Oliver Stone’s movies have been in the news as often as they have been about the news. JFK, Stone’s divisive drama about a conspiracy to murder President John F. Kennedy, is still hotly debated. Only last year, on a television special commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, ABC News’s Peter Jennings noted that a significant number of Americans remain convinced of a conspiracy based entirely on Stone’s movie. Stone has created indelible stories about Richard Nixon (in Nixon) and Jim Morrison (in The Doors) and tackled the American culture of violence in Natural Born Killers. His films about the Vietnam war—Heaven & Earth, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July—are inextricably tied to the nation’s collective memory of the conflict and the 1960s antiwar movement. Recently, Stone turned his attention to Cuba, in a pair of documentaries about Fidel Castro. “Newspapers can have trouble keeping up with him,” wrote Gary Wills in the Atlantic Monthly. And Stone not only helps shape—or distort, according to some—history, he predicts it. With uncanny prescience, he depicted corporate insider-trading scandals in Wall Street (1987) and the rise of the right-wing media in Talk Radio (1988) years before they happened.
For Stone’s newest, and most ambitious, movie, the director retreats from modern-day controversies, venturing back in time to 356 to 323 B.C. Stone spent more than a decade writing Alexander—the story of Alexander the Great—which he filmed at the end of 2003 in Thailand, Morocco and England. In Stone’s hands, even Alexander the Great is somehow tied to the current political debate. “There are similarities between the ambitions of ancient Macedonia under Alexander and the United States under George Bush,” Stone claims. “They made similar journeys into Iraq and Afghanistan. And both men, though of entirely different character, want to conquer the world.”
Almost no one is indifferent to Stone. He has die-hard fans, and film critics have praised many of his movies. Leonard Maltin called JFK “a masterful cinematic achievement.” Norman Mailer called Nixon “a major work by a major artist.” And Stone’s detractors are equally impassioned. Some dismiss him as a paranoid nutcase; Time magazine dubbed him Mr. Conspiracy. After Stone described the September 11 terrorist attack on America as “a rebellion against globalization, against the American way,” journalist Christopher Hitchens called Stone “a moral and intellectual idiot.”
Stone is the only child of a wealthy stockbroker father and a French-born mother who divorced when he was 15. He attended private boys’ schools in New York City and in 1965 enrolled at Yale, where he was a classmate of George W. Bush’s and John Kerry was a few years ahead of him. Stone dropped out, joined the military and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. Twice wounded, he was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He returned to the U.S. embittered and began writing Platoon, an indictment of the war.
He enrolled at New York University to study filmmaking and wrote and directed his first movie, Seizure, in 1974. He won his first Oscar, in 1979, for his screenplay for Midnight Express. A decade after writing Platoon, he finally made the film, which was released in 1986. It won the Academy Award for best picture, and Stone won the best director award. He was also nominated that year for a best screen-writing Oscar for Salvador. Screenwriting nominations for JFK and Nixon followed, and he won another best director statue for Born on the Fourth of July.
At times Stone’s personal life has been as controversial as his movies. In 1999 he was arrested in Los Angeles for driving while under the influence and for possession of hashish and other drugs. (He had also been arrested in 1968 in Mexico for possession of marijuana.) Stone entered a drug-treatment program in 2000.
Playboy Contributing Editor David Sheff, who last interviewed Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin for Playboy, met Stone in Santa Monica, California, where he was editing Alexander. Reports Sheff: “When I arrived at Stone’s office for the interview, his gorgeous British assistant explained that Stone would be late. In the meantime, she said, ‘Oliver says you should lie on the floor and I should give you a massage.’ Once we began the interview, it was a challenge to keep Stone, who sucked on a Cuban cigar and drank coffee, focused on any given subject. Many conversations returned to his obvious concern about American politics. Still, it was clear he was enjoying his immersion in the pre-Christian time of Alexander the Great. ‘Maybe I’ll stay here,’ he said, sounding serious. ‘I may have found a time where I fit in much better.’”
