Michael Cimino (I) (1939–2016)Writer | Director | Producer
Date of Birth 3 February 1939, New York City, New York, USA
Date of Death 2 July 2016, Los Angeles, California, USA
Nickname The Ayatollah
Height 5' 5" (1.65 m)
Michael Cimino studied architecture and dramatic arts; later he filmed advertisements and documentaries and also wrote scripts until the actor, producer and director Clint Eastwood gave him the opportunity to direct the thriller Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). But his biggest success was The Deer Hunter (1978) which won the Oscar for best film. For another successful film, The Sicilian (1987), he got into trouble with critics when they accused him of portraying as a hero the Italian criminal Salvatore Giuliano.
Frequently casts Mickey Rourke, Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges
Sudden bursts of violence in seemingly tranquil or naturalistic settings (the church shootout early in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), Vietnam war fighting in the jungle in The Deer Hunter (1978), mob attacks in Chinatown in Year of the Dragon (1985), kidnapping of a family in the suburban home of Desperate Hours (1990)).
Characters disillusioned with the American Dream (The Deer Hunter (1978), Heaven's Gate (1980), The Sunchaser (1996)).
Controversial subject matter (the Russian Roulette games set up by the Vietnamese in The Deer Hunter (1978), the negative stereotyping of the Chinese in Year of the Dragon (1985), the heroic portrayal of Italian criminal Salvatore Giuliano in The Sicilian (1987)).
[Poetic Realism] His films are all stylized yet realistic, they have fatalistic views of life, and the overall tone is a mix of nostalgia and bitterness. All of these traits fit within the definition of the poetic realism film movement in France of the 1930s and through the war years, which probably accounts for a lot of Cimino's popularity in France.
Casting of non-professional actors in supporting roles ( Chuck Aspegren in The Deer Hunter (1978), Ariane in Year of the Dragon (1985)).
Striking visual style: Painterly compositions, jittery tracking shots, and wide vista establishing shots that emphasize the earth/nature (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978), Heaven's Gate (1980), Desperate Hours (1990), The Sunchaser (1996)).
Abrupt flash-forwards (The Deer Hunter (1978), Heaven's Gate (1980), Year of the Dragon (1985))
Received a B.F.A. degree in Painting from Yale University in 1961 and an M.F.A. in Painting from Yale University in 1963.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis offered Cimino the chance to direct "Hand Carved Coffins", based on Truman Capote's book, but Cimino turned it down. To date, the material has not been produced as a film.
There has been much confusion over Cimino's birthdate throughout the years. In December 1978 interviews for The Deer Hunter (1978), he claimed to be 35 (he was apparently two months shy of his fortieth birthday), and his birth month was believed to be November. He has made similar claims in subsequent years, always purporting to be in his mid-to-late thirties. His birthdate is believed to be February 1939, a date consistent with the years he earned both his Bachelor's (1961) and Master's (1963) Degrees.
Among the Cimino dream projects that have stalled in development: An adaptation of The Fountainhead; a bipoic on Dostoevsky; an adaptation of the novel The Yellow Jersey (a bicycle marathon-themed novel that at one time reportedly caught the interest of Dustin Hoffman); an adaptation of the Andre Malraux novel Man's Fate; a film about the Tour de France; an adaptation of Crime and Punhisment.
Among the projects he has reportedly been involved with over the years; some work on The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984); writing contributions to The Dogs of War (1980). The extent of his contributions are unknown, as he remains unbilled for any of these films.
The story behind the notorious commercial failure of Heaven's Gate (1980) was told by former United Artists executive Steven Bach in his book "Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate", first published in 1985. Subsequently the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate (2004)) was produced, based on Bach's book and with with new interviews. Cimino has dismissed the book as "pure fiction" and didn't participate in the documentary.
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume Two, 1945-1985". Pages 214-219. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1988.
In December 1981, Cimino was signed to direct the musical Footloose (1984). Producer Daniel Melnick warned him that if the film went over its budget of $7.5 million, Cimino would have to cover the expenses himself. Cimino agreed, but the following month, just as the movie was about to begin shooting, he asked Melnick to let him rewrite the screenplay for an additional $ 250.000 and to delay the start date. Melnick fired him and Herbert Ross directed Footloose (1984) instead.
In 1979, he was considered to direct The King of Comedy (1982), which would have re-teamed him with Robert De Niro. Because of Cimino's preoccupation with Heaven's Gate (1980), Martin Scorsese directed the film.
In 1981, he was hired by CBS to direct "Live on Tape," a film about camera crews. but after Heaven's Gate (1980) crashed and burned at the box office, CBS changed their minds; the movie remains unmade to this day.
In 1981, he wrote "Proud Dreamer," a screenplay about the life of gangster Frank Costello. CBS turned the script down because he asked for too much money to shoot it; the film was never produced. Rumor has it that Cimino sold this screenplay elsewhere, and that it ultimately became the movie Mobsters (1991), but that remains unsubstantiated.
