Oliver Stone has consistently been one of the most controversial figures in Hollywood for several reasons. His films have ranged from ground-breaking masterpieces like Platoon to bizarre cult movies like U-Turn. Whether you like his films or not, you cannot deny their impact on the history of cinema. Naturally, these films have some bizarre stories and anecdotes attached to them. Here are 43 surprising facts about how Oliver Stone’s films got made.
For his football movie Any Given Sunday, Stone went all out to properly portray the world of football. He filled the movie with professional NFL players and coaches, including names like Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Pat Toomay, Warren Moon, Johnny Unitas, Ricky Watters, Emmitt Smith, and Barry Switzer. Sounds like he was creating his own real-life G.O.A.T. fantasy league.
One of Stone’s most successful movies (and most controversial) is JFK, which details possible theories about what really happened the day Kennedy was killed. People have debated about it ever since, but the film ended up changing laws regarding the closed files about the assassination. The Assassination Records Review Board—look it up, it’s a thing—complained that the film was fictional and was in danger of spreading falsehoods about the event. But they also said Stone had a point when he said that "Americans could not trust official public conclusions when those conclusions had been made in secret." The official records that were meant to be closed until 2029 had the date pushed up to 2017. So, fictional or not, you have Stone to thank for that.
Stone won two Best Director Oscars for the Vietnam War films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. They were released in 1986 and 1989 respectively, though Stone had previously tried to make both in the late ‘70s with no success. Interestingly, Al Pacino was considered to star in both the films during that time—but then again, it seems like he was considered to star in basically every film from that era.
Stone’s first feature film as a director is the ‘70s horror film Seizure. Although Stone and most of the cast were American, Seizure was filmed in Quebec with a French-Canadian crew, starred a Canadian actor, and was financed by legendary Canadian producer Harold Greenberg. It, therefore, counts as a Canadian film.
When Stone initially planned to make Salvador, he planned to make it a documentary focusing on journalist Richard Boyle and his friend Doctor Rock. Planning to shoot the film in El Salvador, they met with Roberto D’Abuisson, the President of its National Assembly. D’Abuisson was allegedly very eager to meet Stone, as he was a huge fan of Scarface. Stone eventually made a feature film based on the adventures of Boyle and Rock and created a character based on D’Abuisson as one of the main villains. The film portrayed his role in the death squads, as well as the murder of Archbishop Romero. We have no word on whether D’Abuisson ever invited Stone back to his home.
When writing the screenplay for the prison film Midnight Express, Stone was partly inspired by his own arrest in California for possession of two ounces of marijuana. The director nearly received a 15-year sentence for such a small amount of drugs, and he knew full well that he only got out of it because his dad could get him a good lawyer. Stone was understandably pissed off at the system, and he poured his anger into a movie about a brutal prison system.
With the stock market film Wall Street, Stone and Stanley Weiser created a deeply memorable character in the film’s antagonist, Gordon Gekko. But while they drew from real-life people who worked in finance to create the character, Weiser claimed that a lot of his snappy dialogue and wit actually came from Stone himself.
When Stone released Any Given Sunday in 1999, he included a prominent subplot involving the coverup of life-threatening injuries to players so that they could keep playing. What Stone could not have known was that twelve years later, a wave of lawsuits would be filed by former players against the NFL for very similar reasons.
In 2007, Stone was gearing up to make his fourth movie about the Vietnam War, called Pinkville. It was going to focus on the horrific My Lai Massacre and the subsequent court-martial that was held to find the men responsible. However, the perfect storm combo of the 2007 Writer’s Strike, the producer's cold feet, and Bruce Willis getting bored led to the project getting canceled.
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Filming Salvador was one of the more hectic experiences of Stone’s film career. Money was short, leading to Stone giving up his salary to finish filming a scene he wanted. James Woods, the star of the film, was called by his agent at one point and advised to leave the set because he had not been paid for two weeks’ worth of work. Stone later said “I worked without pay for a year, but it was worth every single moment of it.” Woods, meanwhile, was nominated for an Academy Award, one of only two nominations he’s ever received to this day.