Playboy: You’re associated with so many topical contemporary dramas. What inspired you to tackle Alexander the Great?
Stone: I’ve been interested in him since I was in college. I’d always wondered why his story had never been dramatized. It’s one of the most extraordinary stories in history. Why hadn’t Shakespeare tried? Why hadn’t other great playwrights or screenwriters?
Playboy: And what was your conclusion?
Stone: I think he scares people off because he was so fucking successful. There’s an inherent dislike or fear or distrust of somebody who is that much bigger than life. It seemed too much for a story—the decadent politics, the outrageous ambition, the decadent lifestyle. So I struggled with how to make the movie that has eluded everyone. I loved the character, but I never thought I would get to do him.
Playboy: You weren’t the only director to decide to tackle Alexander’s story. Mel Gibson was planning a miniseries for HBO, and producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Baz Luhrmann signed Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman for a version.
Stone: As far as I know, they’ve all given up, but not before they damaged us.
Playboy: How did they damage you?
Stone: We did not get financed in Hollywood. We were rejected there. We got financed in Europe only, and it didn’t help to have Dino De Laurentiis telling his friends in various countries, “Don’t buy that movie.” Without foreign sales you’re dead in the water. There were a lot of shenanigans, and there was a lot of ugliness. I was called names. I tried to stay out of it. I’m not going to be left with bad karma on my set. I just stuck to the work, and we eventually pulled people together and got the movie made.
Playboy: Could you have made the movie without the success of Troy and Gladiator?
Stone: No. Without them the movie never would have been made. There was new interest in big epics. When Warner Bros. finally signed up in the U.S., I could go to them and say, “Gentlemen, you’ve got to sign on to our movie. We’re making a movie about the son of Achilles.” They were high on Troy, of course, and they went for it.
Playboy: How did you decide to cast Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great?
Stone: I liked Brad Pitt very much in Troy, but like Achilles, his character in the movie, he is as mythic as Steve McQueen is in The Magnificent Seven. Unreal. From the myth, I wanted to find the man. Colin was right. He is equally handsome and of a younger generation. It’s thrilling to watch him as Alexander, who lived up to and went beyond the Achilles myth. Achilles conquered Troy; Alexander went after the world. Colin may well be a modern-day Alexander, and Angelina Jolie, who is Olympias, is a modern-day queen. If we had them, she would be queen. She’s as strong and determined.
Playboy: You once said that Alexander was a rock star of his time. Were you thinking of Jim Morrison of the Doors?
Stone: Him or others. Like Morrison, Alexander ran up against the forces of life and surmounted them.
Playboy: Morrison didn’t surmount them. He succumbed to them and died young.
Stone: But he accomplished an enormous amount. Every man reaches and falls. Some attain greatness along the way. Alexander did, of course. Morrison did. I’m fascinated by all who achieve greatness.
Playboy: You produced a movie about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. When the former president died, were you surprised by the intensity of the tributes?
Stone: It was theater. It was television. Parades with people in baseball caps and shorts and ugly T-shirts. A hollowness. It’s what Reagan was all about. He was a scary man. I used to have nightmares about him, literally. Smile, head of hair. He was a stage prop, an actor. That’s what Americans want. They want the shell. Look at Arnold.
Playboy: You’ve known Schwarzenegger since you wrote the script for Conan. Do you keep in touch with him?
Stone: I see him here and there. I like him.
Playboy: Even as governor?
Stone: I’m not sure, but he’s what America wants. I’m not surprised he’s governor. He’s got an amazing face. He’s got a great smile. He has great willpower. The guy pulls off amazing things with his charisma. Unless he really fucks up, he can go right to the White House.
Playboy: How will he overcome the requirement that a president be born in this country?
Stone: They’ll change it for him. He’s a hell of a lot more attractive and sexy than Bush. He would be a far better president, too.
Playboy: Now that you’ve directed movies about presidents Kennedy and Nixon and produced a movie about Reagan, have you considered taking on President Bush?
