South of the border disorder
Oliver Stone recalls the making of perhaps the most explosive shoot in film history, Salvador
IN ITS ORIGINAL Spanish, the word “salvador” means “saviour”. The title of Oliver Stone’s third feature as a director (following the less-than-successful Seizure and The Hand) couldn’t be more apt. A kind of ‘Withnail And I Goes To War’, it rescued the filmmaker’s career from the scrapheap. Stone’s rough-hewn, vital, gripping true story throws two clowns into a morass of violence and political intrigue as photojournalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) and his buddy, DJ Doctor Rock (James Belushi), head to El Salvador and become embroiled in a civil war between the right wing military and left wing revolutionaries. Beset by battles on all sides, Stone’s film nevertheless went on to Oscar-nominated success. To mark its (long overdue) UK Blu-ray debut, the colourful filmmaker recounts his descent into filmmaking hell.
Why did you step out of the Hollywood mainstream to make Salvador?
I had no choice. After The Hand, I was struggling. There were no jobs as a director and I wanted to direct. I wrote Scarface and that didn’t get me anywhere really. Midnight Express was very controversial. I had also written the screenplays for Born On The Fourth
Of A July and Platoon, which had also been rejected. All my stuff had been volatile up until that point. I was also known as a volatile person. I realised, “I am going to have to make my own movie.”
What led you to Salvador? I met Richard Boyle the same time I met Ron Kovic [subject of Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July]. Boyle had written some sketchy stories based on his journalism in Salvador. On the way to the airport, he pulled them out of the back seat of the car and they were fantastic. At this point I didn’t feel I was compatible with Hollywood. There were some new entrepreneurs like John Daly out of England. Daly was taking some risks with his little company, Hemdale. He actually said to me, “Platoon and Salvador are both great scripts. Which one do you want to do first?” Nobody had ever asked me a question like that. I decided Salvador because I felt Platoon would be cursed again and fall apart.
How did the screenplay come together? Richard had been thrown out of Vietnam by the Government. He’d reported on mutinies. He’d been to Ireland, Nicaragua, the Lebanon during that revolution. He was at various key events in Salvador. His stories were full of a bit of the Irish blarney. He had that gonzo journalist style that you just don’t find in mainstream journalism. We wrote the screenplay together. He introduced me to the place, it was quite amazing. The right wing party liked me very much because they loved Scarface. These guys were slapping us on the back, drinking toasts to Tony Montana. They kept talking about their favourite scenes and acting out the killings: “Tony Montana, mucho cojones! Ratta-tat-tat! Kill the fucking
communists!” So we were invited to all these places. We penetrated the army because Richard had contacts and because of me. The army didn’t know what to make of these Hollywood guys.
Is it true you had a phoney script? Boyle had dummied the script — I was not involved in that — so that the bad guys were the rebels. He went down there three times. He kept telling me we could get an Apocalypse Now look for $50,000, which is possible. You have major equipment in Salvador because the Pentagon is giving them equipment. They’ve got some big stuff down there: tanks, planes, helicopters. Two months later our military advisor, Lt Colonel Ricardo Cienfuegos, was killed by the rebels on a tennis court. His picture made the front page of The New York Times. I never forget when I saw it. Our hopes to shoot in Salvador went down the toilet. Boyle’s plan was to shoot the rebels in Mexico later, which was a pretty good plan actually.
How did you think about casting? Originally the idea was to have Richard Boyle play himself. I had done some screen tests where he and Doctor Rock played themselves. It was really funny but John Daly said, “This guy’s a joke, you can’t use him, you gotta get some actors,” so we ended up with Mr Woods and Mr Belushi. Everyone hated everybody else. The actors hated Boyle. Boyle thought they were pussies. It kept going back and forth for the whole shoot.
What are your memories of that back and forth? Woods could not stand Boyle. He thought he was sleazy. Boyle was drunk a lot. He would disappear... He was quite a character but I loved him. He sued me in the end and that’s where I lost it with him. He was broke all the time. I helped him as much as I could. I got him into the WGA which gave him welfare for the rest of his life. Richard was the kind of guy who would run out in front of a car in San Francisco and get hit for an insurance claim. To quote the movie, he’s a schemer and a scammer.
