The 1990s was a time when hard news intersected with tabloid journalism pushing popular culture into new, salacious directions as nobodies like the Menendez brothers, John and Lorena Bobbitt, and Tonya Harding became instant celebrities via high profile violent cases while celebrities like O.J. Simpson became embroiled in the decade’s most notorious crime and subsequent court case that quickly turned into a media circus. This was aided and abetted by the rise of tabloid journalism with television magazine shows like A Current Affair and Hard Copy plying their trade in trashy celebrity gossip and true crime stories.
Back then, Oliver Stone had a knack for having his finger on the pulse of the pop culture zeitgeist as he proved with Platoon (1986) kick starting an interest in the Vietnam War, The Doors (1990) renewing interest in Jim Morrison and his band, and JFK (1991) launching a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists. Using the clout he had garnered from a run of successful films, he convinced Warner Bros. to help fund and distribute Natural Born Killers (1994), an experimental social satire under the guise of a lovers-on-the-run story that was popular at the time (see Wild at Heart, Kalifornia, True Romance, et al). He used a screenplay, written by then-up-and-coming Quentin Tarantino, as a foundation in which to lay his trademark socio-political beliefs only this time attacking the media, which, as one can imagine, did not endear the film to critics at the time.
Stone employed the flashy, multi-film stock blending of news footage with his own that he had done so effectively in JFK and deliberately pushed it to new extremes by also using front and rear-projection photography as well as cel animation to create “a vortex of the unreal," as one critic put it. Stone’s film adopts the style of the culture it parodies and attacks tabloid media and MTV culture by using the hyperkinetic editing tempo of music videos as well as the constantly changing points-of-view within the film to mirror our channel-surfing culture. The end result predictably courted controversy, divided critics, performed fairly well at the box office, and inspired several, real-life copycat killings.
Right from the get-go, Stone establishes the absurdist tone of his satire with his introduction of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), two murderous lovers on the run, as they kill a trio of rednecks along with everyone else in a diner save one (so that they can tell the media what happened). The director also uses this opening scene to introduce the frenetic, chaotic collage of film techniques that immediately draws attention to itself as a film. For example, when Mickey shoots and kills the cook we see it from his point-of-view, the bullet from the gun stopping for a second in front of the terrified person before hitting them. Afterwards, the couple celebrates their love for each other by dancing with a song straight out of a classic Hollywood musical, the lights going down as a display of fireworks is projected on a screen behind them. This is an exaggerated, heightened reality with its own set of rules as Stone challenges the way we watch a film.
The opening credits push it even further as Stone assaults our senses with a cacophony of sights and sounds with layers of songs and sound effects playing over a montage of Mickey and Mallory driving through rear-projected imagery, including landscapes from the American southwest and nightmarish imagery, like Mallory’s father (Rodney Dangerfield) foreshadowing things to come. The director is commenting on the chaos that pop culture had become in 1994 with so much stimulus bombarding us all the time. The irony is that it has only gotten worse.
The story itself is quite simple. After killing her parents, Mickey and Mallory go on the road, initiating a killing spree that not only draws the attention of the authorities, led by “supercop” Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), but also tabloid television journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) who all want a piece of them – the former wants to kill Mickey and have sex with Mallory, while the latter wants to use them to further his career.
Mickey and Mallory grew up on T.V. and it is how they view life. This is particularly evident in the sequence that depicts how the two met and fell in love. Stone frames it as a sitcom by fusing the sensibilities of I Love Lucy and Married…With Children with comedian Rodney Dangerfield, in a brilliant bit of casting against type, as her monstrous father. Mallory belongs to a white trash family where spousal abuse, incest and sexual abuse are all referenced while a laugh track uncomfortably exposes how contrived sitcoms are, manipulating how the audience is supposed to feel at a given moment. It makes sense that Mickey and Mallory’s backstory is depicted in this way. They would process all of the bad things they experienced through the medium they were exposed to for most of their lives. It’s what they know. This sequence, along with Mickey’s escape from a chain gang, thanks to a well-timed tornado that we see him riding towards on a horse, are the couple self-mythologizing their lives, reinterpreting them in a way that empowers them instead of making them victims.
