Highlights From Beyond Fest’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS Reunion Panel
Closing out Beyond Fest 2019 in spectacular fashion, Oliver Stone, Juliette Lewis, Woody Harrelson, and Don Murphy reunited for a Q&A preceding a 25th anniversary screening of Natural Born Killers on 35mm. Even though I am a huge fan of the film, I somehow hadn't seen it in about 20 years, so I was pretty excited to see it again on the big screen - but the Q&A was the real draw. Mr. Stone isn't known for his restraint, and it's not every day you get to see Woody or Juliette doing this kind of thing, so if they decided to cancel the screening and let them keep talking for hours, I doubt I would have minded. However it turned out to be relatively brief compared to other Q&As at the fest; I'm sure they planned for it to run a little longer but after about 15 minutes Woody said "Let's watch the movie!", and how do you argue with Mickey Knox himself?
But there were still plenty of good anecdotes, and Stone got things off to a great start with his account of how he got involved with the film in the first place - for clarity, in the below account, "you" refers to producer Don Murphy.
"The screenplay had been around, and frankly I never heard of it. One day I'm in my office with one of my associates, and she's very snobbish, so there's a pile of scripts there that she rejected. And I just happen to notice the spines: "Natural Born Killers, that's a good title." So I pulled the script and read it, and after that we met with you and your partner Jane [Hamsher], who is a character. You two are nuts! But the script, we did a lot of work on the script, it was a story by this guy... we took it and turned it inside out and turned it into something else, the three of us, me, David Veloz, Richard Rutowski... we worked very hard. "
Juliette Lewis was asked about her first time meeting Oliver, who wasn't sure if she was physically capable of pulling off the role.
"I heard this story that I threatened to kill you? I was more subtle than that. But when you come into his orbit you have to be willing to work hard, and so he made me believe for a month that I would not be Mallory until I could do ten chin-ups. He put a bar in his office, and I had to do them the hard way - there's an easy way and a hard way to do chin-ups and he wanted the hard way. I made it to seven, he wanted ten but I got the job after seven, so that was good."
Woody was asked about what drew him to the project.
"I remember reading the script, this was before Oliver and those guys worked on it. I really wanted to work with Oliver, I wanted to work for him a long time, I had met him years ago, which he probably forgets, for Platoon. I came back a few times... the money had fallen out, then it came back, [but by then] I was doing Cheers. But I always wanted to work with him; I think he's one of the great filmmakers, and probably been given a harder time by the establishment and the socio-political world than any other director."
Oliver on what in particular made him want to do the movie - was it the take on the media? The love story? Something else?
"The media was bugging me! I thought America was going down the tubes, the culture was changing, everything was becoming more sensational, television has ruined this country, billions of dollars were going into this OJ Simpson advertising for the trial, every station! "Stay tuned for the latest on OJ Simpson!" And that's advertising, billions of dollars were made, and they realized they'd get more money out of that than by telling the news or doing some analysis, or doing anything that was sensible. Television should be a tool for disseminating some intelligence into the world and I just think that somehow it lost its way. I thought the whole system was getting worse: the cops, the press, the media, and - as you see in the movie - the prison system. I thought Mickey and Mallory were sane compared to these people!"
Longtime fans of the film probably know that the unrated cut of the film was originally released by a different company (Vidmark), as Warner Bros refused to put it out themselves due to a company policy on NC-17 or unrated material. Since the film was showing on 35mm I figured it was the R-rated cut we were about to see, but Oliver confirmed it in typically colorful fashion:
"Unfortunately they won't let us show the unrated cut, I prefer that version because it's got the rhythm I wanted, the prison sequence is much more violent, more extreme, but Warner Bros is still fucking scared of the movie! This is 25 years later, they're still scared of it! They opened Joker this weekend, and here they're saying "You can't show the unrated". Now, they're selling it on video, you can buy it on video - it makes no sense. But they're worried there might be a riot in this theater! That's how corporate it gets; they're being bought out by AT&T and they're scared shitless that you guys will riot!"
Luckily for the Beyond Fest staff, no one rioted - we sat and enjoyed the film, which held up quite well (and the soundtrack remains one of the finest of the decade). Hopefully its anniversary will inspire more retrospective coverage - it'd be great to hear from Tom Sizemore or Robert Downey Jr regarding their own experience with the film and how they feel about it today. Until then, I remain eternally grateful to the Beyond Fest team for roping in the principals and presenting the film in fine fashion - their track record of going above and, er, beyond when it comes to showing library titles is pretty impeccable and this was a stellar addition to its ranks. Can't wait to see what they bring back for 2020 - 25th anniversary of Congo with free sesame cake for all?
Above photos courtesy of Bianca Parkes