Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Oliver Stone interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
OLIVER Stone talks about some of the decisions and influences behind his return to Wall Street for the sequel Money Never Sleeps and why Gordon Gekko has changed in many ways.
He also talks about why he thinks history makes a background to drama in his films, as well as some of the other projects he’s either working on or considering at the moment.
Q. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is unique in that you could almost describe it as a remake with themes, but at the same time it’s a sequel, but one that’s not heavily dependent on having seen the original. Was there a push towards saying the younger audience might not have seen the original, so…?
Oliver Stone: Exactly… it was clear that there was a new market that was entirely about the events of this era. Gekko’s the only link to the past and he’s a completely different character because he’s on the bottom looking up. So, for me it was not a sequel. It was more like: “Wow, this is a new world.” It’s more of a book-end to an era – like the 1980s, consumption and greed, and this is hopefully the end of that period – hopefully! People are tired of Wall Street [now]. But I had no desire to go back… if I’d wanted to do a sequel I would have done it for money in the 1990s because there was a whole generation around, that’s since died, who would have remembered the original [laughs]. It’s kind of stupid to do a sequel 23 years later, if you think about it.
Q. Did you see the meltdown coming in the real world?
Oliver Stone: No. I mean I’m a passive investor because I’m one of the sheep. Unless you’re ‘inside’ inside, which is you’re on a computer 24/7, you can’t really play against these guys – they’re smart. It’s a whole other ball game now. So, I’m part of the funds. We’re all victims. I could be in cash, but it wouldn’t make any difference, because everything is hostage to the markets… everything, whether you own paintings, real estate or anything. No one can get out alive! You can sometimes maybe do a little bit better, but if you diversify you could do worse. So, we’re all kind of sheep going over a cliff [laughs]. We’re all f**ked! You’re on the Titanic, right? How do you get off the Titanic?
Q. What made you decide to make Gordon Gekko a more sympathetic character this time around? And did you ever intend for him to emerge as a hero figure to some after the first film?
Oliver Stone: No, he was originally not a hero, he was a crook! There’s always a misunderstanding between the public and the filmmaker but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be successful. But seriously, he was a one note shark. I think now he’s a far more complex character and it’s a completely different place. Well, the New York Times… Mr Scott said the best thing. He said: “It’s a morality tale. The original was a morality tale about Charlie Sheen. This is a morality tale about Gordon Gekko…” Because he has come full circle, he’s been in prison, he’s suffered, he’s on the outside looking in. He comes out of prison and no one, no one is there to meet him, which becomes a source of contention. He’s got a daughter who won’t talk to him. By the end of the movie you have to decide for yourself.
I don’t know if you want to give it away… but he’s a ruthless mother**ker! At the end of the day he says “no” to Shia with the sonogram there. And I can see him saying “no”. I mean, he’s a traitor. A lot of those guys are cold fish… very cold. They have no family interests really. But in this case, he has nothing… no grandchild, nothing. And he wants… maybe it’s because he’s a grandson, I don’t know, but he has $1.1 billion and he gives back £100 million. You could argue that he gives back 10% – it’s a good trade [laughs]. I don’t think he gets sentimental and soft at the end, I think he gets realistic that he wants to have a connection. I actually had a shot of him at the birthday party holding up the baby, which I thought was cute, but they said: “No, no it’s too much! He’s not that sentimental!” But he’s a shark.
And Michael [Douglas] plays him well because Michael’s got a great face for Gekko – he is Gekko! He’s become Gekko. He’s got much more family feelings than Gekko, I have to say that… he’s made a new life start years ago with his new wife and all that. But there’s something about Michael and his reptile kind of smile, right? There’s a charm to him that I like – the wavy grey hair. I mean, come on, he does look like a star. It fits him like an old shoe.
Q. I wondered before seeing the film whether you would look upon him more sympathetically. I mean, you’ve matured, Michael’s matured… But you do have a nice turn towards the end that makes you think…
Oliver Stone: For me, it’s all new territory because it’s a new world. The Wall Street of 2008 does not resemble ’87 at all. What’s funny is that he’s the small fish… he’s a bad guy in many ways but he’s bringing down the worst bad guy, which is [Josh] Brolin. I think you could also argue that Frank Langella is also a bad guy because although he’s nice to Shia and he runs a shitty bank, he’s as bad… he does take a fall, he doesn’t know what they’re doing. He says in the beginning: “I don’t know what’s going on. Mumbai, Dumbai… it’s all computer talk to me.” So, you have three financial bankers that are really kind of… but Gekko does the best. At the end of the movie, he does the best out of all of those three. Eli Wallach survives, but they’’ always survive – Goldman Sachs will always survive.
