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Cahiers: Where did you film?
M. Cimino: We filmed in Thailand, on the River Kwai, near the Burmese border; we wanted to film near the Cambodian border, but we couldn’t find a suitable river over there; they were all too shallow that year; so we went west, next to Burma. We lived and filmed over there during monsoon season. The rest was shot in Bangkok, and around Bangkok. Thailand was the best solution, because we also had to show Saigon - and in Bangkok, we used the streets, like Pathong, to represent an area of R&R; the architecture of Saigon is very close to that of Bangkok, the people really resemble each other.
Cahiers: Now that I know a little of how you work, I would say that it was a bold artistic move to depict, in the central scene of the film, events which never really took place: the Russian roulette… You had taken great care over the historical details of the war, and smack in the middle, you introduced purely imaginary events.
M. Cimino: This has already been so controversial that I’m tired of talking about it. A lot of people say that this really happened, and many say the opposite. Some journalists allege to have witnessed similar scenes; some people recounted seeing such games, but among women; some have sworn and still swear that it never happened. I find that all beside the point. What is important is that it’s very difficult to find the means to express, in a film, that dominant aspect of war: it’s what the majority of people could tell you; it’s the waiting. Each time there’s a firefight, it disappears; it’s extremely fast; but there is a terribly long period of waiting before; waiting for an event, waiting to be overtaken, waiting for a random shot. How do you show that type of tension, how do you make the spectator feel it? It’s a simple problem: how can I communicate to a public, in telling my story, what exactly this tension is? By making people wait five hours in a foxhole, with background sound of explosions? On the level of mise en scène, this isn’t very good… You have to find a means of communicating it, in a clear and vivid manner. Yet, contrary to what happened during WWII, the people of our generation were under the influence of Vietnam seven days a week, through this damned news. We were saturated with images of the war. Nothing like the people who, during WWII, saw the newsreels at the cinema each Saturday, so that each film made the war become an experience fresh and vivid. The contrary happened to us: our imagination was saturated, it had too much information. So we started to minimize it, ignore it. The problem was the following: how to communicate the tension, the experience of combat?
Cahiers: My favorite moment is when De Niro recreates the game of Russian roulette…
M. Cimino: What he tells Stanley is that he's killed; what he tries to do is teach Nick, in some way, to make sure it isn’t repeated. He tries to free Nick and the others from their romantic ideas, their illusions. There is a very short shot in that scene of a deer that he doesn’t shoot – you’ll notice that, when they argue, in the car, there is a nearly subliminal shot, only eight or nine frames, of a young deer; De Niro sees it take off like an arrow, none of the others see it; but he doesn’t fire on it; he could have done it, the shot was easy. If others had seen it, they would have all probably fired. But I think he’s not fully prepared for the events that happen. During the hunt, he talks about “one shot”; he attaches a lot of importance to it. In Vietnam, he doesn’t use a gun; he uses a flame-thrower and destroys a North Vietnamese soldier, in a way that would have been terrifying, unthinkable for him beforehand. He’s still the same person, but he has become conscience of a thing, in that war, which he wasn’t prepared for. We see a North Vietnamese soldier throw a grenade into a trench filled with women and children. It’s something shocking for a character like De Niro, and for us. Then you see De Niro kill him with the flame-thrower, not clean, not one shot… he shields their escape by emptying his cartridge… So he also changed a lot.
Cahiers: I understand that some criticized Meryl Streep’s character in this film.