Stone has had a conflicted relationship with timing when it comes to his films’ releases. One example was Wall Street. While the film was in production, the United States underwent a stock market crash. Already doubtful of the film’s success, the producers were now worried that nobody would watch a harsh reminder of capitalism’s less cheery side. An Oscar or two later, they no doubt took a moment to wipe the egg off their faces.
Despite his famously left-wing views, Stone was raised in a very Republican household growing up and has worked with many famous Republicans in Hollywood. He co-wrote Conan the Barbarian, which was directed by John Milius and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, he collaborated with Stanley Weiser multiple times throughout their careers, he directed Charlton Heston in Any Given Sunday, and he cast James Woods in three of his films.
Stone had long been a fan of the Doors by the time he got the chance to make a film about them. What many people don’t know is that back in the early 1970s, Stone sent Doors frontman Jim Morrison a screenplay he’d written, hoping that Morrison might star in it. Sadly, Morrison never lived long enough to say yes or no. The script was found in Morrison’s Paris home when he died and was later returned to Stone. The script was later rewritten and turned into Platoon.
Throughout his career, Stone has made many films based on real people and actual events. As of 2018, six of those films were made when said people were still alive, and those people actively participated with Stone in making his films about them. Sadly, Stone could not summon the ghost of Alexander the Great to comment on his biographical film.
At one point in the 90s, Stone was planning to direct a film about renowned Argentinian figure Eva Peron, but he gave up after he couldn’t see eye-to-eye with no less a figure than Argentina’s president at the time. When the Madonna-starring musical Evita came out about a similar subject, Stone got a token writing credit despite having nothing to do with that film’s script.
Before Stone became a soldier in the Vietnam War, he attended Yale in the class of 1968. Among his fellow classmates was future president George W. Bush. Forty years later, Stone made the film W., a biopic about Bush that was released while the man was still in office.
Bringing things back to Salvador once again, the film very nearly resulted in the death of James Woods. During one scene, a gun is meant to misfire next to his head, but when preparing to film, Woods heard one of the extras say that a blank was in the gun. Woods began to protest, which infuriated Stone, who was trying to finish the film. Woods finally grabbed the gun and discharged it, proving there was a blank which would have killed Woods had the scene gone on as normal. Surprisingly, Woods and Stone are still good friends according to Stone himself.
Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho, starring Christian Bale, was very nearly directed by Stone. He was set to direct the film with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. However, things didn’t work out, and the film project went back to Harron and Bale. We’d make a humorous comment, but Roger Ebert’s is better than anything we could ever come up with: “To imagine this material in Stone's hands, recall the scene in Ken Russell's The Music Lovers where Tchaikovsky's head explodes during the "1812 Overture," then spin it out to feature length.”
Aside from his feature films, Stone has directed several documentaries throughout his career. Persona Non Grata is a look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and South of the Border is an examination of the left-leaning governments in several South American countries. His favorite subject was former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as Stone made a total of three documentaries where he visited and spoke with Castro himself. More recently, and arguably most controversially, he filmed a miniseries where he got the chance to interview Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which received a very mixed response.
Natural Born Killers is arguably Stone’s most controversial film. But before it became a violent cultural satire of 90s media, Stone was initially looking for a light and easy production after the grueling Heaven & Earth. Taking a screenplay by Tarantino, he figured it could become an action movie that Schwarzenegger would have starred in. We are forever grateful for the film that Stone actually gave us, even though Tarantino isn’t.
More than perhaps any other project, Stone always wanted to make a film about Alexander the Great. He started as early as 1991 with Val Kilmer set to play the lead role. Later, he tried again with Tom Cruise in the role instead. When the film finally went into production, Heath Ledger was seriously considered before Colin Farrell was cast. As a consolation prize, Kilmer got to gain fifty pounds and learn how to see out of just one eye to play Alexander’s father, Philip.
Out of all of Stone’s directed feature films, only one of his protagonists has ever been a woman (Le Ly in Heaven & Earth), while in two cases a woman shared the protagonist spot with male co-leads (Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers, and O in Savages).
