Who Knew? The Deer Hunter Was a Nightmare to Make

To put it simply: The Deer Hunter shouldn’t have been as good as it was (is). The production was riddled with not just typical problems but major ones, and right from the get-go. The set of what became a cult classic involved bitter infighting, a terminally ill cast member, a deteriorating budget, and a director who may not have been cut out for the job.

Robert De Niro And Christopher Walken celebrate with the rest of the wedding party in a scene from the film 'The Deer Hunter', 1978.
Robert De Niro And Christopher Walken celebrates with the rest of the wedding party in a scene from the film ‘The Deer Hunter’, 1978. Photo by Universal/Getty Images

But none of that mattered in the end. The Vietnam War drama went on to win five Oscars at the 1979 Academy Awards (it was nominated for nine) and is to this day regarded as one of the greatest films of the 20th century. Period.

That said, it might be of interest to know that the three-hour-long film about the power of war is as captivating as it is historically inaccurate. And that’s just one little fact in a long list about The Deer Hunter….

It Was Never Supposed to Be Realistic

Even though The Deer Hunter is essentially a movie about the Vietnam War, it was never supposed to be realistic. At least, that’s what director Michael Cimino said when critics began sounding the BS alarm. “If you attack the film on its facts, then you’re fighting a phantom because literal accuracy was never intended,” Cimino said in one interview.

Robert De Niro with Michael Cimino on the set of The Deer Hunter.
American actor Robert De Niro with director and screenwriter Michael Cimino on the set of his movie The Deer Hunter. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The film was released (in 1978) just a few years after the end of the war (1975), and the response from many who had actually experienced the war was harsh, to say the least. “The Deer Hunter and its apologists insult the memory of every American who died in Vietnam,” Vietnam War correspondent John Pilger wrote.

That’s not good publicity …

Russian Roulette Was Never Played in the Vietnam War

It’s true: Hollywood has always played a crucial role in shaping the way Americans see and remember our country’s conflicts. Thanks to The Deer Hunter, the image of a shell-shocked soldier holding a gun to his head has become representative of the Vietnam War experience, even though that “soldier” is Robert De Niro and that “game” never occurred.

John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren, Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro, John Savage in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter
John Cazale as Stan, Chuck Aspegren as Axel, Christopher Walken as Nick, Robert De Niro Michael Vronsky, John Savage as Steven in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter. Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Peter Arnett made a fierce critique of the film shortly after its release in The Los Angeles Times. “There was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette [during the war] … The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.”

The Film Ruined the Director’s Career

Historically accurate or not, one thing is pretty much not up for debate: The Deer Hunter is a masterpiece. The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are real, and the narrative – broken into three acts – cleverly captures what it’s like to leave a (relatively) comfortable life in America to fight an unpopular war in another country and then return.

Michael Cimino (left) confers with American actor Robert De Niro
Michael Cimino (left) confers with Robert De Niro. Photo by United Artists/Getty Images

The story behind the film turned out to be as rich as the one we saw on the screen. What happened behind the scenes is pretty insane. Actually, it was so bad that Michael Cimino’s name is doomed forever. The Deer Hunter – the second film he directed – completely ruined his career…

Michael Cimino: The “Irresponsible” Director

The New York Times’s review of The Deer Hunter declared that the director was “an original, major new filmmaker.” It was Cimino’s second film, and he made five more afterward. Heaven’s Gate, his sixth film, not only led a distinguished studio (United Artists) into bankruptcy but also enraged critics and audiences.

Michael Cimino on the set of his movie The Deer Hunter.
Michael Cimino on the set of his movie The Deer Hunter. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

It came to a point where all of Cimino’s future projects were destined to fail, both critically and commercially. Critics widely agreed that Cimino’s reputation as an irresponsible director with unrealistic ambitions (a reputation mostly established during the filming of The Deer Hunter) is to blame for his inability to become a successful Hollywood director.

He Is/Was a “Pathological Liar”

It turns out that Cimino lied about his military service while both making and promoting the film. According to Vanity Fair, several people who worked closely with Cimino during the production of The Deer Hunter wrongly assumed that he drew from his own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam.

