Welcome to the Jungle: An Oral History of Platoon (Premiere Magazine)

Welcome to the Jungle (Premiere Magazine)

Oliver Stone, Writer and Director
When I came back from Vietnam, I wrote a version called Break, in 1968 or ’69. It’s the first thing I wrote, and it was completely surrealist—about going into the underworld, being killed in Vietnam and reemerging. It was very Morrisonian, and actually, it cross-references The Doors, because I sent it to Jim Morrison and he had it in his apartment in Paris when he died. Then in 1976, I wrote a version called Platoon. It reflected what I had smelled, what I had felt. I remember that summer was the 200th anniversary of America; all the ships were in the harbor and all that. I had recently separated from my wife and was living hand to mouth in a friend’s small apartment in New York. I just felt like if I kept waiting, I wouldn’t remember. [Almost ten years and two aborted attempts to make Platoon—in 1976 and 1984— passed.] Gerald Green [his friend and producer] introduced me to John Daly, who had a small company. He just said, “I’ll make Platoon and Salvador—I love them both.” Just like that.

John Daly, Executive Producer
I was introduced to Oliver in Los Angeles at a restaurant called Le Dôme. He said, “I understand you make daring films.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I don’t suppose you’d ever do a film with me.” And I said, “Why not? What do you want to make?” The next day I received the scripts for Platoon and Salvador and read them on the weekend. On Monday, I called him and said, “Which one would you like to make first?”

Stone
When does a screenwriter ever hear that? In my gut I said, if I do Platoon it’s going to somehow go wrong a third time—I just feel it. And El Salvador’s in the news.

Arnold Kopelson, Producer
Gerald Green called me and said, “Do you know who Oliver Stone is?” I said, “Of course,” because he had won an Oscar for Midnight Express. I got the script for Platoon in the afternoon, and I read 50 pages. I was glued to it; I couldn’t move. I called Stone and said, “I’m doing your movie.” He said, “Read the whole thing and call me in the morning.” So I did and when I got to the end, I was literally sobbing. My wife asked me, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “I’ve just finished the greatest and most important screenplay I’ve ever read.”

Stone
[In 1984, during the second attempt to make Platoon] Emilio Estevez, in my mind, was going to be the star. He looked like Charlie Sheen a bit and had the same blank-eyed kind of I’m-not-here [expression] that I had when I was a young man. Charlie also auditioned in ’84 and had just come off Red Dawn. And I remember him as being too young for the role. [When I was casting the film again] Emilio had done Repo Man and wasn’t the same youth that I wanted. When Charlie walked in, it wasn’t even a question, I just knew in my heart that it was him. I didn’t get to know Elias [the part- Apache sergeant whom Stone briefly served under in Vietnam] as well as I wanted to, but he was very Morrison-like. He just dressed and acted differently.

Bob Morones, Casting
I actually went to Arizona on my own money and interviewed over a hundred Native Americans on the reservations. Then Oliver calls me up and says, “What do you think of this guy named Willem Dafoe?” I said, “He’s great, he’s going to be a star one of these days. . . . But you said you wanted a Native American.”

Stone
Willem was a different way to go, but I thought it was unique. I had to get great spirit and soul, and I think that’s what he conveyed.

Willem Dafoe [Sgt. Elias]
Oliver talked about Elias with admiration and love. He was almost a magical character for him.

Morones
Oliver said, “You have to admit that Willem has the spirit of this character, right?” That’s the word he used, “spirit.” And he did.

Stone
Tom Berenger had been around for years, in The Big Chill and all that, but he had never crossed over.

Morones
Berenger was a long shot. His career was in the trash can.

Stone
His agent was Paula Wagner, who was also my agent. She said, “Take another look at Tom.” I remember his TV work was very good, and he has a strong face. I thought he was perfect for Barnes.

Tom Berenger [Sgt. Barnes]
Paula asked me, “What do you think of the script?” And I said, “This guy’s not Hollywood. It sounds like he was there.”