If the first part of the film is Mickey and Mallory seen through their eyes then the next part is seeing them through Gale’s eyes on his tabloid T.V. show American Maniacs, which allows him to perform his own self-mythologizing. The opening credits hilariously show him breaking down a criminal’s door and then getting spit on by another crook during an interview. We see one of his Mickey and Mallory segments and how he manipulates events through dramatic re-enactments to paint the cops as heroes and the murderous lovers as villains on very simple terms. Stone cuts to Gale’s team putting together the segment with one crewmember bemoaning the reusing of footage from a previous show. Gale scoffs, “You think those nitwits in zombieland remember anything? It’s junk food for the brains. Filler. Fodder. Whatever.” With his exaggerated Australian accent, Downey is hilarious here as the egotistical Gale. This segment also shows how Mickey and Mallory become a media sensation all over the world with one idiot saying, “If I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.” Stone is taking dead aim at the deification of murderers like Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy who became infamous for killing people and glorified in film and T.V.
Stone makes a point of showing that Mickey and Mallory’s relationship is far from perfect as evident when they have an argument over him leering at their female hostage while having sex. She gets dressed and leaves only to go off and seduce a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty) in an attempt to feel wanted and desired but also to feel powerful as she initiates everything only to kill him when he recognizes her and tries to force himself on her. Her conflict with Mickey comes to a head when they run out of gas in the middle of the desert and happen upon a Native American Indian (Russell Means). He takes them in and his hospitality is rewarded when Mickey wakes from a particularly vivid nightmare about his abusive childhood and accidentally shoots the man. It is significant that it’s the one death they are remorseful about as Mallory angrily chastises him. To make matters worse, they are both bitten by rattlesnakes and manage to make their way to a drugstore saturated with garish green lighting where they are apprehended by Scagnetti in a scene that visually references the savage Rodney King beating and are sent to prison.
A year later, on the eve of the couple being transported to a mental hospital by Scagnetti after being declared insane, Gale arranges with Warden Dwight McClusky (a wonderfully unhinged Tommy Lee Jones) a live, one-on-one interview with Mickey that will air immediately after the Super Bowl. Downey is awesome in the scene where Gale hypes the interview in the hopes of convincing Mickey to do it: “This is Wallace and Noriega! This is Elton John confessing his bisexuality to Rolling Stone! This is the Maysles brothers at Altamont! This is the fuckin’ Nixon/Frost interviews!” Downey picks just the right words at just the right moments to exaggerate with his outrageous Australian accent that is a masterclass in scenery chewing. The actor manages to take it up another notch during the actual interview as Gale tries to make it all about him.
Known mostly for his genial goofball on Cheers, Woody Harrelson’s turn in NBK was a revelation at the time as he fearlessly shattered preconceived notions to play an unrepentant mass murderer. His finest moment is the prison interview scene as Mickey is introduced with a freshly shaven head and espouses his personal philosophy to Gale: “Everybody got the demon in here. The demon lives in here. It feeds on your hate. Cuts, kills, rapes. It uses your weakness, your fears. Only the vicious survive…You know, the only thing that kills a demon: love.” Amidst all the serial killer psychobabble this is the only bit that feels sincere and is arguably the film’s central thesis, which would explain why it ends the way it does.
