Friday, November 27, 2015


November 19th, 1980. Anticipation mounted for what would be the latest film from director Michael Cimino, who had only two years prior released the highly successful and Academy Award- winning THE DEER HUNTER. Funded and released through the already- then financially- crippled United Artists, the studio took a risky gamble and ponied- up an unheard $44 million dollars… far more than any major company would pay for a feature film’s production during that time. The stakes were high but UA believed in Cimino and his vision… surely it would be a great pay off, wouldn’t it? Within a matter of days from its release, UA pulled the film embarrassingly quickly from poor reviews and even poorer box office receipts. The failure of the film would go on to become a Hollywood urban legend of overly- negative proportions including the film becoming solely responsible for the destruction and bankruptcy of United Artists and the black- balling of Cimino as a director in Hollywood.

The legend of the harrowing experiences is never spoken of out loud… as though it might conjure some kind of hex or curse amongst Hollywood productions. It is the film that was never to have been mentioned again… but what did exactly happen? Over the years since, rumors had boiled- over to becoming accepting truths but actuality differs greatly from fabrication! What is fact and what is fiction? What went on behind- the- scenes? With a crucifix in one hand and a Criterion blu- ray copy in the other, I explore the myth and reality of the good, the bad and the ugly of Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE on the verge of celebrating its 35 anniversary this year.
1978- 1979
Universal Studios surprised audiences and critics alike with a powerhouse film starring A-list actors Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken in a Vietnam- laced drama saga entitled THE DEER HUNTER. The film drew immense critical praise which bridged- over to gaining an impressive nine Academy Award nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Actor (Robert DeNiro),  Best Director (Michael Cimino) and Best Picture.

On Academy Awards’ night of April 1979, THE DEER HUNTER went on to win five Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture! Cimino became an over- night sensation with every studio clamoring to make his next feature film with him. Channeling the new star power bestowed upon, Cimino resurrected a script he had worked on back in his struggling days in 1971 entitled “The Johnson County War” and convinced United Artists to fund and release his latest venture. Needing a hit film fast, UA all too eagerly said yes, a re-write and a title change later and the project became HEAVEN’S GATE.
Invaders in custody from Johnson County, spring 1892
HEAVEN’S GATE is loosely based on the horrifically true incidents that occurred in Wyoming 1892 that became known as the Johnson County War.  The events circled around a band of privately hired gunmen who were brought in by a group of powerful cattlemen to ‘eradicate’ a number of poor immigrants who had worked for these businessmen.  The implicated “range pirates” were accused of stealing cattle to feed themselves and their families. The massacre would become a notorious piece of American history.
(l)Bridges,(r)Eastwood: THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT
Cimino became interested in the project when his focuses were that of a struggling screenwriter in the early 1970s’. He worked on and submitted a finalized script to studios, causing little if no interest due to the lack of A- list actors passing on the project and the script would eventually find itself shelved.

Having two directorial hits back- to- back with THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges in 1974 and 1979’s THE DEER HUNTER, Hollywood was ready to pay closer attention to Cimino.
(l)Griffin,(cnt)Pickford),(sit)Chaplin &(r)Fairbanks
From the beginning, United Artists was a unique film studio originally formed by a number of Hollywood’s classic performers including D.W. Griffin, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks for the purpose of allowing its filmmakers complete artistic freedom. UA would become the ideal studio to which Cimino could create the bleak Western drama backdrop he envisioned.