His last name is pronounced "Chee-Mee-Noh.". It is the name of the Italian city where his family is from.
Had Heaven's Gate (1980) been a hit instead of a flop, he intended to follow it up with another epic which he had already scripted: "Conquering Horse." This screenplay was a generational saga, tracing the history of the Sioux Indians in America. Cimino planned for the entire movie to be told in authentic Sioux dialogue, with English subtitles. To date, this picture has never been filmed.
During the production of his film Year of the Dragon (1985) in Thailand, he was made an Honorary Colonel of the Thailand Air Force.
Directed 4 actors in Oscar nominated performances: Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep. Walken won for his performance in The Deer Hunter (1978).
Turned down the offer to direct The Bounty (1984).
Living in Paris, France, where he published two successful novels. [February 2004]
Cimino adapted the Andre Malraux novel "Man's Fate" and to be shot in Shanghai with Johnny Depp, Daniel Day-Lewis, John Malkovich, Uma Thurman, and Alain Delon. Years earlier, Fred Zinnemann had done pre-producton work and had gone through considerable rehearsal with his cast when the plug was pulled by MGM just prior to the beginning of principle photography.
Cimino worked on two films with the short story writer Raymond Carver. The first was Purple Lake, a contemporary Western about "juvenile delinquents who return to society after serving time in prison. The other was a biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Backed by Carlo Ponti, Carver took over from an uncredited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Heavily researched, and taking Dostoyevsky's near execution as its focal point, the final screenplay was 220 pages long. Fragments were eventually published by Capra Press.
In 1987, Cimino attempted to make an epic saga about the 1920s Irish revolutionary Michael Collins with funding by Nelson Entertainment, but the film had to be abandoned due to budget problems. Later Irish director Neil Jordan made Michael Collins (1996) based on his own screenplay.
During the production of The Deer Hunter (1978), Cimino had given co-workers (such as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and associate producer Joann Carelli) the vague impression that much of the storyline was biographical, somehow related to the director's own experience and based on the experiences of men he had known during his service in Vietnam. Just as the film was about to open, Cimino gave an interview to The New York Times in which he claimed that he had been "attached to a Green Beret medical unit" at the time of the Tet Offensive of 1968. When the Times reporter, who had not been able to corroborate this, questioned the studio about it, studio executives panicked and fabricated "evidence" to support the story. Universal Studios president Thom Mount commented at the time, "I know this guy. He was no more a medic in the Green Berets than I'm a rutabaga."Tom Buckley, a veteran Vietnam correspondent for the Times, corroborated that Cimino had done a stint as an Army medic, but that the director had never been attached to the Green Berets. Cimino's active service - just six months in 1962 - had been as a reservist who was never deployed to Vietnam. Cimino's publicist reportedly said that he intended to sue Buckley, but Cimino never did.
His nephew is novelist and screenwriter T. Rafael Cimino.
After Perfect Strangers fell through (see above), Cimino spent two and a half years working with James Toback on The Life and Dreams of Frank Costello, a biopic on the life of mafia boss Costello, for 20th Century Fox. "We got a good screenplay together," said Cimino, "but again, the studio, 20th Century Fox in this case, was going through management changes and the script was put aside." Cimino added, "Costello took a long time because Costello himself had a long, interesting life. The selection of things to film was quite hard.
In 2001, Cimino published his first novel, "Big Jane". Later that year, the French Minister of Culture decorated him with the honor 'Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres' and he received the Prix Littéraire Deauville 2001, an award that previously went to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Cimino said: "Oh, I'm the happiest, I think, I've ever been!" He also wrote a book called "Conversations en miroir" with Francesca Pollock in 2003.
Cimino wrote a biopic about Janis Joplin called "Pearl" while working on a Frank Costello biopic, both for 20th Century Fox. "It's almost a musical," replied Cimino, "I was working with Bo Goldman on that one and we were doing a series of rewrites." "All these projects were in the air at once," Cimino recalled, "I postponed 'The Fountainhead' until we had a first draft on 'Pearl', then after meetings with Jimmy began Frank Costello.".
Cimino claimed he got his start in documentary films following his work in academia and nearly completed a doctorate at Yale. Some of these details are repeated in reviews of Cimino's films or his official bios. Steven Bach refuted those claims in his book Final Cut: "[Cimino] had done no work toward a doctorate and he had become known in New York as a maker not of documentaries but of sophisticated television commercials.".
Cimino was in talks to direct The Yellow Jersey, a bicycle racing drama with a script by Carl Foreman and starring Dustin Hoffman. The project was ultimately abandoned as it proved logistically difficult to shoot during the actual Tour de France.
