If there's one thing Oliver Stone is known for, it's pushing the limits. After tackling themes like military dictatorship (Salvador), serial killers (Natural Born Killers), and September 11th (World Trade Center), Stone sets his sights on a new controversial subject: drug dealing. In Savages, the notoriously strict director explores legalization, the cartels, and themes of humanity with an extraordinary cast. Salma Hayek (The Pirates! Band of Misfits), Benicio Del Toro (Che), John Travolta (From Paris With Love), Blake Lively (The Town), Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass), Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Demian Bichir (A Better Life), Sandra Echeverria, and Stone himself sat down with Tim Wassberg to discuss the benefits and challenges of challenging themselves to create such specific characters.
Tim Wassberg: First off, there’s such a musical structure in this film, all with all of your films. Could you talk about the importance of music and what is key to you – what you listen to, what inspires you?
Oliver Stone: Oh, music is so integral to a film. First of all, the movie comes first because it’s a screenplay, you have to organize it, and then you worry about the editing. But as you go, you’re obviously thinking about what role the music plays and its incidental music inside the movie, a band’s playing, radio playing, whatever, a needle drops. And then there the music that you underscore, how much you underscore. There are times when most people favor underscore, which is to say very light, minimal.
But the truth is I take chances, as you know, and I’ve gotten very operatic at times in this movie because I do like that style. I like Von Sternberg, I like Sergio Leone, I like what Brian De Palma did with Scarface. It’s fun to get big and take risks – Sam Peckinpah, Kubrick. So I try to listen to my own conscious, I listen to everybody – everybody. I take ideas because I’m not a contemporary man in the sense that I’m watching the latest albums. I don’t know who the hottest music is or where the hottest club is. I can’t keep up, it’s too much work. But what happens is that the editors, some of them are young and they all have their ideas and they bring in a bunch of stuff, including the music fuel. And before you know it, we have quite a little circle going.
But meanwhile, I’m always thinking for myself. For example, there’s Brahms. There’s a use of Brahms in a very strange place in this movie – I think you picked up on it – twice. And the first time it comes as a shock. But we were playing around with the usual and stuff. You’d think that we’d put this certain kind of music over that, but we didn’t. We went the other way, classical. Taverner, John Taverner, we went classical.
So you try the conventional way in some ways but then you abandon that if it bores you. It’s about boredom, taste. And at the end of the day, you have a lot of input from other people, too.
TW: And how has your musical taste changed?
OS: Yeah, well, I bounce around. I bounce around. On music, I don’t keep up, as I say. But what I do is you end up hearing things that are in the air, you know. And of course, in the shower I play, and in the car. There is a car culture in LA so we spend a lot more time in cars, which is a good place to catch up.
Composing music for movies, it’s a very complicated relationship. I’ve used every style. I’ve used several different composers, different styles. And I’ve used a lot of needle drops. I’ve done a movie with completely no composer – Natural Born Killers – with total needle drops all the way. And I’ve used fully scored movies. And I used five composers on Any Given Sunday, so I’ve run the gauntlet of methods.
And by the way, this movie was done by Adam Peters, who is young, a new composer. I discovered him through a documentary I was doing. I’d been working with him for a while. We had a lot of needle drops in this movie, but they’re very important to the style. We have classical, contemporary, and also old rock. But we have this theme that Adam Peters developed, which runs through the movie, the Savages theme. Which I hope you noticed because it’s a very distinctive piece of music. It has a romantic sensibility.
TW: The music might have a romantic sensibility, but Savages’ content is much edgier. Why did this particular subject matter appeal to you?
OS: Well, it appealed to me because it was something completely fresh that’s about not only the drug war, because that was covered in other films, but it’s about what’s going on in Mexico now. But also, what’s going on in the independent growing scene in California where it’s legal. So you have a juxtaposition of values and culture, and I love the concept of the beach, Laguna, the surf meeting head on Western in Mexico. You’ll see that mix of styles.
Blake Lively & Salma Hayek
Tim Wassberg: There are so many challenges, especially working on an Oliver Stone film. He tends to push you a little more than some other directors. What were some of the challenges – physically, emotionally, and intellectually – that you experienced in Savages?
