Michael Cimino - Paris Heaven's Gate Master class
Please excuse me. I lost my words. Anyway I'm really excited to see what they've done because no one had told me it was a restaured version of Heaven's gate that was shown tonight. This is a big surprise for me. You will see this new version before myself and I hope you'll enjoy all the sound effects, and also I hope the copy will be good, and later on you'll have the opportunity to give me your impressions. I just can't believe that so many people are actually here to watch a movie that was released so long ago. I feel we shot it yesterday. I'm not a master, I'm a pupil like many of you are and I've forgotten all I was taught. Today I can figure out all I still have to learn. So please, we are all part of the same world. I'm only in a different place. Though we are all looking for the same thing, even the ones who are sitting at the balcony.
Michel Ciment : I think I've heard that before starting your first movie, your dream was to direct a musical in Holywood. Does the danced first sequence of Heaven's gate make your dream come true ?
I really love music and dancing. To me it's a real pleasure to be on a set with dancers, and music and a camera all around. John Ford would say the recepee to direct a great movie was to show three things : a running horse, a high mountain, and a couple who's dancing. And I totally agree with this. You'll find all of these elements in the movie. I just hope John Ford will also watch the movie tonight and that he'll give his approval.
You've started with art studies at Yale. How has it influenced your work later ?
I have no idea. How I became a director has always been a mistery to me. It's the worst job ever because on a set you work twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. And if you add the script, it even takes two years more. The director has more work than the other ones. Actors come for four weeks of rehearsals and six weeks of shooting before leaving to join another movie. And you stay by yourself with your film and you spend another year cutting the movie. I was taught design and painting, I had absolutely no intention to make movies. I was really admirative of great painters and they influenced me, so did architects. They were my heroes. I didn't grow up watching movies every single day as many today's directors did. For me it was more an unsual transition, with all its strangeness, and its mystery.The best way for me to explain this would be to take this large white screen right behind us.It has got two dimensions, like a board. And we watch a board as we watch a screen. To see exactly what architecture is, you need to move through space to consider the effects of lights and shadows. The essence of architecture is in this precise movement. We like the beauty of a two dimensions painting, but we know we can catch the real meaning of an area only if we walk inside of it. This two dimensions space became my enemy. What I wanted to do when I got into cinema was to go beyond the wall, to destroy it and to catch your eyes to bring you through it. That is to say to make you forget these two dimensions, to make you a part of it. In the movie Sunchaser there is this line from a half-blood gangster : « be the beauty in front of me, be the beauty behind me, be her by me, be her above my head, be her under my feet, be her all around me ». This explains my idea of cinema, better than I can explain it myself.
I guess that many of you have already seen a ballet. On stage, there is this nice picture of dancing, colours, movements, which seem to be created without any efforts. Even though it's a ballet, and it's wonderul, it's still a two dimensions perception. But if you turn yourself 90° to a side and if you look at the ballet from this new angle, your experience of it radically changes.Suddenly you can see the physical efforts that dancing requires, and you understand how athletic it is. You hear the dancers and the noise their feet make against the stage.They are like horses, who are sweating and blowing. If you go back in front of the stage, the show is beautiful again, effortless. I cannot explain it better.
Let's speak about the pictiral compositions. You seem to appreciate specially the 2.35 cinemascope ratio.
I like large screens. Western America is full of large landscapes and in a way, they require a large screen. If you diminish the ratio, you are limited. That's why a movie you watch on TV is a different movie.
You've also received an actor training. You've studied with Lee Strasberg from the Actor's Studio. That's a chance Isabelle Huppert, who worked with you, is here. What have you learnt from Strasberg and how has it had an influence on your way to work with actors later in your career ?
Isabelle Huppert : I think I've followed this training because of my naïveté and because I didn't know much about cinema. I didn't know anything about the art of directing of actors. At this time I couldn't even enter a set. But I know I had to work with actors, and I had to learn how they worked.
Michael Cimino : The best way to understand it was therefore to study myself this art of acting. I would go to the Actor's Studio once a week, I would take private classes, I would attend rehearsals on night as all other actors do. I studied dancing and did all I could to learn something. Because if you ask an actor to do something while making him change his way to do it, you must know how to ask for the change the proper way. Actors cannot trust a director if he doesn't have the same idea of the movie. They need to believe that what you see is true, real, honest, straight and they need to believe it's for the best when you ask for a changment. They need this confidence at the very first time they read the script. To me, directing is not about creating a dictatorship.