Stone: It’s too soon. You need some historical perspective. We had to wait 20 years to do Nixon. As a dramatist, you have to wait. Right now Bush is in full play. It’s not time for a biography.
Playboy: Would Bush be a good subject for a drama?
Stone: A scary one. He looks like a tiny little chamber of commerce guy. In the 1950s he would have been considered distasteful. He’s worse than Nixon in his vulgarity. He looks like he shops at Wal-Mart. That’s not what a president is supposed to be. He has no intellectual curiosity and is proud of it. He says his wife does the book thing. He’s a liar, hiding behind a shallow and dangerous patriotism: “We’re number one.” “The American way.” It’s a Superman comic book idea of the world. It covers up the complicated realities, and it’s very dangerous.
Playboy: After September 11, 2001 you spoke out against the president. After your statement that America may have brought on the type of hatred that led to the terrorist attack, journalist Christopher Hitchens called you an idiot.
Stone: A moral and intellectual idiot, to be exact. In the 1980s I admired Hitchens. He was strongly pro-Nicaragua and right about it. He seemed very intelligent. Since then he has gotten into an extremist groove. He has become an ideologue. I thought it behooved us to understand how America’s unilateralism, arrogance and history of pushing around the rest of the world enrages people. Since Iraq, the outrage is worse than ever. It’s why this election is so damn important.
Playboy: Did you know Bush when you were at Yale together?
Stone: No, but I met him before he was president. He wanted to meet me.
Playboy: But as a well-known leftist, you seem like the last person he would want to meet.
Stone: I don’t know why, but he did. When we met, he reminded me that we’d been in the same class at Yale. I said, “But you know, Governor, I didn’t make it all the way through. I went off to Vietnam.” He said, “I had a friend who went over there and didn’t come back.” He looked at me, and it was a moment. I don’t think he had much interest in me beyond that. He knows how to talk to you, though. He’s good for a few seconds. I don’t know, maybe this is Oliver Stone paranoia, but I felt like he was looking through me, like he wished his friend had come back instead of me. I felt a whiff of discontent.
Playboy: John Kerry was at Yale too. Did you run into him?
Stone: When I was a freshman, he was a senior. He was a big shot. I saw him debate, and he was powerful—he looked like Lincoln. People said he was pompous—that was the rap. He had a funereal groove about him, like some Dickensian character. He was always too old for his years. I remember him in the post-Vietnam era, too, and he was very somber. I’ve met him a few times since.
Playboy: What’s your opinion of him?
Stone: There’s a fundamental decency about him. I think he’d make a good president. He’s a public servant in the Brahmin sense of the word. The guy knows his A’s, B’s and C’s.
Playboy: What’s your take on the polls? In the end, who will win?
Stone: I worry that the Republicans will do anything to win. For a long time I’ve worried that Bush will start another war before the election to get people fearful. Voters are nervous about changing leadership in the middle of a war. He bills himself as Mr. Security, which of course he’s not. He’s Mr. Insecurity. Every decision he has made has led to a worse military conclusion and a less secure nation. He has generated enormous hatred, and hatred begets violence. He shovels up the worst kind of patriotic crap. Thirty or 40 years ago, even in the 1920s, they would have run him out of town. Patriotic stuff works occasionally, as it did during Joe McCarthy’s time, but Bush is overdoing it.
Playboy: Some critics of Fahrenheit 9/11 lump Michael Moore and you together, charging that you’re left-wing loonies and conspiracy-theory nuts.
Stone: That’s typical. Rather than look at what we say, they try to discredit us. I’m glad to be lumped in with such great company. We fucking need him. He’s becoming a folkloric Mark Twain figure. The movie is very powerful.
Playboy: How much of a difference will his movie make in the election?
