THE SECRETARY in director Michael Cimino's Hollywood office was talking patiently to a caller.

"I'll tell him," she said. "I promise, I'll tell him." She hung up, and turned to the reporter. "It's a Vietnam veteran. He calls long distance almost every 20 minutes, saying he has to talk to Michael. He sounds a little... troubled. He's seen the movie."

The movie is Cimino's new film, "The Deer Hunter." It is troubling large numbers of people and destined, it would seem, to become one of the most controversial films in years. There are reports of tickets being scalped at high prices in New York, where the film recently had a special week-long run prior to its official opening this month. It will open in Washington on Friday.

At a recent film-industry screening in Los Angeles, many viewers left the theater apparently stunned. Some viewers reported that they burst into tears later that night or the next day. There was one report of an executive so disturbed by the film that he did not go to work for two days.

"It's a common response," said a haggard, somewhat guarded Cimino in a low, dead-tired voice. He had been up, dealing with promotion and interviews since 5 a.m. "It's happening everywhere we show it. One man saw it at a screening and as he left, he was smiling hard and saying, 'Nice film, goodnight.' And as he opened the door, he burst into tears.

"We screened it in Chicago, and people were getting up early and going out. I had an assistant follow them, and it turned out they were women going into the restroom and breaking down. Then we found men who had gone into the dark areas of the theater where they could be alone to weep. It's frightening, knowing you can do that to people."

Not everyone, of course, becomes so personally involved with "The Deer Hunter." Indeed, there are those who have difficulty staying alert through its three hours. And there have been reports of viewers walking out in outrage during portrayals of the Vietnam war in the film's middle act.

"The Deer Hunter," from a Cimino idea and a screenplay by Deric Washburn, is the story of three young men, steelworkers in a Middle America mill town, whose lives, sanity and love for each other are tested by the Vietnam war. The central character is Michael, played by Robert DeNiro, a deer hunter and lover of the high country, a complex and thoughtful man who emerges, layer by layer, as a hero of quiet force and courage.

The rich detailing of the hometown life of the three men in the first act ends shockingly with an abrupt transition to Vietnam and their capture by the North Vietnamese. Some will find Cimino's interpretation of the war exploitative, simplistic, perhaps reactionary, while others will consider it a justifiably brutal and reaIistic rendering. For many, though, the film will be a shock to the psyche and senses.

"There's only so much you can say about a film," said Cimino, "and you want to stop. But I am concerned that it not be misrepresented, that it not be turned into a symbol, one way or the other. It's the Vietnam war, because that was the war of our generation. But I hope it will be taken simply, for what it is, which is a story about people."

Michael Cimino (prounced chi-meen-o), 35 and New York-born, is a short, roundfaced man, pensive, with sad, tired eyes. He has directed one previous feature, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," and written or co-written a number of films, including "Magnum Force," "Silent Running" and "The Rose," upcoming with Bette Midler.

"The Deer Hunter" was launched, improbably, in November 1976, when Cimino told the story in a two-hour meeting with Barry Spikings, an executive with EMI Films (Universal is distributing). Spikings gave Cimino a go-ahead to begin pre-production without a script. DeNiro, according to the director, was not involved until months later.

Cimino brought in Deric Washburn, who began writing as they moved about the country, scouting locations that became actual settings in the script and would eventually provide a remarkable dimension of authenticity. Cimino was to rely, as well, on local townspeople, primarily Russian-Americans, to populate his town, actually a cinematic composite from eight cities in the Ohio River Valley.

"There are hardly any actors aside from the principals," said Cimino, "maybe four or five. That's absolutely true. For the wedding reception, we picked the dancers from the parishes, and they didn't want to stop. When we tried to cut, they booed. Because of that intensity of involvement and cooperation by the local people and the commitment of a very special ensemble of actors who went well beyond normal bounds, we were able to achieve a richer, broader scope than I had imagined when we started. At one point early on, I decided to just shoot the works. But I never expected it to create the reaction that it has."

Unlike certain recent films -- notably "Saturday Night Fever" and "Blood-brothers" -- which portray the urban working class existence as moronic and hysterical, "The Deer Hunter" celebrates life in the mill town. Cimino finds rage and hate but also joy, compassion and intelligence.

