It was called a “runaway,” and never has a term been more appropriate. In this case, it was a movie running millions of dollars over budget with an end nowhere in sight. By the time the smoke had cleared, hundreds of people lost their jobs, one of the most storied film companies in history went belly up and a huge western epic became the greatest financial bomb of all time.
The 1980 film Heaven’s Gate has become synonymous with failure, its very name punned whenever big-budget productions flirt with disaster (Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was termed “Kevin’s Gate” before release). Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists gives a terrific blow-by-blow account of this gargantuan flop. A former producer at United Artist who suffered the ax after Heaven’s Gate, Bach penned this detailed tome a couple of years after fallout.
The book, recently re-released with a new introduction and epilogue, should be a fascinating account for film lovers. Final Cut details the history of United Artists and filmmaking in the 1970s – a truly golden era. At United Artists, David Lean drops by on occasion, Alan Pakula broods over Comes A Horseman, William Goldman struggles with The Right Stuff, Francis Ford Coppola premieres Apocalypse Now, Woody Allen helms Manhattan and Martin Scorsese prepares Raging Bull. But the man of the hour in 1978 is a quiet guy named Michael Cimino. He just won an Academy Award for directing The Deer Hunter, and now he wants to make a western – a big, big western.
Bach accurately reveals the difficulties United Artists was going through at this time, losing several long-time executives who jump ship to form the Orion film company. Bach and company, wishing to re-establish United Artists as a major player, take on Cimino’s western project. Heaven’s Gate was originally expected to cost $9 million, but before the cameras even began clicking, it spiraled to $13 million. In Final Cut, Cimino’s got big ideas, and they’re getting bigger.
Cimino sets up shop in Montana, the location work a two-hour’s drive from the nearest cement road. He’s making a film about the Johnson County Range War, an obscure historical footnote which took place in Wyoming during the 1890s. After 15 days of filming, the movie is 13 days behind schedule with the cost increasing to $17 million. Cimino ships an antique train across five states to the Montana wilds. He hires over 700 extras. He signs a cast of mainly unknowns including Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt and Sam Waterson. And he films only during the twilight hour, a period right before dusk so scenes will have a golden hue. But what terrifies United Artists most is Cimino is filming 50-60 takes per scene, and printing almost every take. Such obsession was unheard of.
Bach and David Fields (the two VP executives at United Artists at that time) fly to Montana and attempt to communicate to Cimino the dangerously growing situation. Cimino responds by barring all executives from the set. The film appropriately skyrockets to $25 million. As Bach reveals in Final Cut, Cimino’s western was now going to have make blockbuster numbers just to turn a profit, performing in the Jaws and Star Wars neighborhoods. United Artists attempts to fire Cimino, at one point even asking David Lean to take over. Cimino realizes the dire situation, finally bucks up and finishes the film. With promotional and post-production fees, Heaven’s Gate was going to cost United Artists $44 million – the most expensive film in history up to that time.
Heaven’s Gate is premiered in New York, a three-and-a-half hour monstrosity that receives devastatingly bad reviews. It is eventually released to the theaters and makes $1.8 million. It is the biggest bomb in motion picture history (cue dead elephant hitting the cement). Heads roll at the studio, Cimino’s career is finished and United Artists, a film company created by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, is purchased by MGM to disappear forever into the sunset.
Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate also spelled the end of the free-spirited, amazingly creative decade of the 1970s. Producers and studios took the reins out of the hands of superstar directors (Coppola’s Apocalypse Now ran a similar Heaven’s Gate route, but he pulled success from the fires of disaster, perhaps inspiring this debacle as much as anything else). The beauty of Final Cut is it reveals a major film company handicapped by a runaway disaster. The executives had three choices – march until the bitter end a la Cleopatra; try an Apocalypse Now-like containment; or pull the plug and cut losses. Based on Cimino’s great track record including the Clint Eastwood film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter, executives fatefully chose containment.
As Bach notes in Final Cut, never in the studio’s wildest nightmares did they expect as staggeringly poor a film as Heaven’s Gate. Though the signs were there, including The Deer Hunter’s uniquely indulgent style, Cimino’s pouty refusal to cast more bankable stars and warnings from accountants about the dangers of filming in the remotest regions of Montana.
When watching Heaven’s Gate today, it’s an overlong, indulgent mess. Certain scenes will remind one of the greatest David Lean epics, yet there is no true intimacy. The characters are just faded photographs without life or emotion. Scenes (though beautiful) of dancing and skating go on for 10-15 minutes, barely propelling the lumbering story. Dialog is vague and stilted. Even the final battle (which is historically inaccurate), is about as ripe as a Ted Turner civil war epic. There’s a lot of sound and fury and dying, but the viewer never really cares who lives or dies. And for a western, most unforgivable of all, it’s boring.
Cimino’s career was ruined after Heaven’s Gate, and he’s made just four mediocre films since then. The one-time genius comes out of hiding on occasion to give odd interviews and accept awards in France (they love him as much as Jerry Lewis over there). He usually compares himself to Jim Morrison or Picasso or Tolstoy, and he does so with Napoleonic seriousness. Cimino’s a walking ghost undoubtedly wondering just what went wrong in Montana, when filmmaking was changed by an obsessive megalomaniac with dreams of Xanadu.
Final Cut is a tragedy exposing the end of a golden era of filmmaking and a once-great studio. It’s as good as an Irwin Allen disaster film, and a lot cheaper.Powered by Sidelines