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Oliver Stone Looks Back at 'JFK'

The Oscar-winning filmmaker on the legacy of the Kennedy assassination and the problems plaguing America today

Oliver Stone on the set of 'JFK.'
Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
November 4, 2013 2:50 PM ET

Ever since President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22, 1963, many people have wondered: What actually transpired on that Friday in Dallas? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? What about the Cubans and the Mafia? Did our government have something to do with it? 28 years later, filmmaker Oliver Stone created the award-winning movie JFK to illustrate his very personal point of view.

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JFK chronicles an investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and the subsequent conspiracy case he brought against alleged CIA operative Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). The film opened to widespread artistic praise and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for Best Cinematography and Film Editing. Stone also won a Golden Globe for his directing efforts. However, critics, politicians and even some historians decried the picture for its depiction of an assassination plot hatched in the highest echelons of the American government. After decades of painstaking research, Stone remains certain that Oswald didn't act alone – and most likely didn't pull the trigger.

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A collector's edition of JFK will be released on November 12th to mark the 50th anniversary the assassination. The box set includes a director's cut, a Kennedy-themed portion of Stone's Showtime documentary The Untold History of the United States and another full-length documentary on the assassination. In addition, Stone and Warner Bros. are re-releasing JFK in New York, Los Angeles and Washington from November 8th through the 14th, as well as in select Regal, Cinemark and AMC multiplexes the following week. Rolling Stone spoke with Stone about the project and its legacy.

What does the 50th anniversary of JFK's death mean to you?
It means that this country has gone sour for 50 years. It's gone in the wrong direction. Yes, that's what it means. It's gotten more right-wing and definitely more warped.

Where were you and what were you doing when it happened?
I was 17 and at boarding school. It was a normal day, and I took it like everyone else – quite shocked and horrified, although I was definitely anti-Kennedy in the sense that my political upbringing was conservative and Republican.

Did you understand the full implications of his death at that time?
No, are you crazy? I was just trying to get through school. The concept of going to Vietnam so shortly afterward was bizarre. It was sort of sold to us at the time that Johnson was fulfilling Kennedy's mandates and that Kennedy was in line between Eisenhower and Johnson, and there was no discontinuum. That's absolutely not true considering what I've learned since then.

Were there any revelations that were so shocking that you left them out?
No. The most shocking part is in the film and very clearly outlined. It's the sequence of the shooting, the timing, the case the Zapruder film makes for our film, the wounds and the autopsy. It's all quite shocking when you think about it – think seriously about it. It doesn't make any sense the way they described it. That's the most shocking part of the case. When you start to investigate Oswald, of course there are a thousand interesting things that come up. The files on Oswald were much more closely supervised by the CIA then we knew at the time and were omitted by the Warren Commission. They treated it like a routine investigation, but it was hardly so.

Do you think that President Johnson was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate JFK?
No, I didn't say that. That's not in the film. There is a very clear line. We draw a line between the cover-up and the assassination. The cover-up is filled with another cast of characters. That is to say, the Warren Commission itself, who is in charge of the investigation; and the main man, Alan Dulles, the ex-chief of the CIA and one of the most powerful figures in government. He was fired by Kennedy, as were all his top officials, two years earlier. He was put in charge of the investigation and buried certain information. That's part of the cover-up.

Have your views on the assassination changed in the ensuing 20-plus years?
Frankly, the film is pretty solid. I looked at it yesterday, actually, and I was quite moved by it. There are a couple of sloppy scenes I don't like, but I'm not going to tell you what they were. As far as shot by shot, and the itinerary of what happened that day, it's still interesting.

Do you think the controversial nature of the picture hurt it at the Oscars?
Yes, definitely. But I'm very proud of the film, and I'm very happy that the Oscars for editing and cinematography were given to the film.

