Paul Risker chats with Oliver Stone about his career and his new film Snowden…
Oliver Stone has been the consciousness of not only modern America, but of the modern world. He has vehemently explored questions on subjects with a captivating drama that have been offset with his trademark insight. His cinema has spanned such subjects as South American civil war (Salvador), the Vietnam War (Platoon), speculative capitalism (Wall Street), the assassination of John F. Kennedy (JFK), as well as media, violence and the celebrity culture (Natural Born Killers).
The phrase that an actor was born to play a character has often been repeated and Stone may be the storyteller whose fate it was to bring the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden to the screen. Snowden touches upon the modern day angst of civilian mistrust towards intelligence agencies and government in the western world, particularly the U.S and the U.K. It is a film that adds to the diverse subjects explored by the filmmaker during his career, and the exploration of crimes of excessive surveillance is one that perhaps challenges Martin Scorsese’s assertion that, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Stone’s latest film shows the intimate connection between film and life itself, the two as being irrevocably intertwined.
In conversation with Flickering Myth for the theatrical release of Snowden, Stone began by reflecting on the early struggle and the educative process a filmmaker navigates to find their style. While offering a psychological reading of the filmmaking process, he discussed the role of the character within storytelling and the intimate interaction, both past and present that a filmmaker shares with their work.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Well it’s not that simple. One can feel that way, but it doesn’t turn out to be that way. When one works in this business it takes ten years to get up the scale to where they can trust you to do a film, which is pretty heavy and takes time. I wanted to be in the business after coming back from the war. I was in film school at NYU and I had the GI Bill paying for my expenses. It took a while to get what I wanted. You learn how to make films, but it doesn’t mean you get to make them, and I was about thirty years old when Midnight Express hit.
At NYU I believe you were taught by Martin Scorsese.
I read that he would tell his students to go out and try to make something personal. In hindsight how important was that advice? I ask because you have used cinema as a means to explore America, the wider world and history.
Well I think it is essential advice. You have to recognise a portion of yourself in your life, the individuality of it to arrive at a style, to arrive at a form. And I think you can gain great confidence by doing something semi-successful in that regard. Other people talk to you, they see it and they can give you their responses. So when you make something very young and experimental, sometimes it is very difficult to understand. I’ve been there too where I’ve made a few of those short films. Nobody understood them and so you realise that there is an audience somewhere, and to reference Jung it becomes the thing of the collective unconscious. I think you have to get in touch with that and I think it takes time.
Film is a communal language that has been shared by filmmakers across the history of cinema. Is the fascination with cinema that filmmakers must learn a language that never fully reveals its secrets? I ask this because of your reference to Jung, the collective unconscious and the depths of the psyche that perhaps mirrors the psyche of film itself.
Frankly I can’t answer the question. I don’t know because it is quite a mystery where it comes from and where it goes to. Having done quite a few films now the question is, is it still there? You have to ask yourself because every film is compromised to some degree by all these choices and decisions, budgets and so forth. So the last one Snowden is important to me, and it is a guideline because it’s a kind of a film that was very difficult for me technically too. But each time it’s like you listen again, you have to listen to the echo chamber.
So you make it through the process of making a film and then with the next one it feels as though you just go back to square one?
Totally, totally, totally, totally. It’s just hopeless. For me it has been hard because every subject has been difficult in one way or another. Each subject has raised its own challenges and so frankly my style has varied from film to film, which I am saying is a subjective way of working, yes. I feel a certain way towards the subject, towards the protagonist, whether he’s somebody I admire or not. Whether it’s George Bush or Richard Nixon, I feel a certain way and I think it’s interesting enough to carry as passion to make a movie, and spend a year or more doing it.
One of the beliefs amongst narrative storytellers is the essential need for the sympathetic character.
No, I don’t find that to be true… Oh that’s nonsense, you don’t sympathise with Kane in Citizen Kane, no. George Bush, Richard Nixon, these people are not sympathetic, and frankly Snowden is kind of a bore, he is a boring man. He’s not a guy you would want to hang out with unless you wanted to talk code.
Listening to how you describe Snowden, filmmakers that have offered the contrarian point of view have spoken of the need of interest over sympathy. So in spite of Snowden being as you describe him, you saw him as a character that would allow you to gain access to an interesting story?
Yeah, the subject matter is fascinating, his life, what he did, the actions of his life are interesting – the girlfriend is interesting. I mean there are all these questions that come up, but I’m just saying that you don’t have to have this sympathetic nice guy, no not at all.
Do you perceive characters as a doorway to the subject?
Yes, or portal would be the right word. A portal into the deeper recesses of the unconscious.
Discussing the relationship of the film and the filmmaker, writer/director Rebecca Miller remarked to me: “If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self-portraits of the person making them.” If you were to look back over your films, can you see a part of yourself contained within them?
In every single one of them, yes sir. I left blood behind, I left the cells, I left DNA, skin [laughs]. There’s a lot of wounds, a lot of bleeding and a lot of love. I mean I was just looking at Heaven and Earth the other day, which I did in 1993 and it is just a beautiful movie. It moved me as much now as it did then, and if anything it’s more timely. So there’s a movie that was rejected, but I still love it. You watch it, you see a part of yourself and you remember vividly the emotions you invested in the movie.
Filmmaker Ryan Bonder remarked to me, “I think it probably takes about a year before you start to feel like yourself again.” How long does it generally take from finishing a film for you to leave it behind and move on, and how close are you to leaving Snowden behind?
Well I’m still on it because I’m talking to you, and it’s opening in England tomorrow and Japan in January. So I’m living with it too. It was two and a half years of my life almost… Holy cow! I guess it had quite an impact because it coincides with the fact that this is the modern communications now, and so George Orwell in all his gloomy fucking pessimism was right.
