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The Hollywood Reporter‘s Feb. 27 Oscars issue featured the first major interview with reclusive director Michael Cimino (1978’s The Deer Hunter, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate) in more than13 years. It was edited and condensed from a two-hours-plus phone exchange with the 76-year-old filmmaker. The following is an unabridged transcript of that conversation.
Have you seen American Sniper?
Yes, I have.
What were your feelings on it?
I think they should cancel the awards and give all the gold to Clint [Eastwood]. It’s his best work as a director. By far.
Can you expand on that? Why do you feel that way?
For all of the reasons that people like it. It’s beautifully acted. It’s shot well. There’re no weak links in the movie. I think the guy emerges as a star. I think that it’s very smooth in all of its transitions. It’s very fluid. And you’re not ever, you never feel an abrupt shift, a time shift or a place, a shift in place or time. It’s so well done, you don’t notice, you just go with the flow of the whole piece. I don’t think very many people, I don’t know of anybody else who could have done this movie. I think that also, I think the actors, and it’s Bradley Cooper, right?
Yep. I think that with Clint directing, he inspired them by virtue of what he is and who he is as a man, as a principled guy. I mean, he’s remained my friend for over 40 years. He’s responsible for my career. I wouldn’t even be talking to you were it not for Clint.
He took a big chance on you in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
Huge. And that’s one of the great things about him, is that he’s never been afraid to take a chance on new people, on new cameramen, on new writers, directors, whatever. He’s very generous and he’s got a good eye for people. What you see is what he is. I mean, there’s no pretension about Clint in any way. He could be Bradley. He could be that character. And I think that his physical and spiritual presence during the making of the movie could not have helped but inspire all of the people in it. You know, I think he’s kind of a living example of the spirit of this man.
And I don’t think there are other directors, including myself, given the same resources, the same cast, the same situation, the same locations, could have got the same result that he did. I think he got an extraordinary result because he is an extraordinary man. And he inspired these people. I guess that’s as well as I can put it at the moment. You know, I just saw it, so it’s fresh in my mind. I just saw it the other day. And ’cause it had been delayed, they sent my screeners [to the wrong house]. They never know where to send the damn things.
And I was really, really, really, really impressed. I was proud, I was impressed. He’s a guy who stands by his convictions, and I think the movie also demonstrates that, you know?
How does Sniper compare with Deer Hunter?
It’s not, you know, in my view, much like Deer Hunter. Though it was characterized in other ways, it’s not a political movie. It’s not about the rightness or the wrongness of the war of this or that. It could be any conflict at any time, but it deals with the impact on the people who go to war and on the people who stay behind — the wife, the kids, friends, etc. It’s the impact of trauma, the trauma that war inflicts inevitably.
I mean, war is a brutal, messy business however you cut it, whatever you think about it. It is not a pleasant enterprise. There’s nothing but brutality and bravery or cowardice that comes out of war. That’s pretty much it.
And I think that Clint making a movie like this with so much feeling, with so much heart, at this stage of his career is rather extraordinary. I think it’s very, very special. I applaud him; I’m glad I’m still his friend. I’m glad I know him. I’m proud to know him. And he means what he says, he says what he means, and there’s no entourage with Clint. When you meet with Clint, it’s Clint. There aren’t 12 guys hanging around.
I remember we saw The Wild Bunch together in New York at a theater — it was myself, my producer, Joann Carelli and Clint, the three of us went to the theater. We watched it and then we walked down to P.J. Clark’s and had a hamburger. And no big deal. You know, Jeff Bridges, the same way. And I was fortunate enough, so fortunate, unbelievably fortunate, to have the both of them in my first film, which [is now] miraculous, given the state of cinema in these recent years. You know, they were my first choice, both of them. Nobody else ever got to read the script. Clint got it, Jeff got it, they said yes. George Kennedy, Jeffrey Lewis and we went.
And never have I had such a good time and a great experience making a movie. I would go to Clint every day and say, “Hey, boss, you happy with the dailies?” He said, “Michael, you just keep shooting what you’re shooting.” He says, “You’re one of the few people I’ve ever met who has an eye for scope.” He said, “I’ve done so many films with great backgrounds and when I see the cut, it looks like it could have been shot in Burbank.” He said, “But you have an eye for scope. Whatever you’ve written on that page,” he said, “just keep putting it on the screen.”
And how much simpler can you be? How much more honest and direct can someone be? You know, it’s no committees, no second-guessing, no video cameras on the set, just an amazing experience. When I look back on it, given all of my experiences since then, it was the best, by far the best. It was something special. I treasure it.
What are your memories of the night Deer Hunter won five Oscars?
I feel very, very upset that when it came time for me to get an Academy Award, I [only] thanked my cast. I, you know, I was in the middle of preparing Heaven’s Gate, I was going back and forth to Montana and they had to remind me, I was on the floor measuring somebody’s outfit at Western Costumes. And the chauffeur had to come in and say, “Michael, you’ve got to go home and change.” I said, “For what?” I forgot that it was the awards that night. He says, “You’ve got to go downtown.” I said, “What am I doing downtown?” He said, “Well, it’s the Academy Awards.” So I jumped in the limo, drove to my house, changed my clothes, went back down, do the thing, next day, get on a charter plane, bam, right back to Montana and start working.
So I never really had time to digest it. And Clint should have been the first person I thanked because without Clint, though he was not directly involved with that movie, I would not have been up on that stage, I would not have had the chance to make Deer Hunter. He made it possible for me to do that movie. And I’ve always felt badly that I didn’t say, “I want to specially thank Clint Eastwood.” And I was doubly humbled by getting one of the statues from John Wayne, who has been a hero all my life with all the great, great movies he’s made with John Ford, an inspiration. So two legends, hard to express what one feels. Hard to express. It’s a bit overwhelming.
You say Deer Hunter and American Sniper are different films, but watching them, I did see parallels. For example, they both deal in the grief of war.
