Look who’s back with a new movie: The Deer Hunter made Michael Cimino a winner, but his next film was the legendary failure Heaven’s Gate. With Desperate Hours, the stakes have never been higher.
by Pat H. Broeske
When The Desperate Hours premiered on the West Coast nearly 35 years ago, it was the hottest ticket in town.
“Seldom has there been as much electric excitement,” wrote a reporter from the Beverly Hills Citizen, gushing over everyone and everything from Humphrey Bogart, playing a bad guy, to its black-and-white VistaVision wide-screen presentation.
Desperate Hours the remake opened Friday— without a glitzy hot-ticket premiere, and with relatively little excitement. But the film is not without curiosity value.
Only the third movie from director Michael Cimino since Heaven’s Gate in 1980, Desperate Hours comes at what could be a critical juncture in the career of a man whose very name seems to divide the film industry, and whose crowning achievement, The Deer Hunter, came a dozen years ago.
Cimino has yet to escape the shadow of Heaven’s Gate, the legendary debacle that cost United Artists Pictures $44 million and, ultimately, caused Transamerica Corp. to sell the studio. His comeback film, Year of the Dragon (1985), produced by Dino De Laurentiis and starring Mickey Rourke as a New York cop battling Chinatown corruption, divided the critics and enraged the Asian-American community for its perceived ethnic stereotypes. It didn’t win over moviegoers, either: filmed for $16 million, its domestic take was only $18.7 million.
Then came the $18-million The Sicilian (1987), which did even worse with critics and audiences than Dragon, taking in $5.3 million in domestic grosses. The film, a tale of a bandit hero who roamed Sicily in the ’40s, became the subject of a headline-making legal battle between the producers and Cimino involving the final cut.
A remake of The Desperate Hours—a drama about a family terrorized in their home by escaped convicts—might now seem an odd choice for Cimino, whose specialty has been sprawling, operatic sagas. Even his action-comedy Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) took its characters on a cross-country odyssey.
But if Desperate Hours, which reportedly cost $20 million, isn’t a typical Cimino venture, it could be a shrewd tactical move. It’s a relatively small, somewhat unobtrusive film, like those that helped William Friedkin and Francis Coppola partially restore their tarnished reputations—Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. and Coppola’s teen-age dramas, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.
In the 10 years since Heaven’s Gate, Cimino has not granted major interviews. To promote Desperate Hours, he broke his silence for a limited number of them—with “Today Show” critic Gene Shalit, KABC-TV’s Gary Franklin, CNN and the Boston Globe Syndicate—but he declined to participate in this story.
“When you’ve been the subject of 10 years of attacks . . .you understandably become gun-shy about subjecting yourself to further attacks,” said Barry Glasser, senior vice president of publicity for MGM/UA, the film’s distributor.
“Michael is a very private person, in his personal life and in his work,” said his agent, Jeff Berg, chairman and CEO of International Creative Management. “He feels the movies that he makes speak for themselves.”
A self-professed workaholic—”I have no personal life,” he told an interviewer in the days before “Heaven’s Gate”—Cimino has a reputation for being uncollaborative and obsessive about the movies he makes.
“It is a fair statement to say he has difficulty with authority figures,” said producer Dan Melnick, who once came close to teaming with Cimino for Footloose. “But that doesn’t diminish his talent.”
Barry Spikings, now the president of Nelson Entertainment, was an executive with EMI Films when Cimino told him the story that became The Deer Hunter. Spikings, who co-produced the film, contends that Cimino is “a brilliant filmmaker—and very special, because he tends to have a very personal vision.”
“He’s one of the unique ones—a fascinating filmmaker,” said a leading agent, whose clients have had dealings with Cimino. Then again, the agent added, “if you do work with him, you hope you get him on a good day.”
Sighed a producer who has worked with Cimino: “I think he’s brilliant—but he is also monumentally egomaniacal.”
