: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Emile HirschDirector
: Oliver Stone Genre
: Thriller, Crime, DramaSynopsis
: Three-time Oscar®-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns to the screen with an all-star ensemble for the scorching thriller Savages, based on the best-selling crime novel by Don Winslow, which was named one of The New York Times' Top 10 Books of 2010.
Blake Lively stars as Ophelia, the girlfriend to two Laguna Beach entrepreneurs, one an ex-mercenary (Taylor Kitsch) and the other a principled environmentalist (Aaron Johnson), who've built a thriving homegrown industry on the best marijuana ever developed.
When they refuse to sell their business to a brutal Mexican drug cartel, Ophelia is kidnapped, and so begins an escalating series of ploys with savage consequences. Filling out the stellar cast are Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Uma Thurman and Emile Hirsch.Release Date
: October 18th, 2012
About the ProductionA Joint Venture: Savages Begins"You let people think you're weak, sooner or later you're going to have to kill them."
From its provocative first chapter to its lyrical last page, Don Winslow's audacious 2010 novel "Savages" captivated and stunned audiences and critics alike. Don Winslow describes that the genesis of his bestselling book was an unusual one: "I was sitting at my desk one day in a bad mood and I typed these two words, which would become the infamous first chapter of the book. Then I wrote 14 pages in a rush, and I e-mailed them to Shane Salerno [screenplay co-writer/executive producer Shane Salerno] and told him, 'Either these are really good, or I'm just crazy.' A few minutes later, I got an e-mail from him saying, 'Drop everything else you're doing and finish this book while you're in this voice.'"
Don Winslow's novel proved that rules are made to be broken, and he ended up crafting several chapters of 'Savages' in screenplay form. "I was trying to bust out of the typical confines of the crime genre as it's been defined lately," Don Winslow shares. "I threw a few elbows and found moments where I thought, 'This is better read or experienced as a piece of film rather than as a piece of a novel.'"
Shane Salerno, with whom the author has collaborated for more than 13 years, was glad that he had encouraged Don Winslow to focus his energy into revisiting a world that the author knew quite well. The executive producer explains: "Don Winslow wrote what a lot of people consider to be the definitive source on the subject with 'The Power of the Dog,' which is the story of the drug war over 30 years-from the formation of the DEA to 2005. He spent six years researching it down in Mexico, Texas and California. This is terrain that he has chiseled his name into, and it's a world he knows so well. With 'Savages,' he was prescient in seeing the business move from the Mexican cartels into California. It's interesting when real-life events start to mirror your worst fears."
Not only was the book critically well received when it was published-Stephen King called the sexy, action-filled drama "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on autoload"-it was fast-tracked into a screenplay. Reflects Shane Salerno: "The normal route for books, and certainly Don Winslow's previous books, is to sell them straight to a studio. "We made the decision to do something different, and we optioned the book to Oliver Stone directly. We felt that this unique material wouldn't benefit from traditional development, and it needed special handling. We felt that Oliver Stone would get it and began a collaboration developing it and ultimately writing the screenplay together. From the time the script sold to the time that shooting began, it was about three months, which is unheard of."
"Savages," laced with the politics and trade of marijuana, areas that have long been of interest to the writer/director, riveted Oliver Stone when he read it in galley form. Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone adapted the novel into a screenplay, and in less than a year, Universal Pictures secured the worldwide distribution rights. Soon after, principal photography began. Of his interest in crafting a film out of the groundbreaking novel, Oliver Stone relays: "I thought the book was well done. It's about power, betrayal, money and questioning current values."
Savages features multiple themes that recur in Oliver Stone's movies: layered power struggles, shifting loyalties, examinations of the best and worst of human nature, explorations of complex family relationships and a compelling look at damaged people, some of whom find their own kind of heroism.
Oliver Stone reflects that this project called to mind Any Given Sunday and "the corporation coming into football." About the economy of scale, he says: "Above all, it 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."
