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The Untold Truth Of Natural Born Killers

"Natural Born Killers" is a classic of '90s cinema, an era when independent filmmakers were pushing so many boundaries that mainstream movies began to follow suit. Oliver Stone, who directed and co-wrote "Natural Born Killers," took what could have been a straightforward crime film and threw every trick in the book at it, resulting in a film that perfectly captures the vivid color and hyper-stylized approach that was so prominent in music videos and commercials of that bygone era. That, combined with its shocking violence and unsettling profundity, resulted in a film that's still debated and picked apart today.

However, the film was not to everyone's liking when it first hit screens in 1994. Although it was a box office dud upon release (making $50 million against a $34 million budget), some audiences instantly understood what the film was about and were thrilled by its flair for the outrageous, while others were appalled by its carnage and perceived attempts to celebrate its violent "protagonists." In fact, the film was the source of considerable controversy (as you'll see later in this article) and its merits as art were fiercely argued.

Whatever your opinion of "Natural Born Killers," there's no denying the fact that it bottled the essence of something that was going on in that time, even if we can't all quite agree on what that "something" is. It's still an important film today, and to celebrate its enduring legacy, here is the untold truth of "Natural Born Killers."

Quentin Tarantino wrote the original script

Quentin Tarantino has been one of the most iconic and influential filmmakers in cinema ever since he unleashed "Reservoir Dogs" on an unsuspecting audience in 1992. If you think that's too bold a statement, simply look at the countless posters of his films that adorn film school dorm rooms around the world.

However, there was a time when Tarantino wasn't famous and had to sell several screenplays before he made a name for himself. One of those scripts was "Natural Born Killers," which he sold to producers Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy for $10,000 after he had unsuccessfully attempted to direct it himself. The two producers ended up selling the script to Warner Bros. where it caught Oliver Stone's attention. At the time, Stone was interested in doing a more straightforward action film, as his previous film, the biographical war drama "Heaven and Earth," was a tiring experience for him.

However, after reading the script, he decided to dive deeper into some of its themes and turn it into something more, telling Roger Ebert in an interview, "I think he [Tarantino] was hurt that I rewrote it so much. But I told him that I really can't make what he, as a 26-year-old, would make as a first film. As a 47-year-old filmmaker, it doesn't interest me. I want another level of socio-political comment and I want to deal with the whole justice system."

Tom Sizemore was cast in the film in an unusual way

Tom Sizemore's career has been plagued with controversy, substance abuse, and legal problems, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that his casting in "Natural Born Killers" as Detective Jack Scagnetti was anything but normal.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Sizemore stated that he'd become friends with director Oliver Stone after appearing in his 1989 film, "Born on the Fourth of July." When he found out that Stone was casting for "Natural Born Killers" and considering Gary Oldman and James Woods for the role of Scagnetti, Sizemore wrote a monologue for the character, went to a bar that he knew Stone would be at, and read it to him in the parking lot. It apparently impressed Stone enough to invite him to work on the character the next day, and the rest is history.

Even during those early stages, Sizemore knew that the film would not be a typical Hollywood film. He told The A.V. Club, "I was coming off of 'Heart And Souls' with [Robert] Downey [Jr.], and I knew we were doing something special. I didn't know exactly what it was, but I trusted him. Oliver was in the pocket, man."

Here's another fun little bit of trivia about the character of Detective Jack Scagnetti: In Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega's parole officer is Seymour Scagnetti, who is believed to be Jack's brother in the wider "Tarantino-verse."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Michael Madsen almost got the lead role

While Quentin Tarantino has largely distanced himself from "Natural Born Killers" (more on that later), there remain quite a few connections between him and the film in addition to his writing its original screenplay. One of those connections is Michael Madsen, who's worked with the famed director on numerous films and was considered for the lead role of Mickey Knox, which ultimately went to Woody Harrelson.

Having just finished Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" — which was making waves on the film festival circuit at the time — Madsen was approached by Tarantino again to play Vincent Vega in "Pulp Fiction." However, Madsen was busy working on Kevin Costner's Western, "Wyatt Earp," and couldn't appear in "Pulp Fiction," with the role going to John Travolta.

