Co-Writer and Director Michael Cimino convinced Christopher Walken to spit in Robert De Niro's face. When Walken actually did it, 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 Steven is yelling, "Michael, there's rats in here, Michael", as he is stuck in the river, is John Savage yelling at 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.
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. He never saw the completed film.
According to Michael Cimino, Robert De Niro requested a live cartridge in the revolver for the scene in which Michael subjects Stanley to an impromptu game of Russian Roulette, to heighten the intensity of the situation. John Cazale agreed without protest, but obsessively rechecked the gun before each take, to make sure that the live round wasn't next in the chamber.
The woman who was given the task of casting the extras in Thailand had much difficulty finding a local to play the vicious-looking individual who runs the game. The first actor hired turned out to be incapable of slapping Robert De Niro in the face. The caster thankfully knew a local Thai man with a particular dislike of Americans, and cast him accordingly. De Niro suggested that Christopher Walken be slapped for real by one of the guards without any warning. The reaction on Walken's face was genuine.
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.
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.
During the filming of the wedding sequence, 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".
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.
According to Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the scene where the deer was shot by Michael 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.
Meryl Streep was romantically involved with John Cazale during the filming, as well as after when he died. Dustin Hoffman was aware of this, it's part of why he had producers cast her as Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), because she would bring a vulnerable woman-in-crisis feeling to the role.
The deer which Michael allows to get away was actually an elk. 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. Elk are not native to the east coast.
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 the second person to be cast in the film, after De Niro.
Christopher Walken was originally supposed to receive seventeen thousand dollars for his role as Nick, but his salary was raised to twenty-five thousand dollars because filming took longer than was originally planned.
John Wayne's final public appearance was to present the Best Picture Oscar to this movie at The 51st Annual Academy Awards. It was not a film, of which Wayne was fond, since it presented a very different view of the Vietnam War than his own movie, The Green Berets (1968), had.
Robert De Niro was so anxious about the film's controversy that he did not attend the Oscars ceremony. He asked the Academy to sit out the show backstage, but when the Academy refused, De Niro stayed home in New York City.
As the Oscars drew near, the backlash against the film gathered strength. When the limos pulled up to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 9, 1979, they were met by demonstrators, mostly from the Los Angeles chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The demonstrators waved placards covered with slogans that read "No Oscars for racism" and "The Deer Hunter a bloody lie" and thrust pamphlets berating Deer Hunter into long lines of limousine windows. Deric Washburn, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, claims his limousine was pelted with stones. According to Variety, "Police and The Deer Hunter protesters clashed in a brief, but bloody battle that resulted in thirteen arrests."
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.
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, 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 his character.
While Producer Michael Deeley was pleased with the revised script, he was still concerned about being able to sell the film. "We still had to get millions out of a major studio", wrote Deeley, "as well as convince our markets around the world that they should buy it before it was finished. I needed someone with the caliber of Robert De Niro." Hiring De Niro turned out to be a casting coup, because he knew nearly every actor and actress in New York City. De Niro brought Meryl Streep to the attention of Michael Cimino and Deeley. With Streep, came John Cazale. De Niro also accompanied Cimino to scout locations for the steel mill sequence, as well as rehearsed with the actors and actresses to use the workshops as a bonding process.
When this 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 movie at a much later stage.
Roy Scheider was originally cast as Michael Vronsky, but withdrew from the production two weeks before the start of filming, due to "creative differences". Still obligated to Universal, Scheider reprised his role as Chief Martin Brody in Jaws 2 (1978).
When Christopher Walken did the Russian Roulette scene, he was remembering being sent to summer camp by his parents, which he hated. He felt betrayed, ostracised, alone, which he felt the character was experiencing at that point in the film.
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.
At the Academy Awards, Michael Deeley made a deal with fellow Producer David Puttnam, whose film Midnight Express (1978) was nominated, that each would take five hundred dollars to the ceremony, so if one of them won, the winner would give the loser the five hundred dollars to "drown his sorrows in style".
Michael Cimino spent six months shooting this film, and a further five months mixing the soundtrack. Since this was his first Dolby Stereo film, he was eager to exploit the technology to its fullest potential. A short battle sequence, for example, (two hundred 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.
Michael Cimino was criticized for one-sidedly portraying all the North Vietnamese as sadistic racists and killers. Cimino countered that his film was not political, polemical, literally accurate, or posturing for any particular point of view. He further defended his position by saying that he had news clippings from Singapore that confirm Russian Roulette was used during the war (without specifying which article).
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.
CBS paid five million dollars 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.
Michael Cimino originally claimed that the wedding scene would take up twenty-one minutes of screentime. In the end, it took fifty-one minutes. Michael Deeley believes that Cimino always planned to make this prologue last for an hour, and "the plan was to be advanced by stealth rather than straight dealing."
Michael Cimino frequently referred to the film as a "personal" and "autobiographical" film, although later investigation by journalists like Tom Buckley of Harper's revealed inaccuracies in Cimino's accounts and reported background.
