Natural Born Brawler

Oliver Stone, accused of inspiring copycat killing, hits back with more films about violence

Published August 5, 1996 5:15PM (EDT)

Oliver Stone is a legendarily vehement media scrapper who knows how to defend himself in the arena of public opinion. He went into the ring to defend "JFK" when people accused it of distorting history; again on behalf of "Natural Born Killers" when some charged it with exploiting violence; again in defense of "Nixon" when critics called its version of events into question.

Now John Grisham, the lawyer-novelist whose legal yarns have become a Hollywood staple, is accusing Stone of making movies that are like "defective products." After a callous murder in Mississippi near Grisham's home town was linked to a pair of young joyriders who'd apparently watched "Natural Born Killers" before the crime, Grisham went after Stone in an article in The Oxford American, a literary quarterly, and the feud got amplified in the pages of Vanity Fair.

If "Killers" was meant to be a satire but nobody took it that way, Grisham argued, treat it like a faulty product -- and hold Stone and other filmmakers legally accountable, under the principles of product liability law, when their works can be directly linked to crimes (whatever that precisely means and however you'd go about proving it).

Stone isn't about to recall any of his "products." In fact, he has just issued a video "Director's Cut" of "Natural Born Killers" that restores dozens of small cuts made in the film to get it past the ratings board. And as a producer he is about to release two more films that explore violence, American-style, from other angles.

"Freeway," a debut by writer-director Matthew Bright, is a darkly funny modern retelling of the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale, with a serial killer villain and the heroine recast as a teenage victim of child abuse who is left on her own when her mom and stepfather are put away. "Killer: Diary of a Murder," based on a true story, is the character study of a pathologically violent inmate (James Woods) in the 1930s who resists liberal-style efforts to reform his character.

We talked to Stone in a room at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where he'd entered the rhetorical fray once more on behalf of his work.
"Freeway," "Killer," the "Natural Born Killers" restoration: is there a theme here?
No, they were never connected, actually. "Killer" was a small film that we did almost a year before "Natural Born," I think, and it was sitting on the shelf. "Freeway" is coming out because it showed on HBO, and apparently a lot of people saw it and there was enthusiasm to release it here, more as an art-house film than as a commercial release.
It's been butchered a lot. It's been through the grill with the MPAA board. The Matthew Bright script which I read was brilliant. It was funny, dark and violent, and true, I thought, about social conditions for young kids. I'd never seen child abuse treated that way. It had a hint of parody in it, a hint of excess, it was madness, her madness, everything's slightly exaggerated and grotesque. The board was tough on it, I think not because of visuals as much as the idea of the film. "Natural Born Killers" pissed them off too -- it's about chaos. Whereas "Desperadoes," or "Bad Boys," they just flag that OK. "Mortal Kombat" is violent all the way through -- without any blood, it's violent.

Americans always seem confused about whether it's better for movie violence to have horrifying physical and emotional consequences -- or for it to be a comic book where people just sort of die without it mattering, the way whole cities are incinerated in "Independence Day."

I've done it both ways. I did realism with "Born on the Fourth of July" -- you feel a bullet going in a spine, you feel very directly a life has changed. And "Platoon" was realistic. And "JFK," you blow off somebody's head at high noon. But the concept in "Freeway" was to go the other way and to make fun of it, to treat it lightly. Like "Natural Born Killers," it's in the same tonality -- a sitcom. I think both ways work, they're both powerful.
Satire or parody is meant to make people think. But it's supposed to make you smile or laugh as you go, too, so you're not sitting there feeling this is real. It's so outrageous, in a sense, the culture, such a mockery of what life should be, that you can only laugh at it -- it's too much to take. That's why I had Rodney Dangerfield do the sitcom [in "Natural Born Killers"] -- Mallory's home life was so bad that she could only imagine it as a sitcom. And that works great. But it gets misunderstood by people who go to movies for literal purposes -- the Bob Doles of the world, let's say, who believe what they see. I think a movie is an illusion -- and people know that. But there is always a group that's literal-minded. They believe that that's real up there. You can't get past that.
John Grisham argues that people don't get that it's a satire, and feel that the killers, Mickey and Mallory, are heroes.
And so kids will go out and blow other people away? Well, you know the consequences of his idea, it's clear: it's a disaster for our ability to speak. All ideas would be treated as if they were defective products, like a lawnmower or a car. If an idea is conceded to be a product in a courtroom, they will be hauling in people like me for years, and there'll be no freedom of speech -- there'll be fear, and a lawyers' paradise for Mr. Grisham.

But the problem is -- I am perhaps too dark -- but I do believe that one more Supreme Court justice . . . and I think the Grishams of the world could slip it into a case and run it through Washington. That's what I'm beginning to think may happen. We're just one justice away. That's pretty scary. Picasso is gonna be arrested for affecting somebody's attitude toward their mother, and the music of Beethoven drove someone to hammer his father to death; Jean-Paul Sartre is gonna be hauled in because he influenced Pol Pot, and Pol Pot killed two million people in Cambodia. It's gonna be a crazy time. The world would be nuts. It would be the end of artistic expression as we know it.

So Grisham is really a redneck -- he's not thinking this through. Particularly in view of his own most recent film ["A Time to Kill"], which I thought was extremely rabid and stupid, a vengeance-is-mine kind of film. I just don't like the way that's sold -- that's much more dangerous, in a sense, to the American public, than any film I've ever made. And because it's unconscious material, it seems to get by people.
When Grisham talks about movies as "products," that sounds oddly like the big studios themselves, who talk about movies as "product," not art or entertainment.

