Revisiting The Deer Hunter - An Interview with Producer Michael Deeley

Oliver Lunn

Lauded as an American masterpiece by some, and as “one of the worst films ever made” by others (namely UK critic Mark Kermode), The Deer Hunter is, whatever you think of it, a remarkable achievement realized by one incredibly ambitious auteur: Michael Cimino.

The film's initial budget was $8.5 million but it ended up costing $15 million. So what happened on set? Was there a battle between the creative forces and the studio? Was the then-relatively unknown Cimino an uncompromising (read: impossible) director to work with? And did Robert De Niro really request a live cartridge in the revolver for the controversial Russian roulette scenes? We spoke to the film’s producer Michael Deeley – author of ‘Blade Runners, Deer Hunters & Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’ – about the film’s production woes, why he thought the film should be shorter, and what sets The Deer Hunter apart from other Vietnam movies.

GFW: It was you who initially bought the script and hired Michael Cimino as director; was he your first choice?
Michael Deeley: He was originally hired to write the script because he was essentially a writer, but he had directed one picture for Clint Eastwood, which he’d also done the script on, and the arrangement was that he might be offered the picture to direct. But the issue of who should direct it wasn’t going to arise till we had the script.

There’s been some conflicting stories about how The Deer Hunter was initially developed and written; can you tell me your version?
I’ll tell you what happened. Michael Cimino was hired to write it – which I did in Hollywood at the time. I was a bit disturbed when I heard that he had in fact subcontracted another writer without mentioning it to me – Deric Washburn. But anyway, that was just something where I thought, ‘OK, now I’ve learnt something about Mr Cimino which I could not have known before’, and that’s that he doesn’t always operate very frankly.

Is it true that Cimino questioned the need for the Russian roulette element of the script?
Absolutely not. I must say, that was the whole point of the original script that was submitted to me, which I bought. It was about Russian roulette during the Vietnamese War... I was sure that this, on screen, would be something quite staggering if we could do it. 

There were no documented cases of Russian roulette during the war, which is why those scenes caused some controversy on release; what were your conversations around including those scenes?
Well, he [Cimino] claimed there were initially. He got a bit undermined by a writer in The New York Times, who said exactly the reverse, but I have to say that I never heard or found any real evidence that anything like that ever happened. It was literary fiction, but it was a pretty strong allegory.

According to Cimino later, De Niro requested a live cartridge in the revolver for that scene; can you shed some light?
I wasn’t there when that happened, but I think it’s extremely unlikely. De Niro’s a very solid guy and I don’t think he or any of those actors needed that sort of fake stimulus.

"I’ve learnt something about Mr Cimino, which I could not have known before – that he doesn’t always operate very frankly."

The film went over-budget and over-schedule and ended up costing $15 million; how did you convince a major studio to fork out millions for production?
You spend so much money before production that it takes a lot to have a picture stopped dead in its tracks. In fact I don’t think it ever happens; usually you have a guarantor of completion and he will provide the money for any overage.

We were pre-selling this movie, number one. At that time I wouldn’t make a film without at least 50 percent of the money coming from America, so that was pretty solidly there. The overage wasn’t that bad and it was within our sales situation to justify more money. What we were doing was pre-selling pictures, and at that time one of the pictures I was doing was called The Driver, with Ryan O’Neal, and that picture we had pre-sold for 125 percent of its cost, so within our budgets we had money left.

What was the studio's response when you showed them the first cut of the film?
Not very keen. I had done it wrongly because I had done two pictures at the same time: one was Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy and the other was The Deer Hunter. The companies whom I was dealing with was United Artists, with whom I had a very good relationship, and Universal, with whom I hadn’t done a picture before. And I got it wrong. Convoy, the truck movie, would have been much better for Universal, a pretty unserious picture, and United Artists at that time were making very, very serious pictures like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that sort of dangerous picture, and they would have liked it. When we showed the picture to the head of production at Universal at the time, he was very lukewarm about it. And I began to see an opportunity here: if he didn’t want to do it, I offered him his money back because I’d made a deal with United Artists if they would pick up the picture, and actually they would pick up the picture for more than Universal was paying. This seemed to be very good news: it would let Universal off the hook and it would get more money in to cover the overage, and a bit more than that.