Yes, especially at the end, the way it ends with the flashback to the death of the real protagonist and the reaction of people with flags. And it reminded me of [the ending of Deer Hunter, when De Niro, Meryl Streep and others break out and sing] “God Bless America, which again was not meant to be a political statement. It was simply a group of people making a communal sound. You know, when you’re overwhelmed with grief, what can you do? I mean, you’ll see women in Africa, in Arabia, in Indonesia wail. But in America, we don’t wail. And I think what people do is reach out for a common, some common expression that everybody doesn’t have to think, because everybody knows that particular song and they just break into it spontaneously.
And that idea came from an experience in a restaurant in Pittsburgh, where people actually one night for no reason whatsoever broke into that song. Had nothing to do with anything. It was just a totally spontaneous event. And it’s just a way of uniting, of relieving the grief and knitting back the family because that is a family. And I felt that the ending of Sniper with the multitudes of people — I’d never seen that footage before, so it kind of overwhelmed me. And I had the same emotion.
But my God, I don’t understand for the life of me how it could have been overlooked for the Academy Awards, how Clint could have been overlooked. I’m so happy he’s up for the DGA thing. I’m going to be at that. I think it’s next week.
You’re going to be at the DGA Awards?
Every year they have a breakfast in the morning for all of the nominees. And the people invited to attend are past winners of the DGA Award. So I’m going to that. I think it’s on a Saturday. And last time he got one I was there. And it was great to see him — it’s always great to see him. He just reminds you that there are real human beings in the film business.
Have you reached out to him since you saw the film?
No, I just saw it yesterday. So I think I’ll simply hold off until I see him in person and say, “Hey, boss, number one.”
Deer Hunter was a big part of my childhood — I have distinct memories of my father being very affected by it. But I was too young to remember how it was received when it first came out. What was the reaction?
All I know is that it was an overwhelming, emotional reaction. It was shocking. We were in theaters and doing previews and my assistants would come running up to me [in Westwood], where we screened it only for two weeks or 10 days. You have to screen for 10 days in L.A. to qualify for the [Oscars], which Sniper is not doing. I mean, it just opened and it’s running straight through. But we were trying something new and which people imitate now, but at that time, nobody had done it before, which is that we opened for two weeks, and there’s a limited sale of tickets. And then after we got the awards, then we opened the movie.
But I remember, at the very first screening, my assistant, who at that time was the daughter of Robert Shaw, the actor, her name was Penny Shaw. You remember Robert Shaw, the great English actor, you know who he is, right? You know Robert Shaw?
Yes, sure, of course.
Yeah, OK, his daughter, she was with me in the editing room the entire time. And we were sitting in the back row of the — I’ve forgotten the name of the theater in Westwood — and people were just driving up in cars, just a line of cars. And someone would run out and buy 12 tickets. Someone would run out and buy 20 tickets. And this kept going and going and going and going.
And then we had a screening and Penny came running up to me and said, “Michael, you’ve got to come quick, come quick to the lobby.” I said, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “Come with me.” And the ladies room was filled with women who were weeping and wailing and just broke down crying. There were ex-vets who literally crawled up the aisle out of their seat. It was just an astounding, astounding reaction.
I mean, all of the letters that I received after that and still receive, oddly after all these years. One in particular, I think it was a black sergeant, and he said, “You know, somebody told me about this move, The Deer Hunter, I went to see it.” And he was a combat vet, and he said, “I don’t know, man, that was … I don’t know what that was, that was no movie.” He said, “When those choppers came up the river, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, stood on end, I crawled out of the theater.” It was an overwhelming emotional reaction.
What about critics? Do their opinions matter?
I’m not in the habit of reading reviews or opinions, I’ve still got unopened stacks of all the stuff that was written about Deer Hunter, about Heaven’s Gate, about Year of the Dragon because in each one I was categorized, you know — first film, I was homophobic, second film, I was a right-wing fascist, third film, I was a left-wing racist, this and that, left-wing Marxist, and fourth film, I was a racist. So they couldn’t make up their mind what I was.
But there is no doubt who Clint is. There never was, in my opinion. And I just wish that night that I was fortunate enough to be on that stage. [It] was John Wayne‘s last public appearance. I was so overcome. And I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to acknowledge the debt I owed Clint and feel I still owe him.
So I’m sure there are areas in the U. S., I mean, I don’t know, you probably know better than I. But the film is doing so well that I’m sure in certain parts of the country, in certain kinds of population mixes, there are similar emotional reactions. There’s got to be some kind of extreme emotional reaction for the movie to be doing that well. You know what? It hasn’t happened since The Deer Hunter. I mean, all the movies that have been made about war were, from Platoon to the thing the girl made about the box…
You mean Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker?
The Hurt Locker, right. “The box.” (Laughs.) The Hurt Locker. There’s been none of that. But here there’s an emotional charge.
Well, help me understand that.
‘Cause it’s about people. It’s about people. Movies are about people, there’re not about ideas. It’s like great novels. Great novels are not about ideas. There’s never been a great novel about ideas. You think about the great novels in history. Think of [Gustave] Flaubert, [Madame] Bovary, it’s about Emma, it’s not about an idea. You think about Anna Karenina, it’s not about an idea, it’s about Anna.
Every great movie is about the people, even if it’s a great popular success like Gone With the Wind. It’s really not about the Civil War. It’s about Scarlett and Rhett. That’s who you go to see. You’re not going to root for the North or pull for the South, or, you know, it’s the people you remember. And the great strength of movies is when it creates great characters. The greatest movie — what movie do you love above all movies?
Oh man …
Give me one or two.
The Godfather films, Psycho.
OK, and who do you remember?
You remember Michael Corleone, you remember Norman Bates.
OK, you don’t remember an idea. You remember a character. You remember the people.
But you feel that Platoon, The Hurt Locker somehow fall short of that? How are those different?
No, I don’t think they fall short at all. It’s just that they’re made with a different sensibility. I mean, I love Oliver [Stone], I worked with Oliver, we co-wrote Year of the Dragon together, and I think Oliver’s one of the most talented screenwriters in America, he and Jimmy Toback. And they direct, they’ve both directed movies — Oliver’s won a couple of gold statues. But they are really great writers.
It’s just that Clint has brought a special feeling to this. This is something that has come from within inside of him and the story of this man resonated inside of his body and his soul and his mind and his heart. And those other films don’t do that because they are about the war. Do you see what I mean? They’re about Vietnam or they’re about Iraq. This could have been a movie about any war in any country. And I believe that’s true of Deer Hunter. It’s just about war, period.
