Oliver Stone is in Cannes this year premiering his documentary JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, which re-examines the murder of President John F. Kennedy using new information that has come to light since the filmmaker’s seminal 1991 picture JFK. Deadline sat down here with Stone to discuss why he felt the need to revisit the assassination 30 years on from his original film, and how the project has made his conscience “feel better”.
As per usual, Stone is candid in his assessment of the current geopolitical situation, and says that “censorship” and “a fear of offending” is clashing with the American Dream. He also delivers a scathing opinion of a few recent award-winning documentaries, and talks about which of his unmade projects he regrets most.
JFK Revisited debuts in the Cannes Premieres program on July 12. Altitude is handling sales. We can also unveil an exclusive clip from the documentary below.
DEADLINE: How does it feel to be back at a film festival premiering a new movie? And showing an old one too.
OLIVER STONE: This was Thierry’s idea. I went to Lyon last year for the first time [for Thierry Fremaux’s Lumiere Film Festival] showing Born On The Fourth Of July, and he said, ‘It’s JKF’s 30th anniversary coming up next year, we’d like to celebrate it in France, it’s a special film for us’. I suggested we show the director’s cut, it’s less known.
DEADLINE: That will be fun late night on the beach, though it’s pretty a long movie…
STONE: It’s three hours and 28 minutes. The original is three hours and 10 minutes. The original already pushed the limits back in 1991, anything above three hours was against my contract at Warner Bros. But they allowed that [the film’s length] to happen without any previews, which was a rarity, because we finished in time.
DEADLINE: That was a show of faith from the studio.
STONE: I don’t think the new management at Warner Bros would touch the film now, or the doc.
DEADLINE: For commercial reasons?
STONE: They always say that but they had to take a chance, Terry Semel and Bob Daly at Warner Bros believed in the film. A three hour-plus movie with a lot of facts. And look at the business we did [$200M+ globally].
DEADLINE: How did the new doc come about?
STONE: Rob Wilson, my producer, said, ‘Let’s make a documentary that shows people there are more facts here’. The film [JFK] was questioned for its legitimacy. But there was also a lot of support. Roger Ebert said, ‘I’m not a historian I’m a film critic, but I can tell this feels right’. It was the atmosphere of doubt that was right.
DEADLINE: The doc sheds some new light on the assassination from documents that are public but haven’t really been in the mainstream before.
STONE: All the original evidence is wrong. Rifle, fingerprints, ballistics, trajectories – wrong, wrong, wrong. And the autopsy was the biggest miscarriage of all.
DEADLINE: Beyond the documentary, is there an endgame here? Is there anywhere else this investigation can go?
STONE: The only thing you have left besides the memory of people, is the final documents. They’ve been redacted. Donald Trump said he was going to release them all and within a few hours changed his mind. There are quite a few. This documentary is the best summation of this case and we still don’t have all the documents.
DEADLINE: Is it a satisfying outcome for you, watching the doc?
STONE: My conscience feels better. It’s easy to attack a dramatization, you have to take some dramatic license.
DEADLINE: It’s a very dense doc, did you ever considering making it as a series?
STONE: We do have a four-hour version. It was, I think, prematurely shown to some of the platforms in North America, and they didn’t want to get involved in it. We’re only showing the two-hour version now, it’s simpler and more linear. We’re doing all kinds of business here in France [Altitude has closed deals for territories including Australia and Spain]. I don’t know where America is going to come down on it. If they don’t show it in America, there is something definitely wrong in the country, something rotten.
DEADLINE: Apparently you only make documentaries now?
STONE: There’s no set rule. I find fulfilment in documentaries because they’re important. I’m working on one about clean energy, and it’s crucial, it matters for the world. We have to change our energy systems. I’ve been working on it with scientists for about a year and a half.
DEADLINE: Do you feel you have more agency over your docs?
STONE: Yes. But even then, I have to struggle to get them on the air.
DEADLINE: What’s the best method of distribution for JFK Revisited? Do you want it to be theatrical?
