It had been a long time since I was in the same room with director Michael Cimino. My first job out of NYU Cinema Studies was in the publicity department at United Artists in New York, where I witnessed the long delays on Cimino’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning 1978 anti-war diatribe “The Deer Hunter,” the period western “Heaven’s Gate.”
The director got caught up in chasing authenticity in the myriad details of the production, training for weeks the cast led by Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert to roller-skate for one scene — and demanding endless retakes until he shot more feet of film, over 1 million, than even Francis Coppola did on another memorably out-of-control UA movie, “Apocalypse Now.” The original $11 million budget bloated to $32 million (Cimino’s figure), as recounted in Steven Bach’s “Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate.’
“Heaven’s Gate” was delayed from one year-end opening, 1979, to another, 1980. I attended the inert press screening from which The New York Times’ Vincent Canby emerged, stating that the movie “fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and the Devil has just come around to collect.” UA postponed the wide release in order to let Cimino trim the movie to under three hours, but the next set of reviews were no better.
While critics are responsible for recently restoring some luster to the movie, that did not change Cimino’s mind about journalists; at a lengthy Q &A at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, Cimino told one questioner, “Journalism is not writing.”
I was curious to see this man up close, and I was not disappointed. He revealed himself quite a bit, rambling over two hours, saying some quite intelligent things while in effect answering the elephant-in-the-room question: Why hadn’t he directed a feature film since Warner Bros.’ 1996 box office bomb “The Sunchaser,” starring Woody Harrelson, which was lambasted by critics and lasted in theaters for one week, grossing $21K domestically?
Well, while he talked about several things he had in the works, Cimino never did direct another studio feature. He died at age 77, Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux reported Saturday on Twitter: “He died in peace surrounded by those close to him and the two women who loved him,” wrote Fremaux. “We loved him too.”
Locarno artistic director Carlo Chatrian had been trying for three years to lure Italian-American Cimino, whose family came from Sicily, and finally got him to come after various negotiations over his initial reluctance to be photographed on the red carpet, which he eventually overcame.
The nip, tucked, dyed and wafer-thin Cimino, who had as much work done on his face as his “Year of the Dragon” star Mickey Rourke, was sharp but narcissistic, thirsty for attention from the crowd at the same time that he needed to control the proceedings, alternately currying favor with some while criticizing and bullying others.
At Locarno, Cimino was attended by his long-time producer Joann Carelli and her grown daughter, the two close women in his life to whom Fremaux referred, and a festival moderator helpless to control him. At the start, he stepped in front of the table, grabbed a table mic, and addressed the friendly festival crowd, which included a smattering of filmmakers and journalists.
“I can’t sit behind a desk, because I am not a teacher. This is not a class. I am not a preacher, I’m a reacher,” he proclaimed. “I have nothing to teach, I have nothing to say, I have no speech, I made no preparation, I did nothing.”
He worked the crowd like a stand-up comic, engaging with his questioners and sending ushers scurrying back and forth across the room with mics, interrupting the flow. He wanted to control the occasion, and wasn’t going to let anyone else run the show, even as Carelli, her daughter and the moderator repeatedly tried to end the session. “I’ll stay all day with you,” he told his captive audience. After two hours, double the allotted time, the festival insisted that another event had to come into the venue, and Cimino finally stood down.
Spotting a wheelchair-bound man in the front row, Cimino reached over and grabbed his withered hand, and throughout the session berated the questioners he didn’t like, saying that this guy was the one who understood what he was saying. He talked about watching a film in the Piazza Grande in the rain the night before, thanking a “kind gentleman” for rescuing him with a blanket. “I love you baby, and everything’s all right, I need you baby,” Cimino crooned into the mic. “I can’t take my eyes off you.”
If Cimino had been able to convince financiers of his reliability, he might have been able to raise money for a film overseas following the ill-fated 1996 film “The Sunchaser,” but he never made another feature, only contributing a short to Cannes’ “Chacun Son Cinema.” He had hoped to shoot his long-in-the-works adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead. “As a trained architect, he related to the author’s idealistic Howard Roark (played in the 1949 Hollywood film by Gary Cooper), so much so that Cimino got teary as he talked about him. His emotions stayed close to the surface that day.
Rand’s Roark is loosely based on his hero Frank Lloyd Wright, said Cimino, who “was an exceptional human being, not only a great architect, but he was a man of courage and flamboyance; he designed all his own clothes, and loved to wear a cape and ride a horse to work…he built the Guggenheim Museum in New York when he was 90.”
When he was accepting a long overdue gold medal from the American Institute of Architects, Wright told them: “If my ideas about architecture are correct, than I am the only architect in the room,” and then walked out. In one pivotal moment in the film “The Fountainhead,” you see the impoverished Roark’s “hunger to build,” said Cimino, “the bottled-up passion to be doing this building. It’s a terrible moment. Because here is this incredible talent unable to work.” (He choked up.)
When a questioner asked Cimino if he ever felt the same way as Roark, he simply said, “Yes.”
“I’m a frustrated would-be architect,” Cimino said, “who stumbled into the would-be business of making movies.” He liked the controlled organized calm of being a designer, while “making movies is controlled anarchy, chaos,” he said. “It’s a bloody enterprise. And I don’t know why I made the turning in the road that I was on, it’s still a mystery to me all the time, why I departed from my area of study and went into this insane prospect of making movies. I did, like it or not. I don’t know how I got here. I think I came from an asteroid in space and landed in Locarno.”