How difficult was it to find backing for the movie?
I was perceived to be very successful at the time because of Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, The Doors and Platoon. Warner Bros. wanted to make a film with me and I with them. This was a good thriller. To them, it was a great detective story as it was to me, but they were still cautious and very much wanted Kevin Costner, their leading star at the time, to be in the film. When we secured Costner, even then, they split the cost with Arnon Milchan, an independent producer, whom we brought into the film.

What was it like filming in Dealey Plaza?
By the time we came to the shooting, we were really prepared. We had a lot of experts with us: Rifle people, forensics people and photography people. It was quite a crew. And we actually had permission, which was a miracle. I don't think we would have gotten it today, because there has been a backlash to all kinds of freethinking in this country. So, we were really able to muster all the forces that we could. I probably interviewed as many witnesses that were there that day as some members of the FBI. Actually, even more, because I had a bigger cross-section between New Orleans, Dallas and Washington.

Were you ever threatened?
No, I met some strange people, but it's hard to believe they would kill a moviemaker. I haven't felt personally threatened, although I've gotten ugly letters. As a filmmaker, they consider me a dramatist, and that's okay – that's what I am. I don't have real power in their terms. I got a lot of flak from Richard Helms, Nixon and George H.W. Bush. There's been a lot of innuendo and horrible things spoken. Jack Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hounded the film, which was quite strange.

Why did Valenti "hound" the project?
He had worked for Lyndon B. Johnson and was very loyal to him and could not see beyond that, in my opinion.

Did Jim Garrison see the completed film before he passed away in 1992?
Yeah, he did. And he was a very happy man. As a little counterpoint, we had him play Judge Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States, who is in charge of the Warren Commission. But not really.

What do you say to people who feel your movie is only partially factual? The Chicago Tribune said it's "full of distortions and outright falsehoods" in September.
Did you see our counter? They printed it up two weeks later. We offered facts and that person didn't have one single fact in there. He was the one who was slandering. He was not an expert in any way. He had no experience in this case. It's easy to take a shot at us. I ask people who criticize: Did you ever read a book? Did you ever read Robert Groden's Absolute Proof, Cyril Wecht's Cause of Death, Josiah Thompson's Six Seconds in Dallas or James Douglass's JFK and the Unspeakable? Did you ever look at the evidence or counter-evidence? And they rarely know any of it.

Will the government ever release all of the assassination records?
That's a tough question. We don't even know how many there are. But we know from former Washington Post writer Jefferson Morley that, on October 25 in the Dallas Morning News, the CIA has acknowledged that, in a sworn affidavit, the agency retains 1,100 records related to the assassination that have never been made public. These files are not believed relevant to the death, but they concern the operation with six CIA employees involved in the JFK story who reported directly to James Angleton, the head of the CIA's counterintelligence staff, and Deputy Director Richard Helms, who attacked the film. These people were not investigated and they all hated Kennedy.

What do you feel are the most important issues facing the country today?
Global warming and joining the world community as a true equal and not as a bully. Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats have moved increasingly toward the right, much more so than in the time that I grew up. We need a parliamentary system with three or four or five parties that really and truly represents the variety of our thoughts.

Do you agree with Russell Brand's recent comment that voting isn't important?
I don't know his idea so I can't comment. I think our account of voting is bad. We don't know if our vote is being counted correctly. There's enough margin here, I would say five percent or more, that can swing an election or a state. We need a receipt from our vote that says whom we voted for, we need it on paper and it needs to be counted. We can go on about this and talk about the democratic process, the Electoral College, gerrymandering and how it's all destructive to any true democracy. How can we elect Obama by one-and-a-half-million votes and still have a Republican House of Representatives?

The federal government is still performing covert activities overseas. Do you think they're doing similar things domestically?
Oh yes, I always have. Our government has been snooping in our lives ever since we became an empire after World War I. Now, with the NSA revelations and Edward Snowden, that's factual. There's no end. It has nothing to do with abroad vs. here now, it's just worldwide. It's a global architecture. So, I want you people to wake up!

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