The legacy of ‘Natural Born Killers’: Oliver Stone and Juliette Lewis on ultra-violence and media hysteria
It’s been 25 years since Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” caused a stir when it hit theaters, but the violent tale of lovers-on-the-run mixed with a vicious media satire still feels controversial today.
In celebration of the flamboyantly over-the-top film’s anniversary, it’s closing out this year’s edition of L.A.’s Beyond Fest tonight followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Stone, stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis and producer Don Murphy.
In the movie Harrelson and Lewis play Mickey and Mallory Knox, a young couple who embark on a wild crime spree that winds up making them the center of a worldwide media storm. The film’s outrageous style, mixing film formats with a high-density editing strategy, made it visceral and shocking.
As Times critic Kenneth Turan put in his original review, the film is “both audacious and astonishing, a vision of a charnel house apocalypse that comes close to defying description.” Turan also called it “the movie Oliver Stone was born to make, and if that statement is a knife that cuts both ways, so be it.”
Much as with the recent concern around real-world violence and the release of Warner Bros.’ “Joker,” there was much consternation in the media that “Natural Born Killers” would set off copycat crimes. A lawsuit essentially attempting to treat the movie as a faulty product, claiming that Stone and Warner Bros. were responsible for a young couple’s multi-state crime spree, dragged on in the courts for years before eventually being dismissed.
Among the many sources of intrigue surrounding the movie, the film’s original script was written by Quentin Tarantino — he ultimately received a story credit on the finished film — before being rewritten by Stone, Richard Rutowski and David Veloz. In a small irony, “Natural Born Killers” cinematographer Robert Richardson has shot Tarantino’s last few projects, including this year’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
Stone and Lewis recently spoke separately about the movie ahead of the Beyond Fest event.
“I think it was a special movie,” said Stone. “There’s nothing quite like it. It’s one of a kind.”
Where did the style of the movie come from, mixing formats and with the extreme editing style? Did it feel like an extension of what you had already been doing on “JFK” and some of your other films?
Oliver Stone: We always tried to adapt the style to the subject matter. The reason for “Natural Born Killers” being so extreme was because of the time that it was made, in the early ’90s, seemed to me a time of excess and a new change in the cultural environment, in the sense of sensationalism and violence promoted by the major media in a way that has never been done before. ... The news was becoming oriented toward the sensational, whether it be violence or the growth to a war, the constant beat of the drum to create a tabloid headline. Staid old papers started to change, a woman would cut off her husband’s penis and that would make the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post.
I think from about ’92, ’93, ’94, it started to get really heavy and it never stopped. And I thought, “This is not a good thing that’s happening, but this is happening.” And it hasn’t stopped. I see too much of that mentality around now. Television for example, commercials have adopted the mentality of “Natural Born Killers”: shock, shock, shock. One after the other. You can’t surprise the audience. There’s no sense of formality or slowing down or keeping an atmosphere. It’s more and more: Get out front, get your attention, don’t let it go. That’s what that movie was about.
You’ve all always talked about the movie as a satire or critique of the media, but it so often was received as being some kind of treatise on screen violence. Why do you think there was that disconnect?
Stone: You’d need to go to psychology classes for that. America is very literal. Violence, literal. I mean I’m a guy who was in Vietnam, I did combat films that were called very realistic, “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Platoon,” “Salvador.” And then how can you believe that [in “Natural Born Killers”] the bullets could do this or a knife could go through a window? This is ridiculous. Can’t you see it’s tongue in cheek, can’t you see we’re making fun of it? They couldn’t.
I never felt so much disdain and animosity expressed to us actors from journalists... They hated us. They hated the movie.
— Juliette Lewis on ‘Natural Born Killers’
Juliette Lewis: Oliver never makes something that says one thing. I mean, [the film] is insanely intelligent and layered. So that combination I knew was going to be really interesting and provocative. But here’s what was wild: When me and Woody did the press — and by the way, I was new to press junkets, I wasn’t that versed — I never felt so much disdain and animosity expressed to us actors from journalists. I mean, those interviews, they hated us. They hated the movie. And then you look at it in hindsight, you go, that’s Oliver Stone antagonizing, prodding. A lot of his movies are like poking people or hitting you in the head with a sledgehammer. ... I was shocked, though, that the media were missing the layers and the point.
Does the movie still have something to say to us now?
Stone: Younger people still do tell me that. People say it’s on the pulse of now. I mean, one of the lines in the movie is, “The future is murder.” That’s one of three Leonard Cohen songs that we used. It seems like a war mentality and violent mentality is in the air. Americans now — how many bombing missions do we run? How many remote wars do we fight? Doesn’t it come home to roost? That’s the whole point of it. There’s violence in our system, there’s bloodshed in our bloodstream and it’s not expected to come home in America.
That’s the whole point of it. There’s violence in our system, there’s bloodshed in our bloodstream and it’s not expected to come home in America.
— Oliver Stone on ‘Natural Born Killers’
Lewis: If I’m being honest, as an actor I developed and got to play and do all these improvised things and had my ideas encouraged. But the outcome, I didn’t know what to think about the movie actually. The animosity that I was faced with, particularly being a female, the wild one, the sociopath as a female, I think that messes with people. Like I talked with Woody, he didn’t get labeled crazy for years to come. I worked with who I worked with, [George] Clooney, all these people and they were like, “Wow, you’re not crazy.” And it’s a compliment, but it also can be a stifling indictment, just because I played something very wild.
So as far as the themes of what “Natural Born Killers” was posing and making a statement on, absolutely they are as relevant today as they were. I felt like the movie was actually ahead of its time. One of those you catch up to. And that’s what’s amazing about an Oliver Stone, about radical thinkers, society has to catch up to what he was posing at the time.
With the new film ‘Joker,’ also a Warner Bros. release, there has been a lot of concern as to whether that film will incite violence. Are you surprised that that’s a conversation we’re still having?
Stone: Not at all. I think it also applies to the fact that Trump resembles the Joker, so they’re making that allusion.
But in particular with our current moment, with the rash of mass shootings and the air of violence in the culture, does that give you any pause?
Stone: Why don’t we blame it on our Pentagon and all of our military budget and the trillion dollars that we invest in all the wars and occupying the whole planet and inciting people to fight, fight, fight on our televisions? That’s what you should blame, the mentality of violence in the air. How is a movie going to kick off this kind of violence? It’s on television every day. If you turn on any channel ... you’re most likely to see some kind of shooting, some kind of episodic TV cops show, murder story. Bad guy gets killed, the good guy wins. The usual fiction.
At the end of the movie, Mickey and Mallory escape. Do you think that’s part of what people found disturbing, that they get away and the end credits show them having kids and just living their lives?
Stone: Yes, they go on and they become parents and all that ... they become underground people. I guess they end up like hippies.
Some people found it disturbing that they get away with it, because we have a law-and-order mentality. We believe that if we throw a person in prison or shoot them or kill them, it’s the best way to a solution. It’s not the solution. The solution is the system is broken down. Look at our prison system. It doesn’t work.
Lewis: I’m a moral person where you want consequences, but it’s also not always the life we live in. But who knows, I think they could have died the following week. I don’t know that their kind lives on. See, those things, I didn’t take the time to analyze fully. I just know Oliver likes to upset people and not give you closure. Do they get away? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think they die in a burning house.
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