Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate’

Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8

I post the videos for Michael Epstein’s superb documentary from 2004, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate’, which is based on former United Artists studio executive Steven Bach’s book, Final Cut: Art, Money and EGO in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’, the Film That Sank United Artists.

Production

Upon release and for thirty years afterwards, Michael Cimino’s epic western Heaven’s Gate has been shorthand for “cinematic disaster of the very first, second and third orders”.  Following the enormous critical and commercial success of The Deer Hunter, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, United Artists handed Cimino an $11.5million cheque and allowed him to make his dream picture.

Heaven’s Gate is an epic Western loosely based on the Johnson County War of 1892, with a plot that takes its protagonists Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) from their Harvard graduation to the untamed wilderness of Wyoming to fight a cartel of ruthless cattle barons lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson), who have hired ruthless bounty hunter Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), and are determined to wipe out every male Russian immigrant in the county for cattle rustling.  Meanwhile Averill and Champion vie for the affections of French prostitute Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) who runs a bordello in barrens.

What followed has gone down in Hollywood folklore for all the wrong reasons.  Cimino spent the next two years engaging in what the critic Leslie Halliwell described as “self abuse” and the production spiralled out of control, making Francis Ford Coppola’s experiences on Apocalypse Now seem like a low-key art house project.

The original $11.5million budget ballooned to between $35million and $50million and stories flooded the film press during production that Cimino had all but lost his mind by tearing down and rebuilding sets and shooting endless takes.  One story has it that he ordered the set of an entire town to be taken down and rebuilt because he wanted the main street to be six feet wider; he would not accept the crew’s suggestion simply to knock down one side of the set and rebuild it further away from the other.  And the scene where Jim Averill played by Kris Kristofferson is awoken from a drunken stupor by a group of townsfolk and angrily cracks his bullwhip at them took upwards of 50 takes before Cimino was happy.

There were also stories of widespread drug use on set by the cast and crew as well as cruelty to animals.  The American Humane Association has blacklisted the film and it is alleged that real horse and cattle entrails were used in certain scenes and the cockfight scene actually did result in two birds ripping each other apart on set with the cameras rolling.

After months of editing, Cimino finally delivered a cut to studio that was five and half hours long; one executive commented that the climatic shoot out at end between the cattle barons and the immigrants was longer than the entire running time of many “normal” films!

Reception

Cimino eventually had “final cut” on the film and a three and a half hour version was premiered in November 1980 so that it was eligible for nomination at the following year’s academy awards, but the New York critics panned it to smithereens.  Writing for The New York Times, the usually polite and restrained Vincent Canby described it as akin to “a forced, four hour walking tour of one’s own living room” and that “it fails so completely, you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to the Devil in return for the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect” before sealing its fate as “an unqualified disaster”.

A story from the film’s New York premiere had it that Cimino wondered aloud why no one was drinking champagne during the interval.  “That’s because they hate the movie, Michael”, came the reply.

When audiences failed to turn up for the first week of release in New York, Cimino panicked.  In a rash move that conceded that the critics were right in their condemnation of the film, Cimino sent an open letter to UA President Andy Albeck by way of full-page adverts Variety and The Hollywood Reporter requesting that the film be pulled from release and re-edited before it went on nationwide release.  UA granted his request and there then followed another frantic five months of editing.  The film re-emerged a leaner, cleaner 165 minutes.  It was different, but it wasn’t better.  Along with the excess of the original version, Cimino had also removed much of its epic scope and character development while the plot made little sense.  The re-released version fared no better at the box office and died a high-profile death.  The domestic box office from its original theatrical run was a mere $3.5million.

Eventually, art director Tambi Larsen took the Heaven Gate’s sole Academy Award nomination, but the film featured prominently at the 1981 Golden Raspberry Awards being nominated for Worst Film, Director, Musical Score and Actor (Kristofferson); “winning” for Worst Director.

Post-Mortem

The film’s failure destroyed UA and it was bought out by MGM shortly afterwards.  Cimino’s career was left in tatters.  Since Heaven’s Gate he has directed a mere four feature-length films; all of them low budget thrillers and indie-pics, with the last one, The Sunchaser, released in 1996.  Although all were brought in on time and on budget, none of them made any money.  Cimino also managed to get himself fired from the helm of Kevin Bacon’s breakout hit, Footloose.  Go figure…

For many years, critics’ and audiences’ opinions remained steadfastly unchanged.  In a recent poll, readers of Empire voted Heaven’s Gate the sixth worst film of all time, while writing in The Guardian in 2008, film critic Joe Queenan had the following to say:

I am firmly in the camp that believes that Heaven’s Gate is the worst movie ever made.  For my money, none of these other films can hold a candle to Michael Cimino’s 1980 apocalyptic disaster.  This is a movie that destroyed the director’s career.  This is a movie that lost so much money it literally drove a major American studio out of business.  This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America. This is a movie that stars Isabelle Huppert as a shotgun-toting cowgirl.  This is a movie in which Jeff Bridges pukes while mounted on roller skates.  This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates.  This is a movie that defies belief.

