While Apocalypse Now is better known today for its agonizing production process, Michael Cimino's 1978 Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter was no picnic either. What starts as a deliberately small film focused on a group of working-class steel laborers expands into a sprawling, yet granular examination of the America-Vietnam conflict. Cimino's film is marked by a commitment to both realism and character that some believe Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now - often considered The Deer Hunter's counterpart - shrugs off.
The fact The Deer Hunter's budget ballooned - or that Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and the rest of the cast and crew endured hellish conditions while filming - comes as no surprise. Those factors were part of the "New Hollywood" approach - a method of which the film was very much a product. By examining the details behind Cimino's vision, The Deer Hunter's audacity may finally be understood.
Michael Cimino's Hubris And Many Changes Of Location Elevated Costs Even Further
While filming on location is always expensive, making a war movie in Thailand with a half-proven director and stacked cast is a near-perfect recipe for going broke. At the time production got underway, Michael Cimino had only directed one other film - the caper Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
The Deer Hunter dwarfed Cimino's freshman film in both ambition and scale, and the excesses Cimino exhibited in the wedding sequence unsurprisingly made another appearance when they began rolling again halfway around the world. Expensive effects, such as those required for the helicopter/bridge sequence, helped drive the budget from its original $7 million to its final $15 million. Fortunately, despite its unwieldy runtime (the theatrical cut runs over three hours), the film made back every cent and then some.
They Ruined Local Vegetation To Mimic Winter In An Industrial Town
Filming began in the middle of summer, and the dense, post-spring Pennsylvania forests surrounding the establishing-sequence steel mill displayed as much. To achieve the sparse, wintery effect the opening demanded, the production opted to defoliate trees and spray the grass with a chemical compound intended to give them a brown, wilted look.
The production's capable greenskeeper went to work adjusting the native greenery, all the while risking the long-term health of a good deal of plants. Fortunately, much of his work proved reparable, as locals reported the defoliated trees re-leafed the following year.
A Live Round Was In The Cylinder During The Russian Roulette Sequence
Deploying real-world stressors to achieve in-story performances has a long history in filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock famously antagonized his actresses off-camera before capturing some of their most horrific scenes; William Friedkin filmed the famed French Connection car chase without permits; and, in 2015, Kurt Russell was allowed to break an actual vintage Martin guitar while cameras were rolling on The Hateful Eight - the producers kept Jennifer Jason Leigh's candid reaction in the film.
The Deer Hunter provides yet another example of this phenomenon. To heighten his performance, Robert De Niro insisted on keeping a live round in the revolver while filming the sequence. Fortunately, everybody was okay in the end, but the added risk undoubtedly impacted the performances of all involved.
A Venomous Snake Made Its Way Onto The Set And Crawled Up John Savage's Leg
Given just how many location-related headaches the production suffered, an insidious snake making its way on set and nearly biting a cast member sounds like an unideal cherry on top. In a 2018 interview, John Savage recounted that Robert De Niro spotted a Thai banded krait on set only after it had secured itself around Savage's leg.
Fortunately, a cool-headed crewmember removed and eradicated the intruder before it had the chance to delay production with a bite.