Oliver Stone: Putin is ready to negotiate on everything but Russia’s national interests
He’s won Oscars and Golden Globes, and his films are cult classics, part of the American consciousness. Now, Oliver Stone’s latest project is an extensive series of interviews with Vladimir Putin. We caught up with the director himself in Moscow to talk about the experience.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Hi, Oliver Stone. Great to have you with us today. Hope you’re having a great trip to Moscow.
Oliver Stone: Yes. Just got here.
SS: So, your book companion to your extensive interviews with Putin, is being published by “Alpina”. You called the “The Putin Interviews” “a 4-day audacious climax to my strange life as an American filmmaker”. Climax to your career? Is this the best thing you’ve ever done?
OS: You know, I have to take the point of view that it could be the last film. You never know. Time seems more precious when you get a little bit older. And, as a filmmaker, it’s a very young profession. In America especially. It kind of goes fast. You don’t get often another chance. I felt like it was kind of a climax. Not that it’s a feature film. But that - let’s say, at this time of history - it’s the the most forbidding character to American media, to America and Western Europe, too. A forbidding kind of cross into another world. I’m glad I got here. I mean, I did Mr. Castro, Mr. Chavez, I did Mr. Arafat. And also Netanyahu, who was [my] character, back when he was out of office. He’s now in power forever, it seems. But these characters all led me to this moment with Mr. Putin. And, frankly, I enjoyed meeting him. I met him originally on one of my trips to Russia, because I was interviewing Snowden a lot. We were doing research with Ed. And a lot of the movie “Snowden” represents what Ed’s point of view was. So, getting that information took time. We came back and we were trying to be accurate. The last scene of the movie we shot in Moscow. When I met Mr. Putin, which was in the backroom of a theater, in Moscow - a play, an old 1960’s play, he was attending to promote folkloric culture. We met in the back and I asked him about Mr. Snowden. And he gave me the Russian version, his version of what happened. Which was fascinating, different than what we had been told in the public, newspapers and so forth. But anyway, to cut the long story short, getting back to the end of the movie “Snowden”, we shot in Moscow with Ed to a weekend, and we turned around a few days later. And we went to Kremlin and we shot Mr. Putin over three days. At that time we didn’t know if this would go on. It was simply taking as it comes, like you’re doing, and play it by ear. It was spontaneous. I gave him a list of quick questions, the areas I was going to cover. But it wasn’t limited, he didn’t edit anything.
SS: So it was totally spontaneous.
OS: I think so.
SS: You didn’t have any limitations as to what to ask.
OS: I felt comfortable all the way through. And as you can see, every day I look different. He was always the same. He looked very together. I was sometimes jet-lagged, my hair blowing in the wind. I changed appearances several times. In other words, I’m the opposite of an American anchor, I don’t look like Megyn Kelly. I don’t look like you even.
SS: I know what kind of a great effort it takes to get that access to Putin. That’s not easy. A lot of Russian journalists, even top journalists don’t get that kind of access. And I know how much effort it took you to make this happen and make it come together. And then the minute this comes out it was so talked about in Russia. And, obviously, the whole American press right away lashed out at you, saying you were so ‘flattering’ to Putin, that you’re a ‘bad interviewer’. Do you care, does it get under your skin? Because it was a lot of work you do with Putin.
OS: That was a lot of work. But I never said I was a journalist. And I didn’t pretend to be one. Look, I’m a film director. You know me from the films and you may know me from some of the past interviews I did with the public figures. But I’m not pretending to be anything else.
SS: I know you said in response that you didn’t have an opinion about anything that you are doing, that you’re neutral. At the same time, I watched the [Putin] series. You said a lot of flattering things about Putin. Do you think you managed to stay objective and neutral?
OS: I don't b******t. I try to stick to what I feel is the truth. I didn’t say one false word to Mr. P. at all. What I meant is what I said. When I said to him... I think it was one of the first things I said, I said “It strikes me that you’re a son of Russia. Because when you came in the country at the time when it was just in the dumps, it was 1999-2000. The place was a mess! The real economic story. And what you did was you turned things around. No one could take that away from you.” And I think that’s one of the reasons he’s still popular. It’s because he brought a sense of place, destiny, a sense that “we are Russian, we have much to be proud of, we have a history”. He re-asserted the concept of a sovereign country, which was crucial. Because Russia was not a sovereign country from approximately 1991 to 2000. It was losing that sovereignty, completely. The U.S. and other people were walking all over the place and basically monitoring whatever they wanted. The were all over the nuclear industry. Look, the point is that Putin gave Russia something that is really important in this world. And we can get back to that. Because that’s the bottom line. We need an anchor in the world, we need a resistance to exist, [a resistance] to the… call it the dominion of U.S.
