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W. - Oliver Stone interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

AS AMERICA made history by voting Barack Obama the first African-American US president, Oliver Stone talks about directing W., his provocative biopic on outgoing US President George W Bush.

He also reveals why he included and omitted the things he did, how he chose his actors and why the film is very much arriving in cinemas at the right time…

Q. You famously once shared a class with Bush at Yale. One can only imagine how much different the world would have been had he dropped out and enlisted for Vietnam…
Oliver Stone: I really think [enlisting] would have done him a world of good if he’d survived it because he’d have seen the effects of war on the ground. I think carnage and destruction is much more vivid than people realise and the nature of bombing… when you walk through the landscape after it has been bombed, you understand the nature of our technology.

I think Bush would have benefited. I think the entire generation would have benefited because, frankly, we went to another war quickly afterwards. We went to wars in the ’80s, with Granada when Reagan brought it back in vogue. We went to war in Panama, which was George Snr’s thing, and then obviously Iraq 1. We seem to have a love of war and aggression and money. War and money seem to be very strong motivators in my country. A lot of my films have crossed that, not consciously, but because it keeps coming up again and again in my country. We’re living it.

Q. You deal with the pretzel moment, but not the moment when he’s reading the pet goat story when he’s told about 9/11. Why did you decide against that given it was the moment that many really started calling into question his competency?
Oliver Stone: Well, 9/11 is a great moment… especially his behaviour that day, but the movie is really a character study of a man who comes to fruition post 9/11. I think in America, and certainly in Europe too, we know about 9/11 in detail and I’d already made a movie about it, called World Trade Centre. I felt that we had an over familiarity with it and I thought that the movie’s structure was such that we could go back and forth in time.

Basically, this movie is about the seeds of the man being sown. The first act is the recklessness of him, the danger; the second act was the moderation of the man, the conversion of the man (rather than redemption). The third act in his life is when he’s newly empowered. The axis of evil scene, that’s where we kick in… 9/11 has happened, Afghanistan has happened. We see a newly confident George Bush. He’s authoritative, he’s in charge of the meeting, there’s no question of that. He’s found a new role as a war president, he’s preparing for war, even though he doesn’t say it. So, that’s a good place for us. I think we know what happens before that, but I don’t think the formation of his character was 9/11. I think that was a response he was waiting to have. He was angry way before that.

I think he was really angry when he was 40 because he’d been a failure compared to his father. He was compared constantly to him as the black sheep of the family; in his studies, his schooling, his attempts to make money, he had failed. That’s a hard burden to live with and there’s a lot of anger there. I think that anger was, in a sense, ready to come out, and we made the point that he was ready to be more forceful than his father. So, that’s why we did it.

Q. Can you comment on the casting of your President and First Lady?
Oliver Stone: From my point of view Josh [Brolin] was perfect. As much as he hates to think of it, I thought of him as Bush when I knew him a little bit socially. He’s got a Western aura, kind of a cowboy feel. In movies he’s played aggressive, tough people. He was offended when I offered him the role. He was like: “Me? Bush?” I went back to him with another script. He’s obviously a very different person: he writes, he reads, he feels. But like Bush he’s very much his own man and I have to say, perhaps it’s embarrassing, but at the age of 40, he’s been through the grinder and he’s in the middle of his life and able to go back to being young and imagining what it’s like to be older. He had the necessary maturity and at the same time the youth. Above all, he was not afraid. He was afraid at first, but when he went for it, he went for it. Also, he was offered very lucrative roles at that time and he passed on them for this and it was a tough call.

Elizabeth [Banks], I’d seen The 40-Year-Old Virgin and I’d heard from my casting agent that she was very good, but until she came in I didn’t really know her. She was still an unknown quantity to me. We had a meeting, I knew she was right for me and the next time, when she met with Josh, it was the same thing. It was like they clicked in that barbecue scene.

Q. In making Nixon and also spending so much time with Castro while shooting Commandante, what did you learn about power and what insights did that give you into Bush?
Oliver Stone: Mr Nixon is a completely different kind of character to Bush, but he feels like his grandfather to me, in the way that Reagan feels like his father. I feel like Bush is a linear descent going back generations. I feel that each one of these men used a situation to polarise the country in a certain way, to further their aims of war and the Pentagon. The growth of the military industrial complex is enormous, especially under Bush. We’re at a trillion dollars a year now. They all have had a very irrational, forceful military response to situations. Nixon: four years extra war; Reagan came very close to Nuclear war between 1980 and 1984; Gorbachev did pull him out and saved him. Bush has taken us into three wars. Three wars! It’s a global war on terror, it’s insane, it’s an insane proposition, it allows us to go on and on and on.

What did I learn? Power is power. Power is unfortunately very real and one man can change the world. Bush, of course, was empowered by the electorate and he has around him people who are more militaristic than him, but he found his definition as a war president. He was floundering up until that point. He didn’t have it; he was on vacation a lot.

Castro has nothing to do with these guys. He was the opposite. He may have been a hot-headed young man in 1962, but the man I met was a wise older man, a statesman of the world. He was quite at the opposite end of the ideological pole, closer to Kennedy I think, and to Roosevelt. What did I learn? You bounce around the world and you learn from everybody. I made a film about Alexander. Alexander the Great is very much like Bush, he went East. But look what Alexander did? He brought an army of scientists, he was interested in acquiring knowledge, and he studied with Aristotle. So, he was a different kind of conqueror, which is what Bush wants to be. Bush’s hero, don’t forget, is Churchill – Reagan and Churchill. He keeps referencing them. Power is power, but there are different approaches to it.

Q. Why make this film now? And was it always going to be a satiric take on the administration?
Oliver Stone: There are satiric elements to the story, sure, but this is the light of day. These people have said and done these things. These quotes aren’t made up, you couldn’t make ‘em up. Bush is a funny guy. He does have a John Wayne/Oliver Hardy quality. He puts his foot in his mouth, says the weirdest things at the weirdest times. I did push Josh to do that, and he’s right, do a little and it goes a long way. No one over did it. Laura is a perfect first lady. I’ve never seen a woman, perhaps since Bess Truman, a first lady who has never made a single mistake – maybe Pat Nixon, but she had more problems.

And why now? Because it’s an urgent situation. This man is not leaving in January. He’s with us, the Bush Doctrine is our foreign policy. I don’t know how we can enforce it right now, but we have now a central command centre in Africa for the first time, we’ve added a fifth naval fleet in Venezuela, we have bases in 120 countries, we’re a serious empire. It doesn’t matter if we try to hide it or not as a benign empire, corporate empire – it’s still an empire. We’re spending a trillion dollars a year on implements of war. You don’t spend that kind of money without using it. It’s getting us closer to the nuclear terror we felt in the 1950s. With W. I wanted audiences to think why we elected him, who he was and why we’re here now. That’s the best we can do as movie makers. Hold up a mirror to what’s going on now. So that’s why now.

Read our review of W.