HAMMOND, Ind. -- The courtroom in Hammond's City Hall looks like your typical courtroom. Or then again, maybe it doesn't. A motto on the wall behind the bench reads:
"Die He or Justice Must"
And on the back wall of the room, a haiku has been engraved:
and the birds cry out,
Tears in the eyes of fishes."
The cameras are positioned so they can show a trial in session before a packed courtroom. Up in front of the room, Woody Harrelson is playing a character named Mickey Knox, charged with murder. His tie has a motto written on it: "The dream of peace."
Also on trial is his wife, Mallory, played by Juliette Lewis. They have a big fan club of late adolescents of both sexes, who in this scene are laughing too loudly at everything he says. In the witness stand is a woman who says Mickey raped her and tried to kill her. At a key moment, he grabs a pencil from a lawyer's desk and stabs her through the heart.
This is a scene from "Natural Born Killers," a new film by Oliver Stone, who specializes in films that are billed as controversial but do not, like many "controversial" films, play to empty theaters. Maybe that's because he has a gift for accurately reading the national psyche, and giving us films welltimed to our nightmares and desires. This time, he started with a script by Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs"), rewrote it with two other writers, and seems to have another Oliver Stone meditation about the disintegration of America in the works.
Stone's films have been about the American mess in Latin America ("Salvador"), paranoia as entertainment ("Talk Radio"), Vietnam ("Platoon") and its angry survivors ("Born on the Fourth of July"), the Me Decade ("Wall Street"), the necrophiliac worship of dead rock stars ("The Doors"), and, in "JFK," the assassination of John F. Kennedy (which he remains convinced he solved, more or less). His just-complete film, "Heaven and Earth," set for a December release, returns to Vietnam again to tell the story of the war through the eyes of a Vietnamese woman.
This new film, which is set for a summer, 1994, release, and which he is shooting on this balmy summer day in northern Indiana, is about our obsession with instant celebrity. It involves mass murderers and tabloid TV, and one of the characters, played by Robert Downey Jr., is "sort of this hybrid Steve Dunleavy, Morton Downey Jr., Geraldo Rivera type who's been pursuing these killers." The reporter pursues them, not to capture them, but to exploit them. They'd make terrific talk-show guests, and since they're his next-door neighbors, he's in a terrific position to exploit them. Subtle fantasy world
The time and terrain of Stone's new film is not quite the America of today, although Hammond looks a lot like it. It's one of those subtle fantasy worlds in which everything is almost the way it should be, but small details are wrong, in ways that make you queasy. In a drugstore in the film, for example, remedies are advertised for the following complaints: puberty, dandruff, clogging, lunacy, patricide, darkness, pyromania, boredom, dyspepsia, dementia, infection, disorientation, spewing, sexual tension, catatonia and distraction. All real enough problems, and yet. . .
Oliver Stone is sitting in the cafeteria of a school across the street from Hammond City Hall, looking at the food on his tray. It's a lunch break after the trial scene; he'll be in Hammond a few more days, and then move on to the Stateville penitentiary in Illinois for more filming.
"I hope Harrelson doesn't see what I'm eating," he says gloomily. "He's on my case night and day. He always comes over and lectures me."
He's a vegetarian?
"Yeah. He's a nuts and berries nut. No dairy all daylong. Nothing but fruit until till noon. Fit for Life is the name of the book. He's always trying to give me copies. Woody is an amazing athlete. His body is pure, and he's 31 years old, and he is so cool. I mean, the more pressure, the more he digs, you know? He gets better. His smile increases in proportion to the amount of pressure. He says I have to do yoga with him one day. He's always doing yoga. He's got a yoga guy with him." Stars in alignment
Why don't you?
"The director has longer hours than the star. No time for yoga. No need to look my best in front of the cameras. Woody's great. He's a young Paul Newman. He has the bone structure, the same blue eyes, the same likability and he's even and cool. This is his 'Cool Hand Luke' period now. I can see him going on through time. A likable presence becoming a major box-office star in the same mold as Costner and Cruise. The young American innocent."
I heard he broke his ankle.
"Real bad sprain. He escapes from a Southwest prison on a horse, and he jumps over the horse in a stampede in the middle of a tornado. He went sailing over the other side of the horse. There was all this dust flying around because we had a jet turbine engine, which is the most powerful wind machine available to filmmakers anywhere. But anyway, he came right back. He was at work that afternoon, and we iced his ankle and we kept icing his ankle, and he hobbled his way through the whole thing, including a scene where he was carrying Juliette, a torch and a gas can, through a field of 150 live snakes with venom, all with a bad ankle. A real gas."
"Juliette is a treat as an actress because she's different. She's like the weather; you never know which way it's going to go on camera. She's alive, vibrant. She surprises the - - - - out of me. She'll do something different every time. Rodney Dangerfield plays her abusive father.
"And Robert Downey, I think, is special. I guess he's doing the film for us as a favor because the reporter he plays is a complete scumbag. But he's making him quite likable; sort of basing it a bit on Robin Leach, with an Australian accent."
I'm trying to piece this film together, I said. It seems like sort of a futuristic science-fiction satire, not at all like your other films.
"Actually, it's very much the same style as 'JFK.' It will create a lot of very fractured and prismatic realities. We're dealing with five different main characters, and each one has a different take on life. So we're changing film stocks a lot, so that each characters will be seen in a different style. Some of the scenes are filled with layers and layers of video and film, and we have flash-cut subliminals that are amazing - we stick them in for a couple of frames."
And you're using a lot different types of film, just like you did in "JFK"?
