Oliver Stone, Feted at France’s Lumiere Festival, Talks Trump, Inspiration, the Future of ‘the American Empire’

Ouverture 77 / Oliver Stone
Copyright: Lea Rener - collection institut lumiere

“À la recherche de la Lumière” – the French title of Oliver Stone’s memoirs, “Chasing the Light: How I Fought My Way into Hollywood,” couldn’t find a more fitting place than Lyon’s Lumière Festival to make headlines.

The U.S. director was guest of honor at the event on Sunday night where a fresh restoration by Universal of “Born on the Fourth of July” was screened in the city’s imposing auditorium hall – imposing but only half-full, in line with French regulation to try and contain the coronavirus epidemic which has put the city under maximum alert.

Presented by the festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, as “one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers in the U.S. and in the world,” 74-year old Stone was given a standing ovation as he took to the stage for an hour-long Q&A session during which he spoke both in English and in French, his mother tongue.

Asked why he has decided to write a book now, he answered: “I wanted to go back and look at my life and understand what had happened.

“The problem with movies is they go fast. It’s one hassle after another, some people like them, others don’t, and then you’re on to another thing. I really wanted to appreciate what I have learned, both from failure and success,” added the director, who has received praise for what critics call the honesty of his memoir, which reads as a novel.

Just like his films, a conversation with Oliver Stone is intrinsically political. Asked how his political conscience was born, Stone replied without hesitation, “from the lies”, as he went on to explain how being a child of divorce, the Vietnam war and the murder of JFK – “they lied about his death” – were all part of what shaped him growing up.

“Those three lies set out my point of view of trying to look for the light, reality, the truth,” Stone explained.

“My father said a man should participate in the passion and the peril of his time,” he added. “We’re lying to ourselves (in Hollywood), we’re inventing these horrible fictions where we’re making enemies. This has been going on since Vietnam, we’ve been making the same mistakes, stepping in the same dogshit all the time,” he said referring to the racial tension, political polarization and growing civil unrest in his country.

“Migration has been the secret of America’s success. Wave after wave of new blood has picked up the country – Irish, Polish, Italians, Hispanics, Asians – and they have integrated very well. There’s no fixed America, but unfortunately Trump doesn’t see it that way, he evokes fear. He’s put blockages in the system, it’s getting worse in terms of civil strife.”

Stone mentioned the role of the media, which he blames for “hyping up” events. “Everyone is afraid of the media, even Trump, but he knows how to push the buttons. If they elect him again, it’s because he’s a great entertainer,” he quipped.

“You’re the same age as Trump…” Frémaux suggested in a provocative tone. “Indeed,” answered Stone. “And the same age as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – he was in my class at Yale, he should have left, but I did,” he joked, drawing chuckles from the audience.

On a more serious note, Stone, a Vietnam war veteran, added: “These are three men who didn’t go to Vietnam, who didn’t resist or protest. These three men were slackers. Honestly, it’s the people who go to war who should be president, not those who start them,” referring to the wars in Iraq and Yugoslavia.

“It’s very much the same situation now,” he went on. “There’s a lot of tension between Black and white people. During the Vietnam war, Blacks didn’t want to fight the Vietnamese, they did it because they were drafted. But they resented “the boss man,” the white sergeant who he tells you what to do. They taught me to resist, to smoke marijuana. They fought to be human beings and they stayed human beings.”

With reference to the upcoming U.S. election, Stone said: “I see America as an experiment in change, it can go the good way where intelligence and common sense will dominate, or it can go the bad way.”

“And frankly the uncertainty of it keeps me interested… for dramatic reasons,” he added with a wry smile. “It’s a good story. I think of the Roman empire: it took a long time for the Roman empire to fall apart. People knew they were becoming more and more corrupt, there was a lot decadence in Rome, but it lasted. Will American decadence last forever?” he asked, before concluding, in French, “I am an observer of the American comedy.”