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ON LOCATION : The Vietnam War’s Other Side

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Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

Oliver Stone is making ‘Heaven and Earth,’ a film that may generate more controversy than his first two Vietnam movies--'Platoon’ and ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ This time Stone tells the story of a Vietnamese woman born to war and exposes America to a view of the conflict that we have yet to face.

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Watching an Oliver Stone movie being shot is like watching an Oliver Stone movie being shown. The pace seems simultaneously calm and hectic, methodically rushed, as if a heavily populated town were being evacuated according to some intricate pre-designed plan but moving at panic speed.

“Controlled chaos” is how longtime Stone associates describe the experience of working on his films, a condition they say is a combination of his provocative political subjects, the density of his writing and a point of view and personal style that seem to thrive on confusion and overload.

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“Oliver’s energy dictates the pace, and you have to keep up with it or get out of the way,” says Robert Richardson, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of “JFK.”

“He creates a sense of confusion and chaos on the set, then pushes up the tempo. Actors are in a rush, camera’s in a rush, sound’s in a rush, costume’s in a rush. . . . Oliver is the only one who knows where it’s all going, and everybody else feels like a passenger in an Indy car race.”

For moviegoers who’ve had the same feeling sitting through “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “JFK,” get ready for some more hot laps. “Heaven and Earth,” now being filmed for Warner Bros. on locations in Vietnam, Thailand and Los Angeles and scheduled for release this fall, may be Stone’s densest and most controversial rumination on Vietnam yet.

“Heaven and Earth” is not a war movie. It is a biography and spiritual adventure story with which Stone hopes to cut through the political crust of the Vietnam War and--through the eyes of a Vietnamese peasant woman born into the war--show why America’s policies there were doomed to failure.

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To Stone, who put us in combat with American troops in Vietnam with “Platoon” and in the midst of the protest movement at home with “Born on the Fourth of July,” the story of Le Ly Hayslip is just another view of an experience that shaped his and an entire generation of Americans’ lives. To others, it will be seen as the final insult of the war: a sympathetic view of the enemy.

But before the controversy comes the filming, and through four weeks of shooting in Thailand, Stone’s regular crew members say it has been one of his most hectic projects.

“We shot ‘JFK’ on three locations over 16 weeks and it turned out to be a lot easier than we thought,” says co-producer Clayton Townsend. “We’re only here for eight weeks, but it’s turned out to be a lot harder than ‘JFK.’ ”

The problems, in addition to the unpredictability of weather and politics in Southeast Asia, include the fact that the film covers nearly four decades, requires on-the-job training for many non-professional actors in key roles and is often a slave, at Stone’s insistence, to the memories of the woman whose life is being told.

“The pace is faster on this film than any I’ve ever worked on,” says Richardson, who has shot all of Stone’s films since “Salvador” and whose work is currently on view in Rob Reiner’s “A Few Good Men.” “We’re really flying.”

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To an outsider, only the hurried pace is immediately apparent here in Phangnga, a small town on the lush, thinly populated Malay Peninsula in southern Thailand. The crew has dressed the back of a building to look like a Vietnamese prison, circa 1963, and the scene to be shot seems relatively simple: A prison gate will be flung open and a young girl, battered and bleeding, will be roughly shoved outside, where she will be met by her emotionally upset mother, sister and brother-in-law and rushed away.

The scene re-enacts a crucial moment in the life of Le Ly Hayslip, the Vietnamese woman whose two biographical books Stone is adapting. Hayslip, 45, was then 14-year-old Phung Thi Le Ly, a rice farmer’s daughter, and her release from prison came in the midst of a sequence of horrors in which she was arrested and tortured by the South Vietnamese, who thought she was a Viet Cong spy, then beaten and raped by Viet Cong soldiers, who accused her of betraying them.

As the scene was written, it might have taken no more than a couple of hours to shoot, giving the company plenty of time to get to a river valley a few miles away where 1,500 extras and dozens of civilian and military vehicles were being assembled for an aerial shot of panicked Vietnamese families scrambling south toward Saigon.

But Hayslip, who is at Stone’s side through almost every moment of the filming, made a simple observation that would light a fuse under the day’s shooting schedule. She said her family did not stand outside the prison talking; they rushed away as fast as they could. So Stone, who just a year ago was being accused of rewriting American history with “JFK,” redesigned the scene. The actors would now read their dialogue on the run, and their action would be recorded by a Steadicam operator and sound crew scrambling backward over a muddy, rutted path carved out of the brush.