And war is hell.
I mean war is … you know, when there is a battle, the most difficult thing about war is the waiting. That’s where the idea of the Russian roulette comes from in Deer Hunter. It’s waiting, waiting for the next thing to happen, waiting to be hit, waiting to be ambushed, waiting for a bomb to go off in your face, waiting, waiting, waiting. How do you dramatize waiting? Well, you can shoot a movie like Andy Warhol did where somebody was asleep for 24 hours. Because a firefight is always very fast. It happens. It’s waiting, waiting, waiting and waiting and then ka-bam! And it’s over and either you are dead, you’re alive or you’re horribly maimed and wounded and you’re on a chopper and the next thing you know, you wind up at Fort Sam at the Burn Center in San Antonio.
And I mean, you look at the great John Ford Westerns, there’s always a reference in Ford to Wayne being reverential toward the South usually. In The Searchers, he identifies with the South. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, he pays tribute to that older Southerner, I think it was a colonel, I can’t remember exactly the name. But he’s in the war as a private and Wayne salutes him as a colonel. But none of the Ford movies are about the North and the South. They allude to it, but it’s about characters in another situation. It’s not about the war. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear to you or not.
I understand what you’re saying.
I have a feeling you’re not agreeing with me.
No, I’m letting you think it out. I’m letting you talk it out. Let me ask you this: Can you make a war film that’s anti-patriotic? Alternately, can you make a war film that is very patriotic?
Sure. I mean, in World War II, look at all the American movies that were pro-Allies. And I’m sure you can find movies to the contrary. I believe Ford was an admiral when he made They Were Expendables with Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, Joanne Drew. I mean they were magnificent. Robert Montgomery was at his very, very best.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, it’s black and white. And if you haven’t seen it, you should make an effort to see it ’cause it is a beautiful, beautiful, understated story of the men who served on the fast boats, the PT boats as they were called, you know, that [John F.] Kennedy was on. And it’s a magnificent war story about the war. But again, even there, where it’s clearly, you know, a pro-American story, it’s still about the three characters: Robert Montgomery, who was in the war, John Wayne and Joanne Drew, they give three of their finest performances.
But with The Deer Hunter, I mean World War II, of course there weren’t many people who were saying that wasn’t a justified war. But you undertook the first film about the Vietnam War when people still hadn’t processed it. I mean, that had to have been an anti-war film, no?
Well, every good war film, if you want to use that phrase — I don’t think it’s a good phrase, but if you want to use that phrase — every good film, a first-rate film about war, is an anti-war movie. You think of All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone. War is a brutal, bloody, revolting business. And there’s nothing good that comes out of it, as I said. Nothing good comes out of it. Individuals emerge who become special, but it’s a brutal business. All one has to do is look at footage of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, the old footage, and think of the people beneath those bombs. It’s horrific.
And I don’t think you can make a movie that moves you about war which is in some way not anti-war. I think American Sniper is anti-war. I mean, it demonstrates the agony of the decision-making that goes on. When do I pull the trigger, do I pull it on a 10-year-old kid picking up a bazooka or not? Do I shoot this woman or do I not? It’s agony.
But the overall picture isn’t one of an American hero, you know, of someone to aspire to and to identify with.
Well, what do you think he is?
Based on what I have seen in the film, that’s what I think.
You think what?
That he fell into something, he had this talent and he was thrown into this difficult situation and made the best of it, you know, grappled with it and that he probably saved a lot of lives, soldier lives.
But you could also say he’s a mass murderer.
You can’t use that term when it comes to war because all of war is murder, all of it, on both sides. It’s one of the horrific things about it. I mean, there’s no, there’s nothing artful about war, nothing. There is nothing good in it. It’s a simply hell on earth and people survive and people don’t.
I remember seeing an old documentary somewhere about Eisenhower going back after he had left the presidency, going back to Europe. And he was sitting on a wall overlooking those thousands and thousands of white crosses of the men who died at Normandy. And he made this amazing anti-war speech how this must never happen again. So here was a man who was one of the leading reasons we won, and at the same time saying, “This can’t happen again.”
And I think the apocalyptic question today for all of us is, Where is the next World War going to start? Because something is imminent.
What do you make of these, you know, brutal videos that ISIS disseminates?
I’m horrified by them, I’m repulsed by them. I think they’re hard for me to watch. And I can only imagine the agony of the men who are beheaded, because they’re not beheaded by a guillotine where something’s over in an instant or even a headsman’s ax, you know. They’re beheaded by some moron with a dagger sticking it in somebody’s neck. And I just think that they just must have been in awful agony.
And it pains me to look at those people in orange, those orange uniforms, hard to watch, very hard to watch. Very, very, very difficult. Just as it’s hard, it’s equally as hard to watch amputees, American amputees, you know, guys with no legs, guys with prosthetic arms. Just tough, just tough to watch. Tough to watch.
Coming Home was up against Deer Hunter that year, right?
Yes, it was.
What did you make of that film?
Well, I don’t know if you should be quoting me on this, but it was rather interesting because it was produced by Jane Fonda, who at that time, of course, had made films with Ho Chi Minh and was virulent anti-American. And at the Academy Awards she wouldn’t look at me. We were in the same elevator together. Backstage I had just won for something, I don’t know which one I got first, and I got a second one and we were in the same elevator going upstairs from one place to another. She just wouldn’t even look at me.
It was just the two of you?
Yeah. I wanted to say congratulations, but she turned away. And from what I know about the script, the original script was honest, but I think because of her political stance at the time that she managed to turn it into American guilt, if you like. Did you see the movie?
I haven’t seen that film, no.
Oh well, you have to see it because it’s very hard to talk about it if you haven’t seen it. Do you know what the end of the movie is? The end of the movie is the American officer, I think it was played by Bruce Dern, I can’t recall. I know Jon [Voight] was in it, Jon got the Academy Award for it. But I don’t remember, I think it was Bruce Dern.
Yeah, it was, it was Bruce Dern.
