Think of it as Oliver Stone’s Amite-ville horror. In the small Louisiana backwater of Amite (pop. 4,800), where the only motel is a truck stop off I-55, every action taken by Hollywood’s favorite conspiracy theorist during the filming of Natural Born Killers may soon stand trial.
On July 22, a long-simmering civil lawsuit involving a reputed copycat killing — allegedly inspired by Stone’s ultraviolent 1994 media satire — edged closer to a courtroom showdown set to star the director and Time Warner (the parent company of EW and Warner Bros., NBK‘s distributor). Lawyers for Stone and Time Warner have agreed to let the director be deposed this fall as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of a convenience-store clerk paralyzed in a holdup linked to the $50 million-grossing movie.
Both Hollywood and First Amendment activists are nervously monitoring this civil action, since it promises to transfer the battle over movie violence from the op-ed pages into the courtroom, where any decision could set a landmark precedent. Says CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren (who is technically a Time Warner employee), ”There’s a climate of wanting to teach Hollywood a lesson on violence…the courts are one place that’s happening.”
The violent facts of the lawsuit are indisputable. In March 1995, Sarah Edmondson, an Oklahoma teen, and her boyfriend, Benjamin Darras, both 18, went on a cross-state crime spree during which she shot and paralyzed store clerk Patsy Byers, during a robbery in Ponchatoula, La., and he killed cotton gin manager William Savage of Hernando, Miss. Before embarking on their rampage, Edmondson and Darras had dropped acid and watched Stone’s film about a couple (played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) who find fame on a brutally depicted murder spree.
Edmondson, serving 35 years for the robbery and shooting of Byers (who died of cancer in 1997), has given conflicting statements about the film’s role in the crime. To police, she said, ”It was as if [Darras] was fantasizing from the movie….” She told Vanity Fair in 1996: ”It is not as great as I would like to make it be…. I wish I could point the finger at Hollywood completely.”
But at least one well-known person has found Natural Born Killers guilty of inspiring the crime. Author John Grisham, a friend of Savage’s, was enraged at the senseless killing (Darras pleaded guilty to murder and is now serving a life sentence) and lashed out at Stone’s movie in the spring 1996 issue of The Oxford American, a bimonthly journal that he co-owns.
”Think of a movie as a product, something created and brought to market, not too dissimilar from…Ford Pintos,” Grisham argued. ”If something goes wrong with the product, whether by design or defect, and injury ensues, its makers are held responsible.” (Grisham didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)
While Grisham raised the issue of creative malpractice, Amite attorney Joe Simpson, 74, who’d been retained by Patsy Byers in ’95, added a ”product liability” claim to his lawsuit, which already alleged that Stone and Time Warner through NBK had incited Edmondson and Darras to commit the Byers crime. At first, the case was a nonstarter; it was dismissed in January 1997 on the grounds that the defendants were protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.
But the Intermediate Louisiana Court of Appeals thought the case did have merit: It overturned the lower-court decision in May 1998. Stone and Time Warner asked both Louisiana’s highest court and the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling, but both declined to do so. (Their Supreme Court request for review was supported by organizations like the MPAA, which had skirmished with Stone over the movie’s violent content.) In March, the case returned to Amite for further proceedings.
Now the real horror begins. In his deposition, Stone can expect to be grilled about every aspect of the film. Since Simpson must prove that Stone and Time Warner intended to incite copycat crimes — and show that NBK directly advocated immediate violence — he has requested to see any document relating to it, including production notes, private journals, and any unused footage shot by Stone. Even Stone’s own words may be used against him. A comment he made to The New York Times in April ’96 is already being parsed: ”The most pacifistic people in the world said they came out of this movie and wanted to kill somebody.”
”That’s a starting point to delve into Stone’s mind,” Simpson says in his polished Louisiana drawl. ”What did you mean when you said that? Did you decide it after you saw the first cut? If he thought that people were going to go out and murder people, he should’ve never released the film.”
Time Warner does not discuss pending litigation, but a company source believes Simpson’s efforts are preposterous: ”Oliver Stone is one of the most respected filmmakers in the world, and he clearly had a strong artistic vision for this film. He was not just slapping images on the screen.”
Another issue Time Warner will have to contend with if the case moves to trial is just how Stone & Co. will play in Amite. ”In a jury trial,” boasts Simpson, ”Stone will lose.” Of course, that’s if the case gets to trial. After Stone gives his deposition, his attorneys will ask the court to dismiss the case for lack of evidence. If all efforts fail, the case could come to trial a year from now.
Van Susteren thinks Stone and Time Warner should start to sweat at that point. ”When the plaintiffs go to trial, they’ll hope the sentiment against violence will affect the decision-making process,” she says. ”The statement Stone made could create a factual dispute. The comment isn’t clear one way or the other, but as a lawyer…I’d be worried about it.”
The usually verbose Stone is understandably mum about the NBK controversy. ”I can’t say anything about the case,” he told EW. ”It’s a word-driven case, and what I say is liable to be misinterpreted by lawyers. They’re aggressive about this.” — Additional reporting by Betty Cortina and Daneet Steffens