Oliver Stone Talks ‘Snowden’ Financing Struggle, Film vs. TV and Military ‘Adulation’ in Movies

Oliver Stone Bennett Miller
Courtesy of Frank PR

NANTUCKET, Mass. — Oliver Stone pulled no punches and named names in detailing the struggle to finance his new movie about National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden during a Q&A Saturday with fellow director Bennett Miller.

During the wide-ranging discussion, held as part of the Nantucket Film Festival, Stone also weighed in on his lack of enthusiasm for most serialized TV dramas, his disdain for the “adulation” of the U.S. military in many contemporary films and how Dino De Laurentiis dashed his hopes for “Conan the Barbarian” to have blossomed as a long-running franchise.

The intimate gathering at a private home on the water included actor Zachary Quinto, who plays journalist Glenn Greenwald in “Snowden,” and numerous writer-directors with pics at the fest, such as Mike Birbiglia (“Don’t Think Twice”), Julia Hart (“Miss Stevens”), Clay Tweel (“Gleason”) and Chris Kelly (“Other People”). The Nantucket fest, which wraps Monday, is feting Stone this year with its Screenwriters Tribute Award.

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Stone said “Snowden” was turned down by every major studio even after executives expressed interest in the project. The movie, directed by Stone and co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, was ultimately filmed in Munich with financing from French and German sources. Open Road is set to release the pic in September. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title character, with Melissa Leo as documentarian Laura Poitras and Shailene Woodley also in the cast.

“We got turned down with a good script, a good cast and a reasonable budget at every major studio. Studio heads said ‘Yes we like it. We’ll talk about. There’s no problem here.’ It goes upstairs, and a few days later nothing comes back,” Stone said.

“So we know the corporate boards are made up of stockholders who have political opinions — the Sam Zells of the world if you know that kind of guy. Or Henry Kissinger is on the board. By the time it comes back, they don’t want to do the movie anymore,” he said (for the record, Kissinger is not a board member at present of a major showbiz conglom; in the late ’80s and ’90s the former Secretary of State was a board member of CBS Inc. and an advisor to MGM).

Stone also cited Australian media mogul James Packer as one who was interested in the project but pulled out after getting spooked by the controversial nature of the movie. “He was warned by an Israeli friend of his that he wouldn’t get a visa to go the United States,” Stone said. “There’s all kinds of things behind the scenes. It’s an ugly business that way.”

Miller added that he spoke to Packer, who was “humiliated, embarrassed and apologetic that he had to deliver the news” to Stone that he could not help finance the film.

In discussing the state of contemporary movies, Stone raised a concern about what he sees as overly zealous celebration of U.S. military might in Hollywood films. He cited 2001’s “Black Hawk Down” as a movie that was well made but had “no moral point of view” and amounted to a story that was “hocus pocus,” presenting a skewed picture of what happened to American forces in Somalia in 1993.

Stone started the conversation with Miller discussing his Army infantry service during the Vietnam War and how the experience helped him as a filmmaker.

“Having been in the military the last thing I want to see is another war,” Stone said. “When I start to see movies that celebrate war and celebrate the American presence in war I really get worried about where we’re going as a country. We’re the only country in the world I know that celebrates the military so much. No other country in the world that has experienced war — no other country — goes to this degree of adulation.”

Stone and Miller also let their film partisan flags fly in discussing the differences between TV and film. Stone cited Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” as an example of a project that might have been sold to TV because Michael Lewis’ book of the same name had so much material.

“To me it’s more interesting as a filmmaker to take one big book and make it into a two (hour), 2:20 movie to keep the interest of people and tell the story. That is a real challenge,” Stone said. “It’s not such a big challenge to take ten hours to do it. Also it pads it. I don’t like the padding. Unless you’re a junkie who likes to turn on the same channel or the same film and watch it as a binge thing. To me that’s not what I came to the film business to do.”

Miller observed (after acknowledging that he might sound pretentious by saying he doesn’t watch much TV): “I think a great film lasts in a way that TV tends not to.” Stone cited HBO’s “Game of Thrones” as a “great show” but said in general “I don’t like the serial effect, just always having to see it.” And he quipped that too much binge viewing of TV “cuts down on your movie attendance — that’s important.”

