Sean Stone grew up appearing in his father Oliver Stone's films, from SALVADOR (1986), where he was Richard Boyle (James Woods)'s baby, to the recent SAVAGES (2012), and so has had a cinematic education like no other. Sean also directed documentaries for ALEXANDER (2004) and NIXON (1995), has continued to act in films, and co-wrote and directed the horror film GREYSTONE PARK (2012). Highly interested in politics, he presents the weekly online show Buzzsaw, where his weekly interviews ''serve as a type of commentary on world events and keep (him) interested in the socio-political landscape.'' I spoke with Sean about his time on his father's films, his documentary and feature work, his interest in politics, converting to Islam, and following in his father's footsteps.
What are your strongest memories of working on your father's films?
What are your strongest memories of working on your father's films?
My first vague memory is of being on the sound stages of WALL STREET (1987). I was just two years old at the time. My first memory of being on camera is playing one of the kids in the beginning of BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989), running around the woods with these WW2 era guns, having a little mock war. It was a lot of fun because I was a kid and I loved to play games like tag. It was the first time that I was conscious that this was a movie and I was in it, but I didn't really register where the camera was. I was only on screen very briefly. On THE DOORS (1991) I was really conscious of the camera because I had to take direction from my father on where to look and what expression to give, and to hit all the basic cues of acting. I wasn't realizing that I was being featured prominently on the screen. I was just a kid trying to do what my father was telling me to do.
How did it feel to see yourself on the screen for the first time?
I actually don't remember seeing myself on the screen for the first time. I remember being in the scenes more and feeling self-conscious about seeing myself on the screen. I think I was more engrossed in the films themselves when I was watching them than on watching my work. I never thought of myself as an actor. They were just cameos that my father asked me to do, and I did them as work.
He has said that it was a way of documenting my childhood and capturing these moments. I fit the roles he asked me to play because I was that age. I don't think he thought I was a great actor or anything like that. I remember going for an audition for SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (1993), and at that age there was too much dialogue. I couldn't process it. I really wasn't trained as an actor.
At what point did you realize your father was a huge filmmaker?
I think it was the moment he won his second Directing Oscar, for BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. I knew he was a top filmmaker but something clicked right there and I said to myself ''Oh, my father's famous.'' I must have been about five.
Did working with your father instill in you a desire to work in the film business?
It was really writing I enjoyed. I had always been writing and I made my own short film when I was seven. My ambition at that point though was not to be a filmmaker but to be a writer in some capacity. The idea of making films was something that took a while for me to come to terms with because I didn't see it as a business. Writing was just something that I liked to do. I loved storytelling and the visions that came with it. I think only once you start grappling with the parameters of making a film and how much of a business it is do you see how much of a business it is and how the marketing is so important. You realize that side of it sucks. The creative fantasy side of it is very small compared to the business side of it.
Was your father keen for you to work in the film business?
Far from it. He always discouraged me from following in his career path. He wanted me to get other Degrees. That's partly why I went to Princeton, with his encouragement. To get ahead in L.A., he was hoping I would seek another business venture first. I almost went to Law School. I got into Fordham Law School after college, and the intention was to defer one or two years and then go back, but it takes so long to get into film that if you don't work at it, you won't make it. It takes about five years to become a good director.
I've always been interested in history. I had a lot of conversations with my dad about history and politics when I was in high school. We would travel to foreign countries, and I got a certain perspective about the nature of power. I think my interest in politics came from those travels. In high school I was interested in American foreign policy, and I was interested in history in college. But now I'd say politics to me is like joining the Mafia - it's organized legitimate crime. There's just too much money in it. These guys are basically just bagmen for the corporate interests. Their el capos. I just don't have any interest in that field.
How did you start working on documentaries for your father's films?
My first documentary was on ALEXANDER. My dad had talked to me before starting ALEXANDER about me being a part of it in some capacity. I wasn't approaching films as an actor at this point. We were just thinking I could accompany him somehow. He was shooting during the first term of my sophomore year of college. Initially I visited him and then went back to college, but I felt like I was missing out on a big opportunity here. This was a major motion picture, one of the biggest budget films up to that time, and it was being shot on three continents. It seemed like a journey I wanted to witness and be a part of. I decided to drop out for that semester and join him on the movie. My father honoured my wishes but said ''What are we going to do with you on the film?'' That's when I was hired by Warner Home Video to do making-of vignettes. They gave me a budget and I followed my dad around and recorded as much as I could. I ended up with a hundred hours of footage. That's where the three short pieces and the feature-length documentary 'The Fight Against Time' came from.
What major things did you learn about your father's working practices and filmmaking in general from your time on ALEXANDER?
