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Oliver Stone On The Turbulent Coming Of Age Of A Legendary Filmmaker In ‘Chasing The Light’: Exclusive Excerpts

When Oliver Stone interviewed for a Deadline The Film That Lit My Fuse timed with the release of his memoir Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador and the Movie Game, the three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker gave Deadline permission to provide our readers with a few passages from the book that was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

A dishy coming of age of a filmmaker tale, Chasing the Light is a lively read that describes how the idyllic childhood of a boy raised in privilege was fractured by the divorce of his beloved parents. It sends him on a mission of self discovery that leads him to the jungles of Vietnam, from which he brought back an intensity that served him in the classrooms of NYU Film School, learning from formative influences like Martin Scorsese. The book is rich in anecdotes about a period when the film business was a stomping ground for auteurs, and Stone quickly channeled his inner rage into screenplays, and eventually got to direct his writing. It was hardly a smooth ride; a chart of his ups and downs resembles an EKG.

The Film That Lit My Fuse: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone Chasing The Light
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

If you like what you read here – trust me, it barely scratches the surface of recollections and hard lessons learned – here is a way to buy the book and read the whole thing.

What follows are three passages that discuss the perils of trying to do close-to-the-flame research to find an ‘80s cartel context for a remake of the 1930s gangster tale Scarface, and Stone’s efforts to find the right mix of actors to bring to life the memories of actual soldiers and commanders he served with in Vietnam for Platoon, the film that would emerge from development hell to win the Best Picture Oscar. But first, Stone describes the limits facing powerless screenwriters, before he became a director. His  momentum as the writer of the buzzy Midnight Express – which would bring his first Oscar for screenwriting — was not enough to get made Born on the Fourth of July, his script about wounded soldier-turned-antiwar activist Ron Kovic. William Friedkin was ready to direct Al Pacino for a glimmer, but the project cratered, and the futility was a heartbreaking setback for Stone, because it crushed the hopes of wheelchair-bound Ron Kovic to see his story told. The setback was not dissimilar to Stone’s experience on his script for Platoon, the autobiographical account of his time in the Vietnam jungles as an enlisted grunt alongside the real soldiers and commanders who kept him alive, including Sergeants Barnes and Elias. It would take years before Stone turned both scripts into career milestones, directing them himself.


‘Midnight Express’, A Career-Changing Script Fueled By Stone’s Inner Rage

The offer to write Born on the Fourth of July immediately came from Marty Bregman in New York. Although he hadn’t made Platoon, Bregman knew in his bones Born on the Fourth was right for Pacino, and he knew I was the one to write it. Marty was a great salesman, a 1930s Jewish kid from the Bronx who hauled his polio-weakened legs around on braces and wielded his cane like a weapon of war. His strength was clear, compounded by his New York accent and an edge of anger: “Don’t cross me, kid, or I’ll break you.” He was also dark and handsome like Bugsy Siegel — altogether a dramatic persona you don’t forget. He’d become a major figure in my life, both good and bad, but right now I was “his boy.”

He felt he’d discovered me with Platoon, and he’d test me to my limits with Born. He’d optioned the book by Ron Kovic in the centennial year of 1976, when it emerged to a front-page rave in the New York Times Book Review. It followed the agonizing story of an all-American Long Island boy who grows up in a large family defined by an unthinking patriotism, joins the marines, and is terribly wounded in Vietnam. The heart of the book is about how Kovic adjusts to his life turned upside down. There’d already been an adaptation developed by a hot young writer who’d never lived through something similar, and it skewed in all the ways “intellectuals” think of war. I knew I could do it, but I didn’t want to. I was scared. I didn’t want to identify with this boy’s suffering. And besides, the writing of it, the production itself, would be so traumatic and difficult to achieve — I foresaw rewrite after rewrite under the painstaking Bregman. You suffer too much with a producer like that, but sometimes— not always — you get to a higher place. And sometimes you end up a broken, masochistic lump of despair. Marty was good with a script, no question, but he was also, less happily as I would find out, a major “control freak.”

The story was epic, encompassing 1950s suburbia through Vietnam and Kovic’s return into the 1970s — twenty years of American life. I actually had written a return from Vietnam story in ’69–’70 about a young one-armed veteran who gets into trouble with the law — Once Too Much. It was a cautionary screenplay with Sam Peckinpah–like violence. But it wasn’t right, too melodramatic; the truth was better. When I first met Ron Kovic in his wheelchair on his thirty-first birthday, July 4, 1977, at the Sidewalk Café in Venice, California, he was like his book — painfully blunt, poetically so, his words softened by his gentle voice and tender eyes. He was a handsome man with a thick black mustache like my French grandfather’s, and piercing black eyes full of sensitivity and perception, his mind on fire. His compassion was mixed with great anger. I realized here was the story — a tortured monument of a human being right in front of my eyes. This would be Al Pacino. We talked for two hours, and I knew he was my anchor for the screenplay, that I could be “safe” with Ron — that I wouldn’t fail. Coincidentally, when I first arrived, Ron had been talking to a group of veterans on the busy terrace, among them an Irish American journalist who’d been in Vietnam and told me a little of his own amazing story. Richard Boyle was a personality as outsized as Ron; I would file his tale away and, years later, actually return to it as the basis for my film that became Salvador. Two films were born that propitious day.

