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Back to the Stone age

New school Hollywood directors tend to fill interviews with talk of how fabulous it was to work with such a wonderful cast, or how they’d like to do a sequel but, hey, it’s up to the audience.

An encounter with Oliver Stone, a director so old school he makes Eton look like a breeze block comprehensive, delivers no such blandness. With Stone, the talk is of Bolivarian socialism, Friedmanesque economics, and Greek mythology. Oh, and red underwear. Details to follow.

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The triple Oscar winner and director of Wall Street (sequel out in October), JFK, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Salvador and many another landmark in post-war American cinema, is in London to talk about his latest documentary, South of the Border.

Described by Tariq Ali, one of its writers, as a “political road movie”, it finds Stone interviewing seven leaders from central and south America, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez chief among them. All are part of the leftwards, power to the people movement that has emerged in the region over the last decade.

To the pro-camp, they offer a much needed redressing of the balance between America and its backyard. To the antis, including the previous Bush administration, this is a dangerous tide of radicalism that offers more in the way of threats than advantages. Chavez, who has fostered close relations with Iran, has been a particular target of criticism.

Stone describes the relationship between north America and its southern neighbours as condescending, dominating and imperial. “In the old days we’d tell them what to do, what government to have, and if it wasn’t friendly to business out they went. It’s an endless story of exploitation and control.”

South of the Border begins with examples of how the new radicals are regarded on the rightward reaches of US television news. Stone, whose long interest in the region was shown in Salvador and his two documentaries on Castro, wanted to put some weight on the other side of the see-saw.

The critical response to the documentary in the US has been less than warm. If Stone still had his old helmet from his time as a US Army infantryman in Vietnam he’d have been well advised to don it just to read the reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it “a vanity project”. The New York Times outlined the film’s “mistakes, misstatements and missing details”, such as getting Chavez’s main opponent in the 1998 election wrong.

Stone is a first cousin to controversy. He even got it in the neck from some on the left for making Bush too likeable in W. He’s prepared for more of the same when the South of the Border opens in the UK next week.

“Criticism is the nature of this game. You make a movie and you’re going to be criticised for things silly and otherwise. I don’t think it is an egotistical film. On the contrary my presence is very muted. I’m trying to get them to speak, I’m not trying to impose myself at all.”

He had been more dismissive at the general press conference, calling the reaction “all this nit picking”. But then he had been holding court in general, expounding on everything from liberation theology to the chances of making a film about Iran’s president Ahmadinejad. “That’s a hot potato for me.” He approached them three years ago, they said no, then yes, now he doesn’t think he has the time.

His last big promo visit to the UK was for W, and he seemed in a defensive mood. Not today. “I like your red brassiere, it’s really cool,” he says to one journalist in the front row. A face in the crowd is recognised. “How you doin’, hon? It’s been a long time.”

Talking one to one with him later, it’s back to more serious business. I ask if he regrets not being tougher on Chavez over human rights. Amnesty International said of Venezuela that “attacks, harassment and intimidation” of those critical of government policies were widespread.

Stone says he hadn’t seen that particular report, but believes oil-rich Venezuela to be “a very democratic country. If there’s one place you can go to voice opposition to Chavez it’s downtown Caracas, for Chrissake. They have more opposition to Chavez inside the country than they do outside.”

He knows Glasgow fairly well, having received an honorary doctorate in drama from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in May. “It’s a beautiful city. I’d heard horror stories over the years but it was actually quite something.” Craig Armstrong, who wrote the music for World Trade Center and the new Wall Street film, hails from Glasgow.

Stone’s return to Wall Street some 23 years after Gordon Gekko famously ruled greed to be good will be one of the movie events of the year. For timeliness alone it should win prizes. “I thought that era was coming to an end in 1987 but it kept going and going and going. It reached unbelievable proportions.” Reforms or not, he doesn’t see any improvement. “The banks are no longer banks, they’re casinos, bookies who can’t lose money.”

For Stone, the son of a Wall Street broker, a second movie is a closing of the circle in other ways. Though he’ll be 64 in September, the projects keep piling up. The latest is a 10-part TV series on the secret history of the US.

He has a lot to say about that, about Iraq and Afghanistan (two more Vietnams he believes, get out now), Obama’s policy towards the other Americas (no real change), Hillary Clinton as secretary of state (“She’s a hawk”), and much else.

His 26-year-old son, Sean, is now directing his first movie, a low-budget horror. It has been tough seeing him take those first steps, says Stone, switching to full protective parent mode. “I’m not watching over his shoulder but I did advise him on the screenplay and I made my notes. He can choose to ignore them at will.”

Would Stone Sr give Stone Jr any other advice as a director? “Look before you leap,” he laughs. In the interests of keeping things interesting in the movie industry, one can only hope Doctor Stone never follows his own orders.

 

South of the Border opens next week.

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