Tag Archives: Oliver Stone

“I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of … feel kind of invincible.” : An Interview with W.D. Richter by Kent Hill

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To talk about W.D. (Rick) Richter, is to talk about one of my all-time favorite films, Big Trouble in Little China. It is, to put it simply, one of those films that comes along (not so much anymore) once in a generation. As we know in this age of remakes, reboots and re-imaginations, there is a very good chance that this film, because of its staying power and built-in fan base, will more than likely resurface with Dwayne Johnson playing Jack Burton. Just like Hansel in Zoolander he is, as far as the Studios are concerned, so hot right now!

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And you can be your bottom dollar that it will try like hell to recapture the magic of what was – and more than likely – crash ‘n’ burn in its attempt to do so. I might be wrong. Because, BTILC, was and is what is often referred to as a “happy accident”. What began as a seemingly awkward combination of a western with a plot that involved Chinese black magic became, thanks to my guest, a glorious blending of genres that there is really no recipe for.

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I rarely get nervous doing interviews, but I was glad to be sitting down for this one. When the person on the other end of the line had a hand in creating a couple of the seminal film of one’s existence . . . it is tough to play it cool, plus for the first time in a long time, I found the need to have my questions written, rather than merely see what the conversation would provoke. Primarily because I knew I was only going to have a limited time, and secondly because during our email exchanges prior to the chat, I found Rick to be extremely matter-of-fact and, wishing not to have the interview published in audio form, he merely wanted to be concise and not ramble on as, he says, has happened in the past.

So I sat and pondered questions. Having read other interviews with him in the past, before he’d stepped away from the business, the focus was on the films he had released at the time and didn’t really get below the surface. Off the record, we spoke about a few of the things that were beneath the polished exterior of the press kits, but that was not all that interested me. There have been many books and articles on his films, as well as many having excellent special features and commentary tracks which mine their depths – so I wasn’t going to waste time there.

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In the end I waited till the last minute and scribbled down the first questions that popped into my head. Some of course are elementary, but one or two I’ve had on my mind for a while.

Well, it took a long time, but sometimes, good things do. It was well worth the wait and the frustrating silences in between messages from Rick’s friend who very graciously made the introductions, and I, as a fan first, was humbled, honored and thrilled at the prospect of speaking to yet another film-making idol of mine.

While Rick, early in our email exchanges said, “I prefer to let he films, for better or worse, speak for themselves.” I am and will be forever grateful he took the time to talk a little about his work. In the end I wasn’t nervous or scared at all . . . I felt kind of invincible.

 

KH: Did you always want to work in movies and if so what were the films which influenced you?

WDR: First I wanted a paper route.  Then I wanted to run a circus.  Then I thought about pursuing a career as an English teacher.  Then I thought, “Why not aspire to become an actual tenured English professor?”  But, by the time I got to college, graduate film programs were springing up here and there.  Having loved movies since childhood, but never imagining there was a route available into the business, I suddenly saw a way to pursue a career in film in a structured, sensible way.

I went to a lot of movies of all kinds as a kid, but mostly B horror films from the mid-fifties through the mid-sixties.  In 1964, I saw DR. STRANGELOVE and in 1965 THE LOVED ONE.  They suggested a new direction and deeply influenced me.

KH: How did you break in to the business?

WDR: I wrote screenplays at USC, and one of them secured me an agent.  I then worked as a reader for Warners and wrote on the side and continued to do so when Warners and Irvin Kershner let me work as his assistant while he was prepping DIRTY HARRY for Sinatra.  That project fell apart, but a spec script I’d written, SLITHER, got to the director Howard Zeiff, and he set it up, odd as it was, and we shot it.  Presto!  I was a produced screenwriter.

KH: Your early career was full of greats like Dracula, Body Snatchers and your Oscar nod for Brubaker. How much does momentum play a factor in one’s career (films coming out and performing well) as well as recognition for one’s talent?

WDR: Actually, none of those films did perform well, but they were respected, and, as a result, I was respected as a young writer with perceived potential.  You must remember that during the seventies and eighties eccentric characters in unusual, small stories were nothing Hollywood ran screaming from.  That came later.

KH: You are a part of two of my favourite films of all time with Banzai and BTILC. How do you feel as an artist to be remembered for singular works rather than your entire body of creativity?

