Oliver Stone: Gekko's empire is in decline
While Wall Street 2 director Oliver Stone blames Clinton's policies for the financial crisis as much as Bush's, he's still rallying against the Reagan era as Gordon Gekko emerges from prison.
Thus spake Gordon Gekko in the original "Wall Street," a 1987 drama that earned its director and co-writer, Oliver Stone, a slew of Oscar nominations and its star, Michael Douglas, a statuette as best actor for playing Gekko. Although the character meant that phrase unironically – as part of the gospel of Ronald Reagan era capitalism – Stone's movie viewed it with an arched eyebrow; it was a prelude to the seduction and corruption of the film's hero, Bud Fox, played by a then-baby-faced Charlie Sheen. But although the film was a hit, Stone's larger message about the moral perils of materialism did not sink in. The characters in "Boiler Room," a 2000 cautionary tale about greed, even quoted Gekko with a straight face, like football players reciting the wisdom of Vince Lombardi.
Stone is a half-Catholic, half-Jewish, Episcopalian-raised, Yale-educated son of a Wall Street banker, and a decorated Vietnam veteran. He was just 40 when he directed the original "Wall Street" – a muckraker and hellraiser emboldened by the back-to-back success of two 1986 movies, the Central American thriller "Salvador" and the Oscar-winning "Platoon."
The now-63-year-old Stone has finally directed a "Wall Street" sequel titled "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," which opened on Thursday. Except for Gekko, who returns to the financial scene after a prison stint for insider trading, the sequel's cast of characters is mostly new. Shia LaBeouf stars as a young trader trying to make money in green energy and avenge a grave wrong committed against a mentor. Josh Brolin plays a partner at a rival bank who engineers the destruction of the hero's firm. Carey Mulligan plays Gekko's daughter, Winnie, who was supposed to stake Gekko's return to Wall Street with a hidden stash, but reneged because she blames Gekko's rotten fathering for her brother's suicide.
We spoke to Stone last week in New York City about the two "Wall Street" movies, the evolution of the US and world economy, and the flap over his comments about Hitler, Israel and Jewish influence over the US media and government.
Matt Zoller Seitz: One of the things that surprised me about this movie is how different it felt in energy and tone from the first "Wall Street." The first film had a lot of critical things to say about the mentalities that you just described, but it was also a movie that made the making of money, and the deals themselves, exciting.
Oliver Stone: Because it was new. There was a crisp business moving. Now you've had CNBC for 20 years, you've had books, you've had magazines...
MZS: Well, but beyond that, there are two movies going on simultaneously here, and they're intertwined. One of them is that "Are-they-going-to-make-the-deal-or-not?" movie. But it's contrasted with these surprisingly tender domestic scenes that are about a husband and a wife, or a father and a daughter. And the message of those scenes is, "Money is what gets in the way of this stuff."
OS: Trust is an issue, isn't it? I mean, isn't the movie at a fundamental level like the old movies? It's the same story. It's about love and trust, greed and betrayal. In the first movie, Charlie Sheen betrays his dad – that's the crux of the movie – and he betrays his father's labour union, which he grew up with, in order to advance himself, and to advance Gordon Gekko. And he realises what he's done at the end. And he reforms – he faces the consequences.
This new movie is no different. I mean, everyone is tested. Shia LaBeouf, good kid, idealistic – he's trying to start an alternative energy, clean energy company, he brings the Chinese in, all that stuff. He's trying to help the world.
MZS: And make money.
OS: Yeah. And he's twisted. Doesn't he start up false rumours, malicious rumours, against Josh Brolin's character? He does, because he wants to get revenge. That's completely illegal! Then he actually does not tell the truth to his fiance twice. He betrays her. And she doesn't tell him the secrets of her own stash.
MZS: The hero is an honourable man, but only when it suits him.
OS: And so was Charlie Sheen in the first movie. So I'm saying there's a tension between what money makes you do against your own ... Wasn't there a line in the original movie where the old man, the Martin Sheen character, says, "Money makes you do things you don't want to do?" Something of that nature?
OS: And he also said, "Money is something you need to have in case you don't die tomorrow."
MZS: Watching Frank Langella, who plays Louis Zabel, the hero's mentor, I thought, "This is very possibly the most affectionate portrait of a lifelong, dedicated capitalist that I've seen in an Oliver Stone film."