United Artists agreed to offer a generous 11.6 million dollar budget with written expectations for a projected release date before Christmas of 1979 to meet eligibility for Academy Award consideration.   
Director Michael Cimino
In the midst of exchanging hands and contract finalizations, Cimino managed to create a complex list of agreements that would free him of potential problems. In the final documentations, the director stated that he would make every effort imaginable to complete production for the projected winter release, in exchange, UA would pay for any overages incurred to bring the production in on time and those costs would not be regarded as going over budget. Furthermore, Cimino would not be held responsible if the film didn’t meet the hopeful release date. In addition, the director required full artistic and financial control of the project. Before anyone knew what exactly transpired, the contracts were signed and the film was green- lit for a go.
The infamous skating sequence
As pre- production slowly got on its way, stories were coming into fruition regarding the perfectionistic eye of Cimino’s, which included a number of unusual practices and requests. Before a single frame of HEAVEN’S GATE was shot, the entire cast had to undergo a number of rather extensive training courses to keep the characters as authentic to the period. Some of these, as Jeff Bridges jokingly referred to as “Camp Cimino”, included horseback riding, the use of firearms and the practice of Yugoslavian accent coaching. One particular sequence required a number of cast members, including Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Brad Douriff and Isabelle Huppert to dance on skates. It was estimated that most of the actors needed up to six weeks to perfect the abilities for the scene.
(l) Cimino and (r) Kristofferson on set
Full production began on April 1979. Cimino’s directorial approach and obsessive vision would quickly become all too familiar around the set for both cast and crew. One such behavioral result from the director would be his requisition for a minimum of 32 takes of certain shots. His eye for detail had all the actors deliver their lines in different emotional plights to best capture the acceptable scene. Some actors recognized the minimal take request placed by the director, which once led to a whopping 57 takes for one scene. One entire day was spent shooting just a particular scene with Kris Kristofferson, which involved him cracking a whip in a hotel room while intoxicated… it reportedly required over 50 takes alone.

The frightening reports coming back to United Artists were not good- in its first week of shooting; only one and a half minutes of film had been inventoried… the cost was an estimated $900,000. The film was not only racking up spending dollars, but had already begun to fall behind schedule- within its first six days of filming, the production was already five days behind its targeted date.
One of many 'extra'- heavy scenes
Stories would continue to come forth about the perfectionist attention placed upon during production. Cimino would spend many hours planning and creating every single shot. He went as far as to personally hand- select extras to fill the background of certain sequences. These choices were based off of looks, costuming, size, weight or other distinctive traits he felt suited the scene.  Even more time was spent than the average within the production- due to its scale. Cimino would spend hours selecting up to 50 extras for one scene alone. He was the painter and the extras were his paints to place on his cinematic canvas.
A crew member on the film recalled beginning work at 4 in the morning with a dawn shot. Filming would abruptly cease when clouds rolled into a scene and caused overcast while blocking out the sun. Cimino would halt shooting until the clouds would roll out of the scene. Hours would go by and the entire production was in a freeze… because of the clouds. The standard time for lunch would come and go as well. Cimino was allegedly quoted as replying, “Lunch? This is bigger than lunch” when a crew member finally asked when they could have their meal break.

July 1979. HEAVEN’S GATE had now gone over 200 percent from its estimated budget and the bosses at United Artists were losing their patience. Knowing what kind of repercussions the production would face if the studio fired Cimino, another option was clear in order to deliver a message- UA decided to fire producer Joann Corelli instead. The studio placed itself in the field of producer to regain a sense of control. The word went out to Cimino: stick to the budget and schedule for the remainder of the production or lose the right to final cut.
Journalist Les Gapay
Bad publicity during production is no stranger to Hollywood films and can, by its own reputation and fault, be the cause for a film to fail before it even opens in theaters. Anything ranging from an actor’s tantrum rant to a difficult director to production woes can be the downfall and become the right kind of feeding ground for the press. As one can only guess, Cimino demanded a closed set- meaning that the press was definitely shunned from a welcome or coverage to his very private production. That, however, didn’t stop a freelance journalist named Les Gapay from getting on the set as an extra in the film for two months. Gapay experienced the disaster and turmoil occurring on a daily basis from within. One reported story focused on the chaotic shooting of the final battle scene, where he mentioned that extras had been subjected to perform actions only professional stuntmen should do with an accounted 16 injuries that resulted from the aftermath.
Article that appeared in the L.A. Times
Gapsay wrote: “because of the mad rush, there are several injuries as the scene filmed over and over for several days. Some of the immigrants, mostly extras, are brushed by horses and knocked into the mud. One minor actor has both feet stepped on by horses. Several persons tumble out of lurching wagons.”