WDR: I’ve never given much thought to being “remembered”.  After all, sooner or later, this whole planet is going to be forgotten.

KH: If people want the skinny on Banzai, you have already provided an excellent commentary. What I would ask is, did you ever see Kevin Smith’s Q & A whose guests were Weller and Lithgow, and how did you feel about possible versions of the continuing story of Banzai?

WDR: I thought Kevin did a spectacular job that evening, and it was nice to learn how much the movie shaped him.  As long as Mac Rauch is involved, I feel quite confident that a “new” BUCKAROO could be as startling as the original.

KH: BTILC was ahead of its time, in my opinion. What I’ve always wanted to know is, what the “western version” was like prior to your work on the script, and how much of the finished film remains your work?

WDR: The “western version” just didn’t work for anybody, sad to say.  It all seemed too distant…the Old West and the Asian occult, etc.  So I proposed moving it to a modern, familiar setting and swapping the hero’s horse for a big rig.  The pitch went over well, and, with a writers’ strike looming, I dug into the challenge of creating a contemporary script in about seven weeks, choosing to do that with a somewhat dim but hopefully lovable hero at the center.  The finished film stayed absolutely true to my screenplay, apart from the inevitable ad libs here and there.  Jack Burton’s John-Wayne cadences, though, are definitely nothing I wrote or endorsed.  John and Kurt settled on that themselves.

You asked me prior to this conversation: “Did you write the line or was it improvised: I feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of… feel kind of invincible?”

Turns out I did write it.  I wrote the whole script furiously in longhand in several spiral notebooks, and a typist transcribed them into script format.

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KH: There was a significant gap between Home for the Holidays and Stealth. I have interviewed many writers who talk of these periods. They say, it’s not that I wasn’t writing, it’s just my scripts weren’t getting made. Was that true of your career at the time?

WDR: Definitely.  I had movies actually green-lighted then cancelled when directors went over budget in pre-production.

KH: I understand Stealth was a troubled production.

WDR: STEALTH was just a bizarre and massively unpleasant experience.  Directors and location scouts shouldn’t rewrite writers, if you want my opinion.  Kind of like Presidents shouldn’t tweet.

KH: Did your involvement end after the writing?

WDR: The “writing” never really stopped.  I was removed from the picture several times when my revisions failed to please the director.  But I was repeatedly brought back by the studio to pull the script back from the brink after the director (who shall remain nameless) had worked it over again in his spare time.  It’s the only film I’ve had made that, with great care, I kept my distance from during production and through release.

KH: I also love Needful Things. What was it like to adapt King?

WDR: Crazy.  The book is 690-pages of single-spaced prose.  My script was 124 pages, and you know how much “air” there is on a script page.  I figured that if one were to retype the novel in a crude screenplay format, it might easily hit 1000 pages.  So I lost roughly 876 pages while trying to keep King’s story and mood intact.  I have no sense of how that worked out because I’ve never reread the book, but I always imagined a looser, grittier, less-arch movie.

KH: Any advice you would give to a struggling screenwriter – not unlike myself?

WDR: Write.  Write.  Write.  But always try to imagine the movie itself playing to paying strangers.  Why would they — or you! — want to watch it?

KH: Sir it has been a profound honor to converse with you. I cherish the moment and humbly thank you.

WDR: Thank you, Kent. Take care.

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Hollywood’s best-kept Secret: An Interview with Scott Windhauser by Kent Hill

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Scott Windhauser might seem to have simply fallen out of the clear blue sky recently. Truth is, he has been in the game for quite some time. He worked his way up through the ranks, paying his dues, making connections – but all the while, working quietly on his own scripts.

The turning point came when he wrote a screenplay. You know the one, the kind of script that gets you noticed, that gets them to return your phone calls, that’s peaks the interest of the movie gods. Now I’m not going to spoil it here, you’ll have to have a listen, but the premise was really cool stuff.

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But, as things often happen in Hollywood, another picture, that took place in a similar setting, came out around the same time and the backers started backing away. It’s times like these that separate the men from boys. It’s like Michael Douglas’s line in The Ghost and The Darkness, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit. Well my friend, you’ve just been hit. The getting up is up to you.”