MZS: And I'm looking at this and I'm wondering, "Were you thinking about your own dad in those scenes?" They were really rather sweet. And "sweet" is not an adjective I would normally attach to your movies.
OS: I think [Langella's character] was a much tougher guy than my dad. My dad was not as big of a big shot. This guy was a big shot ... He was a guy who ran money. He was tops in the day. But he's lost touch. He says early in the film, "They say a loss is a profit. I don't understand that shit." He comes from the day when at Lehman Brothers, the four partners would sit in the same office to make sure nobody would steal the goddamn money. That was where he came from. So he was out of touch. And Brolin says, "The guy knew how to run money, but you don't kill yourself." You know, that was an astute observation on Brolin's part.
No, the Langella character is not my dad. He's a tough guy ... I don't see him as necessarily a good guy. He could have been a pig, but he was good to Shia because the kid was his caddy once. But they're arrogant. All these guys are arrogant. When you get to the top, you're generally arrogant.
I think Gordon Gekko is closer to my dad, because Gekko to me is more torn, truly torn. I think the key scene in this film is when he comes out of prison and his daughter's not there. There's nobody there, he's looking around. That says a lot. Gekko references that later when he gets pissed in London at the kid. He says, "She wasn't there. I have a right to do what I'm doing. She wouldn't stake me. She promised me she would be there. It was my dough. She said she'd be there."
MZS: When people are on their deathbeds, they never think, "Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office."
OS: Gekko's torn that way, isn't he? He is pissed at her, he hates her for this. At the same time, he's on the steps of the museum begging her, convinced he needs her back in his life. So I don't think it's very simple for him. I think he's torn by money, torn by ego, by desire to get back in the game, to be respected, because he's an outsider looking in. He's writing a book, he's kvetching about the system.
MZS: He's been superseded by the next generation.
OS: So he gets back in London and he gets the beat again, and he gets the hedge fund, and the hedge fund can accelerate very fast in that period, because he's buying low. And I checked that, I know hedge funders that can do that. He gets a billion bucks ... Big deal. It's not a big deal to him. But he wants a grandson. That's part of an ego thing going on, too. He wants to have a male heir, I guess.
So Gekko to me is a very nuanced, torn creature in the sequel, unlike in the first film, in which he was one-note. I loved him in the first movie, but he was a superficial son-of-a-bitch reptile. In this picture, which way's he going to go? I kind of like that.
MZS: If you put both the films together, they're over four hours' worth of running time, and the only scenes in either of the movies where Gekko is always on the defensive are the scenes with his daughter in the sequel. He's hat-in-hand. Suddenly he's a beggar. That was something I didn't expect.
OS: Michael does reflect that. He's lived a life, Douglas. He's been through his son's thing. You know, life does that to you. Life makes you humble. It makes you learn.
MZS: The scenes where the Gekko character talks about the suicide of his son, which was obviously the most important event of his personal life – to what extent did various drafts of the script draw on Michael Douglas' own personal problems? Specifically his son's drug problems?
OS: His son was busted right before we were shooting. No, we committed to the storyline [before the bust]. If anything, I thought Michael might want to change some things. He didn't. He went right with it.
MZS: There was an intensity, there was a rawness, to the scenes where that material was discussed that felt like it kind of went beyond acting.
OS: Perhaps. We probably did more than one take. I don't know if Michael may have been pushing it, but certainly he felt it. He was relating to those scenes deeply, yeah. Sometimes that's not good. I have to watch it, because I don't want to go overboard. Carey Mulligan, who plays Gekko's daughter, Winnie, is very good too, in that scene. She anchors the scene, because basically it's a job of convincing. He has to persuade her. And he does, so that at a certain point it's all about her reaction shots. That's a scene where if you cut it another way, it doesn't work ... It's about persuasion. Seduction, too.
MZS: Based on what's up there on the screen, I get the feeling the man who directed the second "Wall Street" film is measurably, temperamentally different from the man who made the first "Wall Street."
OS: It's been 23 years. I've been through two divorces and more life. I think I was a hungry young man. It was my first studio film, "Wall Street," so I was excited. It was glamorous. I'm shooting in New York with studio money. I'd done low-budget: "Salvador," "Platoon." It was my first studio movie, I remember being very proud of that. I'm [portraying] a ruthless, exotic world. Nobody had really done that kind of movie. So it was all fresh and new. I loved the story. It was "The Pilgrim's Progress." It was a young man corrupted by the world, and I loved it. But it wasn't as deep as this movie, because this one has more ambivalence.
