Oliver Stone

Comandante

Interviewed by Jen Foley

“ I think honestly, without blowing my horn he did respect me ”

JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers... Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from controversial topics. Now he turns his hand to documentary filmmaking with Comandante, a portrait of Fidel Castro. Getting a cinematic release in the UK, the film was dropped by American TV network HBO in the wake of the Cuban leader's decision to imprison 75 dissidents and execute three hijackers earlier this year.

You've made many films about historic icons, but this is the first time you've used the documentary format. Why now?

In 1999 I did Any Given Sunday, which was a very exhausting feature film for me, and it was time to take a little bit of a break. As you know, in the 90s the budgets in Hollywood movies got so big - what was costing $19m in the early 90s was shooting up to, like, $50m. So it was more and more about marketing, bigger budgets, bigger egos. It's just very difficult to work inside that system - not that I've given up on it, but I just wanted a break from it.

Fernando Sulichin [producer] offered me a chance to interview Fidel Castro for Spanish TV. We had good access. We saw him in February 2002 and spent 30 hours with him. Originally it was just going to be for Spanish TV, and it grew and we thought we had more material because he was so forthcoming. We had American interest and European interest and people have responded well. HBO bought it for American distribution but it was indefinitely postponed. It was supposed to air on 5th May this year, when there was an uproar about some recent events in Cuba in April. The film is still postponed.

Do you think it will ever be seen in America?

That is a good question. HBO asked us to go back to Cuba and interview Fidel Castro again about this most recent incident - the imprisoning of 75 dissidents, and execution of three hijackers so quickly. We went back and Fidel Castro gave us the same amount of time, if not more, than the first time. He's passionate and concerned and he was upset by the accusations and he's very specific in denying them, and so on. The resulting film is called Looking For Fidel, it has a narrower focus than Comandante. It's more about this particular situation this year, so it's more of a grilling.

Did Castro rise to your expectations of him?

I didn't have many preconceptions, and I did not present myself as an expert. He's presented as a bad guy, and it all stems from Nixon's meeting with him, calling him a communist and anti-American. That set off the whole chain of distrust of Castro. He had to go to the Soviets for support. He was very paranoid at that time about the island being invaded by American forces.

The abuse, the attacks on Cuba have not really been played up. I tried to do this a little bit in Looking For Fidel, just to show the American people what is really going on. Castro is isolated in the hemisphere and for those reasons I admire him because he's a fighter. He stood alone and in a sense he's Don Quixote, the last revolutionary, tilting at this windmill of keeping the island in a state of, I suppose, egalitarianism, where everyone would get the break, everyone gets the education, and everyone gets good water.

In the film Castro seems to accord you a certain amount of respect, because of your military record and your service in Vietnam. Were you surprised by that?

No, we left that in because it was necessary to establish why he was talking to me like this. I think honestly, without blowing my horn, he did respect me. Part of the reason he respected me was that I had been in combat. He had done guerrilla war for years, and he feels that there is a truth in combat, that we can talk as men, as equals. I left that in to give an idea of why he was talking.

Have you been following the Hutton inquiry here in the UK? How do you see the British political landscape at the moment?

What amazes me about the whole thing is that the British are much more conscientious than Americans. The people are more educated, they are not as led by the media as they are in America. It seems that the British people do have a sense of independence from the media. Goebbels once said that the bigger the lie the more likely people are to believe it, and in America it's so big that once the story goes out on a national network and that's the story. The words are controlled, the thinking is controlled and it's just amazingly conformist to me.

If you had 30 hours with George W Bush, what would you be trying to get out of him?

The truth: I don't think it's possible to get 30 hours with Bush. I think he's scared of the camera. I saw a documentary with a young woman he did, and he just joshes with her all the time. He never confronts anybody, and he never looks you in the eye. It's all "Hey buddy, how are yah?" all that American slang language. It's not dialogue, it's not feeling. He has a shallow manner, which is a complete contradiction to Castro. Castro will talk to you. He's a real human being. I see George Bush as a synthetic person. As I once said, he's an ex-alcoholic who believes in Jesus. What could be more dangerous!

Your next film is about Alexander the Great. How do you feel about Baz Lurhmann tackling the same topic?

It's the biggest challenge of my life. It's just a great story, and I hope I can do it some justice. My race was always with the script. It was 'how do you make a story', because it's a great story, but if you go for surface events it will never work. You have to get into a theme, and find the character. It's very hard to do. I'm not sure I have, but I'm about to take the shot.

Baz has got a great vision, a very strong director - very interesting, I particularly liked his Romeo + Juliet. No doubt, he can do something extravagant and beautiful. I don't know his theme, what he's going to do, but it certainly would have been more difficult for them if they'd gone first with Leo DiCaprio because he's a bigger star [than Colin Farrell]. But I really believe in Colin Farrell. I think Colin's got true grit, and I think he will surprise people as Alexander.