Three days behind bars with Oliver Stone, 450 prisoners, and a couple of 'Natural Born Killers'

By EW Staff
September 09, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Joliet, Ill. Within Stateville Correctional Center’s 33-foot-high walls, an escape attempt is under way in a stairwell of B-House, said to be the world’s longest rectangular cell block. At the top of the stairs, two gun-toting prisoners use a TV journalist to shield them from the rifles of the warden and officers below. *One guard is John Gagnon, a Stateville officer and a crack shot. But director Oliver Stone isn’t quite satisfied with how he’s holding his gun, and steps up behind him to adjust the angle.

*”Fire in the hole!” yells a crew member from the floor below, and ears are quickly covered as gunshots begin to ring and fires break out on the tiers above.

It’s nearing the 12th and final exhausting week of shooting Natural Born Killers, Stone’s way-over-the-top collage about how the media catapults murderers — in this case two blood-crazed killers played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis — to stardom. Standing in for the real-life bloodhounds of true- crime TV, Robert Downey Jr. is journalist Wayne Gale, whose show, American Maniacs, becomes the starring vehicle for Mickey and Mallory when coverage of their spree sends ratings skyward.

With a body count of more than 52, including Mallory’s abusive dad (drowned), her mom (torched), diners at a coffee shop, and a slumber party full of teenage girls, Killers has reignited what for Stone has become a virtual second career as a lightning rod for controversy. At issue: everything from Killers‘ point (or lack of one), to its quality (reviews have run the gamut from ”brilliant” to ”painfully muddled”), to its frenzy of different film stocks and styles, to its R rating-won only after Stone snipped out shots like one scene that was filmed through a bullet hole in a hand. At the storm’s center is a director who used Killers as license ”to do anything we wanted. What were we gonna do, make another road movie, another prison movie that looks just like the 85 prison movies that were done? If you’re going to enter that genre you might as well have fun with it.” Which meant indulging an outlandishly violent aesthetic: In the first cut, one of the film’s victims was broiled alive in an oven. ”It was great,” Stone says.

Once you get past his idea of fun, the man behind Killers is affable and benign in a way that disarms even his actors. ”We were surprised at how gentle and soft-spoken he is,” says Harrelson. ”He never raises his voice. We expected a screaming monster.”

Oliver Stone has sticky movie blood on his shirt. In fact, during today’s filming, blood has rained everywhere-on the actors, on the director’s chairs, out in the prison yard parched by the intense mid-July heat, on the carts and equipment. There’s even a pool of it in the bath-room sink off the captain’s office.

The blood is fake, but the potential for spilling the real stuff can’t be overlooked, particularly when the assistant warden turns up two deadly daggers made from stolen fence wire. Stone, however, feeding off Stateville’s dark and hostile energy, isn’t fazed by the latent brutality of his prison-turned-movie set-or by his film’s prodigious death toll. ”I’m not attempting the realism I did in Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July,” he says. ”I’m looking for the absurdity, and sometimes that’s excessive.”

Stone began filming Killers after wrapping Heaven and Earth in May 1993. ”I was anxious to try something different coming out of that film, which was more agricultural, more classical.” But Heaven‘s failure and the demise of his long-in-development Evita and Noriega have unexpectedly upped the ante for the new direction Stone has taken.

Ironically, Killers‘ original script, by Quentin Tarantino, excited almost no one. It ”had been seen by practically everybody and turned down,” says Stone. But when Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs became the hit of Sundance in 1992, Hollywood lined up to court Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy, two USC film school grads who’d gone into hock to option the script. After shopping it around, Hamsher and Murphy, who knew Tarantino from his days as a video store clerk, decided to make it themselves for $50,000, until they heard Stone was interested; then they insisted on coming along as producers.

Stone loved Tarantino’s script-as an outline: ”It was a road movie, an action-adventure movie, and a prison-escape movie.” But Stone thought Mickey and Mallory’s motives needed to be more understandable. ”In the original,” Stone recalls, ”they were stick figures used as a symbol. They were insane, reckless, homicidal maniacs, and they may very well end up being so, but I think we put some more flesh on the bone.” In fact, when Stone and writers David Veloz and Richard Rutowski finished their rewrites, Tarantino took his name off the script. (He now has only a story credit.)

Tarantino (whose second film, Pulp Fiction, opens in October) intended Killers to be his directorial debut but says that after writing the script, he grew dissatisfied with its single the-media-is-turning-killers-into- celebrities theme. ”I never want my stuff to be able to be boiled down to one subject,” says Tarantino. ”Where Oliver Stone is very much about the big idea.”

Though Tarantino also took issue with Stone’s casting decisions-initially he was ”really mad” about Harrelson-he’s now a bit more sanguine. ”If I hadn’t written it,” he says, ”it sounds like one of Stone’s movies I’d get a big kick out of.”