And he walks out of unspeakable guilt, overriding guilt, walks into the Pacific Ocean like Norman Maine, do you know who Norman Maine is, from A Star Is Born?
Yes, the alcoholic actor.
When he walks into the ocean to drown himself. Well, Dern walks into the ocean and drowns himself out of guilt.
That’s not what the original script was. The original script was that character is so filled with rage that he strides the hillsides of Laurel Canyon onto the 101, as I recall, and he’s got a machine gun with him. And he walks … somehow he gets to the center of the freeway and it’s oncoming traffic in both directions and he’s just howling, just begins firing in a circle at every car in sight. It’s an apocalypse, cars are blowing up all over the place.
Now, that was the real ending. But that’s coming from a real character. A real character doesn’t walk into the ocean out of guilt and then drown himself. So you don’t have that kind of moviemaking in order to prove a point about your political conviction in American Sniper.
Well, it was based on a true story, so you couldn’t really change what happened.
Well, I could tell you that in all the research that we did over the years, even after the movie, were stories of women dealing with vets who came home sitting on the rooftop all night doing all kinds of crazy, wacko things. You would not believe some of the stories. And so the original idea rings true to me because I could understand that happening coming out of that war, especially if it was a guy who came out of something as brutal as the Ia Drang Valley, which is one of the fiercest battles of the entire war. I could emotionally connect with that idea. But I can’t connect with the idea of a guy who walks into the water and slowly drowns himself.
Well, that’s A Star Is Born, you know. That’s not exactly a powerful movie. I mean it’s a guy who’s upset because his wife is a big star and he’s no longer a big star. So he walks in the ocean to kill himself. That’s kind of sappy.
It’s a cop-out.
Well, you said it, I didn’t.
And you think it’s Jane Fonda who was the one to have it changed?
Well, she’s the only one who had the power; she was the producer.
She felt you were supportive of Vietnam? Had she not seen the film?
She claims she never saw it.
So why didn’t she want to look at you?
Because I had already been labeled a right-wing fascist.
Oh, people in the press, people in the business, people all over the place.
Had you ever spoken to her after that night?
Never, never had a chance to ever be in her presence since that night. Jon is a friend, an old friend, and I was happy to see Jon get the award. And [Jon and I have] spoken since then about various things, but I’ve never seen her ever again.
She apologized recently for that photograph of her in the tank.
Well, I don’t know how far that goes, an awful lot of guys died.
And so are you happy having won all those Oscars for Deer Hunter? Or did you feel maybe that it sort of set you up unfairly for your next film?
No, of course I was happy. I was thrilled. I mean, I was tongue-tied. And being so young, I mean, you know, it was rather overwhelming, which is one of the reasons I couldn’t speak very well. I took an ad out in Variety and I tried to explain why I neglected to thank certain people because I was just overcome with emotion. You know, you go out in front of thousands of people. And they were all people in the business, and all people who voted for you. And it’s, it’s hard not to be moved.
So you took out an ad in Variety to …
Well, I took out an ad to try to make up for my, the shortfall of my dumb-ass acceptance speech.
Your definitive cut for Heaven’s Gate made it to the screen and is available now. Are you happy with it?
Yeah. And it just had, just overwhelming responses. It was at Venice and it was just a half-hour standing ovation, and New York Film Festival, same thing. And just packed, I mean the minute they announced it, it was sold out in 10 minutes. And then of course at the Lumiere Festival in France, the biggest film theater I know of in the world, 6,000 people, was filled from top to bottom. It was overwhelming. I got on the stage, I couldn’t speak. It was just, I mean, 6,000 people giving you a standing ovation is quite an experience.
And so obviously a moment of huge vindication for you? To go from the initial reception of the film to this 6,000-person standing ovation, I assume?
I’m sorry, I’m not understanding your question.
That you felt vindicated finally for your vision.
Oh no, I didn’t need vindication. It wasn’t about vindication. It was really more … at the New York Film Festival, I was most pleased that Kris Kristofferson was able to attend. And we sat next to each other, you know, and nobody moved, I mean, nobody left their seat, it was just … And then when there was this burst of applause, I said to Kris, “How does it feel to hear applause after 40 years?” And he just smiled.
And I got on the stage with him. I said, “Well, here we are at the scene of the crime. Not all the players are with us but we’re here. And we’re happy you liked what you saw.” And no, I never needed vindication and I don’t feel that way about it. I don’t think anything was vindicated. I didn’t need vindication. I mean, I knew what I had done.
And it’s sort of like, you know, almost every guy making movies today uses a video camera alongside the film camera or the digital camera to check what a scene looks like. And I never used that, I’ve never used that and I never would use that. Because if you don’t know what you’ve got in the camera … I never even look at dailies. I’ve never looked at dailies in my life. I know what I have, I know it’s on film or on digital and I just tell the editor to start cutting. And when I finish shooting, I’ll take a week off and then join you in the cutting room and we’ll work together.
I think it’s a sign of insecurity, you know, when you don’t know what you’ve got or you’re unsure of the images that you’ve just put on record on some either electronic or on film. And you need to check and you need to have a group, and assemble a group of crew and whatever around you, everybody giving you their opinion. I mean, I don’t even show the film, the dailies, to the actors. It’s one of the worst things you could probably do. Then they start making all kinds of adjustments that they don’t need to do.
Is it you true that you changed the locks on the doors so that nobody could get in while you edited it?
No, I never put chained locks on any doors. That’s a silly story, I don’t know where that comes from.
I give everything I have to the actors. One of my primary jobs is to make them look as good as they’ve ever looked, to give the best performance they’ve ever given. I don’t personally like this idea of the adulation that directors receive. I don’t like it. Directors should be faceless. They’re behind the camera, they’re not in the front of the camera. The people in front of the camera, OK, put their pictures up on the wall, put them on the theater, do documentaries about them, shoot stuff.
But I prefer the days when … I mean, it was a long time before I knew what John Ford looked like. He looked like an old bum, which I loved. That’s pretty much how I look like on the set. (Laughs.) Scruffy and dirty and smoking a chewed-up cigar, which I don’t do anymore. But in those days, you didn’t have any idea. The only person you knew, you could recognize, is [Alfred] Hitchcock because he did that TV thing. But you didn’t know who Bill Wellman was, you didn’t know what Howard Hawks was, you didn’t know, you didn’t know what these guys looked like. They were just names. And I liked that.
