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“I Never Knew How to Make a Film”: Michael Cimino in 2005

Heaven's Gate

“The Last of the Mavericks” – that was the very appropriate title that the Portuguese Cinematheque gave to its November 2005 series on Michael Cimino (during which this interview was conducted). And all you needed was to see the director himself walk into the lobby of Lisbon’s fusty, old-fashioned Tivoli hotel to realize how much a maverick he was.

At that time, Cimino had not directed a feature film in a decade, and little did we know he would never come to direct another, despite the swirling constellation of rumors that always surrounded him. And yet, for someone who freely admitted he wasn’t in the business of fame, Cimino still played up his enigma to the hilt: even in the dim lighting of the hotel bar, he never once removed his sunglasses, he kept his immaculately starched shirt’s long sleeves buttoned up, he shied away from the press photographers who came to take his picture for the dailies. You might question the image he put across as mildly eccentric, but you couldn’t question the commitment, passion and thoughtfulness he put into answering my questions, before taking off for a quick meal prior to that evening’s screening of John Ford’s They Were Expendable. 

Cimino was in Lisbon for a few days to accompany the three-week series; the calendar showcased all of the seven feature films he directed but, most intriguingly, added a sidebar of films chosen by the man himself. They Were Expendable was the first of the six to be shown, followed by Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows, Cocteau and Clément’s Beauty and the Beast, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Visconti’s The Leopard. The series quietly proclaimed where Cimino saw himself coming from and where he stood as a filmmaker – as someone using the mythical texts of movie epics to uncover its underbelly, its darkness, its humanity. In under an hour, Cimino spun out of thin air a dazzling précis of his approach to cinema: a sort of precise, ecstatic search for truth.

Filmmaker: What’s it like for you to attend a retrospective of your work?

Cimino: I don’t look back. I never look back. There’s a famous story about an American baseball player, Satchel Paige, who said “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you” (laughs)… It’s just very amazing, and kind of a compliment, that people still think these films made so long ago are still so vibrant. Even I feel a little shocked when I take a look at the first minutes of a print, and I go, “My God, it seems as if this was done yesterday.” It’s amazing people still get enthusiastic. But I don’t look back. It’s not in my nature.

Filmmaker: Can we then say your films are chasing you?

Cimino: No, no, they’re not chasing me. Films don’t haunt us, neither do the novels we write. My nature is in looking forward.

Filmmaker: But you haven’t directed a film in ten years.

Cimino: Yes. But I’ve written three novels, one of which [is] yet unpublished, I’ve been involved in many things… things I like. And I’m extremely (laughs)… I’m ashamed to say it… happy.

Filmmaker: Don’t you miss making movies at all?

Cimino: You know, I never studied cinema. I never knew how to make a film, and I still don’t know.

Filmmaker: You’ve made seven films. You must know something.

Cimino: I’m quite astonished that I made what I made (laughter). Because, as you must know, my background is architecture, painting, that’s where I come from. I’m much more intrigued by a good building than by a good movie. I’m much more interested in a big bridge or a great new novel or a great painting. When I’m asked about my influences, instead of rolling out 20 filmmakers, I say Frank Lloyd Wright, Degas… Mahler… “Who?” But you have to remember I didn’t come from the film world, I didn’t study film. I once tried to read a book on film editing – after I’d begun doing it! – and I couldn’t finish it, even though it was written by someone who knew a lot about it, I think it was Karel Reisz. And I found it so confusing I had to stop reading it (laughs). My world never was film to the exclusion of everything else. At all. I didn’t even go to California to make movies – I went because I had family in the South Coast, Newport, La Jolla, Laguna, and as a kid I loved the California lifestyle: surfing, horse riding, riding a bike in the desert. Everything was done outdoors, fast cars, fast bikes, great horses. I loved that and that’s why I went there. There was no other idea, I didn’t even know much about movies so I certainly didn’t go there with that in mind. I didn’t need the money and I assure you I had no interest in being famous.

Filmmaker: So it just happened?

