Three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns to the screen with the ferocious thriller Savages, featuring the all-star ensemble cast of Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch and Demian Bichir. Based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel that was named one of The New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2010, the film tells the tale of two Laguna Beach entrepreneurs who run a lucrative, homegrown industry raising some of the best marijuana ever developed until the Mexican Baja Cartel decides to move in.
At the press day for Savages, MoviesOnline sat down with Stone to talk about what it was like making a film about the politics and trade of marijuana that matches the intensity of some of his best work. He discussed how he adapted the characters and their storylines from the novel for the film, why he likes his actors to argue with him and question everything that’s in the script, what he thinks of the hypothetical possibility of Mexican drug cartels moving into So Cali, and why he believes we’re living in an era of no rules where we’re seeing people acting out in ways that are extremely violent and destabilizing. He also revealed how he sees the future of filmmaking without film as the industry moves to digital projection.
Q: Can you talk about how the film evolved from the novel?
OS: There are twists and turns in this movie. Some of them are pretty wild and there’s a lot of them actually if you start counting back. A lot of relationships are discovered as you go so it does pick up its momentum. There is a romantic way out which was from the book which is very much in the girl’s head. It being a love story or not, whether the girl would take her own life to join one of her lovers in death was the notion in the book. If you accept that, you can live with it. I can’t. I think the world is a different, I see the world a little bit more realistically. I love the ending in the book. It reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but I do think the drug world and the drug deals go on and on and on. I would just say there’s a lot of surprises. The girl says that this is the way I imagined it would happen. I don’t know if you heard the line, but “Truth has a mind of its own.” It happens to all of us. We all have idealism.
We think we’re healthy and then all of a sudden one day you have cancer. The truth has a mind of its own and she just couldn’t control that and that was the way she would have liked it to end in her loopy head. She’s a bit of a flower girl but Salma sets her straight. She says, “Something’s wrong with your love story, baby.” She says at one point, the two men love each other more. She suggests that. I’m questioning it. I think the whole film’s argument for love or not love between three people, she says at the end I don’t think it’s possible for three people to be equally in love. It’s very difficult to work out a three way relationship. In Jules & Jim Francois Truffaut ends it with they drive off the bridge, right?
Jeanne Moreau drives one man off the bridge. And Butch Cassidy if you look at that again, they bring it in but they dangle it but they don’t go into it. The two guys die alone so that wasn’t working either for me. I had to deal with my own conscience on it. The only thing that has been mentioned in the press really that came off the book is the kidnapping. That has been revealed because of the book. The ideal place, in my world I would rather have nobody reveal anything after Hitchcock in Psycho wouldn’t allow anybody in after 10 minutes. I would rather keep it very quiet and let the audience find its way.
Q: In the film, one of the drug lords says we’re going to be better with El Pri (Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party) and the film suggests the cartels may be moving into Southern California. What are your thoughts on that?
OS: That was prophetic. I did go to Mexico. I did talk to a few people who are heavy down there, on both sides of the fence, legitimate and otherwise. We had a DEA agent. We had computer consultants. But, this is a hypothetical fiction. This is not Traffic. Traffic was a wonderful movie but it’s much more documentary like. This is a hypothetical situation. It hasn’t happened yet and it allows us to imagine. You can imagine the worst. I think that would be better news for you [the Mexican journalist] but you could also imagine that there has not been any kind of major violence on this side of the border yet, except in Texas. I mean, minor events so far but nothing big has broken, right? It’s in the interest of the Mexican cartels to keep it south because if they start to move here, they’re going to get a lot of bad publicity and there’s going to be a lot of consequences. They are here. They are growing. We know that. There’s been busts and we know that they have land, Indian land.
They may have deals here in California because the best laboratory in the world is now here. So all these possibilities exist but frankly, from all my research, I couldn’t find, no one was talking about that. We do have an independent grower’s market here which is like a boutique business and they’re very good people. They grow great stuff, best I’ve ever had in 40 years. It’s like Wal Mart coming to town, like Travolta says. If that does happen, Wal Mart will definitely be interested in making good product because they’ll take the niche business and they’ll bring it up. Mexican weed’s sh*t as we said in the movie, but they would be interested in growing better weed because there is money in it.
