Last year, three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone made his 20th directorial outing with Snowden—a look at the life of former NSA consultant and whistleblower Edward Snowden. The film took Stone on numerous trips to Russia, where Snowden has lived in exile since 2013, which then led to a series of interviews with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The format is something Stone has used to great effect before in his documentaries about controversial politicians such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.
I can’t think of too many of your peers who would do something like travel to Russia to conduct interviews with Putin. How much of this came from the time you spent there with Edward Snowden?
I met Mr. P. over there, during one of those trips. I was introduced to him, and one of the earliest conversations we had was about Edward Snowden—because obviously, I’m fascinated by what happened, from his point of view. And sure enough, he was very forthright and honest, the way he speaks. As we talked, he told me the Snowden story from his point of view, which is in the film.
In the western media view we get of Putin, he comes off like a Bond villain. Why was all this important to you?
I think in the film, we did him the justice of putting his comments into a narrative that can explain his point of view, in the hopes that it would prevent continued misunderstanding between the countries, and trust, lack of trust, and—I fear—a near state of war, on the brink of war. That’s what I’m worried about, and that’s why I returned. We did four different visits after Snowden to get this on film. On every situation he talks about in the film, you’ll see there’s a different point of view than what we’ve been told.
Is this a documentary like the ones you made with Castro or Chávez?
It’s not a documentary in the sense that there, we examine the whole situation from two different points of view. No. It’s told from his point of view, which allows us to hear him in, I think, a pretty interesting way. For example, now you never see him on American television. Well, he did an interview with Charlie Rose for his show. It wasn’t bad, but it was short, and they dubbed him with an American interpreter who was a tough guy, almost like a baseball announcer. So everything [Putin] was saying in Russian, the dubber was making the words harsh, as opposed to the way he actually speaks. Putin speaks very clearly, very evenly. Doesn’t raise his voice. There’s a big difference already in the interpretation of what you’re getting. If you’re a guy who’s dubbed, and he’s talking like a Russian is supposed to talk, it’s quite a difference. That’s one example.
One thing you have to remember is that he’s popular in many countries, and not just Russia. He’s very popular in Germany, France, among many people—and he’s one of the most admired men—and for that matter, in a lot of Africa, a lot of Turkey, Syria, the Middle East. So you’re talking about a world figure here who we are constantly demeaning, treating him like he’s a con man and a murderer. As a character out of The Godfather, because maybe we like The Godfather.
We like that concept of villains, but it’s a very dangerous caricature when you’re dealing with world peace and the nuclear power that we have.
It’s reminiscent of when the Bush administration lumped every world leader that ran afoul of U.S. policy into that axis of evil, which meant no dialogue was necessary. Are you trying to demystify Putin as you tried to do with Castro and Chávez, with simple dialogue?
Very well said. Absolutely. And it’s important to do so. We are really creating a fear and a situation in the American mind that is very dangerous. All of a sudden, it’s conveniently shifting to, “Oh, forget about the war on terror. He’s the bad guy.”
Sean Penn went a long way through the jungles to interview El Chapo, trying to humanize a villainized cartel leader, and Penn himself was criticized for being in over his head. How do you come at these figures, knowing that if you allow them to come off too sympathetic, you’ll be the one who’s vilified for it?
Well, I don’t think like that. I don’t. If they come off too sympathetic, that’s really a manipulation. My intention is to get to the bottom. First of all, I prepare as well as I can, try to research as much as I can. I know what I’m talking about. They’ll pick up on it if you don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s the problem with some television interviews. The anchor is so busy running from one show to the other, he doesn’t really prepare. I got some good information, and I think he respected the fact that I knew my subject. And that I was talking to him with a genuine sense of curiosity.
Did Putin know your work as a director? Does he have a favorite Oliver Stone film?
Well, he knew I was doing the Snowden movie, and he knew I was very interested in it. He had seen some sections of my work. I never asked him what he liked, what he didn’t like, and so forth. Certainly in Russia, they admire the war movies, because they’ve been through a lot of war. I’m sure he saw Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. But I don’t know what he’s seen. I know that Untold History of the United States, which took five years, was very popular in Russia. It had a very strong view of World War II and the Cold War. And I think it did a very good job of demystifying that. I think he was aware of that.
Donald Trump recently said that he would meet Kim Jong-un in the right circumstances. Would one of these lengthy interview sit-downs with the North Korean leader appeal to you?
Frankly, I don’t do this for a living. You know, I rarely do this. The last time I did it was 2009, with Mr. Chávez. It’s not a living, it’s a curiosity. Also I think with the Korean leader, you have a danger there. Does he communicate at all? I don’t even know him, so I can’t say. Mr. Putin worried me. He’s stoic, and known as a reasonable man and a rational man, the way he talks. So sometimes you wonder, “Is there going to be any emotion in this thing?” You have the opposite of the Castro problem. So I’m dealing more with behavior. When you talk to a man or woman over a certain period of time, you do get behavior. And we got some very interesting body language. We walk, we talk, we’re in the woods, we’re in offices, we’re riding together in cars. There’s all kinds of scenes, which you’ll see.
When President Obama gave a break to Chelsea Manning, who leaked the documents to Julian Assange, did you think that maybe Snowden should’ve been dealt with in a similar way? Do you have an idea of what will happen to him?