Madsen was soon given the chance to star in another Tarantino-related film, coming close to landing the role of Mickey Knox of "Natural Born Killers." However the studio wasn't too sure of his leading man abilities, and had just had a tremendous hit with Woody Harrelson in "Indecent Proposal." In an interview with the Independent, Madsen said, "Oliver Stone called me and said, 'If I make this picture with you I get $2.5 [million] and the budget of the movie is $20 [million]. But if I do it with Woody, I get $30 [million] and my fee is $5 [million]. So that's what I'm going to do.' Meanwhile, Quentin was calling me, saying: 'Don't do "Natural Born Killers" with Oliver, he's gonna f*** it up!'"

Wayne Gale's interview with Mickey was inspired by a real-life one

Oliver Stone has made no secret about the film's intent to critique the media's obsession with violence and death, and even talked about how the film predicted the current state of the media, telling IndieWire, "In 1990, I felt the media landscape was really changing, especially the coverage of violence ... It does in some way predict the violence that has come down on our century, the violence in the air and the violence on American television."

From the mid-1980s through the late 1990s, tabloid shows that covered sensationalistic and controversial topics were extremely popular, and were exactly what Stone was castigating with "Natural Born Killers." One of these programs in particular was the 1988 special, "Murder: Live from Death Row," in which Geraldo Rivera interviewed the infamous Charles Manson at San Quentin State Prison. This interview was the primary influence for the scene in the film where tabloid reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) interviews Mickey Knox in prison. 

In "The Oliver Stone Encyclopedia," the director said, "Mr. Manson dances intellectual circles around Geraldo, who maintains one posture, condescension towards Manson: 'You're the killer, I'm the good guy, don't kid me, you're behind bars, thank God.' That's basically Wayne Gale's attitude, though he's totally hypocritical because as we see later, his own violence erupts."

The prison scenes were shot at an actual prison

The prison riot scenes in "Natural Born Killers" were shot at Stateville Correctional Center, a real maximum security state prison located in Crest Hill, Illinois, near Chicago. Some notable previous inmates there include John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted of murdering and raping 33 boys and young men in 1980, and Michael Alfonso, a rapist and murderer who was listed on the FBI 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list and would be featured on "America's Most Wanted," "I (Almost) Got Away with It," and "Unsolved Mysteries."

The location lent plenty of gritty realism to the film during the four weeks it shot there, especially since most of the inmates were convicted of violent crimes. Over 200 actors were brought in to play inmates after the prisoners — who had doubled as extras for the first two weeks of shooting, complete with rubber weapons — were placed on lockdown for the second half of the shoot.

Parts of Stateville Correctional Center were used in other films, including the 1948 film, "Call Northside 777," starring James Stewart and Richard Conte; "Bad Boys," the 1983 film starring Sean Penn; and the 2009 Michael Mann film "Public Enemies," toplining Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.

Robert De Niro lectured Juliette Lewis for improvising her lines

Juliette Lewis was perfect for the role of the wonderfully sadistic Mallory Knox, despite mostly playing wholesome and gentle characters up to that point (with "Kalifornia" being the big exception). In an excerpt from "The Oliver Stone Experience," Stone described Lewis as having "malice in her eyes. She's got adorable eyes, but they jump and they gleam. Woody would come onto the set and he'd [say] 'Hi, buddy, how's it going? You taking good care of yourself today?' ... And f***ing Juliette would go, 'SHUT THE F*** UP!' Smoking a cigarette."

Her performance was even lauded by legendary actor Robert De Niro, who had previously worked with Lewis in the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake of "Cape Fear." However, in a 2015 Instagram post, Lewis shared a funny and humbling story about De Niro's compliment on the iconic actor's birthday. Sometime after "Natural Born Killers" was released, De Niro walked up to Lewis at a Hollywood bar and told her she did a good job in the film. Lewis, instead of simply accepting the praise, blurted out that she improvised around 90% of her dialogue, to which De Niro said, "Oh no. No, don't ever disrespect the writer. Don't you ever disrespect the writer or your director. Ever."

Luckily, instead of being hurt by De Niro's comments, Lewis treated it like a lesson that she has since carried with her throughout the rest of her career.