"Yeah, everything from Super-8 through video, 16mm, 35mm, even animation - whatever goes." 'JFK' cameraman returns
Robert Richardson, Stone's cinematographer, won an Academy Award nomination for his work on "JFK." You'd think he would have earned a break, like, say, a whole movie just shot in plain vanilla 35mm.
"He's one of the best hand-held cameraman in the world," Stone said. "This morning's scene was hand-held. We're really playing around here. This is the kind of movie where you go for broke. I'm trying to have fun. I'm enjoying it because I don't have to hold myself to the research, or a real story. I don't have a real live person around like Ron Kovic (the hero of 'Born on the Fourth of July') who's saying, `This is the way I lived it.' It's very interpretive, very fluid."
How did you get into the idea of a movie about a serial killer?
"It's not really about a serial killer. It's about our appetite for sensationalism in the media. I didn't want to make a serial-killer picture at all. I loved 'Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer,' and I loved 'In Cold Blood.' But I saw no need for me to do that. I've already sorta been down that path. I guess, to get pretentious, I'd say the movie is a marriage, for me, of styles.
"Two directors I admire a lot are Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick. Part of me wants to do 'The Wild Bunch' and part of me wants to do 'A Clockwork Orange.' And so what you get is 'Natural Born Killers.' "
The movie also comes out of all of these reality-based TV shows?
"Partly. You've got to admit that MTV and 'Cops' (a Fox Network reality-based show) have influenced us deeply. 'JFK' owes a big debt to MTV, and certainly 'Cops' is in the same style. They call it pseudo-documentary, but I don't know if that's the right word. We use documentary styles, but we make fun of documentary style, too.
"We're trying everything, from the silly to the most violent. We want to get an R rating, but we're always looking for an edge to take the curse off the violence. We're not interested in promoting super-realism or gore. We're interested in the perception of violence. I did that a bit in my screenplay for 'Scarface,' too. People didn't get it, but the Tony Montana character, to me, wasn't tragic; he was really a comedic figure with his paranoia, his craziness. I'm having the same kind of fun with this picture, but I'm pushing it more now. I'm a little more out there with Mickey and Mallory Knox. I'm exaggerating."
They're killers on the run?
"The movie starts in the Southwest during the last few days of their existence as killers. They've burned out, and they get busted, and then we cut to prison, a year later. We meet Tommy Lee Jones as a crazy warden who runs this insane prison sort of like Hume Cronyn in 'Brute Force.' "
That'll be shot in Stateville.
"Yeah. And we thread in Robert Downey as the tabloid TV reporter who's pursuing them for their story."
Talking about the movie, Stone seems to be making a pitch. He talks quickly, intensely, with lots of chuckles at the strange places. There is a kind of seductiveness to his plot description. But I am still not quite sure how the movie is to be taken. As a comedy? Satire? Political comment? Murder is relative
"It's Einsteinian. Everything is relative, even your worst fear, your worst hatred, your worst anger. I mean, it's all relative; everything comes into play. Mickey says it was all right to kill his victims because there are no innocent people, except for babies. And he even throws some doubt on the babies. So, philosophically, I'd say this is a heioka picture. Do you know what a heioka is?"
It's a Japanese term?
"It's an Indian term for walking backwards. It's a contrary kind of picture."
I was thinking haiku.
Like the haiku in the courtroom, about the tears in the eyes of the fishes.
"Strange, eh? Not quite making sense. It's just one of a thousand little things we're doing. We're doing stuff all over the walls. We have a lot of rear-projection. Characters will enter a room, and we'll have projections of their inner states on the wall, what they're really thinking. It's fun. I don't think it's been done recently."
Or at all. A movie this unusual must be hard to get made. There's a much narrower range of styles and subject matter today than there was 20 years ago.
I think so. Remember when you saw "Blow-Up"? "Blow-Up" couldn't be made today. They'd show it to some dumb test audience, and the audience would say, 'We didn't like the movie because we couldn't tell if there was a dead body there on the grass or not.' And the studio would tell Antonioni to re-shoot the scene and make it easier to understand. Non-traditional narrative
"I know what you're saying. With a film like this, the audience has to work harder. 'JFK' presented the same problem."
You seem to have a desire in a lot of your films to avoid a plain, straight narrative. There's always stuff surrounding other stuff.
"Yeah. Our movie sort of begins where 'Bonnie and Clyde' ends. They get busted; they go downhill; they evaporate. They don't even love each other anymore. And then Acts II and III, in a sense, bring them together again. So it's a reversal of the traditional crime melodrama formula. It's no longer enough just to try to tell it straight, because in a world where Kennedy gets killed and everything is upside down, the traditional narrative doesn't work."
Stone reached out for a cup of coffee on a tray being carried past. He smiled and shrugged, as if to imply, I guess, that if the true killers of Kennedy had been brought to justice, such reversals of crime formulas would not be necessary.
"They did it," he said, following his thread of thought. "They buried John Connally without taking out the bullet fragments."
He sipped hot coffee. He was referring to the demands by Kennedy conspiracy buffs that the late Texas governor be autopsied so the remains of the assassination bullets could be weighed against the requirements of the singlekiller theory.
Why? I asked.
"They're chicken- - - -, that's why. They know damn well those fragments don't resemble in any way Commission Exhibit 399."
Can a suit be filed?
"Well, he died actually as a homicide victim. He had pulmonary fibrosis, which is a lung infection caused by lung scarring when he was wounded. So he is a homicide. He died 30 years later, but he is a homicide victim. All they had to do was pull out a few fragments from his wrists. I would think the Warren Commission members would be ecstatic at such an opportunity; this would be their chance to finally prove the single-bullet theory."
A silence falls. An assistant comes to fetch Stone back to the set for the afternoon's shooting. There are tears in the eyes of the fishes.