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South China Morning Post
Cover: Monday Focus
March 13, 2000

The director's latest conspiracy involves his Hong Kong beer commercials, but it was not of his making, he tells David Cohen
For Oliver Stone, shooting a few lighthearted commercials for the Hong Kong market must have looked like a chance to get away from controversy. After all, what could be more innocent than a few beer ads, with no assassinations, conspiracies or serial killers in sight?

Yet even Stone's Heineken Hong Kong spots, which he calls "little vignettes of love and romance," have created some controversy. Some are upset that these commercials, created for Hong Kong, are almost devoid of Asian faces.

So it is a slightly irritated Stone who says "I had nothing to do with it" when asked about the dearth of Chinese actors in his commercials. Stone told the SCMP that Heineken asked for a "European look" and he honored their wishes.

"I love Asian people, they've always been very warm to me," he says. " If anything, I would have cast the whole commercial with Asians, I would have loved to. But it was Heineken's request."

Ralph Hooglandt, Marketing Manager of Heineken Hong Kong, confirms that the casting was the brand's choice, not Stone's. He explains that since Heineken is brewed in Holland and distributed worldwide, it cultivates an international image.

"We are not from this market, so therefore if you portray yourself as if you were produced locally, portraying local people in your commercial, using local celebrities in your communications, then it doesn't fit what we are. That suits a brand like San Miguel that's brewed locally. It's more natural for them to do."

"In the same way, it's more natural for us to stay close to where we come from and what we are. That's why we choose an international setting and an international scene for our commercials."

Stone has been through bigger flaps than this before, of course, over films like JFK and Natural Born Killers that have turned truly powerful forces against him.

The controversy over the casting has obscured the real news of the Heineken Hong Kong spots. The remarkable thing is not that Stone's commercials feature mostly Caucasian faces, rather, it is that Stone has directed a commercial at all.

Stone has never made a commercial before, and though Heineken was determined to get a feature film director for these new commercials, getting Stone to sign on was no small coup.

"He's one of the five most famous directors in the world," says Hooglandt, "and this is something you don't hope for, you don't dream of. He saw the scripts and he liked them so much that he said 'well, this is what I want to do, I want to spend some time to get it right.'

For his part, Stone explains that "I view commercials as an assignment," he explains. "It's sort of like working out between films, exercising, staying in shape by shooting."

"It's another form of filmmaking in a way, with its own rules. But it's good to exercise to try different things. I feel like fiction filmmaker has a wide definition. I feel it's another form of fiction, too."

Most movie fans would probably not think of Stone as the obvious choice to direct romantic, funny beer commercials. Stone has an image as a serious film maker, that is, a maker of serious films.

Even in Hollywood, Stone's reputation for seriousness runs so deep that his offhanded joke that he would like to live until the year 2036 was dutifully copied by a publicist and included in his official biography, leaving a bemused Stone to field questions about the significance of his intended death date.

Yet despite his image, there is really no such thing as a 'typical Oliver Stone film.' Critics find threads among his films, of course. There are the "America in the 1960's" films, including JFK, Nixon, The Doors. There are the Vietnam Films, like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and the Political Films, like Salvador.

Yet there are also psychological horror films, satires like Natural Born Killers and U-Turn, which is none of the above. Stone's current film, slated to arrive in Hong Kong in May, is a look inside a professional American Football team.

"Nobody could pigeonhole me," says Stone with some pride, taking a break from cutting an international version of his football film, Any Given Sunday. "I'm one of the only directors in the world, and I say this immodestly, where people will come up to me and say 'I like these films of yours' and the next person will say 'I like those films of yours.'"

"With Steve (Spielberg) they'll say I like that and that. With me it's very hard. They don't agree."

The real thread between Stone's recent films has less to do with content than with his determination to push the boundaries of the film medium. Starting with JFK, he has uses multiple images, unconventional film stocks and everything from historical footage to nature shots to create a kind of moving collage. Whatever Stone's films may be about, their look is absolutely unique.

Some critics attack him for it, and the criticism seems to dismay him. "My vocabulary of film is so misunderstood right now," he says. "It's just astounding to me. Since JFK and The Doors, in the early 90's I've done 7 films and one book. It's insanely cubistic. It's a style that I with my editors have developed, that's pretty outrageous. Outrageous."