When Billy Friedkin fell in as the director of the Kovic movie, all the pieces fit. Along with Francis Coppola, Friedkin was in the top tier of new Hollywood directors. Apart from the older quality filmmakers like Kazan, Jewison, Pollack, Lumet, George Roy Hill, Mike Nichols, then on everybody’s list, there was a new breed of films around with directors like Spielberg and Lucas — but Friedkin and Coppola were then working at higher altitudes with no net. After making two monstrous successes with The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin had suddenly failed at the box office in 1977 with the expensive Sorcerer, and Born on the Fourth of July was the perfect choice, to my mind, for him to do his penance. Bregman flew me to Paris, where Friedkin, along with his wife, the great French actress Jeanne Moreau, was licking his wounds as many offers were being thrown at him.

Friedkin came to our suite at the luxurious Plaza Athénée, the preferred base for filmcentric Americans abroad. He seemed like a lanky, basketball-playing teenager, determinedly American with his Chicago accent, intent, concentrated. It was that famous concentration I sensed in his films. You can know a director’s mind by watching his film unfold — the pace, the reasoning, the emotion. In two long sessions, Billy lived up to his reputation for analysis, getting to the dramatic point on our second day.

In 1976 my income had been $14,000, but in 1977 it shot up to $115,000. What a year I’d had. This train was moving fast.

Kovic’s book was written in a dreamy, time-fractured, impressionist style, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, beautiful on paper and very moving, but probably disorienting and confusing to an audience trying to absorb the visual story points; the audience never really knows the story as well as the filmmakers do, and they can lose the surface thread easily if they have to think “Who is this? Where am I? What happened to that other character?” while still trying to follow the basic storyline.

Friedkin exclaimed, “Oliver, forget all this jumping around in time — tell it in order . . . literally. Just cut the bullshit. The film’s corny Americana— but make it good corn.” And that, in essence, solved my dilemma. Because it made me back up and start at the beginning — in Massapequa, Long Island, in the backyard, playing baseball in the 1950s, the long summer days. I returned to my new one-bedroom condominium with a small terrace on the twenty-fourth floor, overlooking West Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard in all its laid-back decadence. It was clean, modern, sterile— but it was mine. I was offered $50,000 against $100K on Born with a small net backend, and I prepared myself to write, going to screening rooms (in pre-video days) to watch classics such as Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Additionally, Midnight began shooting in September of ’77, which brought in more money, and for the first time, I was deluged with offers to write quality material for directors like Richard Lester and Fred Zinnemann — six quality offers in my first ten days back in LA. I soon found a business manager for life in Steve Pines from the Bronx, who guided me in how to handle an abundance of money I’d never seen before. There was reason to be optimistic. In 1976 my income had been $14,000, but in 1977 it shot up to $115,000. What a year I’d had. This train was moving fast.

I worked faithfully for months with Kovic, reliving his rise, fall, rise again. It was at times so difficult for him; he’d act out entire scenes for me in his head, sometimes crying quietly from the pain remembered. His young life on Long Island, the isolation of the veterans’ hospital, the alienation of coming home, the lack of contact with his past, his old friends from school, a desire to flee to Mexico. A scene with his devastated Polish Catholic mother and working-class father, or confessing he’d shot his own man. He’d go there in his eyes; I’d follow. It was difficult to watch and share. Every moment anchored to that wheelchair was an echo chamber for Ron, every sound, every feeling existing “from here to eternity.” He was obsessed, overly so I felt then, because in my American upbringing, strong emotions were supposed to be kept in check. One couldn’t make everything in a movie hyper; proportion was necessary. But what else could Ron be? He’d been driven crazy by this wound to his spine— half-dead the rest of his life. When later I studied Buddhism and they talked of “mindfulness” as a supreme virtue in this life, I thought of Ron and the necessity of staying in his mind to survive. So many vets in wheelchairs died early because they wanted so badly to get out of that confinement through drinking, drugs, excess, whatever. I would have. I would have died.