I mean, I would have preferred to come along much earlier in the history of movies and have been making movies in the days when directors were under contract to studios. And you made three films a year instead of one film every three years or every 13 years. I mean, people crack me up when they say, “Oh,” they finish a movie, “oh, I’ve got to take a three-month vacation.” I mean, you’re never more ready to shoot a movie than when you just finish a movie. Everything is cooking, you know, you’re sharp.
It’s like football. Can you imagine a team playing or Tom Brady saying, “You know, OK, we won the championship. Now before the Super Bowl, I’ve got to go to Tahiti for three months?” No! You’ve got to get to the next game quickly while you’re hot. And somehow the industry knew that then. The old moguls knew that then and people worked more. And I think the more you work, the better you are.
I mean, when you think of the fact that Victor Fleming … Victor Fleming made Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same year. Now today, between them it would take 30 years. It’s ridiculous. And nobody even knows who Victor Fleming looks like. I don’t even know what he looks like, I’ve never seen a picture of him.
So you feel directors have become too “celebrity-ized”?
Yeah, they’ve become merchandised and I think they should be hidden. I think they should be faceless. I don’t think just because you’re a director entitles you to celebrity. Look at Ford. I mean, he used to do a movie and then he’d get on his boat with a bunch of his crew, play cards and drink and sail to Hawaii or wherever the hell he went.
Well, I guess you could say that those guys have gone to TV.
Those sort of hard-working, journeymen directors who’ll do tons of episodes of a show like Breaking Bad or something. But you don’t know who they are.
No, but I’m talking about the really good guys.
Right. But now don’t you need to sort of parlay your persona into getting more films made, like with Quentin Tarantino? I mean, he’s a brand, you know.
Well, he’s a nut. He’s a great guy, he’s funny as hell but he’s a nut, I love him. (Laughs.) He’s totally crazy. And interestingly, he comes from the same town, Knoxville, Tennessee, where the greatest American film critic whoever lived, James Agee comes from. You know who Agee is, of course. He wrote the screenplay of The African Queen amongst all of his other accomplishments.
Yes, sure. Are you friends with Tarantino?
Who do you count among your closest friends in the industry?
Well, you have to understand I’m not a film person. I don’t come from film. I did study film. I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t go to school to learn how to write. I mean, I come from architecture and painting and straight from the Ivy League with three degrees, none of which have done me a bit of good. And now I’m well on my way to getting my doctorate. I wanted to be called “Doctor,” you know, before I was 18. And I was sort of something of a child prodigy. But then I got just tired of it and finally just said, “OK, I’m going to work.”
So I got into film really by accident. I came out to California because I had friends here, I had family here in the South Bay area. And I loved the lifestyle. You know, everybody I knew at that time rode dirt bikes, horses, flew airplanes, surfed, the real outdoor life and I loved it. And for a while I was happy to be a part of it.
Were you heavily into hunting and he-man things and outdoors?
Well, that’s where the scene from, that’s part of where Deer Hunter comes from. I did go hunting and there was one day where I couldn’t do it anymore. I put the gun down and that’s where that comes from, just laying aside the weapon and not shooting and saying, “OK.” It’s a very personal movie, that movie, even right down to the wedding. I mean, my best friend at the time was a White Russian, of White Russian-descent, Nikanor Chebotarevich. Which was the name that Christopher Walken has, Nikanor Chebotarevich. And I was best man in his wedding. So the thing that you see in the wedding is what I did, walk around in a circle and into that glorious Russian wedding music. If you’re going to have a wedding, have a Russian wedding, ’cause it’s the best. (Laughs.)
Everybody dances, everybody has fun, everybody cooks their own food. It’s just a great, great, great, unforgettable time.
You say you’re not part of the film world. But of course, you have been for years.
I’m part of it by collision. You know, we collided. But I don’t have a lot of close friends in the industry, I have more friends outside of it. You know, my heroes were people like Frank Lloyd Wright and certain writers. I mean, you know, [Vladimir] Nabokov, Flaubert, [Leo] Tolstoy, you know, great painters, [Edgar] Degas, [Wassily] Kandinsky, great composers.
You know, I wasn’t like one of these … For example, Quentin knows every goddamned movie that’s ever been made. ‘Cause he worked in a video store. So he knows everything. He knows everything about movies that I don’t know. (Laughs.) And he can quote you lines from the most obscure science movie that’s ever been made from 1920-something and he’ll know what it is. And I have no idea what he’s talking about.
So I’m sort of an accidental filmmaker, you know, I come to it by accident. I sort of bumped into it. And then the results have been what you’ve seen for better or for worse. And I had the great good luck, impossibly good luck to have my first experience with Mr. Eastwood, the boss. And Jeff Bridges, it could not have been better. And I’m still collecting checks on that movie, if you can believe it. It’s still shown all over the world.
So what’s your life like these days?
It’s always a struggle to write. It’s a daily struggle.
What are you writing, screenplays?
Well, I’ve been alternating between screenplays and novels, I’ve published a couple of short novels in France. I didn’t want to publish them in English ’cause I loved the characters too much and I didn’t want to subject them to the American critics who were not exactly favorable toward my work, any work that I do. So I didn’t want them brutalized unnecessarily. So I published them in different countries.
You write in English and then have someone translate to French for you?
Yeah. And it’s a hard thing because you’ve really got to go over the translation, painstakingly, you would know what to translate and find the right translator and make sure they’re really translating or not substituting. For example, you might write something funny, a funny line or a funny scene and in France, instead of doing a direct translation of what the characters say or the situation describes, they’ll substitute a French joke. And that could be very aggravating, something that they know will make people laugh simply because they know there’s supposed to be a laugh there. But it has nothing to do with the book you’ve written.
But I was just reading Ezra Pound on a plane a couple of days ago. And I was reading The Cantos. And it is one of the poems where he appeals to the gods, “Oh Venus, oh, Dionysius, oh, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Please give me a little …” I’m paraphrasing wildly … “Give me a little …” Oh, let me see if I have it in front of me. I’ll see if I can find this thing fresh in my mind. This always happens to me, I mark something down and then I can’t find it. (Pause.) Oh here it is! It’s not part of The Cantos, it’s a poem. Well, you’re a writer, did you write things other than articles?
