Michael Cimino‘s film career began as a co-writer on Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973), but his break came with 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He made six more features after his debut, but what started as a powerful and promising career fizzled out through controversy, criticism, and dwindling box-office returns. One that saw all three of those reactions is his mid 80s action/drama about Chinese Triads in New York City. The home video release opens with text saying the film “does not intend to demean or ignore the many positive feature of Asian-Americans,” and that should give you an idea of what to expect.
Warner Archive has just released the film to Blu-ray along with a commentary track from Cimino himself, and it’s a doozy of a listen. He speaks his mind pretty clearly regarding his thoughts on the press, Asian cultures, and film’s production. It’s a pretty good movie but a pretty great listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Year of the Dragon (1985)
Commentator: Michael Cimino (director, co-writer)
1. He was approached multiple times to direct the film and turned it down repeatedly. One of the reasons was his belief — that he still holds — “that very few people really know anything about the subject matter of Triads in America.” He finally relented on the condition that he be allowed to write the screenplay.
2. He realized after committing to the film that the studio already had a firm start date for production, and knowing that he couldn’t possibly do the writing, research, and other pre-production work alone he brought in his friend Oliver Stone — “one of the great writing talents.” He adds James Toback, Raymond Carver, Gore Vidal, and Robert Bolt to the short list as well.
3. He and Stone first met after Cimino read the as of then unproduced script for Platoon which he loved.
4. “I had several Chinese girlfriends,” he says while discussing his love for the Chinese people. “They were exquisite.” He’s talking about his appreciation of the people and how they become good friends after you earn their trust, but he also adds that “all of Queens, all of Flushing, so many boroughs of New York are completely Chinese.” So, yeah.
5. He and Stone hung out with real Chinatown residents and gangsters including members of the Ghost Shadows “who I got to know as well as members of certain mafia families that I won’t go into.” The truth they discovered varied greatly from the assumptions made about these gangs, and “We met the people we were going to write about.”
6. They took a research trip to Atlantic City with a friend and were given rooms for the night, but Stone was not happy when he opened the door to discover the honeymoon suite waiting for him. “This place reeks of sex,” he complained. “I am not staying here.”
7. He’s always gotten the lead actor he wanted for his films, and they were always his first choice. The closest there is to an exception is that he flirted with the idea of getting Steve McQueen for Heaven’s Gate (1980), “but he was not well at the time” so he chose Kris Kristofferson.
8. While set primarily in New York City, much of the film was shot in North Carolina including the sequences on the streets of Chinatown. They recreated streets with attention to detail up to and including the angled grade of their Mott Street — the “main” street in NYC’s Chinatown — which is not actually flat. They took plaster casts of curbstones and recreated the grade for authenticity, something he says most NYC reproductions on film don’t achieve. “If you look at Ragtime, it’s flat, and that’s why it doesn’t look like New York [City]. It’s a very rocky little island.” He’s proud of their accomplishment as it even fooled Stanley Kubrick. The legendary director was given a screening in London where he told Cimino that “Chinatown looks so great.” Cimino told him the truth, and after a little bit of back and forth Kubrick realized he’d been duped. “If you can fool Kubrick, who had the best eye in the world, you can fool anyone.” The sets have been reused in dozens of films in the years since.
9. The female singer at 25:01 was performing at a “really sleazy club” in Taiwan that he, Stone, and some gangsters visited, and he hired her immediately for the film. “By the end of the movie she learned English and she enrolled at Barnard.”
10. His comments on Ariane can be read in a couple different ways. “She worked as hard as she could possibly work,” he says. “Ariane gave me as much as she could.” He repeats it later in the film during an emotional scene saying she’s giving everything she can, and while it sounds complimentary it also reads as maybe a bit like backhanded criticism?
11. Bernardo Bertolucci asked him about John Lone before hiring him for The Last Emperor, and Cimino told him there was no better choice.
12. He feels Lone and Mickey Rourke compliment each other well and achieve his goal of confusing “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” He says the bad guy is attractive and likable, the good guy is neither of those things, and viewers are ultimately forced to like the good guy because of what he does.
13. “Mickey is a fighter by nature,” he says, adding that the only reason he doesn’t fight professionally is that he hates to train. Cimino hired an ex-Hell’s Angel biker “forcing” Rourke to run each morning and spar each day too.
14. Stanley White (Rourke) is based on a real cop, “a Polish cop, one of the toughest cops I’ve ever met in real life.”
15. He prefers to shoot in anamorphic as “the bigger the screen the bigger the canvas you have to paint.” He says it’s not a technical advantage, but he simply likes the feeling of widescreen.
16. He makes a point of saying that he’s not a teacher and can’t speak about film in theoretical ways. He learns by working with other filmmakers.