Stone: It’s hard to know, but I think a movie can make a huge difference. JFK helped Clinton win. It came out right before the election. Salvador and Platoon may have had an impact on Reagan’s downturn in popularity.Salvador took shots at Reagan and led to an early sense that the Reagan thing was going to end. A month before Platoon, Ollie North got booby-trapped. The whole thing turned.
Playboy: Yet Reagan remained popular.
Stone: At the time, though, he lost a lot of power. He couldn’t do as much evil. The movies were part of a change in sensibility. Movies can help evolve consciousness, as Michael Moore’s movies have. You risk a lot when you speak out, though. That’s always been true, but more so since September 11. After September 11 no one would speak out.
Playboy: You did.
Stone: And I was pilloried. Most were quiet. We all felt the chill. We became so cautious that we self-censored. For a while it killed the impulse we have for greatness and creativity.
Playboy: Did you self-censor because of fear of reprisals?
Stone: The fear of rocking the boat, yes. We all have it. In school you don’t want to rock the boat, but at times you have to. I had movies shut down, sometimes for mysterious reasons. I was never in the middle of a storm like Moore is, but there were controversies even before September 11. Since then, however, they can call you unpatriotic if you don’t go along. If you came out against Vietnam they pulled the unpatriotic thing too. It’s a warped definition of patriotism. A patriot cares deeply about this country, enough to want it to do right. Michael Moore is a great patriot.
Playboy: If you were to make a new version of Platoon, focusing on Iraq rather than Vietnam, how would it be similar?
Stone: I haven’t been to Iraq, but from the letters home and glimpses of the soldiers, I think it’s pretty much the same for a young man in Iraq as it was in Vietnam. There’s the dilemma about how you behave, morally or immorally. Most people just follow orders, but some step up. The fighting is about the same, though the military has gotten better at making people more like robots. They’re able to control firefights better; they move clumps of men more easily. But basically it’s the same strategy as in Vietnam. They bring in maximum firepower, wipe out what they can and then send in the soldiers to mop up. You blow the shit out of everybody and then move forward, minimizing your own casualties. As a result they’ve maximized civilian casualties. Whatever they say about precision bombing, it’s not that precise. The news triumphs when we take out some terrorist, but what about the 3,000 civilians? What difference does it make? Why is a baby in a well in Pennsylvania more important than 3,000 civilians in Iraq? Because it’s an American baby?
War was and is a bureaucratic fuckup. Nothing goes right, and everything costs twice as much as they say it will. For the most part it’s a nightmare and inefficient. They said that My Lai was just a few bad apples. It wasn’t. The system allows it to happen, just as it did in the prison camps in Iraq. One of the great things about writing Platoon was that I looked deeply into the different reactions of ordinary boys from every state. The boy you thought would be a weasel wasn’t, and the boy who was a weasel was a hero. Then the soldiers came home. I fought in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. When we came back here, we were nobodies. Vets live with what the public never sees. Here I am again, raving, the conspiracy nut.
Playboy: You’re joking, but how do you feel about those stereotypes?
Stone: Conspiracy nut, leftist, madman. These are terms of dismissal so you don’t have to listen to the argument. It’s an ugly way of doing business and not logical, either. It would be healthier and, frankly, more fun to hear what someone has to say. I’m just looking at the facts and asking questions. Meanwhile, the press, which is supposed to ask the questions, usually just smiles and nods. Donald Rumsfeld said the abuses in Iraq are un-American. What the fuck does that mean? Does he mean that the rest of the world does it and we don’t? Yet no one challenges him. Another thing that bothers me is that we’ve created a ball game in which unless you’re a winner, you’re seen as a loser. It’s a zero-sum game that Michael Douglas talked about as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Why? Why do you have to see life that way? It goes to the fundamental mind-set of what schoolchildren are taught. When I made Born on the Fourth of July, I got to know Ron Kovic well. He said he grew up on John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and everything was black-and-white, good and evil, winners and losers. Trying to emulate John Wayne is how he wound up in Vietnam, but of course he came to see that things are not black-and-white at all. Not in war, not ever. America should be about many definitions of being a winner. America’s greatness—what’s left of it—comes from the fact that we’re a melting pot. We’re Portuguese, Latin, French, Chinese, African. We’re all mutts. It should make us more forgiving and tolerant, but instead it has made us fearful and arrogant, two sides of the same coin. At 18 you are allowed to go to Iraq and get killed, but you can’t get a drink in California. Why can you die and not fuck? Why can’t there be legal whorehouses? Why can’t there be places where kids can have sex safely? Why can’t we be more honest about sexuality?
