Chasing the Light by Oliver Stone

Opinion and writing by Tony Frame

Oliver Stone’s autobiography is a fascinating up close and personal account of one man’s struggle of finding his way in the world and eventually making some sense of it, partly through the medium of film and screenwriting. From his humble beginnings as an only child, Stone gives a highly detailed insight into his childhood and adolescence and the tempestuous relationship he had with his father and mother throughout his life.

His baptism of fire into writing begins after spending some time in Saigon, teaching English, where he then took to the high seas as a merchant marine. Feeling somewhat compelled by his experiences in a foreign country, and still reeling from his parents’ unexpected divorce, he puts pen to paper as a catharsis of sorts – a process that would define his writing style in screenplays such as Midnight Express, Salvador and Platoon.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

Whilst the early parts of his life are covered very well, I felt, initially, somewhat despondent that the section on his enlistment into the army and experiences in Vietnam were slightly short in comparison. It was a small shortcoming for me as his subsequent films on the conflict deal with the war and it’s aftermath in a multitude of ways that he probably felt he would have been going over old ground. Certainly what you do read pertains to ideas and situations that the characters in Platoon face, but, ultimately, the crux of the story here is about breaking into Hollywood.

Film school is where the passion and fire of the rebellious spirit inside the young Stone is fuelled even more. From there we sit back and follow the budding film-maker as he takes us on his crazy journey of failed relationships and problems with cocaine, doing menial jobs whilst writing screenplays and subsequently making his first feature film.

The catalyst for his entry into Hollywood was his highly personal screenplay for Platoon, based on his experiences in Vietnam. This eventually landed him the job of writing the screenplay for Midnight Express – a movie that would win him the Academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay and catapult him into the limelight as a highly sought-after screenwriter.

The writing in Chasing the Light is excellent throughout and the pacing moves through the years seamlessly, even when it backtracks or jumps forward you never lose track of where you are. It’s full of intriguing and quirky real-life characters, unforgettable first impressions, with Stone giving us incredible access to his experiences in the late ’70s and mid 80’s; shifting in and out of the Hollywood system with all its caveats, as an outsider, determined to make his highly personal movies whilst struggling to make ends meet and raise a family.

There’s incredible highs and desperate lows and even though you know there is triumph in the end, I still felt compelled to be rooting for him, especially reading his difficult experiences developing and shooting Salvador – a film that really was his last chance of making a career as a film director. He had to deal with a demanding James Woods in a sweltering Mexico shoot that was fraught with danger and dysentery and was close to running out of finance. By the time the filming is over you feel like exhaling a deep sigh of relief yourself, only to be put into the hell afterwards that was the editing suite!

The book comes full-circle by ending with the director’s experience on filming Platoon – the script that ultimately got him noticed in the first place – and the acclaim it received at the Academy Awards, which sent Stone into the stratosphere as a film director revered by everyone in Hollywood.

It’s a compelling read that gets down to the nitty-gritty of pursuing a career in film, one that avoids a glossy Hollywood retelling and glamming-up of a genuine struggle of life and acceptance, and of making great art. Film-makers and writers alike will be inspired by its honesty and detail and it’s one book that I would read again without a shadow of doubt.

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