Frequent Stone collaborator, producer Moritz Borman offers that there is a natural inclination to search for parallels in Savages with Stone's earlier films, but that the director isn't interested in retreads. Mortiz Borman says: "Obviously, people will try to compare Savages to some of Oliver Stone's other movies, but the style and message are different, and it's a different story. But it certainly has some of the intensity of his other pictures. He has always had something to say, and therefore has turned out these films that have survived."
His fellow producer, Eric Kopeloff, notes that the director is as interested in characters as he is in a geopolitical backdrop: "That's what excites him about making movies-finding a story where you can go on a ride with the characters. Oliver Stone's someone who never stops trying, never stops doing different things to stretch the medium."
The translation of a lauded novel into an engaging movie is often an arduous one. For example, the film's explosive ending, which Oliver Stone likens to a Spaghetti Western, captures the tenor of the book but doesn't follow it to the letter. That divergence, Eric Kopeloff notes, is part of the process of moving from one medium to another. He says: "There's a liberty when you adapt a book into a screenplay, from a story perspective, from a time perspective. If we shot every scene in the book 'Savages' we would be easily sitting for five hours. We held true to the book in a lot of ways, but we also took cinematic liberties to heighten the story in certain places and give the audience a visual and character ride."
Don Winslow expands upon the differences in penning a novel versus a screenplay: "Primarily, as a novelist, you have to become aware that, at the end of the day, these are two different media with a lot of different needs, and that can take a little getting used to. For instance, a chapter in a book can accomplish just one thing, whereas a scene in a film has to accomplish two or three things simultaneously. Screenwriting is an extremely demanding artistic form that has to take so many factors into account at once."
In the story, the Baja Cartel admires Ben and Chon's product and process and wants to acquire their business. However, they disdain their lifestyle, especially their unorthodox relationship with O. On the flip side, Ben, Chon and O are as equally repulsed by the Cartel and their methods. At various points, as the contest between the Cartel and Ben, Chon and O becomes increasingly ruthless and violent; just who is the savage becomes blurry and subjective at best. Oliver Stone sums: "It's ironic that both sides identify the other as savages." Committed Entrepreneurs: Casting the Thriller"We have to keep the animals in the cage."
From Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July and Val Kilmer in The Doors to Michael Douglas in Wall Street and Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone is known for eliciting searing, exceptional performances from his troupe of actors. A keen observer whose idiosyncratic, occasionally provocative approach is in service of performance and story, Oliver Stone's style is referred to by cast and crew as "challenging but fair."
It was critical to Oliver Stone that he select actors who could embrace the kaleidoscopic trademarks of the story's characters. Indeed, Savages features a sprawling cast, whose intertwining and parallel stories lead up to an explosive climax. Moreover, the battle between the Baja Cartel and Ben, Chon and O exposes complex emotional motivations and frailties in each character. O is not a mere party girl, and Chon isn't simply a stoic killer. Ironically, Ben the pacifist, when pushed to the brink, is capable of extreme violence. Elena, for all her power and lethal detachment, is maternal and lonely. The methodically brutal Lado lives in fear of his petite female boss, while Dennis, for all his clever machinations, is ultimately a survivor with great loyalty to his family.
Fairly early on in the casting process, Taylor Kitsch landed on Oliver Stone's radar as a potential lead for the thriller. When Oliver Stone contacted Taylor Kitsch to play Chon, the badass to Ben's pacifist, Kitsch responded to the material in a very Chon-like manner. "I had read the book before it had been announced that Oliver Stone was involved, but there were rumours that he had optioned it," Taylor Kitsch recalls. "I thought, 'Man, I would murder to play this guy.' When I found out that Oliver Stone was attached, well that was it. I felt that I would be a great fit."
A trained killer and ex-Navy SEAL, Chon uses his skill set in fierce defense of the people whom he loves the most, O and Ben. Taylor Kitsch explains the motivation for this character who thinks drugs are a rational response to insanity: "Chon is a guy who has been jaded from day one. He's seen so much shit in Afghanistan that his first reaction is always to go to violence. You'll see a different guy when he's with Ben and O. He can let his guard down with them, maybe even laugh and joke, and that's rare for Chon. His real purpose in life is to protect Ben and O, and he will kill to do that."