Some of Cimino’s colleagues used the phrase “life is too short” about the idea of working with him again. Others flatly diminish his talent. “Too much is made of him. He’s a journeyman director,” said a leading screenwriter. Another former Cimino colleague—a leading filmmaker who asked not to be named—said flatly, “I will not, I cannot , be a part of your story. I do not share the media’s fascination with that man.”
Like Friedkin, Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and a handful of others, Cimino established himself early on as a filmmaker of intense vision and critically admired artistry, whose films also won Oscars. (The five Academy Awards for The Deer Hunter included best picture and best director.) But his films are also fraught with contradictions, torn sensibilities—not unlike the man himself.
In the handful of interviews he has done—most of them at the time of the release of The Deer Hunter—Cimino has declined to offer many details of his personal life. In a 1978 interview with the New York Times’ Leticia Kent, he was even vague about how many siblings he has.
Then there are those things he has divulged that have been contested. Despite his claim during interviews in 1978 that he was born in 1943, sources such as Current Biography place his birth date three to five years earlier. The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers lists it as “1940 or 1943.”
During interviews promoting The Deer Hunter, Cimino said he joined the Army in 1968—shortly before finishing work on a doctorate at Yale—and served as a medical trainee to a Green Beret unit in Texas (but wasn’t sent to Vietnam). Those claims were refuted in an article for Harper’s magazine by Tom Buckley, former Vietnam correspondent for the New York Times, who reported that “according to the Pentagon, Cimino enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1962, not 1968,” did six months of active duty—including a month in Texas—and never donned a Green Beret. Buckley also said that Yale had no records showing work toward a doctorate, but he did receive a master’s of fine arts degree in 1963.
What Cimino has put on the screen has also been contradicted. When The Deer Hunter was released, many reviewers and Vietnam vets objected to its jumbled chain of wartime events, and to the pivotal Russian roulette torture game that Cimino, not the Viet Cong, devised.
In an interview with Jean Vallely for Esquire magazine, Cimino said he’d read about such games in the newspaper, and that he used them because “I wanted people to feel what it was like to be there, to be in jeopardy every moment. How do you get people to pay attention, to sustain 20 minutes of war without doing a whole story about the war?”
As he said to the New York Times: “Look, the film is not realistic—it’s surrealistic . . . time is compressed . . . . You’re right, I used events from ’68 (My Lai) and ’75 (the fall of Saigon) as reference points rather than as fact. But if you attack the film on its facts, then you’re fighting a phantom, because literal accuracy was never intended . . . . The specific details of the war are unimportant. Because this is not a film of the intellect, it’s a film of the heart—I hope.”
In discussing his film with the Los Angeles Times’ John M. Wilson, Cimino said the film’s meaning—and the intentions of its characters—were up for interpretation. “A film reflects who you are as a building reflects the soul of its architect. I think what you feel and what you think and what you are is what the film is . It’s not for me to talk about.”
Ironically, when Wilson went on to raise questions (initially raised by critics, including the Times’ Charles Champlin) about possible latent homosexuality involving Robert De Niro’s character and his feelings for the Christopher Walken character, Cimino was adamant that “that was not the intent.”
In a 1980 print ad for Eastman Kodak, Cimino is quoted as saying, “If you don’t get it right, what’s the point?” and in fact, his excruciating attention to detail is a trademark.
Though Coppola, already an established filmmaker, opted to film his Vietnam opus, Apocalypse, Now (1979) in the Philippines, the novice Cimino went to the greater difficulty of filming in Thailand. The reason, he told an interviewer, was because of audiences’ demands for more realistic locations. And anyway, “encountering a real place enhances the performances of actors in subtle ways, and changes the spiritual texture of the film.”
Those logistical challenges—and the spiritual texture—ultimately helped to inflate the budget of Deer Hunter from $7 million to $13 million.
What happened on Heaven’s Gate as a result of his detail-mania is now entrenched in Hollywood lore, and colorfully chronicled in Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ Written by former United Artists executive Steven Bach, the 1985 tome about the film that helped bring about the fall of the studio formed by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford asks, “What price creativity?”