MZS: There's a deep scepticism about ideas of material success in this film, which was not as much of a factor in the first one.
OS: Oh, but I think it was. The father is, to me, a good guy – and by "father," I mean the Hal Holbrook character as well as Martin Sheen, the hero's actual father. They're both counterweights to Charlie's materialism. I think my dad was in Hal Holbrook too, because I know I wrote some of those lines – the abyss and all that. Those were my feelings at the time.
I've always felt, if you look back at my work, that there is a spiritual side. Even going back to "Platoon" – there were mystical concepts in it. I've always felt materialism has its limits. That feeling has only deepened with time, frankly. It hasn't changed, it's deepened, the awareness that money is so tricky, what money can do to people. Even to daughters and their mothers. Susan Sarandon's character [the hero's mother in "Money Never Sleeps"] is just an ordinary nurse until she goes into the real estate business. She represents, I suppose, something close to the middle class.
But there is really no middle class in this movie.
MZS: No, there isn't. That's a big change. In the 23 years that have elapsed between the first film and this one, what else has changed in the culture of business, as you perceive it? And how did those changes inform your approach to this sequel?
OS: [In the late 1980s), the Gordon Gekkos were the raiders. They were the buccaneers. I wouldn't even say pirates, because they were on the edge of legality, like [Henry] Morgan in the Caribbean. They were the raiders. They came in, they cannibalised the companies, often for self-profit. Gekko masked what he did with a "greed is good" kind of revolutionary spirit, a change and modernisation act. But basically they raped the place. And they created new wealth. The concept of $100 million for a company wasn't outrageous anymore. $100 million was an enormous amount of money. Now think back to the 2008 period, when a billion dollars gets you into the game to buy a company. The trick is to overvalue, to hype, and that's what [the buccaneers] did.
But now there are no longer any buccaneers. They're gone. They were absorbed by the hedge-funders. And the hedge-funders in the '90s did what Gekko did. And more power to [the Gekkos], I have no beef with them, because you know what you're getting into. It's a risky business. But they made so much money and were so successful in that deregulated market of Reagan and Thatcher that the banks, which are the central institutions in our country, operating with the public's trust and with licenses from the government, started to play the hedge fund game, which was playing the Gekko game.
Josh Brolin's character [the nemesis and "bad dad" of Shia LaBeouf's character in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"] is like the grandson of Gordon Gekko. But he's legal. He's at the center of the system, whereas Gekko was a bad guy on the bad side of the system.
MZS: As you're laying this all out for me, it reminds me of some of the narration at the end of Martin Scorsese's "Casino," contrasting the mob guys that used to run Las Vegas with the international corporations that run it now. It sounds like you're describing an escalation of scale.
OS: The illegitimate became legitimate. But, frankly, it was [also] on the edge of illegitimate, what [the 21st century Gekkos] were doing. They were selling junk to the public. They were selling subprimes and primes, the mortgage market, they were selling debt to the public. Which is really a form of junk bonds, from Mike Milken back in the '80s. So they were selling this to the public, they were selling it to the pension funds, to people like your parents, who got hurt. These pension funds bought this shit, and their value plummeted. Endowments got hurt, everybody got hurt. Everybody, across the board. Not only [in the United States] but around the world, Iceland, Greece, every country. And these are bankers. These are bankers!
But the government regulations were still in place. You can't just blame [the bankers]. You have to say the government regulators fell apart, because of the Bush era, because of Clinton, because of people like Robert Rubin [who served as secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, from 1995-99].
MZS: Actually, that was striking to me – the point in the movie, which is set in 2008, where Gekko says to the hero, in effect, don't make it seem as though this disaster happened under the current administration alone – the current administration being George W. Bush's.
It's like Gekko is telling the hero, and the audience, that Bill Clinton deserves some of the blame for what's happening to the economy, too.
OS: A lot. But I would say Ronald Reagan started the whole thing, [moving America] away from the New Deal. Look, under Clinton we had the Commodity Futures Regulation Act [of 2000] – they always use "modernisation" as the great word. It's bullshit. Then they repealed a lot of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was crucial. [Reagan-era Chairman of Federal Reserve] Paul Volcker has criticised [the repeal] openly.
