How Rummaging Through Oliver Stone’s Home Office Allowed a Young Rafael Agustín to Imagine Being a Writer
“I was still an English Learner, for crying out loud; how could I ever imagine working in the movie industry? Enter: Oliver Stone.”
When I was a child, my parents and I would escape our trying immigrant realities in the United States by watching Hollywood movies. My mom and dad were doctors in South America, who came to work menial jobs in this country. I witnessed their transition from wearing medical scrubs to work to wearing faded bargain store jeans when they left our small, cramped American apartment. When they got home in the evening, they would be too exhausted to play with me.
So, to me, jobs were never associated with anything fun and when I would think about what I wanted to do to when I grew up, it never crossed my mind that I could be a part of making the films I loved so much. Working in Hollywood was not anything immigrants like my parents and I could ever dream of. I was still an English Learner, for crying out loud; how could I ever imagine working in the movie industry? Enter: Oliver Stone.
Full disclosure: Oliver Stone and I have never met. My Ecuadorian uncle had married Oliver Stone’s Peruvian nanny, which allowed me the opportunity to tag along with him to Oliver Stone’s Santa Monica house when the filmmaker was gone on vacation. I was in 4th grade at the time.
To this day, Oliver Stone has no idea that as a child I rummaged through his home office, obsessed with his stacks of file boxes, film scripts, and endless supply of handwritten notes on a wide range of topics, such as The Doors and JFK. Without knowing it, the three-time Oscar-winner opened my nine-year-old mind (which at that point was filled with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Wrestlemania, and former MLB National League MVP Kirk Gibson) to the possibility of being a writer and creating vast storyworlds for a living. That sense of possibility never left me, and I have it to thank for the Hollywood career I have today.
Thank you, Oliver Stone.
I was a gigantic fan of American movies growing up, but I didn’t realize people made a living doing them until I was nine years old and found myself roaming around Oliver Stone’s house. And none of this would have been possible without my newest roommate, my uncle Javier.
My uncle Javier, my dad’s younger brother, came to live with us when he first moved to the United States while we were in Duarte. This was by far the happiest I had seen my dad in a while. My uncle Javier was a tall, muscular, light-skinned Ecuadorian. Like my dad, he was of Italian and Asian descent.
But unlike my dad, he got all the rugged good looks in the family. He came to the United States for one thing and one thing only: to work. It was funny seeing him try to get accustomed to the colloquial Mexican Spanish that dominated the Los Angeles labor force. On his first day of employment in LA, he got into a fistfight with a Mexican coworker because the guy said, “Apurate, güey” (“Hurry up, dude”), and my uncle understood, “Apurate, buey” (“Hurry up, ox”). My uncle’s Mexican coworker ended up with a black eye for no apparent reason. It was all lost in cultural translation.I was still an English Learner, for crying out loud; how could I ever imagine working in the movie industry? Enter: Oliver Stone.
Because we lived in a two-bedroom apartment, my uncle Javier and I were forced to share a room. I didn’t mind. He usually left for work before I had to head to school. And school was great for me at this time because I was able to make friends, and some even lived in the same apartment complex as me. My friends would come over after class, only to be shocked by my uncle’s big muscles. My uncle was just out of military service and was ripped. When more and more kids around the apartment building showed up, I instinctively became a circus ringmaster.
I didn’t charge anybody, but I would walk them inside my house in pairs of two to show off my uncle. My uncle had no idea why I would parade elementary school kids inside our bedroom sporadically throughout the day, but I knew exactly what I was doing. My uncle was an impressive specimen, and I knew I would be considered impressive by association. Nobody needed to know that he was my step-uncle and that we did not share a bloodline.
My uncle Javier could not believe I had a girlfriend. He was the lady’s man, but his chubby young roommate was the one with a significant other. Several months after arriving, my uncle Javier fell in love with a Peruvian woman who would visit her sister a few doors down from us on the weekends. I understood. Who could ever turn down eating lomo saltado every day? Peruvians didn’t invent ceviche (the Inca Empire did, which Ecuador was a part of), but they did create an incredible South American stir-fry.
The Peruvian woman my uncle fell in love with happened to be the nanny for the kid of a major Hollywood player. My uncle Javier tried to tell me who it was, but the name didn’t ring a bell to me. I asked, “Are you sure you don’t mean Sylvester Stallone?” Assured of himself, my uncle said: “No, his name is Oliver Stone.” I was not allowed to watch any R-rated films. How was I supposed to know who Oliver Stone was?
One dull weekend, my uncle Javier invited my parents and me to Oliver Stone’s house. Oliver and his then-wife were going on a vacation, and the house was free if we wanted to visit. My parents and I definitely wanted to visit. My uncle had been spending a lot of time there with his new Peruvian girlfriend, so I was dying to know how people who worked in Hollywood lived. Plus, I was still hoping my uncle was mistaken and we were really going to Sylvester Stallone’s house!
It’s hard for me to describe specifically what Oliver Stone’s Santa Monica house looked like. At the time, I didn’t know phrases like Spanish colonial or California ranch. All I knew was that Oliver Stone’s house was the most stunning home I’d ever seen in my life—it was huge and lavish. I considered my grandfather’s home in Guayaquil the nicest house I’d ever seen, but it was modest in comparison to this.
I met Oliver Stone’s eight-year-old son Sean, who was three years younger than me. I was a bit standoffish because I was envious that he had a bigger house than me. But Sean was welcoming and asked if I wanted to play basketball. I said sure, but not before my uncle pulled me aside and asked me to please let him win. I nodded, pretending that I would let him and then proceeded to crush him. We were children, and I had to show Sean who was boss. I whipped Sean’s ass so hard at basketball that he complained about me to my uncle’s Peruvian girlfriend. After draining all those jump shots, I was not allowed to play basketball with Sean anymore.
I apologized to Sean for whooping his ass at basketball and then we became friends again. He gave me a tour of his house. He showed me the places we could play in and the places children weren’t allowed to enter. He walked around with such confidence and privilege, as if he had paid for the entire house himself. On the wall, I noticed that Sean had a framed check for a movie he had recently acted in. It was a paycheck for a film called Born on the Fourth of July. I don’t remember how much it was for, but anything above 20 bucks in those days was a lot to me. Sean was younger than me and already being paid for his work. For a second there, I could have sworn he was the immigrant and not me.Here was a man responsible for the worlds I was enchanted by on the screen, and all this research seemed to be his foundation. It entered my mind that maybe one day I, too, could do something like this.
When everyone finally turned in for the night, I stealthily got out of my assigned bed and started snooping around the house. I didn’t want to steal anything; it’s just that Sean said there were rooms we were not allowed to go into, so I most definitely had to go into them. One of those rooms appeared to be a closet at first, but was really stairs that led to a hidden office on a lower level. I carefully made my way down the dark steps, turned on the lights, and was confronted by stack after stack of file boxes. I could tell Oliver Stone had a wild and curious imagination because they were all file boxes on the same topic: “JFK.”
I told myself if he ever found out that I was being nosy in his work space, he would understand. I was sure he would have done the same thing if the tables were turned. What impressed me the most about the room was all the paperwork and VHS tapes with handwritten notes on them spread out everywhere. There seemed to be a method to Oliver’s madness. I didn’t know who JFK was at the time, so you can imagine how shocked I was to discover the gruesome images inside the JFK boxes. There were several folders labeled “The Doors.” I didn’t know who The Doors were either but was hypnotized by the pictures of their young and vibrant lead singer, Jim Morrison: a former UCLA student turned rock god. I didn’t know who Oliver Stone was, but I respected the amount of notes he took.
My fourth-grade teacher had just started to show us how to take notes in class. I did not understand the importance of them until I walked into Oliver Stone’s house. I couldn’t believe one person could collect so much information on a single topic. I wondered what it might be like to know so much about something, to be so passionate about a subject that you would fill boxes and boxes with information about it. Clearly people loved Oliver’s work just from the sheer size of his house. Here was a man responsible for the worlds I was enchanted by on the screen, and all this research seemed to be his foundation. It entered my mind that maybe one day I, too, could do something like this.
I remembered Sean told me the downstairs hidden lab was not his dad’s real office. His real work space was outside by the pool. I was also told not to go in the outside office, so of course I went. Immediately I was taken aback by Stone’s wooden desk. It was the type of table you would see in films about powerful bankers or oil tycoons. There were once again a lot of files and also some weirdly formatted books (that I would later discover to be screenplays) on his desk.
The thing that most grabbed my attention, however, were his war pictures that he hung on the wall and framed on his desk. Oliver Stone had served in the army, and it was inspiring to see the pictures of him and his infantry, as well as a few of the medals he’d won while serving in Vietnam. I was mesmerized by the black-and-white picture of him and his brothers in arms. I wondered how many of those men did not return home from war.
At the end of the weekend, my parents and I drove back home to Duarte from Santa Monica. As I looked out the car window, mansions morphed into large homes, which turned into apartment complexes. American prosperity seemed to decline the farther east we drove on the freeway. I walked inside our apartment and realized that our entire place was nearly the same size as one of Oliver Stone’s offices. It would take me years to realize what being exposed to that Santa Monica office did to my young, impressionable mind. That office showed me a world of endless possibilities. A universe of wild curiosity. I was nine years old and there was no way for me to unsee that writer’s lab. I may have been living in a small apartment in Duarte at the time, but in my head, I was already living in Oliver Stone’s office.
Excerpted from the book ILLEGALLY YOURS: A MEMOIR by Rafael Agustín. Copyright © 2022 by Rafael Agustin. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.