17. There’s a nineteen-second scene consisting of sequences from three completely different geographic locations, and he recalls betting a script supervisor that it would cut together perfectly fine. Joey Tai (Lone) starts walking through a Bangkok sweatshop at 40:38, crosses a small footbridge in NYC at 40:52, and enters the North Carolina set at 40:57.
18. He credits Clint Eastwood with his career. Cimino’s debut as writer/director, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, only got made thanks to Eastwood’s belief in him. The contract gave Eastwood the right to fire him after the first three days of shooting, and thankfully he never felt compelled to do so.
19. “I hate dealing with the press,” he says while talking about how hurt he was when Stone’s film Alexander (2004) was criticized for its failure to portray the historical figure’s homosexuality. “What’s that got to do with Alexander? Everybody knows he was homosexual, why do you have to talk about it on the news? It’s still recorded in history.” He says Stone loves fighting with the press whenever possible.
20. Tracy Tzu’s (Ariane) apartment is a set built atop the Clock Tower Building in NYC. The main reason he wanted it is for the shot starting at 1:19:55 showing the blues of a dawn sky and skyline of the city. “That’s for real. It’s just a view of Manhattan that you never see.”
21. He says the only critic in Los Angeles who appreciated the film, despite hating everything else he’s made, was Sheila Benson. He thinks it’s “because she’s married to a Chinese man” and knows that the exploitation of Asians by other Asians is a real thing.
22. The studio instructed him to cut the final line of the film, and to this day he still finds it inexplicable. After the action scene winds down and Tracy arrives to pick up a wounded Stanley, he says to her “While I guess if you fight a war long enough you end up marrying the enemy.” He dubbed it with a different line from earlier in the movie and doesn’t understand why it was cut, adding “Oliver himself is married to a Vietnamese girl.” He hates the change and wishes he could fix it.
23. He says the 21st century is going to belong to China. “People used to say I was crazy, but half of Beverly Hills is owned by Chinese interests. You go on Rodeo Drive shopping it’s all Chinese women. Go to clubs at night, all the great looking girls are Chinese. Not Japanese, Chinese. All the musicians at Julliard now are no longer Jewish, they’re Chinese. They have such an amazing work ethic.”
24. He views visiting non-English countries, cities, and cultures is like a woman in that “you can learn from her, but to really learn from her if she’s teaching you something you have to fall a little bit in love, or a lot in love, and each time you go to one of these places you end up with a love affair.”
25. The young Chinese shooters — both the two guys during the club shootout and the red-haired woman who Stanley chases into the street and shoots — were non-actors already very familiar with shooting guns. “I didn’t have to show them that.”
26. A girl he was hitting on once asked what he did for a living, and when he told her he’s a director — he had only made commercials at the time — she replied “What do you direct, traffic?” He hasn’t referred to himself as a director ever since.
27. The ending sees a real train hitting and pushing a real car, but “the Mercedes wouldn’t even get a dent in it! I thought it was going to crush it and it didn’t. We ended up chaining the Mercedes to the ties and it still wouldn’t dent it. Finally I had twenty stuntmen with sledgehammers beating it up. I was so impressed I bought one as soon as I got home.”
28. The end scene sees a mostly Chinese crowd crashing together around Stanley as Tracy tries to reach him, and it’s a mix of actors and non-actors. “They just add a texture I guess. It’s like spices with food, different spices, a mixture of things. Sweet sour.” I mean, come on Cimino.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I had always, for reasons that are inexplicable at least to myself, had an affinity for things Chinese.”
“All I need to make a movie are two lenses, the 250 zoom and a 30mm lens. I don’t need any other lens.”
“I’m not a teacher, I’m not a preacher, I’m a reacher, and that’s my tune.”
“When I did Thunderbolt they said I was homophobic. When I did Deer Hunter they said I was a right-wing fascist. When I did Heaven’s Gate they said I was a left-wing Marxist. When I did this movie they called me a racist. Well which is it? Can I be all of those things?”
“I don’t like handheld cameras. And I don’t like Steadicam. It’s just the cheap way of doing a setup when you don’t know how to–”
“I never use storyboards. That’s for directors who can’t see.”
“When you kill somebody it’s not exactly pleasant. It’s a mess!”
“[Chinese people] never complain. They’re the most wonderful people to work with and I can understand how they built the American railroads.”
“There’s nowhere in the world that you go that is not interesting.”
“I guess this was really politically incorrect.”
This is an ideal commentary track in that Cimino feels free to speak his mind without worry of censure. To be sure, some of what he says is suspect, guaranteed to aggravate, and seemingly at odds with his professed love and respect for Chinese people, but you believe he believes it. It’s a fascinating listen in that regard, and well worth checking out.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.