Cannes Conversation With Oliver Stone On New Documentary ‘Lula,’ Hopes For One More Narrative Film & A Sobering Take On Putin & Ukraine

Oliver Stone is in Cannes today for a Special Screening of Lula, a documentary he co-directed with Rob Wilson about the unbelievable comeback of Brazilian leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. The film chronicles his extraordinary journey in 2022 to regain the Brazilian presidency after spending 19 months in prison. This happened after a hacker exposed a conspiracy meant to take down the labor leader in a corruption scandal that tied back to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and the most powerful judge in the country. It’s a story you have to see to believe.

Here, Stone discusses his film, and how the four-time Oscar winner hopes to mount one final major drama after a career spanning Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, JFK, Natural Born Killers and so many others. He also revisits his position on Vladimir Putin, whom he interviewed extensively several years ago, in light of recent events that have ratcheted global tensions.

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DEADLINE: What made Brazilian leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva worth his own documentary? We got a presidential election coming up in the U.S., a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, latter of whom disputed the last results, and whipped his followers into a frenzy that led to the January 6 storming of the Capitol. You tell a very specific story here, a Brazilian story, but you usually focus on the bigger picture and from Trump spending the early stages of his campaign mired in prosecutions and courtroom appearances, there are parallels.

OLIVER STONE: You couldn’t write a movie where a guy like this [da Silva] would be president. First, he was a trade unionist who never wanted to be a president, who was never interested in politics, and he becomes president. It’s a reminder that we can elect working class people to the presidency, of any country. You don’t have to have a billion dollars, you don’t have to be a member of the elite. I prefer that, to have actually somebody who’s more humble, run a country. I think that’s one thing that really draws me to him. And of course his life story is very dramatic. He has had two very positive terms. He reduced the poverty in Brazil enormously, giving money to the poor directly. $10 goes a lot farther than the promise of a hundred dollars or building some other big structure. Give them the money directly, let the mother or let the family decide what to do because that makes a huge difference. That $10 can go a long, long way. It’s a way of giving money and it’s a way of encouraging, stimulating your electorate to work, to educate, which is what he really believes in. Education, family, you can see he has very strong ties to his family and the way he grew up without a father in a very poor area of Brazil.

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What he did with that makes it an amazing story to be celebrated. We don’t have enough celebration about politicians in this world. We treat them like, oh, they’re always corrupt. They’re always this or that. Ironically, Lula gets charged with corruption, in a new form of warfare. It’s called lawfare. And if you can’t get your way in an election, you can go after somebody legally and through the media. This is certainly what happened with him, he was suddenly accused of corruption with the workers’ party, a case that was always very strange and very thin. And we show in the film what happens.

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

DEADLINE: Given the film you made about the whistleblower Edward Snowden, it is interesting that the behind the scenes manipulations of justice meant to bring Lula to heel were exposed by a hacker motivated by his own ire over a drug arrest.

STONE: I made that movie Snowden in 2016, but the Snowden leaks came out in 2013 and in 2014. And in 2014, that’s when the Operation Car Wash accusations came out against [the petroleum corporation] Petrobras. In the Snowden movie, I showed scenes where Petrobras was introduced in the montage by Snowden, and he talks about tapping phones and how Petrobras was targeted by the Americans. How they tapped the phone of Dilma Rousseff, who was president. You remember that? She was upset [when that was revealed by Snowden] and she canceled her trip to her dinner for the American when she went to Washington. She had some very tough talk with Obama about being tapped. Germany was tapped too. There was a whole bunch of scandals.

That brought focus on what is going on here. Petrobras was becoming a worldwide operation. This was a Brazilian oil company that was becoming as big as anybody was and competing against us, among others. And I think that the concept of using brass to blame as an example of bad corruption is part of the strategy to bring down not only Dilma, but then eventually Lula. That’s what it was about. And that’s what lawfare is. It’s a tactic to charge corruption, and it is certainly doable in the modern world because there’s so much of it. There was a system in place in Brazil where a certain amount of corruption is allowable. And I think that’s the way the world works. The oil company has to take care of people in their country in order to have the relations, they have to have the power and the ability to make moves. All of a sudden, why now does Petrobras become a big issue? Because the United States is looking at it and saying, look, this whole arrangement with the left, with the workers’ party and Lula, is a threat to American interests around the world.

The question is why these accusations against a working class president who’s a trade unionist, and they’re going after him in the worst possible way. And they got him for a while, he went to jail. It’s unbelievable that he went to jail. This was pretty outrageous and bald attempt to undermine the election of 2018. And it worked.

