By Scott Foundas
A rejuvenated Oliver Stone brings more than one war home to roost in his drug thriller Savages
”I’ve enjoyed dope for more than 40 years,“ Oliver Stone says, speaking by phone from his Los Angeles office. “It started in Vietnam, I was a soldier. I showed it in Platoon. Half the platoons were getting high—not in the field, but in the back, and it made that whole experience survivable to a large degree. I don’t think I would have kept my humanity without it. Getting high was an antidote to the madness we were surrounded by. I’m very serious about that. The music and the dope.”
I’m talking to Stone about his latest film, Savages, the story of a couple of high-end hydroponic pot growers—rock stars of the Southern California boutique marijuana scene—who run afoul of a ruthless Mexican cartel angling for a cut of their business. It is, I think, his best movie in years: a ripe, wildly energetic caper—a Stone(r) noir, if you will—that also provides a sharper snapshot of the way we live now than the more overtly topical World Trade Center, W., and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. International diplomacy and the state of the economy are very much on Stone’s mind here too, but the politics are niftily concealed by a vibrant genre-movie surface; striking, color-saturated visuals; and the toned, tanned bodies of a sexy young cast in various states of rest and motion. Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (a movie Savages directly makes reference to) if Butch, Sundance, and Etta were a full-blown ménage à trois. Think They Live by Night with surfboards and tattoos.
Adapted by Stone, Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow from Winslow’s compulsively readable 2010 novel, Savages follows the perils of Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), yin-and-yang best buddies who meet cute on the beaches of Laguna and soon go into business together. They use primo seeds ferried back by Navy SEAL Chon from the Afghan war zone to cultivate a highly potent strain of weed whose profits in turn fund the new-agey Ben’s third-world nonprofit. The two friends share home and hearth with the movie’s narrator, O (Blake Lively), a burnt-orange beach bunny who claims to love the two men in her life equally, though perhaps that love is not quite as intense as their own bromance. Then into this progressive love nest comes a missive from the cartel honcho known as Elena “La Reina” (Salma Hayek), who makes Ben and Chon an offer they can’t refuse: join forces with her or else it will be O’s decapitated head they find under their communal sheets.
The cartel in the film behaves like a corporation—Wal-Mart by way of Monsanto—wanting to co-opt not only Ben and Chon’s distribution network, but their seed-growing technology too. And everyone is, literally or figuratively, in bed with everyone—the cartel with American Indian reservations, the DEA (in the person of John Travolta’s deeply compromised agent) with the dealers and the growers alike—leading to a wild, loop-de-loop climax that may leave some wondering if THC has somehow been piped into the cinema.
Savages presents a fascinating cycle of subterranean trade: high-quality Afghan weed makes its way to Southern California as a kind of byproduct of the war over there, and ex-SEALs use their military training and weaponry against the Mexican cartel in a new kind of war zone.
I don’t want to be preachy, but that ties in to my belief that blowback exists in this world. You don’t go fight foreign wars and expect them to stay there. The blowback comes, and not only in the form of Osama bin Laden in 2001. We have so many wounded people from the two Iraqs and Afghanistan, people with diseases and concussions and maimed limbs. There’s tremendous callousness in the country and it destroys us, and in a strange way Don Winslow caught that in his book with this idea of these soldiers becoming active here. In Vietnam we always thought that we’d come back and we’d make a difference here in this country; we’d lead the revolution against Nixon. I love the idea that this kid Chon just takes things in his own fucking hands. He doesn’t go crying to the cops—there’s no cops to cry to. They drive around on bicycles in Laguna. So he gets his RPGs and his IEDs and he fucking does it with real hardcore veterans. I loved that idea of war coming home to roost.
The depiction of the Mexican cartel is unusual in that the characters are quite three-dimensional, particularly Salma Hayek’s Elena, who has a fraught relationship with her twentysomething daughter, and who ends up treating O as a kind of surrogate daughter when she kidnaps her.
We always thought of it that way. We also had scenes with Uma Thurman as the mother of O—they were good scenes that were funny, actually. But with the movie being two hours and 10 minutes now, we were concerned. John Travolta’s character also had a wife, and there was a tender scene between them. And there was a very interesting side story with Lado, Benicio’s character—we had Mia Maestro as his wife, and we see that she is trying to make their children into Californians and the kids disgust him because they don’t have any of the old-fashioned ways that he wants. But we had to let all that go. What I like about the movie is that it has a tension to it, and I think it keeps you going, wanting to know what’s going to happen next, and it doesn’t let up.
The three leads have a terrific chemistry together. They really click in a way that gives the movie a lot of energy. How did you decide on the casting?
Aaron was the first one in. I met him and I just fell for his charm. We met in London and I said, “I don’t know which one you should play, but I want you to do this movie.” He was getting hot, he had done Kick-Ass and I had liked him in that. He was being offered a big role, and it was a big deal for him, but he gave up the [other] movie because he loved this idea so much. Then I saw Taylor in Friday Night Lights and an early version of Battleship and thought he was dead-on for Chon. So that made Aaron Ben. Blake came about after Jennifer Lawrence dropped out to make The Hunger Games. It was a difficult movie because she had Gossip Girl shooting 10 months a year, so she had to fly to New York practically every fucking day. She was working monster hours, as they do on TV. We stayed on schedule, but it was a difficult shoot.
The film feels in some ways like a sibling to Natural Born Killers and U-Turn in its ferocious pacing and the hyperreality of the imagery—the intensity of the sunlight and the bold primary colors.
