Filmmaker takes long journey to doc series bow
Oliver Stone, who’s directed fiction features about wars, Wall Street and presidents, finally debuts his take on the rest of the story.
“The Untold History of the United States,” a docuseries of 10 hourlong episodes, debuts Nov. 12 on Showtime; the series is accompanied by a book he has produced with American U. history professor Peter Kuznick.
“This is a culmination of my film work, of my life’s themes,” says Stone, who also narrates the series that looks at ideas such as whether it was necessary to drop the atomic bomb, and theories about how America mishandled negotiations with the Soviet Union before, during and especially after World War II.
The motive, says Kuznick, “is to challenge the basic narrative (of American history) — the idea that the United States is exceptional, that it is benevolent and altruistic, and every other country is greedy and motivated by self-interest.”
The project took twice as long as expected to produce, and nearly overwhelmed Stone at times. It was greenlit by former Showtime topper Bob Greenblatt in 2009. It was initially supposed to be 12 episodes, but the time crunch and budget issues finally forced the director to cut two episodes.
Stone says producers Fernando Sulichin, Jose Ibanez and Chris Hanley financed the project through private sources and advances from Showtime and FremantleMedia, which acquired foreign rights and is the agent for the DVD rights. But while the project cost about $250,000 per episode, Stone adds that there were additional costs, and he ended up overbudget.
Stone originally told TV writers at the 2008 Television Critics Assn. confab that the series would reach the smallscreen in 2010. It didn’t. In 2011, the first three episodes were scheduled to debut at the New York Film Festival. They didn’t. Other announced dates came and went with no finished series.
The show disappeared from the public eye after July 2010, while Stone struggled to tame the material. About two years in, he and Kuznick decided to write a book to complement the series. This led to more delays, given the undertaking of assembling what turned out to be a 784-page book. Ultimately, however, it proved essential to shaping the skein.
“The series was a little amorphous at first,” says co-producer Rob Wilson, “but once Oliver had the galley proofs for the book in his hand, the series really began taking shape.”
Stone credits David Nevins, who joined Showtime as president of entertainment in mid-2010, for his support and flexibility, but also for “very good notes” that helped with restructuring. During the production of the series, Stone’s attention was also diverted to several features, including the “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” sequel, “Savages” and two feature-length documentaries. “I was going to two editing rooms at once,” he says. “We couldn’t take the documentary staff off payroll.”
A pay cabler such as Showtime, Nevins says, has “the luxury of waiting for a project like this. It’s not like our schedule hinged on it.” And, he adds, quite by accident, after all the delays, the timing works well.
Showtime is mounting a big docu push next year with the “Closeup,” a series of profiles produced by notable filmmakers, among them R.J. Cutler on Dick Cheney, Antoine Fuqua on Suge Knight, Marina Zenovich on Richard Pryor.
The provocative nature of “Untold History,” in Showtime’s view, leads well into “Closeup” next year, Nevins says.
Stone sounds relieved to have his legacy project finally completed.
“Beyond this,” he says, half-seriously, “all I can do now is retire.”