DEADLINE: It propelled the controversial president Jair Bolsonaro into office, until hacked message revealed a conspiracy between the powerful federal judge Sergio Moro and Bolsonaro designed to take down Lula. The hacker revelations and the journalism that exposed it led to Lula being freed. You interview Lula extensively, along with the hacker and the journo. Bot Bolsonaro, or Moro, whose political aspirations as an anti-corruption crusader were undermined by the exposed truths. The way you told the story indicates you were convinced that Lula was a righteous guy, a victim who overcame manipulations for a heroic ending. Why do it that way?

STONE: I’m certainly going to face some controversy there because of Brazil, it was a very close election recently, and Lulu was elected by 51-49 margin. Making charges and accusations like that does have an effect. And we show people who are screaming how much they hate Lula. You feel the opposition. Time becomes a factor. Look what I had to cover. I covered his life, the concept of him going into politics. I didn’t spend a lot of time on the first two terms. The whole point was to get to the 2018 election, which is where he was removed from the election. Now that is where the case falls apart because not only does a hacker get involved, and you see there’s hundreds and hundreds of pages of Moro’s files and the prosecution against Lula, and you see that it was corrupted. You see the intention and that Bolsonaro was involved. It’s thrown out by the Supreme Court, and then Lula wins the election. It’s very dramatic, a comeback like you can’t believe, by a working class president. How many do we have left in the world? I mean, how many guys in our political structure have actually been in a union, been a president of a union? In America, we had Walter Reuther of the UAW, a very powerful man in the 1930s and very honest. He was a clean guy. Lula reminds me of Walter Reuther in the way he set a new agenda for Brazil, taking care of the poor and certainly reaching out to them and being one of them and coming from dire poverty. It was quite a story to me. It’s very inspiring.

DEADLINE: People you show who opposed Lula were as highly emotional as the polarized factions we see on either side of the political spectrum in America, like those who believe the false narrative that the 2020 election was rigged. Why were they so demonstrative against a guy you depict as righteous?

STONE: I think it’s a lot in common with American character. I’ve done so many films down there. Salvador, the films on Castro and Chavez. They are emotional character, and Americans too, they get very excited in their own politics when they make these accusations against Biden and Trump. People get carried away and politics tend to be emotional and not always reasonable. They’re not using their minds, they’re using their hearts. It’s the nature of what makes politics. I think dangerous too, because you’re going to elect somebody out of the wrong emotions, looking at someone like Hitler. It can lead to disasters. And America’s really on the edge here with these two candidates who are both untrusted by a large majority or certainly a large minority, and maybe Bobby Kennedy, the third party guy. He might benefit by being seen as an honest broker as opposed to the corrupt ones. I can’t tell you the answer, but they are emotional. You see it on film, but I can’t get into their mentality as to why they think Lula is corrupt. I mean, there’s no evidence of it. I was in his house, I saw the way he lives in between when he was out of office. He lives very modestly in a small apartment or a small house, small house, and he had a speech apartment in Sao Paulo. That’s not really anything special. I see no evidence of living a high life. And I’ve been among presidents in Mexico and so forth who have come out of office with mansions. It’s just the nature of life down there, that you tend to benefit from public office as a sort of way of getting paid back.

It’s not the case with Lula, at least I saw no evidence of it. No evidence of it. And now with what the hacker brought in, and these Moro Papers, it is clear that they framed him and that was the intention and they got what they wanted. All of this leads me back to the Snowden papers just to say, what is going on here? Is there a link? Was the United States involved? And we probed that question with Operation Car Wash because it seems that the United States was very heavily involved there, in bringing down leaders when we didn’t like what they were doing.

DEADLINE: Will you get back behind the camera to make another narrative film?

STONE: I’d like to, I think I have one more in me. I’ve done 20 and about 10 documentaries now. I never counted them that way because one of them was 12 hours long, The Untold History of the United States. I like documentaries because it’s honest and you’re going out into the world and you’re really seeing it as it is. You’re not in Hollywood with actors and makeup where everything is artificial in the sense that it’s created on camera. So it’s a whole different ballgame. And people who spent their whole lives in features sometimes don’t have a very good handle on reality, and they don’t go into the real world. They don’t want to, because they’re safer here in Hollywood. It distorts their value system. I’m very aware of what’s going on because I travel a lot and I meet a lot of people, and I always want to stay that way. It’s the way I was raised by my father. I do have a narrative film in mind, but I can’t tell you what it is, Mike, I know you’re going to ask that. But it is an important narrative. I’d like to have one more film if I can get it done. It’ll be done in the next year, that’s for sure.

