Trying to keep the dream alive

Michael Cimino on wars, anarchy, actors and a pile of scripts.

by Richard Mowe

The director of The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino received his Leopard award on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival
The director of The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino received his Leopard award on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival Photo: Richard Mowe

For a director who has made films with such resolutely masculine acting talents as Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro, Michael Cimino cuts a slight and delicate figure in his cuban-heeled tan shoes, jeans and untucked denim shirt. He’s also remarkably well preserved for a man of 76 - a mix in demeanour of Cliff Richard, Michael Jackson and a dash of Peter Pan. After receiving his Honorary Swisscom Leopard last night on the Piazza Grande as part of the 68th Locarno Film Festival Cimino emerged today (10 August) all guns blazing to meet the public and the press. He is, after all, a huge fan of the Western with his infamous production of Heaven’s Gate in which he managed to secure almost complete creative and financial control.

Michael Cimino: "I am a frustrated would-be architect who stumbled in to the lunatic business of making movies."
Michael Cimino: "I am a frustrated would-be architect who stumbled in to the lunatic business of making movies." Photo: Richard Mowe

Rather than sit behind the table lined up in the Spazio Cinema open-air forum Michael Cimino decides to perch decoratively on top, putting himself in the firing line for questions with the occasional foray in to the throng, much to the consternation of his minders.

If he doesn’t like a question he gives it short shrift. He engages with the assembled crowd as “a reacher” not “a preacher”. He takes fright when someone calls him Mr Cimino - “That was my dad’s name. it scares me. Call me Michael.” As for the moderator, he is relegated to the sidelines.

Making movies was not your first choice of career?

MC: I did not go to film school but embarked on a different path by studying architecture so I am a frustrated would-be architect who stumbled in to the lunatic business of making movies. Architecture is calm and organised whereas movies are controlled anarchy and chaos. I don’t know quite why I took this turning and went in to the insane business of making movies. I have no idea how I got there - I feel a bit like a strange android from space.

Did luck and good fortune play a part when you went to live in California?

MC: I certainly was lucky, which never normally happens. I went there to shoot commercials full of beautiful women and beautiful cars. I love both. I took to California where everyone seemed to be sailing, surfing, riding horses or flying aeroplanes. I realised that the only way I was going to make a movie was to write a script which turned in to Thunderbolt And Lightfoot. I had never written before but I put in situations and people I knew about. Everything I write is character-driven. And the best movies come from real life and not from referencing other movies. Writing is certainly more difficult than directing when you have more than 300 people working with you. Writing is more solitary - you have to find the truth rather than slipping in to cliché. And I don’t work on a computer but use a pad and a pencil.

Michael Cimino: "I feel a bit like a strange android from space."
Michael Cimino: "I feel a bit like a strange android from space." Photo: Richard Mowe

Do you have any advice for someone trying to break in to films?

MC: The best way for anyone who aspires to make movies is study acting which may sound a bit strange but studying acting helps you to become a better director. When you are on stage with another actor you learn what you do not need to express in words.

Has your attitude to conflict changed since you made The Deer Hunter?

MC: The tragedy of war is just as pronounced today as it was then - perhaps more so. What is happening in the middle east is the war of today. People are killed, captured and tortured in horrible circumstances so only the places have changed. The impossibility of coping with the tragedy of war has not altered - women cry over dead children in the same way. People today choose their families out of friends and those they love and they become a family. That is what you see in The Deer Hunter. Any great movie about war is automatically anti-war. But it really is time to stop the madness going on all over the world.

You have been labelled many things. How does that affect you?

MC: I have been called fascist, marxist, homophobic and racist. People can call me whatever they want but I don’t care. As for what journalists think of me - I don’t read reviews either good or bad.

Michael Cimino: "People can call me whatever they want but I don’t care."
Michael Cimino: "People can call me whatever they want but I don’t care." Photo: Richard Mowe

How have your relationships been with your actors?

MC: All of the actors I know seem to want to work with me. None of them have bad-mouthed me afterwards. And why should they? Because I work as hard as I can to make them give their best performances and make them look good. I don’t like the idea of the cult of the director as a celebrity - they should be firmly behind the camera. In the old days nobody knew what John Ford or Howard Hawks looked like. Under the older studio system in Hollywood it was much more productive than now. I have mountains of projects that got stopped because of certain producers and the conditions they imposed as well as elements of greed.

You still write assiduously. What happens to all your scripts?

MC: There is a room in my house that is full of screenplays from floor to ceiling. I scarcely dare go in in case they all fall out. The more you write the more chance on the law of averages to get something to fruition. I haven’t given up on my remake of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Clint Eastwood was almost on board but finally he did not want to be seen to be competing with Gary Cooper who played the idealistic architect in the original. If it wasn’t for consideration he would have made the movie. 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 favourable toward my work.

Because of the difficulties, would you ever stop trying to get projects made, because it has been some time since you last had film on the go?

MC: I’ll never stop because if you call halt, you’ll die. Everyone has a dream and if you do not have a dream there is something wrong with you.

The Festival is paying tribute with screenings of screenings of Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Year Of The Dragon (1985).

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