Unfortunately, the head of production at Universal was a pretty canny fellow. He didn’t like the picture but the position he took to this meeting – which was reported back to me – was: ‘Listen, we can get our $3.5 million back’, which was all they had put into it, ‘but equally, we’d be awfully silly if the film was successful and we paid enough to cover most of the money from television and other sales’, which may not have been all that true because the picture is pretty tough for television, and it hasn’t had that much success on television. They were satisfied that at most they had a bit of promotion and half a million dollars maybe if they went ahead, so they did, on the risk that it might be successful. Which is not a very enthusiastic way to go about selling a picture.

Why do you think the film hasn’t been successful on television?
Because it’s tough. I mean, my wife has never seen it past the helicopter scene, and the Vietnam scenes.

After the screening you did for the studio, did they make any requests? Any cuts?
I don’t think they had much confidence in it. I was the person who wanted the picture to be much shorter for several reasons; a) we were contracted to deliver a picture which was less than two and a half hours, b) if you go over three hours, you’ve probably taken one screening a day out of the cinemas, now that’s reducing your gross income by a third, and that’s the way cinema operators tend to look at it. So there were some good practical reasons as well as artistic reasons why, in my opinion, the picture could have been shorter, something with which Cimino completely disagreed with because he had always meant to make films, as he put it, the same length as Gone with the Wind.

Do you still think it could be shorter?
We did actually do a cut which we previewed quietly, and the cut was only at the front of the picture – the establishing of the variety of people involved, which ran for something like 50 minutes, and could have been dealt with more efficiently in half that time I believe.

The wedding scene lasts nearly an hour; how was that decision made?
On the page, it didn’t last that long. It just went on and on and on and when it was stuck together… it was a complete double cross on the part of Cimino, because he wanted a thee-hour-plus picture. I was away in Mexico producing Convoy – because Sam Peckinpah was much more out of control than Cimino was – and the guy who was on the floor [on the set of Deer Hunter], unfortunately Cimino ran rings around him.

What kind of conversations were you having with Cimino at that time?
At this point it was just about ‘let’s get on with it’. I mean, Cimino is a very confident director and he was a schemer. But he was a very, very confident director and so the stuff that was coming back was so good, it was taking longer than it might have done but that’s not necessarily his fault.

"Tension on pictures – which is not something you create but something that very often happens – can create a certain sort of strength to the picture."

Actor John Cazale was diagnosed with cancer just before filming; what affect did this have on the production?
It affected the whole production in that we had to decide whether or not we would look for insurance on him, and we knew we wouldn’t get it. We rescheduled the picture to make sure that his scenes were all shot first, so we could in a sense keep him for his time. And also the fact that he was Meryl Streep’s boyfriend made a difference.

It was Robert [De Niro] who wanted him and so did she [Streep], and that was enough. It wasn’t that frantic, he didn’t look as though he was going to drop dead or anything.

When you took on the project, what risks were you most concerned about?
Things can go wrong on every picture and they usually do. I actually have a feeling that a picture made really smoothly and blandly, where everyone loves everyone and it’s all perfectly on time and wonderful, it very often looks like that on the screen; it looks bland. Tension on pictures – which is not something you create but something that very often happens – can create a certain sort of strength to the picture.

You’ve also worked with Sam Peckinpah (Convoy) and Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth); what attracts you to these challenging auteurs who other producers would steer clear of?
Um, yes. I was involved in two pictures with Nic Roeg and he is very different from me in some respects, but one of his most difficult aspects is he really doesn’t want the thing laid out in black and white; he really wants to leave the audience working stuff out for themselves, which creates an area of vagueness. And if he thinks it’s getting too obvious he wants to switch it around a bit, which is interesting but curious.

Do you think Cimino is like that as well?
They both want what they want and go all out to get it.

What do you think sets The Deer Hunter apart from other Vietnam movies, like Apocalypse Now?
The narrative is very straightforward. Of course there are levels and complexities within that, but it’s a straight story about some guys who go from this place to that place and these things happen. It’s much less moody. Apocalypse Now is far more… um…

Definitely, yes. Marlon Brando was all broody and so on. No one was being broody in Deer Hunter. Everyone was pretty much getting on with it.

'The Deer Hunter' is re-released in cinemas on 1 August by Park Circus. 

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