By Lesley O'Toole
On Monday, Oliver Stone's hotly anticipated George Bush biopic, W, starring Josh Brolin as the beleaguered President and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, premiered to a Los Angeles audience. The celebrity-heavy, predictably partisan gathering (Jodie Foster, Barbra Streisand, Al Pacino) was billed quite particularly as a "special screening" by Lionsgate, distributor of the Oscar-winning Crash and producer of the Emmy-winning Mad Men. Verdicts at the (not a premiere) party were reportedly positive across the board. Domestic media - provincial newspapers, web sites and/or college newspapers - also made quietly appreciative noises when shown the film the next day.
But then it all began to unravel. "The film is a mess," said The Los Angeles Times; Variety branded it "unable to achieve any aims higher than as a sort of engaging pop-history pageant and amateur, if not inapt, psychological evaluation" while The Hollywood Reporter damned it with the faint praise, "it's a gutsy movie but not necessarily a good one". Ouch. At least they acknowledged that there was little of the proselytising they'd expected from Stone, famed still as the liberal beatnik who propagated wild conspiracy theories in 1991's JFK but gave Nixon a sympathetic ride in 1995.
Years ago Stone might have been angrier about his critics who seem unwilling to acknowledge his highly unconventional Hollywood feat: a film filmed, edited and released in less than a six-month span for about $30m (18m), less than the average major studio marketing budget per film. "I am never surprised. I've been humbled by this business for years. I got more money to make Nixon and JFK but that was in the mid-90s and here we are in 2008 and I'm getting quite considerably less money to make my third political movie. These are the rules of the game and I accept. But this is also my third political film where I have complete freedom. This is my vision, with my collaborators. I don't have a committee going, 'Oh well, you've got to change this'. Keeping my freedom was really crucial for me. No one interfered. That's very rare, that's the nature of this business. Political visions are tampered with. It was very hard to get this through and I'm proud of it."
Stone launched into W with something of a vengeance after his previous passion project, Pinkville - about My Lai, the 1968 Vietnam massacre and its subsequent cover-up and court martial, which was due to star Bruce Willis - fell apart at United Artists (then run by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner). "They endured like superheroes, to fight to get the truth out," asserts Stone of the military personnel who agitated to apportion blame where it was due. It is a theme which apparently resonates with the new, softer, Stone whose third wife, Chong, and their 12-year-old daughter, Tara, were frequent visitors to the set. One of his sons from his second marriage, a smiley handsome teen, is the production's videographer and a family vibe prevails.
He insists that W has an audience despite the hostile barrage of "who cares?" blogs which have appeared as footnotes to some of the film's sneering reviews. "I do think people like him, especially in this part of the country, real bible-belt country. Bush is seen as a guy who's got the common touch. He garbles his words, he talks like one of them. He's not the brightest bulb on the block and people like that. They didn't like Gore, they didn't like Kerry. Bush has the touch. We've met. He's a great salesman."
Before our meeting this week, I called in to see the director at work on set last July. Stone was darting about his tiny Oval Office set resplendent in white plastic booties over his shoes, laughing, playful and defying his age (62, the same as Bush). "Yesterday was fun, today is hard work," he exhorts all on set during a protracted day shooting a cabinet meeting, which produced the now-infamous "axis of evil" soundbite. Two reviews at least have cited the scene as straight out of Saturday Night Live, the long-of-tooth American sketch comedy programme itself reinvigorated this season by the scorching return of ex-staffer Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Yet no one has credited Oliver Stone as the maverick he actually is. I ask later if he always has this much fun on set. "All the time. I had a lot of fun on Natural Born Killers. I was laughing the whole time. I loved U-Turn. I laughed a lot on that."
Critics aside, what can British audiences expect of W? "Hopefully an entertaining interpretation of Bush done in a way that is original and fresh. People don't know that much about the guy. He is a Wizard of Oz. He's manufactured, he's pulling the curtain back. And we are being honest to what we have read. We read a lot and we feel that these things happened. We don't know the exact dialogue. We're taking 10 different interpretations of what happened. And at the end of the day our dialogue [by old Stone cohort and collaborator Stanley Weiser (Wall Street)] is better. We've made it better, sharpened the arguments."
But Stone is receiving few props Stateside for his tireless pursuit of veracity, attracting instead criticism for focusing - as he did on 2006's World Trade Center, his biggest hit in years - on the human rather than political spectrum. It seems he cannot win, having been castigated too for taking money from China [the film's other backers are American, French, German and Indian] when virtually none was forthcoming from his own country. The commercial success of World Trade Center, Stone insists, "didn't help me that much. I had as much of a fight on Bush as I would have had without that."
He is sanguine about his operating now in a sort of vacuum of mainstream Hollywood approbation. "Look, I hate to see 14 producers on a film [as listed on W]. I once saw a European film with 26. But unfortunately the studio desire to take a risk has diminished severely in the last 10 years; 10 years ago you could still get these kinds of pictures through. Now it's an independent world, another world."
W screens at the London Film Festival 23 October and opens 7 November