A friend of mine, now deceased, was working for the public relations company handling Heaven’s Gate when it was released.  He told me that when the 220-minute extravaganza debuted at the Toronto film festival, the reaction was so thermonuclear that the stars and the film-maker had to immediately be flown back to Hollywood, perhaps out of fear for their lives.  No one at the studio wanted to go out and greet them upon their return; no one wanted to be seen in that particular hearse.  My friend eventually agreed to man the limo that would meet the children of the damned on the airport tarmac and whisk them to safety, but only provided he was given free use of the vehicle for the next three days.  After he dropped off the halt and the lame at suitable safe houses and hiding places, he went to Mexico for the weekend.  Nothing like this ever happened when Showgirls or Gigli or Ishtar or Xanadu or Glitter or Cleopatra were released.  Nothing like this happened when The Hottie and the Nottie dropped dead the day it was released.  Heaven’s Gate was so bad that people literally had to be bribed to go meet the survivors. Proving that, in living memory, giants of bad taste once ruled the earth.  Giants.  By comparison with the titans who brought you Heaven’s Gate, Paris Hilton is a rank amateur.

Empire’s DVD review is rather more even-handed, awarding the film three stars out of five and stating:

The film itself… is gorgeous, tranquil, and terribly slow, with shades of Terrence Mallick’s floaty dreams.  For much of the endless running time, the narrative remains wispy and indistinct as Cimino searches for the melancholy vagueness of life.  It has the looks of a Western, but the naturalism of Euro-art.  There is no doubting the stunning creativity at work, including strong performances from unshowy talents like Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and John Hurt, but it also frustrates with its languid disregard for story.  Cimino lacks Mallick’s ability to ignite images with meaning, here they remain just eloquent images, stark and beautiful like as the spinning wonder of the roller-skating rink, but over-priced sideshows in a little story.

The final eruption of violence, when the cattle-baron’s private-army push to eradicate the lowly farmers carries the chilling edge of tragedy, but it is an emotion not fully won.  This is an extraordinary piece of fateful art, but its imperfections are as loud as its reputation.

Opinion

I have seen both the full and edited versions of Heaven’s Gate on television and VHS some years ago and broadly agree with Empire’s DVD review as well as Michael Souter’s opinion in his excellent book The Worst Movies Of All Time: or, What Were They Thinking? There is no genuine example of incompetence on the screen that makes you stare in shock and disbelief as in a real turkey like Gigli or Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.  The performances are generally good (although Walken is miscast and Huppert makes for an improbable French madam in the American wilderness) and the scope and passion of Cimino’s vision is clear for all to see.

Yet the $50million price tag is simply not on screen due to Cimino’s gratuitous waste leaving most of the production on the cutting room floor (and indeed on the set’s rubbish heap!), while the vintage steam locomotive that was sourced and shipped at enormous cost is on screen for mere minutes.  The screenplay is reduced to a “motiveless mess” with the characters’ incentives and back stories are left untold.  Who are these people?  Why should we care about them?  Why does Averill only half-heartedly help the immigrants?  How did Irvine become such a lumbering drunk and why does he stay with the cattle barons even though he disagrees with their course of action?  As Souter comments, a few simple reminiscences would have helped; a voiceover would have worked wonders.

Particularly galling are the presence of some truly brilliant moments that suggest somewhere in this bloated dirge of film, there was a great film struggling to get out: an immigrant woman pulls a cart along a rocky road with the corpse of her husband on top; Walken explains to Hubbert that wallpapering his log cabin with newspaper “civilises the wilderness”; the bitterly ironic ending in the full version where Averill’s life finishes (quite literally) where it started.  The film also benefits greatly from David Mansfield’s wonderful score (surely the least deserving of the film’s Golden Raspberry nominations).

I agree with the opinions of many of cast and producers expressed in the Final Cut documentary that the disastrous critical response on first release was less a true reflection of the film’s artistic merits and entertainment value, but more an extreme and gratuitous reaction to the film’s torrid production history and “payback” to Cimino following the unprecedented success of The Deer Hunter.

If Heaven’s Gate is among the worst films ever made, then it probably the best bad film of all time.

Resurrection

Having refused to give interviews about Heaven’s Gate since its final box office death in 1981 (with the exception of a few brief comments in 1990 while promoting Desperate Hours when he admirably took a JFK-on-The-Bay-of-Pigs-line and accepted full responsibility for what happened), Cimino was finally tempted to “go back to Golgotha” and re-cut and restore the film for a 2012 cinema and Blu Ray release.

The response was the diametrical opposite of its initial release in 1980: the film received a prolonged standing ovation at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, Empire awarded it the full five stars for its UK cinema release and The New York Times, while not exactly recanting the opinion of its original critic, Vincent Canby, still gave the film positive press.

Although it took much, much longer than many other films that failed critically and commercially on their initial release before taking their rightful place in cinematic history, such as Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir Blade Runner, perhaps time has healed the wounds of Heaven’s Gate and it has finally joined the elite of lost classics.

I have not yet seen the re-cut version of Heaven’s Gate; however, I will acquire a Blu Ray copy as soon as it is released in the UK and watch it with great interest and an open mind.

If my opinion of the film alters substantially, you will read it here first.

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One Response to “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate’”

  1. ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’ – An Exhumation | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] as I recently posted about Michael Cimino’s epic Western Heaven’s Gate – a critical and commercial disaster on its […]

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