South of the bor­der disor­der

Oliver Stone re­calls the mak­ing of per­haps the most ex­plo­sive shoot in film his­tory, Sal­vador

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW - IAN FREER

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.

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