Cimino: Yes, in a weird way, and when I found myself… It’s like in a novel: you meet a girl in casual circumstances, having a coffee in a hotel bar or a café, you bump into her, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” in the next shot they’re living together and then they split (laughs) and on to the next girl… It happened a bit like that, as mysteriously as life itself. You never know when your life is going to turn around or who’s going to make it turn around, who we’re going to meet. But I think it’s very important to stay open to possibilities. Change is very important – to continue to change, to continue to grow up. I think once you stop you die, and that’s one of the most important things to take into account when people react to your work, whether you write books, make movies or paint paintings. Whatever you do, if you’re celebrated you have to be very careful about who’s celebrating you, and when you’re condemned you have to very careful about who condemns you. Because you should never let yourself become too impressed with yourself when you’re complimented, and you should never let hate get into your heart when you’re condemned, because when you let hate inside your heart dies. And life ends when your heart has hate inside. If someone says “This is the worst film ever made,” you may not like it, but you mustn’t hate, you can’t let that come inside because if it does you’re dead. The important thing in everything you do – and I’m speaking from experience, I’m not sermonizing – is to continue to try to be as perfect as possible. We all know we’ll never be able to reach perfection, but it’s essential we keep trying. We must keep trying. That’s where the essence of life lies. It’s a matter of keeping the heart alive and vibrant, of remaining open and thankful to the life around us. I always remember a great quote by Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who said “luck favors the prepared spirit.” For me, that sums it all up.

Filmmaker: So you were ready when luck got you to work in the movies.

Cimino: Yes! And you have to keep that in mind, never let your spirit break. Not being able to make a movie doesn’t mean you’re dead. Think of how long a singer takes in between making records. It takes a long while.

Filmmaker: I was thinking of Terrence Malick, he takes years in between films.

Cimino: Terry is different. I know Terry some, we made our first movies in the same year…

Filmmaker: And your second movies too.

Cimino: Yes! I feel very close to him, I think he’s a remarkable talent, but Terry is actually a poet. He should be writing poetry instead of making movies. They’re different things. Just like I’m no filmmaker, but an architect and a painter. We’re both doing things we’re not supposed to (laughs).

Filmmaker: It’s funny we’re speaking of Malick, because at the very beginning of Heaven’s Gate there’s a strong visual affinity with his work.

Cimino: That may be, but I’m not in the habit of quoting other films.

Filmmaker: I was thinking more along the lines of “parallel thinking”…

Cimino: Yes, maybe. It could be. But I think it’s very important, whether in architecture or in filmmaking… For instance, in architecture, when you look at a building, you’re not looking at an abstract creation of concrete and steel, but at the realization of a man’s spirit. If you’re looking at a mediocre building it’s because whoever designed it had a mediocre mind. If it’s a superior building, you’re looking at a superior mind. The building itself is completely expressive of who you are, just like a movie or a novel or something you make. You’re always seeing in it how someone thinks, we’re looking at the shape of his inner me, of his mind, his heart, his soul.

Filmmaker: So watching your movies gives us a peek inside your soul when you made them?

Cimino: I think so, yes. Let me explain it better this way: I wrote all the movies I directed, and I must have written three times more movies than I directed. As a screenwriter and director, as someone who writes the films I make, I have a completely different relationship to the process than someone who is just a director.

Filmmaker: Meaning a writer-director is closer to architecture than a mere director?

Cimino: Yes, because when you write something – and that is a terrifying process… Well, I speak for myself, I hate being presumptuous. Stanley Kubrick, who was a friend of mine, had a great line he had printed on T-shirts: “Assumption is the mother of all fuck ups” (laughs) It’s true. As soon as you start to assume you start fucking up. (pauses) Where was I?

Filmmaker: We were discussing writing and architecture.