To compound matters, the lighting was bad, the actors were having trouble with their footing, and Hiep Thi Le, the 23-year-old Vietnamese-American playing Hayslip, had to be carried off for medical attention after stepping on a nail in the middle of a scene.

Where they have been getting shots in three or four takes, these were taking 15 to 20. And the clock was running. . . .

“On every film, there are eight or 10 bad days like this,” Stone said, later that day. “The thing about movies I love is that it’s like a war. The moment something goes wrong, it has an interlocking effect. Everything starts to break down.”

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It is 10 o'clock that night in a family-run Thai restaurant just down the road from the well-worn Phang Nha Waterfront Resort, where Stone and the rest of the company are staying. It is the only hotel within an hour’s drive of “Heaven and Earth’s” main set, a replica of Ky La, Hayslip’s Vietnam village, which is complete with rice paddies, ponds, pigs and chickens, Buddhist shrines and bunkers.

In Los Angeles, it is 7 a.m., Nov. 3, and the polls have just opened. But nobody is even talking about the election. There are no newspapers, no CNN and very few visitors. A straw vote of absentee ballots shows 16 votes for Clinton, zero for Bush and two for Perot, but you can barely start a conversation on the subject.

As frenetic as it is on the set during the day, evenings here take on an almost salutary calm. The oppressive daytime heat is replaced by a light breeze off the Andaman Sea, and the American pulse quickly slows down to the local beat. Thailand, like most of Vietnam, is Buddhist, and the spiritual geniality of the rural Thais has blended with the theme of the movie to almost obliterate interest in news from home.

Stone, visibly exhausted from the bad morning on the prison set and the complex highway exodus shot in the afternoon, briefly relishes the thought of former CIA Director George Bush getting the bum’s rush from the White House, vents some leftover spleen from his run-ins with the government and the media over “JFK,” then addresses the inevitable questions about his continuing obsession with Vietnam.

In case you were hoping, no, this is not the last leg of a trilogy.

“This is a third film about Vietnam for me, a continuation of the growth,” Stone says. “I’m not saying there won’t be a fourth or fifth. Vietnam is not history to me. It’s a seed that has taken hold and become a tree, not just in my life, but in the national consciousness.”

With “Heaven and Earth,” a movie that has no major American stars and a protagonist whom many Americans will only allow themselves to regard as an enemy, Stone may be climbing farther out on a limb of that tree than ever.

“So the press knocks me for doing another Vietnam movie, so what? A lot of people, in both Vietnam and the U.S., would like to see ‘Heaven and Earth’ go away forever. They don’t want to know about it. But it’s a great story.”

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Hayslip’s first book, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places,” has not sold well since its publication in 1989, and she says Doubleday gave her only a token advance on her second book, “Child of War, Woman of Peace,” which is being published this month.

The first book chronicles Hayslip’s years in Vietnam, her experiences as a child confederate of the VC, as a teen-ager selling black-market goods to American soldiers, as a sometime prostitute and nightclub waitress in Da Nang. It ends with her and her illegitimate child leaving Vietnam for San Diego in 1970 with a 55-year-old American contractor who had gone to Saigon to bring home an Asian wife.

In the second book, she tells of the even greater hell of her adult life, that of an uneducated Vietnamese peasant overwhelmed by her Western surroundings, the hatred she faced during the waning years of the Vietnam War, the physical and emotional abuse she endured while trying to raise three children, the small fortune she built and lost in real estate, and her return trips--beginning in 1986--to her village in Vietnam.

One is a harrowing adventure story, the other an emotional nightmare. Together, they provide a commentary less on the Vietnam War than on the fundamental cultural differences between East and West. Hayslip’s dislocation from her family and her land parallel the dislocations between the puppet Catholic regimes of the French and American-supported Vietnamese government and the country’s predominantly Buddhist population.

“In the West, people are taught that they are born to pursue happiness,” Hayslip says. “In the East, we are taught that we are born with happiness.”

It is a simple but profound distinction, and one that Hayslip uses in her books to explain how the waves of invasions of Vietnam, in addition to killing millions of her people, led to the revolution that drove out the beleaguered French and lured in the zealously anti-communist Americans.