To be a director is to be the coach of a team. You must push the players to do what they have never done before, and to be better than ever. The most important thing is to bring inspiration to the actors and to the whole team. If it is self-confident, the actors will feel their energy because the team is very sensitive and feels everything. It knows when the directeur is weak, when he makes decisions, when he's afraid or when he has the total control of his movie. It's like a living organism that reacts immediatly. When you show you're self-confident and when you assert a clear idea, you may (even if you can't be sure you will) obtain a transcendental moment. That's what we always want, and not only in a movie. We want a moment to go high, we want to feel our feet leave the ground, hours seem like minutes, minutes like seconds. That's why we keep making movies, to try to find this feeling again. We know perfection is a reality, we also know we'll never reach it. Perfection is for God, not for us. We know the most important thing is to try to reach this perfection. It is very important to keep a living heart . Isabelle Huppert was perfect.
Isabelle Huppert, we know each director has a personal and special way to direct his actors.You had worked in France for only ten years. How did you live the experience on a huge american production like Heaven's gate , and more precisely with Michael Cimino ?
First Michael said actors had rehearsals for four weeks then were on set for five or six weeks. You should know that the shooting of Heaven's gate lasted 7 months, for our great pleasure.
[Michael Cimino : Can you believe this ? She's exagerating]
It was an outstanding experience first because of its length (without irony) and I saw the movie once again two days ago. I thought the same thing as the first time I saw it. It is true that this movie is deeply american because as Michael has just said, it cares so much about the notion of space, of light...These are things you can't find in European movies. They have a direct influence on the way you see an actress move in this space and in this light that are so much part of America, that are even America the basis of American cinema.
Once you get into this atmosphere, you are different, and I'm not even talking about how Michael would look at my character and at myself. There is something solar, an energy I couldn't have found in Europe. All the positive elements which are the opposite of ambiguity and chiaroscuro are very interesting in Heaven's gate because they are precisely the things you find in a european or french movie, while they serve in this movie an amazing ambiguity in the relationships between the characters. They are sort of blur and there seems to be something secret and unnamed between them. The combination of these two things is very interesting here.The movie keeps a secret and it's very rare in the American cinema ; usually these things are said brillantly but they are only said.
The beauty of Heaven's gate is this secret the movie leaves us. Michael's just said the actors are asked things they have never done before. In this case it's totally true. It's not very likely I do in another movie what I've done here. Especially in a french movie. There are situations that only belong to this kind of films.
When you ask a great actress to do something impossible, she just does it.
But it's very hard to refuse something to Michael. (the audience laughs). I won't do it again, I don't know how I did that. I'm afraid of horses, I don't like them, and I can't dance very well. I can't do anything I do in this movie.
It's very simple.You just need to find the best actress you can possibly find and you ask her to do something impossible. About Isabelle, I'd just like to say I turned to her thanks to my intuition. I really chose her on a crush, it wasn't intellectual. It was intuitive, I didn't even know who she was. I had never seen any movie with her but The lacemaker. I met someone who is not only a good actress, but even more a very intelligent person. I think she's a genius.
I'd always thought you had seen me in Violette Nozière ?
I haven't seen this one. Actually I was taking a break from the casting. My head was simply going to explode because of all these actresses I had seen. We were in New York with Joan Carelly (the producer of Heaven's gate / ndlr). All the actresses of the world wanted to get the part. It was too much pressure. I told Joan I was going for a walk outside. I found myself around the corner of Madison Avenue and 59th Street, where there was this little movie theater. I saw this name : Isabelle Huppert, on the poster and I came in. I sat and just tried to relax. And she appeared on the screen, and it was love at first sight.
From her first days on the set she would read all the time. She even had a bag of books. It never occured with actresses. They never read, even in the script they stick to their lines. Isabelle would give me advice on what to read and I thought it was amazing. I asked her to do weird things. Before shootting, as she was playing a prostitute, I asked her to live in a brothel for some days, in a little town we were working in. It was the only place in Idaho were prostitution was legal. I had a contract with Lee, who was the « best lady » in town and I explained to her I wanted Isabelle and the other actresses to experiment the bore linked to their life. They just wait and wait for clients. A protitute's life in Western USA isn't just about dancing on a stage in a nice dress. This brothel is what we call a « locked place ». The girls had to stay there for one month, separated from the rest of the world. Then they could go out with a group to shop. The actresses of the movie were all quite nervous when they arrived. The first thing Lee told them was « No alcohol, no drugs, no boyfriends » and she told them that if an actress was chosen by a client after the bell, she had to go with him. Isabelle accepted this proposition. I didn't know whether Lee and her prostitutes were the most excited ones, or whether it was Isabelle and the other actresses. How many times a woman - whether she's an actress or not - know what it is being a prostiute ? As I was a naive director at this time I did it. Nobody had told me whether you could do that or not. I didn't know it was incredible. It sounded logical to me.
The writing of scripts was your first work in cinema. How do you see this : do you think writing and directing have a close link or, as many directors think, that the writing of the script is just a basis ?
