A conversation with Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone talked to us Thursday, the day before his new film "Money Never Sleeps," hit theaters, for a story about his complicated relationship with Wall Street. This being Oliver Stone, though, he talked about a lot more than just that.
Here is an edited transcript of the conversation with his thoughts about the bailout, investment banks and Rupert Murdoch:
Money & Company: Your film is being put out by Fox. Do you get along with Rupert Murdoch?
Oliver Stone: I saw Rupert last night. He was talking to me about his politics. I always like him. I think he’s funny and very perceptive. And he has his viewpoint. At least he’s straight about it.
MC: Where did you finally come out on the handling of the financial crisis?
The question is should there have been a socialist bailout of the system, did it do any good? Some people would argue it’s just medication and we’re on some kind of morphine.
I’m not a banking expert but I think that [former Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson and [former Treasury Secretary Larry] Summers –- especially Summers and [former Treasury Secretary Robert] Rubin helped create the mess by deregulating. And then they were the first to run to help save their buddies on Wall Street. And I wonder –- I wonder if they did the right thing that weekend in September.
[Former President] Bush himself, who is a troglodyte, was saying, "Look, I don’t see why we have to save AIG." Which is a good question.
MC: Where did you come down on the behavior of the big banks?
OS: There were vanilla banks that did good jobs and they continue –- I guess Wells Fargo got through. But still the main ones, the ones who run the show, at the top of the totem poll, they completely let us down. They should have been fired, and some of them should go to jail.
The Gekko mythology –- the behavior of Gekko morphed so to speak. It morphed into the hedge funders in the '90s –- and those hedge funders morphed into the bankers of the 2000s, who really lost their bearings and crossed the line. "Greed is now legal" is what Gekko says.
MC: Did you have difficulty getting access to Wall Street for the new film?
OS: Certainly Goldman Sachs and [JPMorgan] Chase were not in the market to talk to us. In fact, Goldman had a sealed policy about photographs on their floor. But we got the photographs anyways from secret means. [laughs] Espionage rules the day.
They were screwed down tight –- very tight. They were going through their own thing; their pants were down and they were really running for the hills.
MC: Any people who were particularly helpful?
OS: [Former New York Gov. and Atty. Gen.] Eliot Spitzer early on was the most helpful. He said to us early on in 2009 – before it broke in the news –- look at Goldman, they are playing it both ways -- they’re shorting their clients. He called it the evil empire.
I was very influenced by Eliot. He was one of the first guys really screaming about this stuff, and he was damn right -– he was right about it. If anybody had been more like him and there had been a little more enforcement at that point, I think the whole thing could have been averted early on.
MC: Any unexpected banks who did help out?
OS: We had no quality bank –- no real high ceilings or a place with good furniture. Eventually, we lucked out and the Royal Bank of Canada let us in –- not only let us in but gave us enormous cooperation. It was so funny to see the faces of those bankers at the Royal Bank of Canada. When you think about what Canada did during the crisis, you have to realize they had nothing to hide, so there was a whole different attitude.
MC: You father was a stockbroker, right? Has that played a role in your view of finance?
OS: Oh yeah, absolutely. My father was the old school -– 1931 to 1985. Dad would always say things like, "There should not be a profit without production," and "The engine of capitalism — Wall Street — should be geared to productivity." He felt that Wall Street performed a very important function and he’d be disgusted by this concept of banks proprietary trading. No, he’d be disgusted.
MC: In your conversations did you get a sense of what it was like to live through the crisis on Wall Street?
OS: We had a wonderful series of meetings with young traders.
I remember one of the young men saying that they were scared. It was like having cancer or a heart attack and not knowing what's happening to you. One of the kids said, "I turned to this old veteran who’d really seen everything, and I thought that he’d really be a captain in the storm and I said, 'What the hell is going on?' and the guy just said, 'I don’t know.' " Those kids were like Vietnam troops getting their on-the-job training.
MC: Did you get to take any investment ideas from any of these guys?
OS: I can’t tell you I didn’t ask. I would ask Warren Buffett, sure. But you know what, these guys are very guarded and they have to be careful. I would always ask them about trends and about general movement, intellectually. But I learned a long time ago that tips don’t really work for me. Most of them don’t pan out and they cost you money.
MC: So you didn't make any side money on this project?
OS: I didn’t make any money –- no, thank you.
-- Nathaniel Popper
Photo: Oliver Stone speaking in New York this week. Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images