Through the eyes of an uneducated child, she provides what may be a clearer picture of the causes and effects of the Vietnam War, at the root level, than any scholarly book--or previous Oliver Stone movie, for that matter--has.

“I loved the first book, but I had reservations about the whole breadth of her story,” Stone says. “I didn’t know how in good faith I could end a movie on the note that Le Ly is leaving Vietnam with an American hero when, in fact, her troubles were just beginning. There are echoes of Vietnam in her American life, a strong parallel between battlefield and domestic violence.”

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Stone optioned “Heaven and Earth” when he was finishing “Born on the Fourth of July” and had planned to shoot it, as a small film on a low budget, in Vietnam. But he said the Vietnamese government, which regards Hayslip as something of a rabble-rouser, threatened to set up too many bureaucratic roadblocks for the production to run smoothly there. Then, leaving Vietnam with Hayslip on a location scouting trip 14 months ago, he saw the second half of the movie sitting on her lap.

“We were on the airplane, going from Hanoi to Bangkok, and she was proofing this manuscript. I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘Oh, it’s just this thing I’m writing about the rest of my life.’ I said, ‘What?’ I pulled it out of her hand and read the first few chapters. By the time the plane landed I knew I had all the elements I needed for the script.”

The key element Stone got by combining the books was a strong American character, a man who would provide the bridge for Hayslip’s two lives. The unpleasant character, who is being played by Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw in “JFK”), is a composite of two husbands and three lovers, all Americans, who battered her physically or emotionally on one side of the world or the other.

What critics will be watching for is whether Stone’s male character takes over his woman’s story. Stone has never told a woman’s story before, or had a particularly strong woman’s role in any of his films, and he recognizes that as a weakness.

“There is some truth to the criticism of my treatment of women,” he says. “I have a lot to learn about everything, not just women. . . . Each film is an expansion of my own character to some extent, and I can only follow my own interests. I am interested in women, and Le Ly is a marvelous model in my life.

“I have no ax to grind. The movies I made had basically male-oriented ideas. I’m doing this movie because it’s a great story, not because it’s a woman’s story.”

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In any event, the composite seems to be the sole fictional component of a project that is driven, if not occasionally bogged down, by fidelity to Hayslip’s details.

“I love her and she is the guiding light of this movie,” says Stone, for whom Hayslip does everything from pray for rain to advise him on the body language of Vietnamese farmers. “It’s her life; I don’t want it to be wrong. But there are times when she’s not as helpful as she’s trying to be.”

Example: After Hiep Thi Le stepped on the nail, threatening to knock the morning schedule off track, Stone says Hayslip asked him to keep a Buddhist monk around to bless each new set to make sure there were no more accidents.

“No, no, no, he misunderstood me,” Hayslip said, when asked about it later. “We don’t have to have a monk do this. We can have a local Thai person ask permission for us to interrupt the land. . . . Human being cannot come in and just take it over and do as they please. That simple. That’s why the Americans lost the war in Vietnam.”

Stone’s relationship to Hayslip is a close one, complicated both by the vast cultural differences between them and the contamination of their lives by their Vietnam (his) and American (hers) experiences. Stone is a child of affluence, a Yale grad who was raised a Christian but now says he is more influenced by Buddhism. Hayslip is a self-educated peasant whose Buddhist roots have sprung a twig or two of Western capitalism.

“Heaven and Earth” may be a labor of love and spiritual compulsion, but it started out as a deal.

Ask Joan Chen.

The 32-year-old Chinese actress, who plays Hayslip’s mother, says she read an excerpt of “Heaven and Earth” in the Los Angeles Times Magazine and rushed down to Escondido, where Hayslip lives, to talk to her about a movie.

“We had a deal,” says Chen, who played the wife of Pu Yi in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor.” “But before she signed the contract, she got a better offer (from Stone) and took it.”

Hayslip says her agent advised her against signing with Chen, because the chances of the film actually being made were infinitely greater if Oliver Stone, Hollywood’s pet political iconoclast, was involved. (Ironically, Hayslip, who now runs a foundation created to help the poor in Vietnam, began her activism by handing out flyers at “Platoon” screenings in San Diego, urging people to remember the suffering of the Vietnamese. Since then, her foundation has built two medical clinics in central Vietnam, one on contributions from Stone and his wife, Elizabeth.)