"Just the cutting of JFK alone, take another look at it, it's outrageous. And it was buried in the ridiculous disputes of conspiracy theory, no conspiracy. Just look at the film. The style is not 'who killed Kennedy' but 'What is reality? How is it fed to us? What is the meaning of it? How do we all fall prey to it?' No one's really understood the impact of that movie."

"I gave up years ago that there was intelligent response to these movies. It's sort of difficult. It's been 9 or 10 years of getting beaten up."

All of that may have been part of what steered him toward commercials and a sports movie. Of course, Stone's idea of a sports movie is far from The Mighty Ducks or even Bull Durham.

American critics expected a scathing expos‚ of the evils of professional sports, but Stone is more interested in glorifying men struggling toward a common goal. As a result Stone says Any Given Sunday was "made with love, love of the game, love of football players."

He compares the players to Roman gladiators, and he finds echoes of pagan rites in the ritualized violence of sport. Yet most importantly, he sees teammates bonding with each other.

"That was what mattered. That we were united, with one heart, one soul. To achieve. How often do you get that in life, except in frogman expeditions in World War II?"

"If you talk to the old players, when they leave, do they miss the money? The girls? No. They miss the other guys. There's that beautiful friendship thing. Friendship to accomplish a difficult task. It's a fine experience for any person, man or woman. You'll never forget it. And I praise that, I admire it, I make it a subject of heroism."

Stone has always been interested in tests of manhood and the camaraderie that develops among men facing danger. Long ago, before he became a filmmaker, he sought his own test of manhood by joining the US Army and fighting in Vietnam.

Today, he remembers his younger self as a patriotic, naive, true believer. "I believed also in the Hemingway theory about testing yourself in war," he recalls. "I fell prey to that generation's shibboleths."

"I grew up slow I guess. I was kind of stupid. In the 70's I learned."

He has told much of his Vietnam story in Platoon (The Charlie Sheen character is Stone.) and he is far from nostalgic about those days. He was sent to Vietnam unit as a replacement for casualties and discovered that 'unit cohesion' was in short supply.

"The Vietnam that I saw in the worst period of 1967-68 was the Vietnam of 'how many days do I have left?' It wasn't about the unit. Most people were concerned about the days left. That's why they were willing to sacrifice the rookies."

"That's why in Platoon I made the point that I walked point the first day. I had no business walking point. I didn't know my way around the jungle. But I was expendable. I didn't have any time in. If you had time in, you were of some value. No time, you were of no value."

In time, he did find some bonding in the Army, but he has mostly been left to find that experience in the challenge of making films _ and in the kinds of films he makes. "Men Facing Danger" is another thread in his films, but for Stone, it is simply a matter of loving action movies.

"I love vikings and stuff like that, where the adrenaline rush is there for the kids. I love that. I love it when a movie pours off the screen and you become a participant. That's a movie! When I was a kid, you saw the stagecoach and the Indians, and you want to live it!

"The critics seem to want to make these remote, impersonal, objective, studied, weighing, criticizing _ It's just not the right way to approach a movie. Passion fuels a movie, and it has to fuel it over the course of one year or more. That means you're not going to lightly commit to something you don't believe in."

In the end, Stone himself ties his films together with one thread: "Who is Oliver Stone?" he says simply. "The culmination of my career will be when I, no holds barred, warts and all, show myself as I am."

"Critics, for some reason, and this is totally bizarre to me, I've always felt that I get hard reviews. Harder than normal. They rip me a few times before they say anything nice. But the point is that they see me in everything."

"So if they're that interested in me personally, which is perhaps motivating some of this personalized criticism I'm getting, as opposed to other directors, why shouldn't I do a picture about myself? Go in the lion's mouth. Do something like (Fellini's) 8 1/2 now. I'm at the age when I'm wise enough to do that.

He muses aloud for a moment on who might play him, and the risks of such a film. "Those who don't like me, no matter what I do, would say it's too egotistical."

In the end, though, he declares that "I've got to do it." If it happens, look for that film to be passionate, outrageous and controversial - a typical Oliver Stone film.