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Q&A: Oliver Stone Revisits ‘JFK’

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Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone's 'JFK.' Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

While some stories may become clearer as time goes on, 50 years after one of America's worst days, the accepted truth about President John F. Kennedy's assassination just keeps getting murkier.

Perhaps that's why Oliver Stone's "JFK" caused such a stir when it debuted at the St. Louis International Film Festival on the 28th anniversary of JFK's death, November 22, 1991: because it offered a different viewpoint, an alternative to the history books, and a new impetus to uncover another possible version of the truth. Perhaps that’s why, some 20 years later, as the muck is still settling, Warner Bros. is re-releasing “JFK” in a limited number of theaters, and debuting the Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray box set.

To commemorate the continued interest in his film, we recently sat down with the three-time Oscar winner to reflect upon his 1992 Best Picture nominee, the major personalities involved, and its lasting cinematic and cultural significance.

If you made “JFK” today what, if anything, would you do differently?

Oliver Stone: I don’t know what I would do differently; I haven’t studied it in detail because I really loved the way it was. It was of that moment. There again, I had gone with the official story: Kennedy was killed by Oswald. I never thought about it until I read that book by Jim Garrison, "On the Trail of Assassins." I bought it, it was a hell of a suspense movie I knew that. It was like "Z," one of my favorite suspense movies in the sense that it has a murder in the beginning and then you unravel the murder, and as you unravel the murder you find out it is much bigger than you ever think; it is a classic conspiracy theory movie. As I started to study it and got into the eyewitnesses and everything I found myself really believing what Garrison was saying, that this thing was much bigger than we ever thought. That’s a great movie.

Could you feel when you were making it that it was something special?

OS: Oh yeah. We sensed it, but I have to say we were a little naïve; I was a little naive. I didn’t see this coming, the vast press reaction to it. There was some positive stuff, but mostly negative, and mostly without thinking, without studying the texts. We did publish a compendium along with our movie, footnoting everything we did. But sometimes people just don’t want to disturb their thought process; they’re comfortable in a certain zone. It’s so hard for people to change their thinking; I know that because I’ve done it. It’s also one of the most enlightening things you can do, and frankly it makes you live longer, because it challenges you, and you start to doubt yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a good exercise, like working out. It makes you think, “Maybe I’m full of s***.”

What do you remember most about that experience?

OS: For me as a young filmmaker working with legends like Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, Ed Asner, Joe Pesci – there were some characters in that movie. Kevin [Costner] was a major movie star, and because he committed to it, that was why it got done. He did a great job; I think he was criticized for doing it, being a movie star, but he anchored that movie, put a lot of stars in it. Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, I wanted to put signposts in for people; it’s a complicated story you want people to follow, it’s a thick story three hours nine minutes, you want to follow a story and sometimes actors with faces help you get there.

[Related: Oliver Stone discusses weed, war and ‘Savages’]

Did you get any pushback from Mr. Lee Jones about the look of his character?

OS: No Tommy wanted to do it. He wasn’t as hot as he is now. My God I love Tommy, to see his career… He was in a bit of a slump, dying to do it. He came up with a lot of that stuff, he loved the body paint, he loved the whole gothic-ness of it, he’s from the south, he loves the gothic-ness of New Orleans.

What kind interactions do you have when you run into the cast now?

OS: I don’t see that many of them, it’s sad in this business. After a movie finishes people travel… I think Pesci was the one who hated me, he said I was horrible and blah blah blah. I think he objected to... I love Joe I really do, I think he’s really great in the movie, but I don’t think he knew he was playing a gay character. I think because all these mafia guys in New York, all these gangster types that he hangs out with, I think he woke up to it, but he was really pissed at me. But I love Joe, he did a great job, he was fabulous in the movie.

The JFK Ultimate Collector’s Edition is available today and includes a smorgasbord of extras including the Director's Cut with 17 additional minutes, Stone's "Untold History of the United States Chapter 5: JFK: To The Brink," two JFK documentaries, the feature film drama, “PT 109,” about Kennedy's World War II experiences as a skipper in the South Pacific, commemorative items from the Kennedy Presidential Library, a 32-page book of famous quotations, and a 44-page JFK movie photo book.

See Oliver Stone speak with Access Hollywood about "JFK":

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