Despite his status as America's most visible conspiracy theorist, Oliver Stone speaks far more softly than do his films, which read like a fever chart of three decades of American moral turmoil. The director of Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, and JFK still readily sees suspicious - outlines in the big, big picture (''Did you know that Ho Chi Minh wrote seven letters to Roosevelt, seven f -- -ing letters begging him for consideration, and he got nothing, he got squat?'') but in more than three hours of interviews, a more vulnerable and less combative Stone seemed to pick up where Stone the media myth (a guise partly of his own devising) left off. Sitting in his cluttered Santa Monica, Calif., offices, his back to the sun setting in the Pacific, the director, now 47, talked about a hectic year during which he brought the futuristic Wild Palms to TV, produced The Joy Luck Club, and shot both Heaven and Earth and Natural Born Killers, a satire about two mass murderers due in theaters this summer. His personal life has been equally straining: In August he filed for divorce from his second wife, Elizabeth Cox Stone, after 12 years of marriage, relinquishing custody of their two sons, Sean, 9, and Michael, 2. But for the moment his chief concern is the release of his newest film, Heaven and Earth. EW: Heaven and Earth is competing against a number of other serious movies that opened at the same time, including Schindler's List and Philadelphia. OS: Yes, that's the sick and disturbing process. It's not healthy for either the artist or society. Because one doesn't have to be good at the expense of another. It's silly. It's a gladiator game-all victory or death. I always feel sorry for the the Super Bowl teams-the loser is more of a dog than any team all year. EW: After Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, did you expect to return to Vietnam again as a subject? OS: Not when I did Platoon, no. Let me put it this way. First I survived the war. That's a minor miracle. And then I was able to write about it and film it. So that seemed as if it completed the action. But what happened is, it only deepened my interest. There was no plan for a trilogy. But they complement each other. Platoon was about the war in the jungle. Then Born went back to America. Then Heaven and Earth went one step further, back to Vietnam, then to America, then again to Vietnam. What happens next? Is it a closed circle? It doesn't have to be. EW: What do you think draws you back to the subject of Vietnam more than 20 years after the end of the war? OS: Vietnam has applications to any of seven or eight interventions in the Third World by America. I'm amazed people don't see the relevance of it. We have played the global policeman. Whether the helmets are in Panama or the ! Gulf War is totally irrelevant. It's the same human beings who are going to war. There's such a cynical and jaded section of our society. I see that occasionally in critics-''Oh, Stone is doing another Vietnam movie, as if we needed another one.'' But each one is for me an exploration of some new territory, a different mirror to look into. John Ford made Westerns. How many Westerns did he do? Maybe I was a soldier in past lives and I'm working out some karma in this life. EW: Did the ongoing JFK controversy affect you as you began writing Heaven and Earth in 1992? OS: Whoever stole the (JFK) script JFK was criticized, in rough-draft form, eight months before it came out. I was trying to be logical and low-key. But I was criticized for being defensive and loudmouthed and creating the controversy, which is insane. I never created the controversy. So being in the Far East was a great holiday. It's a second home. Thailand is an intensely beautiful country with a gentle people. I just love it. I wish I could make more movies there. EW: Heaven and Earth has been labeled a Vietnam War movie, but it seems to be more of an attempt to understand the Vietnamese worldview. OS: To me, it's ultimately about anyone who has to go through hardship-whether in peacetime or wartime. What amazes me about this woman is that she goes through so many changes so quickly. That's partly because of her womanness, her flexibility, her instinct for survival, and her spirituality. She hits every number on the roulette wheel-she's a beggar, she's a prostitute, she's a VC spy, she's a peasant girl, she's an American housewife, a mother, a businesswoman. Each of those roles she got out of, she survived, she got to the next step. So many times she could have been stuck, but her karma was to grow, through lies, through masks. EW: What did coming up against such a personality do to you? OS: I learned a lot. It was a privilege to be with Le Ly. She's tiny, 4 foot 11, but she has such strength. Small women tend to be clearer and more certain about their destinations. She taught me about the land, about agriculture-I know how to plant rice now. I know about Buddhism. I now understand it, not as mysticism, but as something very practical and real. That's something you don't always get from Western Buddhism-you get a sense of kung fu movies and David Carradine. But it's a practical, everyday response to life. It taught me patience with suffering. Rather than try to break out of it, sometimes you try to live with it. And when you fully understand it, it doesn't haunt you the same way. You move on to your next lesson. (He chuckles.) Whatever that is. EW: Why wouldn't the Vietnamese allow you to enter Vietnam to film? OS: I sent a unit into Vietnam disguised as a documentary crew and got a lot of shots of the landscapes. But they didn't want us to shoot there because of the scenes of the mother almost being executed and Le Ly being raped by the two VC. They thought that if (we showed) that, we should show the two boys being executed by their commander after he found out. They would have let us do Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon there, but they would not touch Heaven and Earth. EW: Le Ly Hayslip's two autobiographies have enough material to support two movies. Did you consider confining the film to the first book, about her experiences in Vietnam? OS: It would be a bit of a cheat to just have her going off into the American sunset. Because the same patterns repeated themselves-the war continued as the war between a man and a woman. The character Tommy Lee Jones plays is very much like the role America played in