Oliver Stone Tells Spike Lee About His Own Original Pitch for ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ and Why He Couldn’t ‘Solve’ It

Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” captured a critical point of view lost from film. After decades of producing blockbuster war stories and award-winning battle scene epics, the story of the Black Vietnam veteran has been largely neglected by Hollywood.

Lee’s Netflix film changed that by putting the story of four 60-something veterans reuniting in Vietnam under his lens. After years of distance the men return to the wilderness to honor their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) and uncover the gold they buried decades ago. But. digging up their past uncovers the pain and grief each soldier has been carrying with them for ages in this time-jumping narrative from Netflix.

However, before “Da 5 Bloods” was a Spike Lee joint, it was titled “The Last Tour” and Oliver Stone was attached to direct.  Known for his Vietnam War movies from “Platoon” to “Born on the Fourth of July,” Stone seemed like a good fit for the film, but there was one problem — he couldn’t “solve” the movie.

Variety brought the Oscar-winning NYU film grads together for the Directors on Directors series to discuss the origins of “Da 5 Bloods” and its important journey to unearth the real history of America’s oppression and systemic racism.

Read the conversation below and watch the interview above.

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Spike Lee: It is my honor and pleasure to be having this discussion, this dialogue, this conversation of one of the great filmmakers of all time, my NYU brother, Oliver Stone. I went to NYU because of [Martin] Scorsese and Stone. The two S’s. I want to thank you for doing this. I know you’re very busy.

And I’d also like to say that I was born March 20, 1957. So ’67 on, the height of the Vietnam War, I was just a kid, and you were there. You weren’t doing this from reading a book or somebody telling you that, you were there, Oliver. And a large part of my new film, “Da 5 Bloods” I learned from you from “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth July,” and “Heaven And Earth.”

Oliver Stone: Spike, I love the film. It’s such a crazy film. And it’s you, it’s so you that it makes me look at all your work and see how fucking crazy you are. And I love it. You take big chances, man, big chances all the way down the line.

Lee: Oliver! Come on, pat yourself on the back too. You’re just as crazy as me. Let’s keep it real.

Stone: Whenever I talk to you, I always feel like it’s easier for you. You’re smooth man. You you go over all the bumps pretty well. Sometimes I get I let the bumps get to me.

Lee: Oliver, this is what I tell my students and you know the same, we’re in a fucking tough business.

Stone: Oh, yeah. Well, you’ve done well. I guess I’ve done well. You’ve established a name, a brand, a way of filmmaking that is very rare. Let’s talk about “Da 5 Bloods,” which blew me away. I’ve seen it twice now.

Lee: Thank you. I’s just like to tell everybody, Oliver was one of the first people I spoke to after the film came out. And I’m gonna be honest, everyone, I was very nervous [with] what my brother was gonna think about this because again, ’67, ’68 I’m 10. I’m a pipsqueak. I don’t know shit. And you were there. So I was very, very on edge [with] how you were gonna dig the film. Then you just gave me a great big, big, big love hug over the phone. So I want to thank you for that.

Stone: As you know, I worked on the project before you came into it. The producer Lloyd Leven had this kind of crazy idea, I forgot if it was a script or a treatment. But I liked the idea very much of going back to Vietnam as an older man and taking on this “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” kind of feeling, going for these old guys who never had success in life back in the world. And they get together and they bond and they go back to find the treasure. But things go wrong, as in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” greed emerges all kinds of problems emerge.

Lee: Great film.

Stone: I never was able to solve it in a way that was satisfactory to me, with those characters that we had. You solved it. You solved it in a strange way because you went entirely Black. The movie is a love poem to Black Vietnam soldiers. That’s what you’re doing when I see the movie, to me.

It’s exclusively about that experience, not necessarily in reality, but it transcends reality because it’s a love poem. That’s what I get from it. It’s an insane movie and I love the insanity of it.

It’s probably not realistic in the sense of that that happened, that happened, that happened. But that’s part of the style of the movie, it’s grand guignol. It works for me. You have accept it on these conditions. You don’t have to think about all the, “Does that plot point hang together or that plot point,” it hangs together in the sense of its poetry.