This was one of many stories Gapay wrote and sold to publications. HEAVEN’S GATE production suffered dearly from the leaked stories that soon, thereafter, became news. If rumors hadn’t been bad enough, actual published news reports would definitely do substantial damage. Before production was completed, the film would have to fight for its reputation and defeat pre- judged opinions.
The injury- induced battle finale 
The production continued to be plagued by the difficulties overseen by Cimino. The finale’s battle sequence, mentioned by Gapsay, was one of the largest set pieces that required dozens of horses, specially made wooden wagons, extras and explosions. A field chosen by Cimino was located nearly three hours from his base production camp. Cast and crew would load- up into vans at 3:30 in the morning, some actors even still clutching pillows to try to catch some more sleep. Once arriving to the set, the director would demand long hours of planning and filming of sequences while surrounded by dust, horses and gunfire.

United Artists’ execs David Field and Steven Bach took it upon themselves to visit the production- they arrived to the climactic battle sequence. Red flags went off once again… not only was it costing a fortune to rent the field from a local tribe of Native Americans, but it was also costing a fortune to irrigate.
The Cimino- created green grass battlefield
Cimino visualized his battlefield covered in lush, green grass. The land had to be cleared for rocks and an irrigation system was installed to grow the needed landscape… costing the production more money.

Bach was quoted as saying, “He’s talking about hundreds of people and horses and wagons and explosives. Who the hell is going to see grass?”
Cimino continually defended his choice by saying it was “part of the poetry of America.” In defense of Cimino’s postponement of lunches, for example, assistant editor Penelope Shaw summed up his creative eye by saying, “He thinks, there’s this beautiful cloud. That’ll be there for an eternity if I get it on film. Nobody will care about lunch 20 years from now, but they’ll be able to see that visual I created forever.”
(l) Director of Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Now a year behind its original schedule, cameras finally stopped rolling on production in 1980 as principal photography came to a close. Filming was supposed to have been over by June 1979 with a final cut submitted by September that year. Not only had Cimino gone greatly over budget and production time, but now his need for perfection would carry over to the editing room as he had to go through an unbelievable 1.3 million feet of film.
(l) Christopher Walken, (r) Cimino
The problem was now in hand- Cimino and his editing team would now have to review a staggering 220 hours of film in order to piece an appropriate cut to present United Artists with. As stated in his contract, Cimino had to present a cut of no more than three hours in length, preferably shorter.
A visually tired Cimino was quoted as saying, “it’s a little long” when he finally brought a work print to UA’s executives clocking in at an unbelievable five hours and 25 minutes! He then said,” I can lose maybe 15 minutes…”

Having viewed the incredibly lengthy cut, United Artists wanted to remain very clear about two things: one, they wanted a version short enough to be commercially visible, and two, they wanted the film ready for a Christmas 1980 release.
Editing of HEAVEN'S GATE
Cimino was equally eager about delivering the final cut he envisioned, so he would spend 18 hours days held up in the editing room. He went to great measures to ensure that his precious film would not fall into the premature viewing of the executives.
Assistant editor Penelope Shaw recalled that Cimino had bars put on the cutting room windows and had the locks changed so that no one could come in. One report even mentioned that Cimino had hired an armed guard to block the entrance.

By the fall of 1980, a cut of HEAVEN’S GATE emerged now clocking in at three hours 39 minutes in length. Although it was slimmer than its five hour predecessor, it still wasn’t the cut UA had anticipated. An executive decision was made… no more time could be spent with toying in the editing room and so UA went with the lengthier version they hadn’t anticipated. Time couldn’t afford not making its Christmas deadline to hopefully make Oscar consideration.

HEAVEN’S GATE was finally released on November 19, 1980 only to face the rather icy critics and their reviews.

N.Y. Times critic Vincent Canby
New York Times critic Vincent Canby’s review fatally wrote the phrase “unqualified disaster” which soon became the coined term used by other critics and television anchors in their summed up analysis of the film.
Canby’s review went on to further state that HEAVEN’S GATE “fails so completely that you might suspect that Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of THE DEER HUNTER and the Devil has just come around to collect.”

As quickly as Michael Cimino became the overnight success story, so too quickly did his success became stripped away from him. His perfectionism was regarded as arrogance by reviewers. The allowance of artistic freedom also angered fellow filmmakers.
United Artists was faced with one last option: HEAVEN’S GATE was pulled from theaters after only one week from its release date and cancelled its wider release. 