M. Cimino: They criticized the fact she wasn’t very independent. It is interesting to notice at which point the articles about The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate reveal, for the majority of critics, a deep – how do you say – “petit bourgeois.” They wouldn’t recognize a real worker if he popped out of their toasters. That a girl like her, in a small town like that, where everyone knows everyone, where everyone knows what you do, where everyone talks about it, would leave her father’s to go live, in a trailer, with those two guys, and stay after only one of them returns! That shows that she is a character with a very strong will; one must be very strong to act thusly, in a community like that, where religion plays a very important role. A large part of those same critics couldn’t accept the roller-skating scene in Heaven’s Gate. It’s unimaginable; there were people who thought that this scene was made because skating became fashionable! They refused to accept the fact that this activity existed in that period, and that often cattle-drivers went out on the rink, got drunk, and began skating; there weren’t any women around so these guys were sometimes very tired, but they continued. It was a very popular activity. They couldn’t understand: “If these people were so poor and so oppressed, why were they allowed to dance?” But it’s what the poor could do better than anything else: they didn’t have the money needed for other entertainment. It’s still true today, the whole world over. In the favelas of Rio, in La Boca in Buenos Aires, what do the poor do on weekends? They dance, for god’s sake; it’s from them that dances come from, not the upper classes. I was astounded, appalled, to see that that kind of ignorant criticism could exist. You show them farmers in the new world: they demand to see them crawling, not having fun. You show them an oppressed class: they demand to see people oppressed every second of the film. It’s disconcerting.
Cahiers: Why do you think The Deer Hunter was a world-wide hit?
M. Cimino: I was surprised by the rest of the world’s reaction. Everywhere, the emotion of the audience was the same as here. I never dared dream of that success, mainly because the film dealt with Vietnam. Maybe it’s because it shows ordinary people, who, like other ordinary people, have a lot of courage in them, that particular kind of courage which galvanizes us; people without a doubt identified themselves with them, they identify themselves with those that resemble themselves; the fact that it’s about a different culture, the fact that it’s about Vietnam, wasn’t ultimately important; it was simply a war, about ordinary people faced with disaster, and reacting with a lot of courage. What happens to this small group, this small family – because this small group of friends forms a family – is shared by everyone. The tragedy of growing up, growing old, the tragedy of marriage, of war; every culture experiences that. This is what people identified with, and this has nothing to do with Vietnam.
Cahiers: What attracted you to the story of the Johnson County War for Heaven’s Gate?
M. Cimino: The history of the West, in general, is inspiring, it overflows with events; it’s a source of constant fascination. The episode of this small war, when I came across it, fascinated me, I really don’t know why. Maybe it was above-all else the death list, drafted in due form, sanctioned by the central and federal government. It’s what always interested me; knowing how one makes decisions which bring about the death of people. McNamara, Kissinger and the others; this group sits at a table and makes political decisions concerning Vietnam – more bombs or more troops? Their decision always entails the death of thousands of people. The decisions of war were made with the best reasons in the world, no doubt; lawful reasons like protecting the peace, protecting economic and political systems. I believe they are always made with those intentions, and calmly too! A group of men, sitting around a table, in a hotel suite, in the middle of eating breakfast or lunch, eating some choice food off of fine china, in a pleasant setting, calmly discussing how many people to kill…
Cahiers: I read what Asa Mercer wrote about the war; it’s a book (“Powder River Invasion”) which the French like to call very “committed”. It’s a book of reminisces, written to clear up the attitudes of certain people and find out who was on the right or wrong side. You often come across words like “the shame”… It’s a book which one is surprised to find in the history of the West.
M. Cimino: No, you find a lot of writing of that type. It’s not so exceptional in itself; but when you come across it, you’re amazed.
Cahiers: Some didn’t make note of it, but it seems to me that you were faithful, on a number of points, to the description of events given in the book. In fact, a number of details which the critics reproached you for came from the book.