Blake Lively: You know, Oliver is somebody who is always, always, always pushing you. And something that John Travolta said about him yesterday, which I think was really beautiful and true, is [that] he’s somebody who says, I got you to third. Now get yourself home. I trusted you, I put you here. I put you here because I knew you could get home. Now get yourself home.
But he’s also somebody who will… He’s somebody who’s strong, he’s intelligent, he’s forceful, he’s masculine. But with all of those attributes, you would think that he wouldn’t be a listener…. But he’s somebody who really listens to his actors and really takes what you say and gives validity to it and collaborates. He’s an interesting man to work for, but he definitely pushes you to your limits and then some.
Salma Hayek: Yes. You know, I’m pretty strong so I was not afraid. And I actually was pleasantly surprised because… the rehearsal was heaven. The rehearsal process was heaven for me. I felt so creatively fulfilled and so excited to be working with this group of actors that he put together and with him directing us and guiding us. And everybody was contributing and everything was welcome. And wow, it was such a great experience. And then I couldn’t wait to get to the set and be this woman, you know? This was my chance to play a great character. And then when I got to the set I thought, he’s not going to throw me off in any way. There’s no way you can throw me off. And then I got to the set and they said let’s rehearse.
We did the rehearsal and he said moving on, next scene. And I go what do you mean? That was great, we’re doing the next scene. No. No, I need to do it again. I wanted to live inside of that character. He, [in] almost all of the scene that I did, [did] one take. So he pushed my button. That would’ve been the only thing that would’ve drove me crazy, you know? I wanted to do it, try different things. One take.
Especially when I was alone. When there [were] more people, there was more than one take. But when I was alone, all those scenes when I was talking to nothing. There was no video image of the other scene, the actors were not in the room. There was nothing and one take. So it was challenging but I pushed myself because of it.
TW: How do you immerse yourself in a character? Some actors use music, or research. How do you get yourself into the appropriate emotional state?
BL: You know, the interesting thing – she talks about how Oliver gave her one take – and my torture stuff, we probably had eighty takes. But… you’re immersed in it when you’re doing it for about five hours. Music is definitely helpful. But that was something that Oliver and I sat down with in the very beginning. Because we did a lot of work on the character together, a lot of rewrites together. I was very lucky to get to do that with him.
And I would say, this is the song. I don’t know what the words are, but the scene needs to feel like this song. It was everything from music from the forties, from Reefer Madness, to current stuff like Massive Attack, which ended up in the movie, to Kurt Vonnegut’s speech, “Wear Sunscreen”, that Baz Luhrmann did. So you know, it was interesting that we used that in the writing process.
Taylor Kitsch, John Travolta, and Aaron Johnson
Tim Wassberg: Oliver Stone is known for pushing his actors to really get in there and do the work. What were some of the challenges and obstacles within this picture?
Taylor Kitsch: I love prep so I think in the process in watching these guys do his thing and what makes John [Travolta] as good as he is and Benicio [Del Toro] and working with these guys, and then Oliver’s process. So I don’t mind being accountable to prep and to come ready and I think that just enhanced the whole experience for all of us that Oliver demanded that, and I think we just reacted the right way, as well, with him.
John Travolta: I think he’s smart, too. He chooses the actors that will respond to this idea that he has. Because he is like white on rice for the actors. He wants a performance from you, man, and he’s not going to give up until he gets it. And that, I think all actors that love acting – I think this group does – really likes that challenge of like okay, someone cares enough and let’s go, let’s find it somehow.
Aaron Johnson: Yeah, I think it demands a lot and that’s great because you want someone who’s just constantly pulling that out of you and won’t stop. And he’s on it and he’s on top of that and he cares. He’s constantly questioning every little detail and what your choices were in the last take and why did you do that choice. And you’ve got to back your answer and have a good answer because if you don’t, then you’re not believing in the material that you’re doing.
JT: He takes it personally, too.
JT: I mean, really takes your choices personally.
TW: What were some of the details that went into these specific characters that makes them who they are?
JT: What were some of the details, Aaron?