Q. Do you see any sense of the banks having learned anything from the 2008 crash?
Oliver Stone: Oh yeah, they learned how to… they’re reading all the reform legislation looking for loop-holes [laughs]. They learned a lot, I’m sure they did. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to avoid another bubble. I’ve seen four bubbles in my lifetime. Vietnam was a big bubble for us, in America, because it brought up the expectation to quantum level. There was a leap in expectation. And then it happened again in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and the Gekko era, and then it happened a third time, for me, with the bubble of the technology stocks. People were paying $2 billion for Google and they had no profits. That’s insane… insane! The fourth bubble was the real estate bubble.
So, that’s why I view this thing with a little bit of irony at the end when I have David Byrne music and the bubble over Manhattan. I’m not outraged. I see this as the natural evolution of what we’re going through. Who knows where we’re going. Babies are being born, marriages are happening… I don’t see anything… I’m not throwing rocks at the place because I can’t stop them. Outrage won’t work.
Q. Wall Street has changed since the first time you visited it, but when you were growing up was it any different from what it was in ’87?
Oliver Stone: It’s so insane… it’s like quantum… My father would turn over six times in his grave. First of all, the ’87 market was way beyond what he knew. He started in ’31 and he died in ’85, right before Gekko’s first movie. The impersonalisation… the computers then were enormous. The volume was ten times what he’d dealt with. It was all staggering stuff. My father ended up ironically working for a company that was bought and merged with Sandy Weill, by Sandy Weill, who was a maestro of the financial supermarket. He merged traveller’s insurance, he merged American Express, he merged banks, brokerages… he wanted the whole thing under one umbrella, which was what he achieved with Robert Rubin’s help, Secretary to the Treasury, and with Larry Summers’ help, Alan Greenspan [former Federal Reserve chairman]. Those guys were key players. The free market concept got out of hand and Weill was the king of that and my father worked for him.
But now my father, with this market… it’s beyond anything. Imagine, a $100 million in Gekko’s time, to buy a company, was big money. Now it’s peanuts. To get into a big game, it’s a billion dollars… that’s a thousand million. And they throw out these numbers – ‘billion’ – like… it’s the entry level to the club in Wall Street. Hedge funds became the biggest players in the ‘90s and I think the banks felt like they were falling behind. All of a sudden they were saying: “Well, this is boring what we’re doing…” And a lot of the banks got into the hedge fund game, which was to take bigger and bigger risks… bigger than hedge funds!
At the end of the day, they were taking our money and, as Douglas says, they were lending it out 35-40 to 1. They were bundling it into what they called sub-prime securities or collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) that were financed by swaps and insured by AIG. It was a pyramid scheme but it was junk – junk, junk, junk and they knew it. They should have known it. I guess some people didn’t know what they were selling but they were selling it by the bundle to pension funds, to union funds, to teacher endowment funds and to regular schmo’s. And their attitude was: “They’ll buy it; it’s good – we can make a bigger profit.” So what happened is what happens when anything becomes… you capsize. How can you own a house for nothing? It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense. People learned they could get a house for nothing.
Q. Were you interested in all that stuff as a kid?
Oliver Stone: No, my father used to think I was a dummy. I hate economics, I really did. But I’d be interested in it like I am in physics. I’m really not very good at physics but it’s great to read about it. But it’s fascinating as an abstract, but when you play the game… have you ever looked at accounting sheets? Have you ever tried to do that work? It’s so f**king boring to make money. I mean, these new super computers for high frequency trading… you know, it takes so much patience to play because you literally make a half a penny on a trade. In 1.5 seconds you can make a trade, so if you do enough half penny trades with enough volume with a super computer you can make big money over the course of, what, a year… huge money! But doing that is tedious.
Q. You illustrate that with the Manhattan skyline… and using split screens to represent the screens that these people have around them…
Oliver Stone: Oh you like that? I made the movie deliberately slick and glossy. Some people criticised that. But it’s hard to do that style. It’s a throwback to an old form of filmmaking. I love the Ross Hunter movies too. So you wanted to make it ‘New York’ and to look good. I mean, come on, I just did South of the Border, which was kind of a shitty looking movie. But it’s nice to be able to do a different style.
Q. Most of your films have looked at the contemporary American experience… you’ve done that socially, politically, culturally and you’ve got films on popular music, presidents, sports, wars… so I was just wondering whether it’s accurate to describe you as a chronicler of American history? And is there any event or aspect of American culture that you’ve yet to make a film about?