Among other topics that came up in the 35-minute yakfest:

  • Stone is still upset about how his script for 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian” was handled by the late producer De Laurentiis. Given the amount of material in the books by “Conan” creator Robert Howard, Stone thought it could have been a long-running franchise a la James Bond. Stone had hoped for Ridley Scott to direct it but it would up with John Milius. “They cheesed it up,” he said, noting that De Laurentiis’ only goal was to make money. “He could have made more money by acting nobly than by acting as the thief that he was,” Stone said.
  • After his Army service, Stone went to NYU film school on the government’s dime, as about 80% of his tuition was funded by the G.I. Bill. His instructors included Martin Scorsese.
  • Stone eventually gave himself a deadline of making it big in film by the time he was 30 or moving on to another career. He was a month away from leaving New York for the West Coast to open a restaurant when his script for “Platoon” was optioned. “That led to ten years of waiting,” he noted.
  • Working with director Alan Parker on 1978’s “Midnight Express” was “tough” but Parker respected Stone’s vision for the story. The movie won Stone an Oscar for adapted screenplay. “I went from (being) a nobody in New York to at the age of 33 getting an Academy Award,” he said. But it wasn’t all easy. “A lot of problems come from success,” he observed.
  • Stone suggested that screenwriters learn to embrace the combination of loneliness and solitude that the craft demands. “You make it a spiritual activity,” he said.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise Stone laid on the crowd was that he still writes the first drafts of his scripts in longhand.

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  1. Yes, it’s very…….. spiritual. Try it sometimes.

  2. meta says:

    The other thing is “… or the same film and watch it as a binge thing”

    Watch the same film multiple times is a binge thing? Isn’t that one way to study film? Are many movies just as good if not better the second viewing?”

    Stone is out of touch.

  3. Donna says:

    Oliver Stone was candid about current filmmaking and finance and I certainly appreciated his comments. We’re anxiously awaiting “Snowden.” Many of his movies and those noted in another comment I.e. “13 Hours…” Actually provide insight into significant military and government issues.

  4. “No other country in the world that has experienced war — no other country — goes to this degree of adulation.” – lol. this dude is on drugs or what?

    His friend, Putin, is starting a big war right now. every second russian movie is about war (WW2, Afghanistan, Crimea and so on), and these shitty films are not about problems of wars or an enemy’s point of view, but about russian heroism, how brave they are, and such bullshit. So Stone is just such a hypocrite

  5. harry georgatos says:

    The adulation of the US Military is beyond saturation point! 13 HOURS, BLACK HAWK DOWN and AMERICAN SNIPER plus every other war film paints such a skewered loving picture of war porn that can only make the Second Coming of Christ and The Rapture all that faster on Earth. Corporate interests tied to the highest level of government have derailed the anti-establishment counter-culture anti-war films with power-brokers from Israel, Britain to The White House that have laid moral anti-war films to the dust bin of history. The one truly great anti-war film that was torn to shreds by the Right-wing psychotic mentality by established power-brokers was Brian De Palma’s searing REDACTED which got very, very little distribution in the USA and around the globe that no one was able to see this highly controversial but brilliant piece of digital film-making. The game is rigged as the profiliration of war propaganda will continue to roll off the assembly line at fever pitch momentum in brainwashing the ideals of the American dream into future generations.

  6. Skye Dent says:

    Being just a short boat ride from Provincetown, I was hoping he might say something in support of the LGBT community. Is it possible that he doesn’t know that P-town is like the SF of Cape Cod, without Siicon Valley folks making your life unaffordable. Hey, I have a NYU Tisch MFA. I’m here if you want to pay it forward.

  7. meta says:

    wow, quit trying after ten years…this explains the lack of passion evident in his more recent films.

    • lawrencefay says:

      Coming from a Director whose more recent films include Savages. Not only did that movie lack any moral compass, it reeked of superficiality. I certainly agree that both perspectives of war deserve to be produced and acknowledge that there exists an agenda trickling down from higher ups. There may never be a movie like All The Presidents Men financially backed stateside again. It is imperative that whistleblowers like Snowden garner the American public’s attention in one form or another. I know it’s exhausting to bring politics up in every topic, irrelevant or not. But I do not understand people’s willingness to back Hillary. And let me say for the record, neither candidate is deserving of being President. Trump is prone to footinmouth disease and is nowhere nuanced for international representation. However, he is unarguably anti-establishment sort of like Sanders. The majority of Clinton’s campaign is financed by Super-Pacts that are willing to go to any length to secure her win and their agenda. Whenever a mass shooting occurs, she shouts gun-control, yet the NRA is one of her backers. No need to believe me, it is public information if you do a little research. She takes money from foreign corporations, big Pharma and monopolies like Monsanto. At the very least, she will continue to tow the line when it comes to government and too big to fail corporations exchanging hands. The fact of the matter is, a two-party system is too black and white. Nowadays, you would be a hipocrite if you claimed that every stance your party takes is what you believe. People vote with their emotions and not with their heads. I’d rather have a candidate speak his mind, whether he comes off as brash or reactionary, then a candidate who strives for appearance only. Which one is more insincere? Socially, I hold more progressive beliefs; economically I am more conservative. But I am not merely black or white. The worst thing a person can be is opinionated and uneducated. Like Mark Twain said, I never let school get in the way of my education. The information is out there and the “media” is not it. Don’t be incredulous people, you’re selling yourself short. Politicians might rely on your willful ignorance, but I have more faith in my Patriots then that. We didn’t start as a democracy. We, the people, began as a democratic-Republic. There’s a fundamental difference that needs to be reinstated.

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