Vilmos Zsigmond in Conversation

Cimino on Heaven's Gate

On October 12, 2013, at the Grand Action in Paris, I attended a talk with renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. It was moderated by Pierre Filmon. Most of the exchange focused on his work on three films: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and Deliverance.

Q: How did Cimino select you for The Deer Hunter?
VZ: He saw my previous films and liked them visually. Michael had done a lot of commercials. So had I. He thought we could work well together. He’s an incredible director. I learned so much from him. We got along very well from the beginning. He’s someone who is very sensitive of images. And I felt that Deer Hunter should be made with beautiful images, little dialogue, lots of visuals. Our collaboration was very much like two jazz musicians improvising. He’d suggest something, and I would run with it, and vice versa. Michael knows a lot about cinematography. But he let me do my job. He never told me how to light. That offered me a great freedom that is rare in this business. A director of photography needs to be very sensitive to the story. His work is about telling the story through images. It should never be about showing off.

Q: And about Heaven’s Gate? Any stories?

VZ: There’s a scene at daybreak, just after the battle scene where you see bodies on the ground. To get that, we woke up at 4am, travelled one hour to the location. We set up three cameras, two of which I operated. It was easy because I had one camera with a wide angle lens on a crane and another one with a zoom lens that I operated myself. So we waited for the sun to come up. It started to rise. Things were looking good. And it kept rising. And things were looking even better. And I said, Michael, we have to shoot now. He said, No, wait. And I thought it was a mistake. There would be too much light and reflections that would ruin the shot. And a few minutes later, Michael moved in front of the cameras. And he started to dance a Native American dance, chanting for the wind to come. And incredibly, a wind did start to blow. And it gave us the dust you see in the shot. The shot was much better than with just the sunrise. Never before or since have I worked with a director who could improve upon even what nature had offered.

Another thing you may notice is the scene of the Roman battle. There are about 60 extras. Michael spent a half-day casting them individually. He was looking for good faces. All of them came locally from Montana, but were of Eastern European origin – Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Serbian. Such was Michael’s attention to detail.

I love movies that are about something. I don’t like filming violence or special effects. I love movies that are about people. And it starts with a great story. Deer Hunter was a great script. It’s hard to shoot for six, eight, twelve weeks on a film that you don’t love.

Q: And about Deer Hunter?

VZ: It was a much more complicated shoot. The Vietnam scenes were shot in Thailand. But right when we landed, there was a putsch and a change of government. All our shooting permits were cancelled and had to be redone, and that took us three weeks. Things were not going well between Michael and one of the producers. You needed someone who could collaborate with Michael. I don’t mean who will tell him what he can or cannot do. I mean, someone who can sit down with him, understand what he wants to do, then help him to do it. This producer was replaced by someone who worked better with Michael. Who was on his side, instead of being against him. We lost a lot of time with the permits, then with this change of producer, but we still almost stayed on budget.

Michael struggled and fought hard throughout the edit. But in the end, he came out of it a hero. The film won Best Picture.

For Heaven’s Gate, Michael wanted to surround himself with people who could help him. We made a very good film, but we went more than double the budget. The schedule also went way over. United Artists was not happy. But Michael felt that the Oscar meant that he deserved to do what he wanted. The public and the critics hated the film. It was a real problem. A brilliant film, with no success. You have to remember the context. 1979-1980. The United States economy was doing well, there was no unemployment. Why would you want to do a socially conscious film at that time?

Years later, the film has been rediscovered by audiences. Festivals have nicely welcomed it in recent years. At the time, they wanted you to make a 100 minute film. This film at 100 minutes is garbage. All the beauty is lost. With the longer cut, you get to see what Michael intended. His genius. This cut is 3 hours and 37 minutes. To me, that’s too long. I think it would be ideal at 2 hours 30 or 2 hours 45. It would be a better film. A battle scene may have magnificent shots, but seeing the same thing conveyed in half the number of shots could improve it. Even at this length, I love the film, and I forgive its length. I think audiences do, too.

Q: What has Cimino been up to since? What’s he even made since 1986 and The Year of the Dragon?

VZ: Even I would like to know. He doesn’t return my calls. If you see him, please tell him that I would love to make another film with him.

Q: How did you shoot the Russian roulette scene in Deer Hunter? Did you have a shotlist? Certain intentions?

VZ: No shotlist. A lot of improvisation. Michael rehearsed a lot with the actors. Actors loved him because of the freedom he gave them. And we were working with five of the best actors. Deniro, Walken, Streep… We would look at the rehearsals, then look for what to shoot. Master, close ups.

The idea was not to stylize but to be as realistic as possible. Light the faces and add shadows coming from the palm trees on the other side of the walls. I would have lit it the same way if we’d been in the studio.

The eyes are important to me, and I always have a little lamp above the camera just for the eyes. I want to see the eyes.

It was difficult particularly because of the floating barge that we were on. Depending on the water level, it would rise eight feet or fall five feet. When the sun was not out, we used HMI’s, which were new. My gaffer had bought them, and we built parallels to put them on. It rained a lot, and we’d have to wait for it to stop.

Shadows are the most important thing for me. I light in order to make the shadows.

In the digital age, people think you don’t have to light, that it’s all lit. But without light and shadows, there’s no mood.

Q: And Deliverance?

VZ: When Boorman had heard about my filming during the revolution in Hungary, he thought that I was tough and courageous, and that I wouldn’t be afraid of a river.

Q: How did he hear about you?

VZ: He was looking for someone, and he saw rushes of Mr. and Mrs. McCabe (Altman) on the Warner Brothers lot. I was shooting in a very different way. I was flashing the film, making it dirty, using old stocks, bad stocks, making it look a hundred years old. Boorman thought if I could do something like this, then surely I could do his film.

We didn’t speak much after we’d decided some key things. We spent 4 weeks on location – scouting and learning how to canoe. In the last 2 weeks, the actors came and also learned to canoe. It’s really hard to keep your balance in a canoe. By the time the actors arrived, we seemed like pros to them. They got the hang of it. John decided not to use stuntmen. The actors would do all of their own canoeing. This choice really affected the film a lot. It meant I could shoot them however I wanted, in long shot, in closeups. It gave a realism.

I didn’t light the river much. And we decided something crazy – to never shoot when the sun was out. We wanted it to be overcast, because that fit with the color palette we had decided on. It would give suspense to just have three colors: the green of the forest, the white reflections off the water, and black. We killed all the other colors by desaturating the Technicolor. Too many colors work against the mood.

How to shoot the river was an important question. We decided it was a question of level. We needed the lens to nearly touch the water, to just be 2 centimeters above the water. Sometimes we had the camera in a waterproof box. We shot with a long lens, to better follow the moving canoe, giving speed and energy, without the need for a dolly.

Deliverance was my first time using an anamorphic lens. What I like is that it’s not too sharp. Today’s digital cameras are way too sharp. They are sharper than what the eye sees. I have made three or four movies on digital, and I always diffuse a lot of light. I work the same way as I would with film.


About kartiksingh

I have been living in Paris, France since 1996. I was born to Sikh parents who immigrated to the USA. I grew up outside of Kansas City, and at 18 went to Washington DC with the intention of becoming a diplomat. Five years later, I arrived in Paris and found my life purpose: to make films that bring hope, insight, and inspiration to the world. My debut feature film Callback premieres in September 2010 in New York. For more details on where you can see my films, look for me at
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