Vietnam. We wanted them, we wanted to prop them up, they were our little children, our Oriental wives. At the same time, there was an undercurrent of arrogance, ethnocentricity, racism. My enemies are going to say, ''It's Oliver Stone doing his political bulls -- - again,'' but it's not. It's not me at all. I'm really letting her speak of what she went through. EW: How did you prepare Hiep Thi Le, who hadn't acted before, for the rape and torture scenes? OS: She certainly didn't want to do them. We tried to do it as tenderly as possible. I built prosthetic breasts for her, so she would not feel naked in the rape scene, and that was helpful. But we shot in the rain all night and were wet and miserable and cold. She had a hard time dealing with it. But she's not a complainer. She stepped on a nail once-it went almost to her bone- and she came back to work in 30 minutes. EW: How did you decide how far to push the violence? When I saw the film, several people walked out after the torture scene. OS: I've heard a lot of that. But it's so minor compared to what people go through when they're being tortured. I'm amazed that Americans would be so squeamish. What wimps! How can you deny life? What we're going to get as a result of that is a lot of PG Jurassic Parks. We're going to live in a PG f -- -ing world. Macaulay Culkin will be our next Clark Gable. EW: Do you see Le Ly as a victimized woman or a feminist heroine? OS: Le Ly was not a conscious feminist-this is a woman who's just trying to be a human being. If anyone had bad luck with men, she was victim number one. It's easy to cast yourself as a victim of men, especially when you're 4 foot 11. She's guilty of some of that in the movie. Victimization is a popular concept now, but it's not an accurate one. It doesn't solve the problem. It doesn't take responsibility. Everyone's a victim these days. AIDS sufferers like (the lead character in Philadelphia played by) Tom Hanks are victims. Jews in concentration camps are victims. Maybe we're into victimization as a society. But I try not to be. EW: After making Heaven and Earth and executive-producing The Joy Luck Club this year, are you prepared to be accused of being a feminist? OS: I've heard that Heaven and Earth is considered to be feminist, but I don't agree. Maybe you could say, yes, Oliver was going through a broadening of perceptions to include more women in his life. (But) it's coincidence. I didn't do it consciously. EW: When you wrote 1985's Year of the Dragon, you had an angry exchange about Asian stereotyping with Wayne Wang, who ended up directing The Joy Luck Club. How did that happen? OS: In Hollywood, people you fight with often become your best friends. Never close the curtain on anybody. Somebody who hates you might one day end up liking you. A critic might end up liking you-you never know. Things change-the first law of Buddhism. EW: After Heaven and Earth, you immediately jumped into directing Natural Born Killers, which stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as mass murderers. That sounds like a real shifting of gears. OS: It was total. (Laughs.) It was like Bo Jackson going from football to baseball. But that's what I wanted. I'd been two years on Heaven and Earth, a grueling movie technically. I wanted to turn around and do a fast road movie about mass murder, the criminal-justice system, and the American media, and have wicked fun. A nasty-boy kind of thing. Celebrate Peckinpah, Brando, James Dean. I have a bad side, and I can be bad in the movies. But I don't feel it's a violent movie-it's an action movie. It's more in the JFK mode in terms of a totally fractured style, whereas Heaven and Earth is more classical. EW: Do you have more perspective on the JFK experience now? OS: No, not really. I'm puzzled by the swamp of media coverage for the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, this orgy of sentimentalization. Most of those shows were not watched. The ratings were low. I think people sniff a rat. With the egregious selection of information they decide to throw at the audience, I think people see through it. EW: A recent Gallup poll showed that most people don't believe Oswald was the lone assassin. You must feel as if you've played a role in that. OS: And they won't let me forget it. (Laughs.) My name has become synonymous with lunatic, conspiracy buff. However, the world is rooted in conspiracy. Every government in the world is rooted in conspiracy-most recently, the Chinese government. So I don't know why the so-called opinion-makers use the word conspiracy in a derogatory fashion. Come on, we've had six or seven conspiracies since Vietnam. It amazes me. EW: Since you just directed Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers, did you ask him about allegations that his father (convicted murderer Charles Harrelson) was one of the mysterious hoboes rounded up near Dealey Plaza? OS: Oh, sure. He strongly maintains that his father was not at Dealey Plaza. And he may very well be right. (Harrelson's father) certainly looked like him. But I don't know who to believe in that case. EW: Many people were surprised to see you in both Dave and Wild Palms as yourself, spoofing your image as an assassination/conspiracy buff. OS: Ivan Reitman, who directed Dave, told me I had to show the world I had a sense of humor. (Laughs.) I guess he thought I had one. Larry King and I had a lot of fun doing the scene in which I'm the only one in the country who knows Kevin Kline's a fraud. Also, I like working as an actor. I'm doing another role now in something called Murder in the First. I just rehearsed it today. I play a type A prosecutor, very bossy and pushy. It's two days' work with Christian Slater. So I get to work with the young boys. EW: Why do you think you've become such a magnet for controversy? Do you seek it out? OS: I think once you become successful, a reverse psychology sets in. You become suspect. That's part of this negativism in the country. It's jealousy. But it's also a perverse attitude that equates success with fraud. And I think that's because art has been stripped of its spirituality. In fact, those films that have been successful have had an element of spirituality. I think Ghost, though done in a Western style, was successful because of its spirituality. Great films are always great films of the spirit. Even the original Ghostbusters, you could argue, paid homage to ghosts and the spirit.