I’ve written short stories and screenplays and whatnot.
Oh good. Then you know what the agony is.
So here goes: It’s from a poem called “The Lake Isle.” And at the end of it, he appeals to the gods, he says, “O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves, Lend me a little tobacco-shop, or install me in any profession. Save this damn’d profession of writing, where one needs one’s brains all the time.” I read that and I said, “Amen, brother.”
I can sympathize, too.
Right. I’m sure you can, what writer couldn’t? So what question do you want to ask me that you haven’t asked me that you’ve been dying to ask me? (Laughs.) Or maybe there’s none, which would be great.
No, there’s a lot.
Well, this is supposed to be about Clint, right?
It’s about him and you.
Well, please make it more about him.
I think people wonder where you went. You’re not seen around as much anymore.
Well, I’m always traveling. Half the time I’m in Europe, the other half of the time I’m in New York. I don’t have that much time to do the club scene in L.A. At one time I did. Every night it was a different club. But that’s kind of a little change right now.
What do you mean “a different club”?
Well, at one time there was a different club every night — that was the night you went. It was the Whiskey Bar one night, there was this other club on another night and you went to another place on another night. Every night, seven days a week, there was a place to go and I was out every night.
Was that the ’70s and ’80s?
Yeah, the 2000s and the ’90s. I was working all the time in the ’80s. I mean, even though … Don’t forget from Heaven’s Gate there was a brief interlude and then Oliver [Stone] and I, in New York, collaborated on the screenplay for Year of the Dragon and then we shot that, part of that was done back in Thailand where I’d done part of Deer Hunter. And then I came back and then there was at least a year spent in Europe on The Sicilian and then there was all the editing on that. And there were two other films. So I didn’t have that much time then.
You’re in L.A. now?
Today I am, yes, as you can tell.
And are you still in a relationship with Joann Carelli?
Yes, she’s my producer.
It’s not personal, it’s just professional?
She has been involved with me in film production since the first movie.
She’s your neighbor as well?
But are you in a relationship?
But that’s it?
There’s no one else?
No. You mean other girls?
Oh yeah, of course, but I’m not gonna go into all that.
You’re dating. Nothing serious.
No. I don’t want to get serious.
Don’t have the time. It takes a lot of work to get serious.
That it does.
I don’t have that time right now.
Do you spend most of your time alone? Are you a loner?
Well, writing by nature is a fairly solitary occupation. I spent one year working on the screenplay for Man’s Fate, the Andre Malraux novel, which I still hope one day to do. Heaven’s Gate, another year, Deer Hunter, another eight months, nine months, same thing with Year of the Dragon. I mean, you spend an awful lot of time with your butt in a chair where you’re not out, hanging out.
I mean, I have friends who are partially in the business but they’re the kind of guys that Ford would have been friends with, they’re cowboys. I mean, honest-to-God, real cowboys. And rodeo champions and tough guys. And I love ’em because there’s nobody like ’em and they’re a dying breed. I love those guys. They’re straight shooters. Those are the people I spend more time with than film people. I’m not someone who enjoys talking about movies the way Quentin does.
Quentin loves to talk about movies. He’s like Scorsese. They’ll talk about every old movie that was ever made, know every line that was ever written. I don’t do that. I can’t retain lines of dialogue from movies made in the ’20s or ’30s or ’40s. I prefer people to talk about horses and rodeo bull riding, steer roping, where can you get a good pair of leather gloves made, work gloves, where can you get a good saddle made.
Do you still ride?
Do you own horses?
Yeah, a couple. I’ve got a beautiful, beautiful hand-tooled saddle which you can’t even buy. I mean, you can hardly find a good hat anymore, a good Western hat, a beaver hat, it’s almost impossible to find one, or a straw Stetson for the summer. You can’t find these things. You can’t find a hand-tooled saddle in America.
When we did Heaven’s Gate, which is quite a long time ago, we had trouble even then finding people who could … I mean, we found that wagon that we used, the little buggy that Ella drives, it was in an old barn in Kansas somewhere. It was just a wreck. We had to send that thing to a half a dozen places all around the country just to get … At one time you could do everything in California, but there are no wheelwrights in California who can make wagon wheels, ya know? You go one place for that, you gotta go to another place for the paint, another place for this, another place for that. I mean, you couldn’t make Heaven’s Gate today, even were you to quadruple the resources to make the movie, you couldn’t make it because the people don’t exist.
Wasn’t that part of what delayed the production, is that you wanted each piece of clothing, each prop, to be as authentic as possible?
No, nothing delayed the production. The production started when it was supposed to, but it was very difficult to train people. In the days of the studios, they trained their actors to ride horses, to do fencing, to do all sorts of boxing, to do all sorts of things, but we had to take the place of a studio.
So for example, we had all of these immigrants who spoke different languages, a lot of them came from back East, they had never been on a horse in their life, had never fired a rifle in their life, so we had to have classes, we organized classes at the local fairgrounds for people to learn to drive wagons, to learn to ride horses. We had lessons. We had a lesson plan every day. From one to two, whatever, you went riding and wagon … People had to learn how to roller-skate, people had to learn how to shoot, we had shooting lessons. Every day there was something. It was like a big school.
So we were simply replicating what the studios once did — learning how to dance, learning how to skate, learning how to work with the music, I mean, it all fell on us. And it was time-consuming and fortunately we had people who were willing to, including Kristofferson, who were willing to do all this stuff. It was very, very, very hard.
So you were emulating an older model of how to make a Hollywood epic?
Yeah, it was as if we were Warner Bros. or we were Columbia or we were MGM. And we were teaching people how to do all of these different things. And then of course we didn’t have the great costume department that people like MGM once had or Columbia once had. So we had to make a lot of our stuff. And part of it was done in England.
