Oliver Stone on the set of his film "Savages." (Francois Duhamel )
Oliver Stone's new movie "Savages," based on the Don Winslow novel of the same name, centers on marijuana trafficking and the bloody fights it inspires. But the filmmaker believes it isn't a classic crime tale like his 1994 picture "Natural Born Killers" or 1983's "Scarface," whose remake Stone wrote for director Brian De Palma. Nor, Stone says, is it a drug tale akin to 1978's "Midnight Express," which he wrote for filmmaker Alan Parker.
"There are so many drug movies, so many gangster movies," said Stone. "So it's crucial to create freshness, and the book was absolutely vivid. It didn't fit into any one genre. And it was really something I had never done before. It's a ride — that's the easiest thing to say — and you don't know what is going to happen next."
Opening Friday, "Savages" follows two successful Laguna Beach entrepreneurs, ex-military man Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and the peace-loving Ben (Aaron Johnson), whose small business involves growing and selling marijuana. Thanks to their hybrid plants, the duo have cornered the market on high-octane reefer. The product has drawn the unwelcome interest of a sadistic Mexican drug cartel, headed by a fierce woman named Elena (Salma Hayek), whose stateside muscle is supplied by Lado (Benicio del Toro).
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"It's a classic Wal-Mart against a high-end boutique," Stone said. Except the boutique owners aren't interested in selling, and Wal-Mart won't take "no thank you" as an answer.
When the cartel kidnaps Chon and Ben's shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively, who replaced Jennifer Lawrence on the eve of filming) to force the deal, the two men decide to fight rather than capitulate. The turn not only makes Ben reconsider his pacifist tendencies, but also draws John Travolta's crooked Drug Enforcement Administration agent into a plot that quickly turns bloody ("Savages" is rated R in part for "strong brutal and grisly violence"). As Lively says in a voiceover at the film's start, "Just because I'm telling you this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it."
Although Stone calls the movie "a hypothetical fiction, a situation that might happen" and says he never "intended to make a 'Traffic' kind of movie where we are commenting on the drug wars," the director — who favors legalizing marijuana — hopes the issues raised by the film are real, and thought-provoking.
VIDEO: Oliver Stone's 'Savages' looks for the perfect setting
The Universal Pictures movie was filmed partly in a Pacific Palisades mansion last summer. The estate's indoor pool was converted into a massive hydroponic marijuana farm for the film's production, with about 300 high-octane pot plants jamming the covert nursery. In one corner stood a cluster of lab equipment used to test the weed's chemical power, while an array of fluorescent lamps, oscillating fans and irrigation lines kept the herbage bright and green.
The 3-foot-tall foliage tended that August night by Kitsch and Johnson was photo-realistic but phony. "I wanted to use real plants and had them all ready to go," said production designer Tomas Voth, who toured actual Southern California pot farms for research. "But it was some legal thing. Universal told us to use fakes."
The movie makes a number of departures from Winslow's free-form book, particularly toward the tale's conclusion. In addition, Lively's character has been cleaned up a bit — she's a little more Orange County in the movie than she comes across in the book (partially out of concerns that O would remind moviegoers too much of Lisbeth Salander from "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo").
Stone said he was intrigued by the kinds of bright, beach-side colors "Savages" suggested — no sleek steel and dark concrete like his recent New York stories "World Trade Center" (2006) and"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"(2010).
But "Savages" did mirror some of Stone's recurrent themes — of personal change, sometimes for the worse, and redemption. "My movies are often about people who come to other definitions of themselves — it's a classic theme," the 65-year-old director said.
It wasn't an easy movie to sell. "They said it was too tough," Stone said of those who rejected the film. "It was too much of an R-rating. It was risky."
But Universal saw an opportunity, believing that "Savages" recalled an earlier, rabble-rousing Stone. The studio financed the $45-million shoot, and once it was complete, took the bold step of moving the film up from September to square off against"The Amazing Spider-Man,"which opened Tuesday.
"It was a movie that we thought was reminiscent of some of Oliver's best work," said Donna Langley, Universal's co-chairman, citing "Natural Born Killers," "Scarface" and "Salvador." "It has all of the tropes of gangster films, but the story is told not through caricatures but real characters. We think it's an elevated genre film."
Stone, who freely admits to smoking the occasional joint, hopes people will watch "Savages" and think about the war on drugs and the violence it has sparked, especially in Mexico. Decriminalizing marijuana, he said, is a good first step.
"Prohibition never works — if it's sex or drugs or alcohol," Stone said. "So let's get it under some sort of medical control, rather than criminal control."