Corporate culture will always cave to fear. That's what's scary to me. Unfortunately, the culture has become more corporate in my lifetime. They rule -- they own the government. Which is fascism -- it's American fascism. Money rules this fucking country. It's everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, more now than when I was growing up. I was perhaps more naive.

I feel that these three films, they're all little contributions in their way to consciousness. That's all you can do. I don't have the balls to go into the corporate arena. I just cannot take that. But we're the victims as a result, you see, because we have to make films, and we're dependent -- we're like gladiators in the arena. You go in for a few times, you get killed eventually, you're bound to, you can't not, unless you play it really safe and smart. But I don't know anybody who really can. So you get killed, and then they do with you what they will.
I thought Grisham had a point about people not getting the satire, the irony, in "Natural Born Killers," no matter how heavily you underlined it. You did romanticize Mickey and Mallory, in many ways. If someone comes to you and says, "I love 'Natural Born Killers' -- Mickey and Mallory are my heroes!" what do you say?

But, you see, they are heroes, in their relativistic world, because they have integrity and honesty amongst themselves. They are this weird Romeo and Juliet, and younger kids do identify with them. Some of them do, not all. Because they're outside society. Mickey and Mallory stay cool with each other -- their feelings grow and they stay devoted. I think that's the right thing. That's what people would be relating to. I don't think anybody would relate to the idea of blowing away people.

A lot of people do feel like blowing away their parents, because they are really repressed and tortured by their parents. And much more so -- that child abuse thing goes into "Freeway." There's a lot of that shit going on. And in America, the dysfunctional family seems to be more accepted, it's just more normal. Because we don't have a culture, I think, that's in good sync with nature. Television is intruding in our lives in a loud way -- it's a loud medium. That's part of the reason I made "Natural Born Killers" that style, that surfing style.

So if somebody said, "Time to stop making movies about violence -- now you're president, Oliver Stone -- go and do something about the problem," what would you do?

If I were president, I'd study Fredric March in "Seven Days in May." I guess I would roll up my sleeves and go to work for a hundred days. I'd study every fucking department upside down. That's what takes time. Nixon knew that shit, because he'd been around accounting a long time. They used to say Nixon was very good at the budget meetings, he loved to crunch numbers. Then you have to establish an image, you have to establish strength and authority, and only then would you be able to start to move. You have to get that first sweep, and move fast, like Reagan did, because everything will sour. And you've gotta pray for good luck and some wind. That's the only way to do the job. It's impossible. But don't cop out -- stand for what you mean, and go in and do it. People would vote for somebody who had conviction.

That's certainly what a lot of people seemed to think about Reagan.

Reagan was brilliant in his convictions. He was always a good-looking actor, a good-looking kid. He pulled it off, man, you gotta give him credit. He was stupid about a lot of things, in my opinion, but he was great. It's a shame he wasn't a liberal.
In an interview in The New Yorker about "Natural Born Killers," you said, "No one is innocent. The line between thinking murder and doing murder isn't that major." I've always wanted to ask you about that, because to me that seems like a very major line: everyone harbors some violence in their thoughts, but what distinguishes a civilized person from a criminal is that the former doesn't act out those violent thoughts.
I don't disagree with you. Perhaps I meant, it's a critical line. It's a thin line, a very thin line. That's a Buddhist principle. That thought itself is a malice in your heart. And I meant it's a thin line that I'm very conscious of, because there are times I've wanted to murder people. And I killed people in Vietnam. I know that it's a reality.

I understand a lot about death and violence. I've been practicing Buddhism for three years, and non-violence is one of the supreme virtues. The way I see it, they realize violence is more endemic. I made "Natural Born Killers" after I had converted. I'd come from Thailand, where it's a non-violent culture, and I came back to America with all these sensational TV shows.. By the way, I consider violence not just killing your parents, but also money, the way it's used, media -- I consider the aggression of our culture, the competitiveness for the dollar, violent.

With all that's happened, all the controversy, is there anything about "Natural Born Killers" you would do differently now? Aside from restoring those scenes in the director's cut.

The director's cut was important for me. Rhythmically, it was really hard to cut 100 things in a movie that's finished. I always wanted to go back and clean it up. I made a better-edited movie than that. Some people that really hated the movie, I wish they could see it again, rethink their attitude.

Sure, you always want to change things, but it was of its moment, it was a reflection of that period, an insane period. Now we're into something else. I'm picking up the zeitgeist in my own way. It has to do with media, too -- the bigness of it. The corporatization of our culture. I think if I could hit on that theme I could do some service. Try and get some big company to finance it!

Give Rupert Murdoch a try?

Oh no, he would never do it. I would have to struggle. It's not so easy, you see. They don't give you censorship, but they say no for economic reasons, and that's a form of censorship. A chilling effect.

Nixon strikes back

Triumph of the bill

"The Kennedys were not admirable people. They simply were not nice. The legend is that Jack was always gracious, charming, dashing... Bull. He spit on waiters and ignored or screamed at the help. I remember attending a dinner once and watching Bobby -- who was the smartest and also the meanest -- throw his meal on the floor and right at a waiter because he didn't like it..."

--The late Richard Nixon, to his aide Monica Crowley, from the book "Nixon Off the Record" (as reported in today's San Francisco Chronicle).

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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