Director Oliver Stone

As the U.S. marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, Stone looks back at his 1991 blockbuster film, JFK, and forward to new projects.

Oliver Stone is known—and has won numerous awards—for writing and directing powerful and often controversial films, including Scarface, Platoon, Natural Born Killers, Wall Street and its sequel and the documentary South of the Border. A history lover, he's produced biopics on Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and George W. Bush and collaborated on the text and the companion Showtime documentary series, The Untold History of the United States. The New York City native taught school in Vietnam and lived in Mexico. He's a decorated Vietnam War veteran who, after his discharge, studied filmmaking at NYU and began his career as a screenwriter in the late 1970s.


Tavis: Oscar-winning writer, producer, and director Oliver Stone has never shied away from controversy. From his screenplay for “Midnight Express,” which won him his first of three Academy Awards, to his directorial successes like “Wall Street,” “Born on the 4th of July,” “Platoon,” and of course “JFK,” Oliver Stone has tackled some of the most complex and troubling issues facing America.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, “JFK” has been released, re-released, I should say, this month in theaters and on Blu-ray. Let’s take a look at a scene from “JFK,” starring Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland.


Tavis: Glad to have you back, first of all.

Oliver Stone: Thank you, Tavis, nice to be back.

Tavis: Is there anything – I suspect not, but let me ask anyway. Is there anything about what you put on film in 1991 with “JFK” that you have rethought, that you regret, that you would do differently?

Stone: No, I looked at it a few days ago and I feel it’s a strong film, especially on the evidence basis. The ballistics, the autopsy, Dealey Plaza stuff. In the movie, Garrison’s trial is presented, I forgot, as a weak case. We don’t shy from that. There’s nothing hidden about it.

We don’t try to make him into a false hero. We show that the case was always soft, but that he brought out a lot of evidence that was later used and became important.

Tavis: One of the things that occurs to me every time I see it, and because it’s always on cable somewhere – and this has to do, of course, with casting and your brilliant directing, and a lot to do with their gifts and their talents. But the acting in this just holds up.

Stone: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: These guys are so gifted.

Stone: Yeah.

Tavis: Sutherland and Costner, the entire case – Tommy Lee Jones. The cast was just amazing.

Stone: They get into it. You get into it. Everyone’s a face. Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, Joe Pesci is incredible, Gary Oldman as Oswald. I loved the cast, and they were signposts. The faces are recognizable, so you follow it.

Because it’s a complicated story, and the audiences, over a three-hour picture, could lose some of those signposts, but you remember who the people are.

Tavis: See, I’m glad you said that, because I was about to ask whether or not you think this project might have been received differently had you not had such an all-star cast, less recognizable faces. But here you point out that we might have got lost in the storyline.

Stone: Well, it’s true. I think that helped a lot. I think it was a fun movie – fun in terms of tension. It keeps your interest, it grips you. It was a rough opening, because although we got eight nominations, Oscar nominations, and two wins, we were still, it was a controversial time, and we got scalded in “The Washington Post” and “Newsweek.”

The mainstream media attacked the film before it was seen by the public. “Newsweek” had a cover that said, “Don’t trust this film.” “The Washington Post” attacked the film six months before it came out, saying that it was hokum.

There’s always been a vested interest in denying the evidence that has emerged in this case. It’s like there’s this sort of fervid belief that Oswald did it alone, and you have to believe that.

Whenever people fight against that, they’re always ridiculed or marginalized, and I don’t include just myself. I include the entire critical community that’s existed for two generations and written many good books about this.

Tavis: What you’ve said now, Oliver, raises two questions at least. Let me start with this one. One, how did you, at the time – it’s one thing to remember this in retrospect, but at the time, how did you process the scalding, as you put it, that you were taking from the media?

Were you concerned that it might hurt your opening day box office, that the movie might not get off the ground? Because everybody was piling on, to your point, before it even came out.

Stone: I was beyond that at that – I was naïve. I was hot before the movie from “Platoon” and “Born on the 4th of July” and “Doors” and “Wall Street.” So I had the heat, so I was able to take it.

Here, this is a public arena, so I was doing a big thing. I’d taken all the heat I had and I said I’m going to throw it into this movie. It’s a big movie, three hours. It’s beyond the norm, plus it’s a very complex movie.