M. Cimino: People used Heaven’s Gate to vent so many things, particularly the critics. Firstly, they rejected the material reality of the film. Yet our perception of the West is molded more by films than by the actual history of the West. The same people who we think of as very cultivated have the idea that the West was something like what films have shown us. What they have seen, or what they remember, is what they are accustomed to; bad, rushed movies, where there were never any extras in the background, the street were always empty, because it was simply cheaper to do so. I’ve listened to people tell me: “Why telegraph poles; did they even have electricity in that period?”; “Why are the streets so full of people; what are these people doing?” Have you ever seen a photograph from the era? Paradoxically, it’s one of the periods of American history which has the most photographic documentation. It coincides with the sudden blossoming of photography. The photographers captured everything in photos, and we had a very complete documentation of the era from looking only at photos. What they always show is an enthusiasm in these towns in development and construction; the stiffness of buildings, of people, of clothes; but the activity, the energy, the crowds which flocked to the major streets, the businesses; we have never shown that. We are used to seeing the sets from films, not real places. We are used to Old Tucson, which has been used maybe 150 times for 150 different films; it’s been thirty years of seeing the same town, without knowing it. My artistic director on Heaven’s Gate, who was also that of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, built, I believe, the original Old Tucson, and he worked on it again about thirty times, changing and remodeling it over the course of years. What they created, in fact, is a cinematic reality instead of a historic reality. People didn’t want to confront this idea, so they began by rejecting the material reality shown: the crowds, the businesses, the telegraph poles, the skates, people’s clothes, and the formalism in the nineteenth century manner of speaking. In the film, there isn’t a single building, a single interior design, that wasn’t inspired, in one way or another, by photographs from that era. Each element of the wardrobe, both the principals’ and the extras’ costumes, was designed in part by photographs, and yet all of that was completely rejected. Even the music was rejected; some think that the music of the West was born in the head of some god, as is; I wanted music which was as it was then; it was the beginning of what we know as modern Western music, but they still didn’t have it fully established; it was still close to its origins: for example, the skating music has Cajun feel to it; the rest of the music consists of Russian, Ukrainian, German and Polish folklore; “The Blue Danube” was a popular song in that era. But they threw all that aside.
Cahiers: Did you try to do as in The Deer Hunter, to show a reality which has been masked by its representations?
M. Cimino: Exactly. But The Deer Hunter was easier to accept, because it was contemporary, and it’s a reality which is still part of our visual baggage. Even to this day, we still recognize that small-town life very well. In Heaven’s Gate, it’s a question of going a hundred years backwards, and people can’t compare that period with what they have seen in other films; not with what they know, but what they’ve seen. Yet it was different from what they had seen up until then. This wasn’t the confirmation of something accepted, it was new. I’m talking about critics. When you read books on this period, on the war, even the clothes, the wardrobe, the hats of the mercenaries – there is a photograph of this group of mercenaries, with their names underneath, like a class photo; they are all wearing hats and they exactly resemble those in the film. The costumes, the ties are the same. The group in front is sitting, those behind them are kneeling, and the furthest group is standing. Even the death of Nate Champion: “Why did they shoot so many times?” – They found the real Nate Champion with 26 bullets in his body, and it’s precisely what we redid with Christopher Walken, and even that wasn’t accepted. The rejection was total, even had the film stuck exactly to the historical facts.
Cahiers: What alarmed me in the film, and which I later found in Mercers’ book, is that Champion died like a hero, guns by his side, just as you depicted, while writing his last testament.
M. Cimino: I used exactly what he put on paper.
Cahiers: You said somewhere that you weren’t so accurate concerning the war: that can maybe lend to the confusion.
M. Cimino: Yes and no. In other words, there were many elements which were very accurate. Likewise, for Vietnam, we worked in details for the hospital, the row of refugees on the road, the way which De Niro dressed, and the embassy sequence. We tried to be very accurate in what we did, in general; on the other hand, we took the liberty to use reality as we pleased, to not be left chained to the events down to the letter. But I don’t believe that we distorted reality enormously, whether in The Deer Hunter or Heaven’s Gate. I think that in spirit and tone they reflect a certain reality, a certain truth.
Cahiers: That also brings us back to what you said about places: how you find those that are suitable and how you idealize them. Could you maybe talk about the creation of towns: we have already spoken about Clairton; how did you choose a location for Sweetwater?