Let’s put it this way: it was going to be a sun movie, which is to say Mexico, the South. The colors were intended to be primary, and I drove everyone a little bit crazy with that. Early on, I screened Contempt for [cinematographer] Dan Mindel, and I said, “I want these colors.” We had great sun all summer, we were shooting outdoors, we shot with windows, we shot with light, we tried to use as much beach life as we could. At one point, I went out on the set and screamed that I wanted towels, as many bright yellows and blues as possible, to get rid of the weaker colors that were sneaking in. Sometimes set designers want to have that tasteful balance, and I said, “No! We want excess!” Flowers, paintings, everything we could do to get some color in there, including bringing standby painters in and just slapping a wall together if we had to at the last second. My references in this were certainly Contempt, but also Duel in the Sun—I saw that several times when I was young, and I saw it again recently, and it’s just beautifully done. The showdown scene at the end was sort of an homage to that. Also to Leone.
To wit, the movie’s score has a strong spaghetti Western feel to it.
It’s funny you should say that, because I went about 10 rounds on U-Turn with Ennio Morricone. It was the only time I worked with him, and I never worked with someone so difficult in my life. It was a creative collaboration, but I think I’m the only American director who made him return to America a second time—he doesn’t like to travel—because I was unhappy. At one point in our collaboration, I actually showed him a Road Runner cartoon and I said, “This is the type of music I want you to write.” And he looked at me with a cold stare and said, “You want me to write cartoon music?” But if you listen to U-Turn, there’s a lot of boings and bings and bangs.
On Savages, I didn’t really know what the sound should be. There was a guy, Adam Peters, who I’d used on The Untold History of the United States, and he did great work for me. He’s English, so he’s not at all of the Italian style, but he adapted. As with Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday, we used a lot of needle drops, a lot of Mexican music. We listened to all the narcocorridos, but we didn’t end up using any of those. We put Brahms in under the sex scene at the very beginning because I wanted the movie to have some tenderness and romance. There has to be that element like in Duel in the Sun where you feel for these people—they’re young, they’re tender, they’re at the mercy of the world, they’re in danger, and they’re in love.
How do you interpret the love triangle at the center of the film? Do Ben and Chon really love each other—as Elena intimates—more than they do O?
I don’t know. I did look at Butch Cassidy before we shot the movie, and it’s interesting, because Katharine Ross is with both men, but it’s so hidden in the movie that you barely notice it. Certainly, Butch Cassidy was considered, even at the time, a bit homoerotic. O has her own journey, too. She lives through this thing and she has to find herself, through this process of looking at death so clearly. She says toward the end: “I don’t think it’s possible for three people to be equally in love.” Which indicates that she’s thought about what Elena says to her in the dinner scene: “Something’s fucked up about your love story, baby.”
What is the current status of your Showtime miniseries, The Untold History of the United States?
It grew out of my desire to leave something behind. I’m aware of what my three children studied in American History and I’m aware of what I studied in American History, and I feel like we were all cheated by the book publishers and by the schools. In my case, it grew into a mythology about the United States that was very dangerous, because among other things I went to Vietnam under the belief that we were fighting the demon enemy: Communism. And what we did in Vietnam was so heinous, so evil, and it bothers me still that it was never apologized for, nothing changed, and we went to more wars. So in 2008, around the time I was doing W., I started this project. It was designed to be 10 chapters about the mythologies of American history, going back to 1945 and the bomb and working our way through to 2012. It’s an upside-down version of American history, which is to say it takes everything you thought you knew about America and questions it. Anyway, it turned into a monstrosity. It went two years over and took a lot of time. Writing history for film is the hardest thing in the world, and I’ve been giving all my free time to it when I haven’t been making other films. It was originally scheduled for May, but when Universal moved Savages to July, we and Showtime decided to push it back to November because we didn’t want to overlap. We’re working like dogs on it as we speak. We keep revising, fact-checking. Things change. It’s a bitch.
Savages ultimately feels like the work of a filmmaker reborn. If you watched it without knowing who directed it, you might think it was the work of a first- or second-timer fresh from film school or music videos, showing us everything he can do, in case he never gets to do it again.
It’s really my third or fourth childhood, because I’ve had these kinds of periods before. Bear in mind that I did Platoon when I was 37. To me, part of me had died in Vietnam, and to finally get a chance to make a movie about Vietnam in 1986 when I was almost 40, I felt like an old man then. I was going back to my 20-year-old self, and being in the jungle with Charlie Sheen and all those young dudes, I was the old guy. Life is like that—you get old, you get young, you get old, you get young. That’s happened to me repeatedly. Natural Born Killers was an enormous explosion of energy at a time when I was getting divorced and my life was falling apart and I was in a very dark place and I just said, “Fuck it.” So the answer is, I felt very old on the movie at times, because it was such hard work, and to get out of your chair for the hundredth time of the day and have to walk over to some young person and talk them through the whole thing again… What am I doing out here in 100-degree heat at Pyramid Lake? But it’s the idea that keeps it alive.
As a director, you sometimes feel like you’re the most loathed person, because you’re telling everyone what to do. And most people in life, myself included, don’t like to be in control all the time. I don’t enjoy it. But once in a while, you have to go out there for 60, 70, 80 days and you’ve got to be in charge and you’ve got to be tough to bring it together, because it’s tremendously logistically complex, and if you have 16 competing visions or even two competing visions, it won’t work. Every time you direct, it’s a tremendous effort. It’s like mounting the D-Day invasion. I’ve made 19 movies and they were 19 wars.