In conversation: Oliver Stone

On Mexican drug cartels, movie violence and whether America is getting more pot-positive
US director Oliver Stone attends a press conferenc during the International Film Festival in Algiers on November 19, 2011. AFP PHOTO / (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Film on Mexican drug cartels, movie violence, and whether America is getting more pot-positive
AFP/Getty Images

Oliver Stone, the Oscar-winning director of Platoon, Wall Street, JFK and Nixon, tackles the drug war in Savages, a thriller based on Don Winslow’s bestseller about a Mexican drug cartel that confronts a pair of primo pot farmers in California—Ben (Aaron Johnson), a philanthropic botanist, and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a ruthless Navy SEAL veteran. Living the high life, they try to retire. But when their shared lover (Blake Lively) is taken hostage, they go to war against the cartel (led by Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek), while a corrupt U.S. drug agent (John Travolta) plays both sides against the middle.

Q: How real is the threat of a Mexican cartel attacking California marijuana growers?

A: Don Winslow has done a lot of research into the drug wars. He wrote a wonderful book called The Power of the Dog, which is pretty documentary-like. This one, he just spun off a fantasy about what could potentially happen with young, attractive growers with a high-end product. It hasn’t happened yet as far as I know. This is a hypothetical fiction. The cartels can sell cheap, ungroomed bud successfully for very little money across the United States, as well as cocaine and methamphetamine. The operation of a small group in California would not be attractive to them. But a cartel like the Tijuana one, if they had some problems, they would look to other markets and it would maybe make sense to partner with a niche deal.

Q: This month you’re a poster boy for pot, in a tuxedo smoking a joint on the cover of High Times magazine. Did that feel risky?

A: No. They’ve been after me for a long time to do something and this seemed to be appropriate subject matter. My gosh, when I did Platoon in 1986, I was saying very openly that marijuana helped me survive the war. It helped me keep my humanity in a situation that was dehumanizing.

Q: Is America getting more pot-positive?

A: So many people smoke it in this country. No matter how moralistic you want to get, Americans like their drugs and they’re going to get ’em. Since 1971 drugs are cheaper and better and more. So it’s not going to change. The more you say no, and the higher the costs go, there’s always a Mexican business interest that will move it to the street at a cheap price, ungroomed.

Q: So there’s no winning the war on drugs?

A: It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war for money. There’s too much money in it to back out now. Even if they taxed it, and they’d love to, there’s so much money on the criminal investigation side with the DEA and the prison system. There are so many people in jail for drugs. They spend billions annually keeping non-violent criminals in jail, many of them drug users. How do you go back after 40 years of tactics that haven’t worked? And they’ve spent over a trillion dollars fighting it with no success other than militarizing certain countries, angering countries like Bolivia and using the drug war to intervene in Mexico. Don’t forget Asia. We’ve ruffled a lot of feathers.

Q: So the drug war is an instrument of American foreign policy?

A: It’s been linked to terrorism. We have what we call a narco-terrorist state that allows us to intervene, because we’ve magnified the problem. Our chief policeman in Guatemala became president, Otto Pérez Molina, and after 30 years experience in the field he said this doesn’t make any more sense—we should make it legal. Our homeland security chief, [Janet] Napolitano, ran down to Guatemala to tell him to shut up. We repress the truth. But anyone who’s a grown-up knows it ain’t working.

Q: The politics of America’s war on drugs have genuine conspiratorial intrigue. Were you not tempted to make Savages more of a message movie and less of a thriller?

A: No, it’s a fun ride. There’s nothing about legalization in this movie, and no discussion of Prohibition. I enjoy the contrast of these three young people going up against something older and more powerful than them—using these technicians from the war in Iraq to fight back. And there’s a love story—Blake claims she’s equally in love with two men. This is questioned by Salma in Mexico. Also Salma’s relationship with her daughter is also very interesting because she’s not a cliché cartel owner. She’s ruthless but she has a heart. I made this movie because I liked the relationships. It could have been about dog racing. These young people start a business and have a paradisical life and a cartel moves in and will kill to get what they want. Nobody actually behaves like an addict.