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Scott did a little better than just getting back on his feet. He went back to the forge and starting producing a veritable war chest of material, most of which is on its way to release as we speak. There’s some that Scott has also directed like Dead Trigger starring Dolph Lundgren as well as Cops and Robbers with Tom Berenger and Michael Jai White. Then there’s the Rob Cohen(The Fast and The Furious, XXX) directed Hurricane Heist (or Category 5 as some of the advertising is calling it) and Tsunami L.A., along with numerous other projects big and small in the works as well as on the way either this or next year.

Scott Windhauser folks. His is a name you may not have heard, but the times they are a changin’. He fought his way through the minefields of La La Land, he’s given a script a ‘Nic-polish’ (have a listen, all shall be revealed), he has even bumped into John Williams, the man who wrote the cinematic themes of our youth.

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This all adds up to a great interview folks, so please, press play and learn about the man who is quickly becoming a name to take notice of.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Scott Windhauser.

(The Password to watch ‘DEAD TRIGGER’ trailer below is: zombie)

Sun, Sand & Savages: Oliver Stone’s underrated return to form 


Oliver Stone’s Savages is the best film the man has made since the early 90’s, and reminds us of what colourful, bloody, hectic, Mardi Gras shock & awe blistering good times the man is capable of bringing us. His political/war films are all well and good, but for me the lifeblood of this filmmaker lies in his sun-soaked pulp n’ noir toolbox, the ability to spin grisly, darkly romanticized genre campfire yarns that exist eons away from the geopolitics of our plane. Savages is so whimsical it could float right out of our grasp on a cloud, if it weren’t so heavy and heinous at the very same time, and it’s in that careful balance of heart, horror and humour that the film comes out on top, despite a relative cop-out of an ending that can be forgiven when the package as a whole is considered. Based on a novel by Don Winslow, this is an odyssey of cartels, violence, love most pure, drugs, guns, California dreaming and a cast having more fun than they have so far in their collective careers, and I do mean that. The film opens with grainy, harrowing camcorder footage of sinister cartels beheading innocents to set an example, and that’s just the start of it. Pan over to Cali paradise where angelic Ophelia (Blake Lively in a beautiful, vulnerable performance) lives with the two loves of her life, gentle hippie Ben (Aaron Tyler Johnson) and hardened Afghan vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two brotherly marijuana barons who provide the west coast with the finest bud the region has to offer. They live in harmony, both in love with Ophelia, existing as a functional little romantic trifecta tucked away on the sun-dappled coastline, until darkness finds them in the form of the power hungry Baja Cartel, who want a piece of their impossibly lucrative action. Although spearheaded by a fiery Salma Hayek, it’s Benicio Del Toro’s Lado who strikes fear into hearts, a ruthless, casually sadistic enforcer who’s not above the lowest brands of violence and degradation. Del Toro plays him with a knowing sneer and a grease-dripping mullet, a positive scourge of everything pure and good in his path. Ben and Chon are thrown into a world of hurt when he kidnaps Ophelia, held as a ransom so the boys play ball with Hayek’s plans for aggressive expansion, promoting all out guerrilla war-games between both factions. John Travolta does his wired up thing as a cheerfully crooked DEA underboss who is their conduit to all things intel related, and Emile Hirsch their surveillance expert. This is a film of both bright light and terrible darkness, and it’s easy to get swept up in the hypnotically wistful current before the film turns evil loose and gut punches it’s audience. The visual tone is crisp and endlessly colourful, and Dan Mindel’s cinematography doesn’t shy away from the overt nature of the brutality, especially when Hayek’s right hand accountant (Damien Bechir) is gruesomely tortured by Lado, and during a daring highway ambush that showcases both Chon’s merciless tactical resolve and Ben’s fragility, both driven to staggering extremes by their love for Ophelia. Stone has always had a flair for eye boggling excess, dastardly deeds done under a baking hot sun and garish, over the top characters that would be right at home in a cartoon if they weren’t so tangibly present, especially in Del Toro’s and Travolta’s cases, it’s a beauty of a thing to see them both chow down on the scenery here and riff off of each other in a quick scene where they share frames. Many folks were underwhelmed by the work of the three young leads, but they couldn’t have been better, really, especially Lively, who’s wounded soul brandishes a sword and shield of sunny disposition even when faced with utter hopelessness, a lilting poetry to her hazy narration that threads the tale together in fable form. Commerce is chaos here too, as we see how the south of the border drug trade encroaches on many individuals who don’t yet understand the evil emanating from that region, and are rudely awakened. There’s so much going on in this film, it’s so vibrantly alive in every facet, a showcase example of the bruising, beautiful power that movies have over us. 

