Few directors have attracted as much controversy as Oliver Stone. He’s been accused of rewriting histor y in his political epics Nixon and JFK, glorifying violence in Natural Born Killers and suppor ting dictatorial regimes in Castro-doc Comandante. Yet, for his latest film, World Trade Center, Stone’s been accused of playing it too safe. In town for last week’s Dubai International Film Festival, Stone talked movie-making and politics with Matt Pomroy
What do you make of Dubai and its film festival?
I’ve only been here three days so I don’t really know Dubai but I’ve had a very generous and warm reception. It’s a good thing for the film festival to reach out because Arabic films don’t play in America very much. I’ve met so many filmmakers who are struggling and it seems that it’s not easy to make films in the Middle East. (Laughs)
What problems did you experience while filming World Trade Center?
One of the difficult decisions in this was the question of ‘how real do you get and how far do you film?’ We’re trying to make a mainstream film, and we did, for a worldwide audience. When you see a person screaming you’d be surprised how fast people leave the theatre. We reproduced what those guys went through and it was a gritty, tough film and a lot of people did- n’t go to see it for those very reasons, they didn’t want to see that reality. You get criticised for being sentimental because they survived and people say that’s bad, because more people died; while on the other side of the equation people are saying they don’t want to see it because it’s too harsh.
Was it hard to stay politically neutral?
I didn’t seek to stay politically neutral, I sought to honour the feelings of those men in that hole and their wives at home. That was my guiding star and I didn’t do anything politically correct as far as I know. We had 50 rescuers on the film who were actually there that night of 9/11 and they worked very closely with us. It was contentious in that there were three different departments [police, fire and port authority] and at times they were fighting among them- selves about who did what but we really tried to get it technically right. When we went back to LA to finish the film that was a nightmare too because we had to build the whole damn thing with the concourse, the rubble fields and the hole and all the debris, dust, and smoke – so it wasn’t easy shooting conditions. A film like this can cause a lot of controversy which is not good as the 9/11 situation is five years old and you want to come out with some respect and dignity, but I think we did.
Many of your films have caused controversy. What are you expecting from the aftermath of World Trade Center?
I don’t really see it like that; I see it as a memorial for people that lived that day in New York. The film’s been huge in the box office in the West Coast, they liked it and paid money to go and see it. If we can honour the feelings of those people and remember them on that day it can only help to continue our belief in people – people were killed that day, as they are in every violent action, so it’s a memorial to those people.
Do you see parallels between what’s happening now in the Middle East and your own experiences in Vietnam?
I did three movies on Vietnam and two of them had a big impact in America, but unfortunately by the late 90s things seemed to be going back into a militaristic direction. Shock and awe (shakes his head) I felt it, something was wrong and it feels like we’re going backwards. Of course, 2002 onwards for me was very depressing, and many other Vietnam veterans who were aware of the situation; we saw so many similarities. The march to war, the media getting behind it, the president using this vast authority to convince the American public that he was doing the right thing… many veterans were very depressed and it was a rough time. This war really put us back 10 years. The Afghanistan war I believed in at the time and I still do as it was a terrorist state and it had to be taken out. But this Iraqi debacle is a nightmare and I don’t see it ending, it just gets worse and worse and worse. It was like Vietnam in so many ways but it’s not Vietnam – it’s only like Vietnam in that it reflects a state of mind in the American political and military consciousness. It’s a desire to bring order and stability to a region that doesn’t want American imposition. In Vietnam we didn’t have a chance from the beginning. When I got there in 1965 it was already clear and by 68 it was really clear. Now we’ve been in Iraq for four years and it should be super clear but now but we’ve just had the [mid-term] elections and finally people are waking up.
What do you think about the Israeli occupation in Palestine?
I did a documentary called Persona Non Grata and I interviewed Arafat and all the Israeli leaders and I think it’s a very difficult issue. I’ve publicly said that I believe in the recognition of the Palestinian state and I don’t think Israel should be in the West Bank and I think that the Palestinians have to agree to the existence of Israel. It’s the only way out of this mess. Carter said the same thing, and Clinton too, but it just goes on and on and on. It doesn’t matter who did what to whom over the years, what matters is now and how we can fix it.
The motto of DIFF is ‘Bridging Cultures and Meeting Minds’. How do you think films help to bridge the gap between cultures?
I think all sorts of films, documentaries, too, help – as long as you keep talking and communicating, there’s dialogue. When you don’t communicate and you isolate, that’s when you create the enemy and enter the fields of paranoia and alienation. This is what happens when, and Mr Bush took advantage of it, you make tragedies into a political situation. He demonised the world as in ‘us’ and ‘them’ – this was a mistake. He used the word ‘evil’ in the wrong way, and he set up a reaction in America with this concept that there was an enemy and that we’d have to fight it until the rest of time. This is a shame and I think media can only help to humanise, I think that World Trade Center helped to humanise too. I think it reminds people that it’s about real people and people connecting with people – what is it about human civilisation that is worth saving? Are we going to fight an endless war? Cruelty has become the dominant image in the media but the fact remains that violence is still commercial.
Would you consider making a movie about Arabs or from an Arab point of view?
Look at World Trade Center – it’s shown all over the world and that means people in Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan etc have gone to see this movie and they didn’t see it as America, only they thought of it as a story about people, about human beings and adversity. It doesn’t matter that it’s based in America, once you get into the movie you get into the hearts of the men and women who lived that day and they’re not American any more, they become universal. That’s the idea, and the beauty of film.
For Time Out magazine