Part 1 of The MALESTROM’s Interview with Oscar Winning British Producer Michael Deeley
What do The Deer Hunter, Blade Runner, The Italian Job, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth all have in common? Well apart from being some of the most iconic films of all time and featuring a who’s who of acting legends, they were all overseen by one of the greatest living British film Producers of all time, Michael Deeley. An Englishman who managed to hold his own with the greats in Hollywood and become one of the UK’s most influential exports to La La Land.
The MALESTROM heard him talk in public not so long ago and were blown away by the man’s heavyweight experience, wit, intelligence and extraordinary knowledge of the film industry. He’s also a superb raconteur: with his tales of persuading Robert De Niro to star in The Deer Hunter, playing mediator in the feud between Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford on Blade Runner, and negotiating his way around David Bowie when he was hallucinating on set. Michael Deeley is a man who knows how to make a film that stands the test of time, get the world to love it and win an Oscar along the way.
Now aged 83 and retired to the sunnier climes of Santa Barbara, Deeley spoke exclusively to The MALESTROM from his home in California about his memories of making The Deer Hunter, the film’s recently deceased Director Michael Cimino, and working with everyone from Harrison Ford to Michael Caine.
The MALESTROM: Michael, the films that you’ve produced are some of the most iconic of all time. Is there a secret to success?
Michael Deeley: Well, I would say… look to be original, never remake anything. I’ve made some pretty ordinary pictures as well… but be original, hence make a film about Russian roulette when nobody else has… I am very happy to have an Oscar though, for The Deer Hunter… I suppose that’s like a badge. On the night I had a deal with David Putnam who was nominated for Midnight Express, a very good picture, the deal was we’d each have a cheque for $500 in our pockets, and the deal was whoever won had to give it to the other chap to go and have dinner (chuckle)… and I was very happy to give David Putnam $500 (chuckle).
TM: Is it fair to say you had a golden period?
MD: Yes, yes it was. It went on a very nice, gentle upwards curve and what’s curious about most of my pictures is that they did not have much opening success… The Italian Job was not a hit when it opened, now it’s often voted the favourite film of filmgoers. One of the reasons I think is that I’ve often succeeded in finding something that’s rather original, and ‘original’ isn’t very easy with the marketing… it doesn’t seem to work, I mean I’ll give you three very good examples of pictures that didn’t open well, umm, The Italian Job, Blade Runner… The Deer Hunter…how about that? There’s one rule you need to know or you should know is… when you start shooting a picture, working on a picture with one of the American companies, from day one when you walk out of the office, having shaken hands etc, interest starts to rise.
TM: Interest? They’re charging you interest on the money?
MD: Of course! That’s the greatest trick Hollywood has… their greatest means of prosperity. I mean… I’ll give you an example of that. The moment a scriptwriter starts working, getting paid… before you’re near having a film, that blob of money that’s paying the scriptwriter’s wages is gathering interest at a rate that’s usually quite substantial. The Italian Job, for example, cost £3.25m in 1969, it had a very slow start, screwed up in America, which was Paramount’s fault [and probably] to some extent [to do] with the poster… and you have to ask yourself, why did Paramount remake it in 2003? It’s because they are making so much money out of it… in Britain and Australia and a few other places the film cost £3.25m to make back then. The last statement I looked at which was five years ago – the film still had a deficit of £8m, so you can never catch up!
TM: That’s extraordinary! Talking about your time with Paramount back then, you were working with them in their heyday and one of their most famous studio heads, Bob Evans?
MD: The greatest studio head I ever worked with, he was just fabulous! He made decisions instantly! He read people well, he was utterly charming. He had been an actor you know and he was a good tennis player (chuckle)… a very good tennis player (chuckle)… which helped a lot, huh, huh… no, no, he was marvellous.
TM: Wasn’t it through Bob Evans that you passed on one of the greatest films of all time?
MD: Bob came to me with a screenplay by Mario Puzzo and said I want you to do this? I was working with Peter Yates at the time, prepping for a Peter O’Toole picture called, ‘Murphy’s War’. Well Peter had done very well with a Steve McQueen film Bullit, and didn’t want to do another crime film, which was The Godfather… so he said ‘no’ and I gave it back to Bob.
TM: Is that your biggest regret, The Godfather, the one film you wished you’d Produced?
MD: No, not really! Not with Peter Yates Directing it. Peter was very good at mechanical things like car chases with McQueen, not so good with relationships and you needed someone with a strong Italian instinct. Coppola directed it and he did a wonderful job. Evans had a very good eye and I know Coppola was a better choice than Peter Yates, so no, no regrets there.
TM: One of the only films of the 1970’s that got held up to The Godfather was The Deer Hunter. How did that come about?
MD: Well, the original screenplay was called ‘The Man Who Came to Play’, by two chaps Quinn Redeker and Lou Garfinkle about the Vietnam War and Russian roulette. The screenplay was brilliant but it wasn’t complete, so I consulted various Hollywood agents at the time and they recommended someone called Michael Cimino, who had written three pictures including one that Clint Eastwood allowed him to Direct, ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’… didn’t do very well, but quite a nice film, so I hired him. When he delivered the new script, titled ‘The Deer Hunter’… well, it broke fresh ground, what I didn’t realise was he had jobbed the work out to another writer, hadn’t written it himself.
