Oliver Stone Interview For ‘Savages’
Three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns to the screen with the ferocious thriller ‘Savages,’ featuring the all-star ensemble cast of Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch and Demian Bichir. The film is based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel that was named one of The New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2010. Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson), a peaceful and charitable Buddhist, and his closest friend Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, run a lucrative, homegrown industry—raising some of the best marijuana ever developed. They also share a one-of-a-kind love with the extraordinary beauty Ophelia (Blake Lively). Life is idyllic in their Southern California town…until the Mexican Baja Cartel decides to move in and demands that the trio partners with them. When the merciless head of the BC, Elena (Salma Hayek), and her brutal enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), underestimate the unbreakable bond among these three friends, Ben and Chon – with the reluctant, slippery assistance of a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta) – wage a seemingly unwinnable war against the cartel. And so begins a series of increasingly vicious ploys and maneuvers in a high stakes, savage battle of wills. ‘Savages’ arrives in cinemas July 6th in the US and September 26th in the UK.
This contemporary story, ‘Savages,’ has a distinct look it to it. What was the style and feeling you went for with the film? Other than the book, what references did you use to help that vision?
Oliver Stone: Yeah. I read it and it was fresh, it was new. It’s contemporary culture, but dangerous culture because it’s the drug war, with Mexico and the US. It seemed like, above all, a ride. An unpredictable ride, where you did not know what would happen next. And that was the kind of movie I wanted to make with ‘Savages.’ Sun splashed, ‘Duel in the Sun‘ style….if you can remember that far back (laughs). A little bit of Sergio Leone, also a little bit of ’Contempt’ by Jean-Luc Godard. A little bit of ’The Wild Bunch’ by Sam Peckinpah. Although it’s set in the cotemporary west, it feels a little bit like a western.
After reading Don Winslow’s book, ’Savages: A Novel,’ was this story something you saw as a challenge? To make this real life world as exciting and believable as possible?
Oliver Stone: I try to challenge myself, I try to evolve. It’s hard, you do tend to lock into patterns, you hold onto habits – we all do. But this material was very fresh by Don Winslow, the book hit me. It was a no-brainer for me. And the way we refresh ourselves is by trying things we don’t think we can pull off sometimes. I was not sure I could pull it off, I was concerned, I brought in specialists in every category: in Cannabis, in DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), in computer hacking. I was trying to figure out how to make this as believable as possible. It’s a hypothetical thriller, with a very romantic under bearing.
Making exciting movies that have some substance and speak about issues….
Oliver Stone: Yeah. I’m interested in the world around me, and I think if you’re interested then other people can get interested to. If you can be the guide, you know? With the drug war, I didn’t want to set out to make a documentary….I loved ‘Traffic,’ I think it’s a great movie, and it told us a lot about what’s going on. We didn’t go in that direction, we went in the direction of the novel, which is a hypothetical situation that could happen tomorrow, but it hasn’t happened yet. But it definitely could. I want people to come out and go, “Wow, that was exciting. I’ll remember that movie!” I wanted to make a movie that stays in your memory. I’m a movie maker, I always have been, a dramatist. People have labelled me all kinds of things, and it’s sad because often the controversies get in the way of the movie. You can argue ‘JFK’ to death, and I will (laughs), but it’s also an exciting movie. I’ve always loved movies with action and excitement, and I’ve made a few, but I’ve also been able to make movies like ‘Nixon,’ which didn’t have no shoot out, that was purely men talking. I’m very proud of that, because I always wanted movies as a kid to be exciting.
Having Blake Lively’s character O narrate the tale, how did that come about?
Oliver Stone: The idea of O narrating the movie grew naturally from the book, where she tells the story to the reader. But a voiceover in a film can potentially sap it of its tension by making it overly self-conscious. Insofar as the book has more than a hundred scenes and many characters, far more than we can afford in a movie, we worked to minimize the information and still use the voiceover to connect the dots. Blake’s an impressive actress. She was only 23. She had a lot of input into her character and is fearless. Blake has to appear in the movie often in an unflattering light, and she never flinched.
What was it like working on location with this multi-generational cast?
Oliver Stone: It was difficult, I can’t say that it was simple. There was a lot of scheduling issues but I had potent talent. I didn’t want to keep people waiting, we kept working. We worked fast but it was always location shooting so it was very difficult with the heat and the canyons and all of the houses we had to get in and out of fast. I can’t say it was easy. Sometimes when you shoot on a set it is better, it would have been great to have the money to build sets, but I’m very happy with locations, it gives you a sense of Laguna, a sense of Southern California. This story is really about beach and sea and hell (laughs). The cast, it’s young but there’s an older element. The older generation is John Travolta, Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro, that’s what I loved about that. And they actually sort of end up on the other side of the line, the three younger people are facing up against really an older pressure.
I know you worked with a number of experts to get the details right for ‘Savages’?
Oliver Stone: Yeah. There’s an element of verisimilitude to this material, especially having to do with local pot growers, the influence and impact of the Mexican Cartel. We were dealing with the raw edge of the marijuana trade, and frankly, you get a lot of false information and media hype. On ‘Scarface,’ I was a stickler for detail. I wanted to know what the poundage of cocaine was, what was being shipped, who was behind it, etc. For this, I tried to know the same thing about marijuana, but it’s harder to find some of those facts. That’s where Eddie Follis (a recently retired DEA agent) came in. He gave me some good facts, and of course, Don Winslow has been around it for some time. As has Patrick Fourmy (cannabis consultant), who’s been in the marijuana business for years, as well as the music industry. A generous man and amazing intellect, he was a kind of Svengali to many of us on the set. Through them and my own research, I became familiar with the quirkiness of the independent marijuana movement. It’s not a cartel, so everybody grows in their own eccentric fashion. Ralph Echemendia (hacker expert) helped us to ensure that the pivotal scenes in which Ben and Chon get off the grid and then dabble in their own cyber espionage were accurate…and up-to-date. We tried to add as much of that into the film as we could.
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