Didn’t you play Woods and Belushi off against each other? No, I didn’t, but that happened naturally because Woods is quite a difficult character. He was killing it, Belushi was much less experienced and kind of knew it. There was quite a bit of give and take. Woods was quite egocentric at that time. We fought constantly. There were some rough days where Jimmy and I would just go at it. When the confession scene came along later in the movie, I said to Woods, “I’m gonna shoot a confession scene, just say what the fuck you are! A weasel and a rat!” I didn’t give him any dialogue and he actually said a lot of the things that I said to him. I almost wanted to kill him a few times. But when we finished, he literally came up to me and said, “I think you made a great film.”
How confrontational did it get? I didn’t feel threatened by Woods because he was a coward. Jimmy was a little upset because we had a lot of war stuff. I had this plane come in low and buzz him and John Savage. He wasn’t used to that. He really thought I was going back to Vietnam and becoming a psycho. He was a germophobe and hated Mexico, was terrified of it. Jimmy was a pain in the ass but we became friends. We see each other and we laugh about it. It wasn’t laughable at the time. It was as tough as it gets. I guess the torture bonded us in a way.
What else was going down? Beyond the Woods problems, there was no money. The currency got devalued before we started shooting and all of a sudden our budget had shrunk by about 35 per cent. It was a nightmare. Cheques would bounce after three weeks so actors would scream and yell. There were union problems in Mexico. They were very strict in those days and they would quit on us. There were three or four walkouts. I became so fatalistic it didn’t bother me. I would just go to sleep and be like, “Wake me up when they come back.” But it was fun because we got something on film.
Wasn’t there a run-in with the woman from the Mexican censors? That was funny too. There’s no doubt Salvador is pretty dirty so we’d throw junk on the street. At one point we had to get this woman off set. She would object to all that shit: “We can’t have that impression of Central America.” We always had to bargain with her so I got hold of our very handsome production manager and said, “Just go fuck her.” He actually did his duty and it worked. He got a promotion.
What other guerilla tactics did you employ? We lied, cheated, stole. We’d just keep shooting, keep getting it down. It was always stop-start, stop-start. I had the film finance company on my ass all the time. He was a one-eyed guy, Richard
Soames. He was a character, tough as nails. We were pulling stuff out of the hat but he knew every trick in the book. Daly made the difference. When it was the 24th hour and about to tip over, he put more money in to save us. In fact, I didn’t shoot the beginning and the ending until after the shoot, which was a great thing because there was no money. They cancelled us out in Mexico on the 47th day and we were kicked out for nonpayment of bills with the union. It was a serious business.
What are your memories of the film coming out? It was a nightmare. It was like, after all that work, you think you’d get a break. Orion Pictures turned off the reel. They thought it was too violent and too sexy, it would never get a rating. It was never going to be material for a main studio and Orion was our last hope because they were semi-independent. So we knew we were fucked and nobody would release that film. Daly again stepped up and formed Hemdale Distribution. Even Daly was pressing me to cut things, but I like letting it all hang out. When you go to Salvador, you cross an invisible line or a mirror. It’s another world down there especially during civil war time. It’s not like normal reality.
What did you make of the film’s reception? The reviews were interesting. There were some very good ones and I was forgiven for some of my early transgressions by the critics. The film was actually recognised by the cognoscenti and got two Oscar nominations, one for Best Screenplay for Boyle and I. Boyle going to the Oscars is another story. He rented a tuxedo from, I don’t know, a junkyard. He was loaded to the gills. He was a demon taking centre-stage all the time. Woods got a nomination too and I think he would have won it but it was the sentimental Paul Newman year. He’d been nominated six or seven times. Jimmy went all out. That was Jimmy.
Is it fair to say Salvador was eclipsed by Platoon? If I had Daly’s offer again, I would have done Platoon first. Salvador would have got a hell of a lot more attention as a second film. Frankly I don’t regret it because I learned a lot and I certainly proved I could work under the worst pressure of all. If I could survive that, I could survive anything.
Clockwise from above: Woods with Elpidia Carrillo (who played Boyle’s girlfriend María) and Oliver Stone on set; John Savage as stricken journalist John Cassady; Sometime friends Boyle and Cassady come to blows; The horrific aftermath of war.