:
(…) editing becomes another form of rewriting. First, you write solo—it’s in your head. Then when you direct it, you’re exteriorizing it, sharing it with all; you’re acting it out. And when you’re editing it, it’s your last chance to be alone, to rethink and rewrite. Most every dialogue can be cheated in or out of the film; new dialogues can be written off camera, or looped into an actor’s mouth.
Significant cuts can be made, or linkages you never saw before you shot the film, and some things you thought so crucial to tell in the script now become unnecessary or redundant. The edit becomes as expansive as your imagination. But at a certain point you do go public again, partners looking on as you try different things, some of which don’t work at all, and you bleed in front of others. To edit is to suffer because it is always difficult to close the book.
How could you not want a follow-up to a book that ends like this?:
(Right after winning Best Director and Best Film for Platoon)
Thirty years now, I look back and realize I had no idea then of the storm that was coming, but I did know instinctively that I’d reached a moment in time whose glory would last me forever.
Please tell us about the storm, Oliver!
Below, an excellent 46-minute BFI interview with the man himself about Chasing the Light.
A few other Oliver Stone films are:
More on “Making Of” Books in Best “Making Of” Books: THE JAWS LOG, Best “Making Of” Books: The Making of CITIZEN KANE, Best Screenwriting Books: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, Best “Making Of” Books: EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS, Best “Making Of” Books: BLADE RUNNERS, DEER HUNTERS &…, Best “Making Of” Books: THE JAWS LOG, Best “Making Of” Books: KING KONG ’76 and Best Screenwriting Books: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, amongst others.
More about Making Movies? Check How Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was Written, Film Blocking, What is it?, The 5 Best Books on Making Movies, by Darren Aronofsky, First Assistant Directors: Who Are They?, The World of Movie Posters and Foley Artists: Who Are They?, amongst many others!