He called that turn he took “crazy” and “suicidal.” Making movies today, “there’s now so much bullshit,” he said. “It’s a terrible waste of psychic energy and human effort.”
The director went from shooting commercials to first rewriting “Magnum Force” for Clint Eastwood, then crafted a screenplay for him. That was Cimino’s terrific 1974 debut “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” The New Yorker was on his way. He described a thrill-seeking life in California that involved racing motorcycles and dirt bikes, surfing and horseback riding.
Cimino explained that, in his California home, there’s a room that is full of scripts which a series of earthquakes have turned from neat piles into a mountain of chaos, he said: “It’s difficult for me to find anything.” He kept the door closed because “I can’t bear to go in there.”
And he got worked up about the ongoing tragedy of war that would make “The Deer Hunter” as timely today as it was in 1978. “I never started out to make a film about the Vietnam War, I had no interest in the politics of war,” he said. “I made a film about the effects of trauma and tragedy on a family…What has changed? Nothing…I’m sick of old men destroying people for their ideas…Any great movie about war is automatically anti-war if it tells the truth about war, you see the madness.” (He choked up.)
The reason these projects haven’t gotten made? Not because of the actors, he said. Financing. And Eastwood didn’t want to spout long speeches in “The Fountainhead” — or be compared to Gary Cooper.
Cimino did not care for journalists. In “The Fountainhead,” he recalled, an architecture critic tells Roark with contempt that he singlehandedly ruined his career and reputation to keep him from working, asking Roark: “What do you think of me?” Roark says, “I don’t think of you!”
“The man who tried to destroy ‘Heaven’s Gate,’” added Cimino, “he died, he’s gone. I’m still here. I’ve been called everything,” Cimino said, from a homophobe and right wing Fascist to a Marxist and a racist. “On and on. You can call me whatever you want, I don’t care. I don’t read reviews, the good ones or the bad ones.”
He compared himself to Luciano Pavarotti: “Do you think he read his reviews? I don’t think so. Why? Someone is going to tell Pavarotti how to improve? Who could that person be, God?”
To a query about his irresponsible overspending on “Heaven’s Gate,” he responded, “I don’t like that question. As Shakespeare said, ‘For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
“You should listen, more than take pictures,” he directed one clicking photographer in the front row. “It’s very distracting.”
“Put the computer down!” he ordered a woman journalist who admitted that she was writing up his interview then and there. “How can you write and listen?”
He loved to be the smartest man in the room, lecturing stupid people.
“Journalism is not writing,” he told one would-be author. “It’s used carelessly, with ill meanings and not much understanding of vocabulary. Stop this journalism nonsense. Write good fiction. Journalism is bad fiction. Give up bad journalism, promise?”
An autodidact, Cimino didn’t study cinema or writing. He taught himself how to write by once locking himself in the bedroom of a rented house in Los Angeles. He still believes that characters drive any story, not the reverse. “It’s the way I write today, I can’t write unless I love the characters,” he said. “Who do you remember? Anna, in ‘Anna Karenin,’ and Emma in ‘Madame Bovary,’ Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind.’”
In the movies he wrote, “everything you see comes from something in real life. I believe that the best movies come from reality, they don’t come from watching other movies. Too many people who make movies today before they start to make a movie they look at other movies to try and find scenes that they like. They’re an accumulation of other things that have been done.”
He called these “Xerox movies” and rightly, pointed out that they tend to disappear from the mind in short order. “It’s hard to be truthful with yourself,” he said. “You’re always on the verge of slipping into an idea or cliche instead of the truth. The answer is always in the truth, that is the search, the work, when you write. I didn’t learn this in any school. I just had to learn it by doing.”
And the best way to be a better writer or director, he said, is to study acting. “When you are onstage acting you learn what you don’t need to express with words. You learn the importance of an action as opposed to a sentence.”
He was a perfectionist. He talked about waiting for the light to appear behind a mountain. “The mountain is waiting to see if you have the courage to wait,” he said. “Time is money. If you have the courage to wait until the mountain says ‘ok, I will reveal my true beauty to you,’ always say ‘thank you mountain, you give me the sight of your beauty.’” (He choked up.)
He tried to work with extras on the Sicily location of “The Sicilian” (1987), but they kept breaking for lunch and bringing plastic bags back with them and asking for water. When he was shooting “The Sicilian” in Rome, he was thrilled to be shooting in Cinecittà and went to the famed yellow studio of the great Italian costume designer Umberto Tirelli for a wardrobe fitting. “Where is Tirelli?” Cimino asked.
“He never comes to a fitting.”
“Get him to come up and work with me.” Tirelli finally came up with a “sour look,” said Cimino, as the two men got on the floor with pins to get into the tiniest details of the fit of a sleeve cuff.
Cimino described designing and building the interior set of a house for “The Desperate Hours” that permitted fluid crane shots and dolly moves and source lighting for a movie about a hostage negotiator. Meanwhile he was holding his audience hostage. “I have a split personality,” he said at one point. “I’m just pretending to be nice now.”
At the end, Cimino quoted Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel “The Leopard,” saying, “We were the Leopards, the Lions, those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas.”
All in all, the director left behind a legacy of seven films, of which the first two were the best: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and “The Deer Hunter.”