Oliver Stone: ‘I realised the cocaine wasn’t helping my writing’

Oliver Stone. Phototograph: Michael Campanella/WireImage)
Film-maker Oliver Stone has found himself in the critical cauldron many times over the years, but he’s never really minded the controversies. He talks about his life in film, serving in Vietnam and his battles with drugs 

It is mid-morning in Los Angeles. Oliver Stone is rooting through drawers and messing with his smartphone. Apparently he has to take a photograph of his passport before we get properly started.

“Yes, I have to go to France all of a sudden and I am using my French passport,” he booms. “I have to because Americans are not going to be welcome anywhere pretty soon.”

He has a point. The rampaging rates of Covid-19 – and publicity about resistance to face masks – really has turned the world against American tourism. Then again, Stone has never been a stranger to paranoia. Films such as JFK, Nixon and Snowden assume the existence of vast state conspiracies.

It was an issue with my ex-wives. They were fine with it.  Some other people I didn’t notify, because… f**k them! Ha, ha!

He annoyed many liberal pals with a recent kickback against notions of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Natural Born Killers, his 1994 media satire, offended across the spectrum. It’s been a career of brawls.

“A lot has happened,” he sighs. “There was more movement than I’d ever expected. I never thought I would get the torrent of abuse I got for JFK or for Natural Born Killers. But I did hit the pulse once or twice.”

It is, perhaps, for that reason that Oliver wants to discuss only the period covered by his latest book. Chasing the Light, a cracking memoir spiced with anecdote and outrage, takes us from his privileged childhood in New York City – son of a Jewish-American father and a glamorous French mother – on to Yale University, Vietnam, early success writing Midnight Express, cocaine hell and, finally, triumph at the Oscars with Platoon in 1986.

It’s something of a relief to be edged away from his recent controversies. We would need weeks to adequately parse his robust views on Julian Assange, Israel, Ukraine and Hugo Chávez. It’s not as if there isn’t enough to be getting on with in the early life.

Chasing the Light is not a bitter book. He bears no apparent grudges against his first two wives: Najwa Sarkis and Elizabeth Burkit Cox. He admits his own failings when discussing feuds with collaborators. But he must have worried about offending the odd old friend or enemy.

 “It was an issue with my ex-wives,” he says. “I raised it with Najwa and I raised it with Elizabeth. They were fine with it. With Elizabeth there are more years to be written about. Some other people I didn’t notify, because… f**k them! Ha, ha!”

I like people who are honest. Very few people are honest

I was particularly interested in his study of James Woods. The star of Salvador, Stone’s third film as director, gets a reasonably good-natured ribbing for his actorly notions. “I felt like I was walking on teacups, begging Jimmy, who loved watching me grovel,” he writes. But for the most part he is positive about a star who has, in recent years, emerged as Hollywood’s most aggressive Trump apologist. Those are not Stone’s politics.

“I don’t think politics should divide people,” he says. “Sure, I think politics is a part of life. Jimmy is a man. He’s fully formed. He’s into his opinions and he shares them with me. He’s different to me. He’s just a whole different creature and he feels a certain way. He says it and I like him for his honesty. I like people who are honest. Very few people are honest. They go along with the herd. I’ve never done that.”

Oliver Stone serving in Vietnam
Oliver Stone serving in Vietnam

The book goes some way to supporting that thesis. Born in 1946, Stone was sent to private school in Manhattan and then on to a boarding academy in Pennsylvania. His dad, an upright stockbroker who fell for mom when serving in France during the second World War, hoped that young Oliver would follow him into financial trading or some similarly respectable profession. It didn’t work out that way. Stone twice dropped out of Yale and eventually volunteered as an ordinary soldier in Vietnam.

“My dad didn’t see that much of my film career,” Stone says. “He didn’t live to see Salvador. But he did live to see Midnight Express. So he knew I was going to be okay. His standards were high. At the end, he did say that he thought the movies would do well. It was dad that suffered, because Wall Street took a direction in the 1980s that hurt him.” Those changes in the financial district – the corruption, the cocaine, the naked greed – inspired Stone’s 1987 hit Wall Street.

Oliver Stone, James Woods, and John Savage on the set of Salvador in Mexico in 1985. Photograph: courtesy of Oliver Stone and Ixtlan Productions
Oliver Stone, James Woods and John Savage on the set of Salvador in Mexico in 1985. Photograph: courtesy of Oliver Stone and Ixtlan Productions

Vietnam is, of course, at the heart of the Stone experience. Platoon was the film that secured his place at the top table. Two further projects concerning the war, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth, completed something like a trilogy. He has talked about his decision to sign up dozens of times. He writes about it in Chasing the Light. But he still struggles to make sense of it to others. Before he took up a rifle he taught English in Saigon. So it wasn’t as if he was ignorant about the region and its discontents.

“I do believe I understand myself at that age,” he says. “I remember it vividly. I wrote a novel after I got back the first time. I had taught in a Catholic school. I had been a merchant marine there. It opened my eyes to a world that was fabulous. The war had not warmed up yet. It was not full blown. There was still something romantic about it. Remember I was not politically the animal I am now. I was influenced by my father. I thought we were fighting communism and they were a pernicious menace. We grew up with ‘the Red Menace’.”