No, I thought Snowden did a lot of interviews. He was very smart. I think he made his case transparent, to me. Everything he said about the journalists, and what he wanted to do, is what came across in the [documentary], in my film too. I think he’s very clear. I think certain people just didn’t ever pay attention to what he said. But you asked earlier about Sean Penn, and El Chapo. As I remember, that was not an interview, was it?
It almost seemed like an Apocalypse Now-style journey into the jungle—something Penn called “experiential journalism”.
Oh, I get it. It wasn’t at all what I’m doing. I’m filmed, I’m with a crew. From the beginning, it’s an official interview.
The reason I brought that up was because it didn’t work out the way Penn hoped it would. He was trying to look for common threads to someone who was viewed as a villain to all of us, but his questions seemed soft, on paper.
He might’ve protected himself by bringing a camera in that case, is what I want to say.
This is for Deadline’s Cannes issue. There was talk of taking Snowden being there last year. How much did that cost you, not going?
Well, we wanted to go to Cannes. It was an Open Road decision to bring [the release date forward] to September, and I think that was a mistake. They did a good job, but I think we would’ve had a lot more heat at Cannes because European critics ended up liking the film the most. In the U.S., we had mixed reviews, the usual mess. But we always knew that the U.S. would be more hostile to Snowden.
Your Wall Street sequel premiered at Cannes before its fall release, and seemed to suffer for it.
They should have released the film at the same time. That’s what Fox said, and I agree that they should have rolled it out then. But that was a different film, a different place. Snowden’s time was in Europe. He was most popular there. That’s where you go—you go where the heat is.
It feels like what studios want are either giant, global tentpoles, or micro-budget genre films. How different is it for you than when you came in the door years ago with a movie that sought to challenge audiences?
Well, those days are over, I think we all know that. Listen, Snowden was financed out of Europe. And basically this Putin documentary was financed out of Fernando Sulichin and his South American connections, as well as Europe. So it seems that I’m going to be working out of Europe for a while. I really believe in making good movies, and you have to piece together every one.
The changing landscape has brought about alternative outlets like Netflix, Amazon and Showtime, where your Putin interviews will be released. What changes excite you as a filmmaker?
You just become a TV film. And there’s a thousand of them, it seems all the time. It is a very crowded market, and I think you have to take your chances. But at least you get to film; hopefully you get to make what you want to. If you’re ending up working for some place where you’re just doing something you don’t even care about, my god, what suffering you’re going through. I don’t know what I’m going to do, after this. But it’s always tough. I don’t even know who the studio chiefs are anymore. They don’t even know me. Probably, they’ve forgotten who I was. They don’t have good memories beyond a year or two.
Then again, how easy would it have been for you to make Platoon if you hadn’t distinguished yourself as a writer of commercial dramas? How tough was that movie to get financed back in the day?
Don’t forget, it was passed on by every studio. It was made by a British independent filmmaker called John Daly. Don’t ever forget that. I won’t. And Salvador too. So I got into this business at the low end of the spectrum on a very low-budget film. I never really had a Hollywood base. My best deal I ever had for a few years was at Warner Bros. It’s where I made a few films, because Terry [Semel] and Bob [Daly] were more sympathetic to my views than anyone. But I make one film here, one film there. I’ve never had a home beyond Warner Bros. for that brief period of time. Platoon was rejected everywhere, and Salvador was too—it would never have been made now.
My first studio film, as a writer, I connected with Midnight Express, and even that was very low-budget. Scarface was not well-reviewed, and didn’t do that well. It was always tough for me to get films made in that system, but it was easier then than it is now. If you wrote the most brilliant film with real characters, it would not be made, probably because it would be considered to have not enough action. So it’s never easy. I’ve never looked to them for a solution, and thankfully I’m still working. I’m 70 years old.
What fuels you now?
I feel like I have my own life on the side. And I feel very strongly about war and the path to war. I think that there’s an internal war in the United States right now. There’s a very small peace party, and a very large war party. I’m very worried about it. I do not want to have our lives ended or shattered in any way by this constant belligerence we bring to the world, whether it’s Korea, whether it’s China, whether it’s Russia. We keep making statements like we’re in charge and we’re the bully.
We have to realize that other countries want their sovereignty. We can’t be like this. We really are no longer a uni-polar power—we cannot act like it. [We were] the top boss, that was brief, and that was in the 1990s, and we blew it by attacking Iraq twice. We think we run the world. As a young man, I was very conservative; I grew up that way. But Vietnam and the other wars have taught me that we can’t run the world this way.
What would be the alternative?
The alternative is a multi-polar world, taking into the account the interest of other countries and the sovereignty of other countries. That includes Iran, China and Syria. These countries are legitimate countries, with sovereignty of their own. And Iraq, too. We undermined Iraq’s sovereignty. It’s a wreck now. And Libya too, don’t forget Libya. We’re responsible for that. We brought chaos to this world, in the Middle East especially, and it’s engulfed us. All these refugees, that’s our fault. I’m sorry, don’t get me going here.
Is there a project on your bucket list?
Yes. Something I’ve been writing over a period of time, that I very much care for and hope I can do one day. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s a drama. It’s personal.