M. Cimino: I know the region; I often went there, and I always had, in the corner of my mind, the intention of using it one day. The problem was I wanted a town which appeared to be in the mountains, and not with mountains in the background; a place which looked stuck in the middle of mountains. We were stationed in Kalispell, to the west of the Divide, two good hours from this town. There was no discernible town; we needed extras for the roller-skating, which had to be based near a populated place. I traveled a lot in Montana, Washington State, Colorado, Idaho; we had driven 20,000 miles in Colorado alone, crossing the mountains, trying to find landscapes, prospects which had yet to be used. I wanted to show places which weren’t visually exhausted, which we haven’t seen. We are accustomed to landscapes from the southwest, towns like Old Tucson which we’ve already seen, against our will, in 200 films. We have seen and re-seen those places; I wanted to give people the impression that they were in the West for the first time; I thought that it would be exciting for them. These places had never been photographed, never been used; they radiate very strong vibrations. That took a lot of work, because a lot of those places are found in the National Park, and you have to respect the ecology: thus the exteriors of Sweetwater, the entire town is built on a raised three-feet platform, so as to protect the grass that is underneath; few people know that; in fact, it was better, because when the wagons crossed the town, they made a brilliant sound, which they don’t naturally produce; I put mikes in the dust, under the roads, and when they make their mass entrance at the end, one hears a marvelous sound. That’s the exterior scenes: we built the interior sets at Kalispell and in that region; which means we had shot the interior scenes month before those in exterior. We had decided that the lighting would be very directional, with the exception of the skating, which is in a tent; we had to get dark interiors, filled with smoke. So we had to determine, three months in advance, precisely where the sun would be. I don’t think it has any mistakes, I believe it’s completely accurate. In the bar scene, for example, where the light comes from the south, through the front door, when you see the exterior, the sun is at the right place; people didn’t pay it any attention, but it’s accurate. It was a method of searching for new exteriors, a new look, something different. The work was difficult, because the places were separated by 200 miles, but I don’t think you notice it, like you don’t notice that Clairton is composed of seven or eight towns. The same in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, you don’t know that it takes place in the same state, you feel as if you travel the entire Northwest. It’s the reality of the film which is important, I believe; the illusion was successful, in general. These places were found searching, in car or on foot, not in helicopter, on mountain trails, on dirt roads. You see fuck all from a helicopter. You get a feeling from arriving at a place, from discovering it; you perceive it differently, if you find it by accident; when someone tells you to go see such and such place, it never works, you must find it yourself. In general, when you follow your intuition, you find the place then you know that it’ll work; you find what you need, if you really need it, you find it; it’s a question of faith; that’s it, its waiting. We always had trouble returning the cars that we rented; the renters always thought that the odometers displayed incorrect numbers; we took a car for a week, and it showed 10,000 miles; they believed that the meter was broken.
Cahiers: Were you inspired by photos while building that town?
M. Cimino: In part, yes. The church appeared in a photo, all the tents of the town also, with their leather dressing; the bar, all of it, interior and exterior; the interior of the skating-rink also is a very typical building, a framework with a tent over it. The name 'Heaven’s Gate" is purely imaginary, however.
Cahiers: Is it pulled from Shakespeare?
M. Cimino: Yes.
Cahiers: The interior appears completely unreal, above all because it’s so big.
M. Cimino: Those are the exact dimensions of the wedding hall in The Deer Hunter, 40 by 100, and the same amount of people, 200, with the band at one end.
Cahiers: The representation of immigrants like a community, at the skating-rink or the bar, is parallel to the opening scene, at Harvard: they are communities with their rituals, their order and their own social divisions.
M. Cimino: Yes. They have already started becoming all that which Averill (Kris Kristofferson) has rejected. Its one reason for Averill’s disillusionment: he sees that transformation, that evolution; he sees it in those divisions which already mark the community; the merchants are separated from the others; already, they want to adapt themselves to something as horrible as the death-list. It’s the natural order of things, they group together and distinguish themselves from others in their own way; they don’t dance to Strauss, they dance to their own music. A carriage doesn’t circle around 800 magnificent dances gliding through the lawn of a college; it navigates a small, overwhelmed main street of a village bordering a lake, in the middle of mountains. Averill doesn’t take into account the importance of material thing for those people, for Ella (Isabelle Huppert) particularly. He doesn’t take into account the importance of the gift which he gives her himself, what it means, what if really represents. After all, he rejects the material aspect of his world; he’s certainly an idealist, and I think his gift is more a whim than anything else, and she takes it as something more meaningful. The aristocrats who are idealists are always disappointed when the people which they hope to help express an interest in material things; they expect in some way to find the reflection of their own idealism, and they encounter it very rarely.
Cahiers: I suppose that’s the outcome of the optimism which we see at the beginning of the film. You without doubt know the famous essay by Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, which talks about the closing of the Frontier, one year after the Johnson County War. Did you want to show the end of something in the film?
