BOSTON -- Apart from his undeniable boldness and virtuosity as a filmmaker, Oliver Stone has a genius for promotion.
He's interpreted his fellow baby boomers' peak experiences as paradigms of America's lost innocence -- and sold them with passion to a large and engaged (or enraged) audience. Like Spike Lee, he's been his own best publicist, using political controversy to grab the media spotlight for causes that he's made his own.
He's often mixed documentary detail with speculation or melodrama -- most daringly in 1991's JFK, which implicated Lyndon B. Johnson in the cover-up of a conspiracy to kill the president. But even audiences who deny Stone's premises can embrace or have fun wrestling with his juicy pastiches. He fills his pictures with persuasive and compelling details. After films like Born on the 4th of July, it was common to hear even seasoned journalists exclaim through their applause or tears, "I loved this movie because, to me, it was history!"
Over the past two decades, there've been rumors of "a new Stone," like "a new Nixon," emerging in this new film or that. Inevitably, some show of excess or indulgence would sabotage that image.
But with World Trade Center there really does seem to be a new Stone -- humble, restrained and intent on sticking to the verifiable facts. The director, who turns 60 in September, has assumed the philosophic stance of an elder statesman. At a press stop in Boston, drawing journalists from all over the Mid-Atlantic and New England, there were no signs of the director-shaman who downed peyote and channeled Jim Morrison as he directed The Doors (1991) or the director-general who tried to conquer the ancient world with Alexander (2004). I couldn't help asking whether molding this real story of tragedy and triumph in the shadows of the fallen towers had mellowed him or brought him richer directorial moods and textures. With a twinkle he chalked it up to age and experience: "Like wine," of course, he says -- then adds, with a soft, self-deprecating chuckle, "or cheese."
In a suite at Boston's new Ritz-Carlton, right across the Public Gardens from the old Ritz, Stone spoke quietly and thoughtfully about the characters and themes of his new movie, World Trade Center, which opens nationally Wednesday. It's the harrowing, ultimately inspiring, fact-based tale of two Port Authority Police Department cops, Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), an expert on evacuation procedures who'd been through the 1993 WTC bombing, and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), a mere nine-
month veteran of the force, caught together in the rubble on Sept. 11. When Stone made his first major movie, Salvador (1986), he liked to remind interviewers that the title was Spanish for redemption. World Trade Center turns out to be a tale of redemption, too. It's about people rising from catastrophe to help each other because it is the right thing to do.
Raves in the newsweeklies and trade publications have marveled that the film avoids politics and centers on the human drama. Stone thinks people shouldn't be surprised.
"My films are not that political," he contends. "Look at them. Even JFK is a question mark." It questioned that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, killed President John F. Kennedy, and postulated a conspiracy to assassinate him because he upset the status quo and was about to pull out of Vietnam. But, Stone says, "it could have been embraced by the right wing because it was responding to Barry Goldwater's demand for an open government responsible to the people. Even Nixon (1995) was not a hatchet job, as some feared; it was a humanistic portrayal. What I say between movies I say because I feel, as Sean Penn puts it. I don't want to be muzzled just because I'm a celebrity. I served my country, I pay taxes. ... To say that because you're a celebrity, you don't know anything is to voice an ignorant, demeaning, condescending attitude."
None of his between-film comments proved more incendiary than the ones reported from an Oct. 1, 2001, seminar called Making Movies That Matter: The Role of Filmmaking in the National Debate. Stone linked the attack on
the World Trade Center to the riot against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle: He saw the events of Sept. 11 as part of a pattern of rebellion against the new global economic order. And as a filmmaker talking about filmmaking, he sutured that theme to his own frustration at conglomerates taking over studios and imposing corporate values. But a transcript reveals that he also said of the Sept. 11 atrocities, "I was in Vietnam. This is very personal to me and frankly I feel as if my daughter had been raped. ... It's a violation on a very deep level and I feel very sad." He empathized with and paid tribute to "all those families in Jersey, and the father is not coming home or the mother is not coming home. It's just terrifying. They'll never be in their families' lives again. This is very emotional stuff and it does take time."
Still, the damage had been done. Because of the one-two punch of that talk and the domestic failure of Alexander (it did gross more than $175 million internationally), the director's power evaporated. Rarely had he ever been quite this Stone-cold. This director had also been a prolific producer, with credits ranging from small jewels like 1992's South Central and 1996's Freeway to ambitious misfires like 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt to TV films like the terrific 2001 docudrama The Day Reagan Was Shot.
But now he couldn't get anything started on his own behalf.
So he actively petitioned for World Trade Center.
'I wanted to make it'
Stone's agent, Bryan Lourd of Creative Artists Agency, first told him about Rockville, Md., native Andrea Berloff's script in November 2004. "I don't know, Oliver," he said. "It's weird. I don't know if anybody's going to finance it or if this is going to make a dime. But I read it three weeks ago and it stayed with me." Stone read it and had the same feeling. "The difference was, I knew right away I wanted to make it."