-Nate Hill

Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers


I will sing the praises for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers til the day I either die, am too dementia ridden to compile a coherent review or too arthritic to type anymore (you folks will get some peace and quiet on your social media once any or all of the above happens). This film is less a film than it is a writhing elemental force, a cinematic being brought to life by tools seldom used in Hollywood, namely the sheer audacity of Stone’s frenetic filmmaking style. The MPAA kept an R rating just out of his reach for a while before finally conceding, harping to him that though he cut violent bits here and there to make it semantically tamer, it was the general aura of chaotic madness that irked them so. Stone considers this a compliment, and well he should, for its not everyday that an artist so fluidly taps into the artery of violence and the many catalysts of it in such a primal, intangible way that brilliantly splices what compels us with what appalls is, and the scarily thin line that wavers between them. This film is many things: a psychedelic road flick, a blistering indictment of sensationalist American media and the decaying degeneracy it breeds, a hallucinatory mood piece, a severely expressionistic action film, a thriller, a chiller and the list goes on, but more important than all of those is the love story that ties it all together. Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson are sticks of poisoned dynamite as Mickey and Mallory Knox, two twisted up kids on the run from everyone and everything, products of the darkest bowers of bizarro world Americana, deeply scarred by their pasts, fully committed to the wanton murder spree they’ve engaged in and unapologetic about the wave of carnage they’ve left in their wake. Demonized at every turn by the powers that be and everyone else in between, it’s easy to see why a system feeds two sick souls like this with infamy and notoriety instead of helping them. Anything for that big ol’ dollar sign, or simply whatever fills the void. We see the sickness creep after them, ever present in creatures like Tommy Lee Jones’s fire and brimstone prison warden, Robert Downey Jr.’s manic, sickening enabler of a talk show host and Tom Sizemore’s psychotic, gung-ho detective Jack Scagnetti. There’s a saying out there that goes “animals are beasts, but men are monsters, a sentiment that Stone has taken and run right off the cliff with, blasting us in the face with humanity’s very worst for a solid two hours, until he’s damn sure we catch his drift. The film is a stylistic tornado, every kind of colour, lens, filter, soundscape, visual trick and style of editing used until we realize we’re watching something truly unlike anything before, and likely after as well. Mallory’s backstory is staged in a stinging sitcom format as she’s terrorized by her abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield, cast grotesquely against type). Mickey breaks out of prison in black and white Lone Ranger style. A drug store Mexican standoff is painted with swaths of neon vomit green. Shadowy title cards and striking lighting are used in a sequence where the pair visit the lonely desert hut of a prophetic Indian (Russell Means). Visions dance on walls like spectral tv screens, faces leer and loom out of shadows for no apparent reason other than to add to the beautiful commotion, characters skitter through frames looking for a moment like demons. There is no other film like this, no other experience rather, an animalistic treatise on primal human urges, societal constraints that bind them, loosely and laughably out of place when you consider the dark urges within everyone. Amidst all this chaos though, like two corrupted beacons, are Mickey and Mallory. This is their story, and despite being a chief cause of the chaos I just mentioned (the universe has a sense of irony), it’s a love story, they being the centrepiece and everyone else rushing past like dark passengers in a swirling sideshow to their main-tent event. They’re brutal serial killers, no question, but they’re tender and caring with each other, and we see hints at a collective sweet disposition hiding below all those years of built up scar tissue. It’s a gorgeous film, full of scream-at-the-heavens ugliness, imagery that burns a patchwork quilt of impressions straight into your soul, an angry satirical edge that cuts like a knife and so much overflowing style you could watch the thing a thousand times and still pick up on things you never saw before. From the first cacophonous diner slaughterhouse set piece, to the second half of the film that descends into a regular Dante’s Inferno of a prison riot, this film is truly something else, in my top ten of all time and a uniquely affecting experience that has shaped the way I’ve watched films ever since. Plus that soundtrack man.. the story is set to every kind of music out there including Trent Reznor, Lou Reed, Patsy Kline, Peter Gabriel, Dre, Mozart, Marilyn Manson and so many more, with a pair of perfectly nailed opening and closing numbers warbled by Leonard Cohen. Everyone and anyone has quick bits and cameos to support the titanic work of the main cast too, including Denis Leary, Ashley Judd, Arliss Howard, O Lan Jones, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jared Harris, Mark Harmon, Balthazar Getty, Marshall Bell, Louis Lombardi, Steven Wright, Rachel Ticotin, James Gammon and more. What more can be said about this film? It’s a natural born classic.