Cimino: Right. I actually didn’t study writing. I studied a little bit of acting in New York, because I thought that, if I was going to direct actors, I should know something about acting, and I also studied a little bit of dance, and it was all good fun. But I can’t write without placing my characters in space, I need to see in three dimensions inside my head, to have a three-dimensional space. I don’t make “flat” movies. I don’t work in a two-dimensional plane, I want to take down the wall of the screen, to bring the public inside the story and the adventure, through their eyes. I need to pre-imagine the film’s architecture, the film’s space, even the space of the room to create my characters. I need to see before I can write, and if I can’t see I can’t write. In other words, it has to be real and three-dimensional inside my head before I can put it on paper.

Filmmaker: Like a mixture of architecture and choreography?

Cimino: Yes! I love choreography. I’d love to have been born George Balanchine, that would have been wonderful.

Filmmaker: Is that why you have so many dance scenes in your films?

Cimino: Yes, I love dances. And while actors are always on the phone or on their trailers, with dancers you just say “on your marks” and they’re all ready to go. Out of all the people who work in interpretive arts, they’re the hardest workers and the worst paid – I have immense respect for dancers and choreographers. I love them. As John Ford said, the three most interesting subjects for a camera are a running horse, a large mountain and a dancing couple. And if you think of the wonderful scenes in The Searchers, or of Kurosawa’s running horses, or of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ magnificent dances… is there anything better you can shoot?

Filmmaker: What can you shoot after that?

Cimino: I don’t know… That’s why there’s so much science fiction being made. Creating a new iconography.

Filmmaker: But you never made a science-fiction film, other than writing Silent Running.

Cimino: Because I don’t find it interesting. I think the world is far too interesting for us to try and make up a new one. For me, the dimensions of human art are measureless. Like Coleridge says, “caverns measureless to man, spaces measureless to man.” There’s so much of interest in real life and most people who write science fiction are running away from life to create a fictional world. I’d rather have real life.

Filmmaker: Then what’s the challenge in shooting what’s been filmed so many times before?

Cimino: It’s just a job. It’s like changing tires in a racing team – you’ve done it so often that once you’ve changed one tire you’ve changed all tires.

Filmmaker: Yet you once said in an interview that filming is about reaching transcendence.

Cimino: Yes, because there comes a moment – not just in the movies, I mentioned cinema because it involves a large group of people, but it can also happen in a dance company. There are so many elements you have to combine perfectly to achieve a great moment of cinema. 150 people in a soundstage, wires, cameras, technicians, actors, written scenes, dialogues, time, light… when you think of all of it, when 200 people come together in a perfect moment and everyone realizes something extraordinary is happening, everybody floats a few inches above the ground. It’s a phenomenal feeling and I think it’s one of the things that gets people to want to make movies. British crews don’t just work for the money, there’s always a sense of humor. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rough day, it’s always “good morning guv’nor,” they always have a joke ready, they love what they do… and they recognize something when it happens. They know the difference between working with a great director or with a hack for hire, and they’re different people when they’re working with a great director. It’s a different way to work. It’s no longer a job. When they work with a hack it’s a job and they do it perfectly, but with a great director they know they’ll be doing something special.

Filmmaker: So at times it’s more than just a job.

Cimino: Yes, yes, yes. And, you know, those among us who were lucky to be happy in their lives, to do things they love doing, to feel the freedom in our lives… we’re blessed to be free. To be free is a gift, a great gift. You know, I don’t think anyone can teach you to become a director. We can attend film schools, but I don’t believe anyone can teach us to be writers, or to become a great athlete or a great football player or a great dancer. I think that, when we’re born, the gods bestow upon us certain gifts. Not everyone can run as fast as anyone else, not everyone can be as tall, not everyone can kick a football into the distance, not everyone can run like David Beckham or dance like Pavlova. The thing is, each one of us must try to recognize our gift, whatever it is, and then, if you’re lucky, find teachers, people who can help us shape the gift we’re born with. Because we’re not born with anything than can be given to us – nobody can give us talent, just like nobody can take it away from us. We just have it. If we’re writers, we don’t learn to write – we’re writers. But we’re lucky to find, throughout our schooling, one or two people who are important, influential, inspiring.

