Talkhouse Film Contributors Remember Michael Cimino

Richard Shepard and Pat Healy pay tribute to the late director of The Deer Hunter, while Lucy Walker shares a never-before-seen doc on him.

In the following post, Talkhouse Film contributors and other filmmakers share their tributes of Michael Cimino, the director of such films as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, who passed away on July 2 at the age of 77.

More remembrances will be added to this post as they come in. Feel free to leave your own tributes and memories in the comments section.N.D.

Lucy Walker
In 2003, I made a 25-minute doc on Michael Cimino (who died on Saturday), his journey from The Deer Hunter to Heaven’s Gate and success and failure and directing and Hollywood. Long story short, it failed to air but it’s my missing sophomore documentary and juvenilia essay doc meditation on the career I was entering. We can finally show it now because the clips are all fair use, so for the first time ever it’s viewable here online – it includes original interviews with Jeff Bridges and Vilmos Zsigmond and fave comments by Orson Welles on this “expensive paintbox” of movie-making. So here it is: The Director’s Cut: What Happened to Michael Cimino, my little lost doc (actually a rough cut complete with archival burn-ins). I also appear on-screen which has never happened again before or since so I was quite relieved it never aired. “Success is sweetest for those who’ve never experienced it” – Emily Dickinson. I made it before Heaven’s Gate‘s 2012 re-release and the subsequent partial critical reappraisal … The careful wording and tempered tone of some of the statements on his death … Ay … RIP.

Pat Healy
Michael Cimino’s first three, and best, films – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate – seem to deal both visually and thematically with how big and vast a place America is and how truly small we are against this massive expanse. The common criminals Thunderbolt and Lightfoot dwarfed by the mammoth buttes of Monument Valley. The small town steel workers naively thrust into America’s futile, Brobdingnagian effort in Vietnam. The European immigrants targeted for extinction by the American land barons in the mountains of Wyoming. The protagonists of all three of these American masterpieces end up defeated by it all. Cimino himself perhaps ultimately bit off more than he could chew when he went up against the most American, and gargantuan, meat grinder there is: the Hollywood System.

An architect by training, Cimino had a particular knack for marrying the visual design of every frame with its thematic construct. If he ever constructed a building, I’m sure it would make one weep with meaning.

I didn’t know Cimino. I’ve only heard the same stories and read the same books and tabloid reports you have. It sounds like he was culpable in many ways for the destruction of his once very promising career in cinema. He continued to make films through the mid-nineties, though none come close to his early magnificent efforts.

I hope that he was happy and found meaning in his own life. It’s nice to see Heaven’s Gate finally getting the recognition it deserves after all these years. Who knows how or if that translated into personal gratification for him. As an artist, I’m sure it had to have been somewhat of a satisfying conclusion to another epic American saga that first ended in defeat in 1980 with not only the demise of Cimino’s career but the shuttering of an entire studio, United Artists.

All I can speak to is the work: it resonates as genuinely emotional art for me. It’s truly representative of all that is great and horrible about America. It feels big and powerful and yet microscopically personal at the same time. I really can’t ask for more from a movie than that. Whatever his demons, he was a truly gifted director and I will continue to admire him and his work for the rest of my life.

Richard Shepard
I was obsessed with Apocalypse Now. My father took me to see it at the New Yorker theater on Broadway and 88th Street in summer of 1979. I was 14. I was obsessed with Super 8 films, and making my own, but the movie Francis Ford Coppola (he still used his middle name at that time) made me realize what a director’s true vision was, and what they could actually do. It blew me away. I saw it two more times, bought the poster (at Jerry Ohlinger’s movie material store in the village) and savored the record, which had several albums full of narration and music from the movie. I can still do the “Saigon, shit” monologue by heart. I say all this because when my school friend Allison Horn told me that her father — who had fought in Vietnam — hated Apocalypse Now, thought it was all baloney, and instead loved a movie from the year before called The Deer Hunter, I dismissed Allison, her father and that movie completely. Apocalypse Now was everything to me. It was cinema. It was craziness. It was transformative. No fucking movie called The Deer Hunter was going to top that.