SS: I know you don’t want to talk about politics but this is a very hypothetical question. You have sided people on whom you’ve done movies - Chavez, Castro, Putin. These are strong men, you obviously have attraction to strong men. Do you feel like this is the future of politics, leaders like that? They are very strong, uncompromising, very controversial in many ways. Or should politics be about dialogue and political correctness?
OS: Oh, it is about dialogue, too. And these men were all open to dialogue. You could argue who said what to who. But the point was that Castro tried to negotiate with the United States for a long time. And he was rebuffed. Not only was he rebuffed, he was insulted. And they tried to assassinate him many times. So what is dialogue? Dialogue is important. And Mr. Chavez certainly had this point of view. If you remember, he shook Obama’s hand, he really was hoping there was going to be a new approach from the United States. It didn’t happen. So it is about dialogue. It’s about compromise, politics. And above all, if I can give you an overall opinion of Mr. Putin, he’s the ultimate negotiator, he’ll wear you out. He really believes in talking out everything. There are certain points of interest for every country. Every country has national interests and he constantly harks on this. Russia has its national interests. And he’s open to negotiating anything but those national interests. And when you cross the line - he will let you know. As you know, I pushed him. Whatever people say, I pushed him. Certainly, I could feel his irritation when I was pushing him hard on the democracy question, on the question of his succession, on what’s going to happen next year. There were times I riled him. More than once. But I am concerned. And the reason I undertook the series was that I was very concerned about going back to my relationship to Russia - what happened to the American-Russian relationship that had existed in 2000?
SS: Do you feel like your film can change the American attitude to Putin?
OS: It has, to some degree. More than several million people saw it. And this is on premium cable channel Showtime, it’s not on a national channel like in Russia, so you have a limited prescription audience. It was seen. And it’s seen again. But it was also shown in Europe, in a lot of places. And we had a very good debate in France. It was public television channel France 3. Hubert Védrine, the Ex-Foreign Minister of Mr. Mitterrand, and several other people defended the movie very well against the opposition, I thought. So the debate was very French. But in other words, in Europe, in Germany, France, Italy these things matter. It’s very important. Whether things change as a result - it’s hard to tell. Because recently the U.S. Congress, which stuns me, voted almost unanimously for sanctions against Russia to be expanded. This happened recently. It seems to be almost a reaction to Trump.
SS: Do you think Trump wants in some way to emulate leaders like Putin?
OS: Perhaps, he is. I’m not sure. I can’t tell you what is in Donald Trump’s head, I don’t think anyone can. I don’t think he’s stupid. I think he’s a very sharp guy. I’m sure he respects things. But he may misunderstand Mr. Putin too, so I don’t know. But he certainly hasn’t lived up to the idea he gave many people during the campaign, that he was against any foreign interventions, that he thought the United States had squandered its resources, its assets in wars abroad. There was this thinking that it would change, but it hasn’t changed. Not because of his willpower, but because he hasn’t been able to get anywhere in his administration, he’s been stuck in gridlock from the beginning. Opposition has been severe.
SS: Also maybe it’s because of Russia?
OS: No, that has been an excuse. He’s been attacked profoundly for Russia. There‘s no evidence as yet that I have seen that indicates Russia is in any collusion with Mr. Trump. He’s not this Manchurian candidate. I thought this was a surprisingly stupid the story. But it got a lot of attraction in America, which worries me. And shows you how, frankly, stupid the American voter can be. I don’t believe most of them do. But I don’t know, the polling is off on it, it doesn’t make sense.
SS: But if you say no one elected gets to change the system. Does it even matter who you vote for in the US?
OS: Well, that’s what Mr. Putin says at the end of the interview. He says he’s been through four [American] presidents. And I asked him “what’s changed?” and he said “basically, nothing”. So he’s indicating that there’s a bureaucracy. He called it a bureaucracy, in America they call it a ‘deep state’. A bureaucracy that has been resistant to change. Certainly, the policies towards Russia in the United States have for the most part been highly negative since 1917, since the revolution, when President Wilson sent American troops to Siberia to join the British expeditionary force.
SS: Is a second Cold War a figure of speech or is there more to it?
