Listening to Oliver Stone at AFF was, for me, more about being enlightened than about becoming a better screenwriter. Of course, if enlightenment and understanding the reality of the politics associated with the film industry is a requirement to becoming a better writer, I suppose this session accomplished all the above.
The truth is that listening to stories about politics of filmmaking and politics in general made me shudder and wonder if I had any business in the film industry, screenwriting, or even sitting in that room. While I’ve worked in local government the majority of my adult life and am fully equipped to conduct press conferences, dissect legislation, negotiate with politicians, and deal with the politics of most situations, I thought that, as a writer, I wouldn’t have to.
According to Oliver Stone, not so.
Of course, when you consider the highly volatile subject matters he takes on and the manner in which he challenges the generally accepted status quo, resistance is to be expected. Filmmaking is about making the unexpected and the unusual. If roller coasters were predictable, they’d be merry-go-rounds.
So, what kind of advice did Oliver Stone have for screenwriters and film students? Well, among all the questions about politics and football flung at him from the audience and aside from that guy that actually stood up and tried to pimp his own work, a few people in the room did ask questions related to filmmaking.
Stone says that diary writing is good practice for staying self-aware and a natural thing for him but increasingly challenging. Fifteen years ago, he wrote daily. Now, he writes weekly but enjoys looking back at his journals to see what his thoughts were about a certain place or event. He says photographs just don’t give you what you were thinking and he planned to go back and look at what his journals said about his last visit to the Austin Film Festival.
In response to a question about improvisation, Stone said that most actors do not like to improvise and find comfort in the structure and readiness of a script. He cautioned writers, though, to be prepared to play with their scenes and be flexible. Everyone expresses themselves differently and even though, according to Stone, you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, the director must know the strengths, skills, and weaknesses of each of his actors and be prepared to fire somebody when it doesn’t work.
He responded to a question about where research stops and fiction begins by saying, "I try to stay truthful to the spirit of it" and that research stops when he just can't take it anymore and he reminded the room that screenwriters are dramatists, not historians or journalists.
Favorite lesson from Oliver Stone? The question was asked, “Why make films that polarize and resonate so strongly in American memory?” Without hesitation, Mr. Stone said, “I don’t pick films. The passion picks me.”