The documentary ('The Fight Against Time') shows you all there is to see about a director. For me, the important thing was for me to be there, on a step by step basis, every day. I'd never been on a film shoot that intensely before. If you factor in the time period, my dad hadn't done a feature in about five years, which was about from the ages of thirteen to eighteen for me. Since being more mature, I hadn't seen him in action on a film set. There was a sense of urgency, and a huge number of questions my dad had to deal with. To be a director, you have to have the ability to use your left and right brain, be organized, on time, on schedule and work through your day in a systematic kind of way. And simultaneously you need to be creative, exploring emotions and trying to express yourself artistically within these time constraints. It's a dynamic that if you're not a great director, you just can't quantify. You just have to experience it and feel it unfold.
How tough was it shooting and editing your own documentary under the same time constraints?
The constraints of editing it over one summer were certainly tough. Creatively it was hard work because with a documentary you don't have a script in advance, and you have to create the story in post-production. You have a hundred hours to get through and it's not easy to find that story sometimes.
Did you find yourself censoring the documentary in any way?
I didn't really censor anything. My editor and I were pretty candid and raw. For example, we captured some great moments with Colin Farrell, and with my father talking to me. The only stuff that was censored was on set. I couldn't record my father talking to the actors. That was something he obviously wanted to keep private. He's very intimate when he directs, so that was the only thing that was off-limits.
I'd wanted to become a director since writing my own scripts, and that's why I actually directed the documentaries. I write certain scripts knowing I'm going to let them go, but others are very personal like GREYSTONE PARK, which I wanted to direct from square one. I ended up acting in it too by accident. Each project is a different equation and a different process.
Why was GREYSTONE PARK so personal? How did you come to make it?
I lived GREYSTONE PARK. The story that unfolds on-screen is very true to the actual events. I met my co-writer and co-star Alex Wraith at a dinner with my father. Alex had been exploring this massive abandoned mental hospital in Jersey, which he compared to the hotel in THE SHINING (1980). So I said, I've always wanted to go on a ghost-hunt, let's do it! The following night, he and I were breaking into the abandoned hospital. That was only the beginning of about six months of exploring haunted places, returning to Greystone multiple times, and just learning to live with the reality that yes - there are beings that exist that are invisible to the human eye. But I think GREYSTONE really transformed me. It was my awakening to an inter-dimensional reality. And it really was like the hotel in THE SHINING. Even though it was abandoned, it was alive.
Was directing GREYSTONE PARK an exercise in learning your limits and strengths?
This being a feature, I had to find my storytelling capabilities, work with actors and make the film compelling and interesting to an audience.
What kinds of stories or genres are you most interested in exploring next?
I'd like to get away from horror next. You have to find a story that's unique and surprising and that compels you to do it, even if it means mixing genres, which I think is when films are sometimes their most interesting.
Do you think it's now more difficult to make the kinds of films you and your father are interested in making?
If you ask my father he'll tell you it is almost impossible to make films as controversial as he used to make. I don't know if my dad could get films like SALVADOR or PLATOON (1986) made today. I mean El Salvador was not a hot topic for mainstream American audiences. Vietnam had been done, but there was a fear that Americans didn't want to deal with Vietnam. They were riskier times. It's a different era now. I just don't think you could compare late 80s/ 90s filmmaking to what we have now. There's just not so much a studio system that fosters artists in the same way. It's a system very much driven by big actors, foreign sales numbers, franchises and built-in appeal. Of late my father hasn't done as controversial or risky films as he once did.
You converted to Islam. How does your religion influence the projects you choose to develop?
It doesn't really affect it at all. It does make me more aware of some interesting Islamic stories and of the narrative that is taking place in the Middle East right now. It expands my consciousness of things in the Muslim world. It's interesting to look at the different spiritual equations and how all the different religions have their variations of demons and spirits. Having found in Islam the same respect for fear of these entities, I've found that each religion has its own understanding of the spiritual world, and that this understanding is universal, no matter what religion you are. It's very interesting to me.
You are quite politically outspoken. Do you see this as an important thing to be?
Artists reflect the culture and are supposed to be engaged with the landscape. I think it's flawed when artists don't want to engage with that and just be insulated as if they're above it all. The whole point of art is to question things and reflect society, to hear a new point of view and [give] some food for thought. I'm interested in the system of power that we're confronted with. It's not just politics, it's corporate, it's financial. There are many factors involved. I'm not much interested in who is in political office or the frontman for the men behind the curtain.
Are you ever concerned about following in your father's footsteps?
I'm not really worried about it. I don't compare myself to my father. I just look at it like I had a great mentor and a great launching pad to start from. I'm blessed to have had his knowledge and wisdom with me throughout my life.
What is the most useful advice about directing and the film business your father has given you?
My father is someone who lived most of the stories he's told. He either had the direct experience, or drew upon something similar that happened to him, in order to tell his stories. And as a writer, I believe in that. You have to know it to write it. So on the whole, his empirical approach to filmmaking has carried over into a cinema that's often times abrasive, in your face and powerful. But for my part, I'll find my own language and voice as I go. I don't have the same life experiences as my father, but I will still base my films in things that I believe in.
Buzzsaw can be accessed here.
I spoke to Sean by telephone on 19th September 2013 and by email during August 2014, and I would like to thank him for his time.