I sat through that movie, I didn’t know what the fuck was gonna happen next. I did not know. And that is, that’s amazing. Because you really keep everybody up, you keep me off balance. Nothing cliched. Nothing predictable. Some things don’t get resolved, but that’s okay. You’re taking taking enormous chances with this movie. And you don’t give a fuck. I mean, you really fly. You’re flying very fast.

Lee: Thank you for those those comments, I really appreciate it. I don’t think a lot of people knew that priginally, Lloyd Levin brought this script, I think was called “The Last Tour,” to my brother Oliver.

You’ve done the trilogy, “Platoon,” “Born On The Fourth of July,” which I think is [Tom] Cruise’s best performance, in my opinion. And you got “Heaven And Earth.” Have you thought about, “Can I go back one more time?” Or are you done?

Stone: I tried a fourth time before this movie. Lloyd came to me sometime in 2011 or 12, I was trying to make “Pinkville” in 2007. “Pinkville” is the story of Mỹ Lai massacre. We did a tremendous amount of research, we got all the equipment together, it was a huge undertaking. We were about three weeks from shooting when the money fell out, it was during the financial crisis. And it was an independent company like at that time and they folded. Bruce Willis was supposed to be one of the stars and he got he got cold feet. For me it was a heartbreaker and then I said “never again.”

But then Lloyd came to me years later with this script that was fun. I said that it should be an adventure movie, “let’s Let’s go for it.” I didn’t have the moral mission on this that you had. Because for you, it was about this conceived idea of what the Black soldier had gone through in Vietnam. You make the point in the movie, 30% of the troops in Vietnam…

Lee: During the height of the war it was at 30%, and at the same time 10% of the American population was African American.

Stone: That’s a big number but it certainly makes sense… And although you make them heroes, in a sense, they’re also very vulnerable. Otis, Clarke Peters, is a man whose softer, tender has a relationship with a Vietnamese woman Tiên. Of course, Delroy Lindo is the Humphrey Bogart of the role.

Lee: Did he bring like Bogart?

Stone: Oh, yeah, absolutely and beyond. I mean, I’ll tell you, it’s such a crazy movie. What you do with Delroy has not been done with a filmmaker ever. He goes into this monologue at the end of the movie, which I think you it goes on and on and on, but over different time periods and it culminates when you realize that he’s digging his grave in front of these bandits who are interested in the gold. They say it’s our gold, which is he sees the Vietcong come back to haunt him.

The monologue is amazing, and shot in many different styles. And of course, culminates in a very sad, like Bogart he gets killed by the bandits. Yes.

Lee: That came directly from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” where the ones that caught the bandits, they made them dig their own graves.

Stone: The difference is, of course, Bogart dies, the same paranoid selfish motherfuck. With the Delroy he goes through an amazing transformation. He knows something’s wrong with him. He knows it from the beginning, he references it at times he brings it up. “I’m fucked up. I can’t adapt.”

And his child now shows up in Vietnam to help him with another crazy twists. And this whole relationship between father and son plays out. You have so many plot lines going into this movie that it’s perhaps too much for some people, but it’s part of your boldness.

Lee: In film school, NYU, Scorsese was there ahead of you. But you and Marty were the guys we studied. We went to NYU because of you, and Marty We didn’t want to go to a AFI. We don’t want to go to USC. We wanted to go to NYU.

Stone: Well, NYU had the low-budget reputation. It was unreviewed. It was not the USC and all those schools had everyone. They had big money, they had cameras to shoot. They had much better equipment than we ever had. We had to struggle. We were a gorilla outfit, I guess. At least in the old days. We made films, pasted it together with glue and paper clips. You had to do it yourself. I liked that way of working. It taught us a lot. We were always chasing the light. We had very few lights. Did you make films there?

Lee: My thesis film won the student cameo award. I went I went to NYU grad film, undergrad with the Morehouse College. Ang Lee and Ernest Dickerson were my classmates, class of ’82.

What are you working on now? I’m waiting for the next Oliver Stone joint.

Stone: Well, frankly, it’s been… you’re working with Netflix. And I guess they treated you okay. Right?

Lee: They did, they were great. There was no one else to go to, everyone else said no.