Until Stone read Berloff's script, he hadn't thought of viewing Sept. 11 literally from the bottom up. As he kept reading, he kept getting more excited. It wasn't just the story of the two men
trapped below the surface, buoying up each other with their talk of faith and duty and family, and of their wives handling grief and nerves and hope on what swiftly became an unprecedented home front. It was also the mind-boggling tale of David Karnes, an actual ex-Marine from Connecticut, who watches the catastrophe on TV and talks his way onto the site, where he runs into another mysterious Marine and embarks on a mission to find survivors in the collapsed concrete and metal. "Unbelievable!" Stone exults. "Miraculous!" Except for the rabid satiric pulp of Natural Born Killers (1995) and the camp pulp of U-
Turn (1997), Stone had based all his pictures on real-life testimony. So he thought the first-hand accounts of McLoughlin and Jimeno were simply "gold."
He was astounded to learn that Hollywood's top A-listers had passed on the project. "Maybe it was too small a story; who knows?" Stone told the producers, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, that for him the relatively small scale of the plot within the larger picture was a plus. "I would make this thing as lean and sparse as I could," he promised them. "It should not be an epic; it should be small, microcosmic."
It was also, for Stone, a tale of America's working class. The opening sequence depicts the multiethnic first responders, not the white-collar crowd, coming in from middle to lower middle-class New York and New Jersey suburbs at the crack of dawn. Several hours later, McLoughlin is leading Jimeno and others into the wounded World Trade Center; before they can rescue anyone, they're trapped 20 feet beneath the rubble field. Only McLoughlin's sighting of an elevator shaft saves them.
"I like working-class pictures," Stone says. "You look at my football movie, Any Given Sunday (1999), and it's about working-class guys -- the players may make more money but their bodies are what they use to work. I don't think we make enough working-class pictures. It's a real shame. Now we're making all these upper-middle-class, upper-class movies. Everybody is the same."
I mention something writer-director Robert Towne (Chinatown)
likes to say: "When I grew up, people did things for a living." Stone laughs, surprisingly lightly and easily. "Yeah, you don't see much of that in movies anymore. Now it's more like Seinfeld. You sit around and have an attitude. I never got that. I guess I'm old school, like Bob Towne, on that one."
A child of privilege (his father was a Manhattan stockbroker, his mother a French jet-setter), Stone connected to American working men first on a Yankee ship in the merchant marine and then during the 15 months of service in Vietnam that he fictionalized in Platoon (1986). He sealed his industry standing with that picture, drawing on his experience of combat and in-the-field military politics. (Stone won best director and best picture Oscars; he had previously won a screenwriting Oscar for 1978's Midnight Express, and would later win another directing Oscar for Born on the 4th of July.)
Despite the years it took to make Platoon -- or maybe because of them -- the film proved thoroughly in sync with the country's mainstream feelings about the Vietnam War as a flawed mission filled with tragedy and excess as well as heroism. Indeed, despite Stone's reputation for controversy, movies like Platoon, his bringing-the-war-back-home epic Born on the 4th of July and Wall Street (1987), with corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) declaring "greed is good," landed smack in the middle of the Zeitgeist and cleaned up at the box office. Even the headline-grabbing, editorial-inciting JFK earned eight Oscar nominations (bringing home two) and grossed $205 million worldwide.
With a Newsweek cover story and vast TV coverage, World Trade Center has blanketed the media in a way Paul Greengrass' extraordinary United 93 didn't. Maybe that's because, again, Stone offers a message that Americans are hungry to hear right now: Some good can come out of a near-apocalypse; the country can unite in the face of a national threat.
It was a new regime at Paramount, anxious to break away from the old regime's reputation
for formula, that gave the green light for Stone to shoot World Trade Center. Nicolas Cage signed on to play McLoughlin because he trusted Stone to craft the best version of the story. Then Stone partnered up with screenwriter Berloff, who feels the "elder statesman" tag fits Stone well. She thought that as soon as Stone came on board he would fire her: "Why would he want to have me around?" she wonders anew, over the phone from Los Angeles. "This guy can write himself." After the first meeting, she was "incredibly intimidated." Then she decided, "If I was going to go down, I'd go down fighting." She let him know when she thought he was wrong and established an honest collaboration.
She says Stone has a genuine desire "to help younger writers." And whatever you think of Stone's output, you don't spend 20 years as a director of films ranging from the claustrophobic (Talk Radio, 1988) to the would-be spectacular (Alexander) without learning a thing or two about snagging an audience and holding it.
Stone told Berloff to establish that when McLoughlin and Jimeno were pinned down, sleep was something to fight off and numbness to be feared. The director and writer spent hours counter-
pointing the men's plight with the tension of the wives and families waiting in New Jersey and New York. They figured out how to vary and sustain the rescues of the two men, emphasizing the mechanical challenges of extricating Jimeno (who came up first) and the psychological hurdle of McLoughlin spending hours more alone in the hole. "It was Will vs. the debris, and John vs. his mental demons," Berloff says. And all in all, she says, bearing down on the script with Stone was "pretty great."
