Oliver Stone's upcoming "Natural Born Killers" could easily be dubbed Natural Born Jitters, considering Warner Bros.' and the MPAA ratings board's worries about the film's violence.
Even Quentin Tarantino, who has made his name with such ultraviolent films as "Reservoir Dogs" (which he wrote and directed) and "True Romance" (which he wrote), and who wrote "Killers' " original screenplay, has taken only a story credit and distanced himself from the movie.
"This movie makes 'True Romance' look like 'Bambi,' " says one Warners source. "True Romance," the 1993 film that also explored the murder spree of two lovers, also had entanglements with the ratings board over violence before finally being awarded an R.
But Stone, never one to shy from tackling violent projects ("Platoon," "Scarface," "Midnight Express"), was candid in an interview about his film and the talk surrounding it. It is scheduled to be released Aug. 19.
The film, which stars Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones, centers on a serial-killer couple (Harrelson and Lewis) and a despicable talk show host (Downey) who spends his time tromping around the country interviewing vicious killers for his tabloid show, "American Maniacs." Warners and Stone call it a satire on the media's insatiable appetite for broadcasting violence, desensitizing its viewing public to horror and making heroes out of anti-heroes.
In fact, the juxtaposition of the film's being released in the wake of the nation's morbid curiosity about the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and the subsequent arrest of O.J. Simpson, has given the controversy an even more surreal feel, says Stone.
"When I started making this movie I completely envisioned this as satire," says Stone. "Then this . . . reality . . . happens."
Says Warners spokesman Rob Friedman: "Oliver's movie is like looking through a warped mirror. Every frame of this movie is surreal. Its intent is to provoke thinking about what's going on with the media today. During sweeps week two major networks had interviews with serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. Donahue wanted to air an execution. So Oliver's movie is tame by what's being aired . . . but it's something he believes we will eventually be seeing on TV."
Warners says the studio's concerns were ironed out with Stone before the film was submitted to the ratings board, which has awarded it an R. He insists any disputes Stone had with executives over the violence were no worse than the typical disputes directors have with the studio over other films.
Stone says his is not so much about violence, but "the forces of chaos." Therein lies the rub.
"The chaos is what the ratings board had concerns about," Stone says. "When (the board) saw the prison riot that was filmed with real prisoners, they got a little concerned. It (exemplified) an accumulation of madness."
Stone says he had known about Warners' policy of not releasing NC-17 movies, only R-rated ones, before submitting the film to be rated. Studio sources say that the director and executives squabbled over cutting certain scenes. Warners Chairman Robert Daly, in particular, had voiced concerned about the nonstop violence.
Stone met with the ratings board five times and cut several scenes from the film before it was finally rated R. One cut was a shot of Downey's being shot in the hand, then the camera shot other scenes through the hole in the hand.
Stone said the uncut version of the film was "screened for kids in Seattle. They laughed at that scene because of the way it is set up. It is violence done satirically."
There are other scenes that some consider questionable, which remain in the film. One has Lewis' character's shooting a convenience store clerk in the head after having sex with him on the hood of a car.
Another shows a knife being thrown through a plate glass window and landing in a fleeing victim's back. The shot follows the knife as if the camera were riding on it.
"These scenes, again, are shot as satiric violence," says Stone. "That knife scene couldn't happen and you don't take it seriously."
What the viewer will see is a movie very different from what Tarantino intended, say those close to the young writer/director. Tarantino's spokesman says that Tarantino has no desire to talk about any differences he and Stone had and that he hasn't seen the picture. (His latest directorial effort, "Pulp Fiction," will be released in October.)
"Look, Quentin had written this several years before," says Stone. "And the producers, Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy, brought this to me. The structure and characters are there, but this is a film that addresses why violence is . . . it's not just another film about violence."