Filmmaker Interview: Robert Stone
In 2004, filmmaker Robert Stone gave this interview to the San Francisco International Film Festival's Schools at the Festival program. In it, he discusses his approach to making Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, and offers his ideas about why the story is compelling in the post-September 11th world.
Why do you think, after all these years, Russ Little chose to speak with you?
Well, Russ has never spoken to anyone about this. In fact he lives under a different name and I still don't know his exact address. We had to meet at what you might call "an undisclosed location" to conduct the interview. The reason Russ decided to talk to me, oddly enough, came about because Bill Harris (aka General Teko) felt he couldn't speak to me because of the legal jeopardy he was in at the time — we're talking late 2000, early 2001 — over the reopening of the Myrna Opsahl murder case. I had managed to get a meeting with Bill because my production manager turned out to know an old friend of his — who could have guessed we had three degrees of separation? After many long talks in which I told Bill about my plans for the film, Bill finally called Russ and said, "This guy's OK, you should talk to him." So that's really how it came about.
What does Russ have to lose by "coming out"?
Probably more now than at the time when the interview was conducted. I think in this current post-9/11 climate he might find that people who know him will be upset to find that he was once branded a "terrorist" and spent time in prison for it. He values his privacy and the new life he's created for himself, so to come out now and talk publicly about his experience with the Symbionese Liberation Army (S.L.A.) is probably going to punch a hole in that. I think he came forward out of loyalty to his friends and out of a desire to try to set the record straight. At least that's how he's explained it to me.
Patricia Hearst's abduction by and subsequent involvement with the S.L.A. is of course a huge part of this story, yet there's no interview with her in the film. Why?
Good question. First of all, I felt that she has already told her story. Whatever anybody knows about this saga, they know from her telling of it, both through her best-selling book Every Secret Thing, Paul Schrader's wildly underrated film that was based on it, Patty Hearst, and her various appearances on TV talk shows over the years. Also, I think there's been this mistaken assumption that what happened to her must have something to do with who she is as a person, and that therefore the more you know about her the closer you will get to the so-called truth of the story. It's a path taken by most of those who've tried to crack this story and I think it leads nowhere.
Just because something extraordinary happens to a person does not necessarily mean the person involved is extraordinary. How many examples of that do we have floating around in the media at any given moment? One of the fascinating things about this is that it could probably have happened to almost anyone. And I think Patricia Hearst would be the first to agree with that.
So I wanted to take a different approach. I was first and foremost interested in the S.L.A. and how this small band of kids managed to capture the attention of the entire country, if not world. Having said that, there was enormous pressure on me, dating back to my first attempts to raise money for this project in 1994, to get an interview with Patty Hearst. And I did at one point try to get one just to satisfy my potential backers, but she refused. The last scene in the film kind of addresses the whole question in a way that I think speaks for itself.
Does the film take a position on whether or not Hearst was brainwashed?
What does it really mean to be brainwashed? We tend to think of someone walking around in some zombie-like state, responding to orders like a robot — a "Manchurian Candidate" kind of thing. The whole term brainwashing I think is kind of a catch-all phrase to explain a whole range of extremely complicated and uncomfortable aspects of human psychology. We all like to think of ourselves as individuals acting on our own free will. In some ways we are but we also tend to think the way people around us think. How else to explain Nazi Germany or the Cultural Revolution in China or any number of other manifestations of what one might call mass brainwashing? George Bush's popularity comes to mind. So-called sanity or rationality is a relative thing that's often socially defined. So I don't think the question of whether or not she was brainwashed really gets you anywhere.
My belief is that the S.L.A. can best be understood as a cult. You could argue that, for a time, all of them were brainwashed to one degree or another, in that they all stumbled off into this fantasy world that had less and less bearing on reality. It's almost like they brainwashed themselves. But as you can see, the more we use the term in this way, the less useful it is in explaining anything. Patricia Hearst undoubtedly got caught up in their fantasy, so the question then remains as to whether it was voluntary or not. But again, what does that mean? Well, she was kidnapped against her will, so you could say that everything she did after that was involuntary. But you could just as easily conclude that she willingly joined their cause, which is what the jury believed and is why she was sentenced to serve seven years in prison. So it's not that I don't take a position on it, it's just that I think it's the wrong question to be asking. It's only useful in terms of saying, Oh this could never happen to me. Who wants to think that they could be turned into a terrorist?
One of the things I loved about the film was your use of archival footage, some of it so familiar that it's iconic. The footage depicting the riots around the food trucks was shocking. Tell us where you found this stuff, how long you searched for it, and what your methodology was for choosing one set of pictures over another?
When I began this project I had no idea how much of this material survived. When local news stations switched over to video in the mid-to-late 1970s, most of the film material they had in their vaults was disposed of as garbage. This happened throughout the country and a great deal of our history has been lost as a result. In San Francisco and also in Sacramento there were some efforts to archive a lot of this material, perhaps because of the important role the Bay Area played in the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. Even so, the biggest single archival coup I had, the thing that really made it possible to make this film as a feature-length production, came about because of the efforts of a man named Guy Morrison.
