When Oliver Stone returned from Vietnam, the budding filmmaker wanted to capture his harrowing wartime experiences on screen. After years of frustrating false starts with director Sidney Lumet and producer Michael Cimino (and even a very early flirtation with legendary Doors singer Jim Morrison to star), Stone finally stepped behind the camera himself for 1986’s Platoon. His gut-wrenching masterpiece, starring a young Charlie Sheen as Stone’s onscreen alter ego, wound up winning four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Platoon is being released on Blu-ray today and looks better than ever. We spoke with Stone about his revolutionary film, his fresh-faced leading man, and that strange encounter with the Lizard King.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When was the last time you saw Platoon?
OLIVER STONE: About five years ago.
So you haven’t seen the Blu-ray?
This is the first Blu-ray, right? I get confused.
Does it look good?
It looks great!
Oh terrific. We didn’t have much of a budget, so some of the lighting was always a little shaky in the jungle. I should watch it again. I think it still works emotionally and as a mythology of a war. We didn’t have much money for effects. Today, some of that stuff could have been done with technology, but we just didn’t have it back then. We did it very well for what we had. We blew up a lot of stuff very close to people.
Do you see things in it now that you aren’t happy with?
It’s lit awfully. But it was pretty bold at the time.
Are you the kind of guy who goes back and watches your own movies? If you’re watching TV and one comes on do you keep it or turn the channel?
Oh, it depends on the movie. (Laughs). No, I go back so I can learn from it. And, sometimes I’ll play with it like with Alexander Revisited. I added an hour and made a new movie out of it in two parts.
What do you remember about the Oscars the year Platoon won?
It wasn’t my first time there. I won in 1979 for the Midnight Express screenplay. I was handed the Oscar from Lauren Bacall; that was quite a high. In ‘86, it wasn’t easy to sit there for three hours. If you look at the broadcast actually, they cut to the wrong person when I won. It was actually a friend of my mother’s! They really screwed up. I got a kiss from Elizabeth Taylor, who was my love object when I was young. It was a great night. Very special. It was a movie that was very low-budget and made independently. We overcame incredible odds. It came from nowhere. Also, the same year I was nominated for my screenplay for Salvador. So it was an emotional night for me – being accepted as a director in Hollywood after so many years of trying.
For Best Picture, you were up against Hannah and Her Sisters, The Mission, Children of a Lesser God, and A Room With a View. Who did you think would win?
Well, I think Platoon was the odds-on favorite. So I would be disingenuous if I said I didn’t think it would be us.
For the role of Barnes that Tom Berenger played, I read that you considered Mickey Rourke and Kevin Costner. True?
Yes, but they were not who they were at that time. There were others, too, because there were so many layers of time with this film. It was written in ‘76 and was almost made then by Sidney Lumet and Pacino. Then there was a period in ‘84 when Michael Cimino was going to produce it and Emilio Estevez was going to play the role, actually. Costner passed on it, I believe, because his brother had been in Vietnam.
For the Elias character that Willem Dafoe plays, one of the stars considered was Jeff Bridges?
Quite possibly, I don’t recall. I liked Willem because I’d seen him as a bad guy in To Live and Die in L.A. and I liked the idea of him being a more positive character.
I’ve read that a lot of people were also considered for Charlie Sheen’s role: Keanu Reeves, Kyle MacLachlan, and maybe Johnny Depp as well.
That’s right, Keanu turned it down because of the violence. He didn’t want to do violence.
How did you land on Charlie?
Charlie was a dumb-struck 17-year-old the first time he came in for the film, back when we were going to make it in ‘84. And in those two years, he’d grown and seemed perfectly wide-eyed and had a vaguely privileged look.
Looking back, what do you think of his performance? He’s pretty much the stand-in character for you and your experiences in the war, right?
Yeah, you could say that. I think he did a great job. He was perfect for the movie. He conveys the horror of the place. I like his performance.
Are you still in touch with him? What do you make of what’s been going on with him lately?
Well, it’s not the Charlie I recognize from several years ago when we did Wall Street and Platoon. This is another character. He’s grown in many different directions and he’s made so much money … I have no idea.
I heard that you wrote a very early draft of Platoon back in 1970 and sent it to Jim Morrison of The Doors?
That’s correct. In ‘69 I wrote it. It was another version of it – a very mythic version. The character dies in Vietnam and goes to the Underworld. A lot of mythology. I couldn’t deal with Vietnam yet in a completely realistic way at that point. And I did send it to Morrison because it had a lot of Doors music in it. And he had it in his apartment in Paris when he died. It was returned to me in 199o when I made The Doors. Very bizarre.
Spooky, yeah. (Laughs)
Johnny Depp has a small part in the movie as one of the soldiers. What did you see in him 25 years ago?
Frankly, it’s going to sound cliche, but I clearly believed he was going to be a star. He was a great looking kid. He was considered for other roles, but I didn’t think he was quite ready at that time to play Charlie’s role. We got to know each other pretty well in the jungle and I really thought he was going places. He was shy. I think it was before Jump Street.
You shot in the Philippines during a very turbulent period there. What was your Coppola-Apocalypse Now moment during the shoot?
Well, we didn’t have all the money they had! It was very low-budget. And for me to finally get there after two close calls in making it in ‘76 and ‘84, was a real highlight. And then out of nowhere there was this people’s revolution. I mean, I was happy for the people in the Philippines, but it really threatened our shoot. We had made all of these deals with the military. And when the change came, we had to make new deals with the new military. You had to get a lot of permissions and bribe a new set of people. I remember the helicopters were pretty dangerous because they weren’t maintained well. But I ended up going back there three years later for Born on the Fourth of July.
Why did the two earlier versions fall through?
The ‘76 version was just not considered upbeat enough. It was too realistic, which is why Sidney Lumet liked it. So who knows? And then I wrote Midnight Express, which was my big breakthrough in Hollywood. And at that point, Platoon was stashed away in a closet because no one wanted to make a realistic movie. And then you had films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. And the feeling was our moment had passed. So I was sad about it – really heartbroken. I forgot about the script for a while, thinking it would never get made. And then Michael Cimino [who also directed The Deer Hunter] said I should bring Platoon back and he would produce it. This was in ‘84. And I thought it was going to happen, but Dino DeLaurentiis f—ed us over, big time.
He was only willing to go so far. The script was mine and he hadn’t paid for it, really. He considered it his, but he hadn’t paid. We had to threaten to go to court to get the movie back. It’s a miracle it eventually got made. It’s also a miracle that it was received well because it was supposed to be past due. We’d had Rambo and a bunch of other Vietnam movies. And the thinking was no one wanted another Vietnam movie.
Do you think a great movie will ever be made about the war we’re in now?
Oh yeah, I think so. It’s not going to be a pretty movie. It’s a dirty business. I mean, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden? They’re going to end up glorifying all these guys again.