Scandal at the 1979 Berlinale - Michael Cimino
Photo by Chris Hoffmann / picture alliance via Getty Images

Cimino didn’t do much to correct the false assumption. “Mike is or was a pathological liar,” is what the film’s screenwriter, Deric Washburn, told Vanity Fair. Washburn said that the movie would never have been made had Cimino not been a liar.

He Was in the Army, But…

During the promotion phase, Cimino told a reporter in an interview that he had enlisted in the Army in 1968, during the peak of the Vietnam War. He said he was “attached to a Green Beret medical unit” but was never deployed. Yes, that was a lie.

Michael Cimino and Actor Robert De Niro, 1979
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Cimino did join the Army, but in 1962. He only served for six months, and he was never attached to Special Forces. Screenwriter Deric Washburn may have called Cimino a full-blown liar, but Washburn also took his liberties while writing the film. According to Washburn, he and Cimino came up with the idea for the movie over three days in a hotel in Los Angeles…

The Screenwriter Didn’t Interview One Veteran

It was Cimino, though, who was contracted to rewrite the original script (written by Louis Garfinkel and Quinn Redeker). Producer Michael Deeley didn’t know it at the time, but Cimino – whom he referred to as a “pretty slippery guy” – had subcontracted to another writer, Deric Washburn. Washburn, who ended up receiving full credit for the screenplay, had written before for the theater but had very limited film experience.

The Deer Hunter behind the scenes photo
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In fact, he was a carpenter by trade and didn’t know anything about Vietnam aside from what he saw on the news. Ironically, he didn’t bother to do any real research for the film’s script. “I had a month, that was it,” he confessed to Vanity Fair. “But all I had to do was watch TV. Those combat cameramen in Vietnam were out there in the field with the guys.”

John Cazale Died After the Film Wrapped Up

By the time actor John Cazale starred in The Deer Hunter as “Stosh,” he was already a seasoned actor. We all know him from the first two Godfathers, as well as Dog Day Afternoon and The Conversation. “I learned more about acting from John than anybody,” Al Pacino said once of Cazale.

The Deer Hunter behind the scenes photo
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Unfortunately, at only 42, Cazale was dying of bone cancer. Worried that the studio would fire him if they found out, Cimino didn’t tell anyone about Cazale’s illness for as long as he could. “John was dying the whole time we were shooting,” Cimino told The New Statesman.

Meryl Streep Stuck Around to Be With Cazale

Eventually, the studio (Universal Pictures) did find out and refused to insure him. That’s when Robert De Niro, a true mensch, footed the bill. Cazale, by the way, was dating his co-star Meryl Streep at the time, and she remained by his side until he passed in March 1978.

On the set of The Deer Hunter
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Streep actually accepted the role of the “vague, stock girlfriend” for the purpose of sticking around for the duration of filming with Cazale. It was thanks to De Niro that she was cast in the film. He spotted her in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard and suggested to Cimino that she play his girlfriend, Linda.

The Film Was a Game of Russian Roulette in Itself

Speaking of De Niro and death, the actor – who was 35 at the time – nearly died making the film. 40 years after The Deer Hunter debuted, actors John Savage and George Dzundza revealed the battles that went on behind the cameras, and De Niro’s near-death was one of them…

Robert De Niro In 'The Deer Hunter'
Photo by Universal/Getty Images

De Niro’s co-star and life-long friend John Savage said, “Bobby was our leader; he and the director made sure this film would become special.” But making The Deer Hunter turned out to be a game of Russian roulette in and of itself.

They Went to Extreme Lengths to Make the Anti-War Movie

Savage, who played Steven in the film, revealed that he and his fellow cast members, including Christopher Walken, Jon Voight and Meryl Streep, took their lives into their hands. They dodged deadly log jams and snakes, found themselves dangling out of a helicopter and were seconds from being sent to their deaths 60 feet below.

