Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great never lost a battle — until he took on American movie audiences in November.
Made for more than $150 million, “Alexander” limped to a $33 million gross in the U.S. and has been scorned by the majority of critics.
Director/co-writer Oliver Stone and Intermedia chairman Moritz Borman say “Alexander” lost the battle but hasn’t lost the war: They’re working hard to tubthump the film as it opens in key territories Dec. 23. But in retrospect, the duo question some of their choices: the release pattern (maybe should have bowed at Cannes in 2005), their depiction of Alexander’s homosexuality, and even their storytelling.
“In some way,” Stone says, “I failed to communicate his story properly to that audience. I still think it’s a beautiful movie, but Alexander deserved better than I gave him.”
Stone, who dreamed of making the pic since film school and who won the fight to put the first Alexander picture into production, hopes U.S. audiences discover the film on DVD.
Borman, meanwhile, hopes “Alexander” mitigates its losses by showing some of the overseas resilience that made “Troy” a blockbuster abroad.
“Alexander” topped the box office in 21 of 22 small countries in which it has so far opened. The real test was to come when the film opened in Germany, France, Japan, Spain, the U.K. and Germany Dec. 23, with other major markets to follow quickly.
He claims Intermedia has covered its flank with presales: “We will not lose a penny. But if the picture doesn’t work in some foreign territories, (distributors) will take the hit. …If the picture makes over $100 million foreign, most will be OK. But if the picture fares the way it did here, they will lose.
“Having a picture that underperformed as badly as this one did here hurts in other ways,” Borman says. “Next time we go to Warner Bros. with a picture like this, they might say no. Those foreign buyers who lost will be looking for a rebate next time they come back to the table.”
As he promotes the film overseas, Stone readily admits there are things he’d do differently. He regrets he didn’t pick up the clues during the presidential campaign that the U.S. cultural climate might not be hospitable. “Who could have imagined that the election would turn on the issue of homosexuality? But it also became the headline of this movie,” Stone says.
“They called him Alexander the Gay. That’s horribly discriminatory, but the film simply did not open in the South, in the Bible Belt. There was clear resistance to the homosexuality.
“On ‘JFK,’ I gambled on the audience’s intelligence and won. Here, I lost, the way I did with ‘Nixon.’
“If I could go back, I’d have put events in linear order and limited the voiceovers. I’d have gotten the film to 2½ hours and taken out the homosexuality for the U.S. market and for countries sensitive to such things, like Korea or Greece. Kids weren’t comfortable with men who hugged, a king who cries and expresses tenderness,” Stone says.
Stone and Borman agree they should have tested the film.
“If I had it to do again, I would have found the extra money and moved it to next year,” Borman says. “That would have given Oliver more time to think about the things we’re talking about now, and allowed us to open out of competition in the Cannes Film Festival. Maybe we should have started in Europe before coming here.”
Borman says that move would have been worth the extra $7 million in interest payments it would have cost to postpone the film: “I know there’s a film in there that American audiences could have embraced.”
Stone says making the movie was like trying to wrap his arms around an elephant. It could have been five hours, giving him the chance to explain the complicated rivalry among Alexander’s mother, wife Roxane and soulmate Hephiastion.
The director also accepts fault for obscuring an array of symbolic images and foreshadowed plot points that American audiences might have enjoyed figuring out.
For example, the young man who kills Philip (Val Kilmer) is shown being humiliated earlier at one of Philip’s licentious wedding parties. “Had I put things in more linear order and shortened everything, maybe more people would get it. There are 100 things like that in the film.”
The symbolism of the eagle, a recurring image in the film, also seems to have eluded many viewers. The film points out that Zeus assigned an eagle to peck out Prometheus’ liver, to punish him “for giving fire to man and civilizing the species.” The suggestion is that Alexander did the same, by building cities and combining East with West.
Stone also regrets U.S. critics’ barbs at Anthony Hopkins’ lengthy narration scenes as Ptolemy, and an accent used by Angelina Jolie that at least one reviewer called Transylvanian. Stone says both thesps did as he asked.
“I wanted to emphasize her ethnicity,” Stone says. “The major story point was, Alexander was not acceptable to all people as Philip’s legitimate heir because he was not a true Macedonian.” That hatched ensuing conflicts and a mutiny, and led Alexander to murder 13 of his generals after they dared insult his mother and questioned his birthright.
“She was a Molossian princess, and I liked that her accent was a bit exotic. My mother spoke with a French accent. But maybe the accent we worked out was wrong, if the result was people thinking she was from Transylvania.”
Stone will lick his wounds and try to figure out his next project. He feels that long-held plans to adapt Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” will be dented by “Alexander’s” poor U.S. box office.
“I think so, yes,” Stone says. “I can’t possibly do something of this size, nor do I want to. It is rare to get your dream. I did and if I were not allowed to work again, I would live with that. Maybe I’ll direct somebody else’s script, do the best job I can.”