“Desperate” Memories of Michael Cimino

115051350I never interviewed Michael Cimino, whose death was confirmed earlier today, but I’ve certainly heard a fair amount about him and his various works from other people over the years.

For instance, the famed writer/director isn’t mentioned by name in Terry O’Quinn’s reminiscences about his work in Heaven’s Gate in his Random Roles interview, but if you revisit that conversation, you’ll see that his story lives up to everything you’ve ever heard about the film and how long it took to finish it.

For the most part, though, when I think of Cimino, I think of one of his lesser efforts: his remake of William Wyler’s 1955 drama The Desperate Hours, which originally starred Humphrey Bogart and Frederic March. Cimino’s version, which dropped the “The,” was released in 1990 and starred Mickey Rourke, a just barely pre-Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins, and one hell of a supporting cast, including Lindsay Crouse, Elias Koteas, Kelly Lynch, David Morse, Mimi Rogers, and Shawnee Smith. Alas, Cimino’s film was not what you’d call a critical success, but when I interviewed Lynch and Morse for Random Roles, they both had anecdotes that have stuck with me for the long haul. If you’ve read the pieces in question, they may well have stuck with you, too, but just in case they haven’t, this seemed like an apropos time to share them, as they seem to confirm one thing about Cimino: he was a real handful to work with, but if you had the opportunity to do so, you almost certainly never forgot it.

am_06t16230dkxxr8476_1300x1733Kelly Lynch: I feel like not only have I worked with every leading man of a particular era, but I worked on movies that were just incredible experiences, if sometimes for some crazy reasons. But those were weird years, you know? The ’90s… There was a lot of money and not a lot of people running the store. And Michael Cimino is famous for making these grand, operatic, money-burning movies. He really pursued me. I loved the script, and I was aware that the story was based on… Well, the original movie was based on a case that Richard Nixon, as a young lawyer, presided over. I just loved the reality of the story about this lawyer, this public defender who fell in love with her client and gave up everything to be with him.

I had a woman lawyer in L.A. who I was following for about a month, and I went to every trial with her, I went to prisons with her and watched her, and… I wanted to base my character visually and emotionally on her, because she was a really interesting woman. Very sexy but, unlike the case of the girl I played, she didn’t wear a lot of makeup. She wore very tight clothing and she was incredibly smart. She would show up with a thin little file of papers, and the prosecutors would have, like, boxes of things, and she would win. Usually her clients were guilty—they were gangbangers, often—and her name was Oksana, and I would say, “Oksana, how do you live with yourself?” And she said, “You know what? I make the law better. If they knew what they were doing, they would easily win their cases. But they don’t, because they’re lazy and they don’t care and they’re not good lawyers.” And that was her way of justifying it. And I was like, “Yeah, but there’s a guy who kidnapped somebody, who shot somebody, who’s now free.” And she would say, “Yeah, well, you know, they’ll end up in prison again because they’re a bad guy. The system will take them in. But I’m not here to make a moral judgment. I’m here to make the law stronger.” That was her thing. And I thought, “Oh, she’s great!” She wore… I’d say the shirts might’ve been a little too low once in awhile, the skirts might’ve been a little too tight, but she wasn’t the full-hair-and-makeup type that Michael Cimino always has.

If you look at Michael’s movies, especially with Mickey Rourke, there’s always a girl who is the designated… what I call the drag queen, someone who has too much makeup and hair, who’s usually a reporter or, as in my case, a lawyer. But it’s always, like, “slash supermodel.” And I didn’t know at the time that Michael was kind of… interested in dressing like a woman. That’s the Michael Cimino we know today, but at the time I didn’t know what his issues were with femininity and all those things. And during Desperate Hours, we started to see him wearing higher heels and fixing his hair like a woman and doing different things, and I said, “Michael, I don’t really want to wear this makeup, I don’t want this hairdo, and I know you’re having me thrust my leg out in this scene like I’m doing a pantyhose commercial, but I’m just a lawyer!” And he would get angry and say, “I don’t want to look at you until you get your hair and makeup on in that trailer. You look like a 12-year-old boy!” And me, in my mid-20s… I did not look like a 12-year-old boy. I thought I looked pretty good! [Laughs.] But I was like, “Okay…”