Not even Stone's notorious tardiness set her back. "It's true that if I arrived at his office for a noon meeting, it inevitably was 12:30. I realized that he was taking the extra time to go over his notes, to get his head focused on what we'd be talking about, and we worked closely and intensely every day for six weeks."
On the other hand, Cage, an amazing, versatile actor, who like Berloff considers Stone a great filmmaker, never got used to Stone Standard Time and couldn't get on his director's wavelength. Also in Boston to promote the picture, Cage partly blames his own intensity. He constantly projected himself into McLoughlin's thought process. And especially when he was in the hole, "I was like in a zone, a zombie-like trance, for much of the day. The most profound thing I was thinking about was all the letters of the children at the memorial they have at Ground Zero, the shrine to all the departed. After reading the letters to all the parents who had died, or passed on, I would think about them in the hole and try to find some way of metaphorically answering those letters. So it wasn't a good time to goof or laugh or joke around, and Oliver thought I was a bore to be around."
Really? I asked. A bore? Does Cage mean that as a joke?
Cage's face, long in every sense of the word, suddenly breaks into a smile as he utters a low, shy laugh. "Sort of a joke," he says. "I mean, sometimes, I'd be in my trailer for hours and Oliver would be very, very late. I was in there trying to connect to whatever good voodoo I could to get in that zone. By the time I would get to the set I was so vibrating to work to make the scene that if he'd say, 'Hi' I wouldn't hear him."
In one of many tricky sequences, McLoughlin tries to communicate his fellow cop Jimeno's love for his family over a walkie-
talkie that doesn't function. To avoid sappiness, Cage thought of the voice of the super-computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and how it slowed down singing "Daisy" while the computer was being deconstructed. It helped him picture McLoughlin's brain slowing down, so he could play the sentiment-filled moment "without being schmaltzy." But when Stone arrived on set, the director announced he wanted to do another shot first. Cage told him, "I was waiting forever and it was time. Then he said not to worry about Paramount being on the set. And I didn't even know Paramount was on the set, I didn't even want to think about it, I just wanted to get this scene!"
Stone says, "Nic is very sensitive ... and Nic is an intellectual on top of that. He's always playing chess with you; he's always challenging or questioning you, and I like that."
Paramount being on the set would have meant something to Stone and his search for authenticity on this picture. The director shot Ground Zero and his interior sets in Los Angeles but resisted the Hollywood impulse to make close quarters bigger to benefit the camera or the lighting. He imported 60 real rescuers, veterans of Sept. 11. Many came forward when they heard of this production, to ensure that the right accents would echo through the set and the correct procedures would be followed. He sought to make the home scenes particular to Clifton, N.J., or Goshen, N.Y., or Wilton, Conn. Ultimately, he says his vision was the same as it was on all his pictures. "Eyewitnesses first. Realism, talk to people."
Only when prodded does he let himself expand. "Dramatists came before historians, we forget this. On the cave walls, they painted dramatic stories -- the hunts, the initiations. Herodotus doesn't come until after Sophocles and Aeschylus. I don't know why historians look down on dramatists. We look at the trees the same way they do, we pull back and look at the forest and they do, too." Actually, in World Trade Center, Stone has scored a comeback not by pulling back to see the forest. Telling the tale of two PAPD cops, he stands in respectful awe at a couple of trees.
Sept. 15, 1946
New York City
Yale University (took leave after freshman year, dropped out after fall semester of sophomore year); New York University Film School (post-Vietnam; graduated in 1971)
Teaching English at Free Pacific Institute in Taiwan; the merchant marine
April 1967-November 1968: Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster; Bronze Star for combat gallantry
Najwa Sarkis (1971-1977, divorced); Elizabeth Stone (1981-1994, divorced), with two children, Michael Jack Stone and Sean Stone; Chong Son Chong (1996-present), with daughter, Tara.
If the lawsuit brought against him and Warner Bros. because two young killers said they were inspired by Natural Born Killers had been successful, "You could sue Beethoven's estate because 'the music made me mad!'"
As writer: Conan the Barbarian (1982); Scarface (1983);Year of the Dragon (1985); 8 Million Ways to Die (1986). As director and writer (or co-writer): Salvador (1986); Platoon (1986); Wall Street (1987); Born on the 4th of July (1989); The Doors (1991); JFK (1991); Natural Born Killers (1994); Nixon (1995); Any Given Sunday (1999); Alexander (2004). As producer or executive producer only: Blue Steel (1990); Reversal of Fortune (1990); Zebrahead (1992); South Central (1992); The Joy Luck Club (1993); Freeway (1996); The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996); The Day Reagan Was Shot (TV, 2001).