Date posted: 1/12/2016 8 min read

Movie director Oliver Stone offers his leadership tips

Three-time Academy Award winner Oliver Stone on leadership, talent and making history

In brief

  • Making a movie is like leading a business - the challenge is to galvanise all stakeholders
  • Success in filmmaking, as in business, often comes down to how you manage your staff
  • The financial crisis motivated him to make Wall Street - banks have distorted themselves, he says

Photography by Carlos R. Alvarez

What works for film directors isn’t necessarily going to work for other leaders, says three-time Academy Award winner Oliver Stone.

“Purity works for film but is not necessary for making toothpaste,” he told the World Business Forum in Sydney in May.

But at least one thing remains key whether your business is in the arts, manufacturing or services.

“The leadership has to be authentic,” Stone says.

“You are trying get different groups working together — bringing it all together without fighting each other,” he commented in an interview with Chartered Accountants ANZ Chief Executive Lee White FCA.

Making a movie is like leading a business with multiple divisions and multiple goals. The challenge is to galvanise all the stakeholders into a cohesive operation working towards a shared vision.

“It’s very difficult. Actors have egos. Sometimes he won’t do what you think he should. Production designers often go off on their own – you see the set and you say ‘this is not what we talked about’.”

So how do you get everyone rowing in the same direction? Stone’s advice is simple.

“You start with a script.”

Think plan on a page. Think strategy summary. Think mission statement. It doesn’t matter what it is called. But it matters greatly that everyone in the business buys into it.

“There has to be something greater than yourself. People respect that. If they don’t respect you as a director the script still stands as a shining light. That works for people.”

Success

Stone’s first major film success was as a scriptwriter. His screenplay for Midnight Express (1978) was turned into a hit film, earning Stone his first Academy Award. He also wrote crime hit Scarface (1983) and the less critically successful Conan the Barbarian (1982).

His directorial breakthrough came with Platoon in 1986. The realistic depiction of the life of a GI in Vietnam was controversial for showing violence by American troops against civilians. Stone, who served in the Vietnam War, says it is important for a country to understand the truth of its history.

But his script was not initially popular and sat on the shelf for a decade.

“The directors and actors who made the first Vietnam War movies had no realistic assessment of what war was like on the ground. When I saw Rambo and all those films I gave up.

“I got the chance to make it [Platoon] ten years after I wrote it. I never thought I would end up directing it.”

Stone says Vietnam was a tremendously ugly war.

“We went into the villages, the My Khe [a hamlet associated with the infamous My Lai killings], and messed with them constantly.

“I tried to tell what I thought was the truth. I got myself in a lot of hot water for doing it.”

But while some criticised the depiction of violence by American troops, others found in Platoon an opportunity to celebrate Vietnam veterans — although Stone says the film was never meant as a celebration.

“Generally, popular films are a result of a misunderstanding between the public and the director,” he chuckles wryly.

Boards take money out of companies to line their own pockets, not grow the company.

Money

“I was fired by my first accountant because I didn’t make any money,” says Stone.

That wouldn’t happen now. Celebritynetworth.com estimates his personal fortune at US$50m. Not bad for a kid who rejected the opportunity to take up a career in finance because he didn’t have a head for figures.

“It takes a certain kind of mind to wrap itself around bonds and dividends. I just couldn’t do it.”

Nevertheless, money, and the pursuit of it, has been a recurring theme in his movie career. Not least in the hit movie Wall Street (1987).

The film, in part inspired by Stone’s stockbroker father Lou, was a critique of the culture of excess in the financial markets of the 1980s. It struck a chord with audiences grossing US$4.1m on its opening weekend.

Stone’s father worked for Sanford Weill, who later formed Citigroup. Stone notes that after a highly successful career in the financial sector Weill now says it was “a bad thing” to deregulate Wall Street. Weill has also advocated reform of the banking industry.

“We know now, in the Reagan era many got rich, but many got poorer. But the 1980s have influenced America. We got more conservative in our politics.”

You can’t make movies without money and Stone has extensive experience dealing with sources of funding.

Producers in particular have an important role in the financial side of the movie business and are crucial, he says, for gaining funding. Stone has 28 production credits — including films such as JFK (1991) and The People vs Larry Flint (1996) — alongside his 29 credits as a director. And he is fairly cynical about where his funding comes from.

