“This is quintessential Oliver Stone”, legendary actor John Travolta offers as his key selling point when stumping his and the veteran filmmaker’s union, “The Savages”.
But what is quintessential Oliver Stone? Is it a confronting and controversial undertone bubbling beneath a ripped-from-the-headlines story? A movie boasting performances that are already primed for Oscar nominations? Or is it, it’s fair to say, something set in the ’60s fixing on the perils and pitfalls of War?
Stone is the first to admit that it’s the latter type of film that people probably recognize him for. And he’s not at all ashamed of that, but there’s a lot more to the veteran filmmaker than soldier stories – not that anyone would complain if there wasn’t, what with brilliant pieces like “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” evidence of how well the man tells that kind of story – even if he sometimes has to convince himself of that very fact.
“Savages”, based on the best-selling book by Don Winslow, tells of Pot growers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) who face off against the Mexican drug cartel who kidnapped their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively).
Though the storyline is universally appealing and, for lack of a better word dateless, the film itself is very funky.
“I try to change myself. I try to evolve”, Stone says, when asked why he decided to take on a film so unlike those he’s tackled before. “I admit, it’s hard trying to change. We tend to get ourselves locked into patterns, or some habits. But the way we can fresh ourselves is by trying things that we don’t think we can pull off sometimes.”
As frightened as Stone was by doing a contemporary thriller, albeit one that features old-school charm and archetypical themes, he wasn’t going to turn down “Savages”. Even if he failed on his mission to bring it to fruition, he still wanted to give it his best shot.
“I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, to be honest. I was concerned that I wouldn’t”, he says, “But I surrounded myself in specialists in every category – in cannabis, from the Drug Enforcement Agency, in computer hacking. I was determined to make it as believable as possible.”
Travolta, who plays DEA agent ‘Dennis’ in the film, says Stone has succeed in spades.
“The writing, the performances, the tone – being both current and one that matters – and the way this movie entertains… like crazy, I’d never seen anything like it”, the actor, who nearly played Jim Morrison for Stone in the ’80s, admits. “The movie says something and yet it’s a great ride too. And for all the current events, political overtones, violence, sexiness.. whatever else it has… it’s primarily a story about what one would do for love. In this case, it’s about what these two guys will do for the girl they love. If you underbelly it all with that, that’s an amazing combination.”
Stone admits that as a synopsis, a drug trade story like this mightn’t scream ‘exciting!’, and so his mission was to inject some fun with the fiction.
“It was hard, because, how do you make [this story] interesting?”, he asks. “But I think we did. Its fresh, its new, its contemporary, its cultural – if even about a dangerous culture, and most of all, it’s a ride.
“And it’s an unpredictable ride – you don’t know what is going to happen next. That was the kind of movie I wanted to make. I saw it as a sun-splashed Sergio Leone-type movie, with some of Godar’s Contempt in there and, of course, [Sam] Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. It may be set in the contemporary west, but I always saw [Savages] as somewhat of a western.”
Stone, currently in development on another War film, admits that his actors, who also include Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir, had it the hardest on this film. Without the luxuries of being able to shoot in a studio, everyone was forced to work on location in the sweltering heat. So as it turned out, the actors would indeed experience, like the characters do in the film, what it’s like to be based by “the beach and sea… and hell.”