Copter lifting men in a scene from the film 'The Deer Hunter',
Photo by United Artists/Getty Images

De Niro and the cast were willing to go to extreme lengths to get the movie’s powerful anti-war message to the big screen. “There is no way any studio today would allow their stars or crew to face the risks we did making The Deer Hunter,” Savage asserted.

Shooting in Thailand Meant a Constant Threat of Kidnapping

The film about life on the edge was very much like that behind the scenes. “None of us realized how much danger we were in – it felt like we were going to war just to make this movie,” Savage recalled. “Bob, Chris and I are lucky to be alive. We almost got killed.” The film’s war scenes were shot in Thailand, and the cast and crew were constantly under threat of being kidnapped.

The Deer Hunter behind the scenes photo
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As Savage explained, back then, Thailand was far from stable. Armed refugees and military groups were “running wild.” He said, “many of them saw us as a way of making a quick buck.” Sure, it was a real threat, and Cimino even hired armed guards for protection. But Savage, De Niro and Walken found themselves in more direct danger when they were dangling from a bridge above a river for a flashback scene.

Near-Death Stunt #1: Hanging on for Their Lives

As the three actors were holding on to the bridge’s supports, an army helicopter accidentally sliced their metal safety cables. Oops. There they were, clinging on for their lives above the rocks with the raging river 60 feet below, looking at their probable deaths.

The Deer Hunter publicity still
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Savage described the moment: “We knew we were in trouble when the cables got cut. Amazingly, Chris, who is an athlete and a dancer, pulled himself up and into the helicopter, which flew up, leaving Bobby and I hanging from the sliced cable in an absolute panic, knowing this could be the end of our lives.”

“Don’t Call Me by My Character Name! We’re F***Ing Going to Die Here!”

Savage remembers De Niro screaming right next to him, “Sh**!” as they both were looking down. “What do we do? Should we drop – there’s rocks and sh** down there!” Savage was, amazingly, still in character. He was calling De Niro by his character name.

Robert De Niro and John Savage to soak in a river
Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images

He yelled to him, “Michael, Michael, I’m not sure we should drop in the water there.” Then De Niro yelled back at him, “Jesus Christ, John. Don’t call me by my character name! We’re f***ing going to die here!” According to Savage’s version of the story, he started laughing and just said, “I’m going.”

They Went From One Close Call to Another

The two then looked at each other and dropped. “God knows how, but we missed the rocks, and the water took us to the side of the production boat below,” Savage recalled. Once they landed on the deck of the boat, they stared at one another.

The Deer Hunter publicity still
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Then they looked up to see the helicopter wavering as it was stuck to the cable on the bridge. Luckily, somebody crawled out and pushed it off. “Had that not happened, the ’copter could have crashed down on us, too.” And if that wasn’t enough of a close call, De Niro then noticed a snake on Savage’s leg.

And Then… a Deadly Snake

After a near-death accident, Savage had yet another near-lethal moment seconds later. He said the snake (a Thai Banded Krait) was wrapped around his leg, and his reactions were slow as he was still in disbelief at what had just happened. He was like a deer in the headlights and simply froze.

The Deer Hunter publicity still
MoviestillsDB.com, Copyrights: EMI Films

Then, one of the guys on the boat calmly removed the snake and cut its head off – just like that. Only later did that guy tell Savage that the snake’s bite is deadly. But this was just one of the grueling events that occurred while filming The Deer Hunter.

Near-Death Stunt #2: The Log Scene

The three leading men soon found themselves in more deep water when they had to shoot the famous logs scene in another fast-moving river. “We hung off the logs as the water pushed them around,” Savage explained. “I got pushed down in shallow water, trapping my legs in the wet sand.”

The Deer Hunter publicity still
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Suddenly, the rest of the logs were coming toward them and could easily have taken them under. That’s when Walken shouted, “We’re getting stuck!” Then De Niro went under as the logs rolled out of control. Somehow, Walken pulled Savage out.

The Footage Was Lost Forever

The camera team panicked when they understood what was happening, so they rammed the production boat into the logs to stop the actors from getting crushed by them. The impact ended up dislodging the camera, which then fell in the river. The footage: lost forever.