Playboy: Not sure how we got from conspiracies to legal whorehouses, but are you advocating them?
Stone: I’m talking about hypocrisy. Our puritanism allows boys to kill and be killed but not have sex. It’s ludicrous. Once again we pretend things are one way. Alexander lived in a more honest time. We go into his bisexuality. It may offend some people, but sexuality in those days was a different thing. Pre-Christian morality. Young boys were with boys when they wanted to be. Sometimes it was physical and sometimes platonic. Nonetheless, a man was expected to marry. They didn’t know how heirs were made. At the time, many thought sperm itself contained the whole thing and that the vagina was merely the receptacle. It led them to view women as second-class citizens, as baggage carriers. Sexuality wasn’t necessarily tied to procreation and morality, and men were allowed to have a homosexual side as well as a heterosexual side.
Playboy: A lot of American men would deny that they have a homosexual side.
Stone: I think if we were allowed the freedoms we were promised, we might find out more about ourselves than we know. Perhaps people would be happier, too. Instead of having 14 shotguns, they might have an erection. But children are taught to be fearful of AIDS, to shy from the other sex unless you marry them, to repress any natural sexual feelings, not to drink, not to fuck, not to dance, not to take ecstasy, but to fight in Iraq. They’re scaring kids to death. Heterosexual and homosexual sex can be fun. You don’t have to live an antisex, antidope, anti-booze, anti-everything life. Let people do whatever the fuck they want and stay the fuck out and don’t ask them about it.
Playboy: Have you felt a puritanical reaction to your movies?
Stone: I’ve been shot down for most of them. I’ve taken a lot of shots in my life.
Stone: Maybe they were deserved and I just never understood. Or maybe if you start messing around with Richard Nixon or JFK, you have to expect people to attack you. Not only that, if you move from Heaven & Earthto JFK to Natural Born Killers to an interview with Castro, people can’t get a take on you. Heaven & Earth and Natural Born Killers were played at the Paris Film Festival back-to-back. What a 180-degree fucking turn! One was a Buddhist film about pacifism, according to some people, and the other is supposedly a violent, insane, lurid piece of trash. They can’t figure you out, and that bothers them. From that point on it’s opinions and gossip.
Playboy: Why have you swung from genre to genre?
Stone: I follow whatever motivates me, whatever puts the wind in my sails at the moment. I have to be zealous about a project, because it requires years. You have to be consumed by it. Whether it’s Alexander or U Turn, you give it your all. I’ve always changed genres. I’ll do a film noir and then a sports drama like Any Given Sunday. This is the first time I’ve done a historical epic. Ideas come to me, some people say too fast. Perhaps they’re right and I have to learn to slow down, but age takes care of that anyway. I just have to keep going. When I have been shut down, I’ve found a new way. I’m misunderstood and I keep going. I was accused of promoting violence. Anyone who knows me understands that I promote peace.
Playboy: The accusation that you promote violence comes from Natural Born Killers. One teenage couple, after watching the movie, went on a killing spree.
Stone: Natural Born Killers was an experiment. I wanted to make an action film. I’d never done a summer movie and wanted to. Once I started, I explored the idea, and it became about cartoon violence. Natural Born Killers is a breakthrough in experimentation. I tried to explore the flexibility and elasticity of film. I don’t think film had ever been used like that. The people in the movie were cartoon characters. We scraped the edges off the behavior perimeters to see how far we could go. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the definition of satire overexaggeration? You can’t expect everyone to get satire.