Curiously, Cimino’s quest for visual detail often comes at the expense of story. Witness the incredible imagery of Heaven’s Gate—then try to figure out what it’s all about. “An epic vision isn’t worth much if you can’t tell a story,” said Newsweek critic David Ansen, in his review of the film.
Cimino’s reaction to the Heaven’s Gate furor? In the recent CNN interview, he said, “I would respond in the same way that Jack Kennedy responded to the Bay of Pigs—I take full responsibility.”
But he also chided the media for its zealous reporting on the film. “We’re just making movies . . . We shouldn’t be treated like potentates or heads of state.”
The 1955 version of The Desperate Hours, starring Bogart, Fredric March, Arthur Kennedy and Martha Scott, was adapted from Joseph Hayes’ popular novel—based on an actual incident—which also became a Broadway play.
It was at Paramount, where The Desperate Hours was first made, that the remake surfaced in the summer of 1988, with Dino De Laurentiis attached as producer and Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal assigned to write the updated screenplay.
The project later moved to Tri-Star Pictures, under the supervision of then-president Jeff Sagansky, where director Chris Cain (Young Guns) and Mickey Rourke became involved. Cain left the project and William Friedkin came aboard. When he, too, left—to make The Guardian—Rourke asked Cimino to direct, marking a reunion of the star, director and producer of Year of the Dragon. (The project later made its way to MGM/UA.)
When Cimino became involved, sources says, Konner and Rosenthal quit. The writers—who are now working on the next Star Trek feature—declined to discuss Desperate Hours, but sources said there was discord because Cimino made no secret of his intention to rewrite their screenplay. For a while, Cimino’s was the only name on the screenplay, but after a Writer’s Guild arbitration, the screenplay credit went to Konner, Rosenthal and Joseph Hayes, who wrote the original script.
Similarly, veteran writer Steve Shagan saw his script for The Sicilian rewritten by Cimino. (Shagan’s draft ran about 124 pages; Cimino’s ran nearly 200.) Still later, Gore Vidal did a rewrite.
“I didn’t recognize much of what was on the screen,” admitted Shagan, who ironically wound up getting sole writer’s credit anyway, following another arbitration by the Writer’s Guild. (Vidal later filed suit against both the Writer’s Guild and Shagan, asking that the decision to give Shagan sole credit be overturned. According to Shagan, the suit was later dropped.)
Shagan said he had two meetings with Cimino about the script. “And I could tell, right away, that he had his own agenda.”
After their second meeting, the two men did not speak again. “I think I got him a little upset,” said Shagan. Cimino was so serious during the meeting, he said, that he finally interjected, “You know, Michael, this is a screenplay. But that’s it. None of us have given the world penicillin.”
Shagan is philosophical about the Sicilian experience. “I did a screenplay and I was well paid, and he chose not to make the movie I wrote. This guy had his own ideas. I have nothing against the man. I found him remote and insulated, but I have nothing against him. I leave everyone to their own heaven.
“But I’ve got to admit, I don’t understand him.”
Born to a wealthy family, the son of a music publisher, Cimino grew up in New York City, attended private schools and, he has recalled, was taken to the movies three times a week by his grandmother. After earning a master’s degree in architecture at Yale, Cimino went back to New York, where he studied acting and ballet and got a job at a company that made industrial films and documentaries. He went on to become a well-known director of TV commercials.
In 1971 he came to Hollywood, where he collaborated on the screenplays for the futuristic Silent Running (1971) and Magnum Force (1973), the first Dirty Harry sequel. Then came the script for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot which marked his directorial debut.
Starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges as two modern-day desperadoes on the run, the film’s first draft was written by Cimino in just six weeks. He got to direct, he would later say, because Eastwood “couldn’t have had the property without me.”
At the same time that Daily Variety announced the Thunderbolt and Lightfoot deal (the headline began “Architect Sells Script . . . “), Cimino reported that he had another script in the works, called The Johnson County War. The title was later changed to Heaven’s Gate.