The last 30 minutes of NBK are an insanely staged prison riot inspired by Mickey’s interview. He uses it to orchestrate a rescue of Mallory and then an escape with Gale, his film crew and two guards as hostages. This allows Stone to cut loose with all kinds of crazy imagery as prisoners fight it out with guards while Mickey and his group fight their way through the chaos. Amidst it all, Mickey and Mallory have a romantic moment when they are reunited before finishing off Scagnetti. Meanwhile, McClusky is losing his mind while losing control of the prison. Tommy Lee Jones is particularly inspired during this sequence as he delivers an increasingly hysterical performance with Downey matching him in the larger-than-life theatrical department. It’s as if the two actors had a running bet on who could chew up more scenery. Upon reflection, I think Downey wins as Gale goes from hostage to active participant, shooting and killing a guard trying to kill Mickey and Mallory. When the group lays low in a bathroom, Downey takes it up another notch as Gale, drenched in blood and grime, breaks up with his wife and is dumped by his mistress. He is then led out through a throng of guards with a shotgun taped to his head, talking to stay alive while McClusky rants and raves. It is a brilliantly sustained sequence set to a hysterical pitch.
Coming off making Heaven & Earth (1993), Oliver Stone’s marriage was on the rocks. He and his wife Elizabeth were having trouble communicating and she was upset that he continued to give into his wilder tendencies for women, drugs and alcohol. In 1993, Stone had dinner with producer Thom Mount and actor Sean Penn, whose film The Indian Runner (1991) he had produced. They had a screenplay written by then-up-and-coming filmmaker Quentin Tarantino entitled, Natural Born Killers, a contemporary Bonnie and Clyde story about a killer couple made famous by tabloid press and reality T.V. At the time, Stone didn’t know that Penn was going to direct it and that the rights were controlled by Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher, two novice movie producers that envisioned a low budget version.
Hamsher and Murphy were working out of her dining room at the time. They were looking to collaborate with young writers. At a party in April 1991, two people mentioned that Tarantino was going to direct Reservoir Dogs (1992) and his script for NBK was “near brilliant.” They met him and read the script, immediately wanting to make it into a film. It was, however, not easy to categorize and so they had a tough time finding someone willing to finance it. Next, they tried approaching filmmakers but that didn’t work either. They eventually met with Mount and he gave it to Penn.
Mount wanted Stone to produce the film under his company, however, after reading the script he wanted to direct. He said, “I felt attracted to it out of instinct…I know that starting to work on it has brought some turbulence up to the surface…there’s a demon in Natural Born Killers. There’s a demon that drives it. I can’t understand it exactly…but it captivates me.” Mount liked the idea of Stone directing and Penn was out, much to his chagrin. Stone also had to deal with Tarantino who was starting to get some clout in the industry after his debut film came out and wanted a say in the project. Stone remembers, “So I got an angry QT, an angry Sean Penn…There were a lot of legal hassles that we had to pay off to settle out people who might want to sue.”
Stone had to move fast. The wrap party for Heaven & Earth was on January 30 and on February 1, he put Murphy and Hamsher to work on Natural Born Killers. While editing the former he began production on the latter. Stone did not want to shoot Tarantino’s script as it was: “There was a structure and I liked the ideas and there were some very funny scenes, but it was not a movie I wanted to do…I always knew there was another level I wanted to try for.” He wanted to flesh out the relationship between Mickey and Mallory but didn’t have much time so he enlisted the help of long-time collaborator Richard Rutowski and tasked Hamsher with getting “one of your wild and crazy friends” to help them with rewrites. He wasn’t offering much money so she found David Veloz, fresh out of film school with no luck selling any of his scripts and ready to quit the business, whom she felt could write “extreme material that still retained its humanity.” He worked closely with Stone and added scenes like the argument the couple have in a motel room with a female hostage tied up in the corner. Stone also added a new first act with them on the road and flashbacks showing their backgrounds like the “I Love Mallory” sequence.
Rutowski introduced the idea of Mickey and Mallory wrestling with their inner demons and expressing them externally. Stone took Tarantino’s script and went deeper and bigger in scale. He said, “I didn’t want to make a realistic movie about serial killers. That was well done in Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I’m really onto something else. It’s a larger portion of American life that’s enamored of violence, enamored of crime, promotes it on television, and eventually lives and dies by it.”
