ZURICH — Oliver Stone knows how to wind a woman up.
Just ask Laura Poitras, whose Oscar-winning documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, came out two years ago to an Oscar win and critical raves while Stone’s new $40 million biopic Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has gotten mixed reviews and been bested by Sully and Bridget Jones’ Baby at the box office.
Poitras told The New York Times that Stone flew to see her in Berlin in 2014 to ask her to delay her film until his came out. When she declined, he reached over and in a “sort of joking way” pretended to strangle her, she said. (Stone later denied it.)
Cut to the release of Snowden last week. Melissa Leo, 56, plays the still fresh-faced Poitras, who is 52. Yet Leo is lit and styled so badly in the film that she looks 10 years older than either herself in real life or Poitras.
On the eve of the high-stakes presidential debate in the U.S., Stone, 70, is seated alone, like a restive pasha, in a chair at the far side of the football field-sized lawn at the Hotel Baur au Lac overlooking shimmering Lake Zurich.
It’s the same place Richard Wagner read his The Ring in public in 1853. But today it resembles a scene out of a 1970s thriller like Three Days of the Condor, where tension and danger lie just under the pastoral surface.
Stone is here for the Zurich Film Festival after screening a movie that tells the world that cyber-surveillance isn’t about terrorism at all but about “economic and global control.”
The Oscar-winning filmmaker said at the festival’s summit last Saturday that making Snowden, which was turned down by most of the major studios, was a “desperate nail-clinging fucking venture, there’s as much drama in [making Snowden] as there is in the film itself.”
But the film’s release coincided with The Washington Post, recipient of a Pulitzer for stories based on information Snowden gave them, saying he shouldn’t be pardoned.
Nor is there much indication that the general public or the presidential candidates are heeding Snowden’s warnings about the consequences of mass surveillance. One of the best things about Snowden is showing how chilling they can be. In one scene, Gordon-Levitt instructs his girlfriend, played by Shailene Woodley, to put a Band-Aid over her laptop camera because it can be so easily accessed.
Maybe the absence of drama following the release of Snowden is why Stone’s studio entourage, ostensibly there to herd reporters, instead roams the hotel grounds like a counterintelligence detail sweeping the place for spies.
One of them abruptly comes over to me. I’ve been waiting on the lawn to speak to Stone as scheduled in advance.
“What?” I say. “You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s Mr. Stone,” the publicist said. “He doesn’t know what The Daily Beast is and he needs to know how many readers you have before he decides to do the interview.”
“I’ll send you the URL from Wikipedia,” I said, already annoyed and rising to the bait. “Are you telling me he might blow off this interview?”
“He might,” said the publicist. “He’s pretty tired. But I’ll do my best.”
Several minutes later, without further explanation, I’m escorted on the long walk across the lawn to Stone. It’s true. He did look tired.
But after that? We might as well have both been back on the grassy knoll in JFK, because the conspiracy theories Stone is so famous for in his films were already flying in regards to what just transpired—and we hadn’t even gotten to Snowden, Trump, Clinton, Obama, or the NSA yet.
Also, I was told I had only six minutes.
“I understand you’ve never heard of The Daily Beast,” I began.
“Oh, no, of course I know it very well,” said Stone.
“So why did your guy tell me you didn’t know what it was and because of that you might not talk to me?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” said Stone, looking aggrieved before launching into a lengthy synopsis of a film I told him I’d seen and liked very much.
“It was very complicated to get this down accurately,” said Stone of the movie, which ends with a scene of the real Snowden shot in a dacha outside Moscow where Snowden has been living since fleeing Hong Kong in 2013.
The same could be said of talking to Stone himself, who tells me he’s a “truth seeker” but in person seems like more of an old-school Hollywood hard guy, more intent in keeping you off-guard than keeping it real—even if it means not fully selling his film.
The only way to buy more time with him is to be as combative as he is. That seems to count for charm in Stone’s universe, because six minutes have come and gone and now Stone’s hand is occasionally touching my knee. “Let her talk!” he calls to the hovering publicists who want to wrap up. “Give her more time.”
Though he’s been called thin-skinned during his 40-year career, Stone maintains that he’s not that disappointed that some critics loved Poitras’ film but felt Stone’s take on Snowden wasn’t “crazy enough.”
Some critics have always been out to get him, he says. “I’m trying to put something solid out that people may not get now but will understand later.”
Among those who don’t get it are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, “neither of whom have discussed the surveillance state, or climate change for that matter,” he said. “They’re just trying to get elected at any cost. I won’t be watching the debates.”
When asked at the Saturday summit if he’d consider making a movie about Trump, Stone responded, “Why him?”
“Why not Mrs. C? Why not Hillary, the evil Hillary?” he said. “They say I don’t do women characters, well I think she deserves the full treatment.”
He tells me that Clinton, whom he memorably slammed as a “harder line version of Obama” when praising Bernie Sanders last March, would be the best choice for a biopic because “she’s been around forever. She’s survived many scandals. She’s not uninteresting but it would have to be a biography that was honest.”
Is there a part of him that wishes Trump would win just to blow up the whole system?
“Oh God no,” he said. At the same time he dismisses a recent report that federal investigators are looking into possible ties between Trump adviser Carter Page, who has extensive business interests in Russia, and senior Kremlin officials.
“This is all PC news,” he said, “ like the DNC hack. It’s sexier to blame the Russians. It’s cheap thrills but it’s also dangerous. Most articles don’t provide hard proof (of real Russian involvement) but if you continue poking the so-called enemy, they’re very paranoid and they’re going to worry more about the United States’ sanity. Saying it’s all the Russians is like a Richard Condon movie, like the Manchurian Candidate.”
Speaking of conspiracy theory movies, does Stone know that some 9/11 “truthers” believe his 2006 World Trade Center film secretly goes along with the idea that the attacks were an inside job—and is he a truther as well?
“Well I’m certainly disturbed by a lot of the facts (of the 9/11 attacks),” Stone said. “I read Philip Shenon’s book The Commission: What We Didn’t Know About 9/11. He raises just the problems with the Commission. It was so politicized from the beginning with the guy in charge of it, [Philip D.] Zelikow. Hard to get to the truth. A lot came out and there’s more that will come out.”
Stone said he doesn’t consider himself a true truther.
“But the neocons definitely had an agenda in the 1998 statement and they want to lead a war in the Middle East,” he said. “They got rid of seven countries with a regime change and they’re pretty much there. Iran’s the next big prize but Russia is the real prize.”
His advice for American voters? He won’t advocate for Trump or Clinton, just “think before you act.”
What Stone would like to see, he said, “is for President Obama to leave office with a hint of grace by pardoning Snowden.”
“He’s oppressed journalists as much as any administration ever as well as using the Espionage Act against eight people, whistleblowers especially,” Stone said. “It would be nice to see him be a little bit more human.”
Stone, for his part, is no longer oppressing journalists, at least today. He agrees to give me his cell phone number in case I have follow-up questions, odd in light of his recent PSA showing him holding up a cell phone and saying, “This will be our undoing,” while warning that the trust we put in our devices voluntarily is “enough to burn your life to the ground.”
“Don’t abuse it,” he warns, “and don’t give it to anyone else.”