Clearly I was deeply influenced by Ron — his power, his integrity. He was far more mature than I; he had to be after a thousand nights in a Bronx hospital bed. Despite some major setbacks, he’d stayed sane through his suffering and become the most compassionate human being I’d yet met. My father’s sarcastic side, which had rubbed off on me, didn’t always register with Ron until he began to understand me. The first time we went to his hometown, Massapequa, Long Island, and I saw the cramped rooms he grew up in, I was taken aback by the low-cost 1950s postwar housing, which was built far smaller than I was accustomed to. I gently mocked his favorite restaurant in town— Tony’s, a meatball and spaghetti joint, red tablecloths and dripping wax candles. I’d dined in some better New York Italian places, and when I took “Ronnie,” as I came to call him endearingly, to these places, he made sure to tell me he preferred Tony’s in Massapequa. Ron was everything I hadn’t been growing up in 1950s New York — a Boy Scout, baseball star, wrestler; he had several brothers and sisters, his dad was a grocery store manager at the A&P, his mom regularly went to church and hung crucifixes on the walls of their home. He was a true believer, and the call to serve from President Kennedy’s inauguration speech in 1961 deeply moved him. So much so that when he graduated from high school, he volunteered for the marines in Vietnam. In contrast, I’d admired Barry Goldwater, the conservative candidate in ’64, for his straight-talking ways — a by-product of my dad’s influence. He had preferred Nixon in 1960 and thought Kennedy was another untrustworthy “egghead” Democrat without solid experience.

Ron Kovic
Ron Kovic in 1981 AP Photo/Wally Fong

Ron, among others, changed me. His story, unlike my own, was mainstream American and could touch the world if there was such a thing as a collective heart. Ron introduced me to a network of veterans living in Los Angeles, helping one another. There was a lonely desperation to these men. I had avoided them; the reunion thing chilled me, as well as the thought of getting together with other vets to feel sorry for ourselves. But to my surprise, these raw encounters allowed me to feel truly the collective experience we’d been through. This calmed me, and in later years I made an effort to go to my own school reunions, as well as reconnect with several veterans in different states. I was, in my way, exorcising Vietnam by talking about it with others, not dismissing it as I had for years. The films I would make helped that process, and as time went on, I’d meet veterans and others in national political groups, speaking openly about the folly of that war.There was hope at that time in the 1970s — it seemed there’d be no more Vietnams. It was possible we could actually learn something from that war. And until Reagan in 1980, no leading figure would defend its purpose.

Meanwhile, word of mouth for Midnight Express was growing in Europe. The film was shown to an electric response at Cannes in May ’78, where it became an immediate scandal when audiences were shocked by its intense and unpredictable violence. The Turkish government objected loudly and formally to its depiction in the film. (Turkey’s tourist revenue, in fact, would end up taking a significant dive.) Critics were divided, but the ones who loved it gave it box office reviews. I wished I’d been invited to Cannes, but clearly [director Alan] Parker did not want me there. But even from afar, it was my first experience of a “hit” of any kind — it goes faster than I’d ever imagined. The moment it was shown in Cannes, and then all the little screening rooms in all the cities worldwide where prints and labs existed, it was talked about, whispered about, it was hot — it was on lips and in eyes. Movie exhibitors and distributors took up the echo: “Have you seen Midnight Express yet?” And without waiting for an answer, the person on the receiving end knows — good or bad, it’s simply “to be seen.” This is the role of “Did you see?” It’s rule number one, I’ve come to learn, and it isn’t logical. It never is. Every filmmaker knows if he’s experienced it, and at the same time, every one of us knows, no matter how hard you’ve tried, it makes no difference whether someone likes it or doesn’t like it, as long as they see it and are talking about it.

And not some praiseworthy film no one really wants to see. People wanted to see Midnight Express because it was simply on fire.

Back in the US, in spite of this heartening news from abroad, I’d failed to anticipate the difficulties in store for Born. Pacino and Friedkin both professed to “love” the script. But there was a pause as the studio read it. “Was it commercial? A wheelchair film? Even with Al Pacino?” There was another Vietnam film in the pipeline, Jane Fonda’s Coming Home, which many thought was a similar story, especially as the filmmakers had interviewed Ron Kovic extensively before his book was published. But Coming Home was a relationship movie with Fonda as the puzzled, hurt wife of Bruce Dern, returning from combat, unrecognizably alienated, and committing suicide; parallel to this storyline is Fonda’s growing attraction to Jon Voight as an angry paralyzed vet at the hospital where she volunteers. It was a strong film from Hal Ashby, and it won acting Oscars that year for Fonda and Voight — but it wasn’t going to make any money, and that is the cruelest bottom line in Hollywood, always has been. You can “talk” all you want about a film, but it’s just “talk,” not money. And who really wanted to see a paraplegic veteran who can’t fuck Jane Fonda and yells out his anger at a world that’s betrayed him?

Friedkin gave up early on the making of Born. Perhaps he knew something I didn’t — that Marty Bregman couldn’t get it properly financed. He chose instead to direct Dino De Laurentiis’s The Brink’s Job about an armored car robbery, which turned out to be forgettable. I was furious at Billy for giving up and “selling out,” and wrote him a passionate note asking him to reconsider. Sadly, he never rose again to the heights of his early success.