Coca-Cola didn't like where its polar bear commercials were in the film

"Natural Born Killers" makes use of countless bits and pieces from pop culture, so much so that you'd almost have to watch the film frame-by-frame to catch every reference. However, there was one particular use of product placement that didn't sit well with the company that allowed it: Coca-Cola.

If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably remember Coca-Cola's famous "polar bear" ad campaign. Well, some images and excerpts from those ads were spliced into several extremely violent scenes in the film, which the company didn't want their beverage to be associated with.

But why would they be bothered if they approved the use of the footage beforehand? It turns out that they weren't notified of how their "polar bear" commercial would be used. They even released a statement about it in 1994, saying, ″We're concerned that our commercial is being used in a way we didn't intend and weren't aware of.″

Apparently, the Coca-Cola Company was under the impression that their ad was going to be used in a more benign scene. Because their beverage was used in far less violent scenes in such movies as "Jaws," "Superman," and "Superman II," it was easy for them to assume that their commercial would be deployed in a similar fashion for "Natural Born Killers."

Presidential candidate Bob Dole denounced the movie

"Natural Born Killers" was an extremely controversial film when it first exploded into theaters in 1994. In fact, the film was so controversial that, in 1996, it even attracted the public condemnation of then-presidential candidate Bob Dole in a campaign letter. He, like many who didn't look past the violence to understand what it was saying, accused the movie of eroding society's values and corrupting children. Oh, and he claimed all of this without even watching the entire film.

"Dear Friend, I just watched all I could stand of 'Natural Born Killers'...I kept thinking, with our streets under siege and our values decaying, why would anyone make a movie in which the heroes are twisted lovers on a killing binge?" (You can read the full letter here.)

If Dole had stuck around until the end of the movie, maybe he'd have realized that it was actually criticizing the media for glorifying real-life violence and turning its perpetrators into idols. There's actually not much distance between the arguments Dole shared in that letter and those put forth by director Oliver Stone, but that darn violence prevented him from seeing that.

It's often said that art is easy to enjoy but hard to understand; while the carnage in "Natural Born Killers" may not necessarily qualify it for the first part of that statement, its deeper themes definitely certify it for the second part.

Trent Reznor produced the soundtrack to the film

Because "Natural Born Killers" is such a unique film, it only makes sense for it to have an equally unique soundtrack, so director Oliver Stone turned to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to help. Reznor was initially reluctant to join the project, as he wasn't fond of movies using his music. However, when he saw a cut of the film, he immediately changed his mind, telling MTV, "I suggested to Oliver to try to turn the soundtrack into a collage of sound ... Make edits of things, and add dialogue; make it something that was interesting rather than just a bunch of previously released music. And he looked at me and goes, 'That's good. Yeah, do it.'"

The soundtrack is eclectic to be sure, but it perfectly fits the intensity of the film, featuring a wide variety of tracks from artists like Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Dr. Dre, Bob Dylan, and of course Nine Inch Nails. More impressive is the fact that Reznor worked on the soundtrack while touring with Nine Inch Nails. According to Scene magazine, he and band member/programmer Charlie Clouser — who had some experience working on film and music editing — brought a Pro Tools audio system on the road and would set it up in motel rooms to assemble the soundtrack.

The film was extremely divisive when it came out

To say that "Natural Born Killers" was a divisive film when it first hit cinemas in 1994 is the understatement of the century. Some critics praised the film for its biting social commentary and bold style, while others criticized it for its depiction of violence and degeneracy, while yet others didn't even know what to make of it. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times chose the film as the eighth best of the year, and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times included it on his "Year in Review" as an honorable mention. Conversely, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone ranked it as the number one worst film of the year, and Jeff Simon of the Buffalo Times mentioned it as one of the "truly unholy trinity of big-time foulness" on his year-end roundup. Then there was Todd Anthony of the Miami New Times, who mentioned "Natural Born Killers" as the "Best-Worst Movie" of 1994.

Even today, the film continues to split critics. In 2019, on the 25th anniversary of the film, several critics noted its influence on culture: Charles Bramesco wrote that "[Stone's] theories — from his Freud-adjacent analysis of his characters' dysfunctions to his portrayal of the media as the big bad boogeyman — feel simplistic and passé," while Owen Gleiberman wrote that the film "captures how our parasitical relationship to pop culture can magnify the cycle of violence. Yet that theme may be more dangerous now than it was in 1994."