And then I came to the scene with Mickey [Rourke] in the hallway, where I’m springing him and we’re running out of the courthouse, and there was an exchange between the two of us. We asked each other if we loved each other and need each other and that sort of thing, and we kind of nod and get out of there, a one last look because we could be shot, we don’t know what we’re doing. And Michael came in and took the “love” part out of it. He said, “It’s not about love.” And I looked at him and I said, “A woman in my position would not gamble on losing everything for any other reason. She loves this guy.” And he says, “No, you just want to get laid.” I said, “Well, how long do you think it would take a girl like me, who looks like I do here, to have sex with a guy like this?” I mean, it was Mickey. I’m like, “How long do you think it would take, Michael? A second…?” Probably you’re right. Probably it’s a lustful kind of thing that she’s mistaking for love, but that’s something I don’t want to even be conscious of. I want to feel like I’m in love with this man.” And he looked at me and shook his head and said, “No.” And I said, “Okay, here’s the thing: This will be your performance. Because I disagree with you on everything about who this person is. She’s an intellectual. She’s a very wealthy, very successful attorney, and she knows she can get laid. She’s in love with this man. Or she’s confused and she thinks she’s in love with this man, but she’s in a crisis.” And he said, “Actually, the real truth of the story is that you’re really hot, and you just really want to get laid.” [Laughs.] So I said, “Well, then this will be your performance. I will leave my name on the movie, but I can’t take credit. I’ll even ask for line readings.”

And, basically, that’s how I did the rest of the film. I can’t really take credit for any of it. I thought it was beautiful, as far as the scenery, and there were pieces of it that I believed in and thought were amazing. But it’s all the director’s movie, not mine. A lot of it didn’t make any sense to me. But I loved working with Sir Anthony Hopkins. We’d sit together at lunch and talk about things. And Mickey and I became great friends. We’ve worked together many times, and I’m one of his favorite actors, oddly enough. He wanted me to do The Wrestler with him, which I couldn’t, because I was working on something else, but he’s one of those actors I adore. But, yeah, it was a very weird experience working on Desperate Hours. But I’d just started dating Mitch [Glazer] at the time, too, so I’ve got those memories in there. He kind of rescued me. [Laughs.]

David Morse: I met [director] Michael Cimino—I think I was the second one cast in the film at that point—and I really liked him. I really liked spending time with him. And when he cast me in that role… You know, it was right after St. Elsewhere, and I really hadn’t done a movie in 10 years. I did an independent movie [Personal Foul], but after having gone from Inside Moves saying, “I will never do television,” I then wound up doing 10 years of television and almost nothing but that. So I was so happy to be able to audition for a movie and actually get a role, and then because I was cast so early, I did all the readings with all the other actors that came in after that, which was fun to do. I got to meet a lot of people and spend a lot of time with Michael Cimino. Along the way, Anthony Hopkins became involved, and Mickey Rourke—I believe he was already cast. I think he was the first one.

But we did this pre-shoot before anybody else got there, where it was just me. We did three days up in Zion National Park, where my character… There’s a sequence in there where, after we escape the house where all the things have happened, I somehow manage to run into Zion Canyon. I don’t know how I managed to do that with that character, but that’s where he wound up. [Laughs.] But this is one of the great things about filmmaking: it really can be an extraordinary adventure. And these three days really were an adventure, going way, way up, with just the DP and myself and the sound guy, plus somebody to carry the equipment. We went way up this river, up in the canyon, where the walls go straight up to 2,500 feet or something, and they were filming us running down there, and then the spectacular death that I had, out in the middle of the river, surrounded by horses. You know, Michael Cimino, he just thought big. He had just orchestrated this great scene, where I’m standing in the river, and the SWAT team is up so far on the cliffs that I can’t even see them, and I’m down there with the horses, and then the horses all disperse, and it’s me alone in the river.

I had a wetsuit on with probably 200 squibs in it where I’m gonna get shot, and the wetsuit is underneath my clothes, but I’d never done anything like this before. The stunt guy said, “Just stand up as long as you can while these things are going off. Just let your body loose, and let the squibs do all the work, and stay on your feet as long as you can.” And when I was shot, these 200 things come off and it jerked my body all over the place. I was supposed to fall down the river and float away, but it was pretty shocking when I fell down in the water and all that water went right down my back. It was like an electric jolt! And I shot out of the water, because it was so cold, and I just ruined everything. I ruined the entire shot. They were all thrilled. [Laughs.] But we spent the rest of the day with me floating down the river, getting hypothermia, while they shot up in the canyon from a half mile away. I literally wound up with hypothermia by the end of the day! But it was such an adventure. And it was a great experience with Michael.

But as soon as we got to the set in Salt Lake City and Mickey Rourke showed up, Michael transformed into a monster. Again, it was one of those things where a director is one way, and then suddenly you see this whole other thing. I think Michael has done extraordinary work, and I won’t take anything away from that, but that relationship that he had with Mickey at that time was so incredibly dysfunctional. And he couldn’t take it out on Mickey, because Mickey was the star, so he had to take it out on the rest of us—except for Anthony Hopkins. Tony. So overall it was not a very happy experience. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.


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