STONE: Oh I’m not worried about that, I just want to get to a volume of people. All these countries buying separately solves some of the problem. Obviously we could put it on YouTube for the United States, but we’d have to give it away, people have invested money in it.
DEADLINE: In terms of its U.S. home, you want to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible…
STONE: Yes it would be ideal if Netflix took it, but Netflix is a strange company, they always talk about their algorithms or whatever.
DEADLINE: They’ve won the documentary Oscar three years out of four.
STONE: At least two of them were propaganda pieces. That shocked me.
DEADLINE: Which ones?
STONE: The White Helmets [which won Best Documentary Short at the Oscars in 2017], that was such a bunch of crap. It has been completely exposed by serious independent journalists. Icarus, this whole doping scandal against Russia is questionable because we never hear the other point of view. The banning of the Russian identity as a nation is all part of an international campaign to delegitimize the Putin regime. This goes deep. It’s really an attack on Russia, it’s as close to ‘warm war’ as you can get.
DEADLINE: Talking generally about politics, how has Biden changed your outlook?
STONE: I voted for Biden. I got into a lot of heat with my Facebook followers. I voted for him for a bit of quiet. I thought Trump was dangerous, he’s a loose cannon, I was worried about the nuclear issue. Biden at least seems to have a modicum of modesty about him. You hope for the best, but Biden’s history does not indicate there will be a major shift in any policy.
DEADLINE: Is it time to make a Trump film or is the wound too fresh?
STONE: I would do it as a comedy or satire, as I did with W. [about George W. Bush]. They’re so partisan about Trump, they say he’s the worst president ever but it’s not true – the worst president was Bush, in terms of his damage to the world, no question about it. But after four years of Trump he couldn’t solve anything, he made things messier.
Unless there’s a real peace candidate who comes into power, America will not change. America has not been the same since Kennedy because beneath the surface the intelligence agencies and the military took over the direction of the U.S. government on the big money issues like national security and strategy. Every president since has been limited in his ability to make significant changes.
DEADLINE: Do you think the JFK assassination could happen in the 21st century? Every person at the parade would’ve been filming it on their phones.
STONE: It would never happen, it was so sloppy in retrospect, so many things went wrong. Back then we were ignorant and naïve, we believed whatever the government handout said.
DEADLINE: Does that mean social media has made society more democratic?
STONE: In many ways yes, although they’re banning a lot of people for speaking out and saying ‘outrageous’ things. I think that’s wrong. Alex Jones may be crazy about some things but he may be right about other things. Even Trump being banned is wrong. Censorship has taken over, this fear of offending, of saying something wrong is really against the American Dream.
I used to get on the New York Times editorial page and state a point of view, that hasn’t been true in 20 years. Noam Chomsky can’t really write for anyone mainstream.
DEADLINE: Is that partially because people’s appetites have changed?
STONE: No. It’s directed. An empire in fear of decline is going to become more defensive and sensitive to everything.
DEADLINE: Looking back on JFK, is there anything in that film that you now don’t believe?
STONE: I’ve thought about this a lot. I’m going to watch it again on Sunday, you can ask me on Monday. It’s an important question.
DEADLINE: Let’s end on a fun one. You’ve had plenty of films that didn’t come to fruition, like your Martin Luther King project, what’s the one that got away?
STONE: They all did. Evita was my first love. I was working really hard on it, Meryl Streep was going to do it, the timing didn’t work out. I went back to it with Michelle Pfeiffer years later, almost worked out. Then Alan Parker grabbed it and made a mess of it with Madonna. I had fired her [Madonna].
Martin Luther King I worked on it twice, that was a doomed project because I’m not Black. And then My Lai [about the 1968 massacre] was a heartbreaker, we came so close, three weeks from shooting in Thailand.
DEADLINE: On the flip side, which of your films are you most proud of?
STONE: I’m proud of all of them thankfully. I don’t mean to be an egomaniac. It’s like having a baby. I suppose JFK got the most amount of noise, more than Platoon even, and then Born On The Fourth Of July won an Oscar. I killed myself on all of them. They were passion projects. I never took money to make a movie, I never sold out.