OS: It’s a figure of speech for sure. Cold War, it’s a very dangerous war. You could even say the original Cold War - was that really a ‘cold’ war? There were so many proxy wars that we fought in the name of fighting communism, like Vietnam, and among others, Korea. You wonder how many people died in the name of that Cold War, millions of third world people had been hurt. All over Africa there were battles. And certainly we’ve seen now in the Middle East, the enormous amount of damage. The specter of communism doesn’t work anymore. The U.S. was not able to use that. But there is this inherent carry-over, in fact. And I’m sure that this is in the minds of those congressmen that voted for the expansion of Russian sanctions. In their mind, it’s some form of the old Russia.
SS: That kind of went away in the 80’s and the 90’s. How come it came back so strongly? What does it take for that paradigm to disappear from the American mind? Generations?
OS: I was quite surprised by that. I was, in fact, shocked by that. Talking to Mr. Gorbachev was one of the most wonderful moments in my life. I felt that 1989 in my lifetime was a spring, springtime of hope, a new feeling that this thing was going to change. The [Berlin] Wall came down. All the Eastern European countries expressed a bloodless revolution. Really a bloodless revolution. And Russia, too. Relatively. In America we saw Mr. Gorbachev as a lion, as a hero. In this country, of course, he was seen as a weak man who had lost control of this empire. So it’s a whole different view of it. I’ve been seeing Gorbachev since then, I’ve been through his criticisms of Mr. Putin. And I have to say, the last time I saw him he said that Mr. Putin is the guy for now, whatever they say. Because America has violated that compact he made in 1989, that NATO would not go east one inch if the Germanies were united - he allowed for that. That has not happened, NATO has been accelerated under Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And Mr. Gorbachev has pointed out also, what Mr. Putin says, that they agree on the abrogation of the ABM Treaty by Mr. Bush in 2001. It was a vast mistake. It undermines the balance of power that exists between the two countries. On top of that, you have the American support, as Putin said, of terrorists in the Caucasus. On top of that, you have opposing points of view on Ukraine, obviously. And Putin states clearly in this book what his case is, which Americans don’t hear. And on top of that, you have Syria. Which, again, it’s amazing to me how underreported that war is. RT has covered it.
SS: What about Yemen? Aren’t you surprised how underreported Yemen is?
OS: Yes, of course. I can go on. I don’t have a laundry list, but the point is [clear].
SS: I wanted to talk about the context in which this book came out. It feels, in the weird way, that when the actual Cold War was in place it was very clear-cut. You had two sides against each other. Now for me is so much scarier. The world is multipolar and there’s so much chaos around. Everyone’s trying to pull it on themselves. And all these conflicts you’ve just mentioned and many more we didn’t mention are going on because of that. And we don’t understand how they’re going to end or if they’re going to end...
OS: It’s always messy. You’re young, you must be in your thirties. You know, to me, the original Cold War was very confusing and not so clean ‘us against them’. In fact, I went to Vietnam as a young man believing we were fighting communism. In other words, there were a lot of disguises. And when you look back at the whole history of that period - as we tried to do in the “Untold history of the United States” - I would have to tell you that it’s very clear this was a farce. That the U.S. really pulled the wool over the world’s eyes and made the Soviet Union the fall guy. After having one World War they made them the fall guy for the World War II, too and equated Hitler with Stalin and all this stuff went on. It comes out of the misunderstanding of what that first cold war was. America has spent a fortune fighting this war. It has deprived its own people, us, the American people. Of better education, better system, more security, health, wealth... All these things that are giving these problems now, this social net that’s disappearing, they could have come out of that, instead of the money being spent on the Cold War. So we paid a huge price for it. And it never let up. I remember in 1989 there was talk of the ‘peace dividend’. They talked of it. What happened to the peace dividend? A few weeks after the Berlin Wall fell Mr. Bush Sr. was going into Iraq sending 500,000 troops to the Middle East. It was a big thing. Because when we sent 500,000 troops to Vietnam, it was actually under Lyndon Johnson - that was a huge deal. And the press made a big number out of that. Not since World War II that we knew these numbers were too big. We were fighting with too many men. It wouldn’t work, it was too big. And what happened? We forgot about it! Mr. Reagan helped a lot with his campaign to forget the Vietnam War. And we were sending half a million men again abroad to fight in the Middle East. We never got out of the Middle East! I made a movie about it called “W.”, in which Dick Cheney’s character is asked “What is our exit policy?” and he says “There is no exit.” And the truth is - we haven’t. There is no exit to Iraq. We’re here. Those 500,000 men in one form or another have never left the Middle East. This is heartbreaking stuff, if you have any sense of history. I knew this was a mistake. The Iraq War I was a huge mistake, I thought there was plenty of room to negotiate!