It might bomb at the box office, but I don’t care. I’m going to make this movie because I believe in it. Thank God the box office was there from the beginning. We did very well overseas too.

So it was a hit, but I fought for that movie. Six months after it was released, I was still on TV arguing with the Dan Rathers of the world and all the naysayers. In other words, I never took the attitude that this – I’m just a movie-maker and this is just a movie. I felt very responsible for that work.

Tavis: Why so? Beyond being a filmmaker, why did you feel like that movie had to make a statement? Why did you invest so much of yourself in trying to get that storyline, that narrative, out?

Stone: Well, because it’s a huge myth. It was a huge national myth. It’s important. What happened with Kennedy 50 years ago now was crucial to where we are today.

The world – you see, what we tried to say in the movie and what we’re trying to say also in this “Untold History,” this chapter six, “Untold History of the United States,” is that Kennedy was significantly different than Eisenhower before him, and different from Johnson after him.

So those three years were the beginning of a détente with the Soviet Union, a new feeling for peace, a seeking out of a new ally with the Soviet Union – the end of the Cold War, as Kennedy called it in his American University speech.

Not a Pax Americana ruled by American weapons of war, but a true peace between different peoples. This was his understanding. His compassion stands out today. Among all the American presidents, next to Roosevelt, he’s the only American president who paid homage to the contributions of the Soviet Union in World War II in that speech.

Tavis: There are persons – you mentioned Dan Rather earlier in this conversation. I’ve talked to Dan Rather recently, and countless others who covered this case and have investigated this case, and they are still of the same mind.

Whether you’re talking Rather, whether you’re talking Bob Schieffer, whether you’re talking Robert MacNeil, people I’ve interviewed countless times, who still don’t believe the evidence suggests anything other than the fact that Oswald acted alone.

Stone: Right. Well, let me just say that I don’t want to be a hardhead. I’m open to suggestions. I’ve read the books since then. Our film led to the JFK Act, which opened up four million pages of documents.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) yeah.

Stone: A lot more information has come out. New books have come out, and I would like to mention those books, too: “JFK and the Unspeakable,” by James Douglass. I want to go back, and Fonzi’s book, Gaeton Fonzi’s book, “Investigation.”

Gerald McKnight’s book, “Breach of Trust” in 2005, I believe. Great book. And don’t forget Jim DiEugenio. He has written not only “Destiny Betrayed,” but a new book just came out called “Reclaiming Parkland.” You have to read that, because if you go – he really takes apart this book by Vincent Bugliosi that has gotten so much play in the mass media.

This 2,000 page book – it sounds very massive and it’s presented as a prosecutor’s argument, but you must read DiEugenio’s account. He takes it apart bit by bit, and it’s a very powerful book.

Small publisher, Skyhorse in New York, but a great book, okay? Also don’t forget John Newman’s “Oswald and the CIA.” These are very specific people. They’ve done an incredible amount of research, and they’re being ignored by the mainstream media.

So there’s not much chance for their work ever to get mentioned here. That’s why I take the time. I say as a filmmaker now, as a dramatist, you have to pay attention to two very important pieces of information.

One is the motions of Kennedy in the Zapruder film. The Zapruder film is a document of the assassination, and in that film you will see that Kennedy is shot from two sides. He’s shot from the back and from the front. There’s no contesting that, because in the time frame, it’s impossible for it to be otherwise.

He’s shot from the front, through the neck, and a kill shot in the head at frame 3:13, where he goes back and to the left – you remember the famous sequence in the film: “Back and to the left.”

He’s shot from the back in the back; he’s shot from the rear in the back. Then Connally is shot at a separate time. He’s not shot in the same bullet as Kennedy. Kennedy is shot with a – Connally is shot with a fourth bullet, and perhaps even another bullet, a fifth bullet.

There were at least five bullets, and there’s a guy at the underpass who’s also shot called Tague. So there’s maybe five or six bullets. It’s impossible that all those shots came from the rear, three shots, as the Warren Commission said, including the magic bullet, which is invented by Arlen Specter, guided through the witnesses, and that magic bullet causes seven wounds in two people.

It breaks two hard bones and ends up as a pristine bullet. Remember those two things, and that’s the main thing of the case. Stick with the evidence.

Tavis: I’m not naïve, Oliver, in asking this question, but why is it, to your mind at least, that this matters 50 years later? That is to say, who killed Kennedy, why does that matter to the American public 50 years later?