TM: What was the reaction when you tried to get it made?
MD: It was probably the most difficult film I have ever tried to sell a gruesome-sounding storyline and a barely known director. So, I needed a star and they needed to be the right age… De Niro was 34 and one of the hottest talents around by way of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, then The Godfather Part II and of course Taxi Driver. His name alone would attract buyers in foreign territories needed to raise the money… the likes of De Niro and Al Pacino, with their Italian backgrounds seemed to appeal to the rest of the world, they didn’t seem as foreign as the typical WASP American the Robert Redfords and such like. De Niro liked the script because it was simple and real, but his agent pushed hard for the money… asked for £1.5m at the time… which I think was just about the most he had ever been paid.
TM: And what was the budget of the film back then?
MD: £8.5m… but it ballooned to £13m. De Niro was determined to bring an air authenticity to his character and visited the steel mills in Pennsylvania… ate, drank and played pool with the workers he wanted to get as close as he could to them and even worked a shift at the mill. Such was his enthusiasm he then took it upon himself to bring the rest of the cast, he brought in an unknown young actress… Meryl Streep.
TM: So, who is responsible for the famous Russian roulette scenes? Because they’ve stood the test of time…
MD: Well really the actual Russian roulette scene in the shack (the tense scene that sees American POWs including De Niro forced by their Vietnamese captors to play a deadly game betting the single bullet in the pistol they fire at their head is not in the chamber), that was Robert De Niro. He actually worked that out and Cimino very wisely let him play with it… De Niro gave so much more to this film than most actors do or can, he was the one who created a buddy atmosphere by taking the actors away and intimately rehearsing with them, he really created what you saw… after Streep he found Christopher Walken, these are New York guys you see, and Meryl brought her boyfriend, who was of course John Cazale who had been in The Godfather. De Niro’s influence on the film was incredible.
TM: And the Russian roulette….?
MD: Well… when they were in the bamboo hut, he suggested that Christopher Walken should get a real slap from one of the guards without any forewarning… didn’t tell Walken, so the reaction on Chris’s face was for real, it was the same as the climax, which was shot in one take and entirely improvised by Walken and De Niro. Cimino simply said, ‘You put the gun to your head, Chris, you shoot, you fall over and Bobby cradles your head’… pretty sparse direction.
TM: It is well documented that your relationship with Cimino was not a good one, but what was it about him?
MD: To be honest… he was deceitful, I mean deliberately untruthful, and he always had some plan so he could avoid doing whatever he was meant to do… I mean I hired him. Some Directors, have to be single-minded I guess… and once they get the job, it’s very hard to shift them. I learned the hard way with Cimino, he had taken half a dozen pages of character set-up, and turned them into sixty-six minutes of screen time… the wedding scene. The front of The Deer Hunter was supposed to be about 20 something minutes, it ran for 42, it unbalanced the film! Two things you have to think about for a Producer… one which is purely commercial, if you’ve got a film that’s 3 hours or longer, you’re only going to get two screens a day… instead of three, so you’re actually reducing by a full third the value of your screening and your advertising income.
TM: Well you look at The Deer Hunter now and everything in the film feels so authentic?
MD: They were… some of the sequences were so real… they were fraught with danger, with real rats and mosquitoes and the three leads were actually tied up in bamboo cages in the water, somewhere… I can’t remember exactly where… but on River Kwai. Also, after the three escape from the Vietcong, they float down this fast-flowing river on a log until they hit a bamboo bridge. The U.S helicopter tries to rescue them… and in the confusion, the Thai pilot inadvertently hooked one of the choppers’ skids under the bamboo bridge nearly tipping De Niro, Walken and John Savage into the water… it could have a been a watery grave.
TM: Michael Cimino took so much credit for the film, but the reality is that you are the one that brought it to the screen?
MD: After I left EMI in the summer of 1978, Cimino asked a chap who worked for me, if he could have a Producer credit, and he said, yes!
TM: He was just given a Producers credit off the cuff like that?
MD: … He was talked into it by Cimino who was promising the earth with his next movie, Heaven’s Gate, which was of course the biggest disaster ever known in Hollywood… it brought down United Artists. Even some of the advertising had the words, ‘A Michael Cimino Production’, which it certainly never was. I had hired him simply to revise an existing script and direct it… the end result was he ended up with five different credits… Story by, Produced by, Directed by, written by, A Michael Cimino film and what have you. The other thing that people don’t realise is… the famous theme song, ‘Cavatina’ he took from another filmThe Walking Stick. He took the credit for that too, simply took it, didn’t tell us… and then let us pick up the bill, which was quite a chunk of money I can tell you.
TM: How did the film fair when it was finally released?
MD: Initially, it got a one-week run in December 1978 and the reviews said it was the most important picture since The Godfather. It then went on to be the success that you know and I won an Oscar… which I was pretty pleased about and I still am.
TM: Do you think what Cimino did to Heaven’s Gate and United Artists contributed to the very tight grip the studios have over Directors now and the final cut?
MD: Well … yes, I think maybe it did … yes.
You can read more fascinating insights into Michael’s life in film in his book Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies.
NEXT WEEK PART TWO: Working with the greats – Bowie, Beatty and Spielberg.