Playboy: Did you feel any guilt over the copycat murders?
Stone: You can’t account for every person in the world. The kid who killed John Lennon was reading Catcher in the Rye. Is Salinger responsible? Give me a break. Anybody who’d kill is psychotic in a deeper way and was psychotic before they saw a movie.
Playboy: Writer John Grisham said you were responsible in the same way that Ford Motor Co. was responsible for the deaths caused by its Pintos.
Stone: He got involved because a personal friend of his was killed. He became one of those outsize caricatures—in this case, American novelist turned vigilante. I don’t know the guy at all, but he’s still gloating. He recently said how glad he is that he put a spike into Hollywood. I don’t know if the films you’ve seen in the past seven or eight years are far better than Natural Born Killers, but they certainly are violent, some far more violent and far more realistically violent. Look at Black Hawk Down. I think that movie has done far more disservice to this country than Natural Born Killers.
Playboy: What disservice?
Stone: Natural Born Killers is satire, whereas movies like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan contribute to an aura of patriotic inevitability and an awe of the military.
Playboy: Did the Natural Born Killers controversy weigh heavily on you?
Stone: It was an ugly time. I’d just finished JFK and was editing Heaven & Earth and shooting Natural Born Killers. I was going through a divorce. Can you imagine what that was like? At the time I had two kids. I had an amazingly complicated life. Yeah, the controversy was difficult. I get people so mad.
Playboy: Even cartoon violence can be upsetting. So can conspiracy theories.
Stone: Let’s look at JFK. JFK doesn’t say the things some people say it does. It’s very much a hypothesis. It’s a philosophical inquiry into what is truth, what is reality. If you look closely at the film, it’s written precisely with conditional tenses, what-ifs. It’s a timeworn method of drama. And we put out an entire book with footnotes to explain our sources. We made every effort to be honest, and we were raked over the coals. I was in Europe, thank God, but Peter Jennings took me apart on ABC on the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
Playboy: Do you admit that you are conspiracy-minded?
Stone: In Europe everyone is conspiracy-minded. They assume that things happen behind the scenes in government and business. They aren’t naive enough to believe the evening news and the soundbites from politicians. Americans want to believe the evening news. They want to believe the press conference. Don’t people realize that they’ve been lying to us for years? So they attack Michael Moore. They attack me.
Playboy: Are you immune to the attacks?
Stone: Sometimes. The reaction to Natural Born Killers wounded me.
Playboy: You were also attacked for that movie by the author of the original script, Quentin Tarantino.
Stone: I bought the script from Quentin for a lot of money. He accepted the money. Nobody forced it down his throat. Contrary to what my critics say—that I took it away from him and ruined it and blah-blah-blah—it had been at the bottom of a pile of rejected scripts. I happened to see it and liked the title. I read it and thought it was a great idea. But I never could have made that movie as it was written. Quentin was pissed that I changed it, but since then I’ve spoken to him, and we get along fine. I respect him, and I think he respects me. But there’s no question he hurt the movie quite a bit.
Playboy: How did he hurt the movie?
Stone: He went around the world saying it was a bad movie.
Playboy: He apparently retaliated in his script for True Romance with the character of a filmmaker who made a movie called Coming Home in a Body Bag. It was a none too subtle attack on you.
Stone: I guess that’s what he saw me as. It’s an ugly character. God, a horror show. But if that’s the way he saw me, that’s the way he saw me. Since then, he’s gotten to know me better, I hope. At the time, for whatever reason, I was politically incorrect. I couldn’t figure out why Pulp Fiction was politically correct butNatural Born Killers was white trash. I still can’t. The movie was meant to be over-the-top. The Doors was another. Maybe that’s partly why I still get dragged down by the political jackals who run alongside the pack. My movies excite the audience. To tell a story like the Kennedy assassination in an exciting way is a dramatist’s delight. If I pull off Alexander, it’ll be the greatest coup of my life. But yes, I got whipped a lot. Fine. I got some bad press, some awful reviews. I got good reviews, too. It’s a steady kind of whiplash. I’m fine with it both ways, and I think I understand it, but for a while I lost confidence.