The Deer Hunter behind the scenes photo
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De Niro managed to get himself out of the water onto the log and used the boat to push the other log away from the danger area. As previously mentioned, the making of the film was like a game of Russian roulette in and of itself.

The Russian Roulette Scenes Almost Didn’t Make It In

One of the most – if not THE most – memorable scene in The Deer Hunter is the Russian roulette scenes when De Niro and Walken fire a partially loaded gun at their own heads. According to John Dzundza, who played John Welsh, the scenes almost failed to make the final cut.

John Savage In 'The Deer Hunter'
Photo by United Artists/Getty Images

Apparently, the studio bosses wanted to take them out. “Those scenes were a metaphor for combat – the fact that you could be instantly killed at any moment,” Dzundza explained. “It was a way of giving that feeling to the audience.”

The Disclaimer Was a First in Film History

Cimino and De Niro fought with distributors and movie studios. The result was an agreement that audiences would be served up with a disclaimer. In fact, it was a first in movie history. Universal decided to release The Deer Hunter in two movie theatres only, in December 1978, for the sole purpose of qualifying for Academy Award consideration.

The Deer Hunter movie poster
Photo By Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

After winning five Oscars and essentially proving its worth, the film went on general release and earned $70 million (it cost $15 million to make). “Any film of true value speaks for itself. It’s like a good poem, and if a poem is good, it’s good,” Dzundza stated. Savage added: “The Deer Hunter is a piece of American history.”

The Botched Wedding Scene

The wedding scene was one that didn’t go as planned, and it’s because there wasn’t much of a plan to begin with. The scene was filmed in a Russian Orthodox Church in Cleveland, and to prepare for it, Cimino took the main cast to an actual Russian wedding in West Virginia.

Robert De Niro And John Savage In 'The Deer Hunter'
Photo by Universal/Getty Images

For an authentic feel, the 30-minute scene features an actual priest and genuine, drunk, Russian immigrants as wedding guests. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond told Vanity Fair that Cimino “didn’t know what he was looking for.”

Their Collapse to the Floor Wasn’t Scripted

That Cimino was shooting in the dark, so to speak, could explain why the director staged a continuous dance party over the course of five days in Cleveland’s St. Theodosius Cathedral. The nonstop party drove the actors to utter exhaustion.

Rutanya Alda And John Savage In 'The Deer Hunter'
Photo by United Artists/Getty Images

At one point, De Niro and Cazale collapsed on the floor after a marathon dance, which is actually seen in the film and wasn’t scripted. “They were so tired,” Zsigmond recalled. “That was obviously an accident, but that’s what [Cimino] was looking for.” It was simply the result of Cimino’s aimless, take-upon-take direction.

Filming Was Postponed Due to a Military Coup

Cimino had insisted on filming in Thailand to make sure the Vietnam scenes looked as real as possible. According to the L.A. Times, it was a decision that really inflated the budget from its initial $7 million to $13 million. And with that, it became a logistical nightmare.

On the set of The Deer Hunter
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The Deer Hunter started filming in 1977, not even a year after a brutal massacre of dozens of civilians and the revolution of the elected government by the military (the coup). The Thai military’s supreme leader, Kriangsak Chomanan, served as The Deer Hunter’s liaison in Thailand.

“Barry, Barry… Please, Please.”

As such, Chomanan provided the film’s production with loads upon loads of military vehicles, weapons, and aircraft. Then, one day, the leader asked for all of it back. In an interview with Vanity Fair, the film’s producer Barry Spikings described what happened when he tried to protest Chomanan’s order.

Voight, Fonda And Cimino Hold Oscars At Academy Awards, CA, 1979.
Jon Voight, Jane Fonda with Michael Cimino at the 51st Annual Academy Awards. Photo by Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images

The general said to him: “Barry, Barry — please, please. You’re making a movie — I have a military coup. But it won’t take long. There’ll be a few people who’ll get shot on Sunday, and then you can have the stuff back.” Yup…

Wearing Winter Clothes in the Heat of Thailand

Shooting in Thailand meant the actors were sweating profusely, and it was a challenge for the cinematographer. Inside the trailer, where De Niro’s Mike was supposedly living, the temperature was always above 100°F. Remember, the actors had to wear winter clothing.