-Nate Hill

SEAN STONE: An Interview with Kent Hill

Many of us can only imagine what it must be like to grow up in a household where one or both of our parents are people of extraordinary ability. We can only muse further what it must be like if that said parent were internationally recognized in their chosen field of expertise.

On the other hand, when we are young, we don’t really question such things. They are the ‘norm’, the everyday, and our parents are simply Mum and Dad. They do what they do and we are none the wiser. Then of course we reach an age when that changes. We realize that there are differences, and our worlds shrink or growth according to the depth of that perception.

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So imagine growing up and one day the realization hits that your Dad is the acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone; on top of that you have essentially grown up in the movies your father has been making. Now you were unaware to the extent of just how different things at home where compared to other people. But, it’s just how things were, and it’s just how things were for Sean Stone.

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Being on the set was normal because making movies is what Dad did for a living. These famous actors were simply people that were helping Dad out. It all seems fine that is till, as Sean told me, the world opens up and your understanding of that which you have been exposed to becomes evident.

Being a lover of the work of Sean’s dad, I, like the rest of you, have seen him as a baby on the lap of Gordon Gekko, as a young Jim Morrison, as the brother of an eventual mass murderer and more. He is now, however, a storyteller in his own right. Beginning with the chronicling of the making of Alexander, Sean has emerged as a naturally talented filmmaker. He has continued exploring the documentary as well as genre filmmaking, and I eagerly anticipate his intended adaptation of his father’s book A Child’s Night Dream.

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It was a real treat to chat with him at the dawn of 2017 . . . ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . Sean Stone.

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Making mashed potatoes with Walken: An Interview with Andrew Bryniarski by Kent Hill

You might not know his name, but you’ve certainly seen his movies.

Andrew Bryniarski is a high-octane actor. His explosive and memorable performances stay with you. He is full-tilt, funny and furious. He has worked with an impressive array of Hollywood’s ‘big hitters’ like Tim Burton, Oliver Stone, John McTiernan, Michael Bay and John Singleton. He has starred alongside Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Raul Julia, Richard Lynch and Scooby Doo. He is beaten the shit out of Superman and made out with his girlfriend. Now if that is not an impressive resume, I don’t know what is.

All I can say is, I have done a number of interviews, but this one was a BLAST! Andy I feel has more great stories in him, only a few of which he was able to share over the couple of conversations we had. I would love this guy to sit down and write a ‘tell-all.’ The things that he has done, the places he has been, his experiences as a guy who was plucked out of obscurity and propelled from there to a Hollywood career that has spanned three decades, and has seen him do everything from sacking quarterbacks to wielding chainsaws, in that old Texas-massacre kinda way. It’s a tome that would be utterly enthralling.

The same enthusiasm that Andy applies to his work is apparent in his personality and his perspective. I get the impression there is no half-way with this man, and though it might seem that he has drifted from one grand adventure to another, there is a relentless dedication beneath the surface bravado that has been the catalyst behind his success.

It is always my intention to transcribe my interviews as, at times, the quality of the recording is not that great. But this is one of those times where you have to hear it from the man himself. No one does Andrew Bryniarski better than Andrew Bryniarski, unless of course it’s Andrew Bryniarski doing Christopher Walken (which I promise you’ll love.)

On that point, Andy sent me a message the day after our initial chat, saying that he had forgotten a line in his anecdote regarding Walken. It reads as follows:

Walken’s father was a baker and during the depression, there was a flour shortage so they used sawdust so they got ‘the rickets.’ By the time Chris Walken came along they had flour, so he was taller than his father. But Andy – he had orange juice.