AJ: You meet him [and] he’s one of those guys who just drains information. He’s such a knowledge man and I think he needs to know every single detail. So we had those facilities on set, we had a real DEA agent and we had guys that grew weed and grow up in the scientific side. We had hackers, we had information on the cartel – people who have been in a cartel and had those experiences. So we were surrounded and immersed in that world. And he gives us those tools to work with as the actor.
JT: He really does for you a lot of the homework actors – most of the time – do on their own. Meaning that we arrived with the material that normally, any one of us would go online, go to the library, hire a person – which I’ve done many times – that you think is the right person to help you. He gets that lined up for you, so he’s efficient for you, too. Didn’t you find that?
JT: I think about fifty percent of the work he had waiting for us and we had to do the finishing touches, which I thought was amazing[ly] responsible for a director to take that much depth of care about it.
TW: What do you use to really immerse yourself? Some people, they take influence from movies or music. Does that come into play when you guys are creating the character?
JT: Oh, it has to. Mine was mostly meeting this DA agent that completely gave me the clues to the character because I could not believe his stories. Because first, it looks like your average DA agent, which I kind of played in some early [films], you know… And I thought well, what’s different about him? And then when he explained how he’s hiding all the time from the truth and he’s completely duplicitous, he’s in danger all the time and that he can be undercover and fall in love with people but betray them within a month.
And I’d say how do you live with yourself on that? So those are the things I held onto and the actor he had to be. He had to change his tune and his thought process within seconds. I said to him, I said you explain that to me. Because how do you do it? When you know that you could be killed if you say the wrong word or you behave in the wrong way where you’re found out, how does that make you feel? And he said it’s hard. He said you have to go to your best acting to get out of situations. And then I realized in the script, there’s many times with these guys and with Benicio where I had to actually do that. But it wasn’t as clear to me until I met this guy. So that was mine. You guys had different experiences, I’m sure.
TK: Yeah, I worked with a Navy Seal for a while and I think it’s just a passion in just being in this opportunity, you know. You just want to do whatever you can to come in and support and do it justice and play it as authentically as possible. So with the elements that Oliver gives you, the energy of the other actors, and then what you put on yourself, which is probably at the end of the day is… you’re your own worst critic so…
JT: Yeah, that’s true.
TK: … you’re very tough on yourself. So you push as much as you can.
AJ: Yeah, we had these people firsthand. We didn’t have to watch a movie to see what these people are like, you know? I think that’s what’s good, that we got our source of information firsthand, from the people that were real and that’s what makes it…
JT: Which gives you confidence, too.
AJ: Yeah, and it makes it authentic. And you know, it does give you confidence as an actor because then you know that the choices that you’re making, that you’ve got something to back that up.
Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bichir
Tim Wassberg: Obviously each film is different, but can you talk about the emotional, physical, and intellectual challenges of making Savages?
Benicio Del Toro: Well, that’s loaded question, unfortunately, physically. Physically, you know, the hair and the moustache. Emotionally, dealing with… and then physically, too, there are a couple of things physically. Especially like there’s for [Demian Bichir], perhaps was the physical thing and a torture scene. Physically for him, you can take that. Emotionally, it’s like it’s great to work with Oliver Stone. It’s great to work with actors like Demian, like John Travolta, like Salma Hayek, like Blake Lively, like Aaron Johnson, and even the smaller parts. Then there is the story and the story is daring and it’s exciting. It’s not predictable and I think that is a motivator. And then finally, but not least, is Oliver Stone. It’s just Oliver Stone is right there and it’s like, you have to bring in your A game when you’re with Oliver Stone. You’d better be on your toes.
Demian Bichir: Yeah, absolutely. I think the physical challenge is always interesting and you look for it, too. Because I was coming from doing a whole different type of human being in a better life and I had put on some twenty pounds for that character and then I wanted this guy, Alex, to be slim, fit, and really, really clean-cut and neat. Because when you show somebody with such a nice, neat kind of beard, then you probably can trust the guy because you know he’s not going to mess with your numbers and your business and everything. Being the lawyer of this organization, you know, you need that. And this is about loyalty that we wanted to create between these two characters – Elena, Salma Hayek, and Alex, the character I play.