Stone: Well, it matters to many people because we feel that it was a crime committed by the state. Not the whole state, but by members of the military intelligence security complex that had a huge beef with Kennedy because of his policies.

As I said earlier, he was leading the world, leading the United States into a new position with the Soviet Union. He was calling for the end of the Cold War. He would have been reelected in 1964 because he was vastly popular.

He also had a brother who was coming up behind him probably for 1968. These people were facing a new dynasty in American politics, the Kennedy dynasty, and I think there was a lot at stake.

There was a space treaty in the works going on with Khrushchev, there was a limited test-ban treaty, our first nuclear test-ban treaty had been signed in 1963. This was a singular achievement of the Kennedy administration.

He signaled his intention to withdraw from Vietnam in a document. He had no desire to involve combat troops in that area. He also signaled his intention with Cuba, that he wanted a rapprochement. He was looking for a worldwide renegotiation, a rapprochement.

That ended on November 22. Since then we have not had one president that has been able to stand up to this military industrial security complex. It’s only gotten worse and bigger.

It’s almost as if we have a shadow government running this government that makes the real decisions. The man we talked about last year, Mr. Obama, we had great hopes for him, but right away he caved on Afghanistan, and what he’s been saying since then is essentially an extension of that military industrial security state.

It’s a global – now it’s global, because the Soviet Union, remember, ended in 1991, but we didn’t stop growing. Now we’re listening in on the whole world. We have space weaponry, we have drone weaponry, we have cyber warfare.

We have the strongest country in the world, bar none. Nobody can stand up to us.

Tavis: Since you raise it, Oliver, and I’m glad you went there, because I wanted to ask you about it, what do you make of the high hopes that you and others had for this president on this and other issues, but let’s just stay with the spying and the drones and the torture that hasn’t been addressed? What do you -?

Stone: I’m so surprised that – I really believed in Obama, change we can believe in. I believed in transparent government policies, and none of that has transpired.

On the contrary, he’s a better manager of the empire than Bush ever was. He’s a – as Ari Fleisher said, he’s the fourth term of Bush. It’s wrong. It’s just dead wrong. He’s a constitutional scholar. You don’t bug everybody.

Bush made a fatal flaw. He said okay, we were attacked by terrorists, 2,000-some terrorists, a vile group in 2000, but we expanded – instead of hunting down those people through intelligence, through informers, through the usual processes by which every country in the world has always hunted down terrorists, Bush suddenly declared a vast war on terror.

He said, “You’re either with us or against us,” and he divided the world right there and then. He made some 60 countries suspect. But now that system has grown where essentially the United States government makes us, the citizens of our own country, and citizens abroad, suspects. We’re all suspects.

It’s not just for terrorism, because I’m not a terrorist, you’re not a terrorist. But I think in some ways we’re all fearful now that whatever we think and do and act, if we want to form a new association, if we want to protest NSA policies, we’re always being listened to.

Tavis: But what do you make of some of these polls, Oliver, that are troubling for me, but I’m curious as to your take, your read on some of these polls that suggest that the majority of the American people don’t care so much about being spied on as long – “I’m not a terrorist, I’m not doing anything illegal, why do I care about them spying on me? I got nothing to hide.”

Stone: Because one day – well, because that’ll change. Because one day it won’t be Mr. Obama. Those laws will be in place. Go back to the civil rights movement – you remember Martin Luther King. From the 1930s, J. Edgar Hoover was listening in on all the civil rights leaders.

He distrusted it because he thought communism was behind it. The same thing was true during the Vietnam War. The anti-Vietnam War protests would have been listened in on.

There would have been informers all over it, like there were, but more so. The government has sealed up this vacuum, so anything that is a protest movement will be subject to severe, severe penetration by the government.

That’s what you should fear. The civil rights movement could maybe not have happened the way it happened. In other words, everything that’s positive for change, it comes up in social life. We need change in our life.

When those things happen, they won’t be able to happen because the government will be there to stamp down on it. It’s closer to George Orwell’s “1984” than ever.

Tavis: Yeah. Who knows what Kennedy would have done on Vietnam? We could debate for hours whether he would have gone this direction or that direction. We know what Johnson ultimately did, but we don’t know what Kennedy, obviously, would have done.