It doesn’t make sense I know. But take note of the missing line (above here underlined) and listen to the incomparable Andrew Bryniarski tell it in his ‘awesome’ Christopher Walken voice…

NIXON – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Oliver Stone’s film, Nixon (1995) portrays the American political process as an unpredictable system that politicians have no hope of ever fully controlling. The best they can do is keep it in check most of the time. This theory can be seen in its embryonic stage in JFK (1991) with President John F. Kennedy being assassinated by shadowy forces within the political system, but it was not until Nixon that Stone was able to fully articulate it. As film critic Gavin Smith observed, “Nixon is a historical drama about the constructing and recording of history, assembled as we watch.” Stone has created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines fact and speculation with a cinematic style that blends various film stocks in a seamlessly layered, complex narrative. This fractured, overtly stylized approach draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film. As Stone has said in an interview, “I don’t pretend that it is reality.” This, in turn, allows him to deliver his message with absolute clarity.

Like Citizen Kane (1941) before it, Nixon traces the dramatic rise and fall of a historical figure who tried so hard to be loved by all but ended up being infamous and misunderstood. While Orson Welles’ film was a thinly-veiled attack on newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Stone paints an almost sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Stone may not like Nixon personally, but he does try to explore what motivated the man’s actions and really get inside his head. The director even throws in a stylistic nod to Kane as part of the opening credits play over a shot of a dark and stormy night at the White House. The camera moves through the fence in a way that evokes the opening of Welles’ film with Kane’s imposing estate. And like Welles’ film, Nixon employs a flashback device as Nixon listens to the Watergate tapes and reflects on his life, from his tough childhood in Whittier, California, to his beleaguered political career that culminates with his tumultuous stint in the White House.

The first real indication of Stone’s thesis of the political system as a wild, untamable animal comes when Nixon talks to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) at a horse race about running for President. There are all kinds of shots of horses snorting wildly – the first hint, visually, of what Stone is trying to get at. Hoover makes it known that he will support Nixon if he, in turn, supports him, and is willing to supply him with dirt on Robert Kennedy to help the cause. Hoover makes an intriguing comment when he tells Nixon, “I look at it from the point of view that the system can only take so much abuse. It adjusts itself eventually … But there are times there are savage outbursts.” He cites Martin Luther King’s promiscuity and continues, “Sometimes the system comes very close to cracking.” The implication in this scene is that Hoover is a significant cog in the United States political machine and one that Nixon must respect and work with.

The second significant example where Stone gives support to his thesis is when Nixon meets with Richard Helms (Sam Waterston), director of the CIA. Like Hoover, Helms is a powerful man within the system because he knows and protects so many of its dirty little secrets. They get to talking about Cuba and Nixon’s involvement to assassinate Fidel Castro, which Helms has evidence of via memos. He refers to it as “not an operation so much as an organic phenomenon. It grew. It changed shape. It developed appetites.” Helms is fiercely protective of his position and of the CIA, resisting Nixon’s request for incriminating documents. Where Hoover is portrayed as gruff and obvious, Helms is elusive and distant, played with icy intensity by Sam Waterston.

The third and most important example occurs when Nixon spontaneously meets with war protesters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This is where Stone lays it all out and the film features a fascinating exchange between the President and a female protester (Joanna Going):

Protester: You can’t stop it can you? Even if you wanted to. ‘Cause it’s not you, it’s the system. The system won’t let you stop it.
Nixon: There’s more at stake here then what you want or what I want.
Protester: Then what’s the point? What’s the point of being President? You’re powerless!
Nixon: No. No, I’m not powerless. ‘Cause I understand the system. I believe I can control it. Maybe not control it totally but tame it enough to do some good.
Protester: Sounds like you’re talking about a wild animal.
Nixon: Maybe I am.

Of this scene, Stone has said that Nixon realizes that the system is “more powerful than he is. We can’t get into it that much, but we hint at it so many times – the military-industrial complex, the forces of money.” Stone’s film argues that Nixon really did want to institute change and make a difference in the world, but his own shortcomings, coupled with the complex infrastructure that is the United States political system, ultimately led to his downfall. Stone and the screenwriters conceived of the concept of the political system as “the beast,” which one of the film’s screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson described as “a headless monster that lurches through postwar history,” and served as a metaphor for a system of dark forces that resulted in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam War, as well as helping Nixon’s rise to power and his fall from it. In an interview, Stone elaborated further. He saw “the beast” as a “system … which grinds the individual down … it’s a system of checks and balances that drives itself off: 1) the power of money and markets; 2) state power, government power; 3) corporate power, which is probably greater than state power; 4) the political process, or election through money, which is therefore in tow to the system; and 5) the media, which mostly protects the status quo and their ownership’s interests.”