And then emotionally, he goes through a crazy trip when this crazy scene that we have, with Benicio and I. And that’s physically also challenging for him because I mean, he doesn’t talk about it, but he became an expert on bull whipping, you know, with both hands and doing it like a master, like just the way a great actor does.
TW: It’s interesting because when you look at Savages, you think of what the definition of “savage” really is. Some people define it as survival. How do you think that relates to the humanity of these characters?
DB: That’s the scary part of it, that these are real human beings. Sometimes you think they’re monsters, but the scary part is that they are just like you. They do have families, they have emotions, and they are human beings. And how can a human being be so terrible? That’s a crucial point here. You can be fantastic or an awful human being and that’s a choice.
BDT: And also, the movie is like if you’re not a savage, society or the problems around you can turn you into a savage, which is what happens to the character of Ben, Aaron Johnson, or the character of O, Blake Lively. They turn into savages, you know. So that’s interesting, too, that you can turn into a savage. If you’re not a savage, you could be a savage.
Tim Wassberg: What were some of the challenges that you encountered making this movie?
Sandra Echeverria: Well, I think the biggest challenge was auditioning for Oliver Stone. It’s hard because he’s a very strict director. He’s a perfectionist so you have to get the perfect scene. So actually, I taped myself. I send it to the audition [and] the casting loved it. Then they sent it to Oliver, he loved it, and then he met me. And it was so weird because he knew that by that time that I was going to get the part. But then I would have to rehearse and we had so many things to do.
I was working in Mexico so he used to call me on the phone to tell me about the role. It was like oh my God, Oliver Stone is calling me. right? He’s such a dominant personality that I felt so intimidated by him,. But you know what? We had a lot of rehearsal. We talked a lot about the story. I read the book. We talked about Magda and her relationship with her mother. And then it’s great because when you get to the set, you can know exactly what he wants. You already agreed in a personality for the role and then everything flows easier.
TW: Savages has an extraordinarily rich cast, but everyone seems to work in different ways and at different times, with Oliver as the commandant. How did you and Salma Hayek resolve your ideas of your specific characters?
SE: We talked about it, actually. Salma and I talked by the phone, too, a couple of times. We talked about how we had a relationship. And it’s weird because I don’t love my mother. I mean, I do love my mother but I’m not proud of her. I don’t like what she does but at the same time, I’m very dependent of her because she pays everything for my life, you know? But I’m very controlling, just as her. So we are similar in some things but at the same time, we are very different.
And I’m such a spoiled little brat. I’m used to having everything when I do this and then from one moment to the other, everything changes and I’m the victim and I’m suffering so many things. So I had to go through a lot of tough things. I don’t know if you remember that scene where I’m in the freezer and I’m there all gagged and tied. And I spend there like an hour. I didn’t even feel my legs anymore. Everything was numbed. So it was very, very interesting, a lot of fun.
TW: That scene is a very good example of the theme – and title – of the movie. How do you think people define what being “savage” is? Does that effect who we are, and our humanity?
SE: Well, I think human beings are already savages by nature as an animal, as every species in this world, right? We have that part in us. And I think there’s a great balance in Savages that makes the film amazing, that you have this violent and good reality but it’s mixed with this black humor and with these little details of humor and sensuality that make it an amazing film and you want to just stand up. You want to be there the whole time and you’re watching like this and you cannot stop, right?
TW: Actors are influenced by many things – can you talk about what your favorite movies are, and what they bring to your performances?
SE: I’m a lot about story, an original story. I loved Juno. I love those kind of black humor comedy things but at the same time, I love dramatic stuff like – what would it be? Did you see Cinema Paradiso? It’s like those very, very moving stories that you can really feel – I’m sorry, I have to translate into English – when you feel completely moved by a story and you feel just yourself in the story.
So I don’t really have like one film that it’s my favorite, I have many. El Padrino 2 was one of my favorite films, Meet Black Joe, I think is an amazing film and I keep watching it and I keep finding things and lines that I write. It’s like oh my God, it’s so right. So I’m a very, very, a big fan of films.
Universal Pictures' 'Savages' is out in theaters nationwide.