According to Christopher Walken, the historical context wasn't paramount: "In the making of it, I don't remember anyone ever mentioning Vietnam." Robert De Niro added to this sentiment: "Whether the film's vision of the war actually happened or not, it's something you could imagine very easily happening. Maybe it did. I don't know. All's fair in love and war." Producer Barry Spikings, while proud of the film, regrets the way the Vietnamese were portrayed. "I don't think any of us meant it to be exploitive", Spikings said. "But I think we were ignorant. I can't think of a better word for it. I didn't realize how badly we'd behaved to the Vietnamese people." Michael Deeley, on the other hand, was quick to defend Michael Cimino's comments on the nature and motives of the film: "The Deer Hunter (1978) wasn't really 'about' Vietnam. It was something very different. It wasn't about drugs or the collapse of the morale of the soldiers. It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently. The film was about three steel workers in extraordinary circumstances. Apocalypse Now (1979) is surreal. The Deer Hunter (1978) is a parable. Men who fight and lose an unworthy war face some obvious and unpalatable choices. They can blame their leaders, or they can blame themselves. Self-blame has been a great burden for many war veterans. So how does a soldier come to terms with his defeat, and yet still retain his self-respect? One way is to present the conquering enemy as so inhuman, and the battle between the good guys and the bad guys so uneven, as to render defeat irrelevant. Inhumanity was the theme of The Deer Hunter (1978)'s portrayal of the North Vietnamese prison guards forcing American POWs to play Russian Roulette. The audience's sympathy with prisoners who (quite understandably) cracked thus completes the chain. Accordingly, some veterans who suffered in that war, found the Russian Roulette a valid allegory."
According to Michael Cimino, he would call Deric Washburn while on the road scouting for locations and feed him notes on dialogue and story. Upon reviewing Washburn's draft, Cimino said, "I came back, and read it, and I just could not believe what I read. It was like it was written by somebody who was mentally deranged." Cimino confronted Washburn at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles about the draft, and Washburn supposedly replied that he couldn't take the pressure, and had to go home. Cimino then fired Washburn. Cimino later claimed to have written the entire screenplay himself. Washburn's response to Cimino's comments were, "It's all nonsense. It's lies. I didn't have a single drink the entire time I was working on the script."
According to Deric Washburn, he and Michael Cimino spent three days together in Los Angeles at the Sunset Marquis, hammering out the plot. The script eventually went through several drafts, evolving into a story with three distinct acts. Washburn did not interview any veterans to write the script, nor do any research. "I had a month, that was it", he explains. "The clock was ticking. Write the fucking script! But all I had to do was watch television. Those combat cameramen in Vietnam were out there in the field with the guys. I mean, they had stuff that you wouldn't dream of seeing about Iraq." When Washburn was finished, he says, Cimino and Associate Producer Joann Carelli took him to dinner at a cheap restaurant off the Sunset Strip. He recalls, "We finished, and Joann looks at me across the table, and she says, 'Well, Deric, it's fuck-off time.' I was fired. It was a classic case: you get a dummy, get him to write the goddamn thing, tell him to go fuck himself, put your name on the thing, and he'll go away. I was so tired, I didn't care. I'd been working twenty hours a day for a month. I got on the plane the next day, and I went back to Manhattan and my carpenter job."
The Production Manager asked each of the Russian immigrant extras to bring to the location a gift-wrapped box to double for wedding presents. The manager figured if the extras did this, not only would the production save time and money, but the gifts would also look more authentic. Once the unit wrapped and the extras disappeared, the crew discovered to their amusement that the boxes weren't empty, but filled with real presents, from China to silverware. "Who got to keep all these wonderful offerings", wrote Michael Deeley "is a mystery I never quite fathomed."
According to Producer Michael Deeley, orchestrated lobbying against the film was led by Warren Beatty, whose own picture Heaven Can Wait (1978) had multiple Oscar nominations. Beatty also used ex-girlfriends in his campaign: Julie Christie, serving on the jury at the Berlin Film Festival where the film was screened, joined the walkout of the film by the Russian jury members. Jane Fonda also criticized the film in public. Deeley suggested that her criticisms partly stemmed from the competition between her film, Coming Home (1978), vying with this movie for Best Picture. According to Deeley, he planted a friend of his in the Oscar press area behind the stage to ask Fonda if she had seen the film. Fonda replied she had not seen the film, and to this day she still has not. Backstage at the Academy Awards, she told Michael Cimino that his movie was the "racist Pentagon version of the war", which she claimed without having seen it. Go figure.
Before the beginning of principal photography began, Michael Deeley had a meeting with Line Producer Robert E. Relyea. Deeley hired Relyea after meeting him on the set of Bullitt (1968), and was impressed with his experience. However, Relyea told Deeley that he would not be able to be the producer on this movie, and refused to disclose the reasons why. Deeley suspected that Relyea sensed in Michael Cimino something that would have made production difficult. As a result, Cimino was acting without day-to-day supervision of a Producer.
