The Writing of Oliver Stone
Fall 1996: Creative Screenwriting Magazine
A brilliant read, this is probably one of the best interviews with Stone.
Tell me a little about your early days as a screenwriter and your breakthrough with Midnight Express?
I had written a novel when I was eighteen or nineteen years old. It was a very long, kind of James Joyceian approach—epic language. It wasn’t published and I moved on into Vietnam. I went to Vietnam as a soldier to forget about writing, to never write again. I made a couple of notes but they got so wet in the field I gave up the idea of paper and pen and went back to a certain anonymity. I think writing, [using] those kind of materials, brings a lot of attention to yourself. I felt very self-absorbed and I was trying to get away from that. Later in my tour I bought a camera and started to take more pictures. A thousand pictures of a beautiful country—yellows and greens—absolutely incredible color. Somewhere in this Vietnam experience my mind moved from the cerebral to a little more visceral place, more sensual. All five senses became involved with staying alive. I believe learning to use those senses attuned me to the visual.
Sometimes you see stretches in the screenwriting that come from that period of being a budding novelist. So, I ended up trying to serve this new master—the camera—and writing specifically for the external. I wrote screenplays the moment I got back. It was sort of a healing process to recover from the war. I was so anguished that I wrote… actually the earliest version of Platoon came right out of that moment. I wrote a screenplay called Break, which was a fantasy, and is basically Platoon, but seven years before and written very surreal. Everything you see later in Platoon is there, but disguised in some weird way—long monologues, still partly novel.
Was that before or after you went to film school?
It was before. I actually wrote it before. I ended up in film school pursuing this 8mm dream, this combination of writing and… as soon as I went to film school in 1969 at NYU, I fell in love with the medium. I made short films, one minute, two minute, and worked my way up to a ten-minute film the first year. And then the second year I made a twenty-minute film and my last one was a twenty-six-minute film short—black and white with some color. Already I was using a lot of that black and white color effect, changing the point of view. Very influenced by the New Wave, by Godard—the deconstruction. [Martin] Scorsese was there. Haig Manoogian was there. They were wonderful teachers. You had to be there in 1968–9 to understand the excitement. We were young filmmakers, we were radical. We were into documentaries, into changing society. It was a wonderful period… very competitive. It was very much like Hollywood in the sense we all had to fight in a collective to make our films. It was like the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where we were all autocritiquing each other. It was a difficult period, but I think it made us, honedus into filmmakers.
Even though I went to that school I found a dearth of screenwriting going on. Most of the kids were interested in getting out on the streets and doing stuff with cameras. I was too, but I always kept writing in the back of my head. I just felt like screenwriting was the best entry point into the business based on what I’d read. And I wrote two screenplays a year for several years. My first wife was working, so she helped support me. I was not above taking the occasional money I could get from my father. I worked as a cab driver on the nightshift. I worked as a messenger boy. I worked as a PA on soft-porno films and a couple of Channel 13 specials. I got whatever I could get, but I couldn’t get anything optioned or really read. I made my own film, Seizure, in 1973 with two partners, which I wrote and directed with Ed Mann, but I did most of the writing really. —Oliver Stone, Fall 1996: Creative Screenwriting Magazine