Don Winslow's Savages is a sexy, ultraviolent page-turner about two Laguna Beach pot dealers and their shared girlfriend, who find themselves in a world of trouble when a Mexican drug cartel targets their business. It's not exactly literature (ain't that a relief?) but it does raise a host of disturbing questions about the drug war and its corrosive effect on just about everything we claim to hold dear.
So when Oliver Stone, America's premier practitioner of over-the-top moviemaking, announced that he was adapting the novel for Universal Pictures, it was clear that this could go one of two ways: he could go big with the story, or he could go big with the politics. Fortunately, he chose the former path. Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively are glistening sun (and sex) gods, forced to confront and revise their personal codes as events spin way beyond control, while Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta chew the scenery and spit it in every direction in an all-star competition to see who can be the most endearingly ruthless villain on either side of the border.
But rest assured: the politics are still there, humming away in the background, driving the action at every turn. If pot weren't illegal, there wouldn't be so much risk; if there weren't so much risk, there wouldn't be so much money and violence; if there weren't so much money and violence, there wouldn't be a movie.
Oliver Stone is more keenly aware of these dynamics than most American filmmakers. He wrote the screenplay for "Scarface" when he was 36 years old, after all. He also made a controversial 2009 documentary about Hugo Chavez and other South American leaders who have bucked the U.S. on trade, fiscal policy, drug policy and other matters. The Huffington Post caught up with Stone by phone this week to talk about the film and the real-world undercurrents that give it context.
Michael Hogan: What was your first thought when you read the book?
Oliver Stone: I was very inspired by it. Don Winslow did a great job of bringing that world [to life, and] it was a fresh world, because it was [about] the Mexican cartels [that] encroach on independent dealers who are [producing] legally in California. It had never been done in a book that I’d seen. I thought the young people represented a new generation and a new idea of thinking. And I thought it was free and cool and easy -- easier. And then of course they run up against people who have business interests -- and there wouldn’t be those interests if there hadn’t been drug laws.
The book felt more explicitly like a protest against the War on Drugs, whereas in the film you held back a bit. Was that intentional?
In a book, even if you are doing it in a post-modernist style, you can wax philosophical; you can talk about economics; you can talk about the War On Drugs. In a movie, you have six characters; you have two hours; you have a through line, and it is pretty intense. It was so intense, in fact, that we ended up cutting characters from the book, like the mother. She was a good character -- Uma Thurman played her beautifully -- and the scenes were good, but you don’t have time, you know? We have one goal in the movie, and you go out that gate and it's like a horse race.
Who has to make the phone call to Uma Thurman to tell her she’s not in the movie?
She understood, frankly, because the mother never figured in the outcome, really. We cut Spin down too, the Emile Hirsch character. Several other characters were cut. Don Winslow participated in all of these decisions. There may have been some differences, yes, along the way, but he was part of the team. And I think what he understood was the nature of screenwriting and what it does.
It’s a totally different animal.
Yeah, it really is. You know, frankly it’s a debate that goes on and on, but I think it’s a useless debate between book and movie. Because people look at them and read them in two different states of mind.
Who do you think are the real villains in the War on Drugs?
I think it was a mistake to begin with, and it shouldn’t be called a war. I remember when it started with Nixon in his first term, in 1971. And it was a huge mistake to declare it a war. The terminology exacerbates the situation. It started small; it was a $100 million operation. And now it’s grown into close to a $25 to 30 billion D.E.A. bureaucracy, as well as overcrowding the prisons with victims. It’s turned into an American crusade like Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan. And in Mexico, particularly, we have exacerbated the Mexican situation by sending our paramilitary troops down there, which is the D.E.A. It’s become an immigration issue; it’s become a Homeland Security issue; it’s blended into the terrorism issue. We have created this Frankenstein, as we always tend to do, out of our paranoia, and we’ve made this thing into a monstrosity.
Whereas, what the hell is wrong with marijuana? You know, go back to the basics. Go back to Prohibition. Go back to tobacco, for that matter. You can go back to any number of incursions on our health and you’ll see that marijuana is a lot less harmful than those other drugs, including prescription drugs. At the very least, we need decriminalization. If we never legalize it, at least let's decriminalize it. Let’s take the suffering out of our population that’s imprisoned. Per capita, we have largest prison population in the world. Bigger than Russia. Bigger than China. And that’s shocking to me that you’d send people possessing marijuana to jail, and make real criminals out of them, and you ban them from normal society and you destroy their lives. Most of these people are black, and that’s another issue. That's why Michelle Alexander calls it "The New Jim Crow."