Discussing his relationship with the director, Taylor Kitsch reflects: "Oliver Stone is old-school. It's all about the work, which I admire. I loved how he would take a break, talk about the scene and work it out. It's very settling. But you'd better bring your A game. Oliver notices every nuance, even if it's just a glance. He will question why you're doing it, which makes you prepare even more. When you do mess up, and everyone has that moment, he will absolutely let you know. But he will also tell you when the take is awesome. He keeps you on your toes, and your performance is better for it."
Blake Lively plays the beautiful, warmhearted O-a free spirit who, when kidnapped, proves to have just as much grit and fortitude as the Baja Cartel. About his choice for the part, Oliver Stone commends: "Blake Lively's an impressive actress. She was only 23. She had a lot of input into her character and is fearless. Blake Lively has to appear in the movie often in an unflattering light, and she never flinched."
Blake Lively becomes the voice of Savages, as O narrates the tale, and Oliver Stone used the voiceover technique as efficiently and specifically as possible. The director explains: "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 minimise the information and still use the voiceover to connect the dots."
For her part,Blake Lively liked the fact that "O is the one thread that ties everyone together." Indeed, she interacts in multiple scenes with most of the other actors and had to run the gamut as a performer, and calls the shoot "intense, tumultuous and challenging." Says the actress: "It was amazing because I got to exist in each character's world, from this privileged life with the boys in Laguna to being tortured and in cages and being shipped off to Tijuana. It was a challenge to experience so much in a film on so many different levels-from ultimate happiness to ultimate pain."
The Southern California native was fascinated by the story's take on a nontraditional family and how three people could love each other that much. Blake Lively offers that she treated O's story with respect and care: "One of the main reasons that I felt that Ben, Chon and O were together is that they were each other's family. They were each other's everything. None of them had real families. They did not have anyone to learn from, no one who was there for them through thick and thin. And they found that in each other."
Aaron Johnson plays O's other lover and Chon's reluctant comrade in arms, the peaceable Ben, who is drawn against his will into a violent conflict with the Cartel. Indeed, Aaron Johnson was one of the first actors cast in the movie by Oliver Stone
even though neither man was initially sure what role he would play. "Aaron Johnson was one of the first actors I met with, in London," recalls the director. "I thought he was fresh and new. I said, 'You're wonderful for this. I don't know which part I want you to play, but please hold.' And he did. He passed on a big movie he was very close on, just to stay with us."
Ben, perhaps more than any of the characters, has to find and accept his inner savage, no easy feat for a self-proclaimed pacifist. "Ben becomes violent," Oliver Stone states. "The irony is that Ben would like to stay out of the muck but he gets in, and once he does he realises how difficult a dream he had. I guess none of us ever makes it through
we all get pulled into the muck at some point or another."
Aaron Johnson offers that Oliver Stone was the reason he accepted whatever role he might ultimately play. When it turned out to be Ben, he was thrilled. "Oliver's one of my heroes," the actor shares. "He is a fantastic writer and filmmaker and amazing at putting all the pieces together in original ways. It was incredible to be a part of that puzzle. I'd never played a role close to this, but I had complete trust in Oliver Stone. He is very challenging. He pushes you to do your best, to get to the next level and he always looks out for you. For a part like Ben, where there is a lot of emotional work along with heavy testosterone, Oliver Stone helped me find that balance and strength."
In addition to his three principals, Oliver Stone knew early on during preproduction that he wanted specific actors for the supporting roles. Therefore, he built the rest of the cast around them. They include John Travolta as the corrupt DEA agent Dennis, Academy Award® nominee Salma Hayek as the imperious and ruthless Elena, head of the Baja Cartel, and Benicio Del Toro as Elena's lethal enforcer Lado.
On both sides of the drug war is Dennis, an affable, manipulative DEA operative. A self-admitted opportunist, he plays fast and loose with Ben and Chon, as well as Lado. Two-time Oscar® nominee John Travolta was brought on to act the part of the agent who has long eschewed his agency's mission statement. "John Travolta was my first choice for Dennis. I've wanted to work with him for a long time," Oliver Stone says. "And he projects a good-natured ambivalence, which fits the role of a DEA agent who's AC/DC."