Cimino also used to talk about doing a remake of The Fountainhead (1949), based on Ayn Rand’s sprawling novel about an architect who refuses to compromise. And he spoke of making Proud Dreamer, a chronicle of four decades of American life. As reported by Daily Variety’s Army Archerd, Proud Dreamer would dwarf Cimino’s Deer Hunter and the then-in-production Heaven’s Gate.
Of course, all directors drop in and out of projects, but Cimino seems to have been announced to direct a large number that didn’t happen, albeit for a variety of reasons. Among them:
* Live on Tape, a comedy-drama about TV camera crews and their competition for stories. Joann Carelli, Cimino’s frequent associate and Heaven’s Gate co-producer, was reportedly going to produce for CBS Theatrical Films.
* The Yellow Jersey, about the Tour de France bicycle race, with Dustin Hoffman to star, for Columbia Pictures.
* Hand-Carved Coffins, based on Truman Capote’s short story, with De Laurentiis producing.
* Michael Collins, a love story set against the backdrop of the Irish rebellion in the ’20s, for Nelson Entertainment. It would have marked the re-teaming of Cimino and his Deer Hunter co-producer and Nelson chief, Barry Spikings.
* Santa Ana Wind, also for Nelson, a romantic thriller—to star a cast of unknowns—set in the San Fernando Valley.
Cimino also worked with Steven Spielberg and Gary David Goldberg (creator of TV’s Family Ties) on the script for Reel to Reel, which he was going to direct for Columbia in 1983. But according to Goldberg, the script—based on a semi-autobiographical story by Spielberg, about a young director making his first picture—was never satisfactorily developed. “It became darker under Michael,” he recalled.
Cimino was also going to direct Footloose, the 1984 musical drama that was ultimately directed by Herbert Ross. “But, finally we separated, because we had a difference of vision,” said producer Dan Melnick, who explained that Cimino wanted to dramatically rewrite the already-developed project. Said Melnick: “It might have been a good film (if Cimino had directed), but it wasn’t the film we wanted to make. It wasn’t the film we came to the party with—do you know what I mean?”
Production of Desperate Hours began in October, 1989, near Telluride, Colo. and later moved to Salt Lake City and surrounding regions. Starring Rourke, Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers, Lindsay Crouse, Kelly Lynch and Elias Koteas, the updated version has been “opened up.” Where the original took place largely in the terrorized family’s house, the remake includes sequences in prison, at an FBI office and elsewhere. There are also new characters, including a female attorney (Lynch) who aids Rourke’s character in his escape from prison.
After filming wrapped last December, De Laurentiis’ company took out a two-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter congratulating Cimino for completing principal photography five days ahead of schedule, on a film “of shattering importance.” De Laurentiis was unavailable to discuss the film that marks his return to production, following the 1988 bankruptcy of his last production company.
Said a representative for the producer, “Dino’s moved on to other things.”
Nor did anyone want to comment about the possibility of another Cimino-De Laurentiis teaming. “Michael’s not anxious to discuss his future projects or plans,” said Jeff Berg, adding, “but his best films are in the future.”
Executives at MGM/UA were at first reluctant to discuss Desperate Hours, or Cimino. Said Barry Lorie, executive vice president of worldwide marketing, “You’re talking about the original underground man.”
But there are indications that the underground man may be resurfacing, along with—startlingly—the film that indelibly branded his career. According to MGM/UA’s Barry Glasser, “a movement is underway at the studio to reassemble the elements of the original uncut (three-hour, 40-minute) Heaven’s Gate, ” for theatrical reissue by the MGM/UA Classics division, which has been responsible for the return of such titles as West Side Story and Ben-Hur.
Pointing out that the film, in its original version, ran for only a single week in New York before being yanked and cut by more than an hour and a half—Glasser said, “There are those of us who believe in the brilliance of Michael Cimino—and the brilliance of this film.
“Ultimately, time will catch up with Heaven’s Gate and will acknowledge its quality—and Michael Cimino will have his day.”
Los Angeles Times, October 07, 1990