When Stone’s long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson read the script he didn’t want to do it: “I simply didn’t have the level of respect that I’d had for the written material on, say, Born on the Fourth of July or JFK. Each of those aroused in me a great deal of historical respect and intellectual curiosity.” Stone admitted that he played the “friendship card” with Richardson as he was feeling very vulnerable with his divorce looming over him and felt abandoned. To counter Richardson’s dislike of the material, Stone argued, “As far as the morality of the story was concerned, I argued with him that it represented the culture we were in, and that the picture was a satire, which required us to exaggerate and distort in order to make our point.” Richardson agreed to do it out of loyalty to Stone but it was an unpleasant experience for the man: “The story brought up unpleasant memories from my own childhood, and those memories plagued me to such a degree that my nights were literally sleepless.”
Working on such dark material put additional strain on an already fractured marriage. Stone felt that counseling wasn’t working and turned to meditation and immersed himself in his work, using NBK as a way to deal with his own demons. The filmmaker originally envisioned it as a medium-budget film a la Talk Radio (1988) for $10-12 million but the more he worked on it, the bigger in scale it became. Arnon Milchan financed the film. It was their third collaboration together and as the budget increased they approached Warner Brothers in the hopes that they would not only distribute it but market it as well. Stone wanted to use their considerable resources but the subject matter scared them and so they used their leverage when it came to casting.
Originally, Stone wanted Michael Madsen, who he had worked with on The Doors (1991), to play Mickey Knox and Juliette Lewis to play Mallory Knox, who convinced the director that she was right for the part and that “only I could play somebody who could tear your throat out with her bare hands.” The studio felt that the former wasn’t a big enough movie star and suggested Woody Harrelson instead. Stone agreed and with Robert Downey, Jr. cast as Wayne Gale – someone that Stone had always wanted to work with – he made a deal with the studio. The casting of Harrelson surprised many as all he was really known for at that point was the dumb but sweet bartender on the T.V. sitcom Cheers. Stone had done his homework. At the time, Harrelson’s father was serving a double life sentence for the murder of a federal judge and it was rumored that he was one of the “three tramps” arrested in Dallas the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For the role of Warden McClusky, Stone had approached Jack Palance but once he read the script he turned down the part as he felt the film was too violent. On short notice, Stone asked Tommy Lee Jones, who had already worked with him on JFK (1991) and Heaven & Earth, and he agreed.
Rehearsals did not go well as Juliette Lewis showed up unprepared. She repeatedly missed kick-boxing lessons, shooting practice and workout sessions that were to develop her into a warrior character like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Instead, she showed up to rehearsal one day and ordered room service, eating and smoking while Stone was trying to work. Meanwhile, Jones worked closely with hair stylist Cydney Cornell to achieve the distinctive look of McClusky: “I always thought those little pencil-thin toothbrush mustaches were really stupid. Huge Carl Perkins sideburns. They said, ‘What do you want your hair to look like?’ I said, ‘I think it ought to look like a ’57 Studebaker.’”
By 1993, Stone and his wife were separated and principal photography began on NBK in New Mexico. He set a blistering pace, shooting in several cities in a short period of time, which meant six and sometimes seven-day weeks with 16-17-hour days. By all accounts it was a wild shoot as on-set doctor Chris Renna remembers one night hearing a lot of noise coming from Lewis’ hotel room and four in the morning. He checked it out and found her and Tom Sizemore bouncing up and down on her bed with the Rolling Stones on the radio. Lewis then wanted to order cornflakes from room service even though Sizemore claimed he couldn’t eat them. She ordered eight boxes anyway and proceeded to feed him a bit of them. He spit the food all over her and the bed. He got mad and she apologized.
Stone shot the film on a wide variety formats: color and B&W 35mm, B&W 16mm, Super 8, Hi8, and Beta. According to Richardson, “We’re going for the grittiness you get from Super 8 or 16mm – a lot of the violence is being done with those formats.” Stone also used front and rear-projection techniques, computer graphics, bluescreen, and cel animation. In addition, he hired Paul Stojanovich, who had worked on the reality T.V. show Cops and the sensationalist talk show Geraldo, to design and direct the style of Wayne Gale’s American Maniacs tabloid show.
