Insights from Oliver Stone from the World Business Forum (Sydney)

According to Oliver Stone, the success of a film comes down to the story that is being told, the authenticity of that story and the leadership that follows.

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Oliver Stone on the power of storytelling

“I’ll never make a boring movie” is the philosophy of legendary filmmaker and three-time Oscar-winning director, Oliver Stone. The former solider who studied filmmaking at NYU after serving in the Vietnam War has always believed in telling his own particular version of the truth. Having struggled to get his first script Platoon made because the material was deemed too sensitive (it was made ten years later in 1986) he’s consistently pushed past being told no to do the things he believes in.

Once a script is funded and up and running, it comes down to being an effective leader on set, something he says starts with loving the script.

“There has to be something greater than yourself and there is this idea that we’re actually working on something greater,” he says. “We think this is worthwhile, we think this is an important story. Once you have that in place generally things follow from that. The script is the shining light, the beacon of fate. I find that works in general. If you have a script that’s made for money only or because the studio wanted it made and so forth it doesn’t work the same way, it doesn’t feel right.”

It changes the mood on set and the perception of a movie set as a relatively democratic exercise falters.

“The reason for doing it has to be authentic. The leadership that follows from that also has to be from a place of pure intent.”

The bigger picture

As a director it’s his role to keep the vision in check, to bring all the disparate talents together into a cohesive whole. “Sometimes an actor won’t do things the way you think he should,” says Stone. “You can push back and badger but you can’t push back too much. There’s a balance which sometimes takes years [to master], sometimes you let him do what he wants and then you give up and sometimes he does it and does it and maybe one day he says, ‘listen, you tell me how you think we should do it’.”

You’re also dealing with the director of photography who wants to shoot it in a certain way, the production manager and the producer, each who have their own ideas about how things should be done.

“It’s about bringing that all together without fighting with each other,” he says. “Sometimes one branch hates the other branch, sometimes the director of photography department is totally ruthless with the production design department.”

Being a director is intense

Stone finds directing a film an intense job that could involve up to 50 decisions a day. This intensity means you can’t do it constantly.

“A movie comes out every couple of years because 50-60 days of production is really tiring and you need stamina,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges in making a film is choosing the right talent. And directors don’t always get to choose which Hollywood stars they’d like to work with.

“It’s not like the luxury of choice, sometimes you have availabilities, you have budget issues, you have finance issues. Sometimes they give you a list and say, we can get this movie made financially with sometimes six names, five names or ten names,” he says. “Sometimes the actor is wrong. And that’s the key, the ability to say no. And I’ve said no to many movie stars, not to them directly but expressed, that I don’t think he’s right, he’s a great actor, I admire him very much but he’s not right for this movie. Sometimes you make a mistake. Either you cover it up as best you can as great directors have done or else you let them go in the first two weeks before it gets too deep. That happens more than you think.”

Getting the best out of the talent is about ‘squeezing the sponge’. Often you make changes in the script to match the actor, which is another thing that happens more often than you would think. “You wrote the role for a high-class lady and you get a low-class dame,” he says. “Other times a man looks great on screen, he’s great, he’s fun, but he’s a complete dolt. Some of them don’t even know what they’re saying but they’re saying it so well.”

Worshipping the script

Throughout all of this the director has to love the actor because the movie depends on them. “As much as you might dislike this person – this is the most cretinous human being on earth and think I won’t take one more day on it, you think, I’m just going to walk out on set and I’m going to be nice and you do it. You do it because you are worshipping the greater god, which is the script.”

This comes back to the belief that the story is more important than everyone working on a film, something that Stone has always believed. “I’m a storyteller and dramatist, that’s why I said, ‘It’s not about my opinion, it’s about making the damn movie good.”

For more information visit the NAB World Business Forum 2015 live insights hub.