Stone has worked with two generations of two different acting families. He cast Jon Voight in U-Turn, and his daughter Angelina Jolie in Alexander. Charlie Sheen worked on Platoon with Stone and then rejoined him for Wall Street, where his father, Martin Sheen, also played his dad in the film. Additionally, Stone cast Alec Baldwin in Talk Radio, and all of Alec’s brothers make cameo appearances in Born on the Fourth of July.
Coming back from the Vietnam War, Stone went to film school in New York. One of his instructors? The legend himself, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese was very impressed by Stone’s work, and years later he presented his former student with his second Directing Oscar for Born on the Fourth of July. Over the years, they both made long-term collaborations with cinematographers Rodrigo Prieto and Robert Richardson.
To film the final act of Natural Born Killers, Stone shot on location in the Stateville Correctional Centre in Illinois. In a prison where 80% of its inmates were incarcerated for violent crimes, Stone made them all extras in a prison riot scene, arming them with rubber weapons. In case the tension wasn’t high enough, Stone played African tribal music full blast to keep the energy going. To the surprise of nobody, the inmates were on lockdown for the last two weeks of filming, so 200 extras were brought in to replace them. There’s a joke to make about job stealing somewhere, but we can’t quite put it together.
Stone shares a surprising amount of parallels with fellow filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Both men were born in the same year, and their dads were both WWII veterans. Both Stone and Spielberg directed Tommy Lee Jones into an Oscar-nominated performance in a film focused around a US President (JFK and Lincoln), and they both won their Best Director Oscars for war films (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). In both cases, the two former films also won Best Picture, while the latter two didn’t. Something could be said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull here, but we won’t go on.
Stone uses his films like a photo album, at least when it comes to his son, Sean. The director’s son has a cameo or supporting role in nearly every single one of his dad’s movies. Sean would go on to shoot three documentaries for Alexander and is currently following in his father’s footsteps into the film industry.
Stone’s films are known for their controversial subject matter, and they draw very polarizing responses, but few were so polarizing as the reactions to his film Nixon. When Disney funded his biopic of Richard Nixon, Walt Disney’s daughter Diane made a rare criticism of her father’s company, as she was close with the Nixon family and hated how Stone portrayed President Nixon—despite the fact that many on the left were angry that he seemed to be portrayed sympathetically. Stone was left to shrug his shoulders as the film got four Oscar nominations but flopped at the box office.
While casting the lead role in Heaven & Earth, Stone and his team held auditions in six different US cities, as well as Hong Kong and Bangkok. After more than 16,000 Vietnamese women came in to read for roles, Hiep Thi Le was reluctantly dragged to the audition by her friend. Stone was so confident in her that he didn’t care that it was her first role in a film and that she hadn’t gone to acting school. Le was cast in the lead, but most unfortunately, Heaven & Earth was the underrated black sheep of Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy and was the only one not to get an Oscar nomination.
When Midnight Express was released, Stone was deeply criticized by Turkey for his portrayal of their country’s prison system, as well as a critical speech where the main character rails against all Turks in the middle of his sentence. However, one group of people were quick to praise Stone for the exact same reasons. According to Stone, several Armenian groups urged him to make a film about the Armenian genocide in Turkey. Stone didn’t say why he didn’t do it (and let’s be honest, it would have been groundbreaking to make such a movie in the 70s), though we can assume that his PR team, already dealing with a furious nation’s worth of complaints, might have urged him to pass. Meanwhile, the Armenians were left to wait until Atom Egoyan’s Ararat and Terry George’s The Promise for portrayals of the genocide to appear in mainstream films.
From 1986 until 1995, Stone made Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Heaven & Earth, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon. That’s 10 films in 10 years. It took Stanley Kubrick 25 years to make the same number of films, and even during his busiest period, Spielberg needed 13 years to make and release 10 films. What makes it even more remarkable was that Stone actually released two films in the same year—twice! JFK and The Doors were both 1991 films, while Platoon and Salvador were both released in 1986. And in the middle of all that, Stone still had time to produce The Joy Luck Club, South Central, Reversal of Fortune, Wild Palms, and Zebrahead.