Stone devised a stylistic blueprint for specific parts of the film intended to simulate channel-surfing:
“At the beginning of the movie these two young people are really desensitized to violence. The concept is that the live in T.V. world and don’t realize the consequences of their actions…We incorporated those ideas into the movie by using rear-screen images. We wanted to give a sense of the schizophrenic madness of the century and to convey the feeling that the characters’ minds are hopped-up and speedy.”
Stone then changed the look of the film after Mickey accidentally kills that Native American Indian and he and Mallory are bitten by rattlesnakes: “The whole mood of the lighting changes into a greenish, poisonous hue to reflect the idea that the fun has ended.” In addition, each significant character got their own distinctive look with Gale getting a “television magazine” style, Scagnetti, “a lurid, pseudo-Mickey style because Scagnetti wants to be Mickey and possess Mallory,” and for McClusky, Stone wanted to create “a scary, ominous prison that suggested punishment.” For the climactic prison riot, “the look is one of complete chaos – everything but the kitchen sink.”
After New Mexico, filming moved to Joliet, Illinois at a large prison known as Statesville. Of the 2300 inmates, 800 expressed an interest in being part of the film with only 342 cleared by the authorities to actually participate. It was a tough shoot as Richardson said, “I hated it there. Besides the difficult conditions, there is a real racial attitude in the prison because you’ve got thousands of mostly black men being incarcerated and ruled over by mostly white guards. A lot of them resent us being here.” The demands of shooting there increased the budget as did using rear-screen projection while also taking more time. In one day there were five injuries on set and on the next day during the scene where Scagnetti bursts into Mallory’s cell and tries to rape her, Lewis passed out between takes, tired from being up until five in the morning. A few takes later she achieved the energy levels Stone wanted and accidentally smashed Sizemore in the nose for real. He began bleeding and after it was decided that his nose wasn’t broken they finished the scene, using it for the shot.
Stone yelled at her and said later, “We’ve been having all these problems, and she wasn’t responding, I had a bunch of squibs going off, and she was missing her cues, her lines, her marks, and I said, ‘Look, people can get hurt. It’s a real serious thing, you can’t just take it that easy. You have to do it right.’” The prison scenes were the most expensive and difficult to shoot as they filmed in a real prison with real inmates and real weapons. There were limitations where they could shoot and for how long. He ran into problems with the prison authorities when he told them that he wanted to use prop guns during the riot scenes as they were worried that the weapons would be disassembled and used to make real weapons. Stone made a few calls to the right people and the prison authorities allowed it so long as real inmates weren’t near the filming area.
For six weeks the production split their time between shooting the prison riot scene on location and on a large film stage with technical consultant Dale A. Dye and stunt coordinator Phil Nelson staging the sequences. They studied case histories of prison riots and looked at what kind of weapons inmates would make, what from and where they would hide them. They also talked to corrections officers about homemade weapons. Dye said, “This is not a protest, but a riot. These guys aren’t going to hold signs that say, ‘You piss me off.’ They’re going to pop your eye out of its socket and skull-fuck you.” He remembered one take during the riot scene where someone started firing their gun before action was called: “The prisoners freaked out. They and I thought the guards were really firing. There was sheer panic and terror.”
In addition to producing, Hamsher was instrumental in picking songs for the film’s eclectic soundtrack. She wanted alternative rock music in the film and made mixed tapes for Stone of music she wanted to use: L7, Jane’s Addiction, the Velvet Underground, and Diamanda Galas among others. She wanted to challenge Stone and figured he would never go for it but much to her surprise he loved it and even played some of the music during filming to set the tone for a given scene.
