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Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone said he was standing in a post office in Bali, talking on the pay phone. He'd gotten up early so he didn't have to stand in a long line for the phone.

What's it like there? I asked.

"It's a strange island. There are a lot of demons here--Balinese devils. You don't sleep very much. I almost drowned two days ago."

You what?

"There are very strong tides in the ocean. I was swimming with my kid and I guess we got too far out and we got swept out about three or four hundred yards. The waves were pounding and it was very, very scary. It took an hour and a half to get back in."

That's what it's like with Oliver Stone. You pick up the phone and 30 seconds later he's fighting for his life.

"We basically kept our heads above water until they could get some boards out to us," he said. "It's really wild out here."

How old is your son?

"Sean is only 9 years old. He's not the greatest swimmer in the world."

Were you facing the possibility that you might die?


I love talking with Oliver Stone because his life is such a drama, such a striving against man and nature. Maybe that's why his films are always so charged up; they partake of his personality. Another reason his films fascinate me is that they're like the weather report: Updates on the psychic climate of the nation.

The new one, "Natural Born Killers," is about a media circus surrounding a couple of gleeful mass murderers who go on a killing rampage and become celebrities. Stone was still editing it when the O. J. Simpson case broke. In his movie, crowds were cheering the killers. In real life, crowds were lining the L.A. freeways to wave at O. J. driving past in the white Bronco.

Mahatma Gandhi once joked about running fast to keep in front of his followers. Oliver Stone must feel the same way about real life. His movie "Wall Street," with its famous speech about greed, came out about the time they arrested Michael Milkin. And now, perfectly timed, here is this crazy, brilliant, chaotic movie "Natural Born Killers," a satire about the way we have turned violence into a TV spectator sport.

Not many people make movies like this because not many people get this angry and still retain their sense of humor. It is being compared to Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" in some quarters, but I think his "Dr. Strangelove" is a better match, because it's funnier.

The movie stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory, a loving couple who go on a killing spree across America, making sure they get credit for every death. They kill 52 people, utterly without remorse--except for the Indian, of course. It was a shame the Indian had to die.

The early stages of their odyssey are like a hallucinatory nightmare, but then, after they're arrested, the movie turns into more of a circus. There's Tommy Lee Jones as the ringmaster, a crazed prison warden who seems to feed on the rage of his prisoners, and Robert Downey Jr. as the clown, the host of a tabloid TV show who will do anything to get Mickey and Mallory on the air.

"Satire," Stone was telling me, "is exaggeration and distortion. You have to take reality and warp it. What's happened in the last couple of years is that the reality quotient has caught up with the satire. I mean, this stuff was happening on television while we were still making the movie. By the time the Bobbitt thing happened, I kind of had to wonder, you know. Mickey and Mallory are not so outrageous. They'd be in "TV Guide" for a couple of weeks and get a big play and then people would be bored and want to move on to the next one."

And look at the O. J. Simpson thing. They're talking about not holding the trial on election day in California, for fear people would rather watch TV than vote.

"Worse things are going to happen. The movie's not just about the media, I hope. It's about a three-headed monster. There's the police force, which is corrupt in the picture. There's a huge prison system led by Tommy Lee Jones. And there's the media."

Do you think we're using violence in order to entertain ourselves, in the news, in a way that wasn't true 50 years ago?

"Even five years ago, In the L.A. basin, it used to be you'd see real news. Now, all you basically see are clips from murders--local murders preferably. The accent is on ambulances and police and the concept of fear.

"You could say it goes back to Nixon. Because he got votes by telling us criminals were everywhere. He made it a political issue in the country. It culminated with the Willy Horton ads being used to beat Dukakis. Now the news is selling Fear, with a capital F. It's not good for the country because it's a false issue. Actual violent crime has stayed pretty much the same, or gone down, since the late 1960s."

But you wouldn't guess that by watching TV, especially the popular tabloid news shows that mix actors in with actual witnesses and participants to make "reconstructions" of terrible crimes, so that every day you can vicariously participate in a fresh tragedy. "Natural Born Killers" takes that to its ultimate entertainment value in a sequence where Downey, as the TV reporter, actually joins Mickey and Mallory in a prison riot. Later, threatened with death himself, he reasons that his killers will have to leave somebody as a witness, so they can get "credit." But...there (ital) is (unital) a witness. He has forgotten his TV camera.

Stone's visual style in the movie is an ultimate expression of an approach he was working toward in "The Doors" and "JFK." It combines intricate editing with a lot of special effects that put more than one kind of image on the screen at a time. You see similar things done on MTV. He'll have his characters in front of an horizon, and the sky will be replaced by an image of something else.

Working with his longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Robert Richardson, he uses just about every conceivable kind of film. The movie contains 35 mm, 16 mm, Super 8, video, newsreel footage, still photos, and animation. And this is not simply a stunt. They know that our minds react differently to various kinds of moving images; that's why some TV shows are made on film, not tape, and why most commercials are. We can sense the difference, and when we're watching "Natural Born Killers" it's important that some moments feel like the news, some feel like archival footage, and some feel like commercials or MTV videos.

Stone also uses a wide range of styles in the movie. The most outrageous example is a flashback to the childhood of the Juliette Lewis character. It's shot in the form of a sitcom, and stars Rodney Dangerfield as her father. But this is a cruel sitcom on which the laugh track continues to chuckle while Rodney assaults his daughter.

The overall impression I had, watching the movie, was of a manic channel-surfing experience, in which, no matter how quickly I switched from one channel to another, I couldn't stay ahead of the nightmare which was enveloping all the media.

The film's vision was so stark that it was originally slapped with the dreaded NC-17 by the MPAA's ratings board. Stone made several trips back to the MPAA before finally getting the R rating, which is essential for the film to get wide distribution. Even so, the MPAA's warning about the film's contents is more dire than usual. Although I can't say what the movie looked like in its NC-17 version, I am reminded that when I talked to Stone about it last December, he said that viewers would imagine they were seeing more violence than they really were; that a second viewing might surprise them with what was actually there on the screen.

"This film is very cartoon-like," Stone said this week, on the phone from Bali. "I know what real violence is. I've done it with 'JFK' and 'Born on the Fourth of July,' and 'Platoon.' When I show a bullet that's tumbling through the air, or a knife that goes through a plate-glass window and sticks in somebody's back, you can't for one second assume that it's realistic. We're taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to it, and some people don't understand that. They take things pretty literally. There's no gore in there. It's not like the chainsaw scene in 'Scarface,' or the tongue-biting scene in 'Midnight Express.' The MPAA didn't understand and they were very tough. I had to go back five times to get this through."

What specifically were they objecting to?

"I think it was just an overwhelming abundance of violence and chaos. I think the chaos upset them more. It scared 'em."

Stone based his film on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, rewriting it extensively [see sidebar]. What it turned into, he said, was a combination of two of his favorite genres, the road movie and the prison picture.

"If you stay inside a genre," he said, "they're less apt to rip you up for trying something. They're familiar with the genre. So, once I had the genres, I decided to go all out and show their interior states, try to show that the two killers are not just stick figures. They have an interior life, created not only by their abusive parents, but also because they are the children of this genocidal century. We have shots of Armenia in there; we have shots of Russia, Germany, Vietnam; we have animals being killed, pollution occurring, the world being economically eaten, all of which kick into this cycle of violence.

"I can't tell you there always a consistent logic to what we did; we'd go from black and white to color as we felt it. We often shot in different formats as we were shooting and then we decided in the editing room what to do. But it was always set out to be as chaotic as possible."

And it succeeded, I said.

"I hope so." he said.

And then he had to go. I think somebody else wanted to use the phone.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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