Chen says that being cast in the movie gave her “Heaven and Earth” experience a happy ending.

“When Oliver asked me if I wanted to play Le Ly’s mother, I said, ‘I’ll play her father, I don’t care, I just want to be in it.’ ”

Before production began in Thailand, Chen and Hiep Thi Le went to Hayslip’s real village in Vietnam and spent two weeks working in the rice paddies with water buffalo and tending to the garden and animals. Chen, “a city girl” from Shanghai, said the domestic training was useful, but it was in the eyes of Hayslip’s 85-year-old mother and the other peasant women where she found her inspiration.

“You look into their eyes and you see no ego, no vanity, just acceptance of their simple life,” Chen says. “I asked (Hayslip’s mother) what her greatest memories were, and she said, ‘When we were in the fields, singing and laughing, and forgot to go back to lunch.’ ”

For much of the old woman’s life, those sanguine days in the field were interrupted by the sound of gunfire and bombs, and by the sight of neighbors being gunned down by Republican soldiers frustrated in their search for the elusive Viet Cong. It was children like Hayslip that the Americans rightly feared might lob them a bomb or lead them into VC ambushes.

“We thought the villagers didn’t like us, and we were right,” Stone says. “Our attitude was genocidal. Whether you get rid of a child or an old man, it didn’t make any difference. You were hurting them . It’s the same thing (the American government) was doing legally at the top. Trying to wipe out the peasant infrastructure, uproot the entire agricultural countryside, and it failed.”

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The thrust of Hayslip’s books, and a key theme of the movie, is that the French and American policies failed because the peasants cannot leave the spirits of their ancestors behind, a deep-seated belief that migratory Westerners can’t grasp.

Stone says he didn’t fully grasp it himself until he returned to Vietnam a few years ago and visited the site of Camp Evans--not far from Ky La, Hayslip’s village--where he was stationed with the 1st Air Cavalry in 1968.

“I was standing right on top of the airstrip and couldn’t see it,” Stone says. “It was all covered with weeds. I walked down the road and found a helmet, with a bullet hole in it. How could it be sitting there after all these years? What struck me was the sense of passing time, that despite what Johnson and Westmoreland said (about the necessity for us to be there), time moved on and we were ghosts in the landscape.”

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In the story, the year is 1963, and American advisers are helping South Vietnamese troops and Ky La residents prepare for defense. Barbed-wire fences are going up, bunkers being dug, lookout towers rising above village roofs. It’s the year that John Kennedy will be assassinated back home and Lyndon Johnson will begin in earnest the military buildup that will bog America down in a no-win war.

In real time, it’s 9 a.m., Nov. 4, 1992, and the scores of actors and extras on the set have been stopped for a moment for an announcement from the other side of the planet.

“The early electoral count in the presidential election,” says assistant director Herb Gains, pausing for effect. “Clinton, 150, Bush . . . 12.”

There is a sharp yelp of approval from the Americans scattered around the set, followed by the booming voice of the company’s most outspoken Clinton dissenter.

“Well, that’s just fine--congratulations, you bunch of Hollywood communist pinko turds,” says Dale Dye, the ex-Marine captain and decorated veteran who has been the technical consultant on each of Stone’s Vietnam movies.

The comment is in jest, and provokes a big laugh, but Dye’s reputation as the unreconstructed hawk of Stone’s Regulars is as rock solid as his jaw, and he acknowledges that it took all of his discipline as a professional order-taker to train Vietnamese extras to play his old enemy.

“It does raise a few hackles,” says Dye, whose white hair, weathered face and whiskey voice define the word grizzled . “I was taking these guerrillas and teaching them all the mistakes we made. It took some time to get used to the idea.”

Dye is in charge of military equipment used by half a dozen different fighting forces between the early ‘50s and 1975, and training men in uniforms ranging from those of the French Foreign Legion to the Viet Minh and the Marine division that had him patrolling Hayslip’s village 25 years ago.

“Ky La was a known VC area,” Dye says. “There were booby traps, sniper fire, that sort of thing. I remember we had one man killed in Ky La by a tin-can booby trap in the fall of ’67.”

Dye says production designer Victor Kempster’s reproduction of Ky La, built on a flat field in the shadow of a forested limestone butte subbing for Vietnam’s Marble Mountain, gives him chills every time he sees it. The film company irrigated and planted about 150 acres of rice paddies around the village, and the whole thing is suddenly visible after driving through jungle on a dirt road.

