“A Chance to Develop Technique”: Oliver Stone on Talk Radio
From 1986 to 1995, writer-director Oliver Stone directed ten films in ten years which, taken together, comprise the most complex, provocative, and illuminating cinematic inquiry into American values since John Ford. The magnitude of his achievement seems virtually impossible in today’s Hollywood and was probably nearly as unlikely then. After a pair of powerful independent films exploring American foreign policy in Latin America (Salvador) and Vietnam (Platoon), Stone used the commercial success of the latter to harness studio resources at the service of a series of massively ambitious works, including an epic answer to and repudiation of the postwar mythology that got us into Vietnam (Born on the Fourth of July) and an incisive examination of the intersection between the personal and the political that drives more of history than we might like to accept (Nixon). The director also found time to make the greatest business film of all time (Wall Street), an experimental big-budget musical bio-pic (The Doors), and a poetic, meditative look at the Vietnam War from a female perspective (Heaven and Earth). His most awe-inspiring triumph of the period, of course, is JFK, a meticulously detailed and scrupulously researched combination of thriller, courtroom drama, and Capra-esque underdog story designed to provide a three-hour-plus “counter-myth” to the Warren Commission. What all of these films share in common is a historian’s perspective on the past, a journalist’s eye and ear for the present, and a visionary’s prescience for the future – a film like Natural Born Killers is simultaneously a satirical compendium of America’s original sins, a time capsule of early ’90s mores, and a depressingly accurate prediction of the coarsening to come.
Stone’s work, like that of his one-time NYU professor Martin Scorsese, is characterized by both breadth and depth; few filmmakers have so consistently reached so high and dug so deep in film after film. On first glance, his 1988 film Talk Radio might seem like a comparatively “small” movie: the story of an abrasive radio host (played by Eric Bogosian, who also wrote the play on which the film was based) who spends two-thirds of the film in his studio, it’s certainly more limited in scope than the logistically enormous films that would follow it. Yet within its narrow confines Stone creates one of his most searing dissections of the American character, using Bogosian’s Barry Champlain and his audience as both mouthpieces for and reflections of a kind of impotent rage that seems even more prevalent now than it did when the picture was released (and it was plenty prevalent then).
Stone and director of photography Robert Richardson use the contained location of the radio station as a laboratory for experiments in visual point of view, finding myriad ways of manipulating light, depth of field, and camera movement to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) shift perspective from one character to another. The movie is a virtual clinic in how to use mise-en-scene to both bring out a script’s subtext and play against it, and it was a quantum leap forward for Stone in terms of his command over cinematic language. The lessons he learned would serve him well not only on Born on the Fourth of July, but on later films like JFK and Natural Born Killers, in which the director packs more information into every composition and cut than some filmmakers can manage in entire sequences. I sat down with Stone during a break from post-production on his latest film, Snowden, to talk about the making of Talk Radio and its influence on his career.
Filmmaker: How did you first become aware of Eric Bogosian and his play, and what did you see in it that made you want to direct it as a film?
Oliver Stone: Ed Pressman had optioned the play and took me to see it when we were making Wall Street; we had also done The Hand together. I thought the play was a very powerful piece, with a strong performance by Eric. The original idea was that I would produce it with Ed and make some easy money. I wasn’t going to direct it – I was set to do Born on the Fourth of July, which I had been trying to get off the ground for many years. But then we had a delay because Tom Cruise was doing Rain Man and wasn’t going to be available for another year. At this time I was developing something called Contra for Paul Newman, a movie about the CIA in Nicaragua, and had hired another writer instead of doing it myself, because I was busy editing Wall Street and revising Born on the Fourth of July with Ron Kovic. That writer, Dale Dye, didn’t get the job done in the way I wanted, so I abandoned Contra and went to Dallas to prep Born and get to know the city. I had never shot there before, and Born on the Fourth of July was a very complicated shoot – it’s a big movie in three parts. While we were there we discovered this studio that was looking for business, and we realized we could build the Talk Radio sets there and use Dallas as a backdrop – the city didn’t really matter for that story, it could take place anywhere. The idea became more and more appealing to me, so at that point I stepped in as director and developed the script with Eric. Ed and I also made a great deal for the movie – the most money I had ever made in the business up to that point – because Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian producer and theatre chain owner, wanted to be a movie mogul and made us one of his experiments. He gave us a huge amount of presale money, so Ed and I made the movie on a low budget for far less than we were given and split the profits. Ed sure had it good with me in those days. [laughs]
Filmmaker: So at this point you were essentially prepping two movies at once?
Stone: That’s right. My production manager Clayton Townsend was able to plow some production costs from one to the other and save money on both films by preparing them at the same time. Eric wrote the first draft of the script and I wrote the second, and then we went back and forth. It began as a one-act play, and I transformed it – some people criticized me for this – into a three-act play. The middle act is his past life with his wife, a character who is not in the play; she was played by Ellen Greene, who I thought gave an extremely sensitive and warm performance. In that middle section we develop Eric’s character, and then in the third act, which returns to the radio station, he turns his back on everyone who cares about him. We also took material from the Alan Berg story [Berg was a talk radio host who was murdered by white supremacists in 1984] and brought on Bill Abbott and Anath White as technical advisors – they were both veterans of the talk radio business who gave us ideas that helped thicken the plot, which ultimately turned into a combination of Eric and me.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s an interesting movie in that you typically deal with characters who are more heroic, even if they’re deeply flawed. Outside of your noir films like Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, and Savages, Barry Champlain is probably your darkest protagonist.