Al Pacino in 1978 AP Photo

I poured my remaining hopes into Al and Marty’s replacement director, Dan Petrie. He was a compromise choice, a veteran mostly of TV films who would later make the excellent Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) with Paul Newman, but he had the placid personality of an insurance executive putting out fires— no crisis here. So with Petrie in, Bregman had gone out and successfully raised German tax shelter financing of some $6 million, and on that basis Universal agreed to distribute the film. We plunged into rehearsals, theater-style, for two long weeks with Al and a fully cast film in a Broadway-area studio. As with Robert Bolt, I went back to Screenwriting 101, forcing myself to reexamine each word, nuance, scene, at times embarrassed by my work, constantly rewriting to accommodate Dan and the actors. Best of all, I watched a white-hot Pacino doing a modern version of Richard III in a wheelchair, ripping the world apart for its robbery of all he held dear. Al was truly a remarkable actor, and Lindsay Crouse was powerfully real as his girlfriend; she made the written words come off the page in ways that surprised me (“Did I write that?”). The same was true of Lois Smith as his mother and Steven Hill as his father. I was so proud, so excited, yet I knew, without acknowledging it, that Al was now a thirty-eight-year-old man. He was, in truth, a theatrical Ron Kovic. It would certainly have worked for the film’s later scenes, but he’d never be seventeen or twenty-one again, evoking that mood of So bye-bye, Miss American Pie, Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.

We were so close — a week or two from location shooting in Massapequa — when the German tax shelter financing collapsed. It often happens like that on a film, dramatic throughout. But to see everything actually crash down and disappear in a day after months of intense work is devastating. Suddenly, our cast and company were wandering around in a daze as we somehow expected Bregman to find an alternative source of money. But it wasn’t happening. I took it personally, so ashamed. No one wanted this film, even with the magnificent Pacino. No one had seen what two dozen of us had seen in that rehearsal hall, how brightly, despite his age, the light of true greatness had shone on Al, who never felt he was too old for the part. Stories had it that Al had lost confidence in Dan as a director; in those days, Al was extremely suspicious and tough on directors he hadn’t previously worked with, trusting mostly his own instinct. Soon we all stopped coming to the rehearsal hall, and the prep week to start locations on Long Island was canceled. Al playing seventeen and going to the prom was going to be a stretch anyway. Our company, which had been so close, simply dissolved. Nothing to do, no place to go in the mornings, no film. Marty’s office was a tomb. He’d aged a lot in these weeks. Al was then rumored to have accepted Norman Jewison’s . . . And Justice for All (1979) as his next film. Nor would he return Ron’s or my calls. Nor, for that matter, did he return Bregman’s calls. It was over.

Ron was broken apart for weeks— months, really — and couldn’t help but turn some of that rage on me for giving him hope. And truth be told, Ron had become a little “glamorized” by his Hollywood hopes, and at times I’d grow irritated with him for “falling for this shit” where you believe a picture’s made before it really is. One night, back in Los Angeles, we argued ferociously. Pissed, I walked away. He screamed at me like a possessed wraith, and chased me in his wheelchair down the Venice boardwalk. He scared me. Days later, when he was calm, I promised him, “Ron, if I ever make it in this business, I’ll come back and make this damn movie!” Ron always remembered that and reminded me years later. To him, it became prophetic. To me, it was a dead weight. My heart, already crushed by the gloomy fate of Platoon, was like a mother’s stillborn baby, ready to be vacuumed out. I hated this town so much — such cowards! They don’t like, they don’t want my films! They don’t want the real Vietnam!

But the worm does turn, and 1978 was actually signaling, unrecognized by me, the start of a Vietnam wave. Coming Home was followed by The Deer Hunter, a film from a relative newcomer, Michael Cimino, which came out of the blue, out-shocking Midnight Express with its violence and American homeland message. It became the film of the year. And Apocalypse Now would follow at Cannes the next year, in 1979, and then Stallone’s Vietnam veteran in the Rambo series (1982 and 1985), and Chuck Norris looking for American MIAs in the Missing in Action series (starting in 1984), all moneymakers. But to me it seemed the Vietnam excitement was coming and then going, and Platoon, as well as Born, were just not fated to be the right films at the right time. I was stoic; “my Vietnam” had burned out. No self-pity here. But Platoon had opened doors for me, and I was grateful and busy.

Unlike Ron, I had Midnight Express to attenuate the pain. The film opened in October 1978 to glorious business all over the country, as well as in Europe and Asia. Columbia was shocked and pleased as the film ultimately grossed worldwide something close to $100 million. The Golden Globes was the first stop on the Oscar path, to which we were clearly headed to compete for Best Picture against Deer Hunter, Heaven Can Wait, Coming Home, and An Unmarried Woman. Some critics were scathing, inflicting personal pain. Pauline Kael destroyed Parker and me for having made a “mean-spirited, fake visceral sadomasochistic porno fantasy”; Kael went on at great length to express her hatred. I felt misunderstood, but looking at the film years later, I recognized the ruthless sense of violence in myself. Yes, because I’d been there — in war, in prison, in the merchant marine, at various times in civilian life I’d seen some of the worst of the human race. Why not show it? This was not “fake” at all. I was partly a beast — because I’d served “the Beast” over there. I’d killed in its name. Why deny it? I didn’t condone it, but if I’d been as oppressed as Billy Hayes was in that prison, I knew I would use any weapon I had to get out. And I’d yell at the phony judges at the trial, condemning me to thirty years. And I’d bite out the tongue of the man who’d betrayed me! I had, since Vietnam, so much bottled up in me for years, I felt justified in releasing my unexplored rage— my own “wrath of Achilles.” In the film, Billy Hayes, arbitrarily resentenced from four years to thirty, explodes in the courtroom:

I just wish you could be standing where I’m standing right now and feel what that feels like, cause then you’d know something that you don’t know, Mister Prosecutor. Mercy. You would know that the concept of a society is based on the quality of that mercy, its sense of fair play, its sense of justice . . . but I guess that’s like asking a bear to shit in a toilet. For a nation of pigs, it sure is funny you don’t eat ’em. Jesus Christ forgave the bastards, but I can’t. I hate. I hate you. I hate your nation. And I hate your people. And I fuck your sons and daughters, because they’re pigs. You’re a pig! You’re all pigs!

Excessive, over the top? Yes, let alone talk like that in court. No one would have the guts. According to the real Billy, he “forgave them for what they did,” which he revealed much later, after the movie was released, and which, considering the source, sounds suspiciously Christ-like. But the point is, my lines shocked the audience in an unaccustomed way. In movies, the protagonist being sentenced for his innocence cannot attack; he must accept the injustice of this world. This supposedly makes him vulnerable, human. But with the director’s approval, I defied convention. I wanted Billy to be raw, human, and vulnerable, and lose his temper, get angry, really angry. The hell with good taste! As for Billy at the time, he wanted the film to be made at all costs and expressed no dissatisfaction with the script that I heard about. I had an instinctive confidence the audience would know these feelings because we’ve all suffered injustice. We’ve all been in some way Jean Valjean — and Inspector Javert as well. And for sure, that courtroom scene, as well as several others, is still remembered for its shock value alone. Once you see it, you cannot ignore or forget the feelings and images in Midnight Express.

Midnight Express
Brad Davis in 1978’s “Midnight Express”

The backstory to the Oscars competition is the misery that hunt entails for everyone. Back then it was a “big deal,” but nothing compared to what it became in the 1990s, when Harvey Weinstein and Miramax took the art of promotion one step further. There was always the unfounded rumor of “buying votes,” as there’s a lead-up chain of events beginning with the Golden Globe awards in early January. The Globes are given out by a coterie of foreign journalists in Hollywood. A rather meaningless group of publicity-creating writers without real readership in their home countries, they had nonetheless accumulated “standing,” which all producers chased after as a signifier of social popularity, like a high school election. There were also the film critics’ awards in New York and Los Angeles. They had their own signifiers among themselves, mainly self-contained, I believe, until “Harvey,” as Weinstein was always known, penetrated that circle. They often skewed to the less commercial films, or to put it another way, films not necessarily waiting to be seen by a real audience. Midnight was way too vulgar and successful for their consideration.

Deer Hunter was, as I said, the big shocker of 1978, with its definitely mythic and unrealistic characterization of American POWs being tortured by the evil Vietnamese, incessantly jabbering in harsh, guttural exclamations. This irked Alan Parker and David Puttnam, who were riding into town as the avant-garde of the new wave of British directors and their films — Ridley Scott (The Duellists), Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire), Franc Roddam (Quadrophenia), Adrian Lyne (Flashdance), and Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields). The British were good, sprung from the world of commercials, their camerawork brooding, smoky, different, their actors superb, and they could do it cheaper. And here with Midnight, Parker and Puttnam had pulled off something highly exotic with a new Middle Eastern aura and atmosphere, our senses magnified by the whiny tension chords of Giorgio Moroder’s music. And yet here were the Americans again, with Deer Hunter, self-involved with their bloody Vietnam syndrome. Had we, Parker and Puttnam thought, not suffered enough at the hands of super-mogul Peter Guber’s gigantic ego or that screenwriter with the damned Platoon script? Enough already. Theirs was a deep-seated, particular dislike for things American (except for the money, of course), and over time, Puttnam’s career was damaged by his criticisms of the Hollywood system. The January night at the Golden Globes took a peculiar turn for me.


A Scary ‘Scarface’ Research Trip

With a moonshine smile and another “deal,” Marty Bregman called me unexpectedly; he could’ve given Elmer Gantry a run. Back then, on Born on the Fourth of July, it’d been, “Oliver, I bought this book. It’s about Vietnam. It’s sensational” (Marty’s favorite word) — “great front-page book review in the New York Times. You heard about it?” That was the Ron Kovic story. Now it was, “Oliver, y’ever seen Scarface with Paul Muni? Al saw it the other night— and thinks it’s sensational! He thinks he can do it. And you know how impossible he can be . . . this one’s for him. All we need’s a screenplay . . .” etc. That’s exactly what he’d said about Born, but now apparently Mr. Pacino had just seen Muni in 1932’s Scarface, written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and was excited about reenacting the role loosely based on Al Capone. It sounded big, attention-getting, commercial, but phony — I wasn’t really interested. I was “off ” Al at this point because of the Born debacle, and another Italian mob movie after the two Godfather films and their imitators had satiated any desire to compete.

