The Untold History of the United States: Oliver Stone Q&A

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Oliver Stone met Movie Fanatic and a small group of reporters at the Burbank offices of Warner Bros. to talk about his 12-part documentary series The Untold History of the United States. Stone co-wrote the series with historians Peter Kuznick and Matt Graham. The film was directed and narrated by Stone, and to say it is a passion project for the man who brought us JFK, The Doors, Natural Born Killers, Wall Street and Platoon… is an understatement.

Oliver Stone Savages Set

In our Q&A, Stone talked about the need for the “true” history of our great country to be told, how he is perceived in Hollywood in terms of his views on history and historical figures (such as portrayed in his films JFK, W. and Nixon) as well as how the documentary -- now out on DVD and Blu-Ray -- has the great potential to fill in the blanks in our history books.

Movie Fanatic: As you’re preparing a massive 12-part series like this, is it tough not to succumb to a degree of cynicism when you’re looking back? 

Oliver Stone: We’re back to Jim Crow. They’re all in jail. Ballot security is more important than anything in this country. When you have a voter ID in twenty-something states, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, there’s a lot of (expletive) going on and this Tea Party thing is white supremacy in a way.

Movie Fanatic: Is The Untold History of the United States your way of getting the discussion going about the lessons of the past as they pertain to our present and future?  

Oliver Stone: I think we should talk about it, write about it. By exercising our ability to think and choose, we can go out there and protest. This is a very bad time. This country has always been in crisis since I remember. I suppose I’m sticking around to see what happens. The tension of this evil empire persists and gives me interest as a dramatist. Militarily, we’re really strong. The question is whether we can keep this economically and morally. Martin Luther King had something when he said we have soul force. Can we do this with an honest face? Can we keep lying to ourselves?

Movie Fanatic: The Untold History of the United States shows how history has generally given government lies a free pass. Are we at a point where people are finally going to stand up and do something about it?

Oliver Stone: That's a huge question and, again, a reason to stick around. Obviously the American people are for the most part uneducated because television keeps them that way. They believe Obamacare is still death panels. They don’t have the correct information. So it’s very easy to keep people in the dark. Fox news does a great job of that. Yeah, it is a critical time. It’s always been a critical time, because they’ve been fighting for power since the beginning of mankind. The empire will either grow or fall. We’ll see.

Movie Fanatic: In Untold History, you use lots of fictional films to illustrate points about certain times in history. How did you choose what films to showcase and why use them at all?

Oliver Stone: Because when you look at long swatches of archive film, you can really fall asleep [laughs]. It's how do you make this less boring? I wanted to make it exciting, and the narrative had to constantly be re-written. The movie idea came naturally because we're talking about the culture, about the perception of things throughout the series. So why not use movies? We had no interviews. I hate interviews because they really would have killed this. It would have slowed it down sufficiently. So we went with that.

Movie Fanatic: Love the use of Capra… and Stallone in Rambo!

Oliver Stone: Ah, Stallone, you have to put him in because he is such a force in the 1980s. It controlled public perception that Afghanistan was the evil Soviet empire. In Vietnam, we had to go back and get the POWs. It's so important. Film just reaches out and it hits so many people in the guts. It becomes emotional in America. Also, don't forget the importance to George Bush of Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. Black Hawk Down had a huge impact as did Saving Private Ryan -- huge Impact on the culture in the '90s, at a time when we didn't have that enemy anymore, the Soviet Union. So these films kind of filled a need.

Movie Fanatic: As a filmmaker, what are the chief differences between documenting history as you do in this documentary and dramatizing history as you do in JFK?

Oliver Stone: Huge difference. You have actors. You have sets. You have a script. This is all raw. All you have is the archive footage, and Peter Kuznick who is a historian. I'm a dramatist. We're coming together. I'm trying to simplify it down to a dramatic formula that could work. I wanted to make documentaries exciting.

Movie Fanatic: When pulling together The Untold History of the United States, where do you draw the line between a healthy degree of skepticism and just conspiracy mongering? Because there are people that still believe that Obama was not born in America.

An Untold History of the United States Poster

Oliver Stone: Yeah, and some people believe I’m nuts to say that Kennedy was killed by the US government, by CIA elements. Where do you draw the line? You present your case. I think that Obama presented his case effectively that he was born in Hawaii [laughs], and I think we presented our case effectively. Whether it was reported so, I can’t say. But the media has a huge role to play and, as you know, we saw in the Snowden case, the WikiLeaks case (as shown in The Fifth Estate trailer), and we see in the constant battle between the whistleblower and the government that we’re still fighting for the right to report correctly. That’s a huge battle.

Movie Fanatic: While making Untold History of the United States, did your opinion change on any of your historical dramas like JFK or Nixon?

Oliver Stone: No, actually. I think Nixon, JFK, and W. do hold up. So does Salvador as a film.

Movie Fanatic: The movie and the book both kind of end on a question mark as far as Obama is concerned. Do you think there’s hope that he will prevail?

Oliver Stone: I hope so. It says in the series that “history has taught us that the curve of the ball…is something that we never know.” I forgot exactly the quote, but it’s a beautiful quote. We didn’t know about the fall of the Soviet Union. We didn’t see it coming. I was shocked. We all were. It was a beautiful moment and we had a moment of peace, of potential peace. We had hopes for Obama, for reform. Henry Wallace we had tremendous hopes for. There are all these moments in history. If Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated in Daley Plaza he would have won that election. That was a huge deal, a huge deal because that second term would have freed him up in a way. All these things can change, so we don’t know.

Movie Fanatic: If somebody reads your book, sees your series and has a desire to change things, what do you hope people do?

Oliver Stone: Learn, educate, join groups, protests, write your congressman -- do all that (expletive). Do everything you can within reasons of your... the limits of your energies. You should write about it; you could be an enlightened critic.

Movie Fanatic: You’ve said that you made The Untold History of the United States to understand the times you’ve lived through. Have you always approached your work that way?

Oliver Stone: Not so consciously as I did here. In 2008, I’d had enough. I’d seen this behavior through all my films. Each film was a different subject, but how do you bring it all together? How do you explain it? That’s why I did this. 

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