The Deer Hunter publicity still
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So, they would start sweating immediately, and the biggest problem when it came to shooting was trying to keep the sweat from showing in the close-ups. The camera operator had to watch very carefully through the lens, and they would repeat shots frequently because of it. They didn’t have an air-conditioner for the first few days, and when they got one, it didn’t work.

Robert De Niro Almost Didn’t Make the Movie

De Niro almost didn’t make The Deer Hunter. The actor said he was planning to take a much-needed break and prepare himself to play the boxer Jake LaMotta in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film, Raging Bull. “I had planned to take a break,” De Niro told The New European.

The Deer Hunter publicity still
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It had been a busy period for him; he had just finished Taxi Driver and 1900 and was training for Raging Bull. “The Deer Hunter was… a film I felt I had to do,” he affirmed, and Scorsese was fine waiting for his star actor to film another movie before his.

There Were Reports of Copycat Deaths

Of course, De Niro had absolutely no idea just how exhausting The Deer Hunter was going to be to make. He also didn’t know that the production would be moved to Thailand for the war scenes. Furthermore, the already spent actor didn’t expect the aftermath of the scenes that shocked the nation.

Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter
Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

The scenes where De Niro, Savage and Walken were forced to play Russian roulette only added to the controversy surrounding the film. Reportedly, there were reports of copycat deaths. Playing the scenes themselves also left a permanent mark on the three actors.

De Niro Had His Issues With the Scenes

During the Russian roulette scenes, when the characters were forced to play in captivity, De Niro explained that he always felt it wasn’t truly representative of the times. He insisted that it would have resonated more if the Vietcong had made them play for ideals rather than for money.

The male cast of The Deer Hunter
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

“For me, the scene should have been about recanting, ‘saying you’re wrong’ and not about money,” De Niro stated. “They were fighting for what they believed was right… It would have been stronger, more powerful, and more accurate than money.”

It Was Supposed to Be Two Hours Long, Not Three

EMI Films, the production company, was faced with a film that grew to be over three hours long. The initial agreement was a two-hour movie. The three British producers – Michael Deeley, Barry Spikings and John Peverall – had a falling out with each other over the length.

The Deer Hunter behind the scenes photo
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Cimino assured them that the wedding scene, which was set before the young men are deployed to Vietnam, would just be a “flicker” of screen time. In effect, it was over 40 minutes long. Deeley called the director “duplicitous, and that’s being kind.” Spikings, however, felt that Cimino was filming cinematic gold.

The Shoot Was “Full of Love and Chemistry”

De Niro “always felt that The Deer Hunter was going to be a good movie.” He added: “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it.” He mentioned that the film has its flaws, but there was still something “very special” about it.

Christopher Walken stars in the Vietnam War film 'The Deer Hunter',
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2019, Jay Glennie released his book, One Shot – The Making of The Deer Hunter, which involves interviews with the cast and crew. In it, we understand that De Niro, Walken, and Dzundza remember the shoot, despite the near-death incidents, being “full of love and chemistry,” in particular, the hunting trip.

The Hunted Deer’s Hollywood Career

Producer Michael Deeley wrote a book called Blade Runners, Deer Hunters, and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, in which he recounts his time working on the film. One of the film’s elements that remains an oddity is the source of the deer used in the hunting sequences.

 Robert De Niro and Chuck Aspegren in a scene from the movie
Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images

In one famous scene in the first act, De Niro’s character wanders off alone before squaring off with a staggering buck, whom he ended up releasing. As it turns out, that buck has a bit of a resume in Hollywood. Aside from his work on this Oscar-winning film, he also starred in a commercial for a Connecticut-based insurance company.

