The sniper: chaos, tensions and a dying actor for a wild and unforgettable film

The effects of the endless war in Vietnam were devastating for American society. And Hollywood cinema obviously took care of reflecting that enormous trauma, particularly in the 70s, when great films like Taxi driver, apocalypse Now, return without glory Y The Sniper, whose filming was full of epic and very difficult moments.

From the conception stage of the project, things were complicated. Despite the fact that the theme of the war’s collateral effects exorcised through fiction was in vogue in American cinema, Cimino had a hard time getting financing for his film. He found it in an unexpected place: the record giant EMI, which invested 7.5 million dollars and partnered with Universal so that the company contributes the other half of the budget in exchange for the rights to distribute the film in the United States. It was not a bad deal for anyone: In addition to winning five Oscars (film, director, supporting actor, editing, sound), The Sniper (which in Argentina can be rented on Apple TV +) grossed 50 million dollars at the box office, more than triple what it had cost.

After many comings and goings, Cimino then had a budget and a shooting start date: March 17, 1977. He also had the title of his film, but something essential was missing that, although it sounds unusual, on more than one occasion missing in the beginnings of major Hollywood projects: a screenplay.

There was a base – a story written by four hands by an unknown professional (Louis Garfinkle) and an actor (Quinn Redeker) whose most notable antecedent was to have participated in some chapters of the comic series The Three Stooges-but Cimino was only interested in that story in one particular idea, suggested in the title of the script: “The man who came to play.”

The game to which that title alluded was Russian roulette. With that premise that seduced him as a trigger, Cimino ended up writing -with another collaborator, Deric Washburn- the definitive script for The Sniper. When he had it ready he decided to sign it alone, but the arbitration of the North American Writers Guild ended up imposing the presence of the other authors, who obviously complained immediately when they found out about the filmmaker’s bad move.

Robert De Niro, in a scene from the film that became one of the most celebrated of his career

The true roots of the film lie in The best years of our livesfilm by William Wyler that told the bitter stories of many of the soldiers who managed to return home after World War II, none of them completely unscathed, of course. In both that movie and The Sniper, Three US Army veterans try to reintegrate into a social environment from which they were absent for years and which, precisely because of the influence of the war, had completely changed.

The singularity of Cimino’s film has to do with the style that the filmmaker imposed on it, marked by the unbridled display of freedom that always characterized his cinema. No Vietnam veteran would recognize the war formally presenting The Sniper as something close to what he had experienced in reality. The warlike episodes of the film are actually quite similar to those of another great film of those years, deliveryby John Boorman, where the central issue was the survival of a group of friends -three, to be exact- in a hostile environment.

In The Sniper They are not even as present as they are in most films about the war in Vietnam, the explosion of sex, drugs and rock and roll with which the Americans calmed their anxieties and depressions in the dark years of the conflict. The main theme of the film, in fact, is a sentimental melody with an Italian flavor that Cimino commissioned from the Englishman Stanley Meyers.

The first actor Cimino cast in the role that would go on to become one of the most celebrated of Robert De Niro’s career was Roy Scheider, at the time famous for his starring role in Shark. But Universal denied Scheider the possibility. Company executives preferred that the actor concentrate exclusively on the second part of Steven Spielberg’s classic (a sequel, by the way, with much lower results than his predecessor).

It occurred to producer Michael Deeley that a good alternative was De Niro, riding the crest of a wave from the hits of Taxi driver Y The Godfather II. When he received the script, De Niro was surprised: there were several passages that were just sketches, or loose notes such as “Scene 10: Everyone dances.” The folder they sent him had an eloquent image on the cover, though: a dead deer tied to the hood of a white Cadillac.

John Cazale, Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro
John Cazale, Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro

But the actor was very focused on his next film in partnership with Martin Scorsese, Wild bullwhich he would finally do in 1980, two years after The Sniperand it would also be one of his biggest hits. It was Cimino’s conviction and willfulness that tipped the scales for De Niro to decide. In a short time he was already traveling with the director some 150 thousand kilometers of the United States to see the different industrial towns that inspired the urban setting of The Sniper. Frequenting workers’ bars, drinking beer and playing pool with them was how they were able to shape the protagonist of the story.. And in that long journey they also found Chuck Aspegren, a true steelworker who played the role of the unrefined Axel in the film, his only experience in cinema. De Niro exchanged his license to drive from New York for one to do so in Pennsylvania and also obtained a license to hunt in that state, with the idea of ​​becoming as familiar as possible with the context in which the story would take place.