M. Cimino: In a literal sense, it was the end of one century and the start of another: so, yes, it was the end of one thing and the beginning of another. The America of 1900 was certainly very different from the America of 1870: Newport, in particular, could not have existed before: it required a particular combination of forces to produce that display of extravagant opulence. Do you know Newport, in Rhode Island? It doesn’t look like anywhere else; rows and rows of extravagant mansions. It was the place in America which contained the most wealth, and they flaunted it with the grandest ostentation; and it happened over the span of fifteen years! So it was the end of an era and the beginning of another.
Cahiers: I think that your decision to add an epilogue and a prologue situated the event in history. Furthermore, Averill talks constantly about aging. Perhaps because Heaven’s Gate deals, above all, with passed times.
M. Cimino: Yes, it’s a film about passed time, and about a man who reflects on passed time, on his journey, on his past. Often, it seems to us barely possible to have lived through so much, and to still be alive, to have survived. How was I able to pass through such turmoil, so many events, meet so many people, so many things, which rush by in a frame of time which appears, to me, so short? How did I get there, how did I accomplish what I did, how and why did I survive? What is real in all that and what did I embellish? What part of my relationship with others was real, or were they more or less imaginary? Did my life really take place as I remember it; if it was different, what was it? It’s the type of question you ask yourself when you think on your past. It’s as if all the film consisted of flash-backs from his meditation at the end, on the boat. He’s someone who felt pressed to do what he believed was right; at the beginning of his life, he felt obligated to do what Reverend Gordon (Joseph Cotten) proposed: to act responsibly, work hard, have a useful life, conduct oneself according to the church, give his heart and mind to his country. In the end, he’s not sure of what he’s done; he poses a lot of questions about what he’s lived through; he is drawn anew towards what he is familiar with, he returns towards his class of origin; like Fitzgerald said, he retreats back into his money – I believe those are his words. It appears to him, at that moment, on the boat, that it was impossible that all that could have happened: the more he thinks about it, the more the mystery grows in his eyes. All those people are literally gone, in fact; it’s not like they were still alive; they have all gone; and that amplifies the impression of the unreality of that moment; it is impossible to go back, to see them, to speak to them, to ask them questions… I think that boats have always been a refuge; the people who sail, who fly planes, always say that they are freed from problems up there or on the sea: it’s a relief; the problems appear much less real.
Cahiers: You feel, in this passage, that this which they call reality is put into question. It’s what also happens in the roller-skating scene, which you play out in the mountains. You spend the entire scene with the dancers, then Averill sends Bridges to go bring the carriage, and you have a close-up of Ella. Her facial expression has something of worry or melancholy. Then you come back to the interior and all the dancers are gone, without you having seen them leave.
M. Cimino: It seems important: at a certain moment, the people disappear to her, she returns to her head with thoughts of what is going to occur between them, what their relationship is going to become. She is intelligent enough, visibly, to understand that they are from two completely separate worlds. Like I already said, she interprets his gift in a completely different manner than he does. Now that you gave her more, she expects more; her expectations increase with the gift. It’s in human nature; the more you give yourself, the more you desire, the more you need. But she isn’t sure of him; he isn’t someone who really expresses his feelings.
Cahiers: The relationship between Averill, Ella and Champion is often ambiguous or difficult to decipher…
M. Cimino: That was part of my intentions, to keep that ambiguity, to let the spectator draw their own conclusions: about whom she'll end with, what she’ll do; it isn’t precise. It’s like real relationships, not like fiction, where nothing is left to the imagination. In life, in all love triangles, whether between three men, two women and one woman, two women and one man, you’re never sure of the equation, because it always changes; you never can tell.
Cahiers: To take another example, you never see the friendship between Averill and Champion: you can infer it, on the part of a phrase: “Mr. Averill is lucky to have a friend like you”, but you never see that friendship in the picture. Their rivalry for Ella, and the political situation, has already spoiled that friendship; in a sense, it is left aside from the picture. Why did you leave something like that aside? You also said that you didn’t want the spectator to know everything about a character when they see them for the first time, but only when the film ends. Can you elaborate on that?
