One of the most influential filmmakers of the previous century, Oliver Stone’s filmography is nothing less than a film school programme. When Stone directed the subliminal JFK (1991), which is also known as a subliminal ‘trip down the rabbit hole’, there was nothing that he could do wrong. One of the reasons for it was simply that Stone had already managed to do that. Reading Stone’s autobiography Chasing the Light: How I Fought My Way into Hollywood gives the reader a sense of the struggle that most filmmakers of the era underwent and how only a few of them could emerge victorious, in one way or the other, on the other side. Stone’s struggles are manifold and go beyond trying to break into Hollywood or surviving it after delivering initial washouts.
He spent his anxiety-filled growing up years between divorced parents, a French mother and an American stockbroker father. Later his decision to leave Yale University at the age of 18 in 1965 to teach English to high school students in Vietnam only added to the kind of material that makes for a good film. In 1967, Stone enlisted in the US Army and insisted on combat duty in Vietnam. He ended his tour of duty with the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
In the late 1960s, Stone was amongst scores of young Americans who joined film school. Interestingly enough, Martin Scorsese, a former alumnus, was one of his professors at New York University. After a few odd jobs, a failing marriage, and a series of incidents that included jail time in Mexico following a drug bust, Stone managed to direct his first feature, Seizure (1974). His adaptation of the true-life prison story Midnight Express (1978) shot him into the limelight. Stone won his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film, and although he directed one more film, The Hand, he made a name for himself as a writer. Stone was battling a cocaine addiction, and the tryst with fame did him little good. He won accolades for his next writing job, Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), but continued to face failure to get his dream project, which would eventually become Platoon, off the ground.
Despite two directing credits to his name, Stone’s transition from an Academy-winning writer to a bona fide filmmaker took a lot of time. In-between everything slipping away to making a heroic comeback is where the Oliver Stone story lies. For someone who struggled to get one film off, Stone’s Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986) were playing in cinemas simultaneously, and while the former resurrected his career, the latter cemented his legacy.
The effort that Stone put in to get Salvador made and the constant battle to not give up on Platoon, later making both the films in horrendous conditions, offer great insight into both the business of filmmaking as well as a creative mind. His writing is as passionate as his initial few films—raw, unrelenting and scathing—but it’s the way he structures his story that makes it all interesting. Ideally, someone of Stone’s vintage would be expected to tell the entire story, but he decides to stop it after Platoon hits the screen. This is a phase before Wall Street (1987), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK, The Doors (1991), and Natural Born Killers (1994). The best part about the book is how it puts it out there that there would be many instances where giving up could come easy in the course of chasing dreams. If you don’t, you might see great success, but fate and other things may extract a price.
As the years went by, Stone’s extreme left-wing political views coupled with his obsession with powerful men saw him sing peans of Fidel Castro, label Hitler as “an easy scapegoat throughout history.” Irrespective of how things turned out, this book finds Oliver Stone in his element as a great raconteur.
Chasing the Light
By Oliver Stone
Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: Rs 871