It was as much the story as it was the specific part that attracted John Travolta to the production. He says: "I responded to the overall impact of the script. I thought it would be a very cool movie, and I wanted to be involved." John Travolta adds that he found Oliver Stone to be very welcoming and an appreciative collaborator. "Oliver Stone loved that I have played lots of different characters. He valued my process. That's very inviting, especially since in a supporting role like Dennis-who connects all the dots in the piece-it was important to feel comfortable. Plus, Oliver Stone had a vision for this movie. I knew that when I stepped onboard. Savages is quintessential Oliver Stone. It has political messages. It has moral messages. It has complications that are current and relevant."
With two young daughters and a terminally ill wife, Dennis' complications inform his choices. John Travolta reflects: "It was a matter of what can I do to make him understandable, because he is double-dipping in an underhanded way between the U.S. government and the Cartel. But he finds a way to justify the bad things in his life. Like the other characters, he has a vulnerability and a duality to him. Yes, he was doing bad things but he was a human being and sentient, to some degree."
The biggest prize Dennis could dream of delivering to his supervisors is Elena Sanchez, head of the Baja Cartel who is "negotiating" with Ben and Chon to take over their operation. Salma Hayek offers that she rarely is considered for a role like Elena, the woman who orders O's kidnapping before she falls for O's charms. She says: "I don't get offered villains that much, so Elena was so much fun to play. She's strong and lives in a world that is violent and scary, and usually men are in her position. It's daunting and difficult for men but even tougher for a woman, and she's able to handle it. There is something intimidating, almost royal about Elena. Her nickname is 'La Reina,' which means 'The Queen' in Spanish. She has to have that presence; she has to command fear and respect. Otherwise the Cartel would never work."
The actress offers a glimpse into Elena's world, one devastated by loss: "She suffers a profound personal dilemma that reveals her one weakness, and there are aspects to her that we can identify with. Her Achilles' heel is her estranged relationship with her daughter, so when O comes into her life, it is a fragile, emotional time for Elena. O brings new light to her life, even though the circumstances that bring them together are not ideal. She's not completely divorced from humanity, as strong and bad and as cold as she is. That is great to find in a character. If you add to that the privilege of working with a director like Oliver Stone and a great cast, it was a no-brainer."
The story's political throughline also appealed to the performer, who has witnessed the complexities of the North American drug war. "I am Mexican. I've known different aspects of Elena's story," shares Salma Hayek. "It's part of life in my country. What I hope the movie will do is make people aware of the level of the drug trade problem between Mexico and the United States. It's not just a Mexican problem. It's a problem we share: America and Mexico are partners in this trade. One country's selling and one country's buying, and it's slipping through the hands of both governments."
During rehearsals, Oliver Stone tested Salma Hayek's mettle. Indeed, any concerns the actress wouldn't be "tough enough" were quickly allayed. The director, typically spare with the takes he requires, tasked Salma Hayek with countlessly repeating a pivotal sequence in which Elena verbally eviscerates Lado and Alex. Elena, bewildered, frustrated and furious over a breakdown in her U.S. operation, castigates her men in a fever pitch of mixed English and Spanish insults and threats. Salma Hayek delivered a bravura performance, as Stone knew she would, and by the end of the sequence, Salma Hayek intrinsically understood Elena's rage and confusion.
Salma Hayek acknowledges that she's grateful for the experience to work with the filmmaker: "I was elated to have been involved with Savages, as I've wanted to work with Oliver Stone my entire acting career. I was extremely happy to work with him, but I was also a bit sad after the experience ended. Now that I've had one of my biggest dreams met, I can never have that dream back again."
As Elena's man up north, Lado runs the Southern California side of the Baja Cartel's operation. He's growing increasingly disgruntled by his demanding boss, and he's using his brutal tactics to begin branching out on his own. To play the part of a psychopath who shoots detractors in the kneecaps, executes loyal henchmen and relentlessly whips a fellow employee to extract a false confession, Benicio Del Toro had to go to a very dark place. He reflects: "When you hear the accounts of the real people who have been involved in those situations or have been victims in the drug war, when you hear the stories of the people on both sides, it brings seriousness to the story, which helped keep everybody focused."