M. Cimino: I don’t know what I can add to the question… I wanted to say something important: there are often moments where I think… just in the pleasure of making the film; you feel a joy using the means of expression; the pleasure it gives you, the pleasure it can give to others; particularly in the musical sequences. You should not leave aside the pure pleasure of the form in-itself; it’s like driving a good car: there is also a joy in pure speed. You don’t have to lose sight of it when you talk about the work of somebody, or of films in general. It is rare that the cinema, as a means of expression, is used to make one feel joy. Film is also its form, and it explains in part the pleasure that one gets watching the films of Kubrick; the control which he exercises on formal elements is completely remarkable.
Cahiers: I asked in fact a question about form, and it has to do, without doubt, with what you said about speed.
M. Cimino: I don’t know what else you can say on the subject, but that film seems to end very quickly, because it isn’t encumbered by that which encumbers the majority of films. With certainty, the characters explain themselves, they explain one-another, they explain the meaning of the story; they say what they feel, what the others feel, what you should feel. To return to your question about Champion, it didn’t seem, to me, to have been an important element of the story: if I thought it was, I would have shown it.
In The Deer Hunter, you miss, by all evidence, the Vietnamese point-of-view; it isn’t the subject of the film, why talk about it? It’s a deliberate choice. This isn’t to say that it’s the right choice, but that you consider such-and-such aspect secondary in comparison to such-and-such other. Maybe I expect too much understanding, too many deductions from people; it’s possible.
Cahiers: You also put so many elements into the film that you can’t see them all from watching it once, or even twice. I’m talking about the details in the appearance of things and peoples, the faces, the costumes; it’s all like a foreign language, because you have never seen it before. Yet they’re very significant details; for example, you notice that one character is better dressed than another, even if it’s only an extra.
M. Cimino: I loathe the word extra; it’s horrible, because you use people as you define them. Extras – foreign to the scene. For example, the big street-scene in Kalispell, when Averill arrives by train; you see that enormous crowd, very clearly: everyone does not have the same rank; all different social level and classes are represented in that street. The people – the extras – are arranged with great detail. Each extra was carefully chosen, dressed and even redressed if it wasn’t right; we cut the hair off some of them. We classified them, by such sorts of groups one could find in a station – there are figures of immigrants, of merchants; we divided the people into squads, into sections; there is a procession of masons in the streets. All the society of a town is visible in the street. It isn’t a concept; the idea is that you must be able to look at any part of that immense screen and isolate from it any small piece according to your choice – you should maybe try, the next time you see it, taking a small telescope and scanning the screen with it, examining and isolating small parts. I think that, whatever part of the screen you choose, you won’t be disappointed: you will find equally swarming activity everywhere. Why do that? The majority of people will go see the film once, although, in cases where a film is successful, many people go see it two or three times; it’s true, even for Heaven’s Gate: many people returned two or three times to see it; they also rewatched The Deer Hunter many times. It’s because, especially for a period film, you don’t want to violate people; you don’t want them to say, suddenly: “Oh my god, there’s a bus!” for example. In many major films, films which were successes – I’m not saying which – you see the extras, in numerous scenes, without know what they say, but it’s clear. They’re counting sheep; when they should be singing, it’s obvious they don’t know the words; or else they are completely irrelevant to the shot. That weakens the film, even if the public isn’t directly conscious of it, they notice it; it forms a deposit in them, and people, I believe, respond to films from that strata deposited in them. You threaten the film; you also threaten the credibility of characters, by lack of judgment. If you pay great attention to the place you film, you must do the same for the people you film. The effectiveness of The Deer Hunter comes from you accepting the reality of that community of people, and their environment. You can look at any part of the screen during the wedding reception; you’ll see everyone participating, everyone taking part in that event. It was done very carefully, not out of self-indulgence, but to make the story more credible.
Cahiers: There is nothing but credibility – everything is obviously very important: even if people don’t see all the details in that street-scene, on first viewing…
M. Cimino: There is even a hanging; they hang a man in the middle of all that activity!
Cahiers: …what’s important is that the details are there to be read, if someone wants to see them. The film doesn’t create the portrait of a socially homogeneous world, but of a very differentiated world.
