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.
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.