Filmmaker: Mentors?

Cimino: Yes, people who teach us to use our gift, to shape it, to help direct it. That is very hard. Because, as human beings, we like to think we’re all the same and we can all do the same, that given the opportunity I could be David Beckham. But the fact is, I can’t be David Beckham. I’m not David Beckham and I don’t have his gift. But I can do things he can’t – I don’t have the eyes or the reactions of Michael Schumacher, I can’t do what he does, what he does is miraculous.

Filmmaker: He probably couldn’t direct films either.

Cimino: But the point is to recognize what was given to us, to try to understand it, to accept it, as limited as it may be – to accept its greatness or smallness and then try to perfect the gift you have. It takes courage, because you may not have been given much, the gods don’t give everything to everyone. It’s a lottery, you never know.

Filmmaker: Was film one of your gifts?

Cimino: Yes. It was a great gift, and also a great responsibility. I didn’t study it, I can’t even read a book on where to place a camera… I obviously didn’t go to film school like Scorsese or Spielberg or those guys, I don’t come from the scene. I’d rather talk about paintings, or read about Kandinsky, Degas, those kinds of people. Film is one of those gifts you accept and use to the max. But you may have been given other gifts – I never studied writing, I never thought I’d write, let alone a novel or 30, 40 screeenplays.

Filmmaker: So you had no mentors in filmmaking…

Cimino: No, I had none. I had them in architecture, in painting, but not in filmmaking. Not one.

Filmmaker: You made it up as you went along.

Cimino: Yes. I learnt to edit by doing it. Somebody said, here, take a roll of film, put it in the machine, and you work with it this way…

Filmmaker: That makes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot even more remarkable considering it was your first feature.

Cimino: Yes! It surprises even me. It’s a fun film, I love the characters in the story, and I’m surprised I made it that way.

Filmmaker: It’s a very painterly film, especially in the first act.

Cimino: That doesn’t surprise me.

Filmmaker: And for a first film it’s a very solid genre film.

Cimino: You think so?

Filmmaker: I do.

Cimino: Great. I’m always fascinated with what everyone else thinks of my films. It’s fascinating to hear different takes — it’s as exciting as creating, to hear what others think, particularly when they seem to think the exact opposite. It’s like the Bible, different people read completely different things into it.

Filmmaker: You must have felt that a lot. In 1979 Jane Fonda called The Deer Hunter “fascist”…

Cimino: Oh yes… We were both nominated for the Oscars in the same year, she was nominated for Coming Home, a film she completely destroyed. You remember the ending, with Bruce Dern going into the sea… We call that scene the “Norman Maine” scene, after James Mason’s character in A Star Is Born, with Bruce Dern as Norman Maine. I had a chance to read the original script, which had been passed on to me to see if I’d be interested, and you know the original ending? What was shot was Jane’s ending — she was a pacifist and had to find a way for guilt to kill the character. In the original ending, Bruce Dern’s character got himself a heavy machine-gun, in a moment of madness went into the L. A. freeway, five lanes of traffic in both directions, and started shooting away, destroying everything in sight, an inferno. And she turned it into a Norman Maine complex, “oh my God I’m so guilty for what I did in Vietnam that I’m going to kill myself by going in the sea.” She was the first person to call me a right-wing fascist, or something like that, but I got two Oscars and she got just the one… There were elevators backstage and I found myself in the same one as her, while the ceremony was still going on, and she wouldn’t even look at me. She turned to the wall and even refused to acknowledged me because I was a “right wing fascist.”

Filmmaker: But today people remember The Deer Hunter more than Coming Home.

Cimino: Because Coming Home didn’t ring true. At that time I wanted to make another film about Vietnam, about the stories of some returning veterans. Some of those stories were unbelievable. Women coming home to find their husbands on the roof and not wanting to come down… She faked those stories, imposed a political idea, and because of that the film dated immediately. It’s bad fiction, it’s not true, and nobody wants to see Norman Maine going into the sea.