M. Cimino: Take the example of a hundred-piece orchestra: if one bow is slightly twisted, it is easy to tell which person doesn’t realize it, by all means. But the conductor will hear it. But why should he nit-pick? The public, 99% of the time, won’t hear a thing. Why is Balanchine endlessly done, not only by the soloists, but all the ballet? The public only watches the center of the stage. People don’t ask themselves questions about choreography, the direction, and the composers. If a director does it, he passes for a narcissist. The big battle scenes of Kurosawa are, in general, worked to the smallest detail. We shouldn’t have to talk about it; it’s simply part of our work. See what happens in the American auto-industry: the sales of Japanese cars are always rising, while American sales continue to decline: because the people have that which they perceive as a better product, better made. The lack of taste in good work can have disastrous results for a country, for all of society; it doesn’t simply concern fabricated products, but our entire system of values. It is important to value good work and the pride from working.
Cahiers: It seems to me that the majority of criticism directed at the film concern the way it was made and the deliberate choices you made. For example, the soundtrack, in certain scenes, isn’t conventional: it is particularly striking in the scene next to the train, with Cully and Averill, where you listen with difficulty to what they say, you miss dialogue. It is all the more striking as it’s a scene with very important exposition.
M. Cimino: My position was very simple: if you are next to a locomotive, among all those people, all that noise, you must strain your ears to listen, and you miss parts of what’s said to you. We’ve all seen scenes in movies in airports, in subways or on trains, where you don’t hear a single sound, nothing but the dialogue: it’s only a picture of two people in the act of speaking! All other forms of life are suspended; we abandon that which was in progress all around. I wanted people to listen more attentively, listen perhaps in the manner which the characters must listen: they’ll bend down, they’ll work a little bit so as to catch everything, perhaps they’ll read their lips; I expect a lot from people. The public has become lazy; maybe that was going too far, but there is also a great density in the soundtrack, numerous details. The sound was also recorded as carefully as the visuals. If there’s a market on one side of the screen, you hear the appropriate sounds, just as, if on the other side, other activities happen. The soundtrack is very rich. People aren’t perhaps used to that, they expect the dialogue to be emphasized: I believe this comes above all from television. That leads us to this representation of intense activity: when a scene includes a whole place, it includes many people, therefore many sounds, all sorts of peripheral sounds. When Averill walks down the street, for example, to go to the store, you can remove the sounds, it’s very easy, you erase it, and you pass directly to the soundtrack of the store. I wanted you to feel what it was like to walk down a street in that period: to follow those noisy wagons, to cross all that activity, what you felt, what you heard. People made so much dust; my god, was it dusty! That makes the streets dirty… when hundreds of wagons go around, they raise dust. And very often, we took the time to record the background sound. In the store, for example, we recorded numerous conversations, with the intention of inserting them into the soundtrack later. This isn’t general background noise; you hear people, in a corner, argue over the price of a knife, discuss the merits of a particular rifle… each of those people are engaged in a very specific activity and you hear them.
Cahiers: That is the second time that you’ve said: “Maybe I expect too much from the public.” But you have received letters on the subject: what do they say?
M. Cimino: All the letters I received told me that people understand the film perfectly. They essentially spoke of the critical reaction. I didn’t receive single letter saying: “I don’t understand”; the letters say the contrary, and they come from people of all ages and all walks of life; thoughts, well-written, some longer than twenty pages. Some people in New York took an airplane to come see the four-hour version; people moved in groups to go see it. It was very gratifying, in fact, to see that they didn’t believe what they read. Curiously, many cited Moby Dick, taking into account the initial reception that it had received. They all used the words “flowing” and “like a river.” Many said that they had seen the film two or three times and that they appreciated it more and more with each viewing. All wrote to me: “We hope that you aren’t discouraged.” Many knew that I worked on a modern version of The Fountainhead. They sent me quotes from The Fountainhead, from other novels about individualism. Nearly all said something on the subject.
Cahiers: Do you think people were offended by your political positions?
M. Cimino: I don’t see it as a political film. I don’t see The Deer Hunter as a political film. I really don’t like politics. They aren’t stories concerning politics, but stories about people, caught up in events, whatever its reasons may be. They reveal the event. Americans are very poor, on all levels, in that which concerns political statements. We don’t know how to make them, and when we do, we make them badly. We aren’t adapted to that.
