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Top row from left, Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, from bottom left, Francesco Quinn and Kevin Dillon in a scene from "Platoon."
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Top row from left, Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, from bottom left, Francesco Quinn and Kevin Dillon in a scene from 'Platoon.'

The world according to Oliver Stone

The controversial director talks changing tastes, finding empathy and examining history.

Oliver Stone begins shooting this summer on his new film Savages, adapted from Don Winslow's 2010 novel about marijuana growers in Orange County outside Los Angeles, who run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel.

The project, which takes Stone to Laguna Beach and other locations in southern California, has a dream-team cast - including Blake Lively, Teresa Palmer, Benicio Del Toro, Taylor Kitsch, Salma Hayek, John Travolta and Aaron Johnson.

Now 64, but as energetic as ever, Stone has been making films regularly for more than 30 years. He has been trying to make them for a lot longer.

When Stone sat down to talk while in San Francisco earlier this month to accept the Founder's Award for Directing from the San Francisco International Film Festival, he stressed that he had struggled to make movies in his early days, even after winning an Academy Award in 1979 for his script for Midnight Express, an adaptation of the book by Billy Hayes.

"It's been an up-and-down experience," said the director of Wall Street, who acknowledged that his career might look like the chart of a stock that spikes and dips. "People say that I'm history. People say that I'm washed up all the time. Nixon, in 1995, was not a commercial success, but for me it was a successful film. Then I went off to make documentaries. They want me to make the same film all the time.

"Frankly, I have different interests at different times," Stone said. "W, about George W Bush, has a simple style. I don't think there's anything wrong with simplicity when you get older. And now I'm off to make Savages. I may go back the other way."

Before the public sees Savages, Stone will premiere a series that he has been working on for three years, The Untold History of the United States, a documentary project for American television in which he examines tragic events of the 20th century. The director said he turned to documentaries "to refresh the source".

"Dealing with fiction or dramatisation, it becomes something of a 'gig'," he said. "I found myself wanting to go back into the field." Stone's non-fiction subjects have been Fidel Castro, Palestine, and the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez - all controversial for the American audience.

"What we're doing is going back and examining forgotten history. I was brainwashed in school the way most Americans are," said the director, who has never been reticent about his opinions. "I went off to the war in Vietnam, believing that we were fighting evil, monolithic communism," he said. "History was ethnocentric back then. It's better-written now, more critical, but there is still a tremendous gap between reality and what the experience of American history is. We're trying to close that gap."

Stone said that his Untold History would begin with the US decision to drop atom bombs on Japan in 1945.

"Memory is the thread of civilisation," he said. "Without memory, we become barbarians."

Stone said he made Platoon so that the public would remember the war in Vietnam. The director listed films of the 1990s that, he believes, clash with memory. "Black Hawk Down is a well-made movie, but it's in praise of technology," he argued. "Even in Saving Private Ryan, you saw the worship of World War II as the good war. Gladiator in 2001 was part of that war mindset. By the time of the Iraq War, we were ready to go back.

"America loves war, America depends on war, and so does its industry," said the director.

If Stone is right about Americans and war, it seems odd that it was so difficult for him to get Platoon financed there in the 1980s.

"It was considered a box-office downer, uncommercial," he explained. "It got made for reasons of a freak accident. It was an English producer, who made the movie for very little money - $6 million (Dh22m). We did it in the Philippines on the skin of our teeth. John Daley, who just passed away, also produced Salvador for $3m, $4m. Salvador only got distributed because it was the advent of the video revolution, and we had money from that."

In casting Platoon at that budget, "we went as realistic as we possibly could," Stone said. "Most of what we had seen as war in movies before had older men, like John Wayne. I took younger actors, with the exception of Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, and we prepared them for shooting in what was the equivalent of training camp. So, by the time that they were actually on film, it looked as if they were soldiers who'd been through a war. That's what we wanted."

Stone credited that realism with uniting veterans and critics of the war in admiration of Platoon.

"There were some veterans who called me a liar for what I showed in the film, or people who wanted me put on trial for crimes against humanity, but it was one of those rare moments, like the Obama -election."

He added: "It's a nice thing to see. If it happens again, grab it. It's like a surfer's wave. It doesn't happen very often."

The nature of history has not turned Stone into a cynic, although it has been the gift that gives him stories to make films about. "You've got to have a sense of humour," said the man who dramatised two Wall Street meltdowns. "What a ride. You begin to wonder how much more we can take. Is Donald Trump going to be president of the United States? That might be a reason to move back to Vietnam."

The veteran filmmaker seemed to smell a screenplay, although this subject promised a whiff of comedy, not exactly Stone's trademark.

"I've made comedies," he insisted. "Natural Born Killers is a comedy - it's a dark comedy. U-Turn has comedic elements. Salvador has very comedic elements. I think there are comedic elements in Any Given Sunday and, frankly, the George Bush film, W, if you're willing to look at it with a sense of irony, is a very funny movie. The man is president of the United States, and this is quoted dialogue."

Stone stressed that he stepped back from any opinions he had about Bush. "I'm a dramatist first," he said, noting that he had been criticised for not going on the attack more fiercely. "I thought we should just show the guy, and how he became president, which involved walking in his shoes. Empathy means you're not pro or con, but you're understanding, and letting him speak for himself."

Turning back more than 2,000 years, Stone noted that his 2004 epic about another ruler, Alexander, will finally be released this year at the length he originally wanted it to be - three hours and 45 minutes. "Frankly, I rushed the movie to make the marketing deadline of November 2004, and it had to be under two hours and 55. You can't cut a movie up like that."

"Our new version actually allows the movie to breathe and be what it is," said Stone, who considers the film one of his greatest achievements. "It is at the beginning of time, and it's not at all comparable to George Bush going into -Baghdad."

Stone hesitated for a moment, and laughed. "It was done the same year. What a big mistake."

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