What we do know is that John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of State, fought in that war, and apparently – I didn’t see this, but I’m told that on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, David Gregory, the host, tried to get him to comment on a statement that he has apparently made where even he suggested he doesn’t believe that Oswald acted alone.

This is John Kerry, secretary of State. So this thing is still being debated all these years later.

Stone: Well, I think anybody who’s reasonable and looks at the evidence knows that there has to be at least two shooters – that Kennedy was shot from the front and the back. That’s incontestable to me.

Once you know that – and I don’t believe Oswald was in the window, but that doesn’t, that’s not the point. The point is there’s a guy at the fence, because the fence is the kill shot.

It’s the best shot if you’re in Dealey Plaza. You have to stand behind the fence to kill him. You have to get him in an ambush. It was a very well-done ambush, very precise shooting.

Not with some phony little Mannlicher-Carcano World War II weapon, the bolt-action that they came up with.

Tavis: Do you think – Obama as we know has received, for all the obvious reasons, more death threats than any president in the history of the nation.

Stone: Sure.

Tavis: Do you think it’s possible that something – my word here, not yours – that a conspiracy like what happened to Kennedy, if you believe that’s what happened, do you think something like that could happen today without us finding out about it in this age of technology and –

Stone: Be a lot hard, it’d be a lot harder. They got away with a lot in 1963. But I do think that you create an atmosphere around a president. When he gets elected, all of a sudden he moves from a grassroots man.

He takes the private option. He doesn’t go public; he takes the money from Wall Street, the computer companies. He gets into a cocoon with everyone around the president, especially these days, is a military person or a security person, an intelligence person.

He’s always being briefed, all day long. You get up in the morning, you hear about death threats against yourself, threats against your country, and you know that you’re going to be the president. On this watch if there’s a terrorist attack, you’re going to be blamed by the opposition.

So it becomes an increasingly rigidified bubble that you live in, and I would imagine the president, somewhere between the election and his inauguration, begins to think of the world in a two-dimensional way like Bush did.

You’re either part of them, or you’re part of us. Because he’s been promoting the empire, the national security state. His speeches to the Iraq war veterans was filled with all the lies that Bush told us.

Even today on the football game yesterday I saw, again, they were saying these are the Veterans Days and he served in Iraq on the war on terror. Well, you didn’t serve in Iraq on the war on terror. The war on terror was about Afghanistan, if you remember.

Iraq was a completely misinformed issue to the side, and wasn’t the war on terror. But they made it; now it’s all part of our vocabulary. We’re using Orwellian terms here. “War on terror” itself is a crazy expression for a very limited war.

Tavis: You don’t think that his presence or his policies has done anything to offend the Tea Party, to offend the right? The opposition to him – and I’m just pressing you on this.

I’m not saying I necessarily disagree that he hasn’t done nearly as much as we hoped he would have done, has not been progressive enough, not aggressive enough. I’m with you on that. But there is something that has caused the opposition –

Stone: I know what you’re saying.

Tavis: – to be so determined against him. So if it’s not that he hasn’t done something to offend them, then what’s the opposition about?

Stone: Well, I know what you’re saying, but I –

Tavis: It could be race. You tell me.

Stone: I really believe it’s Black.

Tavis: Okay. I’m just asking.

Stone: I think that has a lot to do with it. I don’t know why these Republican white people, frankly, the McConnells and the – they’re strange to me. It’s almost as if we’re in an apartheid state and they’re still fighting for the rights of whites in South Africa.

It’s like they’re scared, so they’ve figured out, with – remember, there’s Tom DeLay, who’s another one of those horrible white people that come along and they go back to –

Tavis: (Laughs) It’s funny to watch you say that.

Stone: No, just awful because they gerrymandered the states so that with this – they’ve taken democracy away from us.

Tavis: Sure.

Stone: How can Obama be elected by a million and a half votes in 2012 and have the House of Representatives so singularly Republican? That, to me, is a result of gerrymandering.

Also their stand on guns, their stand on white rights, the concept of blocking the voting of Blacks and Hispanics. It adds up. I would think that they’re very scared that this country is going to be “colored.”

Tavis: That’s what I was getting at. That’s what I was getting at, yeah. They’re threatened by something.

Stone: Yeah, (unintelligible).

Tavis: It may not be that he’s doing anything, but they are threatened by something.

Stone: But he is threatened by the fact that he is Black. That’s enough.

