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6 Filmmaking Tips From Oliver Stone

You too can be one of the most controversial directors in America!
Oliver Stone Filmmaking Tips
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on September 14th, 2016

It’s an exciting week for Oliver Stone fans. This Friday sees the opening of Snowden, his first narrative feature since the underrated 2012 crime film Savages and his first stab at his specialty ‐ biopics of controversial figures ‐ since 2008’s too-soon portrayal of the George W. Bush presidency, W. And yesterday brought the release of Matt Zoller Seitz’s indispensable book “The Oliver Stone Experience,” featuring an extensive new interview with the filmmaker plus some great essays on the man and his work.

As for Oliver Stone wannabes, you’re also in luck. In honor of his latest movie, we’ve eavesdropped on some conversations he’s had over the years ‐ albeit only stuff publicly available in print and video ‐ and highlighted some of his filmmaking tips. Follow them, and you too can be a major provocateur! But that doesn’t have to be the goal, as the main point behind Stone’s method and the advice he gives to others is basically be true to yourself and maintain integrity. The controversy is just tied to who he is.

Before we get into the actual tips, here’s Stone telling students at the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design in 2012 that “it’s worth getting into, goddamnit!”:

Set a Limit

For a writer-director who seems to always be pushing limits, this might be a strange tip, period, let alone one to start with. But it’s the best place to begin the journey of Stone’s process of getting his bold ideas through the system. Earlier this year, at the Sun Valley Film Festival, he gave the following suggestion specifically to screenwriters (via IndieWire):

My advice is, try not to get over-involved in the script beyond a certain point. Set a limit for yourself. Get the idea out, at least in a treatment form, because treatments can excite the imagination of the buyer, but going to a full screenplay, and going all out on it, can be a huge downer [if the project stalls].

Also this year, in an interview for The Talks he admits to being rather pessimistic about his projects seeing the light of day (not to mention the light of a film projector):

I’m doing pretty good here. It may not be for long, it may end tomorrow, but I have been able to do business in the States. I take things as they come and I am not certain of anything. I don’t know if I’ll be here next year. You have to play it that way. I have two projects coming out this year, so hopefully they’ll allow me to continue, but they may not. I’m braced for disappointment. I am braced for being ridiculed and marginalized, but I am very proud of the work.

Here’s some more direct advice specifically about writing, from the end of a lengthy Film Writing Master Class for the Hungarian Nation Film Fund:

Say Anything

This isn’t so much advice as the sort of tip that’s a piece of information. Something worth thinking about as you’re writing. I don’t know how it gels with what I used to think about when I wrote, how I believed every character and everything they said was a reflection of me as an artist, but I believe Stone is kind of copping to the fact that this is true for him, yet he thinks he’s getting away with using his characters as patsies not proxies. From a 2015 interview in Creative Screenwriting magazine:

What I love about original writing is you can really let out some of your deepest feelings. Sometimes you’re amazed what comes up. You say stuff that you don’t think as a civilized being you’d say.

So there were some lines of dialog in the film that reflected your views?

Oh, many of them. That’s the beauty of originals is you can be subversive. Your most subversive side can pop up and you can say anything through a character. You’re not saying it; Tony’s saying it or Manny’s saying it. You can say something so outrageous and if the actor goes along with it, nobody recognizes it as you and you got away with it in a way.

Wear Blinders

During a Master Class panel at the 2013 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, Stone was asked by an audience member about what he does in cases of pushback from studios or financiers or anyone else that could pose a threat to his projects. He acknowledged he still has a hard time getting movies made, but he tries not to think about the bullets and rattlesnakes he’s dodging, just to wear blinders and keep going.

Watch him discuss this idea and how nobody, not even he, can be a total ideologue and make films, which are first and foremost entertainment, plus some great stuff about the pros and cons of working with Hollywood versus working with independent “scoundrels” (through 25:28):

Make It Matter

“When you want to do something, you’ve got to really concentrate. It has to be passionate,” Stone says later in the KVIFF Master Class (48:50). “It’s a year of your life or more. Also your reputation.” He goes on to talk about how he can’t give up on his My Lai massacre project, Pinkville, because it’s meant to be and it’s a story that matters.

“You have to make those things matter,” he continues. “You have to decide what matters to you. If you’re going to go to a historical subject, make it matter. And if it matters to you, it will matter to other people.” Answering the next, final question, about what he learned as a student under Martin Scorsese at NYU, Stone adds that he was taught to “use your own experiences as much as you can.” This advice is relevant to the idea of making movies matter for yourself. “Make it real for yourself,” he was told.

In a 1987 interview in Film Comment (republished in the book “Oliver Stone: Interviews”), he says:

You have to make films as an idealist. You’ve got to make them to the greater glory of mankind. Then, even if you fail, even if the film doesn’t work, you do not have to be ashamed, because you tried…..But if you try something that’s small and negative and you fail, then you’re really in deep shit.

And earlier this year, he told students at UC San Diego (and the rest of the University of California via UCTV), “you have to find your way to your soul. You have to have something you want to say. And feel. And I think life experience is crucial. I really do.” Watch his continued advice here:

Development = Compromising Yourself

Stone doesn’t exactly tell people not to develop their projects in the traditional manner ‐ and it’s also likely not easy to avoid it, especially early in your career. But he does explain, in a 1988 interview for Playboy (also republished in “Oliver Stone: Interviews”), his reason for not doing so and how it leads to his films being his films:

After ’85, I vowed never to go to a development meeting again, and I never did. Since Salvador, I’ve never had a script conference. On Wall Street, I never even saw a development person. The so-called development process is just a series of twenty-five meetings to make the script as obsolete and harmless and banal and inoffensive as possible. When twenty-five people agree that it’s all of the above, then they make the movie. If the star agrees to come along!

PLAYBOY: And yet some very good movies do get made.

STONE: I think it’s a random thing. It depends on the persistent vision of two or three people, and they push it through a system that’s geared to compromise and obstacles. Nobody deliberately sets out to do a bad movie, but people have different tastes. There are just so many collaborative elements. You have so many actors; you have to depend on locations; you have to depend on money; you have to depend on whether you woke up that day with a headache. It all comes down to thousands of little choices. And if you miss one of them, the movie is not going to be good.

Stay Interested In the World and Be Curious

What We Learned

Oliver Stone doesn’t compromise, as much as he can help it, because at the end of the day his name is on the movie and more importantly he’s spending all this time working on something he believes should matter to himself and to the audience. Still, he has to expect rejection all the time and so he works on numerous ideas, some simultaneously, until he finds the one that is important and can make it to the end with his vision and reputation intact.

It’s probably not going to work out for many others the way it did for him, but as he says, you’re better off trying and failing and feeling good about the effort and the intent.

Here’s one more piece of advice, not tips for filmmakers, but for moviegoers:

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.