Natural Born Killers wasted no time building its reputation as one of the most controversial films ever thanks to its opening scene where Mickey and Mallory wipe out an entire family. Oliver Stone’s somewhat satirical film about serial killers embarking on a murder spree for nothing more than kicks wasn’t just controversial because of its visuals, but because it took the senseless violence that we hear about in the news and put it on the big screen for our entertainment. The MPAA forced Stone to cut dozens of grisly shots to ensure that it didn’t get labeled with the box office NC-17 death-mark rating for its glamorization of violence. Then you have the copycat killings.
The first one happened in 1995 — a little more on that later — but the movie was cited as an inspiration for other senseless acts of violence like the Heath High School shooting in 1997 and Columbine shootings in 1999. With movies like SAW and Hostel pulling in big cash loads at the box office in the 2000s, violence on the big screen doesn’t quite grab the headlines it used to, but in 1994 NBK glorified violence like few movies before it ever had. Looking back on the movie 20 years later, here are 10 things you might not know about the film that Entertainment Weekly named the 8th most controversial film of all time.
1. Green is the color of a deranged mind. Oliver Stone decided to use the color green to indicate that Mickey was sick in the head, and highlighted this on several occasions: the key lime pie at the diner, the green neon at the drugstore, the green room in the prison.
2. Coca-Cola wasn’t aware of the movie’s story before approving product placement. How the executives at Coca-Cola were clueless that a movie named “Natural Born Killers” might have some violence is puzzling, but that’s exactly what happened. Coke approved the use of their adorable polar bear ads without realizing the movie was about rampaging serial killers. Needless to say, the board of directors was furious when the movie came out, and the soda company reformulated its entire process for brand placement in movies and television.
3. Rodney Dangerfield didn’t see eye-to-eye with Stone’s vision. Dangerfield found it difficult to shoot his scenes, because he didn’t understand why Oliver Stone wanted to shoot a dark subject matter like a father molesting a daughter in the style of a 1950s’ sitcom.
4. It nearly changed the way violence was portrayed on film. Oliver Stone’s crime thriller had the film industry on the edge of its seat after two teens were inspired to commit murder because of it. In 1995, two 18-year-olds, Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin Darras, dropped acid while watching the movie and killed a store manager in Mississippi and shot store clerk Patsy Byers, leaving her paralyzed. The incident brought nation-wide attention to the movie’s violence and lawsuit against Oliver Stone and the studio for being irresponsible in making the film.
The case was dismissed in January 1997, on the grounds that filmmakers and production companies are protected by the First Amendment, but was overturned by the Intermediate Louisiana Court of Appeals. Byers’ attorney attempted to prove that Stone had purposely made a movie that would incite violence and inspire criminal behavior. Had Byers won the case it would have likely had a radical impact on the way Hollywood filmed violent movies, but the case was dismissed in March of 2001 and rubber-stamped in 2002, meaning case closed.
5. Author John Grisham was involved in the lawsuit against Stone. Grisham was a personal friend of Patsy Byers, the store clerk who was shot and paralyzed, and made it known that he didn’t approve of Stone’s movie. The fact that Grisham was an attorney and author made it all the more surprising that he would call for action against Stone. Via Crime Library:
Grisham contended that, although Sarah and Ben were troubled youths, they “had no history of violence. Their crime spree was totally out of character” for them. As for the film, itself, Grisham called it “a horrific movie that glamorized casual mayhem and bloodlust. A movie made with the intent of glorifying random murder.”
6. The movie has nearly zero perfectly straight shots. The camera never perfectly angles a horizontal shot throughout the entire film.
7. The rattlesnakes slept through their scene. Over 150 rattlesnakes were used for the scene with Mickey and Mallory in the desert snake field. Initially, the producers were concerned about having their stars so close to that many venomous snakes, but the snake handler assured them that since the scene was filmed at night in cool temperatures the snakes would be sluggish and probably just sleep through the scene.
8. Making the film was nothing short of a nightmare for the director of photography. NBK’s Director of photography Robert Richardson despised the script and only took the project after being persuaded by Oliver Stone who was a close friend. Once Richardson started working on the project only bad things would follow. The story brought up unpleasant childhood memories which led to insomnia and a dependence on sleeping pills, his wife became ill during filming which nearly led to the couple divorcing, and his brother fell into a coma over the course of shooting.
In the below clip, Richardson goes into detail on how remarkably bad his experience on the film was.
9. Johnny Cash was a fan of the movie. NBK was one of Tarantino’s early scripts and he reportedly wasn’t a fan of Stone’s finished product. He warmed to the movie a bit more after meeting John Cash in an elevator when Cash told him that both he and June were fans of the movie.
10. Stone used actual prisoners for the prison riot. The prison riot scene was filmed over the course of four weeks at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois and Stone was permitted to use the inmates as extras, giving them rubber weapons for the riot scene. During the last two weeks of filming the inmates were on lockdown and Stone had to bring in civilian extras, but he was still able to use one particularity intimidating convict for a scene with Tommy Lee Jones.
In the mess hall scene, a bald man attacks a black prisoner before being intercepted by Tommy Lee Jones. Taking the cake for probably the “most disturbing casting choice ever” Stone chose this prisoner as an extra after learning that he had been convicted for murdering his family with a lead pipe.