‘Savages’ pulls legendary director back into drug wars
- Last Updated: 11:55 PM, July 1, 2012
- Posted: 10:23 PM, June 30, 2012
Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively meet Scarface. That’s how director Oliver Stone jokingly sums up his new movie “Savages,” a sometimes violent foray into the drug trade that echoes the 1983 film that he wrote starring Al Pacino as a coke-crazed gangster.
Instead of focusing on Miami and Bolivian marching powder, “Savages,” opening Friday, is about marijuana trafficking in California.
“It’s a much different story,” Stone tells The Post. “It’s younger people, not immigrants. The young people are idealistic and a new generation, and they’re running into the old ways, which are excessive and bloody and costly. It’s about big money and the power that goes with that money.”
Stoic ex-SEAL Chon (Kitsch) and the hippie-ish Ben (Aaron Johnson) are partners in a lucrative, independent weed-growing business. They’re living the good life in a Laguna Beach house they share with their mutual girlfriend, O (Lively). After the partners refuse an offer from a ruthless Mexican cartel to join forces, O is kidnaped and the boys vow to get her back.
The movie explores California’s newfound role as the pot capital of the world, producing the best strains possible through science.
“The whole concept that the best weed in the world comes from California is new,” says Stone, who admits he dabbles in drugs. “It’s gotten better and better because of legalization and the scientific approach to growing and productivity. The Mexicans don’t care about developing it. They just bag it and sell it.”
To get details of the drug industry just right, the production employed a number of experts, including a cannabis consultant. (You’ll probably find him over by the catering table.)
“We were dealing with the raw edge of the marijuana trade, and frankly, you get a lot of false information and media hype,” Stone says. “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 things about marijuana, but it’s harder to find some of those facts.”
For scenes in the operation’s grow rooms, stocking the set with realistic marijuana plants also proved challenging. It’s not like you can just knock on Snoop Dogg’s door and borrow a few.
Legally, Stone wasn’t allowed to use real pot plants, so he deployed a combination of silk fakes for wide shots and dressed up cannabis-like plants for close-ups.
Drug trade aside, one of the most boundary-pushing elements in “Savages” is the three-way relationship between Lively, Johnson and Kitsch — a story element taken from the Don Winslow novel on which the movie is based. The film includes a (fairly discrete) ménage à trois among the three leads.
“I was just glad it was over with, to be honest,” Kitsch said at a press conference. “It’s very awkward to do.”
Making it more awkward was the fact that Kitsch had only known Lively for three days before they had to get down and dirty. The scenes had to be shot within the first week of shooting because the production only had access to its beach-house location for a limited amount of time.
“I tried to make them as sensual as possible, within the limits of the R rating,” Stone says. “It’s tough. This country is puritanical about sex and not so much about violence. You can chop off a head but not a [breast].”
Another plot twist concerns the identity of the violent cartel leader, a woman, played by Salma Hayek. All the toadies in her organization, including a masochistic thug played by Benicio Del Toro, fear her.
A petite beauty like Hayek isn’t the first person you’d think of to play a heartless kingpin, and Stone might not have either were it not for a real-life incident that showed how tough the Mexican actress can be.
Back in 1997, Hayek was upset that Stone didn’t consider her for “U-Turn,” a part that went to Jennifer Lopez. Hayek later ran into Stone.
“She gave me a hard time,” Stone says. “She said, ‘You son of a bitch. Why didn’t you even see me?’ She was serious and a tough lady. It’s ironic that almost 20 years later, I come around to her.”
“Savages” comes at a crucial time for the movie’s younger, male star, Kitsch. The former “Friday Night Lights” actor made a go at leading-man status this year by headlining two giant would-be blockbusters, “John Carter” and “Battleship.” Both sank at the box office.
“I thought he was a good leading man, but the movies were not ultimately successful,” Stone says. “You’ve got to soldier on. I believed in him. He was working on my movie, and he’s one of six [actors, including John Travolta, who plays a DEA agent]. It’s not like he had to carry the whole world on his shoulders.”
Perhaps complicating matters is the movie’s midsummer release date, a first for Stone, who’s more of a fall-type director. “Savages” was made for about $48 million, nowhere close to the budget of most summer fare.
“It’s a bold move,” Stone
says. “We’re competing in a marketplace where there’s a lot of noise already. Universal liked the movie, so they’re going for it — but they put themselves in the heart of the summer between ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Batman.’ ”
Those heroes are cool, sure. But they’ve never had to take on a Mexican drug cartel.