“Corporate boards have always been a problem in my life [in terms of getting funding for projects]. Boards take money out of companies to line their own pockets, not grow the company.”

Funding issues gave him advance warning of the GFC when money for a project was pulled as the crisis unfolded.

“Merrill Lynch was one of the funders and shooting was cancelled at the last minute. We knew something was happening on Wall Street but who knew it was one of the worst crises?”

His response to the GFC was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), the follow-up to his 1980s smash hit.

“The crisis motivated me to do it. It was clear to me that Gekko had become the bank. I grew up when banks were banks but that’s no longer the case. There’s no way to save money, there are no interest rates, there’s nothing.”

Banks have distorted themselves, he says, and that’s difficult for people to understand.

“At the time I made Wall Street, talking about figures like 100 million dollars was a shock. Today it’s a billion or more, the scale of money is staggering.”

Talent

Success in filmmaking, as in other business spheres, often comes down to how you manage your staff, he says.

And the big risk in movies is with the actors.

“Sometimes an actor is wrong. To say no is the key. If you get the wrong actor you are screwed.

“Sometimes you cover it up, as a lot of good directors have done. Otherwise you let the person go. Hopefully in the first two weeks before it is too late.”

There is a talent shortage in Hollywood just as there is often said to be in finance.

“You don’t have too much choice. You have availability issues, budget issues.

“Sometimes they give you a list and you can get the movie made with this list.”

Having got the talent in, the next challenge is how to get the best out of them.

“Sometimes you push an actor, sometimes you badger him. You might say ‘you do what you want’. Then one day he says ‘tell me what to do’. It’s a delicate balance.

“Some of them don’t even know what they are saying, but they are saying it well. They argue about it — I just think ‘that’s okay, if that is what they think it is about. You don’t even know what you are saying but you are giving a great performance’.”

Politics

Stone has made three biopics on US presidents — JFK (1991, two Academy Awards), Nixon (1995, four Academy Award nominations) and W. (2008). They weren’t equally successful.

“Kennedy [JFK] was a surprising hit worldwide. Part of that is because it is Kennedy, but it has good tension and thrust,” Stone says.

“A lot of people don’t like Nixon and his face on the poster didn’t do us any good.”

George W Bush was even less popular and this influenced the impact of W. at the box office.

“This fellow was one of the most hated presidents of his time. Nixon was three dimensional but Bush was two dimensional. Unlike Nixon, he was so confident he got up in the morning and looked in the mirror and liked what he saw. So he goes out and sells himself.

“He was the worst president the US has had.

“The movie came out at exactly the wrong time. When his popularity was about 30 per cent.”

While he does not try to hide his disdain for the former presidents, Stone is adamant that neither Nixon nor W. were political hatchet jobs.

“I’m a dramatist. Shakespeare didn’t like Richard the Third but he certainly did a good job. Both presidents I did not like but I made the movies not to show my political viewpoint, but to show theirs.”

It’s part of his desire to educate Americans about their history, something he has pursued through movies, documentaries and the television series Untold History of the United States.

He is evidently proud to relate that W. was considered bang on by some Bush supporters.

“Nancy Reagan, who knew him from his youth, said the movie was great. People say I’m a political filmmaker, but I’m a storyteller first and foremost.”

And as a dramatist he rates integrity and authenticity as keys to success. These are vital to motivate people, to convince people and to tell a good story.

“Authenticity sells itself if you know what you’re doing.”

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.

Top films and awards

  • Oliver’s army (a selection of films)
    • Midnight Express (screenplay 1978)
    • Scarface (screenplay 1983)
    • Salvador (writer/director 1986)
    • Platoon (writer/director 1986)
    • Wall Street (writer/director 1987)
    • Talk Radio (screenplay/director 1988)
    • Born on the Fourth of July  (screenplay/director 1989)
    • JFK (screenplay/director 1991)
    • The Doors (director 1991)
    • Natural Born Killers (director 1994)
    • Nixon (writer/director 1995)
    • Evita (screenplay 1996)
    • W. (director 2008)
  • Stone cold successes
    • 3 Academy Awards (Midnight Express, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July)
    • 4 Golden Globes (Midnight Express, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK)
    • 1 Primetime Emmy (Indictment: The McMartin Trial)
    • 1 Bafta (Platoon)
    • A range of festival awards and critical awards.

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