So we don’t know the answer yet, but right now I think it’s hypothetical. Let’s keep it that way. And also, by the way, in that vein, I think Taylor Kitsch has a very good argument in the movie 1/3 of the way. He says to Aaron, “You should’ve done what I said. Take ‘em on at the beginning. We would’ve killed a few of the f***ers and we wouldn’t be in this f***ing mess we’re trying to negotiate out of.” It became a mess because Ben did take the negotiation pacifist view of this thing. No violence. I think maybe Aaron was right because they wouldn’t have risked the heat that they would’ve gotten with murders here in the United States.
Q: Do you think the police are involved in corruption?
OS: Listen, I’m not going to make some accusation that’s going to be in the headlines in Mexico City tomorrow, but I will say that what was clear to me when I was in Mexico is two things. One is the connection between the money and the political parties. There’s too much money in Mexico, huge amount that’s washing around and they need to put the money in a legitimate economy. Among other things, businesses, politics is certainly one of them. When you hear people say that one party will favor this cartel or that cartel, you hear that and you kind of get a picture so that gave me the idea that Elena was dead meat. She was losing her power.
It was told to me, I can’t make the judgment on the parties, but I do think that the guy that they elected in 2006, Calderon, is a disaster. He was equivalent to George Bush and insofar he did steal the election. That party stole the election. I have no doubt that Obrador won. I really don’t from what I read and it’s a shame because he brought what George Bush brought to this country. He brought a nightmare to Mexico by declaring war on these guys. Four cartels became seven cartels and there’s more violence. It’s like a civil war in your own country. It’s a shame. I hope the new party guy is much more pragmatic and gets down to decriminalizing with the United States. Decriminalizing. Decriminalizing drugs.
Q: How did you as a filmmaker prioritize the characters and storylines?
OS: Oh, we cut a lot. No, cut, cut. The book is 120 scenes. I think we only in a movie have 30 scenes to play. No, we have to make decisions in the script. We made decisions in the editing. We had to consolidate so much and there’s so many things different in the movie than the book.
You have to read the book to understand but definitely the book inspired me. Winslow did a great job of writing it and knew that world and it really gave me the desire to make a movie about it that was fresh. But tremendous ruthlessness, ruthlessness in terms of we have some good deleted scenes that you’ll see one day that are fun, but they had to go. Benicio’s home life among them.
Q: And Uma Thurman?
OS: And Uma Thurman was Blake’s mom, yeah.
Q: Can you talk about the changes from the book?
OS: Well, there is no closure on the drug war. Unfortunately the truth is that people do go scot free and it’s unfair. A lot of the top drug people who’ve been arrested also are free. There’s deals made all the time and there’s a lot of corruption and it works both ways. The drug war, by creating that false environment of a war on drugs, and cruel and unusual punishment with these crimes, throwing people in jail for victimless crimes essentially, 50% of our U.S. population is in jail without having hurt anybody, mostly for drugs.
This is a tremendous inequality in our system and it’s been written about. The black people have suffered the most in our country because it’s like slavery. This new book, The New Jim Crow has pointed that out that it’s a form of slavery to put young people in jail. You ruin their lives and we’re doing it constantly. Every state. The truth is really ugly, so if you make a movie where you romanticize the truth, you don’t get your revenge in these kind of things.
Q: Blake said you like your actors to argue with you. Is that true?
OS: I do. I’m glad she thinks I did like it because I was smiling probably. No, I think it’s good. Every actor is the best advocate for, is a lawyer for his own defense. And a good actor will be thinking, feeling, questioning and Blake was one of the most aggressive in terms of questioning everything in the script. She was different than the concept in the book. She was more of a flower child than the girl who was more punk rock in the book.
She always wanted to emphasize the heart and the hope and I like that. I like what she did very much. She’s very elegant, sophisticated, and she has a concept of script. She reminds me frankly of a very smart, like a Meryl Streep at that age. I knew her when she was starting out, kind of has that same, and she looks great, you know. If events are good to her, she could go all the way. She’s got the chops.
Q: Did you ever have to reign Salma or any of the other actors in?
OS: I had no choice. When you meet La Reina Del Sur, she’s an act of will, Salma. She’s tough. She came from Mexico and she just propelled herself to Hollywood. I guess she didn’t speak much English when she got here. I met her years ago when I did U-Turn. The first time I met her she said, “You son of a bitch, you didn’t even see me. You gave it to Jennifer Lopez.” I was stunned. I didn’t know her. You know what, 15 years later, I went right to her. I said this is the one. I didn’t even see another actress. Maybe one but I never saw another actress.