Playboy: When did you lose confidence?
Stone: I just had a period of adversity. I got worn down by 10 years of attacks. I did 10 films from 1985 to 1995. I wrote a book. I did three documentaries and three commercials. Every time I made a movie I was perhaps overachieving in that I was working fast. I was always fearful that I wouldn’t be able to make another movie, so I would start the next movie before I’d finished the first. I had a group of people to support, too, a team I work with. I tried to run a production company and produced 12 movies. I started to have my fill of this business. There were the attacks against Natural Born Killers, the attack by John Grisham, the attacks against JFK, bad reviews, Nixon was ignored. Yeah, it eventually got to me. I took a break at that point, which is exactly what I needed. I had a beautiful daughter then. I was devoted to my wife. I felt comfortable not working. I lost my team and lived more and more like a pariah, but I saw my daughter grow up, unlike my sons.
Playboy: How were you a different father to her than to your sons?
Stone: It’s not that I became a model father, but I enjoyed witnessing it. I’m still not the guy who likes taking his daughter to volleyball practice, but yes, I spend quality time with her. I have no patience to read to her, though. I can’t stand reading to a child at bedtime.
Playboy: How were you different with your children from your first marriage?
Stone: I love them all. I’m so proud of them. But with the older kids I was away a lot more. I just wasn’t around. I wasn’t taking the kids to the movies, but how many of these stupid fucking kids movies can you see anyway? Now I go to the movies with my older son, Sean, who is 18, and it’s different. He’s a great movie companion.
Playboy: Are you substantially different from your parents?
Stone: I’m sometimes different, sometimes the same. We all wrestle with that one. We don’t want to make the same mistakes, but sometimes we do.
Playboy: Was your childhood happy?
Stone: Not particularly. I grew up in Manhattan. There was no nature anywhere. I wore ties and suits every day. I was an outsider, I think. I tried to stay anonymous. I wanted to be Willie Stone, which was the name I used then. I used Willie because of Willie Mays. Willie had a crewcut. He attended all-boys boarding schools and all-boys summer camps. I was never around women.
Playboy: Is it true that your father brought you to a prostitute so you could lose your virginity?
Stone: Yes, because I guess I needed his help. There were no women around at school. My father was a generous man, and I love him to this day for it.
Playboy: Some people might find it inappropriate for a father to bring his son to a prostitute.
Stone: There’s a great tradition of that, I believe. For me it was great. There were no scars. I can see that bad habits could develop, but they didn’t for me. I’ve had healthy relationships since then. I think more, not less, fucking is good—1960s love is not a bad thing.
Playboy: When did you first use drugs?
Stone: I lived an isolated life before I went to Vietnam. I didn’t know who Elvis Presley was. I didn’t know rock and roll. I didn’t know grass. I didn’t know what a black man was. I didn’t know any of that until I went to Vietnam. It all hit there. It’s all in Platoon.
Playboy: After Vietnam you were arrested for possession of drugs.
Stone: And the charges were dismissed in the interest of justice. [laughs] Basically I was doing light drugs like grass and psychotropics. I never heard of harder drugs until much later, when I got to Hollywood.
Playboy: Did you become addicted to those drugs?
Stone: No, but I had a troubled period with them.
Playboy: Did you go into rehab?
Stone: No, I quit cold turkey and went to Paris. I never did those fucking drugs again. It beat the shit out of me. I thought I was becoming a worse writer. It was dangerous. I thought I was blowing my life. I cut my ties and moved to Paris with my then wife.
Playboy: Do you still use drugs?
Stone: Maybe. It’s not smart to talk too much about it. I believe in natural things, but I also take care of myself.
Playboy: Do you exercise?