Oliver Stone: [Smiles] If I told you, somebody will make it before me! I can’t do that. But I am working on The Untold History of the United States, which is coming out next year from Showtime and Freemantle in England is distributing it all over the world. It’s going to be 12 hours, in 12 parts, from 1900 to 2010, and we’ve been working on it for three years. It looks really at the United States’ relationship to the world, but specifically to the British Empire and the Russian Empire and the American Empire. It’s the revised history of Winston Churchill…
Q. So, do you see yourself as a bit of a historian?
Oliver Stone: I’m a dramatist, although I’m working with a historian on this. I love history. But 2008 is a background to the movie [Wall Street] and the foreground is these seven people – the mother [Susan Sarandon] and her son [Shia LaBeouf], the father [Michael Douglas] and the daughter [Carey Mulligan] and the three psychopaths. History is a great background – to the World Trade Center, to W. I mean, I love the W. character but, to me, it has to work on the foreground. It has to be a drama that involves you. So, Josh Brolin plays a guy [George W Bush] who, frankly, you could vote for… or some people can vote for. I wanted to walk in his shoes. There’s a difference between history and drama.
Q. The Untold History… does it take in Afghanistan?
Oliver Stone: Yeah, it comes right up to today. Correct. It’s a national security state and how it came to be. It’s a form of the British Empire called American Imperialism.
Q. That phrase, ‘national security state’, was on your mind the first time we met you [in 1987 at the time of Platoon]. It’s obviously been on your mind for a long time…
Oliver Stone: It’s haunted my mind because the concept of security has driven us and most of the rest of the world nuts, as if security could be bought by more and more money. I don’t think it’s possible.
Q. I think you also said back then that there would be another Vietnam War, which is kind of prophetic…
Oliver Stone: [Shrugs] Unfortunately… it’s horrible. By the way, I did three movies about Vietnam and it didn’t do a spittles’ worth of good when we came down to the issue of going to war in Iraq again. But what can we do? Just do the best we can.
Q. You’ve also made two fascinating documentaries on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Do you think people could learn anything from them if they bothered to look at them?
Oliver Stone: No, the Castro did not come out. They didn’t want to learn about Castro. He’s a demon. So is Chavez, unfortunately. These are limited documentaries that are seen by people over time. The DVD comes out… we did OK. We got it out, which is a big plus. We actually went out theatrically. And it’ll be out on DVD next month. We had some good reactions in London. We played the Curzon for four or five weeks, so we penetrated and people will see it.
Q. Why do you think America is so afraid of Chavez?
Oliver Stone: Because of the media shield. You have no idea… every time you see him on TV it’s always a negative connotation and they always criticise him. It’s ridiculous. But the more important issue is the changes in Latin America, which were 10 years and seven presidents in the making. I tried to make that point, that it wasn’t just about Hugo Chavez.
Q. There’s been a coup attempt in Ecuador and there’s also been the succession of a leader in Brazil and an election in Venezuela. So, is there any scope for you to follow things up?
Oliver Stone: [Smiles] I’m not a news man. The coup in Ecuador is serious. And the United States is working very actively behind the scenes. Whether or not they’re involved in this particular coup I don’t know, but they’re always active against these people. Certainly, we’d love to see the other candidate win in Brazil. There’s no question… Lula [da Silva] wants to be a regional power – Brazil and the United States. And it’s important that they be that power. When they got involved in the Iranian situation with Turkey in trying to negotiate, we got very upset. We treated Lula like he was a Chavez figure in the United States… we cut him off completely. We were angry that he was involved in our deal. This goes to the point of what I’m trying to say about being the world’s sole super power. We don’t tolerate regional leadership.
Q. Obama has done a lot since he came in within the restrictions that exist within America, but do you think foreign policy has really changed that much in America?
Oliver Stone: No, it hasn’t. It’s a softer tone, but it’s the same policy of sole super power. We will not allow for the emergence of a regional power. That’s our policy. What happens… there’s China, there’s Russia, there’s Venezuela with its huge oil reserves, there’s Iran, there’s Brazil, there’s Turkey. The world is a different place to what we’d like it to be, but our policy remains in place. And as long as Hilary Clinton is there, it’s going to stay. She did vote for the Iraq war, did she not?
Q. I’m a huge fan of films like yours such as U-Turn? But do you feel under any pressure at all towards more serious topics? Are they more marketable? Or would you do something like U-Turn again?
Oliver Stone: No, I want to do another one in that vein. I love those kinds of movies very much, although Natural Born Killers was sort of… although it had more of a sociological element to it, it had that spirit. I like the anarchic spirit… you know that from The Doors. So, sure I’d go back. It’s a sign of flexibility. So, I’m not at all wedded to anything. Documentaries help get out some of this stuff. This 12 hour thing I’m doing is certainly an address to things that are in my political and social mind. But movies are… that’s a drama and I really want to have fun – fun in the sense that I want to have fun doing it. I don’t want to make it a heavy thing.
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