I wanted Salma and I wrote her a note in Europe and I just said, “You’re the one.” She didn’t remember that story I don’t think but when Universal said, “Is she tough enough?” I said, “Sweetheart, she’s tough.” Now Jennifer Lopez is going to come after me but she’s got a heart in the movie. That’s what’s – - she has a strong Latin fixation for family and I think when she tells that story about her husband and her children, I think she really puts her heart out there. And transfers it to Blake in a way but still ruthless.
Q: How concerned were you with avoiding stereotypes of drug traffickers and trafficking stories?
OS: Well, we’re going to Mexico right after we open here. That’ll be our first country and we’ll find out. I think people are fairly reasonable and understand the realities of the situation. I think we showed some of the cruelty. We didn’t show all of it because it’s too rough but certainly you have to deal with it. Otherwise you’re just sanitizing a situation that’s gotten extreme. Having made several movies about drugs including Scarface, it’s funny when I did Scarface you would’ve thought that was a cartoon but they modeled themselves after him and he became, the Scarface character became a bit of a, as you call it, a cliché but so many of them acted like him.
So what I saw in Miami with my own eyes is larger than life. What I see in Mexico is larger than life. I’ve met quite a few of the growers here, grow-ops in California. It’s an interesting time. The world is living in a larger than life fashion in general. We are seeing entertainment become politics and we’re seeing people acting out in ways that are extremely violent and destabilizing, including bankers. No rules apply. We’re in an era of no rules it seems.
Q: Do you see the legalization of marijuana happening in the next couple years?
OS: Well, at least decriminalizing it. That would be an important step but I think there’s so much money tied up with things like lobbies in Washington, like the war industry, the defense industry. It’s so hard now to go back on both sides, because we are locked into our prison system.
There’s a lot of money in this which Schwarzenegger found out when he tried to reform the – - and when Soros, didn’t Soros try to legalize marijuana nationally and he ran into the prison union. So anyway money, money, money. Money talks, bullsh*t walks.
Q: What do you think the next generation of filmmakers will be like when film itself is no longer the foundation?
OS: Wow, that’s a really pregnant question and you’re so right. I’ve been going through this process. I make a film like this every two years, so every time I come back to it there’s a new technology going on. Now truly because of the projection system, we’re moving inexorably to digital projection because it’s frankly more consistent and it’s certainly better than print projection, film print projection, the realm of theaters. The consistency of film print projection was always widely variable so I would go to theaters in Texas or Alabama and you just wouldn’t even see the movie. Sometimes there were mistakes made. Sometimes they don’t change the bulbs.
On the other hand, the irony of the whole situation is that film is still, to me, in my opinion, without a doubt 15-20% better than digital in its range, in its blacks, the depth of its blacks. When you see this movie, I hope you saw it with a good projector, the colors pop. You see blue towel, you see black hair. It’s what you call in space a black hole. You do see the black hole and I love that. My eye plays off film and you never know what’s going to happen because your eye does wander. It’s an anamorphic film so there’s no comparison. I’ve seen the digital and it’s good. It’s just not at the same level of a life and that’s because it’s a medium that’s different. There’s something in the silver, the retention, there’s something in the film stock that you cannot get. I swear to God, I’ve been through this, people say it’s so much better. Cameron has led the way, James, and Michael Mann. George Lucas was the first and they all led the way.
I was at that Lucas conference early in this decade up at his ranch when he was pushing the new Star Wars film. The LA Times wrote it up and I was the bad guy because they led with my protest against digital. I said, “What’s going to happen to film?” The result is Kodak is out of business. That’s a tragedy. It’s a national tragedy. Except for Fuji, we’ve got to keep making film. I really feel strongly. We can’t give it up and I think it may be like the baseball card business or comic book business, it’ll be an antique. But I don’t think it’s going to go away. It’s like books. You don’t have to always have an ebook. You can have a real book. I’d like to see the old way maintained. I think it will be. Like antique cars, it’ll grow in value. I’m going to hold onto my Blu-ray collection because I really think it’s hardware and it’s important and I don’t want to live in a Cloud all my life.
Savages opens in theaters on July 6th.