Oliver Stone makes no bones about it — he is an overall proponent of marijuana. So it's no surprise the controversial plant is a central theme in his new film "Savages," in theaters this weekend. (It's also no surprise he recently landed himself on the cover of High Times, pictured smoking a joint.)
"Savages," a work of fiction based on a Don Winslow novel of the same name, delves into a current world wherein legal marijuana distribution clashes with a very crooked Mexican cartel. The film delivers shocks to the system, filled with stylized violence, sex and drug laden sequences, along with a few jack-in-the-box surprises, likely designed by Stone to jolt you out of your seat. "Savages" is also an exercise in juxtaposition, depicting both bright Southern California beach culture and calculated, bloody organized crime.
I recently sat down with Mr. Stone to talk about his stance on the green, leafy drug and how he chose to approach it in the film. He also discusses how drug dealing has changed since he wrote "Scarface." Known for his many films which explore the Vietnam War, a war Stone fought in real life, "Savages" is a relatively rare occurrence wherein Stone reflects on more recent wars.
Meriah Doty: "Savages" depicts not only the business of marijuana distribution but also touches on the legalization of marijuana. What do you hope audiences will take away?
Oliver Stone: I never think about that. They take away what they take away. Look, it is legal in… California as well as 20 other states, and the federal government is cracking down. I think the federal government is dead wrong. Prosecuting the war on drugs will get us nowhere. It's just going to end up with more people in prison, more money being spent, more damage to Mexico, more damage to our own culture. We have an entire African American underclass in prison because of victimless crimes such as marijuana. It's gotta stop, but it won't. The system is built on money. So, I'm not optimistic about America's ability to extract itself from the war on drugs — It's a mistake in the first place. I believe in, at the very least, decriminalization of the drug. If you can't legalize it, at least decriminalize it — 'cause who's getting hurt here? Marijuana is a healing drug and it's been a very kind friend to humanity for about 3, 4 thousand years. Probably cavemen smoked it for Christsake. I think alcohol and cigarettes are far more damaging.
MD: How has the business of drug dealing changed since you wrote "Scarface" in the early eighties?
OS: [There has been a] huge amount of change. In the 1980s it was coming through Florida. And it was Colombian and it was coke [i.e. cocaine]. Because of the crackdowns in Florida by the feds and the RICO Act it went through Mexico. [The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act established in 1970, which was aimed at disabling organized crime.]… And then the Mexicans had the bright idea of taking over the trade themselves. The Colombians got cut out — It was called the "trampoline effect." Not only that but Mexican weed had been growing for generations. Actually we planted marijuana -- the United States government — in the 1930s as an experiment for medical purposes — we planted it in Mexico. We gave them the poppy idear [sic] and they kept coming with it. The weed in Mexico was not great, nor was it ever, but they developed new methods. But the idear [sic] of the movie is that they want to move in on the quality control — the California wines are the best — these Americans have devised ways to make the seeds — cross seeds — in ways that are very creative. So, the idear [sic] in the movie is that when you get a niche business Wal-Mart's going to come in and be your partner or take you over — which leads to bloodshed and resistance. Cause these kids resist and I think that's much to their credit.
MD: In many of your films you depict the Vietnam War, in this the Iraq War is a backdrop. How is depicting that war different?
OS: Not different at all. It's very much the same. Taylor Kitsch [plays a] veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan. He brings back the [marijuana] seed from Afghanistan. He also has buddies who are willing to back him 100 percent in a very bloody stand against the cartel. This has all happened before in various forms since Vietnam. America is enamored of its wars… These wars come home to roost. The drug war will come here eventually as will Afghanistan and Iraq — and they did in 2001.
[Photos: 'Savages' premieres]
MD: In the film you fuse light moments with extremely dark and violent moments. What was your strategy in keeping the tone at the right balance?
OS: Light and dark. It was my "Beach Blanket Bingo." You know, I loved Laguna Beach — it was in the Don Winslow book. He loves the beach and the sun and the sand and the surf. It was always intended to be brightly colored. The savage backdrop comes with the cartels: dark, black. And you see the contrast. I love those kinds of movies — from heaven to hell and back.
MD:Who are savages in the real world today?
OS: You have to decide that for yourself. The movie [has an] ironic title. I think it's said in the movie they talk about who the real savages are. But certainly you have to put the focus quite a bit on Aaron Johnson's character 'cause he is, at the beginning of the movie, the one, I think, you would identify with the most. Where he goes and his journey is symbolic of what the drug war has done to this country.
Watch 'Savages' Clip: Recession