DEADLINE: Last one for me. A few years ago, I joined you at Cannes for a presentation to territorial buyers, and I interviewed you on a series of interviews you did with Vladimir Putin. Your purpose, you said, was not to canonize the Russian leader, but simply to humanize him. Given what has happened since, from the imprisonment and death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny to the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent long war, what’s your feeling about the validity of what he said then, and how do you feel about having provided him with that platform?

STONE: Well, it’s not about him. It’s about Russia and the United States. This is my concern. I am most concerned, Mike, and I still am, that this American involvement in Ukraine is leading to disaster. Why, for God’s sake, in 1990, did we shift this allegiance to NATO, a device from World War II that should have ended at this point, but it stayed on and it’s become a dead end because we are pushing NATO’s goals? When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 with Baker and Bush and Gorbachev, we agreed we would respect the borders of Russia and that NATO would not move further east. We gave East Germany to NATO; we said, Germany will be now unified, but there will be no further movement. And that was agreed to by the Americans very clearly. Although they may not have done so on paper, it certainly was a contractual agreement and an understanding between not only Gorbachev and Bush, but also Reagan before he went on their first meetings.

The United States broke every treaty with Russia. 13 countries have been anti-Soviet anti-Russian countries, not just anti-Soviet, but anti-Russian have been incorporated into NATO. And we are following that plan. The Russians have said, this is a red line for us, Ukraine especially. This is the border of Russia, and you’re right there and you’re putting missiles in. And just today, was it Biden yesterday was saying that they wanted to integrate Ukraine into NATO.

With all the complimentary access advantage to Ukraine, which is basically a dead state and has been attributed to as some kind of democratic protest or resistor, but it’s not true. Ukraine is a totally corrupt state, much worse than many corrupt states, probably on the index of corrupt states, it’s about 140 out of 170. It’s a lost dog. We have supported it, created it, financed it completely, and I don’t think it’s going to end well because we are not backing off. This is the Russian interest, it is on their borders, man. Think about it. We are going to go to a potential World War III situation for Ukraine? Don’t you think that’s crazy? The American people haven’t been consulted about that. Do they really know what’s going on? Do they know about the agreements with Gorbachev? Do they know how the Russians think? That’s why I went to Russia, because I wanted to get the point of view of these people at war with them. Now, whether you admit it or not, Mr. Biden has very clearly called Putin a bad actor and so forth, a butcher. And on top of that, he’s saying, we’ve got to weaken Russia. He said that that’s our policy to weaken Russia basically to disappear it, get rid of Putin, and to cut Russia up into three different four sectors and give Wall Street access to their resources. That’s a crazy tactical goal. It won’t work because Russia is united and strong and at the same time, proud. I mean, you can’t do this to Russia. This is what the United States is doing and creating a block of Western countries, European countries that want to end Russia, end the Russian experiment. With who?

DEADLINE: Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a comic actor who became a world famous political figure as Ukraine president leading the resistance against Putin and Russia. His rise is as unlikely as that of Lula.

STONE: He’s the underdog. The problem is I despise him because he promised when he was elected that he was a peace candidate. The moment he got elected, I presume he made some effort to settle this thing, and he almost did. Ukraine is not in charge of its approach. It’s been told to them by the United States, we’ll support you on these conditions. We want you to be our democratic flag bearer in far East of Europe. We will fight for you. We will support you. We’ll give you all the money you need. All we want you is to give, put your men on the front line and keep fighting. But eventually there’s going to be a breakthrough. And that breakthrough, as I said to you, I think it’s been more likely that the Russians will step up and really fight. They haven’t done that yet. They’ve have limited goals.

DEADLINE: Are there echoes here of Vietnam, which you covered in a Best Picture winning film Platoon, recounting your own experience of buying into a U.S. agenda that led you to volunteer to fight, only to find you were way over your head in a chaotic war that had no endgame. and seemingly little regard for the soldiers in the trenches just trying to survive?

STONE: You are as old as I am, almost. You’ve seen this process. We fought for certain places. We made this into a Cold War, but now we’re way past the Cold War. This is not communism. This is another form of Russia. And they’re capitalists. They want to integrate. They did integrate for 20 years, successfully. Why all of a sudden did Biden change the rules? This is very disturbing to me and very dangerous to us, our economy. Imagine if we had even a limited nuclear war with Russia, what happens to not only Russia, but to America? I want the United States to be at peace and I don’t want a war, and we don’t need this. There’s no need to fight a war. And that is what concerns me.

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