As a final attempt to grasp some sort of recovery, Cimino openly wrote a letter that was published in trade papers promising a re- edit of the film with a new release of a tighter form. The newly- edited two hours and 29 minute cut was released in April 1981 with no change in audience interest.
Shortly thereafter, United Artists saw its investment corporation Transamerica sell UA to MGM with the results left echoing in the hallways as the singular example of poor management in Hollywood. No studio in its right mind would think about collaborating any future projects with Cimino.

It would take five years before Cimino would make his directorial comeback with 1985’s YEAR OF THE DRAGON with Mickey Rourke.

Cimino would now dive into the underground world of the Chinese mafia in New York Chinatown.

Mickey Rourke plays the decorated officer, Stanley White, who has been assigned to bring order to the Chinese community while keeping a watchful eye on Joey Tai (John Lone) who recently became the Chinese mafia leader of New York.

The film opened to mixed reviews and only grossed about $18.7 million from a budgeted $25 million. YEAR OF THE DRAGON was considered a box office failure.

(l) the restored version for Blu-ray (r) the sepia-tinted DVD release
Fast- forward to present date and HEAVEN’S GATE would, in time, finally find an appreciative audience. The film would even get a coveted restoration make- over by the Criterion Corporation, a video distribution company that specializes in “important classics and contemporary films.” The newly restored edition featured Cimino’s original 217 minute cut of the film using the original 35mm YCM color separation masters and scanning each separate element with a 2K resolution, digitally recombining them to reproduce the color of the original negative. The Criterion edition was released to the public in November 2012 in both DVD and blu-ray editions.
(l) Cimino 1980- (r) Cimino 2014
Director Michael Cimino, being the obsessive perfectionist he is, personally supervised the transfer. As a filmmaker obsessed with the personal project of his film, had now come full circle within 32 years to finally see his vision offered in a pristine and visually breath-taking edition he personally held himself solely responsible for and could be extremely proud of.
At- a- glance, it is abundantly obvious to now take the time to appreciate the broad spectrum of production time and funds spent on HEAVEN’S GATE. Every shot is gorgeous and well- executed. Every landscape painted perfectly and every scene teeming with beauty and detail. The film itself is not flawless by any means, but as someone who appreciates the art stemming from the visual artist, one can forgive the weaker moments for the overall splendor of the presentation.
Imagine what film makers could do with an unlimited resource of financial availabilities. What would most films look like if the creative team had the time they felt was necessary to truly create a masterpiece? What if budgets were not a consistent worry, but rather a generous financial gift to the director to fund the dream project in the imaginary’s eye?

Film making, for better or for worse, is a business; an industry that relies on putting out a product and expecting the invested product to create money on its returns. A shiny object that can be dangled, though briefly, in front of the audience to overt the attention span and shell- out the money to make it successful.
For everything that allegedly occurred on the set, the point is clear. No one can see through the eyes of the beholder, in this case the director. Cimino envisioned the great American movie… but couldn’t the same be said of other films that were also infamous for wild spending on production costs and extended film scheduling? Films like Elizabeth Taylor’s CLEOPATRA, director Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW, Martin Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK or even Steven Spielberg’s 1941 are guilty of putting the visual before the studio as well. HEAVEN’S GATE may have marked the end of an era of producer- driven films.

It makes no excuse for the over- blotted budgets containing fabricated, computer- generated backdrops and characters we have been seeing in access since the new century kicked- in. Humanistic stories are a thing of the past or considered the needed material for independent films these days. The human spirit doesn’t even take a backseat anymore, as much as it now rides in the trunk of the compact, storytelling vehicle. 
Film is long- lasting and marks eras, trends and lifestyles of the timeline it captures. HEAVEN’S GATE, for better or worse, lives on and has risen from the ashes of its failed original release. Enjoy cinema for it is and support films… and watch movies. There is a difference!

A lot can and has been said about HEAVEN'S GATE but film- watching is a personal and some-what private experience.
What are your personal thoughts about films like HEAVEN'S GATE?
Do you recommend or denounce HEAVEN'S GATE?
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