We couldn’t shoot at the real Harvard because a small little movie had mucked up the campus and Harvard said, “OK, no more movies.” And even I went to my school, Yale, and they said no. Nobody wanted a movie shot on their campus after that incident with Harvard. It was some small little movie, I can’t remember the name of it. And so I said, “OK, let’s go to the model.” I knew England very well, I said, “Let’s go to Oxford.” Cambridge is not right, it doesn’t have the right color, Cambridge is all white and Oxford is all gold and brown and sepia and beautiful. And we went to Oxford. And so there, we had to find dancers there and practice the waltz there and the costumes.
Even getting top hats was a horrendous problem because the last house that made top hats had thrown all their blocks away, the thing that you block a hat on. So every single element of the movie presented an obstacle.
And you weren’t willing to cut corners or use existing costumes?
Well, there was no way. I mean, what do you do? You can’t dress them like Kirk Douglas did in his Westerns with tight leather pants and tight leather vests and a hat with silver conches on it. It would look ridiculous.
But great Westerns have been made since then. Look at Clint — he made Unforgiven.
Yeah, but it was a very, very small, contained story.
Right, not an epic.
When you watch the film now, are you happy with it?
I’m blown away. I’ve watched it several times now, happily watched it, and I’d watch it again, especially on a big screen, especially the new version because I don’t know what happened. Something happened with the color. I don’t know whether it was due to the cinematographer messing around in the lab or whatever, but there’s a red veil over everything, probably trying to make it dusty or something.
But when I looked at the footage for the first time at Sony as I shot it, I was blown away. I said, “My God … I remember calling Joann in New York, who produced it, and I said, “Joann, I’m just looking at this footage, it’s like looking at 3D, you can see forever.” I can do a movie basically with two lenses, the 10-to-one and the 30-millimeter lens. And the 30 you can do the biggest landscapes and the most incredible close-ups in the world. And it was a revelation to me. It was like I was seeing the footage for the first time. And that’s what you see now in the restoration, is the footage as it was meant to be, as it was shot. It’s gleaming. The landscapes are just … they just pop. It’s very, very exciting.
And the thing that’s the most exciting thing to me is, it was shot over a very long period of time under very difficult circumstances. It wasn’t shot on the Disney ranch or some place in Burbank. I mean, it was shot where it was really shot — in the mountains. I didn’t want to go to Monument Valley, that belongs to John Ford. I would never do that. I would never go where somebody else. I had to find my own place, which I did. And it was difficult. Every part of it was difficult. Traveling was difficult.
But the thing that blew me away was the energy of the people and the energy of the actors and the ability of the actors, all of the actors, to maintain the passion of the character through such a long period of production. It astonished me. I thought, “My God, I know this scene was shot in the spring and this was shot in the summer and this was shot in the winter and you would never know it.” It was remarkable. The dedication of the actors was absolutely remarkable, remarkable.
And that’s the thing, I think for me, which blows me away when I look at it, is how they were all able to maintain their passion, the core of their character. And Kris and John Hurt, all the way through to London and Oxford and Pinewood. Their dedication was remarkable, and that’s what astonishes me about it.
Is it your favorite film of yours?
Your favorite film is always the film you haven’t made yet.
Which is what, in your case?
Oh my God, I’ve got a whole room full of scripts. They go to the ceiling. There’s so many things in that room, I can’t even hardly walk into it anymore. There’s just so much writing, writing, writing and I’m not a writer. I mean, I wasn’t trained as a writer, I had to write.
These are all scripts written by you?
Yeah. Some, as I said, there are some that I did in collaboration with other people, I worked with [Lawrence of Arabia screenwriter] Robert Bolt on the script about Michael Collins; we co-wrote that in London. But that picture fell through. I wrote with Gore Vidal. I had very good luck working with great writers. I worked with Oliver Stone, with Jimmy Toback, with Raymond Carver. And I’ve always enjoyed working with these top writers. We have always gotten along very well and had a good time writing. Each one was a good experience, a really good experience. And then the rest of it, of course, was alone. And most of the scripts are original and there are some adaptations, like Man’s Fate. But most, I’d say, were original.
The last interviews I read with you were from 2002, so over 13 years ago.
Where was that?
It was with Vanity Fair and The New York Observer. And you’re speaking in it about Man’s Fate, that seems to be the project.
I did do an interview with them. They began to interview me in the false pretenses about something and then I called it off. They started to veer off into some crazy stuff and I said, “Hey, that’s it. I’m out.”
Do you remember what it was?
No. I don’t have to tell you. You work for publications and you know that it’s usually the editor who calls the shots, it’s the editor who tells you what he wants. It’s the editor who shapes the piece, not the writer, sadly.
The very, very first interview I did about movies was with this wonderful girl who worked for Esquire . And she had a brother who was a vet. And it was the best kind of interview because I ended up interviewing her, which is as good as it gets. And of course when Esquire got it, they had her completely rewrite it and completely edit it and made a total mess of it, but it was a brilliant article before they laid their hands on it.
So usually I ask, I say, “OK, what does your editor want?” And nobody can ever tell you or will tell you. And I don’t have to tell you what editors are like. I mean, they all have their own agenda, they have their own opinion, they all have their own whatever.
It’s a group effort. Some are more guiding than others.
I think the best interviews are direct and personal. Hitchcock by Truffaut. You know that book?
Yes, I do, quite well.
Yeah, but that makes sense.
You been avoiding them since?
The media, press, interviews …
In America, yes. I won’t do anything in America.
Till now. I caught you on a good day.
Yeah, I didn’t think of it that way but yeah, I didn’t even intend to. This caught me by surprise. But no, I don’t care to because there’ve been so many false things written about me by people who don’t know me that I just don’t wanna …
Well let’s set the record on one of those things, which the writer spoke at length about in the Observer interview, which is that you were transitioning between genders.
Yeah, she even had people ask you about it in it. Gore Vidal, Kris Kristofferson.
Oh, please. I don’t even wanna go there, OK? I don’t know what that bullshit is all about, but that might’ve been the reason I stopped the interview. You’re not getting into that in this piece, are you? Because that’s absurd.
Just a false rumor.
It’s worse than a rumor, it’s personal assassination.
Is it, though?
Is it what? Personal assassination? Yes! If you can’t stop somebody from working and making movies that you hate, what’s the next best thing? Destroy them personally.