Just like his fellow performers, the Academy Award® winner chose to take part in Savages because of the film's legendary director. Benicio Del Toro reflects: "Oliver Stone's like a coach who coaches to win. He's watching and listening to every play; he's got that replay on in his brain. He knows the scenes inside and out. He will poke at you. He will make you mad, and then he'll poke at you again. Then your blood will really be pumping, and then he will smile at you. And then you do the scene, and you don't know what you did. But when you see it, and it works, you understand why you want to work with Oliver Stone."
Naturally, Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek share several scenes together, and they are powerful ones. Even though Benicio Del Toro is approximately one foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Salma Hayek, she definitely was his commander in chief. "I met Salma Hayek years ago, and I knew she was tough and had it in her to be the queenpin," Oliver Stone says. "I loved getting Benicio Del Toro to kowtow to her because his character is not scared of anyone but her. He had a lot of input into his character. Lado is a monster, but Benicio De Toro made him a human monster."
Salma Hayek admits that she enjoyed bossing around Benicio Del Toro. She laughs: "It was so much fun to be the jefe-to have these really tough guys work for me and take my orders. To have strong machos like Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir work for me, it's like a female fantasy."
Benicio Del Toro returns: "It was great working with Salma Hayek. Plus, she's got Julio César Chávez in her blood, and it complements her beauty."
Several additional well-regarded actors joined the Savages ensemble in supporting roles, including Emile Hirsch as accounting whiz Spin and Academy Award® nominee Demián Bichir as Alex, the Cartel's urbane lawyer and chief negotiator. Demian Bichir, who has a history with Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek, shared most of his scenes with them. He played Fidel Castro opposite Benicio Del Toro's Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's Che, and he starred opposite Salma Hayek in the television movie In the Time of the Butterflies, which she also produced.
Demian Bichir discusses what attracted him to the project: "I've always believed that human beings have good and bad things about us. We can be amazingly wonderful or terrible. We all have that in our genes, and it's hard to get rid of it; there's a savage in every single human being. Some of us develop that a little more, a little deeper or tougher, and other people prefer to stay away from that side. Often, we don't care about our neighbours in our own buildings, and we hardly say hi to each other in the elevator. We can live in our own bubbles, and that's exactly what makes us savages."
Of his experience on set with his fellow actors, Demian Bichir offers: "I love playing tennis, and when you play with a great player, your game always improves. That's how I feel about working with Benicio Del Toro. He is just a fantastic, powerful actor. The great thing about Lado and Alex is the fact that they are so different. Alex is elegant, well-dressed, and Lado is primitive and rough. Most of my work with Salma Hayek involved talking to her via a laptop screen, except for one intense scene when she feels double-crossed. I hadn't seen her for years, and she looks fantastic. She has so much grace and confidence and is a better actress than ever."
As Demian Bichir's scenes in Savages occurred over several months, he had a good deal of time to observe and contemplate Oliver Stone's style. In step with Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek, he likens his director to a commanding officer readying his soldiers for war. "Like any great CO, he is hard on his troops because what they see in battle will be 10 times more serious," the performer notes. "They have to be prepared for anything."
As the renegade Spin, Ben and Chon's hacker genius extraordinaire, Emile Hirsch found common ground in a shared sense of humour with his director. "We have similar comedic sensibilities and made each other laugh," Emile Hirsch says. "He was like a gentle bear of a guy to me. So cool, so detail-oriented."
For his part as the financial brains behind Ben and Chon's multimillion-dollar operation, Hirsch had to deliver a great deal of specialised dialogue. He says Oliver Stone provided him a comfort zone in which he could play the scenes without stressing over the jargon. "Of course, I don't understand the intricacies of money laundering," he states. "I just learned the lines and the context of the scene. As an audience member, you buy the illusion because that's the magic of movies and storytelling."