Guy Morrison had been an archivist at one of the best local news stations in San Francisco. When they ordered him to dispose of the contents of their film vault back in the early 1980s, he got permission to haul it away himself. He stuffed thousands of cans of 16mm news outtakes in a storage locker in Marin County. And there it sat. When I came across it, the collection was in real chaos but it did include an extraordinary record of the media frenzy surrounding the S.L.A. and the Hearst kidnapping — much of which had never been seen before.
Now, the way I've always approached these kinds of projects is to see what's out there and then to construct my film around what I find. In most of my films the archival material is as much a subject of the film as it is a means of telling the story. In this case, how the media was captivated — or one might say held captive — by the exploits of the S.L.A. is a central theme of the film, and the footage of that media frenzy is a big part of what makes the film really tick along. Anyway, it's an example of how you never know where things are going to turn up until you hit the road and start hunting. The bulk of the archival research was done in about six month and came from dozens of sources, but I continued to find things throughout the three years it took to make the film.
Your film is entertaining to watch. Indeed, some of the first images we see are from movies like Robin Hood. You've said that the story of the S.L.A. is "humorous." What is it about this story that's funny?
I think one of the most amazing things about the S.L.A. was their ability to dictate the terms of how they were perceived, by the Hearst family, by the media, and by the public at large. They used terms like "prisoner of war," "held under the terms of the Geneva Conventions," "War Council," "Intelligence Unit," "Anti-Aircraft Forces of the S.L.A.," "captured S.L.A. soldiers," all this rhetorical [expletive] that imagined the S.L.A. as spearheading some vast underground guerrilla movement. And all of this was copped to by the establishment in a way that both flattered and emboldened the S.L.A. to the point that they actually came to believe their own rhetoric. As a fantasy it's undoubtedly a lot of fun to think of oneself as an armed crusader for justice doing battle against an evil empire. It's the subject of most video games today and it was the subject of the movies depicted in the film that helped to inspire the S.L.A.
But the S.L.A. was living out this fantasy with live ammunition, and the lengths to which they went to articulate and to rationalize it are really quite funny, as well as being tragic in terms of the loss of life. And knowing what the S.L.A. really consisted of, it's also quite funny to watch what we made of them. That's one of the lessons in all this in terms of what's going on today. Terrorism feeds on fear, it feeds on the imagination; on the fear of what might happen. It taps into some deep dark soul of the human psyche that the media, from a purely financial perspective, will always find irresistible because we have a hunger for it. In that way the story of the S.L.A. is an object lesson in how not to react to political terrorism.
You've said that that the political extremism we see in the film was seductive. Is it still today?
Sure it is. We have an entire television channel in the United States that's virtually devoted to recounting the most infamous example of political extremism in the 20th century. It's called the History Channel, which is mostly, as far as I can tell, "all Nazisall the time." People love this stuff, or rather they love to hate it. And I would go even further and say that I think people long for a way to see the world in black and white, good and evil. Most people abhor ambiguity because you have to really inform yourself and struggle to make sense of things from a variety of perspectives. Political extremism, however you want to define it, is seductive because its prerequisite is the absence of doubt.
I don't think young people today are as prone to activism as they were during the era depicted in your film. But we're seeing a protracted war in Iraq that's losing popularity, a new election year is coming up and the pendulum may be swinging in a new direction. What do you hope young people will come away with when they see this film?
I hope that young people will see this film and enjoy it, first of all, because it's entertaining and it's a good story, not because it's good for them. But I do hope they'll come away with the idea that you don't change the world by appealing only to those who think exactly as you do. And you don't change the world through acts of violence. The greatest and most effective social activist of my lifetime has been Dr. Martin Luther King. Why? Because he reached out through non-violence to those who most opposed him and succeeded in turning them around.
The S.L.A. can be seen as the last gasp of the social and political upheaval known collectively as the Sixties and in that way their story is an interesting window into that time and place. Their rise and fall is like watching a slow-motion train wreck in which the whole movement is taken to its logical (or perhaps illogical) conclusion and then explodes in a burst of violence. As Mike Bortin says in the film in reference to the whole fascination with the Hearst kidnapping and the way it gripped the country, "It was like compressing matter." I think what he's saying is that the Hearst kidnapping became a prism through which everyone, left and right, young and old, struggled to understand what had happened to America's younger generation during the previous ten years.
After that, what we think of as the generation of the sixties kind of disappeared into a blur of disco and cocaine. The revolution, if it ever existed, was over. So hopefully the film will serve as another kind of object lesson, not only about how not to react to terrorism, but how not to go about making a better world.
Which brings me to one last point I'd like to make. In a weird way I can sympathize with a lot of what the S.L.A. tried to articulate about our materialistic society and consumer culture. But it was framed in such over-the-top paranoid crazy rhetoric, and hammered home through such idiotic acts of violence, that they undermined any real message they might have had. Through force of arms and a great deal of flamboyance and political savvy, they captured the attention of the world, and then had absolutely nothing to say.
The same could be said for any number of radical organizations stalking the globe these days. Does Osama bin Laden make any sense? What does he want? Who knows? Then why are we letting him dictate the terms of the debate? Perhaps it's because he refuses to be ignored. Perhaps it's because he, and everything he's managed to bring about, gets good ratings. If we really want to understand the power of terrorism, we need to look inside ourselves. Terrorism is a ridiculous failure at everything except getting attention. I think that's the real lesson of this story.