"Those people, the real people of those towns, have a tremendous pride in who they are. They're not afraid of expressing affection to one another, which is typically Russian. The pride that was once a part of this country, the spirit, still exists in these communities. That's why I set it there."

Cimino began shooting in the hot summer of 1977, and he was forced to defoliate the local U.S. landscape and wet down the streets to create an autumnwinter effect. It was the first of many logisitical challenges that were to increase the "Deer Hunter" budget from $7 million to $13 million and nearly break the back of the eighth-month production.

"In all honesty, I don't think we could have shot beyond our last day of shooting," Cimino said. "We shot in eight cities in 120-degree heat, inside blast furnaces, then up to Mt. Baker (in Washington), where it suddenly got freezing cold, then to Bangkok in the middle of the monsoon season, then to the River Kwai, which was freezing and the air was burning hot.

"At the end, in Thailand, there was no crew left. Everyone was ill, several people had to have operations. A number of people simply broke, snapped, and had to go home. Their systems just cracked up."

Cimino himself, though, was never sick.

"Not one day. I refused. It was a standing joke."

The three male principals -- DeNiro, Christopher Walken and John Savage -- also proved durable, although Walken had been ill since the early wedding sequences back in the United States. DeNiro and Savage even performed a particularly dangerous stunt in Thailand, in which they clung to the runners of a lifting helicopter, finally plunging 30 feet into the River Kwai.They performed the same scene 15 times in two days.

Cimino, meanwhile, worked under the pressure of never seeing a foot of his Thailand film as he shot. Because of the unstable political situation there and the subject matter of the picture, he had been warned not to fly the processed footage back in. The government did, in fact, change hands with a bloodless coup during filming. So Cimino "shot with every available camera every day" and saw his first "rushes" when he returned to the United States. He also learned a lesson: "You have to concentrate, to press, to fight, every second. Never let up." Later, he would add, "You don't have a chance to do that many films today. So you risk at lot more with each film. You have to just go after it, do it, and do it as well as you can."

That kind of singleminded vision also might be ascribed as well to Michael, the deer hunter, who believes in taking only "one shot" at his target, and making it count. But Cimino, who had indicated autobiographical sources for "The Deer Hunter," balked at making any direct parallels.

"That's something you either know from the film or you don't. A film reflects who you are as a building reflects the soul of its architect. I think what you feel and what you think and what you are is what the film is. It's not for me to talk about."

He did talk about the character of the deer hunter, though, a man whose special sensibility sets him apart, and who loves his closest friend Nick (Walken) more openly and more comfortably than he loves the woman (Meryl Streep) between them. Cimino made it clear, when asked, that he did not intend to suggest a latent homosexual love between the two men.

"That was not the intent. It's just that we have grown unaccustomed to expressing our feelings for one another. We hide behind a lot of jargon. It's convenient for us to label it that way. It protects us from feeling.

"Michael had a special sensitivity toward the mountains, for the high country, something the others don't really share. When a moment when you would like someone else to share your vision, to share your understanding. The high country represents a certain ethic, a kind of solitude he respects. His relationship with Nick... I think he has a certain expectation. I think perhaps Nick... understands.

"We've lost a lot of our respect for solitude and, consequently, we've become afraid of it. Michael is someone who's not afraid to be alone. He's not afraid to be introspective. It's something the others don't understand, so the only thing they can resort to are the standard cliches, insults and jokes. It just gets lonely, that's all, when you don't have someone to share what you feel deeply about. It's terribly misrepresented if somebody takes their relationship another way."

Cimino himself was about to leave town for the mountains of the Northwest -- alone.

Suddenly prominent among major directors, he is working on his next project, "A turn-of-the -century saga to star Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken.

"I don't like the notion of celebrity," he said. "At one point in your life, it seems kind of attractive. But it's distracting. And it's painful to keep talking about something that was so difficult and intense. In one way, it's nice to talk, because you relive things that mean a great deal to you. On the other hand, you feel absolutely drained. And I, uh, I'm just not comfortable with it. In the end, it just disturbs the work."