Al Pacino Scarface
Al Pacino in 1983’s “Scarface”

Marty was disappointed, but never taking “no” as no, he called several weeks later to tell me, “Hey, Oliver, Sidney’s [as in Lumet] got an interesting take on this Scarface thing. You know him and Al are close — sensational team . . . He wants to do it modern using Cuban ‘Marielitos.’” This was a twist; it was different. America would never get over the independence of Cuba. We’d tried everything — assassinations, terrorism, a land invasion, a crushing trade embargo; we offered all forms of irregular asylum to any kidnappers, criminals, even terrorists who’d break out of Cuba and get onto American shores. In the latest iteration, responding to America’s pressure for freedom and human rights, Castro, in economic hard times, was glad to offload some 25,000 dissidents out of the Mariel harbor on boats to Miami. Among the people were concealed some 2,500 “criminals” and “deviants” who, when discovered in the US, garnered a massive amount of negative publicity, as if Castro had once again outfoxed us.

The timing was good and gave me a reason to get away from LA. Miami was a new world, and after all, I knew a thing or two about coke, which would be what booze had been to Capone, besides which I was being offered close to $250,000 if the picture was made, which for that era was one of the largest sums ever paid for an adaptation, based in this case on an older film. I accepted, and with Elizabeth left LA for what would become a long “exile.”

In the original, the Italian Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), an ambitious newcomer (“do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it”), messes with the Irish gangs on the North Side of Chicago. In the war that breaks out, he massacres them. At the same time, he keeps hitting on his Italian boss’s mistress, which leads to the boss trying to kill Tony, who kills him instead. Meanwhile, his beloved sister (Ann Dvorak) falls for Tony’s top hit man (George Raft in his first role). Overly possessive of his sister, Tony kills the Raft character, and she then tries to shoot him as the cops close in and kill them both. In a false note, insisted upon by the Production Code of that time, Tony is supposed to die a miserable coward, firing off his new model Thompson submachine gun underneath a giant lighted billboard that reads “The World Is Yours.” The hint of incest, based apparently on the Borgia family of Renaissance Italy, was one of the reasons Scarface was banned in several cities and states, and withdrawn from circulation by its producer, Howard Hughes, until after his death in 1976. It was a film reviled in its time for its excesses, though nonetheless a landmark, one of the first gangster films.

Lumet, in New York, made it clear to me that what he was looking for in the film was its contemporary realism, its immigration and drug war issues, and its politics, reaching up into the higher levels of our government. The Colombians, reportedly more ruthless than the others, were taking over the drug trade from the old pre-Castro Cuban gangs. The Jamaicans and Dominicans, with their connections in New York and Jersey, were tearing off a piece; a lot of blood was being shed, but this wasn’t something the Italian mob could get a piece of; this was a “new deal,” with new faces and new codes.

Bregman provided introductions, and I hung with the cops at county and city levels, corrupt and straight; this town was a kaleidoscope of mirrors. Jurisdictions were labyrinthine: there was Miami, Miami Beach, and Miami-Dade Metro, with these three overlapping with the Organized Crime Division from the sheriff’s office in Broward County (which covered the hot Fort Lauderdale market). This was in addition to the Department of Justice’s federal prosecutors and FBI, and to make things even more complex, the newly formed DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) with its separate jungle of bureaucracy. All this to cover a vast area of mangrove swamps and hundreds of inlets concealing countless landing spots for incoming boats and seaplanes.

It was Vietnam redux — navy, army, air force, and marines, and do you think they ever really talked to one another? Hardly. Each agency for itself (somewhat similar to our security apparatus pre- and post-9/11). As America found out in the 1920s when it tried to prohibit alcohol, it was impossible to stop the flow of a substance in popular demand, and the resulting black market profits created a huge new criminal class.

After a long depressed period when the old Jewish mega-hotels like the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc had died off from their worn glamour, Miami was now jumping with big new real estate money along Brickell Avenue and above Biscayne Bay — high-rises, huge cranes, glass mirrors booming upward into a blue Florida sky fleeced with perfectly white clouds. South Miami Beach, by day a lower-income Jewish retirement community, a shtetl with palm trees, was metamorphosing at night into a stunning tableau of exotic, half-naked crops of young, tan people from the Latin countries in their elegant new clothes and jewelry, cutting across the wide streets to the disco music of “Celebration” or “Get Down Tonight” banging out of the clubs, past slow-moving, sleek Bugattis, Lamborghinis, and even Corniches honking for attention in their nightly parade down Ocean Drive.