The principal and supporting female characters in Savages are independent, powerful, sexy, clever and compelling. The relationships between Elena, O and Elena's daughter, Magda (played by Sandra Eecheverria), vacillate between dominance, affection and betrayal. Throughout the film, there is a strong female voice, sometimes in terms of O's narration. While Chon and Ben plot to rescue the captive O, she is never a damsel in distress. And O, Elena and Magda share a complicated, symbiotic affiliation that alters the game as much as Chon's and Lado's guns do. Says Oliver Stone: "I much enjoyed the interplay and influence of these dynamic women."
In the Sanchez family, death is a given. Elena has lost her husband and two sons to violence in this drug war. She has sent daughter Magda to California to escape, and Oliver Stone was curious to explore what this would cost Elena. Raised in the life of the Cartel, Magda is able to look the other way when it comes to the manner in which her mother's career has financed her luxurious and self-indulgent lifestyle.
"The relationship between Elena and Magda is pretty ruthless," says the director. "The daughter resembles the mother in many ways, but the mother has a bigger heart. There is the transfer of feelings from Elena to O. 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."
Salma Hayek was surprised by the offscreen bond that developed between her and Blake Lively, as well as between her and Echeverría. "I love these girls!" Salma Hayek proclaims. "Blake Lively was smart and fun and professional and imaginative and bizarre, in all the right ways. She was brave, not afraid to speak her mind and eloquent. From the first day in rehearsals, when she started talking about the character and the structure of the script, I thought, 'We're going to have a good time here.' We started working on scenes on our own time, and when it came to doing the scene, she had taken notes on everything we did. I had so much trust and confidence in her. And as for Sandra, who I did not have the pleasure of knowing before, well, I feel so lucky to have two new friends."
In turn, commends Echeverría: "I always respected Salma Hayek. She is a very strong, sexy, smart woman who has realised her dreams, and it was great to watch her channel all that into Elena. Now that I know her personally, I admire her even more. She had so many ideas and suggestions, so much energy and generosity, it was inspiring." Proof of Life: Rehearsal and Research"Adrenaline is nature's way of telling you 'Don't f*c% up.'"
The cast rehearsed for two weeks before principal photography began, but throughout the production, Oliver Stone utilised elaborate blocking rehearsals before filming. Occasionally, they lasted hours, as he and the actors went through long sequences that would play out over the next few days. After they completed privately working out the physical and emotional beats of the scenes, Oliver Stone invited the crew in to watch what had transpired, and served as the narrator. In the process, he gave everyone involved an instructive macro overview of the work ahead. For a movie with as many characters and plot points as Savages, the blocking rehearsals were critical.
This was nothing new for the filmmaker. "I've always done blocking rehearsals," says Oliver Stone. "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."
This process, a hybrid of preparation and spontaneity, is one Oliver Stone enjoys, according to Kopeloff. The producer notes: "We plan as much as we can in advance, but Oliver Stone loves the experience itself. Some directors want to create the perfect moment, but he loves to see it evolve. That's what makes his sets so interesting: the incredible drive and determination he brings, the aspect of discovery. He knows the direction he wants to take, but he explores it with the actors. He has a real love of characters, story and especially dialogue. It's so important to him that it's right, that the actors feel it's right. It's not about him and the script; it's about how it ultimately appears on screen."
One of the most elaborate rehearsals occurred atop a broad mesa in the stark Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles, the site known to the company as the "Desert Bowl." Oliver Stone, many of the principal actors and the entire crew ran through the film's operatic ending. This became a prep that began in blazing midafternoon sun and lasted long after the sun had disappeared behind the mountains.
The director shares his rationale for the protracted workday: "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."
Oliver Stone is a longtime proponent of technical advisors, whom he employs to make sure his films appear as authentic as possible. A crucial part of his process was stunt coordinator Keith Woulard. The director commends: "Keith Woulard was the key person in all that. An ex-SEAL, he never lost his cool, and there were some tough moments for him. He was the most patient of men."
Keith Woulard had a particularly enthusiastic and able partner in Taylor Kitsch, who thoroughly enjoyed Chon's willingness to deploy massive firepower whenever possible. One particularly complex move on the mesa required Chon to burst from behind an SUV and run in a crouched, zigzag motion across an arid expanse. His guns blazing, he had to race toward the targets of Lado and Elena, with multiple cameras trained on him. Taylor Kitsch was so in tune with the character and his mission that he nailed the scene in one take. It helped matters that Taylor Kitsch is very athletic and knows his way around a fight.