Cahiers: They say you’re always trying something new, and your style evolved very quickly from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to Heaven’s Gate. How do you see your current situation? For example, would you be interested in going back and making another “genre” film, where one finds what one expects, like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot still was; or will you make another film like The Deer Hunter?
M. Cimino: It will always be people who will interest me, I believe. It’s people who give you the urge to make movies, characters. You have an attraction to a character, if he’s interesting enough, that what’s important. I don’t see myself making a film because it’s from a certain genre, except a musical comedy; I would love to make a musical comedy, it provides a special pleasure which tempts me; I think it would take me to a state of pure joy which I dream about. I have already begun a story about Indians; in short, it’s a story of a boy who wasn’t entitled to his vision and because of it, he doesn’t have a name. To receive a name, he attains his vision, and when he has a name, he must earn it; it’s a story of the American plains, it takes place in the Dakotas and Montana. I have two other subjects on the West, on which I’ve been working for some time: they are all journeys in that genre. I hope to eventually make a film on the gangster Frank Costello.
Cahiers: Are you tempted to protect your rear-end, like Hitchcock said?
M. Cimino: We are all confronted with the reality of the film industry. You must have a sense of money to make films in our age. A failure doesn’t make your life easier. Hitchcock could make films to protect his behind, Ford also…
Cahiers: “Make one for them,” he would say.
M. Cimino: Even when Hitchcock made films for them, to protect his rear-end, they had something special. Making films isn’t easy; you always have spats, harassment: it’s an unpredictable profession. What’s important is that you and others continue to make films; up to the end, Hitchcock and Ford stayed true themselves, they worked late, like Huston right now, and it is amazing to see the energy that they retained after all the obstacles that they’ve overcome. When you think of what Cukor suffered, when he was fired from filming Gone With the Wind; he worked three years to prepare that film, he was consumed by it, he filmed several weeks, and then he’s replaced on a film which became the most well-known and most important of his era, it must have been a terrible blow! That shouldn’t have been as easy to experience as it looks in retrospect: not only did make it through that period, but he continued to make marvelous films. His parking spot is next to mine, at MGM, and as I said once in an interview, I believe it was at Cannes: Selznick is dead, Thalberg is dead, Louis B. Mayer as well, and the guy who’s my neighbor at MGM is named George Cukor, he was still making films at MGM! It was true; he was making Rich and Famous. It’s very hard work. When I arrived here for the first time, I think it was because I had to meet Clint, I was invited to a party, I think it was Clint who asked me to go. I didn’t know what it was; I though it was going to be some sort of screening, he had said there was going to be an awards ceremony. I wandered around all corners, looking to recognize people; it was a tribute to David Lean, and there were only filmmakers; Hitchcock was there, I believe, Capra also, Huston; all those who were alive were there. We saw twenty of minutes of film-clips from Lean, and, as I understood, Lean isn’t sensitive. I forgot who handed him the award; everyone stood up and I believe they gave him a ten-minute ovation, all standing: only filmmakers, no press, no television. It was an extraordinary moment, Lean cried. Seeing Hitchcock, Capra, Huston, Billy Wilder, Minnelli… he couldn’t find the words. Who were they applauding? Someone who had gone out there, as they had themselves: what a marvelous tribute! It was so sweet, so enthusiastic, so personal; it must have been a shock for him to see that bunch of old marksmen standing to applaud one of their own. They all know what it is to be booed.
(Interview conducted by Bill Krohn in Los Angeles, the 27th and 28th of April, 1982. Translated from the English by Francine Arakélian)
1. 200 miles
: The interview gives the figure of "2,000 miles". Either Cimino is talking about different locations than those in Montana, or it has to be typo.
2. one year after the Johnson County War
: The text refers to it as "the War of Johnson and Kennedy", which must have been a mistake on the translators part.
3. I have already begun a story about Indians...
: for those interested, this is his long-planned adaptation of the Frederick Manfred novel, Conquering Horse
. Recommended reading.
4. protect your rear-end
: Anyone know the exact Hitchcock term? I was tempted to translate it as "protect your ass", but I don't know if it would be too strong an interpretation.