Of course, the homicides were also blossoming, and “Scarface” types were becoming known to the cops, who were still trying to figure out who was who in the game — Spanish names, hard to decipher, desperate hit men, sometimes just punks on motorbikes up for the day from Colombia, driving by and shooting someone they didn’t know for a few hundred bucks and flying back home the same day. The families of the dealers were now fair game — six or seven people slaughtered in a house in Coral Gables, four people in a wild shootout in broad daylight at a shopping mall.

When Time magazine ran a Miami cover story “Paradise Lost?” in November 1981, it was highly sensationalized, American tabloid journalism at its worst. But Americans love their violence, and America was at war again, its favorite theme. And the cops and Feds liked the attention too, exaggerating their enemy’s terrain as a new 1930s Chicago. All America seemed to want to be in a movie again — or at least in their own version of a “reality show.”

But this was serious. They could walk out of that bathroom right now, guns pointed at me and her, and take us somewhere, torture us. Then, once they got whatever information I had, they’d shoot us and dump us in some swamp to be devoured by crabs and other beasts. “Oscar Screenwriter and Wife Murdered in Bimini” would be the one-day headline.

Hanging out at the Mutiny Hotel and Club in Coconut Grove and a half dozen other night spots, I learned everything I could over a period of two or three weeks but wasn’t getting deep enough into the criminal side. A renowned and very rich lawyer had recently been murdered in his office after hours by one of his clients probably for fucking him over in one of the indecipherable ways drug dealers and their lawyers interact. These lawyers couldn’t reveal much but advised me to go over to Bimini, some sixty miles off the coast of Miami, which was the closest port for the sleek “cigarette boats” running nightly at speeds up to 90 to 100 mph, able to outrace any of the Coast Guard boats, and then slowing down to almost nothing, like whispers in the night, no sound to their engines, depositing their goods in the coves around Miami. The lawyers implied their clients there might loosen up and talk to me, as it was rumored that the Bahamian government was on the cartel’s payroll, turning a blind eye.

So with my wife as my cover for a Hollywood screenwriter wanting to make some kind of glamorous movie, we checked into the ritziest dockside hotel on Bimini, which, by the way, had been one of Hemingway’s fishing haunts for the melancholy To Have and Have Not. We were still coking, so we were authentic in that sense. And within an hour, I was deep in conversation at a crowded bar with three Colombians I would call “middle management” — not the bosses, who kept their distance, nor the “mules” who actually carried the stuff. These men, wearing tailored suits, supervised the operations.

There was so much volume in coke by this time that a few loads confiscated meant nothing to them. Things were more “in the open” here in Bimini than in Miami. These guys were cool; we drank and circled the subject. They were interested in this “Hollywood thing,” and me with it. We adjourned to one of their rooms in the same hotel where we were staying. By eleven that night, we were high, intense, sharing coke and kicking back rum and Cokes. When talking about my travels in Miami, I casually dropped the name of a defense lawyer I’d hung with. The name was electric. The lead guy’s expression changed; he stood up, heading for the bathroom, subtly signaling for his number two man to join him, leaving Elizabeth and me with the third, least intelligent guy. I didn’t like it — not at all. I’d missed a step, and I knew it. I’d found out in Vietnam that when trouble is near, it generally comes quietly, awkwardly, even stupidly, when you least expect it, when you get sloppy, and it’s never that dramatic.

It’s just a dull shot that goes off and penetrates you — and before you know it, it’s lights out. It’s simple, and I had been sloppy. What were they doing in that bathroom? Talking about it. About the lawyer I name-dropped. As high as I was, I traced my mistake. My contact had obviously started in the US Attorney’s office before becoming a defense lawyer, where he could make bigger money, but these guys didn’t know this. And it was this lawyer who, as a former prosecutor, had put away the guy who was now in the bathroom, telling his compadre how I must be an undercover Fed.

Jesus! Elizabeth didn’t have a clue; she was out of it by this time. But this was serious. They could walk out of that bathroom right now, guns pointed at me and her, and take us somewhere, torture us. Then, once they got whatever information I had, they’d shoot us and dump us in some swamp to be devoured by crabs and other beasts. “Oscar Screenwriter and Wife Murdered in Bimini” would be the one-day headline.

There was nothing to be done. The third guy was with us, wondering at my discomfort. Well, when that door finally opened and the two Colombian dudes walked out, my eyes penetrated theirs for the verdict. It wasn’t clear, except they didn’t have their guns out, which was a relief. But I took it moment by moment. They were acting decidedly differently — cool, not friendly or unfriendly, more like “Let’s cut the conversation bullshit.” They had to get going. I agreed, of course, and keeping a friendly face, ushered my unsuspecting wife out of the room.