Stone: I have not found a home yet, I just haven’t. I haven’t been inspired either to make a film. I guess it’s been such a rough journey that sometimes you get…

Lee: You’re doing your doc series, right?

Stone: [I’m] doing documentaries because they’re direct and I can go right to the audience and say this and this. Even there, I’m having problems. I’m doing one on energy and I’m doing one on JFK.

Lee: What’s the the status of JFK documentary?

Stone: Well, the four hours that we did is very powerful. It’s based on the facts that came out of the of the movie. The movie kicked off the assassination records review board for five years. They were not empowered to investigate, but they were empowered to clarify. And they did the best they could with these limitations. The facts that they presented, we go into. It makes the case harder, tighter. It’s about real facts that are shocking to people.

Lee: So you can’t you can’t find a home for this doc?

Stone: Not yet. It’s not for the American side of it. Cannes invited us for July, or June, of this year. That’s a big step for us because, at least, if it can’t be recognized in America as a document, it will be recognized in the end by international people. And that’s important.

Lee: I want to tell the audience a story. This is where you really helped me out. You may not remember this Oliver, I was at Warner Brothers in post production [on “Malcom X”] while you were finishing “JFK.” And we showed them a four-hour cut the same day as the Rodney King verdict, the same day.

Afterwards we knew we weren’t going to be able to have a four hour film in the theater, but we wanted to see the four hour cut. So afterwards, I said, “How long is JFK?” And on my mother’s grave, they said, “We’re working with Oliver, it’s two hours.” So I called you up, you might not remember this, I called you up, I said, “My brother, Oliver how long is ‘JFK?’” You said, “Three hours, but don’t tell him I told you.” True story!

Stone: It was three hours and eight minutes as I remember.

Lee: When I did “Malcolm X,” you also allowed me to use the clip of “JFK.” When Denzel [Washington] gets his great performance, and when he got in trouble with the nation he made a speech talking about the assassination. “This is America when the chickens come home to roost.” Right there, we cut to the clip of the assassination. Thank you for giving me that clip of “JFK” to put right behind Denzel as Malcolm X was saying that.

Stone: Well, it was a pleasure.

Lee: You don’t know how much you’ve been helping me. I appreciate it.

Stone: It was an important film and I’m glad you made it. And I’m glad that Warner Brothers gave you the support it did at least it got out there. Which you know, I don’t know if we could do that today except on television with Netflix. I’m not sure that they would release a large film like that. I’m not sure.

Lee: “JFK” is such a brave, brave film. And one day, I hope you get to tell the story behind making that film. That’a a documentary in itself.

Stone: If I get another book out, it’ll be it’ll be there. I wanted to ask you, why did you use the older actors to play the younger versions?

Lee: Two things. First of all, the budget $43 million. Netflix was the last place we can go. They said “Spike, this is what we got. It’s your choice.” I said bet, I want to do it at 43. And at the same time, our brother, Martin Scorsese had his film. And there were rumors that $100 million plus had been spent on the de-aging. I don’t know, I asked Marty. But I knew I only had 43. So even if it’s half that amount, I don’t got it.

The truth is, I hoped on the intelligence of the movie going audience, that first it might be a shock. But they would get it, they would understand that these guys are playing themselves. When you think about it, these men are going back to Vietnam 40 years later, so in their mind they’re there at as 17, 18, 19 years old. So again, I wasn’t sure. But like my brother Marlon Brando, from “Guys and Dolls,” I rolled my dice and said “luck be a lady tonight,” I don’t sing and it was the snake eyes.

Stone: It didn’t bother me. I thought it was very much like they were encountering a ghost. It was a ghost of their past. And that’s what the movie is about, living with your ghosts. And Chadwick Boseman, what was he like to work with?

Lee: First time we ever worked together, Oliver, I didn’t know he was terminally ill. Only his inner circle knew. We’d been shooting for four or five weeks before it came time for him to do his part. Now I understand why Chadwick didn’t want anyone to know, especially the director. One of the first days he worked was the first battle sequence in the flashback. He had to do 100 yard sprints and it’s 100 degrees. If I had known, no way I’m gonna ask him to run. Chadwick did not want to be treated differently. He wanted to do what everyone else did. He did not want to cheat us or cheat his fellow actors, that is why he did not tell anybody. And I think it’s heroic.