“A grunt can take it, can take anything.”

Dale Dye, Military Technical Adviser [Capt. Harris]
I read in Army Archerd’s column that Oliver Stone was going to make a Vietnam War movie based on his own experiences. So we spoke, and I said, “Just give me this shot. Let me take them into the jungle and have them live like you and I did in Vietnam.”

Stone
The whole point of the boot camp was to keep these guys awake, because my severest memory was always being in a numbed haze.

Dafoe
I went to the Philippines [where the boot camp and production occurred] a couple of weeks early. It was obviously a long flight from New York, so after I arrived, I took a nap in my Manila hotel room. When I woke up, I opened my windows and there were tanks in the streets. The revolution [to replace Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos] was happening.

Kopelson
I got a call, I think, from my line producer saying that there are tanks in the streets. I said, “Great, they’re our tanks [that were arranged for filming].” He said, “No, no. There’s a coup d’état going on.” At that moment I thought it was all over.

Forest Whitaker [Big Harold
My agents didn’t want me to do the movie because of the coup. I got convinced that it could be too dangerous, and actually at one point, I wasn’t going to. But ultimately I talked to Oliver, and it worked out.

Berenger
I was staying at the Sheraton Universal hotel in Los Angeles waiting to go, and the doormen and the bellmen were all Filipinos, so they were calling home to Manila every night and would give me reports.

Dye
Fortunately, it was a relatively bloodless coup, but I think it scared the shit out of Oliver and his line producer because they had made a lot of deals with defense officials who may no longer be in power.

Stone
A lot of bribes went out with different departments, and then this thing happens, and we of course had to make new deals.

"Take the pain"

Whitaker
When we got off the plane in Manila, they drove us by bus out to the jungle, gave us shovels, and said, “Dig a hole.” So we dug a hole. And then they said, “That’s where you are going to be living for the next two weeks.”

Dye
Oliver said, “You know what we went through [in real basic training]; you know what has to be done. Don’t go overboard and don’t start trying to be a director.” I said, “Okay, I get it. I’m just here to train your troops.” And so that’s essentially what I did.

Keith David [King]
I think there was only one time that we were allowed to sleep the whole night through.

Dafoe
We slept so little that it was really like a mini-brainwashing. But we were happy that it was hard because it made it seem more authentic and pushed us to greater commitment.

John C. McGinley [Sgt. O'Neill]
Most of us were just New York theater fags who were all of a sudden in the middle of the Southeast Asian jungle. We were having espressos and bialys down in Little Italy just 48 hours ago, and now Dale Dye is firing automatic weapons at us.

Whitaker
All of a sudden, we’re under attack. We’re thinking it’s the Filipino people whose farms we had taken, like, coconuts and stuff from. But we soon realized that it was Oliver and I guess the Philippine marines who were working in concert with him.

Dye
One night I put Keith David, Charlie Sheen [who played Chris Taylor], Willem Dafoe, and two others out on a night defensive position. Their mission was to engage the enemy. Well, I had discovered a herd of goats and I ran the goats in through their position. They fired off about 500 rounds of [blank] machine gun ammunition and swore that there were hordes of enemy around.

David
The ambushes were horrendous. It felt like Macbeth. The slightest movement, a twig, a bird, we started shooting at it.

Kevin Dillon [Bunny]
Oliver loved to get involved. He’d grab an AK-47 and attack us. One time I heard him coming, so I put my M16 on full automatic, let him get pretty close, and just blasted him. He basically had to say, “Okay, okay, you got me.”

Dafoe
It was getting dark and we needed some water, so I went to a little stream and I treated the water with some treatment tablets. I drank it, and it tasted funky. The next day we saw a big, bloated, dead water buffalo in the stream. So I obviously drank whatever stew was made from that. For like the next 24 hours, I really don’t know what happened. I was very sick. But everybody got a little something. You know, put a bunch of gringos out in the jungle, they’re going to get sick.

Kopelson
They were all so in character that you could barely speak to them. They would almost walk away from you if you were talking to them about [real] life.