A year later, Deer Hunter was playing at the Regency revival theater on the Upper West Side and I went to see it with a bit of an attitude. Actually, more than a bit – I had drawn a line in the sand about Coppola’s movie and was not in any mood to be corrected. I was 15, full of piss and vinegar about movies and which were important and which were not. Coppola, I had decided, was the best filmmaker alive. I believed that The Godfather Part II was the best movie ever made (I still do) with Star Wars a close second (not anymore). Spielberg and Scorsese were other filmmakers I revered then, but they were not in Coppola’s league. He was the best. Nothing was going to change that. And then I saw Michael Cimino’s film. All three hours and three minutes of it. And guess what? My mind wasn’t charged. Yes, there was some cool stuff; the Russian Roulette, De Niro, Walken. But I thought it was boring. Not enough action or spectacle. Coppola had the “Flight of the Valkyries” — this movie? Well, it had that interminable wedding scene. Man, that was long. I was very relieved my stubbornness about Cimino’s film was vindicated.

Soon after seeing Deer Hunter, word came out that Cimino had a new movie. It was called Heaven’s Gate, and it was opening at Cinema One, near Bloomingdale’s. My best friend Mark and I were determined to see it opening day. At this point, I was seeing two or three movies a weekend. Everything from Blood Beach to Pauline at the Beach. I was consuming everything, and even though I hadn’t really liked The Deer Hunter I was excited that Cimino had a new film, I liked the poster, and cast, and suspected it might be something interesting. And, truth was, I had a vested interest in it. I had gone on a limb about Cimino and I wanted to see what he was going to do next after the over-rated war movie.

And then opening day rolled around and I distinctly remember reading Vincent Canby’s infamous review in the New York Times on the foyer floor of my parent’s apartment: “Heaven’s Gate … fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.” He finished the review by calling the movie “an unqualified disaster.” If I had been excited to see the film before this review, I was now salivating. This sounded fantastic! That asshole who dared to make a movie as good as Apocalypse Now was now finally proven to be the false God that he always was in my mind.

But the thing was, sitting in that half-empty movie theater on opening day, I sorta liked Heaven’s Gate. Yes, it was long, and unfocused, but it was beautiful and weirdly moving. Maybe because it wasn’t in competition with Coppola’s film, I was more open to liking it. And then, of course, the movie historically bombed, and they pulled it from theaters. I wore it as a badge of honor that I saw it during its only week playing anywhere in the world. It gave me some film nerd street cred, (to who, I don’t know, but it did) and when the studio re-released the movie a few months later as Johnson County War – cut down by more than an hour and a half, in a desperate attempt to make its money back – I went to see it again, and thought they had ruined everything. Yes, it was faster, but it wasn’t better. And I missed some of those long beautiful moments that I didn’t truly understand, but had somehow affected me.

And then I started to think about The Deer Hunter again. There were some long and beautiful moments that I hadn’t quite understood in that movie too, and when my friend Mark’s parents got a brand new Betamax player, one of the first films we watched was Cimino’s war movie, and this time, I didn’t regard it with contempt, but instead got sucked into every frame of its brilliance. That wedding scene that had bored me? The second time, it filled me with such sadness (knowing what was to come) that I felt like I was watching a tragic documentary in the guise of a fiction film. It all felt so — real … There was no spectacle, just the fragility of human existence. And the quiet pain of De Niro’s exquisite performance, the stillness and beauty of Meryl Streep, and that actor — Fredo — with the sad eyes, all of it sucker-punched me. Very quickly it became one of my favorite movies. I watched it on a regular basis (and still do). Apocalypse Now still meant more to me, but Deer Hunter was a true masterpiece. I really couldn’t argue that anymore.