The Important Pennsylvania Scenes Were Filmed in Washington State

Cimino’s demanding vision for the film led his location scouts to put together their version of Clairton, Pennsylvania – a fictional steel town where the characters hailed from. What ultimately appeared on the screen was a configuration of scenes filmed in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington state, and Ohio.

Robert De Niro, in military uniform, being celebrated by Chuck Aspegren
Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images

Of the four states, Washington was the setting for some of the most significant elements in the film, including the famous deer hunt. The land close to Washington’s U.S.-Canada border served as the setting for the nearby Allegheny Mountains.

They Destroyed Local Vegetation to Mimic Winter in an Industrial Town

Since filming began in the middle of summer, and the dense forests surrounding the steel mill in the establishing sequence were too summer-like, they had to make it look a lot more like winter – the season the sequence was set in.

Meryl Streep glances at John Cazale's face in a scene from the the movie
Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images

To achieve the wintery effect, production opted to defoliate the trees and spray the grass with chemicals to give them a brown, wilted look. The production’s greenkeeper went to work while basically risking the long-term health of a good deal of plants. Sorry, tree huggers, but no pain, no gain.

The Script and the Drama That Came With It

The final script had one credited screenplay writer, and that was Deric Washburn (the one Cimino subcontracted). But its four “story by” credits are credited to the long road that led to the movie we now know. The Deer Hunter really began as The Man Who Came to Play, a gambling movie set in Las Vegas that centered on Russian roulette.

Robert De Niro
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

EMI, the record company, turned production company, acquired the script. After preliminary talks with Cimino, the setting was changed to Vietnam’s jungles. Ultimately, the Writers Guild awarded Washburn sole screenplay credit.

Cimino Was Found Dead in His Apartment

Cimino, also famous for the film Heaven’s Gate, was found dead at his home in Los Angeles on July 2, 2016. He was 77. His death was confirmed by his friend and former lawyer, Eric Weissmann. The police found him in his home after friends were unable to reach him by phone.

Filming of Heaven's Gate
Michael Cimino and Kris Kristofferson on the set of ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The cause of death, for some reason, was never determined or released to the public. Cimino was also a painter, art student and commercial director. By the time he filmed The Deer Hunter, Cimino, who won the Oscar for best director, had the film industry at his feet and could do whatever he wanted.

His Next Film Was Pretty Reckless

After The Deer Hunter, Cimino reached a deal with United Artists to make another movie from a screenplay he wrote called The Johnson County War. It was about a bloody conflict involving immigrant farmers, landed cattle ranchers, mercenaries and U.S. marshals in 1890s Wyoming.

The Deer Hunter behind the scenes photo
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Cimino was given a budget of $12 million and two and a half months to film a feature that the studio hoped to have ready before Christmas 1979. Instead, the film was renamed Heaven’s Gate, took almost a year and cost over $40 million to make. (Come on, Universal. Didn’t you hear about the whole Deer Hunter ordeal?)

It Was a Critical and Commercial Flop

Sadly, for Cimino (and everyone involved), Heaven’s Gate was a critical and commercial flop. It entered theaters as a three-and-a-half-hour-long film that basically served as a cautionary tale of an unrestrained director given permission to indulge his every whim by shy executives who ultimately brought their studio to the ground.

Heaven's Gate publicity still
Heaven’s Gate publicity still. Source: MovieStillsDB.com, Copyrights: Partisan Productions

Variety, the industry trade publication, cautioned that many facts about Cimino’s life are “shrouded in conflicting information.” He was raised on Long Island, went to Michigan State University and later to Yale. After directing TV commercials in New York, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter.

A “Big, Awkward, Crazily Ambitious” Project

His first effort as a feature director was with 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. Cimino wrote the script and worked quickly — Eastwood said he never wanted to do more than three takes of any scene — and the movie became a hit.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot promo shot
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot promo shot. Source: MovieStillsDB.com, Copyrights: The Malpaso Company

His next major feature film direction was The Deer Hunter, and Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “a big, awkward, crazily ambitious, sometimes breathtaking motion picture that comes as close to being a popular epic as any movie about this country since The Godfather.”