Berenger
Nobody called anyone by their real names. I was always Sergeant Barnes.

Dafoe
After about a week, some guy woke up and screamed a hallelujah because for the first morning in a long time, he had woken up with an erection. For a bunch of young men, or any man, to not wake up with an erection was just a testament to how stressful and disorienting it was.

Berenger
The food was all dehydrated crap. But I really didn’t have much of an appetite because I was just too tired to eat.

Whitaker
I lost so much weight during that period that Oliver was like, “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be Big Harold.”

Dillon
One of the guys Dale hired had Tabasco and a couple of different spices, so he knew how to make the MRE’s pretty tasty. He spiced up my meals a little bit.

McGinley
I got it in my mind that if you went too far into the bush to take a crap, a python was going to crawl up your ass. So I just didn’t go.

Stone
If someone wanted to leave, he would have left. It wasn’t a prison camp. The idea was to bring the men together, because actors tend to be individualistic and selfish. If there was bickering, I don’t know the details. But there was always bickering in the Army, and it’s good.

Dye
I wanted them to bitch because it is part and parcel of being taken out of your comfort zone. And every soldier is taken out of his comfort zone when he’s in training.

Berenger
After about a week, everybody was doing their own functions: The radio guys really knew the radio, and Doc [Paul Sanchez] knew exactly what to do in every situation. [At the end of training] Dale said to us, “I would take you guys into combat right now.”

Kopelson
I arrived on the first day of the shoot, and the actors were just coming out of the jungle. It was quite a sight. They were so filthy and haggard, they truly looked like they had been in a battle.

“People say I’m the life of the party ’cause I tell a joke or two.”

Berenger
Oliver rode Charlie hard because he was the lead and was [essentially] playing him. He had to get a full-fledged performance out of Charlie, not a character thing. But Charlie can take a lot of shit. So he was the perfect kid for that part.

Dafoe
Oliver didn’t want people to take the movie lightly, so if he thinks he’s got to push buttons, he does. But usually the person whose buttons are pushed is thankful for it.

Stone
I did push buttons, but in the positive sense, I really think that all those guys were so happy with boot camp. They may have hated me temporarily because I was a symbol of their oppression or whatever it was. But every one of them came to me at some point in the film and were so happy because they held on to that essence. You see, when you go do a movie, it’s so distracting. You have weekends, you have time off; you’re not in the military mode the whole time so you lose track.

Dafoe
[For the “Tracks of My Tears” scene] some of us did smoke just to get in the mood. Well, there was a little glitch in the lighting, and it took a lot longer to shoot, and by then we had come down from smoking. So then the real acting had to come into play. But it was a festive time. What broke my heart was I had this monkey that a villager had given me and I loved and trained it. I was really excited about playing the scene with my monkey, but when we finally came to shoot, it was hot, and there were lights and smoke, and the monkey couldn’t take it. I tried to keep him there because I was so desperate not to lose this great opportunity for a piece of color in the scene. Finally the little fucker bit me and ran for it and never was seen again.

“Let’s do this whole fucking village!”

Dillon
[The scene where Bunny beats a handicapped boy to death] was hard to do because the kid had been in a train accident and was missing a leg, so he was in bad shape. When they said, “Action,” I would get into it, but I would apologize to him both before and after. I think he was kind of afraid of me because he wasn’t an actor; he didn’t know what the hell was going on. One time I actually got too close with the butt of the rifle, which was rubber or foam stock, and whacked him. I just felt awful But one thing that made me feel good was Charlie and I gave the kid’s mother some money to help with surgery, because he had really bad cataracts.

Dye
We had gone out of our way to get real Vietnamese people for the sequence in the village. They all spoke Vietnamese, which if you don’t understand can be unsettling. So they were babbling in Vietnamese, had real costumes on, and here we are in combat gear. And I think it was just too much. I lost it. I said, “I’ll be with you in a minute,” and I walked away. I went outside the village and sat down on a rice paddy berm. About 15 or 30 seconds later, I saw a shadow over my shoulder, and Oliver sat down next to me. And we didn’t say anything. I knew and he knew. Too many ghosts.