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Spike Lee (left) on the set of “Da 5 Bloods” with his cast; Netflix premiered the film in June 2020.
Courtesy of David Lee/Netflix

Stone: I love your films when cut away to a documentary clip out of the blue. You have this documentary approach to it. You early on in the film, you go right into the business about the first man, the first black Vietnam soldier killed in Vietnam was a man named…

Lee: Eighteen years old, Milton Olive and he jumped on a grenade to save his his his fellow Americans lives.

Stone: From there you go to Crispus Attucks the revolutionary war hero.

Lee: And the reason why I did that, Oliver is that because of this President, I don’t call him by his name I call him Agent Orange. He called Colin Kaepernick and the Black players of the NFL, unpatriotic to kneel. And my thing was, motherfucker, do you know the first person to die for this country was a Black man? Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre. Black people have been dying for this country from the get. And that’s where we cut to the painting of him being killed and the portrait of Crispus Attucks.

Stone: It’s wonderful. And you’re educating the audience.

Lee: The bookends of this film are two of the most early vocal opponents of this immoral war. It begins with Muhammad Ali’s saying, “No Vietcong ever called me n—–.” And then we end with Dr. Martin Luther King, giving one of his great speeches at Riverside Church in New York City. He was assassinated one year later to the day. It’s my belief, I’m not the only one, that he was not assassinated because of civil rights. When he started talking about how this war is immoral. He’s talking about the war machine, big money. And as you know in America, when you start fucking with the money.

Stone: I totally agree with you. I think that was the reason he was assassinated. The world as we have it now our culture is, denies him that. They treat him, “Yes, civil rights, he’s great”. But if you get into the Vietnam War, the war machine, and America is the most violent purveyor in the world of violence. That is what got to them. He’s attacking his country on a broad scale. He was right, because it was really horrible at that point, and he knew it. But that was his death sentence in ’67 when he said that.

Lee: LBJ felt betrayed because he thought he had a partner in in MLK, and getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 together. And then three years later, that the king is like, “Yo, this war is wrong.”

Stone: I think that was his death sentence. He certainly had enemies in J. Edgar Hoover, big enemies. That would be a good movie, Martin Luther King the real story, without all the bullshit Life Magazine crap. To get in his relationship with women with real people, the movement, but also his doubts. He was a profound human being… King was really haunted by spirits, his spiritual folly. Which you have in this movie, you have a great sense of spirituality. And you feel the tension, the torture that Delroy Lindo is going through to great performance, great performance should be considered for an Academy Award.

Lee: Do you still think about yourself as a young man in Vietnam? Does that ever come back to you?

Stone: I’ve examined it sure, I made a movie about it. I’ve reflected on it quite a lot. I was part of a system that I totally condemn now. The oppression, what we did to the Vietnamese it was obscene, completely obscene and uncalled for. But continue to do this, this system of war, the system of interference and other people’s affairs, this system that says we dominate the universe, and you’ll have to do it our way is insane. We’re never going to get out of this hole. Never. Because we keep fighting. We need an enemy, you know that. We need an enemy because we have to keep funding this preparations for war. Now we’re spending a trillion dollars for what? It’s wasted money. We can do so much more with it. We could have lifted America. All our priorities are wrong, Spike.

Lee: I want to thank you. I know you’re very busy. I want to thank you and I’m saying this behalf of all the viewers too. You’re one of my heroes, said before NYU, your films, we studied you. We still study you. I can’t wait to see this four hour “JFK.”

Stone: In Europe.

Lee: Netflix said no?

Stone: Yeah. Today I just got the word that National Geographic said no.

Lee: What was the reason they said no?

Stone: They said they did their fact check. Yeah. Where are you going to find this information except in this film? If they do a fact check, according to conventional sources, of course it’ll come out like this is not true. How can you go and prove that it’s true? It’s very, it’s very tough. You have to have some imagination here.

Lee: I have to see it in Cannes, where I’ll be president of the jury. Let’s have a drink sir.

Stone: I look forward to it. Keep making Joints.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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