In college, I remember seeing the Cimino-directed Year of the Dragon, and sort of loving it in a lurid pulp sort of way. John Lone gave a chilling performance, it looked beautiful, and while I remember mocking Mickey Rourke’s changing hair color in it (Elvis Mitchell called it “mood hair”), Rourke was still deeply cool, and I thought the movie worked. Turns out, I had become a Cimino fan. I devoured like cinematic heroin Steven Bach’s book on the making of Heaven’s Gate, Final Cut. I even sat through Cimino’s Desperate Hours remake, which was as turgid as Year of the Dragon was vital. I caught up with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and I rewatched Deer Hunter on a regular basis. First on Betamax, then VHS, then DVD then Blu-ray.

As Cimino’s career faltered and finally flatlined, I, like many film fans, became interested in the weird stories about him that were going around. His weird plastic surgeries. The rumors of his sex change. In the rare photos that emerged of him, he looked completely different than he did when he made Heaven’s Gate. I read every article about him, this man who reached the very top, and then sadly the very bottom of the film industry mountain.

In 2008 I was directing an HBO documentary, I Knew It Was You, about my favorite actor John Cazale, who famously played Fredo in the Godfather films, and who affected me so much in Deer Hunter before I even knew his name. Cazale made only five films, all of which were nominated for or won Best Picture, and then died at 42. I was lucky enough to speak to Sidney Lumet (about Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon), my hero Francis (no Ford) Coppola (about the two Godfather films and The Conversation) as well as Cazale’s many storied costars, from De Niro to Pacino to Hackman to Cazale’s great love, Meryl Streep. All were incredibly gracious with their time and memories of Cazale and those classic movies. The only person missing from the conversation was Michael Cimino, who absolutely refused to talk with us. We tried, and tried, even going so far — after being told that he didn’t want to be seen on camera — to offer to just tape record a conversation. He said no to every request, and eventually we made the film without him. He was the only person who refused to talk with us. I was truly bummed, and felt that he had made a major mistake. He clearly loved Cazale, and I thought he missed an opportunity to help rediscover him for a new generation.

Two years ago, I was in the Bristol Farms grocery store on Fairfax in L.A., and in front of me, in the produce aisle, was Cimino. He was wearing huge sunglasses, and had what looked like the worst hairpiece in history. He was beyond frail, more late-stage Bette Davis than the daredevil filmmaker who famously said, “If you don’t get it right, what’s the point?” I thought about going over to him and telling him how much both Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate meant to me as a young filmgoer. How both movies deeply shaped me as film lover, and filmmaker. I thought about telling him that I made the John Cazale doc. I thought about telling him a lot of things, but in the end I said nothing. He did his shopping, I did mine. And that was it.

Soon after, I bought the Heaven’s Gate Blu-ray and screened it. The movie still is deeply flawed, and still, somehow, it works. It’s beautiful and like its poster’s catchline, “What one loves about life are the things that fade,” it’s deeply tragic. Yes, it’s full of excess both on and off camera, but in a world where the studios are making dumbed-down certified crap like Independence Day 2 and Superman vs Batman and whatever else some marketing team deems suitable for the lowest common denominator of cinematic taste, it reminds us that Cimino had a brief glorious moment inside the studio system where all he cared about was his art. How rare and wonderful is that?

Rick Alverson
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and the classic pastiche / collage artwork on its VHS cover always cut through the paralyzing glut of choices for me at the video store. Before I had seen it, it held one kind of gravity: the rumored potential of darkness – a weight I steered toward to relieve the sinking emptiness of disposable sitcoms that flooded my psychology even after leaving home for college. After I saw the film, it hovered on those same metal racks with a different, more indelible presence, something like the broad nostalgia of my youth, riddled with both comfort and a grave, implicit awareness of mortality. The wedding sequence is among my favorite moments in cinema, rich and saturated with celebratory, communal joy and its impending loss – something few films have achieved for me. Beyond just its subject matter, it is distinctly American: tonally, structurally, at once aspirational and real, bound by one desire to remember and another to forget and the sometimes awkward impossibility of achieving either.