The Real Tropic Thunder: On Set Of The Deer Hunter
- January 29, 2019
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
“The truth is stranger than fiction.” – Mark Twain
“Movie making ain’t for sissies.” – Michael Cimino (Director, The Deer Hunter)
This story is true. I shall remind you of that throughout this article when you have been listening to and reading the interviews from the cast and crew of The Deer Hunter. Here is their story of how filming in Thailand had it all – near helicopter crashes, deadly snakes, a military coup and half the star-studded cast narrowly avoiding being washed into the South China Sea.
When I saw Tropic Thunder recently, I would have disbelieved you if you told me there wasn’t an element of pastiche having heard of the on-set happenings of Michael Cimino’s 1978 multi Oscar winning movie.
In this article, I’ve compiled interviews conducted with Director Michael Cimino, DP Vilmos Zsigmond and actors Robert De Niro and John Savage to show just how crazy things got on “set.”
Cimino (centre) checks the shot whilst DP Vilmos Zsigmond (Right) looks on
Firstly, a major issue was filming in a remote part of the River Kwai during monsoon season for a script that requires the characters to be held captive in a water-based cage under a hut on the river.
“The water was full of deadly snakes, but we had cases of anti-venom with us”
Zsigmond explains – “The height changed according to the weather and since we were working in the rainy season, its level could vary 10 or 20 feet overnight.” The health and safety issues didn’t stop there as director, Michael Cimino adds, “It’s a very swift river. It looks placid on top, but underneath it’s icy cold and moves like hell. And it was also treacherous because it’s full of snakes. We had doctors with cases of snake anti-venom on set at all times in case one of the actors was bitten.”
Getting equipment to the hut was equally challenging – “It was quite a job to hoist the Fisher dolly up into the hut, because it first had to be taken across a bamboo bridge that was floating on the river. At one point the dolly actually took a dive into the river and it took about 14 people to get it back onto the bridge.”
“Water was up to the matte box for most of the filming of that scene.” – Vilmos Zsigmond
When directing the scene, Cimino wanted to be as realistic as possible, insisting that his actors wear their clothes the whole time they were in Thailand, to sleep in them, and not to take a shower – “Because it’s just not possible to shit, shower and shave and then be made up to look like you’ve been in the bush. So the three of them stunk like hell. Just like when you’re in combat and you don’t get a chance to get your clothes pressed. I didn’t want a wardrobe person cleaning them up just to have a prop man dirty them up.”
The realism didn’t stop there with the production casting non-actors and asking them to be deliberately violent on screen. “None of the Thai people we used to play the Viet Cong were actors, and they were reluctant at first to hit somebody. The head is sacred in Thailand, so every time they struck someone, we would have to cut so they could say a prayer of apology. But nothing’s fake; I had them hit as hard as they could. And once they got into it, you could see the intensity in their faces. Something took over. The next morning the only makeup we used on the leads was to cover up the redness from the day before.”
Indeed, Cimino was so immersed in the realism that his actors nearly drowned during an escape scene after a cable that was intended to drag a log raft along the river snapped and they headed out to the South China sea!
“The log raft was now floating free, heading toward the sea with the actors on it.”
“The plan was to float it down the river and be pulled by a steamboat with underwater cables you couldn’t see. Then we had two aluminum speedboats. I was in one, and the camera was in the other. We would capture the whole scene from the speedboats.
“But, before we could start shooting, the cables snapped. The log raft was now floating free, heading toward the sea with the actors on it. We were going around in circles in the speedboats, when all of a sudden the raft cracked, and the ends of it stuck up in the air. So the stunt coordinator and I jumped into the river to pull down the ends and I was screaming from the water, ‘Do the scene again! Start the dialogue!’”
Imagine the scene, a log raft is rapidly swirling downstream and splitting apart with a Hollywood megastar (fresh from The Godfather) and two younger prodigious acting talents on board with their director in the water holding down an end and shouting at the crew to take it from the top!
Allow me to reiterate, this is a TRUE story.
Savage says: “We hung off the logs as the water split the raft and shunted them around. I got pushed down in shallow water, trapping my legs in the wet sand.
“Suddenly the rest of the logs were coming toward us and about to cover me entirely and drown me. I heard Chris (Walken) shout, ‘We’re getting stuck.’ Then Bobby (De Niro) went under too as the logs rolled out of control. Chris somehow pulled me out. The panicked camera team rammed the boat into the logs to stop us getting crushed or drowned. The impact dislodged the camera and it fell in – the footage was lost forever. Bobby somehow got out of the water, onto the log and used the boat to push our log away from the danger area.”
Pandemonium, right? Well it didn’t end there. Cue the helicopter flown by fatigued, non-motion picture trained pilots who couldn’t speak a word of English!
“They did make a jump from about 20 feet up.”
Zsigmond explains, “The helicopter scenes were very difficult to shoot because we didn’t have helicopter pilots who were trained for motion picture work; they were just regular pilots. We also had communication problems because they didn’t speak good English. We had to constantly use hand signals! Since we were so far away from the States, we couldn’t really get a helicopter cameraman, so I shot the helicopter footage myself.”
“I still don’t understand how Bob De Niro and John Savage did that sequence (where they dangled from the helicopter at a height of almost 100 feet). They had stuntmen standing by, but they wanted to do it themselves. They were hanging off the helicopter from a height of about 100 feet and flying with it. The only thing they didn’t do was jump from that height into the water, but they did make a jump from about 20 feet up.”
At one point, in a scene where they were trying to climb aboard the helicopter from a bridge that was supported by wires, things got really dangerous. “The skids of the helicopter (the curved feet) got tangled in the cable that was supporting the bridge. Cimino had to climb out and unhook it while the helicopter hovered there and our actors were on the bridge nearly being scythed down by the blades. It was an incredibly dangerous moment and probably the closest call we had during the entire filming.”
As if your mind is not already boggled, you haven’t split your sides laughing and haven’t picked your jaw up off the floor at how on earth this movie continued to be made, allow me to introduce one other spectacular piece of trivia. By filming in Thailand to ensure the Vietnam scenes looked as real as possible, Cimino’s budget rocketed from $7 million to $13 million and became a logistical nightmare as filming was taking place during a military uprising in Thailand! Despite the fact that he was helping run the country, the military’s supreme leader, Kriangsak Chomanan, took on the additional responsibility of serving as “The Deer Hunter”’s liaison in Thailand, providing the film with tons of military vehicles, weapons, and aircraft.
That’s right, the LEADER of a military coup, in case he didn’t have enough on his plate, wanted a credit for the film by providing them with tons of military equipment!
Thai military supreme leader, Kriangsak Chomanan
“Then, one day he asked for it all back!” In an interview with Vanity Fair, producer Barry Spikings recalled what happened when he attempted to protest. The General said, “Barry, Barry — please. You’re making a movie — I have a military coup. It won’t take long. There’ll be a few people who’ll get shot on Sunday, and then you can have the stuff back for filming.”
Once again, this story is true…
Below is a video interview with director Michael Cimino to add more weight including the now infamous anecdote (after the Thailand filming) where De Niro asked if he could do a russian roulette scene in the mountains near Pittsburgh with a cancer-afflicted John Cazale with a live round in the chamber!
Ladies and Gentlemen, that was the incredible story of The Deer Hunter’s filming in Thailand in 1978. The final word I shall give to actor, John Savage, who played Stephen. “There is no way any studio today would allow their stars or crew to face the risks we did making The Deer Hunter. None of us realised how much danger we were in – it felt like we were going to war just to make this movie.”
This was a true story.