The rest of the cast that Cimino put together was, deliberately, of a lower profile: John Savage, with little support from an incipient television career, a Christopher Walken who was also taking his first steps in the industry, and George Dzunda, then an unknown . The only cast member with a reputation apart from the leading man was John Cazale, but when filming was about to start he was diagnosed with end-stage bone cancer. The producers wanted to remove him from the project, but pressure from Cazale’s girlfriend, a very young Meryl Streep who was also in the cast, and Cimino’s own decision to keep him at all costs prevented the expulsion.. But the filming had to be reorganized based on the imminent risk that threatened the health of the actor, who in fact died before the premiere of the film.

Instead of settling in Thailand to shoot the Vietnam sequences during the American summer and returning to Pennsylvania to shoot the hunting scenes in the fall, as originally planned, Cimino upset the order and started in the United States to keep Cazale as damaged as possible. that it was possible. It was also shot in Washington, Ohio and Virginia, and with pieces of different locations in those places (a church here, a bar there) the little steel town of the film, Clairton, was made.

The change of dates meant that the actors had to move around in winter clothes in one of the hottest summers in memory in those parts of the United States. The entire technical team worked in shorts and light clothing, while the cast suffered firsthand the suffocating weight of fiction. The actors sweated so much that costume changes had to be rushed constantly. And the art department spent a lot of time turning the green foliage of the trees brown at that time of year.

The Russian roulette scene, one of the most remembered of the fim
The Russian roulette scene, one of the most remembered of the fim

To make matters worse, after having gone through the ordeal of oppressive heat, the team of The Sniper suddenly he had to tolerate an icy cold. The deer hunt in the film was shot at 5,000 feet in the Appalachians, in very low temperatures. The budget began to run out and problems became commonplace. The production only got a few farm fawns and Cimino was furious: “There will be a revolution in theaters if we kill Bambi,” he protested.. The solution was drastic: two deer were transported by plane from a hunting ground far from the filming location and it was necessary to use the force of thirty men to carry the cages to the height of the mountain where the filming was taking place.

The stage in Thailand was no less chaotic: arriving in the middle of the monsoon wind season, storms forced many days to be suspended, there was an epidemic of bronchitis and a technician and a photographer suffered serious accidents. The decision was made to leave Bangkok and settle in the north of the country, but upon arrival the team learned that they were barely a hundred kilometers from a large group of armed men who had rebelled against the military coup that took power in Thailand in 1976.

With all those dangers looming, De Niro and Savage had to focus to shoot a very dangerous scene that required jumping into the River Kwai from a helicopter. Cimino wanted a close enough shot that using two stunt doubles wasn’t the best option, so the actors had to become true heroes. And they did! The scene was truly dramatic: in the middle of filming, the helicopter broke down and began to wobble, the actors actually jumped into the river from a highly inadvisable height and Cimino, faithful to his profile as a wild filmmaker, considered that with all these inconveniences the Toma had just the energy it needed, so he considered it done.

But the most difficult sequence of all was what is, in fact, the most famous in the film: the electrifying game of Russian roulette that De Niro and Walken’s characters must face when they are caught by the Vietcong. Still today the rumor persists that De Niro suggested making the scene “more real” by putting a bullet in the magazine of the gun that was used. It is also said that it was he who asked Cimino to have one of the Vietnamese soldiers slap Walken’s character, something that did not appear in the script and that took the young actor completely by surprise.. The revenge was terrible: it wasn’t even in the script that Walken was supposed to spit in De Niro’s face as he did in that violent and frenetic scene, justifiably famous for the unbearable tension it conveys.

Walken would soon recognize that filming The Sniper with De Niro it became an unforgettable experience for him, and in fact he was awarded an Oscar for his work in the film. His rise to fame, one of Meryl Streep’s first really important and praised roles (she had debuted a year before the release of The Sniper with a supporting role in Julia, where he had already drawn attention), the latest film by John Cazale, the confirmation that De Niro was one of a kind… There are many particularities that transformed The Sniper in an unforgettable film. As well as effectively capturing the state of anger and confusion in a society struck by the senselessness of yet another useless war, Cimino’s film went down in history as a legendary adventure. And all the adrenaline that unfolded while filming is also breathed when watching it. Perhaps that is one of the keys to his abrasive power.

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The sniper: chaos, tensions and a dying actor for a wild and unforgettable film