“You’re in Thailand one minute and Vietnam the next,” Dye says. “It’s an extraordinary feeling.”

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Stone seems to relish Dye’s discomfort with the project, recalling how Dye almost balked at having to advise extras for a scene showing the VC dancing.

“In the early days, the VC were just villagers, and that’s why the people supported them against the government,” Stone says. “It’s hard for Dale sometimes to understand they made that transition (to guerrilla fighters).”

“Oliver considers me John Wayne, and I consider him Ho Chi Minh,” Dye says. “We have many of the same views and feelings, we just express them differently.”

Dye acknowledges that being immersed in Hayslip’s story has opened his eyes to things about the Vietnamese culture that never occurred to him when he was in combat there. He says that for 10 years after the war, he wouldn’t discuss it with civilians, on the grounds that people who hadn’t been to Vietnam didn’t know anything about it. Now he realizes that even the people who had been there didn’t know much about it.

“We couldn’t understand how (the Vietnamese) could be proud of their country when it looked like a (expletive) to us,” he says. “We didn’t understand why they were fighting the way they were, why they did this or didn’t do that. This movie will unravel some of those mysteries, and it’s going to be hard for a lot of people.

“That’s why Oliver is an important filmmaker. He’s not afraid to hit you right between the running lights and say, ‘I hope that makes you squirm.’ And it does.”

On one of the first takes in the prison sequence, where tiny Hiep Thi Le runs into Joan Chen’s arms, Le Ly Hayslip, watching from the side, quietly began sobbing into a handkerchief. She had broken down the day before, watching the re-enactment of her torture, but she says this scene was even more painful because it all at once reminded her of how badly her mother would have been hurt if she had told her about being raped.

“If I had married a Vietnamese man and he find out that I’m not a virgin, we will have big marriage problem,” Hayslip says. “He would never forgive me, and that would hurt my mother. When I get out of prison I don’t know that my mother (used half her dowry to bribe officials), and when I know how happy she is to see me, I am in so much pain for her.”

The rape scene was shot three days earlier, and neither Hayslip nor Hiep Thi Le is able to talk about it. Hayslip, who didn’t “confess” her rape to her mother until years later, says she refused to watch the scene being shot. Le winces at the mention of it, and walks off.

“The rape scene was very difficult for all of us,” Stone says. “We did it in the jungle at night in the rain and mud; it was miserable. It took all night, and Hiep must have gone through it a dozen times from different angles. It’s pretty humiliating. Especially for her--she’s very frail in that regard.”

Asked if it wouldn’t have been better to have shot the rape scene later, when Le had become more comfortable, Stone said it would have had just the opposite effect.

“I believe that each movie is a journey and each scene is a step along the way where your character changes and you’re changed by the movie,” he says. “Le Ly was raped early; Hiep had to do it and get it over with. It was always going to be rough. For two days after, her work was impaired; she was in some sort of shock. But in some ways, whatever she did in those subsequent scenes was better for it.”

Stone, who’s worked with such stars as Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner and Michael Douglas, says that as difficult and draining as it is to direct untrained actors, it’s almost a relief to work with them.

“A lot of my energy is going into that on this film, but there are no star egos to deal with; I don’t have to waste time coddling them. When Hiep stepped on the nail, she was back and working in 30 minutes. I’ve worked with stars who would have been in the hospital for five days saying, ‘I’m dying.’ ”

As for the frantic pace on his films, and the pressure everyone describes, Stone says he’s not as aware of it as others. “How would I know?” he laughs, “I’m driving the car.” He admits he’s a dense writer, that he’s “still trying to find the economies of storytelling” and that “I am guilty of overwriting and overshooting.” He also pleads guilty to the charge that he pushes actors and crew past their comfort zones to make sure he’s getting everything they’ve got to give.

“As a director, part of my job is to motivate people to be better than they think they are. That’s what makes a team better than an individual. I’ve heard the stories about my being a tyrant and a dictator. I don’t think so. There’s a lot of freedom on my sets, as long as we’re all working toward the same end.”

“Oliver has a knack for pushing people just to the edge of hating him,” says Clayton Townsend, “and in the end, you’re smiling because you know you’ve done something really good.”


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