The films of Oliver Stone are sprawling, messy and ambitious in considering the ways vast currents of American history play out on large and small scales.
The career of such a distinct filmmaker demands a literary compendium that defies the usual conventions associated with these chronicles, instead standing out with wild digressions, impressively assembled collage techniques and a host of illustrations and stills capturing the propulsive influences shaping the man behind everything from “Wall Street” to “Snowden,” which hits theaters Sept. 16.
Renowned journalist Matt Zoller Seitz, with a hefty lift from designer Martin Venezky, has achieved exactly that in his definitive “The Oliver Stone Experience,” which really does offer everything you could possibly want to know about the filmmaker.
amNewYork spoke with Zoller Seitz about working with Stone to tell his remarkable story.
You put out two great books about Wes Anderson. What sort of new challenge did Stone present?
I thought, “Well, I want to do somebody who’s completely different.” And he certainly qualifies. He is 20-some years older than Wes, he has been in the business since the late 1970s, he has also had a much more rich and varied life experience. He served in the Merchant Marines. He was busted for drugs when he got back from Vietnam. He got a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam. He was tutored in screenwriting by Robert Bolt when he was in his 20s and he was a student of Martin Scorsese’s. You know, thats probably the only thing they have in common. Martin Scorsese was a mentor to both of them.
When you spend this much time with a filmmaker, how does it change the way you approach his work as a journalist?
I’m just going to be blunt with you: I’m never going to review this guy’s movies ever again, because he’s my friend now. ... It is a weird feeling. The level of trust was so great that Oliver showed me two different early versions of “Snowden” and asked me for my input on the structure of it. ... And it went beyond that. One time I was sitting in his kitchen and we were going over proofs of the book before they were sent to the printer and his daughter came in. She said, “Dad, will you read my essay,” she was transferring from one college to another. And Oliver read his daughter’s application essay and he made a few notes and marked it up with a red pen, and then he slid it across the table to me and said, “Will you take a look at this?”
“Snowden” is being framed as a return to form of sorts, in terms of Stone taking on a political subject, after spending some time working on other sorts of projects. What do you make of that assessment?
I think it’s very much in the same vein as his run in the ’80s and ’90s. I have enough critical detachment to say it’s not a work of art on the level of a “Platoon,” or “JFK,” or “Born on the Fourth of July,” but I would put it in the same class as “Wall Street” or “Talk Radio,” easily. One of the things it does have in common with some of his other political thrillers is “the beast.” What he calls “the beast.” Oliver believes that after World War II, the military industrial complex, in particular the national security apparatus, assumed a lot more control over the direction of American history to the point where they overshadowed the legislature and the presidency in determining what we do as a country.
Why do you think Stone is and has always been such a lightning rod? Movies like “Nixon” are far more empathetic than many perceive them to be.
I think it’s two things. One is the fact that mainstream American films are almost never overtly political, because the studio system and often the filmmakers are terrified of that. They dont want to alienate viewers. And the other thing is that Oliver is an extremely personal filmmaker who tends to see himself in his subjects. Even though he has nothing in common with Nixon or George W. Bush politically, he saw himself in them. There’s a lot in “W.” about the struggle of the son to establish himself apart from his domineering father, which is something Oliver understands from his own biography. And in “Nixon,” there’s the feeling of being uncomfortable in your own skin, being hounded, being persecuted and feeling paranoid, which is something he understood very well after “JFK.”