SS: When films like that come up - “W.” for instance or the “Untold History of the United States” - how is it perceived in America, when you pretty much denounce a lot of tropes and facts in American history?
OS: I can’t tell you it’s easy. But I think these are some one of the most important works I’ve done in my life. I’m very proud of those two films. I paid a price for it. Some people don’t consider me in the debate, but neither do they consider people like Noam Chomsky. There is no center in the U.S. political discourse - it’s all center-right. Ever since the Clinton people came into power the center has become the right. There is no peace party that exists in my country. I don’t see any evidence of it. Except this third party, The Green Party, that is so criticized, among others.
SS: People make fun of it.
OS: Yes, why? You see, when I grew up I always had the feeling that the Democrats were the people who were at least concerned about peace. Now that seems to have been squandered, that feeling is squandered. I don’t sense any consensus. The only one who did was Bernie Sanders, and if you remember correctly, he very rarely mentioned foreign policy. He stayed away from it because he knew that it was the ‘third rail frame’.
SS: And he was too socialistic for America to actually get somewhere.
OS: Well I don’t know about that. Because America may have to go more socialistic in order to survive. If things fall apart and we continue to have crises after crises, stock market explosions and meltdowns and so forth...
SS: Right now they went all the way to Trump to change something.
OS: Yes, but remember when Mr. Obama sunk, what was it, 750 billion dollars into the economy - that’s what I would call a socialist move. Where the U.S. is going is very interesting. I think I’m going to try to stick around and see, because I think that’s a great question. Just to be on the sidelines and see what happens. It could get really ugly and be pretty nasty too in terms of casualties. It scares me in the sense that the U.S. might lose its self-control. And, this concept, out of a sense of panic and fear attack, that Russia is responsible for everything - it’s insane. It’s very easy to resort to that kind of 1950’s primitivism, like Joseph McCarthy did. I was told when I was a young boy “the Soviets are in our schools, they are in our colleges, creeping in our system. The Soviets are going to take us over without even a war.” I heard this from serious people. You have to allow that this mentality exists. When you are around a vigilante mob that hangs people it’s scary. Because common sense comes out of the window - it’s the first thing. And decency and humanity go out of the window. So it scares me, that mentality. And it’s rampant.
SS: You know a lot about politics, you know about politicians. And you know something about scripts. Give me a scenario of how this should work out. A realistic point.
OS: Now you’re asking me for a movie! In my point of view for the American side, it’s not going to happen any other way. And that’s what’s frightening. Because I don’t see Russia can take any initiative at this point. Except for surrender, with completely all of your nuclear arms and you have a regime change, Mr. Putin resigns. Which is insane. It won’t happen, because Russian people support him. I don’t see any way out right now. Now, third parties do exist, they come into being. There are de Gaulles that come up. Charles de Gaulle... You hope for a French leader or a European leader. I was very disappointed in Merkel throughout this whole process. Because she knows better, she knows the real story of Ukraine. She doesn’t fall for it. Because her Foreign Minister was involved - they knew what was going on, it was a coup d'état in the Ukraine. But in other words, there has to be some kind of a European leader...
SS: That will say no to America?
OS: Yes, that’s one way of putting it. I was around when Mr. de Gaulle said no to America. That was quite good. De Gaulle was really a proud man. Proud for France. One hopes for that. But there are other ways that the blocks could be broken. There’s of course China. That’s a huge number, but the U.S. is taking a hard line on China. Doesn’t say it, like it does say it about Russia. But the reason that we’re arming Korea to the degree that we are, and Japan, is truly against the Chinese, is to encircle the Chinese. But I worry about Korea, because we, again, have so many arms we’ve put in into Japan and Korea. It can blow up in a second, it’s like a tinderbox. It doesn’t look good. At your age, I would like to live out the rest of my life. What do you do? You’re bringing attention to it. That’s the best you can do right now.
SS: To my view, you should make a movie about this. And you shouldn’t certainly end your carrier.
OS: That’s what documentaries are for. That’s why I did this one. Because I did care. I want peace to have a chance. And I think, every time I talk to Putin over these thirty hours I never sensed any other desire in his part but to have a balance of power, respect for each other’s sovereignty, and a sense of peace in the world. And that’s what people don’t accept from him. They can’t believe this man they consider a villain is an admirer of peace.
SS: Oliver Stone, thank you very much for this amazing interview. Good luck with everything.
OS: Thanks, Sophie.