You know you're asking a dangerous question. Devil tempts me with this question. Michel perfectly knows that if I try to answer this question, and try to answer it completely, it could last until midnight. I think the people sitting on the balcony are looking forward to seeing this movie and if I start answering, they never will. You can spend an hour and a half talking about the writing of a script.
Can you tell us about the first sequence, how did you prepare the editing ?
This editing asked for a lot of preparation and work. It was very hard to shoot this sequence but it was also delightful. Editing is a very entertaining time in the making of the movie. I chose this song - The Blue Danube - for several reasons. First it was the first music to be called sexy in the 1870's. It was the first one for which the dancers could touch each other. Before that dances were very military. Therefore it was a revolutionnary dance at the time and I found it was appropriate at this time of the History of the United States because the Civil War had just ended. Everything was changing in the country. It was a revolution, just like The Blue Danube. It was considered as diabolic. The version in the movie is played by the Philarmonic Orchestra of New York but with a faster tempo, on which you cannot dance. Though I liked this rapidity. The sequence was shot in England, with professional dancers, and they couldn't follow the rhythm with their costumes and the grass. After a minute and a half they couldn't breathe. This sequence lasts exactly three minutes and it's divided into two parts of one minute and a half that I shot with six cameras. If I had just one, I would have killed the dancers. They would have died before my very eyes.
Then we planified cercles around the tree because the dance in Harvard had to be done around a tree. There was a huge cercle of flowers around it and the pupils who were newly graduated would dance around it and at the end of the ceremony the boys would fight to catch the first bunch. The tree and the place we had chosen were execting circular movments. The circles would turn in opposite directions. When cameras shoot this kind of movements, there is an important impression of rapidity. There is a huge energy, that's what we wanted and that's what we obtained.
How did you chose the main male actors ?
When we had to cast Christopher Walken's part in The Deer hunter we saw one thousand actors in New York and once again, I got a headache. Joan Carelly gave me this paper saying « Chris is Nick ». I didn't read it at once, I had put it in my pocket. At the end of the day I had a double migraine ; it was very hard. I was asking Joan « who's going to play Nick with Robert de Niro ? » She told me to open the piece of paper I was given and I read it. It was his first movie and I said ok. If it had not happened Chris would have not played in Heaven's gate. It was almost as strange as casting Isabelle Huppert. There is no science for a casting. It must come from your heart, even maybe from your intuition, and a mysterious thing you feel in the air.
How has Joseph Cotten, the wonderful actor from Citizen Kane, had his name on the credits of Heaven's gate and how did you manage to shoot so well the scenes of russian roulette in The Deer hunter ?
I casted him because I loved his way to play in Citizen Kane and even more in Splendor of The Ambersons. I was a great admirer of his way to act. So I asked whether he was still alive and where he was. I visited him in Los Angeles, I had dinner with him and I asked him if he would consider playing in the movie and he said yes. There was no other actor on track. It's very simple.
For The Deer hunter, in the prisonners' camp, we simply filmed reality. All the slaps and the punches were real. It was very hard. Apart from the main characters who were interpreted by actors, the figurants were people from the streets, some in USA, some in Thaïland. They were very good to hit the actors, and they would punch them hard. I remember seeing tears in Christopher Walken's eyes, his cheeks were very red. But in Thaïland the face is sacred so you can never hit it. So everytime one of them would hit one on the actors' face, he would say a prayer. There was a prayer for each hit you could see. Prayers and violence.
Could you tell us about the different versions of Heaven's gate and whether the version we are about to see tonight is the Director's cut or one of the other versions ?
There are several versions, which are all terrible. Tonight is the original version. 25 years after the movie was released it is surprising to be in Paris to see it. It's hard to believe. We were kids when we made it. We were in this wonderful garden of Montana. We were real Heaven's children.
Your movies give a very harsh vision of American society and of its historical basis. I find it close to Sam Peckinpah's work. What do you think of his work ? Why didn't you work again with Clint Eastwood ?
Sam and Clint, they should have worked together. I'm going to tell you a little story. When we were in Idaho we were shooting scenes of the street and guess who apparead in the middle of hundreds of figurants , of the locomotive, of the horses, of the weapons ? (the assitance screams names). Right. Sam Peckinpah. He was there, glorious. It was simply him. He was pale, he was just back from the hospital where he had been placed a pacemaker. He looked like a zombie. He told me "Michael, give me a camera". I told him he had to be in a hospital, that I coulnd't give him a camera but I left my pick-up and my driver to him. On the backseat there were many wine bottles, beer, many drinks. Sam thought it was heaven, he spent three days with my truck at the brothel before going back home. When I found my pick-up I wanted to have a glass of wine, but my driver said there was nothing left even if there was enough to drink for six months.
Translation from French to English : Coralie Bru