Anthony Hopkins’ stunning portrayal of the former President humanizes this historical figure. From the way the film is shot and edited, we are seeing the events of U.S. history through Nixon’s perspective. This approach also helps in creating a sympathetic portrait of the man. Hopkins wisely does not opt for a Rich Little imitation but instead captures the essence and spirit of the man. He shows Nixon’s aggressive side, where he speaks in football metaphors and refers to himself in the third person, and also a vulnerable one in the scenes with his wife, Pat. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that Hopkins hasn’t equaled since because he hasn’t been given material and a director that has challenged him in quite the way that Stone did with Nixon.

Opposite Hopkins is Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. She more than holds her own with the Academy Award-winning thespian, portraying Pat as a long suffering yet incredibly strong-willed wife who has to sit by and watch her husband strive for unattainable goals. There’s a scene where she reacts in private to her husband losing the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy and she looks visibly upset, wiping away tears while trying to maintain her composure. In the following scene with her husband, Pat tells him about the toll his political career is taking on their family, which comes across as quite touching. Tears well up in Pat’s eyes as she consoles her husband while he looks tired and defeated. It’s a wonderfully intimate moment that humanizes both of them considerably. All of the scenes between Allen and Hopkins crackle with a kind of tangible intensity as we see the toll politics takes on them. This is not one of those token wife roles that is so often seen in these kinds of films. The well-written screenplay and Allen’s performance flesh out Pat Nixon into a three-dimensional character.

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As always, Stone’s knack for casting is impeccable. Much like he did with JFK, Stone surrounds his leads with an impressive roster of big names in the supporting roles: James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, J.T. Walsh, and, in a restored scene, Sam Waterston delivers a deliciously chilling performance as Richard Helms. These recognizable faces help one keep track of the historical figures that pop up throughout the film.

Originally, Stone had been developing two projects – the musical Evita (1996) and a film about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. When they both failed to get made, he turned his attention to a biopic about Nixon with the president’s death in April 1994 being a key factor in the director’s decision. The project actually originated with Eric Hamburg, a former speechwriter and staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after having dinner with Stone. In 1993, Hamburg mentioned the idea to writer Steve Rivele with the concept being that they would incorporate all of Nixon’s misdeeds, both known and speculative. Hamburg encouraged Rivele to write a screenplay with his partner Christopher Wilkinson. They wrote a treatment in November 1993. In it was the concept of the political system as a beast and this is what convinced Stone to get involved. He immersed himself in research with the help of Hamburg.

Stone commissioned the first draft of the film’s screenplay from Rivele and Wilkinson and it was completed on June 17, 1994, the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The script was based on research from various sources, including documents, transcripts and hours of footage from the Nixon White House. Early on, Rivele and Wilkinson hated Nixon but the longer they worked on the film, and “the more we knew about him, our contempt was slowly eroded to the point where we more than pitied him, we empathized with him.” Stone structured his film into two acts with the first one about Nixon’s loss of power and the second one about Nixon in power only to lose it again.

Stone pitched the project to Warner Bros. but, according to the director, they saw it “as a bunch of unattractive older white men sitting around in suits, with a lot of dialogue and not enough action.” They also didn’t agree with Stone’s choice to play Nixon – Anthony Hopkins. Instead, they wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson – two of Stone’s original choices and both of whom had passed on the role. Stone even met with Warren Beatty but the actor wanted to make too many changes to the script. Stone went with Hopkins based on his performances in Remains of the Day (1993) and Shadowlands (1993). The director remembered, “The isolation of Tony is what struck me. The loneliness. I felt that was the quality that always marked Nixon.” Upon meeting Stone for the first time, Hopkins saw the director as “one of the great bad boys of American pop culture, and I might be a fool to walk away.” He was convinced that to take on such a challenging role that would require him to “impersonate the soul of Nixon” by the scenes in the film when he talks about his mother and father. “That affected me,” he said. To prepare for the role, Hopkins watched a lot of documentary footage on Nixon. At night, he would go to sleep with footage playing so that it would seep into his subconscious.