This was Michael Cimino's first film to use Dolby noise-reduction system. "What Dolby does", replied Cimino, "is to give you the ability to create a density of detail of sound, a richness so you can demolish the wall separating the viewer from the film. You can come close to demolishing the screen."
Editor Peter Zinner was given six hundred thousand feet of printed film to edit, a monumental task at the time. Zinner eventually cut the film down to eighteen thousand feet. Michael Cimino later fired Zinner when he discovered that Zinner was editing down the wedding scenes. Zinner eventually won a Best Editing Oscar for the film. Regarding the clashes between him and Cimino, Zinner stated: "Michael Cimino and I had our differences at the end, but he kissed me when we both got Academy Awards." Cimino later commented in The New York Observer, "He (Zinner) was a moron. I cut Deer Hunter myself."
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.
Several critics commented on how the film was the more Republican and apologist version of Vietnam, while Coming Home (1978) was the Democrat and protest movement's riposte. Pauline Kael criticised the movie for having a racist anti-Viet Cong feeling to it. "It's as if the Americans are portrayed as doing what they had to do over there, but the Vietnamese are portrayed as vicious sadists, getting off on their ritualistic torture and suicides."
Composer Stanley Myers originally wrote "Cavatina" for the film The Walking Stick (1970) (which became the theme music for this movie) as a much shorter piece for the piano. Classical guitarist John Williams persuaded him to to expand it and re-write 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.
Michael Cimino worked for six weeks with Deric Washburn on the script. Cimino and Washburn had previously collaborated with Steven Bochco on the screenplay for Silent Running (1972). According to Producer Barry Spikings, Cimino said he wanted to work again with Washburn. According to Michael Deeley, he only heard from office rumor that Washburn was contracted by Cimino to work on the script. "Whether Cimino hired Washburn as his sub-contractor, or as a co-writer, was constantly being obfuscated", wrote Deeley, "and there were some harsh words between them later on, or so I was told."
The film took five months to mix the soundtrack. One short battle sequence, two hundred feet of film in the final cut, took five days to dub. Another sequence re-created the 1975 American evacuation of Saigon. Michael Cimino brought Stanley Myers out to the location to listen to the auto, tank, and Jeep horns as the sequence was being photographed. The result, according to Cimino: Myers composed the music for that scene in the same key as the horn sounds, so the music and the sound effects would blend with the images to create one jarring, desolate experience.
In the U.S., 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)".
As told in the documentary, An Unlikely Weapon (2008), Michael Cimino carried Eddie Adams' world famous photo, "The Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla" in his back pocket for a year, and credits the iconic image for inspiring the screenplay.
During the 29th Berlin International Film Festival in 1979, the Soviet delegation expressed its indignation with the film which, in their opinion, insulted the Vietnamese people in numerous scenes. Other Communist countries also voiced their solidarity with the "heroic people of Vietnam". They protested against the screening of the film, and insisted that it violated the statutes of the festival, since it in no way contributed to the "improvement of mutual understanding between the peoples of the world." 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.
While appearing later in the film, the first scenes shot upon arrival in Thailand were the hospital sequences between Nick and the military doctor. Michael Deeley believed that this scene was "the spur that would earn him an Academy Award."
Because Michael Deeley was busy overseeing in the production of Convoy (1978), he hired John Peverall to oversee Michael Cimino's shoot. Peverall's expertise with budgeting and scheduling made him a natural choice, and Peverall knew enough about the picture to be elevated to Producer status. "John is a straightforward Cornishman who had worked his way up to become a Production Supervisor", wrote Deeley, "and we employed him as EMI's watchman on certain pictures."
This film was Michael Cimino's breakthrough and downfall. The success of this film gave Cimino free reign of his next film, he decided to make Heaven's Gate (1980). However, Cimino ran into production problems during the making of the film, and overran the budget. As a result, Heaven's Gate (1980) was one of the biggest box-office flops in film history and nearly caused United Artists to go bankrupt, destroying Cimino's reputation and career.
This movie is one of the earliest examples of successful 'Oscar baiting' in order to maximize box office performance. When the first test screening turned out disastrous, the studio was unsure how to market a movie with such grim and depressing subject matter. As a consultant, they hired veteran producer Allan Carr, who realized that the movie would only attract an audience if it received recognition from the Academy. He gave it a very limited release in two theaters near the end of the year, for an audience of critics and Academy members, and for the period that would qualify the film for Oscar eligibility. The film was then pulled from distribution, except for a few screenings on a cable network that catered to cinephiles. When The Deer Hunter received critical acclaim as well as nine Oscar nominations, it was given a wide release and a promotional campaign that underscored the artistic success, leading to a substantial box office success. Releasing high-profile films near the end of the year to increase their Oscar chances as well as their subsequent box office potential has become standard practice since.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the commentary for the Special Edition DVD release (as of 2005, only available in the UK, region 2 encoded), Michael Cimino revealed that Nick was the father of Angela's baby. This was a highly debated issue by fans of the film that was, until now, a mystery.
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.