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What it's like to work with Oliver Stone

Screenwriter Matt Graham reveals working with the Oscar legend set the tone for his career writing historical drama...despite hating Jane Austen and Dickens

By Zoe NaumanPublished 3 years ago 9 min read
Top Story - September 2020
Brit screenwriter Matt Graham

Oliver Stone is a great guy to work with. He's also difficult. So says Matt Graham, a screenwriter who got his big break working with Academy Award-winning director on the Untold History of the United States.

Recalling their time working together, Matt said: "He's a character. He's very nice. I've always been fortunate because I have all these significant mentor figures. I can call any one of about five people at any moment and get some great advice.

Matt cooling off after a hard day at the keyboard

"Oliver was a great guy to work with. He's also very difficult. He's kind of a lone gun, he's always on his own. I had a really good time with him, he's very nice. I wouldn't say he's a friend, but he's definitely someone that I can email every now and then and chat with. I've been to see him a few times."

Matt, a British native, moved to the US in 2008. And he says that initial break working with the Hollywood legend enabled him to find his niche in historical screenwriting: "I find history the most interesting thing because it's like an action movie that never ends," he says. But you have to find out what's interesting about it. I say I do history and crime because it's the same thing. History is the history of crime, lots of crimes. That really established me. You understand history, you understand the present."

It seems ironic that a screenwriter who loathed historical based costume dramas and Dickens as a kid would find success writing historically inspired scripts.

But that's exactly what Matt has done. And he's become very good at it.

The Brit, who is now a firm fixture in Hollywood, says his nightmare viewing as a child was being force-fed a diet of Jane Austen period pieces designed for the small screen.

"I was supposed to watch these really boring British costume dramas, with people dressing in costumes," Matt recalls.

"Or really heartbreaking social-realist series where it's just so grim and depressing you want to kill yourself!"

Instead, Quentin Tarantino shoot ‘em ups, sci-fi, and horror which were his go-to: The only thing I cared about was American movies, like Aliens or The Terminator," he says.

Checking in on his latest project

"When Kyle Reese says: 'Listen. Understand. That Terminator is out there. It can't be reasoned with; it can't be bargained doesn't feel pity of remorse or fear...and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.'

"I remember watching that and being like, "Yes!" I always knew I would like Hollywood, and I just knew I was going to come out here and do this because that was my instruction. "

Matt's father was a TV producer, and his brother, Patrick, is a respected director based in Mumbai, India.

The small screen was an escape for him when he was growing up, especially at boarding school, which he hated: "It was in Somerset. It took me 15 years to forget everything that they tried to brainwash you with, " Matt recalls.

"It seems to me that that's a British institution, it's like a factory for creating people that don't know how to think correctly.

'The main function is if you're a boy, to smash out that emotional part of you in your inner life and that questions things and has feelings. It shapes you into someone that thinks the right way."

Despite his bad experience, he does credit boarding school with giving him discipline, tremendous self-will, and confidence.

And it is what spurred him on to follow his dream of working in Los Angeles.

"Matt said: "I remember watching the OJ Trial on TV when I was at school and one of the teachers coming up behind me and saying: 'Los Angeles, what a terrible place.' I remember thinking: 'If you think it's terrible, that's where I have to be.'

Matt knew he was going to be a screenwriter when he was 15. He says the first time he saw Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and True Romance, if he had ever taken heroin, that was what he believed it felt like: "It was like just a moment of awakening because they were so extreme and so engaging. I've spent my whole life trying to get back to that feeling that I've felt when I was 16 watching them."

Now he has realized his dream.

Matt in Wonder Valley. He says he loves to escape to the desert to get creative

Matt’s written numerous TV pilots and worked on many assignments, as well as the show One Giant Leap, about the real history of the US moon landings. The show got shut down at the last minute and is now rumored to be getting a rework with Kevin Costner: "It was told through the psychological history of the two most prominent astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, says Matt.

"It's a very dark story about very obsessive people who have personal demons. They're the kind of characters I like best. Men dominated by tragedy."