Joan Allen auditioned for the role of Pat Nixon over a period of several months. During one of these auditions, she read opposite Beatty when he was briefly interested. After this audition, Beatty told Stone that he had found his Pat Nixon. She learned, through her research, that Pat was a strong person who had a difficult life. Allen based her performance on interviews with former Nixon aides, books about the First Lady and a Barbara Walters interview in the early 1970s. Stone, Hamburg, Hopkins, and Woods flew to Washington, D.C. and interviewed the surviving members of Nixon’s inner circle: lawyer Leonard Garment, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. In addition, Stone hired Alexander Butterfield, a former secretary in the cabinet and special assistant to Nixon and who first revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret tapes of his oval office conversations, John Sears, former deputy White House counsel, and John Dean as consultants. To research their roles, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Sorvino met with their real-life counterparts, but J.T. Walsh decided not to contact John Ehrlichman because he threatened to sue the production after reading an early version of the script and was not happy with how he was portrayed.

Stone’s producing partner and financier Arnold Milchan had a deal with the director to make any film he wanted up to a budget of $42.5 million but refused to honor their agreement, saying that he would put up no more than $35 million because he felt Nixon was an uncommercial project. Stone refused to make the film with that budget and a week before shooting was to begin he approached Hungarian financier Andrew Vajna who had a co-financing deal with Disney’s Hollywood Pictures. At the time, Vajna was hoping to get some respectability in Hollywood and possibly an Academy Award and agreed to provide the $43 million budget. In order to cut costs, Stone leased the White House sets from The American President (1995).

Reportedly, there was a lot mischievous jokes exchanged between the actors on the set. Early on, Hopkins was intimidated by the amount of dialogue he had to learn, more of which was being added and changed all the time, and then Sorvino told him that “there was room for improvement” and that he would be willing to help him. According to James Woods, Sorvino told Hopkins that he was “doing the whole thing wrong” and that he was an “expert” who could help Hopkins. Sorvino took Hopkins to lunch and then afterwards the British thespian told Stone that he wanted to quit the production. The director managed to convince him to stay on. Hopkins remembered, “There were moments when I wanted to get out, when I wanted to just do a nice Knot’s Landing or something.” Woods also cracked several good natured jokes with Hopkins. He said, “I’d always tell him how great he was in Psycho. I’d call him Lady Perkins all the time instead of Sir Anthony Hopkins.”

What is perhaps most stunning about Nixon is the style of the film. Employing the editing techniques and innovative camerawork he perfected in JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines actual documentary footage with fictional material and that blends various film stocks in attempt to shed light on a figure most people knew very little about. This fractured, overtly stylized approach suggests that we are seeing historical events through the prism of Nixon’s perspective. The film is not meant to be the definitive word on the man but rather, as Stone said in an interview, the “basis to start reading, to start investigating on your own.”

Stone had his editors in three different rooms with the scenes from the film revolving from one room to another, “depending on how successful they were.” If one editor wasn’t successful with a scene it went to another. Stone said it was “the most intense post- I’ve ever done, even more intense than JFK” because he was screening the film three times a week, making changes in 48 to 72 hours, rescreening the film and then making another 48 hours of changes.

Seven days before Nixon was to be released in theaters, the Nixon family issued a statement calling parts of the film “reprehensible” and that it was designed to “defame and degrade president and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public.” The statement also criticized Stone’s depiction of Nixon’s private life and that of his childhood and his part in planning the assassination of Castro. This statement was actually issued by the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California on behalf of the Nixon family based on a published copy of the script. Stone responded that his “purpose in making the film Nixon, was neither malicious nor defamatory,” and to attempt “a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon – the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world.” The attacks didn’t stop there. In a letter to Nixon’s daughters, Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, said that Stone “has committed a grave disservice to your family, to the presidency, and to American history.”

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Nixon is a powerful historical biopic – arguably the last great film Oliver Stone has made to date. It is also, coincidentally (or maybe not), the last film he and regular collaborator Robert Richardson made together. The legendary cinematographer was as much responsible for defining the distinctive style of Stone’s films as the director himself. Stone’s work has never been the same since they parted company. Nixon was also the last time he had enough juice in Hollywood to command such an impressive cast of actors. Admittedly, Hollywood has changed considerably since this film was made and Stone has had to adapt with the times but hopefully he has another great film like Nixon left in him.