Filming wrapped in July and the monumental task of editing all the footage that had been shot began. Stone kept asking Milchan if he could make NBK NC-17 and the mogul agreed but argued that it would limit the places to advertise and screen it. Milchan said, “What he was doing was testing how far he can go…My guess is that he will go for the most extreme version possible. He’ll test it. Push it as far as he can.” Sure enough, the film went to the rating board five times before it got an R rating.
Stone saw his film “constructed via television and as a homage to T.V…There’s the aggression of the imagery, the channel-surfing philosophy of moving on.” He also felt that it was not “an easy movie to settle into, you can’t get a point of view, you have to surrender to the movie. If you resist the movie with conventional ethics, you’ll have a problem.” Not surprisingly, the studio and exhibitors were apprehensive about this ultraviolent film bound to be controversial. An unnamed studio executive admitted, at the time, that it was “a very difficult film to sell. How do you sell a film about two despicable people and the media turning them into heroes?” They opted to play up the social satire aspect rather than it being about vicious killers.
Predictably, Natural Born Killers polarized critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Despite isolated moments of bleak, disturbing beauty, it is finally less an epiphany than an ordeal. Not for the first time, Mr. Stone assembles an arsenal of visual ideas and then fires away point-blank in his audience’s direction…While Natural Born Killers affects occasional disgust at the lurid world of Mickey and Mallory, it more often seems enamored of their exhilarating freedom.” The Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “Stone calls this bile satire. But it’s not satire to skewer idiots. Satire respects the insidious power of its targets. Satire takes careful aim; Killers is crushingly scattershot. By putting virtuoso technique at the service of lazy thinking, Stone turns his film into the demon he wants to mock; cruelty as entertainment.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “The main problem with Killers, though, is that it degenerates into the very thing it criticizes…Killers is intended as a gonzo critique of the mass media and, by extension, of the bloodthirsty legions of couch potatoes whose prurient taste guarantees that the garbage rises to the top of the charts. But the film doesn’t make it as a piece of social criticism. Primarily this is because the movie’s jittery, psychedelic style is so obviously a kick for Stone to orchestrate.”
Not all critics hated the film. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning. As we coast into a long autumn where the news will be dominated by the O.J. Simpson trial, Natural Born Killers is like a slap in the face, waking us up to what’s happening.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “In Natural Born Killers something revelatory happens. The movie is enlightening, not because it transmits new information, but in the way that movies enlighten, through a synergy of images and rhythms that makes us sense the world in a new way…Stone’s flabbergasting movie cannot be dismissed; it must and will be fought over.”
Natural Born Killers reflects the rise of sampling culture in the ‘90s with hip-hop and industrial music sampling clips from movies, T.V. and other music. Stone does this both audibly, with collages of songs and dialogue that plays over certain scenes, and visually as Mickey and Mallory watch clips of movies that Stone himself wrote – Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983). It was a technique that he had started using in JFK and perfected with NBK to mimic the sensation of changing channels complete with a commercial. Exploitative T.V. shows like A Current Affair no longer exist as all news has become fear-mongering in nature. Take Inside Edition and replace it with Fox News or MSNBC where there is no absolute truth, which continues to make Stone’s film relevant. What NBK is trying to say is that you can’t trust any of these things. You have to trust yourself. You have digest all of this information, figure out what is misinformation and decide for yourself.
Pizzello, Stephen. “Natural Born Killers Blasts Big Screen with Both Barrels.” American Cinematographer. November 1994.
Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.
Russo, Francine. “There’s A Riot Going On.” Village Voice. August 23, 1994.
Smith, Gavin. “The camera for me is an actor.” Film Comment. January-February 1994.
Smith, Gavin. “Somebody’s gonna give you money, you do your best to make ‘em a good hand.” Film Comment. January-February 1994.
Smith, Gavin. “Oliver Stone – Why Do I Have to Provoke?” Sight and Sound. December 1994.
Weinraub, Bernard. “How a Movie Satire Turned into Reality.” The New York Times. August 16, 1994.
Williams, David E. “Overkill.” Film Threat. October 1994.