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From left, John Travolta, Taylor Kitsch and director Oliver Stone on the set of Savages
From left, John Travolta, Taylor Kitsch and director Oliver Stone on the set of Savages

Savages' Oliver Stone

The writer-director gets high on his own supply in a pulpy new narco-drama.

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“Obviously, my life has been interwoven with drugs and drug use,” Oliver Stone says, flashing his famous gap-toothed grin. It’s the same smile you’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of times over the past 25 years, ever since Stone stood on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage and beamed it to millions of TV viewers, his Best Director Oscar for Platoon in hand. When he deploys the grin in person, you get the feeling the 65-year-old filmmaker is about to drop an unfiltered truth bomb. “It’s in my work, dating back to my screenwriting days: Midnight Express is a movie about injustice that starts with a bag of hashish. Scarface is, well, Scarface—the man with his head in a mountain of blow—though really it’s a movie about power. In Vietnam, grass helped many of us deal with the situation we were in. There was a point where my personal freedom and my survival was tied up in drugs, before I went overboard. But I have a lot of gratitude when it comes to marijuana."

The sweet leaf is about to get quite an offhanded tribute from Stone, as his latest movie, Savages, features plenty of loving close-ups of primo West Coast kine bud. (The director has gone on the record in saying that California currently has the best homegrown pot in the world; if the state’s tourism board were smart, it would nab Stone for a PSA immediately.) His stylized adaptation of Don Winslow’s best-seller is anything but a pro-drug movie, however, even if it focuses on two young entrepreneurs—the Zen-hippie botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) and the ex-Marine brute Chon (Battleship’s Taylor Kitsch)—living the SoCal high life by selling superweed. A Mexican cartel is interested in partnering with the dealers; when the gents’ mutual live-in girlfriend, O (Blake Liveley), is kidnapped by the organization’s No. 1 henchman (Benicio Del Toro), a South of the Border bloodbath becomes inevitable.

For those scratching their heads—an outré crime story about pot growers and gangsters, made by the guy who did Nixon?—it helps to remember that the often politically provocative Stone has dabbled in pulp artistry before (1997’s U Turn) and that the highly expressionistic tricks he employs in Savages (elliptical edits, Dutch angles, a mix-and-match approach to color and film stocks) are the same ones he used in 1994’s Natural Born Killers. Having read the narco-thriller in galley form, the filmmaker immediately responded to the story’s energetic mix of genre and oft-kilter romance. “My reaction was, ‘It’s Jules and Jim meets Scarface,’ ” Stone says, laughing. “I get this! But more than anything, I just responded to how Don captured the rhythms of Southern California, and the way he turns this sun-dappled paradise into the perfect setting for a cartel noir. I also liked the fact that Don made Chon an Iraqi vet; he’s bringing the war home to roost. What’s happening in Ciudad Juárez is just as bad as what’s happening in Baghdad. It’s a different war there, but it’s still a war."

Per that last comment, beneath Savages’ surface is an element of finger-wagging at the powers that be—Stone readily admits it. (“I mean, prohibition doesn’t fucking work. It never has!”) But for a director whose reputation as a liberal muckraker precedes him, he clearly views this project as a chance to make a fast-moving, star-driven suspense film (the cast also includes John Travolta and Salma Hayek), rather than mounting a Traffic-redux critique on why America’s drug war is unwinnable. “What did you call me earlier? A pulp artist?” he asks. “I love that. I wanted to make a Western, with bits of Peckinpah and Leone thrown in. People will say, ‘Here comes the political agenda,’ but if I only wanted to make movies about politics, I would do nothing but documentaries."

As a matter of fact, Stone’s next project is a series of docs about the unseen machinations behind American politics since 1945, which he’s producing for cable TV and calls “a public service.” He’s not ready to stop tilting at real dragons disguised as windmills; the director just doesn’t want all of his work to be saddled with the burden of expectations. “The goal is never to cause controversy. The goal is get you to keep watching. If you look at JFK, or Salvador, or even Nixon, it still comes down to telling a good story. It’s about the DNA of drama: What happens next? Two guys are living the American Dream and then stand on the precipice of losing everything.” Stone sits back, still smiling but now staring intensely, like a man possessed. “What happens next? Don’t you want to know?!?"

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

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