In the film, John Travolta plays a corrupt D.E.A. agent who tells the dealers that pot is going to be legal in a few years anyway. Do you think the U.S. will legalize marijuana?
Well, California already has, but there is this tremendous tension in the federal system. Barack Obama said he wouldn’t prosecute it, and then he did. He changed his position, and now we are in this nebulous haze where to try to grow this stuff and do it legitimately, which has real value for medical patients, has been stalled. But this is an issue that unfortunately has become politicized again. I’m sure Romney will go the other way on it. So does it matter what John Travolta says? The way he says it is, the situation is fluid; it’s changing.
It’s like, we grow the best weed in this country -- yes, we do -- and we learned how through time and trial and error. We have developed tremendous strains. Long live computers! Long live Apple! Long live California! So whether it’s legitimate or served legally or not, it’s going to make money for people, because it’s well done. It would make more money if it’s never legalized. If it’s taxed and legalized, it will probably make less. But the huge money is still out-of-state. They are outside the law, no question. They are not inside the law.
Do you ever wish that Obama were more like Hugo Chavez or some of the other Bolivarian leaders that you profiled in your documentary "South of the Border"?
Absolutely. He is so out of touch with the needs of Third World people, what’s going on in South America -- it’s shocking to me. I mean, early on he made the nice great gestures, and then the moment that Honduras happened, the coup in Honduras [in 2009], the United States had no courage whatsoever in backing those thugs down. They let this newly elected president go, and Honduras turned to shit. It's now a major participant in the drug war, as is El Salvador. We kept reformers out of Salvador; we kept them out of Nicaragua; we kept destroying reformers' regimes in South America or contributing to their destruction by enabling the entrenched classes and their right-wing allies to win through coups and economic pressure, etc.
Do you think that's passivity on his part? He obviously doesn’t have any interest in prosecuting marijuana growers.
No, you can pile it on to Obama but, you know, he’s done some very intelligent things. I think the latest immigration act -- I applaud it. I mean there is a brain there, but he doesn’t seem to be willing to confront real issues and take them on. I think he has bad advice. I think by putting Hillary Clinton back in the State Department -- I don’t think that’s helpful. When you continue the old regime like with [Robert] Gates in Defense or James Sternberg in the State Department for a long time. They were against any kind of movement, reform movement, in any of these countries.
Going back to the current film, Salma Hayek gives such an amazing performance. What was it like working on a script with such a powerful female villain?
Well, she’s not just a villain; she also has a big heart. As you know, she’s vulnerable. But, no, Salma was very participatory in script changes, very helpful about her character. And always -- she’s a Virgo. She was challenging, like Blake. I mean, the two women are very powerful in the movie. They both took part in the revisions and rethinking things.
Can you tell us anything about how Blake shaped her character?
I think in the book she’s a shade younger. She’s a bit more like the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And there were a lot of punk movies out that time of year, but I deliberately took another direction. And when I met Blake -- I like Blake a lot -- she comes across to me more as a younger Grace Kelly, like a cool, elegant blonde. But she is from Southern California, so I think she evokes to me more the concept of a Flower Girl -- a '60s hippie, the idealism of that kind of personality. It changed the nature of the character from the book.
In the book, Blake's character has a very graphic sex scene with the characters played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson. Did you ever consider taking a more explicit approach to filming that?
Which one? There are several sex scenes.
The one where they’re penetrating her at the same time in different orifices.
Oh, yeah, there was no way I could have done that in the present film environment, where, you know, the rating system and the families ... This film was on the edge of a very hard R. There’s a certain Puritanism in our society that continues to haunt us. So you’re talking to a man who was raised half-French, so I can’t -- I have to live inside this system and make films this way. You know, already to go to where we did was a pretty big step.
Well, between the three-ways and having two drug dealers as your sympathetic heroes, you are definitely pushing the envelope.
And that’s why I think Blake takes us on that journey. If she’d been the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I don’t know that I would have felt the same way.