The actor was fortunate enough to receive experience in the methods and mannerisms of a warrior. "I trained with a SEAL prior to beginning Savages," Taylor Kitsch says. "He was incredibly open with me. It wasn't just about learning how to shoot semiautomatic weapons. He'd tell me stories about Iraq and Afghanistan, all of his buddies. It was special to be a part of an incredible opportunity that helped me to understand who Chon was. What I love about the SEALs is that you can walk by them on the street and you wouldn't think twice. They don't telegraph. But if you see them in their element, they are something to behold. I'm fortunate to call some of them friends now, too."
For Savages, Oliver Stone assembled a unique trio to inform the characters of Spin and Dennis: Ralph Echemendia, the production's hacker expert; Patrick Fourmy, the cannabis consultant; and Eddie Follis, a recently retired DEA agent. None would have been voluntarily in the same room as the other had it not been for their involvement in this film.
The longtime documentarian felt there was an element of verisimilitude to this material, especially "having to do with local pot growers, the influence and impact of the Mexican Cartel." Oliver Stone explains: "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.
"That's where Eddie came in," the director continues. "He gave me some good facts, and of course, Don Winslow has been around it for some time. As has Patrick, 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. Ralph helped us to ensure that the pivotal scenes in which Ben and Chon get off the grid and then dabble in their own cyberespionage were accurate
and up-to-date. We tried to add as much of that into the film as we could."
Echemendia's input took the film's showcasing of money laundering, electronic and computer surveillance and cybertheft into the 21st century. "I'm what they call an 'ethical hacker,'" the advisor says. "I specialise in cybersecurity, mainly in offensive security-meaning actually breaking into a computer system. Oliver Stone wanted to make sure the hacking scenes were realistic. He was interested in the layers and making sure we had real things in the movie. For instance, nowadays, information can be stored on what looks like little credit cards, not just flash drives, so we added that in-as well as real logos and the energy drinks that we like when we pull all-nighters."
Eddie Follis' expertise in the world of the DEA has taken him from Southeast Asia and South America to the Middle East and Los Angeles, where he worked as the assistant special agent in charge of wire room operations, gang operations and general enforcement against cartel figures. As he puts it, "I was essentially Dennis, without the corruption."
Eddie Follis worked closely with Oliver Stone and John Travolta to make sure that the shady DEA operative would be a credible one. The former special agent recounts the experience: "I met with Mr. John Travolta in Dallas for four nights. First of all, he was the consummate gentleman. Secondly, he had super absorption on every single topic-even how to move, how to control a room with merely his body language. He wanted to know everything. He asked all the pointed questions that would prepare him for shifting universes that Dennis deals in. It's a very duplicitous, murky world, and he dove right in."
"I grilled him," John Travolta adds. "Eddie Follis is a version of Dennis. I wanted to know what it was like to get to know someone so well that you're going to have to betray them within months or years. He said it was tough on him because he grew attached to the people he was getting to know, with the knowledge that they would never realise that he did them in, the covertness is so severe and acute. That was fascinating: How far as an actor do you have to go to fool everyone? As it turns out, you have to go very far indeed because your life is at stake. The government's at stake. Everything's at stake."
Eddie Follis also managed to organise an elaborate rogues' gallery so that the actors could engage in conversations with real ex-cartel members. Johnson, whose character becomes perhaps the most well-versed in all aspects of the marijuana industry, from the humane and altruistic to the cutthroat and brutal, got an eye-opening education. The English actor received a crash course in the culture and politics of the American marijuana industry.
"We had a great team from preproduction and on set to help us through," Johnson explains. "We sat down right at the beginning with Eddie, who introduced us to people who were in the cartel and in the Colombian mafia. It was great and a little terrifying to hear their stories. Oliver Stone wanted us to indulge in the most preparation we could so it would seem natural, so we would really know our stuff."