Berenger
It’s a hell of an image: holding a little girl and pointing a .45 at her head. Oh, God, it’s just, I mean . . . It was hard. That little girl was so sweet and cute.

Whitaker
Tom was playing the character to the fullest, so when the scene was going down, it felt completely real.

Kopelson
When that girl started to wail, it got to me. I had tears running down my face.

Daly
I can’t watch that scene.

Dafoe
My objective in [Elias’s death sequence] was very simple: I was running for my life and I just knew at the certain mark I had to die. It was a little bit of a ballet because I knew where the explosions were and I had to set off my own bullet hits. It was very technical, but at the same time it was obviously an emotional scene.

Stone
[Dafoe throwing his arms in the air in a dramatic pose as he succumbs to North Vietnamese fire] was a bit of theatrical liberty that made an impression. I don’t know why certain things get picked up on, like Tony Montana with a machine gun on the balcony in Scarface [for which Stone wrote the screenplay] or something. It’s part of that desire in human beings to [embrace] an exaggerated image.

Dye
I’m enough of a storyteller, and I have a degree in literature, so I get it [Taylor’s killing of Barnes near the end of the film]: innocence caught between the forces of good and evil and having to decide. But intentional murder is a pretty serious deal, so I was concerned about it. But after talking to Oliver, rereading the script, and thinking about what we already put on film, I finally shut up about it.

Stone
It was a fictionalized version. I never killed my own men that I know of, that I swear to. We shot both versions [one in which Taylor lets Barnes live]. One version, you walk out a better man, but I went with the other one, where you’re a killer and will have that dark side for the rest of your life. What I was trying to say at the time was that no matter what you do, you come out of a war like that stained in your soul. But I think that [Taylor] can make goodness out of his life. I believe in the power of forgiveness.

“The war is over for me now, but it will always be there for the rest of my days.”

Dafoe
Don’t get me wrong—because I’m not saying it’s the same thing—but when we came back from the Philippines, it paralleled probably how vets [felt]. Outside of the guys that you went through it with, you couldn’t convey to anyone how intense and exciting it was.

Whitaker
When I got back, I felt a little shell-shocked, out of sorts, displaced. And it went on for a few weeks.

Berenger
I was already feeling that at the end, before I got on the plane to go home.

Dillon
When I came back home to live with my parents, I was basically a savage. I found myself cursing in front of my mother, which I never would do. It took some time to get used to civilization again.

McGinley
I took whatever money I had left from Platoon, which was not much, and got a share down at the Jersey shore. By the end of the summer, I was broke.

Kopelson
[The distribution company Orion] did not know what they had. There was very little belief in what the film could do, which was evident by the fact that they only went out with six prints. Today it’s “Oh, we were platforming it.” That is true bullshit. They didn’t believe in the movie, and I think they were testing how it would do.

Daly
People got really into the film. The reaction was phenomenal.

Kopelson
The movie opened on Westwood Boulevard. My wife, Anne, and I were driving up Wilshire Boulevard toward Westwood, and there is a line two blocks from the theater. I had no idea that it was our movie. But as we pulled up, I realized it was Platoon. I said, “Anne, take a good look at this, because we may never see it again.”

Berenger
I was in New York City, and on the night [Platoon] opened, there were veterans lined up around the block. They had their fatigue jackets on. There were a couple of guys in wheelchairs.

Stone
There were of course veterans who hated the movie, especially in the officer class. They thought it was a discredit to the American servicemen. A lot of them were saying, “We’re not baby-killers; we didn’t burn villages. This guy Stone should be brought up on war crime charges.” [I thought], “Go fuck yourself,” you know. I never committed a war crime.

Dafoe
I’m sure veterans weren’t uniformly in agreement, but most of them thought . . . the word that comes to mind is “healing.”