He also wrote on a movie based around the match-fixing scandal in India – Doosra. Released in 2018, Matt says it's a "sports biopic, crazy, hybrid drama film."

The film is currently scheduled to be released on Amazon next year.

Matt believes he would never have got the same opportunities working in the UK as he has in Hollywood: "It's impossible to work in the UK unless you know the right people or have the right name.

"Do you know there's more British writers in Hollywood than there are in London?

"The Writers Guild of America or WGA - has thousands of members.

"When you go to a meeting, you're sitting with everybody, every different country, racial denomination.

You go to London; you'll see a bunch of people in a room in their late 40s all with glasses on and they're fat and live in North London. That's the only voice that gets heard. It's corrupt as anything."

Matt's brother Patrick also left the UK to find success overseas.

They collaborated on the final drafts of the script for the Netflix series Ghoul.

Patrick also directed the Indian zombie horror Betaal, another successful drama for the network.

Dressed to impress on his birthday in Palm Springs

Now they are creating a new Hindi-horror hybrid.

"It's the story of two Indian police detectives who have to track down a Hindu serial killer, Matt says. "He's a serial killer that, at times, the detectives believe could actually be a supernatural force, so you never quite know what's going on. It's a story about people who have to track down something that's so violent and crazy that they wonder, is this even a real person doing this?"

Despite not being able to be in India to write together in person, the pair have been using zoom to keep the creative process going.

For Matt, the global pandemic hasn't affected his work process too much: a life of travel and adventure has always been important to him - last year, I lived in five different cities. I like traveling, and that's what it's stopped me from doing. Last year I lived in Athens in Greece, Tbilisi, in Georgia, New Orleans, Louisiana, Brooklyn, New York. That's been the most significant effect for me, and I'm used to working at home. Still, I've actually kind of enjoyed the quarantine. That's how it is for me. It's been fine. Production has been really halting, that's a whole other big deal."

He added: "It's a confusing situation, no one really knows. I can tell you that, generally, in a Depression, the one industry that does really well is Hollywood because people need to be entertained. They always do.

"In the Great Depression, Hollywood did exceptionally well. That was way worse than this. I think it's going to be okay."

However, he says he has to be thoroughly disciplined: "You just have to show up," says Matt. He’s talking about the subject at an exclusive entertainment industry webinar in early August.

Ernest Hemingway once said, "You just have to show up for work. You don't get an inspiration anymore; you have to make it happen." That's the difference between a professional and an amateur, you have to make it happen."

Matt starts writing every day at 8 a.m., He then has a "really strong" Colombian coffee, which is from a town called Santa Marta, near Cartagena one of the many places around the world he used to live. Then he works through the whole day and takes a lot of phone and zoom calls.

He says: "It comes and goes, you know? Sometimes you have a good month. Sometimes you have a bad month."

His life in lockdown definitely seems less eventful.

Matt lived in Buenos Aires in Argentina for five years, as well as deep in the Amazon rainforest, nearly died at a checkpoint while working as a consultant in Lagos, Nigeria, and even worked as a ranch manager in Colorado. “We had goats and chickens, and everyone nearby was armed to the teeth. It’s the Wild West.”

He also got a Belfast tour and shared a pint with former IRA leader Ivor Bell: "He told me he had killed many people," recalled Matt.

During a tour of some of the most notorious Republican pubs on the Falls Road, he was told if he had set foot in some of the establishments in the 1980's, he probably would have been shot on sight.

But for Matt, Ivor was an "amazing guy" that he "really connected with."

At the end of the day, Matt loves to look for adventure. Sometimes just having simple fun is key to creating the right mental workspace: “Last year I had a big birthday out in Palm Springs. I realized I’d never worn a tux - so my girlfriend and I both got decked out in them for the evening to add a touch of class. We both ended up in the Ace Hotel swimming pool - fully clothed!”

It's all been part of the rich tapestry of life, which helped mold Matt's writing: "You put yourself into the mind of the character," he says. "That's writing. Otherwise, the audience won't understand what's going on.

"That's the job. It makes you go insane ultimately. All writers are emotionally destabilized people. I'm super eccentric and f**ed up, so is everybody right?!"


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