Stone: He’s an unattractive character – a loudmouth and a jerk. There’s nothing heroic about him. I think I was coming at it out of my appreciation for movies like Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, or Network – films that don’t necessarily have palatable central characters. At the time I felt that Talk Radio was the furthest movie from me…the provenance was Eric’s play, and what I responded to in that was the fury of his performance. I wasn’t thinking of it so much as “my” movie as a chance to develop technique. Remember, I was a young director looking for new ways to express myself on film, and one of the things that was on my mind was the question of how to depict the claustrophobia of being in a wheelchair – Born on the Fourth of July loomed like a huge mountain in front of me. Shooting a movie where the hero is castrated and in a wheelchair, living a confined existence for the second half of the picture, seemed like an enormous technical and emotional problem, and I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I had rehearsed the movie ten years earlier with Pacino when it was almost made and knew the challenges that lay ahead of me. I knew that I had to really prep, because I had so much respect for Ron and his story…I didn’t want to fuck it up.
Filmmaker: Both films – Born on the Fourth of July and Talk Radio – have an extremely sophisticated approach to point of view, something you would develop even further in something like JFK, which is all about shifting perspectives and perceptions. In Talk Radio you constantly use glass and mirrors and split diopters to not only expand and contract the space, but to shift the viewer’s eye from one character’s point of view to another.
Stone: A lot of it was Bob Richardson and I learning how to use space by shooting in that tight little studio, which was cleverly built by Bruno Rubeo. As you noticed, we used a lot of glass and reflections, bringing the lights up and down so that characters would appear and disappear, playing with different levels of reality within the studio. We got very comfortable with the idea of confinement on that set, which meant that then we could apply those ideas to a larger canvas when we moved on to Born on the Fourth of July. There was a lot of location shooting on Born and very little on Talk Radio; we did have the middle section with the basketball game and some scenes in cars, but all of that stuff in the studio was methodically shot. We shot it in around thirty days, and every one of those days was thought out to the max – boarded, rehearsed, with poor Eric Bogosian saying forty or fifty lines of dialogue while moving and hitting marks. He didn’t even know what marks were when we started, coming from the theater. We threw the first few days of rushes away, in fact, because they were so terrible. If you look at the movie we don’t introduce him right away, you just see other characters and hear his voice for a while before you see him.
Filmmaker: That makes a great opening though, because as an audience member you kind of lean forward wanting to see this guy whose voice is penetrating your brain. By the time you see him, the anticipation has really built up nicely.
Stone: That’s because it stank. [laughs] It was just an accident that worked. It’s funny, because you can call it a small movie, but it has a muscularity to it and we really tried to push that as far as it would go. It contributed greatly to Born on the Fourth of July and everything that came after it, because Bob learned a lot about lenses, and I fell in love with the split diopter. Bob didn’t like it for some reason, but I loved it and I used it to death. I didn’t care how crude it was, I loved the feeling of it. We built a three-sided set with a translight of the Dallas night skyline outside the window, and Bob used light banks with everything on dimmers so that the lights would come in and out at very precise moments, and he had to figure out how to deal with all of those crazy reflections. Often he would find magic in things that weren’t expected or planned for, even though we very carefully designed our shots ahead of time. That was part of the discovery process.
There’s an existential void to the movie, where if you ask the kinds of questions this character is asking you’re only going to end up facing yourself in the end, experiencing an immense loneliness and emptiness. You’ll be looking in the mirror at “good old hateful me,” as Jack Kerouac said. Getting back to your point about Barry not being a heroic character, I think what I didn’t like about him is that he just exhausted everyone. His ex-wife was the only person who could really put up with him. If you only probe for the truth and don’t have a heart, you’re lost, and Bogosian’s character gets lost – that’s why it’s important that you don’t see his listeners. We could have done split screen when they call in, but it’s more interesting not to know who the listeners are. They’re not really an audience, they’re fractured individuals.
Filmmaker: The voice performances in the film are extraordinary.
Stone: Yeah, those actors were incredible. I spent a long time auditioning voices and found ten or fifteen actors, some of whom did several parts because they were so good. Zach Grenier played multiple voices as well as the host of the show that comes on before Eric’s, the financial advice program. We had all of the voice actors in the next room, there on set while they were talking to Eric.