Tavis: Yeah. You referenced earlier, and I’ve got all this stuff here next to me, you referenced earlier “The Untold History of the United States.” The last time I saw you we were talking about this series. The series is complete now.

Stone: Thank God.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Stone: Twelve hours.

Tavis: Twelve hours. I saw most all of it, and it was, I thought, richly done. It’s out on DVD now, the entire set.

Stone: Finally, Blu-ray.

Tavis: Blu-ray, I said DVD.

Stone: DVD is download.

Tavis: Yeah, exactly. Excuse me, excuse me – talking to a director, you can’t make those kind of mistakes.

Stone: Nah, we’re not –

Tavis: I meant to say Blu-ray, yeah, yeah.

Stone: I wish it were on DVD. I’m fighting to get it on DVD, but Blu-ray’s very good, and good quality, certainly for archival footage.

Tavis: As you look back now on this project, I assume you were pleased with it.

Stone: It’s my life for five years. This my – it’s my love of this country from 19 – actually, from 1898. I was born in ’46; I’m not going to go too far.

But from the ’40s on, it accelerated into this national security state, and I really, I think we lost something. I think we really did, and I’d love to get it right. I’d love to have another generation, my kids, see this –

Tavis: Is it too late to get right?

Stone: No, it isn’t, it isn’t.

Tavis: We haven’t gone so far afield –

Stone: Maybe so –

Tavis: – that we can’t swing back?

Stone: I would like to believe we can, yes. I would like to believe there are good people. I think there are in this country, and put it this way. I was in the Soviet Union right before it fell in 1983 under communism. I was doing a screenplay about the dissidents who were fighting the regime.

The country was moribund – a huge gap. No incentives to work, the economy was dead, there was no compassion between people. Leadership was cynical. Who ever thought in 1983 that by 1986 it would start to shift?

That Gorbachev, who was a product of that system, would come up through that system and actually be an agent of change, as Obama said. So sometimes you don’t know.

That Soviet Union fell within seven years of my trip. So you never know, is what I’m saying. There could be a guy who comes up from inside our system who literally can do something.

Tavis: Every empire in the history of the world has at some point faltered or failed.

Stone: Yeah.

Tavis: I don’t know if it’s our arrogance or our hubris or our nationalism that won’t even allow us to consider that that could happen to us. But is that a possibility?

Stone: Well, I think it’s the main danger we face, is our own flaws. I remind you, Hitler in 1941 was at the peak. He believed the thousand-year Reich was going to work. He’d had success for seven, eight years.

He conquered all of Europe. He was ready to go into the east, into Russia. So he believed – and the German people were rich. The foodstuffs were coming in from all over Europe, best economy.

Who knew that that thing would start to fall by 1945? Three years. So don’t count yourself – the British Empire always thought before World War I that they would rule for, Britannia would rule the waves forever. It fell within two wars, within 30 years.

The United States, with overreach, with wars, with spending inordinate amount of money on military – 40 percent of our real spend is on military security. We go to – we have bases in 700 to 1,000 foreign bases, 6,000 bases at home. We spend too much on the military.

We don’t spend enough on children. Martin Luther King said we’re spending $350,000 for every Viet Cong we kill. We’re spending $50 for every poor person in this country. That’s insane.

That’s what we’re doing, we are militarizing every problem. We are not refreshing, rebuilding America, and we have to change our priorities. That’s what many good leaders have done – King, Kennedy, the other Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, they were talking that way.

Unfortunately, they were all rubbed out. So who’s going to start talking that way again? Simple terms.

Tavis: Speaking of Kennedy, let me conclude our conversation where we began this conversation. This thing’s got everything in it. Tell me what-all you’re giving us –

Stone: Well, we have the movie, the director’s cut, which is 20 minutes longer than the theatrical film. We have my commentary, we have “Chapter Six: JFK to the Brink,” from the “Untold History,” which is an update of the JFK history.

No assassination speculation. It’s all the facts of the Kennedy administration. We have “PT 109” by Cliff Robertson’s in it, a 1959 movie on Kennedy’s exploits in the South Pacific. Three documentaries, photos, speeches by Kennedy, et cetera.

Tavis: Oliver Stone’s got product, y’all. (Laughter) A whole lot of product, and it’s all good stuff so I’m always happy to have you on this program. I enjoy our conversations.

Stone: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, Oliver. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm