Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, and Michael Cimino attend the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony. (Photo: Corbis)
By Seth Abramovitch
From genius auteur to Hollywood pariah in the space of two films: That is director Michael Cimino’s legacy to bear. Born in New York City in 1939 to a music-publisher father and costume-designer mother, the writer and Oscar-winning director and producer of the groundbreaking 1978 Vietnam War feature The Deer Hunter first made a name for himself on Madison Avenue, directing visually striking TV spots for the likes of Kodak, Pepsi and United Airlines. Cimino moved to Los Angeles in 1971, finding early success as a screenwriter with 1973’s Magnum Force, the sequel to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Impressed by the 33-year-old writer, Eastwood, then 41, agreed to produce and appear in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a heist script by Cimino that also would serve as his first directing gig.Thunderbolt was a hit, followed by Deer Hunter, with Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken playing soldiers captured by the North Vietnamese. The film took home five Oscars.
United Artists gave Cimino free rein on his next film, a sprawling Western set in 19th century Wyoming titled Heaven’s Gate. That 1980 feature would go down in infamy, ultimately bankrupting the studio with its ballooning $44 million budget, endless production delays (according to legend, Cimino shot more than 1 million feet of film), critical thrashing and stillborn reception at the box office. As film projects dried up (his last nonbomb was in 1985, with the Oliver Stone-penned Chinatown crime drama Year of the Dragon), Cimino withdrew, with rare public appearances suggesting he’d taken steps to alter his appearance, fueling rumors that he had become a woman. Cimino, now 76, has not granted a major interview since 2002. A two-hour call with THR from his home in Los Angeles touched on everything from his profound admiration for Eastwood’s American Sniper (“Cancel the awards and give all the gold to Clint”) to his misunderstood politics (“In the first film, I was homophobic. Second film, I was a right-wing fascist. Third film, I was a left-wing Marxist, and fourth film, I was a racist”) to whispers about his personal life (unmarried, he has posited himself as a ladies’ man).
What did you think of American Sniper?
It’s Clint’s best work as a director. By far. For all the reasons that people like it. I don’t think other directors, including myself, could have gotten the same result given the same resources. Clint got an extraordinary result because he is an extraordinary man. There’s no pretension about him. He could be Bradley Cooper, he could be the character. Clint inspired Bradley by virtue of who he is, a principled guy. Clint has remained my friend for over 40 years.
How does Sniper compare with The Deer Hunter?
It’s not, in my view, much like Deer Hunter. Though it was characterized [as such], Sniper’s not a political movie. It’s not about the rightness or wrongness of the war. It deals with the impact of trauma on people who go to war and people who stay behind.
But both Deer Hunter and American Sniper confront the grief of war …
Yes, especially at the end, the way it ends with the flashback to the death of the real protagonist and the reaction of people with flags. It reminded me of [the ending of Deer Hunter, when De Niro,Meryl Streep and others break out and sing] “God Bless America,” which again was not meant to be a political statement. You know, when you’re overwhelmed with grief? You see women in Africa, Arabia, Indonesia wail. But in America, I think what people do is reach out for a common expression. The idea came from an experience in a restaurant in Pittsburgh, where people actually for no reason whatsoever broke into that song. It’s a way of relieving the grief and knitting back a family. I’d never seen that footage before in the ending of Sniper with the multitudes of people. It overwhelmed me.
Eastwood took a big chance on you with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which you directed in 1974 with him and Jeff Bridges starring.
Huge. It was [Eastwood’s production company] Malpaso’s first picture. One of the great things about him is that he’s never been afraid to take a chance on new people. I remember we saw The Wild Bunch together in New York at a theater. It was myself, my producer, Joann Carelli, and Clint. We watched it and then walked down to P.J. Clarke’s and had a hamburger. No big deal. Jeff Bridges, the same way. I was unbelievably fortunate to have both of them in my first film. And never have I had such a good time making a movie. I would go to Clint every day and say, “Hey, boss, you happy with the dailies?” He said, “Michael, you just keep shooting what you’re shooting.” He said, “I’ve done so many films with great backgrounds, and it looks like it could have been shot in Burbank, but you have an eye for scope.” When I look back, given all of my experiences, it was by far the best. And I’m still collecting checks on that movie, if you can believe it. It’s still shown all over the world.
What was it like accepting the Oscar for Deer Hunter?
I feel very, very upset that when it came time for me to get an Academy Award that I didn’t especially thank Clint Eastwood. I never really had time to digest it. I was in the middle of preparing Heaven’s Gate, going back and forth to Montana. I was on the floor measuring somebody’s outfit at Western Costume Co., and the chauffeur had to come in and remind me, “Michael, you’ve got to go home and change.” I said, “For what?” I forgot that it was the awards that night. Clint should have been the first person I thanked, because without him, I would not have had the chance to make Deer Hunter. I took an ad out in the trades and tried to explain why I neglected to thank certain people and to make up for the shortfall of my dumb-ass acceptance speech. You know, you go out in front of thousands of people. And they are all in the business and all people who voted for you. It’s hard not to be moved.
Cimino and American Sniper director Clint Eastwood at a Feb. 2014 event (Photo: Getty Images)
How did you feel about the reaction to Deer Hunter?
It was shocking. I remember the very first screening. My assistant at that time was the daughter of the great English actor Robert Shaw, Penny Shaw. We were sitting in the back row in Westwood, and people were just driving up in a line of cars. Someone would run out and buy 12 tickets. Someone would run out and buy 20 tickets. This kept going and going. The screening began. Penny said, “Michael, you’ve got to come quick to the lobby.” The ladies room was filled with women who were weeping and wailing and breaking down. There were ex-vets who literally crawled up the aisle out of their seats. One letter I received in particular, I think it was from a black sergeant. He was a combat vet, and he said, “I don’t know, man, that was no movie. When those choppers came up the river, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, stood on end, I crawled out of the theater.”
But American Sniper is doing so well that I’m sure in certain parts of the country, in certain population mixes, there are similar emotional reactions. There’s got to be some extreme emotional reaction for the movie to be doing that well. It hasn’t happened since Deer Hunter. I mean, all the movies that have been made about war, from Platoon to the thing the girl made about the box …
The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
The Hurt Locker, right. (Laughs.) There’s been none of that.
So Platoon and The Hurt Locker fall short of that?
No, it’s just that they were made with a different sensibility. I mean, I love Oliver [Stone, Platoon director], we co-wrote Year of the Dragon together, and I think Oliver’s one of the most talented screenwriters in America, he and Jimmy Toback. It’s just that Clint has brought a special feeling to this, and those other films don’t do that because they are about one war. They’re about Vietnam or they’re about Iraq. Sniper could have been about any war in any country. And I believe that’s true of Deer Hunter. It’s about war, period.
But with Deer Hunter, you did the first film about the Vietnam War when people still hadn’t processed it. That had to turn out to be an anti-war film, no?
Every first-rate film about war is an anti-war movie. You think of All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone. There’s nothing good that comes out of war. It’s simply hell on earth, and people survive and people don’t. Individuals emerge who become special, but it’s brutal. All one has to do is look at old footage of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II and think of the people beneath those bombs. It’s horrific. I think American Sniper is anti-war. It demonstrates the agony of the decision-making that goes on. When do I pull the trigger? Do I pull it on a 10-year-old kid picking up a bazooka or not? Do I shoot this woman or not? It’s agony.
Coming Home was up against Deer Hunter. Did you have any run-ins with Jane Fonda?
It was rather interesting because Coming Home was produced by Jane Fonda, who at that time had made films with Ho Chi Minh and was virulently anti-American. At the Academy Awards, she wouldn’t look at me because I had already been labeled a right-wing fascist. We were in the same elevator together. I wanted to say congratulations, but she turned away.
From what I know about the original script, it was honest, but I think because of her political stance at the time, she managed to turn it into American guilt. She’s the only one who had the power — she was the producer. The end of the movie is the American officer, Bruce Dern, who out of unspeakable guilt walks into the Pacific Ocean to drown himself. That’s not what the original script was. That character is so filled with rage that he strides the hillsides of Laurel Canyon onto the 101, as I recall, and he’s got a machine gun with him. He walks to the center of the freeway with oncoming traffic in both directions, and he’s just howling, just firing in a circle. Cars are blowing up all over the place. That was the real ending. You don’t have moviemaking to prove a point about your political conviction in American Sniper.
Have you spoken to her after that night?
Never had a chance to ever be in her presence since that night.
She apologized recently for that photograph of her with the tank.
Well, I don’t know how far that goes — an awful lot of guys died.
Your definitive cut for Heaven’s Gate made it to the screen and is available now. Are you happy with it?
I’m blown away. I’ve happily watched it several times now. And it just had overwhelming responses. It was at Venice [Film Festival] with a half-hour standing ovation, and New York Film Festival, same thing. At the Lumiere festival in France, the biggest film theater I know of in the world, 6,000 people filled it from top to bottom, gave a standing ovation. And no, I never needed vindication. I knew what I had done.
Is it you true that you changed the locks on the doors so that nobody could get in while you edited it?
No, I never put chained locks on any doors. That’s a silly story. I don’t personally like this idea of the attention that directors receive. Directors should be faceless.
But you didn’t need to parlay your “brand” into getting more films made like Quentin Tarantino.
Well, he’s a nut. He’s a great guy, funny as hell, I love him, but he’s totally crazy. Quentin knows every goddamned movie that’s ever been made because he worked in a video store. He can quote you lines from the most obscure movie that’s ever been made from 1920. And I have no idea what he’s talking about.
So what’s your life like these days?
It’s always a daily struggle to write. I’ve published a couple of short novels in France that I didn’t want to publish in English because I loved the characters too much to subject them to American critics who were not exactly favorable toward my work.
Are you still in a relationship with Joann Carelli?
Professional, yes. She has been involved with me in film production since the first movie.
There’s no one else?
No. You mean other girls? Oh yeah, of course, but I’m not gonna go into all that. I don’t want to get serious. Writing by nature is a fairly solitary occupation. I mean, I’ve got a room full of scripts. They go to the ceiling. I can’t even hardly walk into it anymore. Most are original, and there are some adaptations like Man’s Fate.
You spoke of Man’s Fate for your last interview, 13 years ago. Have you been avoiding the media?
In America, yes. I won’t do anything in America. There have been so many false things written about me by people who don’t know me.
Let’s set the record on whether you are transitioning between genders.
What?! Oh please. I don’t even want to go there, OK? I don’t know what that bullshit is all about. It’s worse than a rumor, it’s personal assassination. If you can’t stop somebody from working and making movies that you hate, what’s the next best thing? Destroy them personally.
But the culture has come around in the past couple of years where it’s not considered an insult.
What’s not an insult? No, look, it’s absurd. I don’t want to really go into it. It’s stupid how these things get going. But it seems to me that I am a fount of fodder. Because people don’t see me around a lot, I’m the source of all sorts of rumor. Look at the state of the media in America.
What do you see when you look at it?
Do you think the Patriots deflated their balls?
Yes, probably. Am I naive? What do you think?
There was an awful lot made about it, wasn’t there? (Sighs.) Aaron Hernandez, who played for the Patriots in the last Super Bowl, is up for murder. And after that, two more murders. It seems to me that’s more of an issue than a pound or two in a ball. And besides which, if a ball is deflated when you kick it, it’s not going to go as far. And if you throw it, it’s not going to go as far.
So you think it’s a media conspiracy?
No, I don’t know what it is. I feel like I’m talking to Hillary Clinton talking about Benghazi! All you get is bullshit. I think Clint should be president.
Cimino’s Track Record
Made on a budget of $15 million, The Deer Hunter grossed nearly $50 million domestically. How did the director’s other projects stack up?
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
Production budget: $4 million
Domestic box-office gross: $25 million
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Production budget: $44 million
Domestic box-office gross $3.5 million
Year of the Dragon (1985)
Production budget: about $24 million
Domestic box-office gross: $18.7 million
The Sunchaser (1996)
Production budget: $31 million
Domestic box-office gross: $21,000