I’m still not sure I get it. Anyway, after leaving the army in 1968, Stone wandered the country, got arrested on a fanciful drug-smuggling charge and eventually ended up studying film at New York University. Chasing the Light features a lovely sketch of Martin Scorsese – only four years older than Stone, but already lecturing frenetically to the students. “He was a wonderful teacher. He imparted his energy and devotion. He looked on it as a religion,” Stone says.

The Turks said I apologised for Midnight. I never apologised for that movie

Scorsese was also realistic about the fact that few of his students would succeed. In his early years, however, Stone seems to have been blessed. He formed an alliance with Robert Bolt, screenwriter of Lawrence of Arabia, and hammered out a few interesting unproduced scripts. An early screenplay for Platoon generated some interest. A few days after moving to LA, he was commissioned to adapt Midnight Express, the true story of Billy Hayes’ incarceration in a Turkish prison on drugs offenses, into a film for Alan Parker. It was a hit and won the young man an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“It was shamelessly attacked for many reasons,” Stone says. “Partly because it was successful and it got to what was wrong with that system.”

Some of those attacks suggested the film demonised its Turkish characters and put racially charged language in the mouth of the fictionalised Billy Hayes. Does he regret any of that now?

Oliver Stone’s early success came with writing Midnight Express
Oliver Stone’s early success came with writing Midnight Express

“Yes and no. I said later that I regret the misunderstandings,” he says. “The Turks said I apologised for the movie. I never apologised for that movie. I had been to Vietnam and been in prison. I’d been thrown into prison for federal smuggling. And I saw the injustice of what was going on in the war on drugs there. I saw all the black kids and the Latinos there. That prison in San Diego was for 2,000 people, but there were 5,000 there. That war on drugs was a war on sanity. It was done for political reasons and it cost our country a fortune. It wasn’t just about Turkey.”

And it hasn’t gone away.

“It’s got worse,” he says. “I think more than two million people are in prison. And as a result the police have become more powerful and militarised. It’s all about money.”

Stone titles the next chapter Downfall. The Hand, his second film as director – after the even-less-seen Seizure – was not a success and writing projects proved hard to find. As the 1980s shoulder-padded forward, Stone allowed himself to get caught up in Hollywood’s passion for cocaine. I wonder if cocaine brought on the professional decline or if professional decline brought on the cocaine. You get some sense of the madness that drug generates from his script for Brian De Palma’s 1983 gangster flick Scarface. 

“In a sense both,” he says. “Cocaine was very popular in the 1970s. It was extremely popular by the 1980s. It was not hurting me at that point. I felt it was a party drug. Let’s have fun. I was wrong. I did get addicted. I realised the cocaine wasn’t helping my writing. On the contrary, it was hurting my writing. My brain cells deteriorated. I think I dealt with it well. I did the last of it researching Scarface. But when I came to write it I moved to Paris and, thank God, nobody was doing cocaine there.”

There is no apparent hypocrisy from Stone here. He doesn’t bang any drums. He doesn’t issue any sermons.

“It was not that I didn’t do cocaine after that,” he says. “But I was never addicted again. I never became an AA-type person. My mother wouldn’t have liked that. My mother was so fun-loving. Ha ha!”

Ah, Scarface. Younger readers may be surprised to hear that every gangsta rapper’s favourite film did not open to universal hosannas. Indeed the reviews were distinctly iffy and the box office was only lukewarm. The film’s reputation took a decade or so to build.

“I had my own journey with it,” he says chuckling. “It was hated by the bourgeois elite. But I knew from the New York movie crowd that it was liked. Black people and Puerto Ricans got it. People who did drugs got it. I just felt that this was an inside-the-park home run. They offered me money to do something similar, but for me the gangster element had moved from Miami up to Wall Street. So my next original movie after Platoon was Wall Street.”

Oliver Stone’s Scarface: Initial reviews were iffy, with the film’s reputation taking a decade or so to build.
Oliver Stone’s Scarface: Initial reviews were iffy, with the film’s reputation taking a decade or so to build.

Even before Stone finally broke through as a director with the double-whammy of Salvador and Platoon – filmed back-to-back and both released in 1986 – he had already achieved a reputation as a filmmaker who won’t whisper when he can yell. Pauline Kael, influential critic in the New Yorker, called him a “brazen vulgarian” and that caricature has never gone away. On retirement, she joked about her relief at never having to see another of his films. He sounds philosophical about the criticism.

“Well, it’s a lifelong thing for anybody who’s out there taking risks in the artistic world,” he says. “You’re always going to be criticised and it’s hard. Some of the things seem unjust and you resent them. Some of them you take to heart. I’ve tried to listen to my critics and work out what’s wrong.”

The book ends at a moment of unqualified triumph. Platoon, his autobiographical Vietnam film, has just won four Academy Awards, including those for best film and best director. It is the third-highest grossing film domestically of 1986 (ahead of Aliens and Stand by Me). The modestly budgeted Salvador has secured two Oscar nominations. “I’d reached a moment in time whose glory would last me forever,” he writes.

Further glories would come. He won a second best director Oscar for Born on the Fourth of July. Whatever you think of JFK, that bizarre cinematic screed was certainly a phenomenon.

Stone’s personal life seems stable. He and his third wife, Sun-jung Jung, have been married for 24 years. “She’s the easiest person to live with in the world,” he says when I ask about lockdown. But I wonder if he feels that, in professional terms, he never again topped that success in 1986.

He smiles his enormous toothy smile. “You’ll have to wait for the next book to find out.”

Chasing the Light is on sale from July 21st