This didn’t mean we were in the clear. Nervously, I walked Liz back to our room dockside; they knew where we were and could visit us anytime tonight. I explained the situation to her, and we lay there all night, listening to the sound of the cigarette boats gunning their engines, accelerating out, voices in Spanish coming and going. It was a very long, sticky, tense night, especially on coke with no desire to fuck. If I hadn’t been so paranoid, I might’ve recognized that it would’ve actually been quite messy and embarrassing for the Bahamian government if two white Americans on a “tourist island” were murdered and disappeared into some swamp. There was too much at stake for them to risk messing up their big money operation.

The “rosy-fingered dawn,” as Homer liked to call it, when it finally arrived, never looked better to me. We were gone by late morning.


Finding The Right Mix Of Actors For ‘Platoon’

(L-R) Charlie Sheen and Keanu Reeves Everett Collection

Charlie Sheen, the younger brother of my first choice, Emilio Estevez, three years before, reminded me with his dark eyebrows of a young Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951); there was a kind of puzzled gaze to him that I’d also had as a young soldier new to Vietnam. He’d been interesting in Penny Spheeris’s The Boys Next Door, and although I was seriously considering John Cusack, who had more experience as an actor and projected ambiguity, John felt older. I wanted an innocence Charlie projected but didn’t possess. [Hemdale’s John] Daly backed my choice, but at the last minute, before deals were signed, Arnold Kopelson and the dreaded Richard Soames at Film Finances asked me to meet with Keanu Reeves, another up-and-coming star, as there’d already been rumors of Charlie’s “partying” and a possible lack of seriousness. Reeves was exciting, sexy, and seemed perfect — perhaps too perfect. We made him an offer but he passed, telling his agent he “hated the violence in the script.” Considering what he would go on to do in films, the mindset behind this decision is confusing, but Keanu seemed in search of himself; some people say he still is.

For the role of the ultra-realist Sergeant Barnes, Jimmy Woods, to whom I returned in spite of my frustrations and concerns, passed. I could imagine his reaction: “A Philippine jungle with Oliver? Yikes! More dysentery, bugs, reliving his nightmare? No thanks!” His agent told us by way of explanation, “Jimmy doesn’t want to play an antagonist anymore,” which means “he wants to play a protagonist,” which means the lead, preferably a “hero” — and Barnes was definitely not that. A young Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Jeff Fahey (the future star of Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart) also passed, as did Scott Glenn. What’s wrong with this role? The late Chris Penn, Sean’s younger brother, did want it, animalistic in his excitement, proposing to lose twenty pounds and threatening to “terrorize the other actors.” I loved his defiant spirit, but he had to withdraw suddenly because of a hernia that required rest. This is where the Fates stepped in. Tom Berenger was “there,” he’d always been there, unassuming, polite, but just not exciting like the real Barnes had been. Tom told me, “I was born to do it,” but he was still, in Hollywood terms, a “pretty boy,” a possible romantic lead, but that really wasn’t him. I sensed in him a raw, seething backcountry quality that could be unsettling, and at the urging of our mutual agent, Paula Wagner, I went with Tom, albeit with hesitation. And he grew day by day, with the skillful help of Gordon Smith’s realistic prosthetics and makeup scars, into an approximation of the real thing. If he survived that war, I’ve always wondered if the actual “Sergeant Barnes” ever saw the film and recognized what Berenger was doing?

(L-R) Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger Everett Collection

We’d looked at many Native American actors in 1983–84, and again in 1985–86, but couldn’t find a Hispanic Apache for Sergeant Elias, who looked like a young Jim Morrison, to whom I’d sent the earliest version of Platoon — called “Break” — in 1969 but never heard back. Deeply disappointed, I shifted my perspective for the role, and when I saw Billy Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985), I was intrigued by its villain, Willem Dafoe, with his prominent cheekbones and strange, intimate voice. He was of mixed European origin with a flat Wisconsin intonation, but there was a “soul” in him, a gentleness that could radiate from those eyes. He was a hunch at best, but as with Berenger, I felt “something.” In a way, perhaps, I didn’t make “the choice” as much as “the choice” made me — and as we went along, I felt better and better about both men.

Pat Golden, an independent casting agent out of New York, led us to several new faces in Kevin Dillon, Paul Sanchez, Richard Edson, Mark Moses; and among our African American actors, we found Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Tony Todd, Reggie Johnson, Corey Glover, and Corkey Ford. Roughly 15 percent of my three combat platoons had been African American, so we pulled several more youths as background extras from Nigerian students in the Philippines. In Los Angeles, we cast a small role with a handsome newcomer who had “movie star” written all over him but was still raw — that was Johnny Depp from Kentucky. In general, I wanted a southern and small-town American look, as well as some Hispanics, and accordingly, several colorful new faces drifted in on both coasts — Francesco Quinn (Anthony’s son); Chris Pedersen, a surfer type from California; David Neidorf, a roughneck with attitude; a dozen others — twenty-five or thirty in all, ready to work out of the country for the first time in their lives. It was exciting, like assembling a pirate crew to sail with; who knew where we were heading?

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