Filmmaker: You were talking about transcendence earlier and Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot The Deer Hunter, said he felt that transcendence while shooting the ending, which on paper had seemed very banal to him.

Cimino: Because all those cameramen are so stuffy… They’re cameramen! They call themselves “directors of photography.” I used to tell him, “Vilmos, what’s that director of photography shit? I work a year on the script, take a year prepping the film, I scout all the locations, I know where the lights come from, I work with the costume designer, and you come and work 10, 12 weeks then go home. How does that make you a ‘director of photography?’ I’m directing the photography, you’re just shooting!” And he’d be pissed off. They’d all be pissed off because they want to be creative. They’re not creative. When you look at the credits in a John Ford movie, it’s all very modest, “cameraman, Archie something…”

Filmmaker: Alex Thomson is credited in Year of the Dragon as “camera operator.”

Cimino: Because Alex handled himself the camera and did amazing work. You don’t realise the complexity of some of those camera movements. They look simple, but to make some of them he’d literally be dancing on the crane, along with his assistants. Take the scene where Mickey Rourke addresses the cops – it’s a one-shot scene, five minutes, but the crane never stops and there are so many angle changed it’s a miracle he got it made. And he’s a tall guy, he’s like 6’5″ … He was the original cameraman in Lawrence of Arabia when Nic Roeg was the original DP, before David Lean fired him.

Filmmaker: You chose Lawrence of Arabia for your retrospective here. Alongside John Ford and a few unexpected choices…

Cimino: Like what?

Filmmaker: Pasolini, Fellini, Cocteau…

Cimino: Why do you find them surprising?

Filmmaker: I don’t find them surprising per se, I find them surprising juxtaposed to Ford and Lean; it’s a reconciliation of film traditions you don’t usually find in an American director, except maybe Scorsese.

Cimino: Oh please, don’t put me in the same bag as Scorsese, he’s one of those Xerox guys (laughs). He said one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever read about The Aviator, and I quote: “I had no idea this would be a big picture until I started it.” What? What planet does this guy come from? He is the perfect film student. He’s a film school guy. He speaks so fast half the time you don’t understand what he’s saying… I guess he must think the faster he speaks the less people will question what he’s saying.

Filmmaker: But that’s why I find your choices surprising: they’re the films a film student would choose.

Cimino: For all the wrong reasons. The reason I chose Beauty and the Beast is the same reason I chose Ford. Take any John Ford film, whether it’s The Quiet Man or The Searchers or They Were Expendable, a film I’m actually seeing tonight because I’ve never seen it on a big screen. Ford had such a simplicity of technique… No complicated camera moves, nothing exotic; all he cares about are the people and you don’t even notice the camera. We just go along with the people – it’s like The Quiet Man, we are enveloped by those people, we like them immediately and forget everything else. And he does it with such an economy of means, something I admire a lot. It’s like Degas’ wonderful ballet sculptures: a very simple yet very eloquent touch. And if you think Beauty in the Beast was shot in 1946, before the era of science fiction as we know it, Cocteau achieved absolute magic with the most simple and primitive effects you can think of. Reflections on water, hands holding candelabra… When you think how much simplicity there is and yet the film captivates you in such a way… I truly believe in the Beast and I truly believe in Beauty. I truly believe in them like I believe in Ford’s characters. Cocteau didn’t make many films, but with black curtains and candelabra and reflections in water he mesmerizes us and makes us believe in the reality of the Beast.

Filmmaker: Transcendence again.

Cimino: Precisely. And there’s a scene that is so wonderful I don’t even know how he remembered it… But he must have been an excellent observer of life, because… Do you remember when Jean Marais, who is glorious as the Beast — nobody will ever be The Beast as he is — there’s a moment when the Beast is in his castle with his exquisite clothes, Beauty isn’t there, he’s alone, he needs to drink water and Cocteau has him kneel by the stream and, like an animal, bend over and drink water like a dog… That touches your heart. It’s the absolute simplicity that comes from watching life. That’s why I like it so much. It’s the accumulation of little details that makes us believe.