Filmmaker: The sound mix for all of that is really complicated…sometimes you’re hearing what Eric hears, sometimes what his audience hears, sometimes other people in the station are having conversations that take precedence while he’s talking with callers in the background—
Stone: And then there are promo spots that play in the background during Eric’s commercial breaks…Bill Abbott helped us a lot with that. Again, we were thinking about how to make the most of small spaces, and sound is obviously one way you can keep things layered. We gave Eric’s character a switch he could use to talk to whoever he wanted – the callers or Stu in the booth – and you could have multiple voices going at once while a listener is going on in the background as Eric talks to McGinley or Alec Baldwin or whoever.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about those guys. In addition to Bogosian and the voice actors, you had a great cast that consisted of people like John C. McGinley, who you had worked with before—
Stone: He was great. So was Leslie Hope, as a woman who tries to help Eric but really can’t keep up with him. Alec Baldwin was great too – a pain in the ass back then, because he was already on his way to becoming a superstar, but he had a hilarious chemistry with Eric. Their timing was terrific; watching the two of them I felt a little like a theater director. Eric and I clashed, but it was a good clash, a fruitful clash – you should read his account of it in James Riordan’s book [Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker], it’s hilarious. Obviously he’s a very thoughtful man. He’s also profoundly narcissistic. Remember, he’s an actor, doing his own script, and he probably has a different interpretation of the character than I do. My version of the character is that he’s someone more concerned with world problems than his own because he doesn’t want to face himself. Ultimately, it’s an empty conversation. The point – a very sad point – is that in the end none of this talk makes any difference. You can talk to an audience, but as individuals they’re each crazy in their own way and everything is so subjective that it doesn’t matter what you say. If you think about conversations you’ve had at cocktail parties or dinner parties or whatever, most people hear your first line, and then they stop listening and just wait to rattle off their own response. People don’t really listen to each other that well, aside from psychiatrists. It’s just human nature. It takes a lot of work and love to listen to and accept other people. Ellen Greene’s character tries. Leslie Hope tries. Baldwin, in his way, tries. They’re all trying to have a conversation, but the movie’s point of view is that ultimately it’s pretty hopeless.
Filmmaker: Was there ever any pressure on the financing end to cast someone other than Bogosian? A movie star?
Stone: It never occurred to me to use anybody other than Eric. It may have occurred to Pressman, he might have gone out to other actors at some point, but when I came on board I said let’s go with Eric – it’s a low-budget movie, we can do it. He just had so much fire. I saw the play years later with Liev Schreiber; he’s a great actor, but I still prefer Eric’s interpretation. We took it further, though; in my mind the play was not conclusive about the character. That’s where the decision to add the ex-wife character and incorporate the Alan Berg story came in – Eric’s character didn’t die in the original play as he did in the movie. I had strong feelings about Rush Limbaugh and all these other talk radio hosts who were destroying the culture and I wanted to turn the joke on them.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the music in the movie, which is by Stewart Copeland. You work with different composers from film to film — you started with Georges Delerue on Salvador and Platoon, then moved on to Copeland for a couple movies, then switched over to John Williams for Born and did a couple more pictures with him. Very different approaches to score.
Stone: Wall Street was an unfortunate situation because we fired Jerry Goldsmith. We paid him a lot of money, and I was unhappy with the music he had written. He was a big composer at the time, and he was really insulted, so I didn’t make a lot of friends in the musicians’ union when that got around – at that time, replacing a composer that way just wasn’t done, I suppose. We were running out of time, and I liked The Police and had some kind of connection to Stewart that I can’t quite remember, and he came in and did a nice job very quickly. A lot of that movie was needle drops – Frank Sinatra, David Byrne – and I didn’t want the score to be too heavy. I just wanted a cool, jazzy feeling that Stewart got exactly right. After that he was the logical choice for Talk Radio, since he was around and had become a friend, but by the time I got to Born on the Fourth of July I wanted a big classical score and John was available, so…
I really lucked out getting Georges for Salvador. He had just come over to America and was looking for work; as you know, he had worked with Truffaut and Bertolucci and everybody else in Europe, but he didn’t know many people here. Mike Nichols had used him on Silkwood, but he still wasn’t really known in America. We were poor and broke, but I spoke French and one thing led to another. Then on Platoon he suffered because we used Samuel Barber as our temp score and he tried to match it, and I told him he had to stop because it wasn’t working. I gave him some music from Kurosawa – Ran and things like that – and said I wanted those kinds of sounds, and that’s what he gave me that ended up in the movie, but he couldn’t quite deliver the big beautiful themes he had on Salvador.
Filmmaker: What do you remember about the release of Talk Radio?
Stone: It came out at the wrong time. Garth had huge ambitions for it and released it at Christmas, but it was definitely not a Christmas movie – it was a February movie, it should have come out of Berlin or something. It was far too dark for December, but Garth put it out then and it bombed. It was my first real bomb; Salvador didn’t do that well theatrically, but this was worse.
Filmmaker: It was higher profile, because now all eyes were on you after the successes of Platoon and Wall Street.
Stone: It stung, and it’s kind of been forgotten. But technically and artistically it was a big step for me, and no matter what the gross was, it’s what gave me the confidence to do Born. That was my first anamorphic movie with Bob, and we really pushed that camera and those lenses because of the confidence we had acquired solving the problems on Talk Radio. The wheelchair didn’t seem like such a big deal after being stuck in that fucking radio station.