Director Michael Cimino convinced Christopher Walken to spit in Michael's face. When Walken actually did it, Robert De Niro was completely shocked, as evidenced by his reaction. In fact, De Niro was so furious about it he nearly left the set. Cimino later said of Walken, "He's got courage!"
The scene where Savage is yelling, "Michael, there's rats in here, Michael" as he is stuck in the river is actually Savage yelling at the director Michael Cimino because of his fear of rats which were infesting the river area. He was yelling for the director to pull him out of the water because of the rats... it looked real and they kept it in.
During some of the Russian Roulette scenes, a live round was put into the gun to heighten the actors' tension. This was Robert De Niro's suggestion. It was checked, however, to make sure the bullet was not in the chamber before the trigger was pulled.
Various critics objected to the Russian roulette sequences, suggesting that such activity never took place in the Vietnam War. Director Michael Cimino was planning on the scenes to cause controversy and simply stated that no one could be certain of the accuracy. Robert De Niro and Cimino reportedly argued as to the realism of the scenes.
During the filming of the wedding sequence, director Michael Cimino encouraged the many extras to treat the festivities as a real wedding, so as to increase the authenticity of the scenes. Prior to filming the wedding reception, Cimino instructed the extras to take empty boxes from home and wrap them as if they were wrapping real wedding gifts and bring them to the set the next day. The fake gifts would then be used as props for the wedding reception. The extras did as they were told, however, when Cimino inspected the "props" he noticed that the "gifts" were a lot heavier than empty boxes otherwise would be. Cimino tore the wrapping paper off a few of the packages, only to find that the extras had in fact wrapped real gifts for the "wedding".
John Cazale was very weak when filming began, and for this reason, his scenes were filmed first. Michael Cimino knew from the start that Cazale was dying from cancer, but the studio did not. When they found out, they wanted to replace Cazale. When Meryl Streep learned of their intentions, she threatened to quit if they did. Cazale died shortly after filming was completed.
When the film was first shown at the Berlin festival in 1979, one of the biggest incidents of its history resulted when the Soviet delegation walked out in protest against the way the film portrayed the people of Vietnam. The ensuing domino effect led to the walk-outs of the Cubans, East Germans, Bulgarians, Poles and Czechoslovakians, and two members of the jury resigned in sympathy.
In the commentary for the Special Edition DVD release (as of 2005, only available in the UK, region 2 encoded), director Michael Cimino reveals that Nick is the father of Angela's baby. This was a highly debated issue by fans of the film that was - until now - a mystery.
According to the film's cinematographer - Vilmos Zsigmond - the scene where the deer is shot [by Michael (DeNiro)] was filmed by giving the trained deer a sedative; it took half an hour for the drug to take effect; they had fenced off an area limiting the deer's range and two cameras were used.
During the helicopter stunt, the runners caught on the ropes and as the helicopter rose, it threatened to seriously injure John Savage and Robert De Niro. The actors gestured and yelled furiously to the crew in the helicopter to warn them. Footage of this is included in the film.
Chuck Aspegren was not an actor when he was cast in the movie. He was the foreman at a steel works visited early in pre-production by Robert De Niro and Michael Cimino. They were so impressed with Aspergen that they decided to offer him the role. He was in fact the second person to be cast in the film, after De Niro himself.
The bar was specially constructed in an empty storefront in Mingo Junction, Ohio for $25,000; it later became an actual saloon for local steel mill workers. Robert De Niro visited the homes of steelworkers and went to local bars to prepare for the film. U.S. Steel allowed filming inside its Cleveland mill, including placing the actors around the furnace floor, only after securing a $5 million insurance policy.
Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who became a counselor with the U.S. Department of Labor, thought of the idea of building a National Memorial for Vietnam Veterans after seeing a screening of the film in spring 1979, and he established and operated the memorial fund which paid for it.
Rutanya Alda actually struck her head quite hard on the doorway during the first take while being carried out of the reception hall; this is why the scene includes John Savage warning her in the take which was used.
The deer which Michael allows to get away was actually an elk - the same one often used on commercials for Hartford Insurance. The crew had a very difficult time trying to get the elk to look at them, as it was apparently used to various noises; it finally looked at them when someone in the crew yawned.
CBS paid $5 million for the exclusive network television broadcast rights for the film. The network (along with NBC and ABC) later backed out when the content was deemed inappropriate. The film made its television debut on election night, 1980, but not on any major network.
When movie was being planned during the mid-1970s, Vietnam was still a taboo subject with all major Hollywood studios. It was the English Company EMI (headed by Sir Bernard Delfont) who initially arranged financing. Universal got involved with the picture at a much later stage.
In the USA, theatrical posters contained the following warning at the bottom: "Warning: Due to the mature nature of this film, under 17 requires accompanying Parent or Adult guardian. (There will be strict adherence to this policy)"
Michael Cimino spent six months shooting his film, and a further five months mixing the soundtrack. Since this was his first Dolby film, he was eager to exploit the technology to its fullest potential. A short battle sequence, for example, (200 feet of film) took five days to dub. For the re-creation of the American evacuation of Saigon, he accompanied composer Stanley Myers to the location and had him listen to the sounds of vehicles, tanks, and jeep horns as the sequence was being filmed. Myers then composed music for the sequence in the same key as the horns, so that it would blend with the images creating one truly bleak experience.
The film's screenplay, by Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn, was based, in part, on the script "The Man Who Came to Play", a 1975 screenplay by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker about men who travel to Las Vegas to play Russian Roulette. A pre-release arbitration dispute secured Garfinkle and Redeker a co-"story by" credit on the film, although the two writers had nothing to do with its making. They also later shared an Oscar nomination with Cimino and Washburn.
Each of the six principal male characters in the movie carried a photo in their back pocket of them all together as children so as to enhance the sense of camaraderie amongst them. As well as this, director Michael Cimino had the props department fashion complete Pennsylvania IDs for each of them, complete with driver's licenses, medical cards and various other pieces of paraphernalia, so as to enhance each actor's sense of their character.
John Wayne's final public appearance was to present the Best Picture Oscar to The Deer Hunter (1978) at The 51st Annual Academy Awards (1979) (TV). It was not a film Wayne was fond of, since it presented a very different view of the Vietnam War than his own movie, The Green Berets (1968), had a decade earlier.
One of very few films whose 70mm prints kept the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (letterboxed within the 70mm 2.20:1 frame), instead of simply being cropped to 2.20:1, as was done with most widescreen films blown up to 70mm.
Composer Stanley Myers originally wrote Cavatina, which became the theme music for The Deer Hunter, as a much shorter piece for the piano. Classical guitarist John Williams persuaded him to to expand it and rewrite it for the guitar. Williams' recording of the piece was later used for the film. Cleo Laine has also recorded a vocal version, "He Was Beautiful", accompanied by Williams.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In the original script, the roles of Mike and Nick were reversed in the last half of the film. Nick returns home to Linda, while Mike remains in Vietnam, sends money home to help Steven, and meets his tragic fate at the Russian roulette table.