Natural Born Killers was a terrible experience for its cinematographer

Filming "Natural Born Killers" was a hellish experience for its cinematographer, Robert Richardson. Even from the beginning, it was a project he didn't have much interest in, telling American Cinematographer, "The situation, quite clearly, was that I didn't want to do the film. 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.'"

However, as Oliver Stone was going through a difficult time in his life during the making of the film, he leveraged his friendship with Richardson to convince Richardson that his help was invaluable. Richardson agreed, and instantly regretted it. In the same interview with American Cinematographer, Richardson described how the film's grim subject matter provoked all kinds of dark childhood memories to resurface, and caused many sleepless nights that led to a dependency on sleeping pills.

But in the end it seems that Richardson's suffering seems to have paid off, as one of the most lauded elements of the film is its use of wild and provocative images, resulting in a kaleidoscopic roller coaster experience that hits as hard today as it did in 1994.

Quentin Tarantino hated the way Natural Born Killers came out

No one can blame Quentin Tarantino for being unhappy with the way Oliver Stone made "Natural Born Killers": Tarantino has a directorial style that differs quite a bit from that of Stone, so it makes sense for him to be disappointed with the resulting film. But did you know that his feelings for "Natural Born Killers" come from only seeing part of the picture?

In 2021, Tarantino appeared on "The Moment" podcast with showrunner and filmmaker Brian Koppelman, where the conversation turned to the differences between his original script and the final product. Koppelman stated that he "hated" the movie because the theme in Tarantino's script of "crime as a sacrament of love ... doesn't exist in Oliver's film." Tarantino responded, "No, not at all. Not that I've seen it all from beginning to end."

Koppelman continued by praising Stone's films overall, but added that he was disappointed with how the director had misinterpreted what Tarantino had originally written. Tarantino said that he wrote the script in such a way that the reader could visualize the movie, adding, "Why didn't [Stone] do at least half of that?"

Lesson of the day: Never deviate from what Quentin Tarantino writes.

Rodney Dangerfield wrote his own dialogue for the film

One of the more memorable elements of "Natural Born Killers" is legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield's portrayal of Mallory Knox's piggish, abusive father. While Dangerfield was never exactly considered a family-friendly entertainer, his over-the-top performance in the film was still considered a radical departure from his typical image at the time. Yet the casting worked, with his appearances in the film's disturbing sitcom parodies as standouts.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dangerfield recounted how, prior to being cast in the film, he wasn't too familiar with Oliver Stone or his work. But Stone was a big fan of Dangerfield and was eager to have him play "the father from hell." In fact, Stone was so confident in Dangerfield that he gave him plenty of freedom in the part, with Dangerfield revealing, "On this movie, all the filthy stuff I wrote. Oliver said he loved it and that was it."

While the film's violence and twisted subject matter put many people off, Dangerfield understood from the very beginning that there was a point to the madness and degeneracy in "Natural Born Killers," and was keenly aware of the purpose of his role: "The movie brings out a good point how parents can ruin children. Of course, not every parent is as bad as me in the movie but in general, parents can hurt their kids without even knowing it."

The film almost received the dreaded NC-17 rating

The NC-17 rating was first introduced in 1990 by the Motion Picture Association (then called the Motion Picture Association of America) to replace the X rating, which was generally associated with pornographic films. If a film was rated NC-17, it meant that its content was stronger than that of an R-rated movie, but still not strong or explicit enough to be considered an "adult film." However, many theaters still refused to show films rated NC-17 and many publications refused to display ads for them, which meant that films with the rating still had a limited audience.

While the violence in "Natural Born Killers" was certainly less graphic than that depicted in other movies from the time, its extreme and lurid tone was still too much for the MPAA, and so the initial cut was slapped with the dreaded NC-17. Rather than let his film languish in a handful of movie theaters brave enough to show the film, Oliver Stone cut around three minutes of carnage, enough trims and cuts to appease the MPAA and let "Natural Born Killers" get released with a more attractive R rating.

However, Stone got the last laugh as he was eventually given the opportunity to release his film the way he wanted it on home video, without any of the cuts he was forced to make. he told the New York Times in 1996, "If I'm going to take the heat, let them see what I did, not a compromised version."