Filmmaker: Is that something you tried to do with your own films?

Cimino: I don’t know. That was his way of doing it. I don’t know how I would have shot it.

Filmmaker: I was asking because it’s related with the economy you were talking about, and your work is very economical in that sense.

Cimino: Yes, of course. I admire economy in cinema as I admire it in art, in painting. I don’t like unnecessary rococo, unless it’s beautiful, as it is in the work of the great architect Louis Sullivan, or Lewis Tiffany, or a true artist. But decorativism by itself is bad. It’s just wallpaper. But other than a single lapse of judgment in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot where I went for a cross-fade – something I didn’t even know what it was at the time – every single cut in all my films since The Deer Hunter is a straight cut. Even the period transitions are made with cuts. Everything is cut. No tricks. That comes from my art past – no tricks. No tricks in the building, no false façades just for the sake of it. No pointless empty spaces.

Filmmaker: Everything is there for a reason.

Cimino: Yes. Yes. To make a 25-year leap in a cut is good, and it’s great to be able to do it. The audience doesn’t realise it, they just accept it and think it’s part of the art of making movies, being able to transport the audience in time and space with such speed. That economy of means comes from my education in art and design, not from the movies, but I recognize it as I see it, and in Beauty and the Beast, looking at it as an architect and designer and artist, I recognize that economy, just as I can recognize in Kandinsky the purity, the movement, the color, the shape, the simplicity against, for example, Pollock, who is very tortured. Though I like Pollock – I studied under one of his brothers, but I’m not a great fan, I even find his brother Charles to be a better artist than Jackson. So, I admire it from an entirely different standpoint than you or Scorsese do.

Filmmaker: You were talking about enveloping the audience with the characters on screen.

Cimino: That’s the most important.

Filmmaker: And that’s one of the things you feel the most in your work. The time you take to tell a story is necessary to make audiences understand it.

Cimino: Most people don’t understand that’s part of the reason for The Deer Hunter to run three hours. One of the reasons why people accept violence in American cinema, in films such as Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street and all that shit, is because the characters are false. And as long as the characters are false, cartoons, being chopped up in little pieces, it’s OK, it’s acceptable. But if you take time to show how normal those people are, to see their wedding, to get to know them, then watching that violence becomes a punch in your stomach. You get to know them in such a way that the slightest thing that will happen to them devastates us, but that won’t happen if the characters are mere ideas. That’s where Coming Home fails, because the idea of the character is completely false.

Filmmaker: Is that why Heaven’s Gate originally ran nearly four hours?

Cimino: Also because we were introducing the audience to a different time, a different era, a different ethics… We were showing the real West, not the fake West of the westerns where there was never anybody out on the street. Two guys come out for a duel and there’s nobody around… Streets were full in the West!

Filmmaker: So you were going for a John Ford film if he was directing a Wild West documentary.

Cimino: In a way, yes. Ford did take a lot of liberties, some of which diabolical, like in the very opening of The Searchers… we’re in Monument Valley and the caption says “Texas,” and we go, “OK, but Monument Valley is as far away from Texas as possible” [laughs].

Filmmaker: If you had to be remembered by one of your films, would it be Heaven’s Gate?

Cimino: No. You always go for the film you haven’t made yet.

Filmmaker: So when are you going to do it?

Cimino: I never talk about those things. It’s like a book, if you talk about it it’ll disappear – the more you talk about it the less you want to write it. You either write it or not, but you don’t speak of it.

Filmmaker: But will there be a new Michael Cimino film?

Cimino: Who knows? You’ll have to ask God [laughs], because I don’t know.

Filmmaker: There has been talk of projects…

Cimino: Some things are pure rumors, others just bullshit, there’s some truth here and there but most of what you hear is just silly.

Filmmaker: So you’re OK with not making another film?

Cimino: Yes! [laughs] If I do one more I’ll be happy, if I don’t I’ll be happy too. I won’t commit suicide if I can’t shoot again. As I said, I never thought of making movies in the first place…

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