Robert Rubin was right there. As secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, he stands with special distinction for having enriched himself more than any other person after leaving office. [Stone has said elsewhere that the shady speculator played by Brolin in the second "Wall Street" was partly modelled on Rubin.] At least Hank Paulson, no matter what you think of him – and I like the guy in a way – went back to Idaho or Indiana or wherever he's from, and he did live a modest life. He didn't enrich himself like Rubin did.
These guys are slick, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Alan Greenspan, Phil Gramm, his wife [Wendy Lee Gramm] ... They're all part of that horrible moment in time when they just felt, "Hey, liquidity can grow, just grow and grow and grow."
With India and China and all the world economies kicking in, the true economic activity of the world doubled from 2000 to 2008. It's almost like these populations come into being. India didn't used to be a player. All of a sudden India was a player. And China.
MZS: Not too long ago India and China were on the cover of the Economist with the headline, "Contest of the Century." The article asked which of those countries was going to run the world.
OS: I don't know where it's going to go. The volatility of the world has changed enormously. In my dad's age, I could have had a safe deposit account and know I could have made 3 per cent. If you weren't too greedy, 3 per cent would have been fine back then. But now you can't do that ... As an older person, you have no security. And having to live with that in your life, the knowledge that there is no security, would drive anybody crazy.
The labour unions are gone now. They don't mean anything economically. The concept of a labour union striking in this country does not strike fear in anybody's heart.
MZS: No, it doesn't.
OS: It doesn't work. In France, they still have strong unions. [But in the United States] the sort of worker represented by Charlie Sheen's father in "Wall Street" is gone. They're not a factor anymore.
I met with the head of the AFL-CIO. He said to me very clearly that since 1974, American wages have flattened completely per capita – what a working man can make, union men. Whereas the productivity of the United States has gone way up. The extra money has gone in the pockets of the stockholders, the CEOs, the bankers. That's where the money's gone. The corporate profits are 41, 42 per cent [attributable to] financial companies. That's outrageous. It used to be that in 1973, it was about 16 per cent. In the '60s, it was probably below 10 per cent.
You know what that's saying? The business of America is now purely finance.
MZS: And that builds upon one of the motifs in the first "Wall Street," the worry that we're not making anything anymore except money. I remember at the time thinking, "Oh, that's a bit of an exaggeration." But maybe it was just a little bit ahead. I think we go through periods and cycles of reform. There seems to be natural reform in the air. The bad guys don't always win. They win most of the time, it seems, yes. We've had a mismanagement increase since World War II, I think, and that's part of what [Stone's forthcoming Showtime documentary series] "The Secret History of America" is about.
The mismanagement of the country is enormous at this point and our policies are really askew. The white man will continue to intervene in foreign countries. The bigger issue is that after the Soviet Union fell, we just lost all control of ourselves, it seems. We can be the unilateral force in the world, the lone policeman.
MZS: The lone superpower.
OS: That's what we discussed. Yeah, I think this is a huge, huge misconception. I had an interesting conversation with Katie Couric – it will never make the air – yesterday, about this very issue. She was shocked. She said, "Is it a bad thing to be a lone superpower?" And I said, "Yes it is, because we've lost all moral restraint. We've lost all seriousness and gravity of the concepts that Roosevelt meant after World War II. And I think he was a hero who was serious about the United Nations." And [Couric] said, "The UN's a joke."
Well, it's only a joke because [we] made it into a joke. Whenever we wanted what we wanted, we never obeyed what [the UN] did. And we never gave them power. We always used the UN as a forum, as a game.
Anyway, look, the point is we're on a death trip. We've overreached. This is empire. The Athenian Empire, the British Empire...
MZS: Well, I was just about to ask you if you think we are, in fact, the modern version of empire. And if so, are we in decline?
OS: Of course we are. It's evident, self-evident. Self-evident because we can't keep this up. The dollar is at the stretching point. I mean, it's an interesting con game that we have with the world, because they're still buying the US treasuries and they believe in the dollar. They will for awhile, because something will happen eventually. Because we're completely borrowing, on borrowed time. We don't have any ability to control our own spending and our own deficits. So where do we go from here? Do we have an education system that can create a good base? We are a hardworking people. We have much manufacturing, contrary to what the myth is. We do a lot of things. We have a great economy. But if we have 47 per cent of our corporate profits going to finance companies, something is definitely wrong.
So I don't know that it can be reversed. If there was a Roosevelt, you could argue yeah, you have a Depression. You could reverse course.
MZS: What role does the media play in all of this?
