Three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns with the ferocious thriller “Savages.” The film features an all-star ensemble cast including Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch, Sandra Echeverría, and Demián Bichir. The film is based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel that was named one of The New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2010.
Winslow’s Savages is laced with the politics and trade of marijuana, areas that riveted Stone. Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Oliver Stone adapted the novel into a screenplay. In less than a year, Universal Pictures secured the worldwide distribution rights. Soon after, principal photography began.
Don Winslow’s Savages
Stone: I thought the book was well done. It’s about power, betrayal, money and questioning current values.
Key Theme in the Film
Stone: Above all, [there] is a power move by the Mexican Cartel into the United States to cut in on the independent distributors and producers. In the movie, the Baja Cartel is more interested in volume than the boutique-sized operations. But wherever you have volume versus independent growers, you’re going to have a clash. Walmart doesn’t want to have competitors.
Narration by Blake Lively’s character
Stone: The idea of O narrating the movie grew naturally from the book, where she tells the story to the reader. But a voiceover in a film can potentially sap it of its tension by making it overly self-conscious. Insofar as the book has more than a hundred scenes and many characters, far more than we can afford in a movie, we worked to minimize the information and still use the voiceover to connect the dots.
Powerful Female Characters
Stone: I much enjoyed the interplay and influence of these dynamic women. The relationship between Elena (Hayek) and Magda (Echeverría) is pretty ruthless. The daughter (Echeverría) resembles the mother (Hayek) in many ways, but the mother has a bigger heart. There is the transfer of feelings from Elena to O (Lively). When she holds her hostage, Elena kind of adopts O. O and her mother are very estranged, so on some level, initially, she is drawn to Elena. But ultimately there will be a shifting power struggle between these strong women, who develop a wary affection.
The Film’s Antagonist
Stone: John (Travolta) was my first choice for Dennis. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time… And he projects a good-natured ambivalence, which fits the role of a DEA agent who’s AC/DC.
The Rehearsal Process
Stone: I’ve always done blocking rehearsals. The scenes in this film were incredibly complex. We had five or six main characters, and the actors all had significant script input. These run-throughs are practical. First of all, you have to know where you’re going in the scene and what it’s about. Hopefully, you’ve agreed upon that beforehand, but the blocking is where it all plays out. The actual filming plan comes out of that. If you haven’t prepared before the blocking rehearsal, then you’re going to have a mess. But questions do arise, and the worst place in the world is to have some brouhaha on set…and things do reveal themselves in the process.
Stunt Coordinator Keith Woulard
Stone: Keith was the key person in [the blocking]. An ex-SEAL, he never lost his cool, and there were some tough moments for him. He was the most patient of men.
Researching the Story
We were dealing with the raw edge of the marijuana trade, and frankly, you get a lot of false information and media hype. On “Scarface,” I was a stickler for detail. I wanted to know what the poundage of cocaine was, what was being shipped, who was behind it, etc. For this, I tried to know the same thing about marijuana, but it’s harder to find some of those facts. Stone: That’s where [recently retired DEA agent Eddie Follis] came in. He gave me some good facts, and of course, Don Winslow has been around it for some time. As has [production’s hacker expert Patrick Fourmy], who’s been in the marijuana business for years, as well as the music industry. A generous man and amazing intellect, he was a kind of Svengali to many of us on the set. Through them and my own research, I became familiar with the quirkiness of the independent marijuana movement. It’s not a cartel, so everybody grows in their own eccentric fashion…we tried to add as much of that into the film as we could.
Shooting at Pyramid Dam in northern Los Angeles County
Stone: There were some incredible vistas there, but we had to work at a crushing pace in very inhospitable conditions. It was tough, but everyone pulled together. But [cinematographer Dan Mindel] kept insisting that anamorphic could be done fast and at a price, and certainly he did it at the speed that we required. The movie looks hot, sexy and you don’t have to go with Super 35. We had complete freedom of camera, and the anamorphic lens gives you a lot more information and resolution if it’s well done. He’s a great lighter, has a great eye and is one of the hardest workers I know. He hardly ever left the set. So when you light it well, you don’t need a lot of angles. You can get a lot of information in with one angle, which is good for the actors too because it stays fresh. There is nothing more deadening than to overshoot a scene.
The Film’s Final Scene
Stone: I knew it was going to be a long rehearsal because it was just too big and too important a scene. I did pare it down to six people, a desert, a showdown and snipers on the outer ring. There was the simplicity of a Western. But all of it had to be worked out: when the shots were, when the glass breaks, how many shots there would be.