Well, but the culture has come around a lot in the past couple years where it’s not considered an insult.
What? What’s not an insult?
Those kinds of rumors. It’s considered an act of bravery, not something that would destroy someone now. Maybe 10 years ago, it was different.
No, look, it’s absurd. I don’t want to really go into it. It’s stupid, it’s … how these things get going, I have no idea. But it seems to me that I am a fount of fodder. Because people don’t see me around a lot I’m the source of all sorts of rumor. Rumor material.
Have you become more reclusive? You say that you’re out there busy, traveling, working. But the truth is that people don’t see you very much.
Listen, I was in … You don’t travel the way … I was in Lyon, in front of an audience of 6,000 people signing gazillions of autographs, doing interviews with every French magazine, newspaper, TV, radio station that there is. That’s not being reclusive, I just won’t do that here because you don’t get that stupid bullshit over there. They really love movies there. They are not into secret agendas.
You feel that Hollywood has agendas underneath it?
It’s not Hollywood, it’s not Hollywood, it’s just … Look at the state of the media in America.
What do you see when you look at it?
Do you think the Patriots deflated their balls?
Yes, probably. Am I naive?
I’m asking you what you think.
Look, I’m not a football fan by any stretch of the imagination, but everything I’ve been seeing about it, it definitely doesn’t look great for them, that’s what I’m taking away from it. But I’m not the guy to ask, that’s for sure.
What do you think?
There’s an awful lot made about it, isn’t there?
So you think it’s much ado about nothing?
(Sighs.) Aaron Hernandez, who was on the Patriots at the last Super Bowl, played for them, is up for murder. And after that, two more murders. It seems to me that’s more of an issue than a pound or two in a ball. And besides which, if a ball is deflated when you kick it, it’s not gonna go as far.
And if you throw it, it’s not going to go as far.
So you think it’s a media conspiracy?
No, I don’t know what it is. I feel like I’m talking to you the way I would be talking to … I feel like I’m talking to Hillary Clinton talking about Benghazi. All you get is shit. Bullshit. And finally she throws up her hands and says, “(High voice:) It’s all in the past.”
She says it’s all in the past?
Yeah, she’s such a wimp. God. Secretary of State. Unbelievable.
Really? You feel she was a wimp about it?
Well, she certainly didn’t come out and tell us the truth, did she? I mean, why are they still investigating it? I think Clint should be president.
What did you make of his speech to the —
I loved it. I loved it. I absolutely loved it and only he had the balls, would have the balls to do something like that and mean it and pull it off and I thought it was … I loved it, I just loved it. I loved it, I thought it was unique and special to him.
I gotta ask this since we’ve gone into the political realm: What do you think of President Obama?
I’d rather not go into that.
He’s been fairly aggressive when it comes to war on terror, Afghanistan, drones, surveillance, no?
We haven’t talked about Afghanistan.
You and I haven’t but I’m saying you … If your problem with him is that he’s not hawkish enough, I wonder if that’s true. What did you make of the Edward Snowden revelations? The NSA monitoring?
Once again this has gotten so far off talking about Clint, American Sniper, I’m beginning to feel acutely uncomfortable.
You don’t have to answer these questions. I’m just exploring.
I know, but the direction of your exploration is taking for me a sour turn.
Well, you brought up Hillary.
Well, in the context that you brought up …
You were talking about the media and then you got into football and then we got onto Hillary.
No, I thought we were talking about … the reason I agreed to talk to you is to talk about Clint. Not to talk about me, not to talk about what I’m doing, not to talk about where I live, not to talk about where my horses are, not to talk about who my friends are, not to talk about any of that stuff — it was to talk about Clint. He was great to work with. He’s still a friend, I’m happy to say, he hasn’t changed and I remember that —
Is there anyone who could take his place? He’s in his 80s now …
No one who can carry the torch?
No. No. No, I really don’t. We just don’t produce people like that anymore. I mean, that’s another reason I’m so happy that he made American Sniper when he did, while he was able to, with vigor and conviction. That to me is what’s important. I mean, and figures like John Wayne are unique. I mean, they’re unique Americans and they’re unique in the history of film, obviously, but they are unique in terms of Americans and American men, American people. I think both of them are very special. Two legends, two American legends, my God.
Yeah, it’s amazing what he accomplished in his eighth, ninth decade.
I know that, especially something like this. And he didn’t do it on the back lot. He was in Morocco, he’s all over the place. And that takes a certain amount of energy and it takes a certain amount of conviction. And you could feel his energy in the scene. You could feel it in the way he’s directed each scene. You can feel it in the way he’s pushing the guys. And it’s wonderful. And they responded to it.
And I’m sure part of the reason they responded to it, as I’ve said earlier, is because of Clint and who he is and what he represents and the kind of guy he is. He doesn’t expect anything. Clint expects the best from you. He’ll give you all of his trust, but then you’ve gotta give him your best. If you give him your best, he’ll respect you. And if he respects you, he’ll work with you any way that you need and he’ll do anything you need him to do. But you’ve gotta be working at your best and he’s gotta feel that and know that you are giving it a hundred percent.
And I think all the guys in that movie, and the gals, did that. I think they all gave him a hundred percent ’cause I think they felt he had a special feeling, a special passion for that particular film, for whatever his reasons. His reasons don’t matter. What matters is the movie.
That’s what I’m trying to get at. Directors as celebrities, it’s so much bullshit. It’s like, “Oh, he’s this kind of guy so he made this kind of movie.” That’s crap. It’s a load of crap. The movie stands, boom. I mean does anybody ever talk about Bill Wellman and The Story of G.I. Joe with Robert Mitchum, the invasion of Sicily, in Italy? Nobody knows a fuckin’ thing about Wellman. Have you ever seen that movie?
No I haven’t.
Well make it a point, it’s a war movie.
I’m looking it up as we speak. And interestingly, I see Wellman directed A Star Is Born, which brings us full circle.
I guess. I guess.
Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground.
Well you’ve got more than your two bits worth, I can tell you that. … I don’t need publicity. I don’t want to be publicized. I told you, I want to be anonymous. I did this really for Clint and for American Sniper but not for me, for God’s sake.
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