Stone
Dale called me and said, “We’ve got a problem.” There was a report going around that said I had never served in Vietnam. Dale said, “What’s going on, partner, there’s no record of you?” I said, “Well, there isn’t any under Oliver Stone, but check under William Stone.” And of course there was.

Kopelson
I really wanted to see the audience reaction. One time I was in the orchestra and there was a guy sitting to my right. And there was an explosion onscreen. He reared back and with his right arm covered his eyes. And then he sank back in the seat and started to sob uncontrollably. I realized that he was a veteran. And I put my arm around him and tried to comfort him. And I started to sob with him. I don’t think we ever spoke. And I remember walking out of the theater saying to myself that this movie is changing the thinking of the world and acting as a catharsis for the veterans who were badly put down for being in the war.

Stone
I tracked down several of the men who were in my platoons and had a reunion. They were very pleased with the film.

David
I was walking down Columbus Avenue one day and a guy walked up to me and said, “I don’t want to disturb you or anything. But I just wanted to tell you that I was in the 25th Infantry in 1969, and I know you. I know you.”

Berenger
A friend of mine said to me, “Hey, did you read the Platoon section of the Sunday Times?” I started laughing and said, “Another article?” He goes, “Yep.” For seven weeks straight, The New York Times found a way to write about it.

Dafoe
I loved the film, but as far as commercial possibilities and finding an audience, I thought it was going to end up on the video shelves next to the kung fu movies. Not because of quality, but more so that I don’t always trust the audience to see stuff because they are conditioned by taste. But it ended up being the small movie that found its way—a Cinderella story.

“Feelin’ good’s good enough.”

Stone
On Oscar night, it was like being carried on an opium dream. I remember it being a wave of uniformity, that there was a feeling that we were the wave, you know, that we couldn’t be stopped.

McGinley
It was the same night as the NCAA championship game. I was with [J. Adam Glover, who plays Sanderson in the film] at his apartment, and we were flipping back and forth between the Oscars and basketball. [And when the film won Best Picture] we were pumped but less than you think, because everybody had lost so much money on the game, it was hard to focus.

Dye
I was shitting in tall cotton. Sorry, that’s an old soldier’s expression. It was gratifying when all the cameras turned toward me in my dress blue uniform.

Berenger
On the second to last day of training camp, I had stepped out of character, which kind of surprised everybody, and said, “I just want to say one thing. I got a strange feeling about this. I got a feeling this might be a classic. And you guys will remember this forever and will be glad that you were a part of it.” Later on, I read an interview Kevin Dillon did in a magazine where he said, “I didn’t know what [Berenger] was talking about [at the time] but, Jesus, he was right on.”

Dillon
We were like, what the fuck are you talking about, man? We’re sitting in a jungle, fire ants are biting me, I’m starved, I haven’t slept. And he’s like, “Trust me. Take time to smell the flowers.” And I’ll tell you, some of my fondest memories are from this movie. And I ended up saying to the guys on Entourage, “Smell the flowers. What we’re doing here is special.”

David
I would do it again tomorrow. I would do it again this afternoon.

Dafoe
I’m looking for another one like it.

Dye
I don’t want to sound conceited, but I’m going to. I hated virtually every Vietnam War film I saw prior to Platoon. They were just so full of liberal agenda and politics and nonsense, absolutely nonsense. And it was so unfair to the people who actually fought that war. Rambo’s a comic book. Apocalypse Now is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter has nothing whatsoever to do with the American experience in Vietnam—it’s not what we saw or how we fought. Unfortunately, because film is the popular media, it gives everybody the idea that that’s the way it was. Well, I wanted to fix that, and Platoon gave me an opportunity to help fix some of those clichés. Afterward, everybody wanted to clone it in some fashion or another. Some of them were okay; others were just dog shit.

Stone
Platoon was a special moment when America could feel good about the Vietnam veteran—that they had been finally acknowledged. But at the same time, see that war was not such a great thing. So if I could build a memorial through film, I’d take that any day.