Q: Some drugs are more demonized than others.

A: Marijuana is Schedule 1. Cocaine is Schedule 2, and it’s far more dangerous. We’ve always enforced our value system on the world, whether it’s on human rights, on the way to live a life or fight a war. The United States has gone a long way toward trying to police the world. Einstein once said that if a government passes laws that can’t be enforced the government loses its respect and its dignity. That happened with Prohibition. A new class of gangsters came into being, selling alcohol. When they repealed Prohibition, they never got rid of those gangsters. They moved into other rackets. In this case we’re criminalizing a class in our prisons when these people should be treated medically.

Q: Will pot be legalized in your lifetime?

A: (sigh) In some enlightened places. But it seems my life has been witness to a war between enlightenment and repression and it seems that repression is winning out.

Q: For your creative process, how useful are drugs such as marijuana?

A: I’ve used it both ways. But when I work on a set I’m sober. You don’t know how crew members would react, so I do keep it quiet and private. You don’t see alcohol on the set either, except in off hours.

Q: The marijuana in the movie looks convincing, but is it all fake?

A: None of it is real, by law. We were very careful about that.

Q: Creating good fake bud, now that’s a challenge.

A: The production designer did a great job. We went to quite a few grow houses in California where we saw a lot of different styles. Not everyone was open. We saw low-budget, high-budget; we saw closets. There are all kinds of egos in that business. They’re all proud of their lights, their acreage, their crop yield. It’s an interesting science, hydroponics, as well as indoor and outdoor growing.

Q: Did they seem like criminals?

A: Not at all. In California they are businessmen who moved into this field because of intense interest and scientific curiosity to make better product at a more efficient rate. I met several who didn’t even smoke. Some people are into it just for profit. Others are into it because they’re scientifically motivated to make something better or smarter, like an Apple computer.

Q: Taylor Kitsch: it’s ironic that this mild-mannered boy from B.C. is playing a brutal American killer.

A: Taylor is very laid back. He’s got that Canadian attitude. But he’s a great athlete. He’s a good boxer and was apparently a great hockey player. At the same time, he’s powerful on camera. He conveys what in the old days you’d call a man’s man. In Friday Night Lights he showed a side of himself that I liked.

Q: Savages is a violent film. Do you worry that some may find it too violent?

A: One could also argue that we did not make it as violent as reality. The cartels are very brutal. The murders have been outrageous. A lot of it is exhibitionism to scare your victims. They used the methods of the Iraq war. In Ciudad Juárez, there was a higher murder rate in the mid-2000s than in Baghdad.

Q: Lately we’ve seen real-life episodes of movie-like horror, from the Miami face-eating attack to the murder Luka Magnotta is charged with in Canada. Do you have qualms about screen violence inspiring the real thing?

A: No, I was asked that question on Natural Born Killers. You see a coarsening of society through war. If you think not showing the coffins that come back to the United States is a solution, that’s obviously not so. We have to be more truthful about the nature of violence. We tried to make this movie as tasteful as possible inside the R-rating. On the other hand, if we hadn’t gone as far as we did . . . Perhaps there are moments that sicken you but you can always turn away in a movie. The story is gripping and stays on a level where there’s a certain humour and lightness.

Q: Drugs and violence: does it all go back to Vietnam?

A: No. It sounds like you’re on this quest to bring out the dark, vicious side of me.

Q: I find the contradictions interesting. You are a Buddhist. You filled Natural Born Killers with Leonard Cohen songs. Yet you don’t shy away from brutality.

A: I never did. It was in Platoon and Salvador too. Salvador was rough because I was trying to bring the Central American war here. I tried to do enough cartel violence to give you a taste of it, but I didn’t want to make a horror film. I don’t go to horror films.

Q: I raise the issue because other people will.

A: Which is why the right wing keeps winning. We keep talking to these people as if they make sense and we can appease them.

Q: What’s up with your American history opus?

A: It’s been four years off and on—10 one-hour documentaries for TV. It will come out in the fall on Showtime. That’s another story.

Read Brian D. Johnson’s review of Savages right here.