Stone has frequently used Aboriginal themes and characters in his films. The character of Sgt. Elias was originally meant to be played by an Aboriginal actor before Willem Dafoe was cast. In Stone’s later film, The Doors, Jim Morrison is convinced that he carries the spirit of an Aboriginal man inside of him after witnessing the man die in a car accident. The two main characters in Natural Born Killers reach a turning point after an encounter with Warren Red Cloud, played by Russell Means. In U-Turn, Stone originally wanted to cast Marlon Brando as The Blind Man, the oddball Navajo character.
Throughout his career, Stone has discovered some actors who went on to be well-known or critically acclaimed. Ali Wong, Charlie Sheen, and Francesco Quinn got their first ever film roles working with Stone. He also gave Connor Paolo, Alexander Wraith, Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, and Keith David some of their first big breaks.
When making the film Snowden, Stone and his producer Moritz Borman were very worried that the NSA would spy on their production. No American company would touch the film project, so most of it was produced and filmed in Germany, which Stone said worked better since it was a neutral country. On the rare occasions that they were in the US for location shoots, Stone urged his cast and crew to avoid naming specific locations in emails.
When Stone first released his magnum opus Alexander, the film was a box office bomb in the US and received a lot of criticism. But on the flip side, it made nearly $150 million overseas and received far more favorable reviews outside of the US. The movie also became a DVD success, leading Stone to release not one, but three new versions of the movie (the Director’s Cut, the Final Cut, and the Ultimate Cut). Stone has said he’s finally finished editing his movie, but we’re holding our breath for a Maximum Overdrive Cut on the horizon.
When Natural Born Killers was released, US Senator Bob Dole tried to take political advantage of the shock surrounding the film by publicly denouncing the promotions of violence in pop culture. Later, he was forced to admit that he had not actually seen the film.
In Natural Born Killers, legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield plays Mallory Knox’s abusive father. According to Stone, every word that Dangerfield utters in the film was written by Dangerfield himself. He simply directed Dangerfield to play the “father from Hell,” which became a highly praised part of the film when it was released.
To properly portray the Vietnam War in his film Platoon, Stone put his entire cast through two weeks of basic training as light infantry. The rigorous training in the jungles of the Philippines caused lead actor Tom Berenger to lose 28 pounds in those two weeks. Johnny Depp later joked that they were starving to death while preparing for a movie, while Willem Dafoe said Stone made them feel like they were in a “life or death thing.”
Most directors struggle to make their first films, but with Stone’s Seizure, it’s a miracle that a movie was even made. The production was interrupted by the special effects guy drunkenly smashing up the house they were filming in because the lead actress wouldn’t sleep with him, and then attacking Stone with a machete when he suspected the director was making his own moves on her. Cheques bounced, the crew rebelled by throwing the producers into a lake, and all the recorded sound was held for ransom away from Stone. He and his friends literally smuggled the work print out of Canada in a rented car ahead of the law!
Stone spent years developing a biopic about renowned civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. However, his screenplay was not approved by King’s surviving family and he scrapped the project. The reason for the family’s refusal? Stone was planning to not only explore King’s accomplishments as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but also his alleged extramarital affairs.
In his recent book, Alec Baldwin described his experience working with Stone on the film Talk Radio. He likened Stone to a “Machiavellian filmmaker who would throw his own mother down a flight of stairs if it would help him get his project financed, get the shot he wanted, or simply get his way.” For Stone’s part, he called Alec a “pain in the ass” when reminiscing about their time together.
Just after his highly controversial, violent satire, Natural Born Killers came out, Stone was approached to direct an adaption of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Elektra. Those familiar with the character from Daredevil and her own film will doubtless be pleased to know that only a rights issue prevented Stone from making the movie. It apparently had a Manchurian Candidate-esque plot where Elektra attempts to kill a presidential candidate secretly being controlled by ninjas.
It’s fairly well-known that before he became a famous director, Stone was an award-winning screenwriter with a dangerous edge. Not only did he write the screenplay for Scarface while recovering from a cocaine addiction in Paris, he would write it while sitting in a very dark room without the lights on. Was he still hungover?
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