Oliver Stone talks to Time Out about George Bush, the war in Iraq and how to cast the President of America.
As George W Bush packs up his curtains and cancels the milk order, Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone returns to the spotlight at DIFF’s opening gala with W., a compelling, controversial, biopic charting the president’s rise to power. The third ‘president’ film by grumpy old Stone, following Nixon and JFK, W. is an altogether brisker affair, due in no small part to its frenetic, high-speed 46-day shoot and breakneck 10-week edit. Neatly released in the US just prior to November’s elections, it garnered widespread praise, criticism, public curiosity and comment. Business as usual for Stone, then.
W. is the veteran filmmaker’s account of the one-time black sheep of the Bush family, who, depending on who you ask, won or stole an election in 2000 to become the leader of the free world. A pacy three-act drama, it is authoritative, eye-opening and scary – and, as the director maintains, all true.
‘Here is a man who has really impacted the world, who has an incredible story’, says Stone, speaking to Time Out Dubai from Singapore. ‘He came out of nowhere, with no qualifications really, took over the country and with a small band of neo-conservatives changed not only foreign policy, but in the way domestic law ran in the country. The man shook the world up, more than Reagan, more than Nixon. Bush really changed things. Iraq, Afghanistan and his self-declared ‘war on terror’ – no other US president has managed to do that!’
Having been tinkering with the idea of dramatising Bush’s life in some form, the project blazed into life when Stone ran into difficulties with Pinkville, an epic Vietnam movie, last December. Issues with the studio sundered the project – ‘I’ve no plans to make any more feature films at the moment,’ he growls – so Stone quickly corralled a cast and crew together and began to bring W. to life.
‘It was a challenge, but I liked it. It was a hard way to shoot – low budget, we cut corners, had low salaries, it was a real labour of love. And I’ve had a few of them now!’
Casting Josh Brolin as Bush initially took some persuading from the director. ‘Josh was a little offended at first, he couldn’t figure out what I saw in him that resembled Bush’ chuckles Stone. ‘But he is Western, he has that arrogance and swagger that Bush has, but he is also very sensitive.’
Stone drove Brolin through a three-part narrative, stretching from college days in the mid-’60s, to the 2004 election and the fallout from the Iraq invasion. The structure is simple, building up Bush’s character in layers, from alcoholic no-hoper to pretzel-chomping president.
‘We looked at other ways of filming it,’ he says. ‘But we ended up going with three acts in his life: the prodigal son, the prodigal son returned home, made good, thinking God is calling him to become president and the third act, where he became Icarus – he took the wings given to him by his father Daedalus and flew too close to the sun.’
Ah yes, his father. With thundering conviction, Stone paints a complex, repressed, relationship between his protagonist and his father, the previous President George Bush.
‘While I don’t think it was an obsession, he loved his father. I think he regards his father as weak – during all his time in the presidency, George Bush Jr never once consulted his father about the war that he launched against the same opponent. That is amazing to me.’
Direct, straight to the point, Stone remains energised by his convictions and passionate desire to disseminate and demonstrate. That impassioned energy and deep-seated conviction, ironically, rather matches the subject of W.’s single-minded tenacity and zeal.
‘Some movies call out to be made. I wouldn’t have rested easy if I hadn’t made this. This is an Iraq war film in some ways, although I am too old to be a ground soldier now. I did three movies about Vietnam which didn’t do much good in terms of stopping this one. But this is the mindset of the people who put us in Iraq. It is the John Wayne mentality. Have you ever seen that film, A Face In The Crowd? It’s about a singing cowboy who becomes governor of a southern state, and he turns out to be a rascal. It is a cautionary tale, a satire. But frankly, if I had made this movie 10 years ago, I don’t think there’s anyone who would believe it! I just felt now is an urgent time to put across to the public – look beyond the myth and into the heart and soul of this man and you’ll see the American mindset there, of violence and aggression.’