Stone: I do. I go to the gym. I have exercised for most of my life.
Playboy: How is your current relationship different from your marriages?
Stone: I found a South Korean woman who is terrific. She’s amazing, supportive. I’m so lucky to have found this love in my life. She was there when I’d retreated and my daughter was born. Finally I found the time to write Alexander. It could have happened only when I was demoralized and withdrawn, so ultimately it was a good thing. Going into Alexander was symbolic as much as anything else. I had to persevere, and I did. The movies tend to reflect where I am emotionally. I’d been deluding myself, and so I was drawn to a movie about self-delusion, which was Nixon. The football movie, Any Given Sunday, came from anticorporate fires that were brewing in me. It was a protest against those forces. On and on.
Playboy: If your movies are emotional barometers, what does Alexander say about you now?
Stone: The process helped raise me out of the morass of the present world. It took me back in time to an ancient place where men had higher ideals and strived to execute them. When I decided to make the movie, I thought, What harm can come to me by being associated with that kind of energy for three years? It helped me enormously. It made me more positive, stronger. It may sound ridiculous, but I feel Alexander’s spirit helped me surmount huge obstacles.
Playboy: In the meantime you made two television documentaries about Fidel Castro. What prompted them?
Stone: I’d met him in 1987 when I showed Salvador at the Havana Film Festival. I didn’t return there until 2002, when a Spanish producer set up an interview. It wasn’t going to be a big documentary, just an interview for Spanish television. We talked a lot about Brigitte Bardot.
Playboy: For which you were accused of pandering to him.
Stone: Unfairly. I saw great value in a deep look into a man who has had an enormous impact on history. I was never a journalist, grilling him on his human rights record. That wasn’t my purpose. I wanted to get inside his head. I did, too. I was accused of humanizing him, but what does that mean? I suggest that it’s useful to understand world leaders on the deepest possible level. Once again, though, people want a black-and-white story—Castro, Cuba, communist. What more is there to be said?
Playboy: Didn’t you have the opposite agenda, to deify Castro? You have described him as moral, selfless and wise.
Stone: I didn’t go in with much of an impression at all. I admired him because he’d done something extraordinary with his life. Through the interviews, I came to respect him. What other world leader would talk so straight to you, with the camera rolling and without a PR assistant? Let him be heard, for Christ’s sake. The American people have a right to hear the guy who lives 90 miles away on a hostile little island. I was criticized for humanizing him, but if I had demonized him, they would have loved it.
Playboy: Did you hear from him again?
Stone: Yeah, he likes Comandante [a film with a Q&A format that ran on Spanish television] very much. It was shown in Havana, and it’s a huge success. I returned to do the HBO documentary Looking for Fidel. I’m not sure he liked me after that, because I interviewed dissidents in Cuba, and he didn’t want me to do that.
Playboy: For the HBO movie, you held a bizarre discussion with men who tried to flee Cuba. They were being tried. Castro was present. They were contrite, but it seemed phony. They would have been punished had they spoken to you freely. Did you feel that Castro orchestrated the conversation?
Stone: No, because he had no idea what they would say.
Playboy: Yet he held all the power. Had they criticized him or his government, he could and probably would have punished them.
Stone: It was still an amazing opportunity to show them and their plight. The sentences they received were horribly severe. I hope he reconsiders. It seems to me he could have taken a more reformist line after the fall of the Soviet Union, but he would argue that the anti-Castro forces in the United States are very dangerous for him.
Playboy: Are you bitter and pessimistic?
Stone: I hope not.
Playboy: How do you retain a sense of optimism when things are as corrupt and bleak as you depict them?
Stone: You find other kinds of beauty. Moments can be deadly, so moments can be beautiful. You must find the beauty. So get on with it. If one door is blocked, move to another door. Adapt. If they try to stop you, find a way to persevere. Yes, if you call attention to yourself, you’ll get nailed. I try to shake it up, and sometimes I suffer for it. But I won’t stop. It’s my duty.