Cimino was attached to direct "The Dreaming Place" in 1997. The film, which was in the early stages of development, was to be a male vigilante story, along the lines of Paramount's Eye for an Eye (1996). Rodney Patrick Vaccaro wrote the screenplay under the supervision of Cimino, and Jonathon Komack Martin Martin was to be executive producer. The planned budget was not revealed.
Cimino also wanted to write and direct an adaptation of Frederick Manfred's Western novel "Conquering Horse", an epic, set in pre-white America, to have been shot in the Sioux language. Conquering Horse was intended to follow the anticipated success of Heaven's Gate (1980) but was never realized after the failure of that film.
An article in The Hollywood Reporter about actor Leonard Termo touched on how he and Mickey Rourke were friends, and how Termo had appeared in most of Rourke's films. The article says "The pair also were set to appear in a Cimino biopic at Embassy Pictures about "Legs" Diamond that never got made, with Rourke as the legendary 1930s gangster and Termo playing his bodyguard.".
In the late 1970s, Cimino passed on an offer to direct Oliver Stone's screenplay for Midnight Express (1978). A few years later, he met Stone again and optioned his screenplay for Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Cimino was eager to make the film, going so far as to offer to work for nothing, even attracting Al Pacino for the role of Ron Kovic. The producers declined. The film was eventually directed by Stone himself in 1989, and the two would later collaborate on Year of the Dragon (1985).
Cimino spent a year and a half working on a script entitled "Perfect Strangers", a political love story. "It bears some resemblance to Casablanca (1942)," said Cimino, "involving the romantic relationship of three people. Someone called it a romantic Z (1969). I was very close to doing it. In fact, we'd already shot two weeks of pre-production stuff, but because of various political machinations at the studio, the project fell through. This was just before David Picker left. He was the producer. There were internal difficulties, that's all. Nevertheless, I'd spent a year and a half of my life on something. It had been a difficult time. My father passed away while I was writing the screenplay. I kept working ...".
Shortly after the Michael Collins biopic was cancelled (see above), Cimino quickly started pre-production work on Santa Ana Wind, a contemporary romantic drama set in L.A. The start date for shooting was to have been early December 1987. The screenplay was written by Floyd Mutrux and the film was to be bankrolled by Nelson Entertainment, which also backed Collins. Cimino's representative added that the film was "about the San Fernando Valley and the friendship between two guys" and "more intimate" than Cimino's previous big-budget work like Heaven's Gate (1980) and the yet-to-be-released The Sicilian (1987). However, Nelson Holdings International Ltd. cancelled the project after disclosing that its banks, including Security Pacific National Bank, had reduced the company's borrowing power after Nelson failed to meet certain financial requirements in its loan agreements. A spokesman for Nelson said the cancellation occurred "in the normal course of business," but declined to elaborate. The film had been budgeted at about $15 million and was to have begun production shortly. The film, intended for distribution by Columbia, didn't feature any major stars.
Cimino was scheduled to work on The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), which would have reunited him with Mickey Rourke from Heaven's Gate (1980). After Rourke and Eric Roberts signed on as the leads, Cimino wanted to finesse the screenplay with some rewriting and restructuring. However, the rewriting would have taken Cimino beyond the mandated start date for shooting, so Cimino and MGM parted ways. Stuart Rosenberg was hired as a result. The film, while receiving admiring reviews, didn't fare well at the box office.
One of Cimino's goals since arriving in Hollywood was to make a film musical. One dream project was a musical inspired by "Porgy and Bess". Not a straight adaptation, it would have been a romance about a black gospel singer and a white Juilliard pianist, as they struggle to mount a production of the opera. Later Cimino was in talks with the producers to direct Evita (1996), but they finally decided to hire film musical specialist Alan Parker.
In 1984, after being unable to finalize a deal with director Herbert Ross, Paramount Pictures offered the job of directing Footloose (1984) to Cimino. According to screenwriter Dean Pitchford, Cimino was at the helm for four months, making more and more extravagant demands in terms of set construction and overall production. In the process, Cimino reimagined the film as a musical-comedy inspired by The Grapes of Wrath. Paramount realized that it potentially had another Heaven's Gate (1980) on its hands. Cimino was fired and Ross was brought on to direct the picture.
Cimino's dream project has been an adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Taking its cue from more than the novel, it was largely modeled on architect Jørn Utzon's troubled building of the Sydney Opera House, as well as the construction of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. He wrote the script in between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and The Deer Hunter (1978), and hoped to have Clint Eastwood play Howard Roark. His other dream project has been an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
In 2001 he received the French honor 'L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres'.
His father was a music publisher, his mother a clothing designer.
Told Vanity Fair magazine in 2000, that his drastically altered looks during his later years were the results of jaw-alignment surgery. During the surgery all of his teeth had to be re-aligned which altered the shape of his face.
After quitting directing, he found success as a novelist in France.
Cimino recorded two audio commentaries during his lifetime: One for The Deer Hunter (1978) and one for Year of the Dragon (1985).