OS: Blinding. They don't help. The problem with media is they're trying to make money. And I don't blame them. They're trying to make a profit. But they simply think about today.
It's the tyranny of now. Any long-term point of view is very difficult to get across.
MZS: The flap over the Hitler comments: Do you think that was an example of the tyranny of now?
OS: Yeah, sure.
I mean, I did say something inappropriate. I regret it, and I apologised for it ... I was in a discussion with the London Times [about "The Secret History"], and I was talking about a larger subject, which was the Israeli influence with US policy, not only in the Middle East, but in the world. I said the wrong thing. And I was also talking about Hitler, whose point of view, the range of atrocities from World War II – it's important to keep that in perspective, what Hitler's ultimate plan was.
OS: That's been lost to history. I'm told it's there, it's factual. But, unfortunately, my comments were blown up into this storm. It hurt me deeply, because I'm not that way. I'm not a provocateur.
MZS: You're often described that way, though. And as a conspiracy theorist. Or as "the left-wing filmmaker Oliver Stone." There are all sorts of adjectival phrases that get attached to you.
OS: Yeah. In "Wall Street" you see a guy who's a dramatist. You don't see a left-wing or right-wing. I think people from Wall Street can watch that movie and enjoy it.
OS: Hey, how about "W"? I was not Michael Moore. I love Michael Moore, but I wasn't doing...
MZS: No, and in fact, your affection for two of the most despised two-term Republican presidents in the history of the country is also a little bit weird.
OS: "Nixon." What about "Nixon"? Who could like Nixon?
MZS: You like Nixon!
OS: I identified with him in some ways. Yeah.
MZS: I didn't expect that. And I definitely didn't expect you to go out of your way to try to see the world as George W. Bush might have seen it. Or, actually, maybe I did.
OS: I wanted to understand. [In "W"], when Dick Cheney gives that speech in the Situation Room about him against Powell, I loved that. And you see Bush, this great debate is going on, what's his answer to it? "Well, keep it under wraps here." He doesn't think.
I love George W. Bush. He's a 2-D character. He doesn't have any depth at all, and he's quite happy that way.
MZS: He's like a redneck, presentable Scarface. I remember Al Pacino saying that he played Tony Montana as having only two dimensions. That was his conscious choice.
OS: I think Josh Brolin saw that was George Bush's choice of life. I think there's a place you know that you don't want to go beyond. Some people are very smart that way. It's about survival. Josh did a great job.
Anyway, so look, I never thought I would make a movie about policeman either, or cops, and I ended up doing "World Trade Center" because I cared about that story. It was very emotional to me. The transit authority police there, I got into their world. There are a hundred policeman in that movie that I got to know. I never thought I would be doing a cop movie ever in my life, right? And I ended up doing one right in the heart of the rubble.
MZS: I want to go back just briefly to something you talked about earlier, the idea of there being a spiritual aspect to your movies. That's something I definitely sensed the last time I watched "Born on the Fourth of July." All of a sudden it hit me. This is not just an anti-Vietnam movie or an antiwar movie. This is about a guy who discovers that he's the person he thought he was, and then tries to figure out who made me this way. Who gave me this false self? What are the forces, and what do I do about it?
So many of your movies fit that description as well, whether it's Bud Fox in the first "Wall Street," or the title character in "Nixon," who is engaged in a fruitless search to discover himself but keeps going down the wrong alleys, I think. "W" even fits the bill, in kind of an inverse way. That character doesn't have any curiosity about his beginnings, and that's the tragedy for him.
OS: I love his conversion.
MZS: Are you a spiritual person? Are you religious person? Do you even think about it?
OS: Spiritual, I think. Religious is a word that implies organised religion. I suppose I'm spiritual. I've always been spiritually inclined, because it's the meaning of life to ask, do we go on in any way? Does our mind have a projection beyond its very self?
MZS: "The Doors" and "Natural Born Killers" get into this – the idea of there being a reality beyond the one we can sense.
OS: I think very much so. I was very much influenced by Carlos Castaneda as a young man, among others. Even in school, we learned about religion, we learned philosophers, [George] Santayana, Alfred Whitehead, of course Socrates – although I didn't understand it, Plato's version of Socrates.
But the Greek idea was very close to me. The idea of a soul. Of a soul, that's the best word for it. Yeah, I think it's there. Perhaps that's what's lacking in our lives. We're very secular on the Western side. It's very secular.
MZS: Do you think that's why we're not a humble country?