You can’t leave something behind if it’s current [laughs]. In other words if Orwell is here, you can’t leave it behind. We are living in this world of supervision and it’s pretty depressing. I don’t live in England because I know you have cameras on every block, but Jesus Christ, where are we going in this world? How much information do these British and American empires need? How much more information? So in other words it’s with me.
But no, I hear what you are saying and as to an artist’s personal side, you have to move on unless you just don’t want to work anymore, which is also a possibility. You can just let yourself do nothing, you can lie fallow for a while, let the field fertilise itself again.
At the heart of the film is the moral question of committing a crime to expose a crime. As children we are lost in a world predicated on the either or, whereas adulthood is defined by a more ambivalent morality. Is one of your hopes that audiences will connect with this moral aspect of the film?
Well I think adult films are based on the fact that you grow up. I can’t watch most of the Harry Potter or Strange Beasts, whatever they call it. I can’t stand that stuff. Doctor Strange, it’s all so strange to me. These are kids that want to stay in the fantasy land, but Snowden is a totally ambivalent piece because it makes you question everything – what your government is doing, what rights you have and do you break a law in search of a higher law? These are the questions that come to mind, and I think the answer is clear that most Americans are scared to break the law, but I believe we should.
You have stated, “We were interested in a dramatic thriller.” A mass medium, film has the ability to influence our impression of the world and our history. While you looked to tell an entertaining and engaging story, you would have been looking to balance this with an accurate portrayal of the man and the events, so as to not convolute present and future understanding.
Well you be the judge of that. I can tell you that Snowden is as accurate as possible, that we made it without violating some of the things that he told us he could not reveal. But we spent nine visits there and everything has been painstakingly worked out as close as possible – the dialogue, the interiors of the National Security Council and the things he went through. He himself as said, “It’s as technically accurate as any film I’ve seen on the unknown NSA.” He’s really talking about something that has never been shown on film. So in that aspect yes, but as to the film and whether it’s entertaining or not, that’s really your choice. For me I really wanted to know what happens next and I follow the story, but that’s always the case and I try to make the background accurate. I can’t do certain films because I just can’t do them. I couldn’t do Gladiator because I know too much about the gladiators and the Roman Coliseum, and so as much as I like the film I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I realise that certain films go beyond, way beyond the historical record, and I unfortunately cannot do that because I guess I resist that kind of fantasy.
Co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald has said, “It was very important to Oliver and me that we not oversimplify Snowden’s words. We wanted the audience to believe in the conversations between Ed and his colleagues, and supervisors.” While the dramatic visual sequences draw us in on aesthetic level, the words perhaps form another layer of the film’s consciousness. Perhaps they could be seen to represent the film’s intelligence through the exploration of the themes that are the heart of the discussion.
When we get technical we have to be accurate. That’s not to say sometimes we simplified what was being said, but these people in those agencies are very technical in the way they speak. Now in the Corbin O’Brian character, we probably went a little bit more towards the dramatic because I wanted to get the big picture with Corbin O’Brian. In other words he comes across as a strategic planner for the coming war, so a lot is said in those lines that probably wasn’t said that way at all. It is a movie and you have to dramatise it and sharpen your points. In other words Corbin says at one point, “You know why we haven’t had World War III yet” and he goes onto make his point about the American security system etc. So sometimes you just have to get into that because it won’t happen in the course of naturalistic conversation.
Picking up on your earlier point about characters being like a portal, are words also a portal to access the themes or preoccupations of the film? Could this define the major role of dialogue in the cinema?
I would say to you that there are key words that you use and sometimes you need to repeat them, because for example targeted surveillance is used several times in the film, but it didn’t get through to a lot of people. Some critics said that, Stone is a simple thinker and he just doesn’t believe there should be any surveillance. That’s bullshit. Targeted surveillance was always a built in idea – that was the Nic Cage character. People just don’t listen and I think on a film you have got to fucking drive it in sometimes, three times, four times. Targeted surveillance is fine to catch terrorists, but why are we doing mass surveillance? I guess I should have put it even more bluntly.
It irritates the shit out of me to make a movie and then have people say something so stupid that I don’t give the argument for the other side, come on. Some people just don’t listen when they watch a movie and that’s the issue. When you read major critics and they don’t really hear it, it means you have to see a movie twice sometimes if it’s a complicated movie.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
In a sense, but no I don’t think so. I think the ownership belongs with the author and I think he has to live with it because often his film is misunderstood, or it’s just as I said earlier, they don’t listen. So sometimes people walk away with a completely opposite reaction or else an impartial reaction, or this and that. When they say they love the movie, you think the way you think got through. You hope so, but you never know for sure. We are living in that speculative spiritual world [laughs], but I don’t want to give up ownership of it. I feel like I understand it best, perhaps I don’t, but I do feel that I understand it best.
Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process wherein you are a different person to the one that began the film?
Yes I am, I become the person. I am subjective in my nature. The whole period of time I lived in the Snowden period, the surveillance age. Before that I lived in the Savages age and before that the Wall Street age. It is a way to live wherein you give up a lot of your own life for this participatory fantasy life. Listen it has gotten me through to aged seventy, so I don’t know if it works or not, but maybe one day when I’ve just given it all up, I’ll do a movie about myself [laughs].
Snowden is released in the UK by Vertigo Films on December 9th, with preview screenings from December 8th.
Many thanks to Oliver Stone for taking the time for this interview.
Paul Risker is a UK based film critic and Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration. His writing has been published by international film, art and culture publications.