The controversy, chaos, and charisma of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers continues to cast a spell over audiences today. Celebrating its 25th anniversary with a Beyond Fest audience, director Oliver Stone, Juliette Lewis, Woody Harrelson, and Don Murphy reunited to talk about the impact of the film and the making of the movie.
“There was this screenplay that has been going around, and frankly, I had never heard of it. One day, I’m in my office and one of my associates, well, she’s very snobbish. There is a pile of scripts of things she’s rejected. I noticed the spine and though, ‘That’s a good title,’” recalled Stone.
“We did a lot of work on the script,” said Stone of the Quentin Tarantino-penned screenplay. “We took it and we turned it inside out and into something else. And by that I mean the three of us, David Veloz, Richard Rutowski and myself. We worked very hard on it.”
“I’m glad the film got made in spite of all the odds, because nobody wanted this film made. No one at Warner Bros. wanted to make this. Nobody agreed to our choices. Woody was the last name on their list. You were like number six,” said Stone to Harrelson.
“I’m just happy to be here,” joked Harrelson.
“You were very lucky. And then Juliet came in one day, and she’s lucky. There’s something there about jumping on a table…”
“No!,” correct Lewis. “I heard a story that I threatened to kill you. I’m more subtle than that.”
Lewis then gave the crowd the lowdown on working with the temperamental Stone.
“When you come into his orbit, you have to be willing to work hard. And so for a month, he made me believe I would not be Mallory until I can do seven chin ups. You put a bar in your office,” said Lewis. “I made it to seven. He then wanted ten, but I still got the job.”
“I remember reading the script and thinking, ‘Whoa, this is a little crazy,’” said Harrelson. “But this is for Oliver. I really wanted to work with Oliver. I wanted to work with him for a long time. I had met him years ago for Platoon. I came back a few times…this a weird time to tell you this.”
“Later, I was doing Cheers, and the money fell out, but then it came back, so I went to meet with you again. We talked and you said, ‘You’re doing Cheers?’ I said yes. You said, ‘You were working on Cheers all this time?’ I said yes. So you said, ‘So you’re not available? What are you doing here? Well, good to see you!’”
“But I always wanted to work with him. He is one of the great filmmakers of our time,” said Harrelson.
Twenty-five years after the fact and Natural Born Killers still packs quite a punch with its commentary on mass media of the time. The glorification of violence on television and the media driven hype surrounding the corruption of society was themes the movie tackled head on.
And they are themes still on Stone’s hit list.
“I thought America was going down the tubes as culture changed and everything was becoming more and more sensational. Billions of dollars were going into the OJ Simpson advertising for the trial on every station. ‘Stay tuned for the latest on OJ Simpson’ on every station,” said Stone.
“Billions of dollars were being made by TV and they realized they could get more money than by telling somber news or trying to do some analysis or anything sensible. Television, as well as entertaining, should be a tool for disseminating some kind of intelligence in the world and I thought it lost its way.”
“I felt the whole system was getting worse. The cops, the press, the media, and obviously as you can tell from the movie, the prison system, as represented by Tommy Lee Jones, and the cops by Tom Sizemore,” said Stone.
To create their roles in the film, Stone used unorthodox means to get the performances he need from actors who had their own unorthodox means of working.
“Our experience on this was like Mercury in Retrograde, if you believe in that. For me, I was all of 20 and going through a nihilistic rite of passage, so it was the perfect film to have a kind of exorcism,” said Lewis. “I honor this experience so much. I grew so much as a creative person because of the freedom Oliver gave on the set and because of the encouragement he gave. It was an anything goes attitude because it was quite a psychedelic little film.”
“We would be in the car and Oliver would yell, ‘There are demons next to you.’ We didn’t have a plan. You just sort of fly by the seat of your pants and commit 110%. It shaped me up.”
“I think my state of wasn’t very good,” admitted Harrelson. “It was a dark place and I don’t want to go back there. I studied every serial killer mentioned. I read everything you could read. I absorbed the character.”
Infamous for the time, Stone believes that Natural Born Killers is still relevant today, especially when films like Joker are still being accused of inciting violence.
“They said to me once, ‘You can’t show the unrated version ever. Now they are selling it. You can buy it on video. It makes no sense. They were worried there might be a riot in this theater because of tonight. So, please: riot!”