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‘Heaven’s Gate’: The Hollywood flop so bad that it changed cinema forever

From the outside looking in it would seem Hollywood bigwigs exist only to meddle and derogate. Whether it be a cigar-smoking depiction of an erratic movie totalitarian in Barton Fink, the seedy sinister conspirators in the recent Mank, or the tragically hilarious self-loathing in Steve Tesich’s epic novel Karoo, avenging silver screen dissidents have painted such a clear picture of the average producer, that most movie fans imagine if Shakespeare was reborn as a fledgeling writer-director then Romeo & Juliet would be redrafted by a script hack, hot off the cash-flowing heels of Avengers IX, as some sort of mild-mannered romcom ‘with some frontal nudity’.

Even though the aforementioned portrayals are from a Hollywood of yesteryear, the ravaging of these enemy-to-art moneymen seems to have escalated since, making them even more ubiquitous amidst today’s disillusioned movie milieu.

Why then do these heathens exist, when it seems a big bag of cash would suffice and remain a lot less problematic and devoid of deviant ways? Well, as Stone Roses lead singer Ian Brown nearly said, ‘for every man a reason’, and in the case of tight-gripped producers, there is perhaps no more direct a reason than Michael Cimino’s eventual 1980 release, Heaven’s Gate.

Cimino’s examination and last word on the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, had just collected 5 academy awards, and, having assembled an ensemble that included Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterstone and Jeff Bridges, Heaven’s Gate not only seemed a sure-fire success on paper, for many, it held the promise of a western wet-dream.

The movie’s plot of a highborn Sheriff battling to protect immigrant farmers from rich cattle interests could almost be transposed by the director/producer battle for the movie itself. It is a battle that Cimino would ultimately win, the 219-minute western standing as testimony to this, but it is a win so disastrous that it has proved to be a pyrrhic victory for the filmmaker’s fraternity forevermore.

The producers, in this case, United Artists, were anything but meddling. There was so much goodwill for the film that its failure almost brings forth the maxim ‘you can have too much of a good thing’. Over at UA, most of the top executives had walked out over a disagreement with parent company Transamerica, the fresh faces in the hot seats were determined to usher in the new era with a crowning centrepiece. Cimino, likewise, was resolute not to suffer from post-Oscar-syndrome and better his Vietnam epic. As the movie’s joint lead, Kris Kristofferson, the country star so good they named him twice and a bit, states in the making-of documentary concerning Cimino’s monomaniacal dedication, “I bet Michelangelo cared. I bet Picasso cared. I probably didn’t care that much, but I was glad to be working with someone who did!” The only issue being that the aforementioned ‘carers’ were artists in the original sense of the word, individuals without industry, and when it comes to moviemaking Cimino proved conclusively that it’s possible to care too much.

He proved as much in the very first week. Six days into filming, they were somehow five days behind schedule. A single whip-crack was even filmed 52 times and comprised the entire day’s footage. The only onsite exec who had travelled to Wyoming to keep tabs on things was a close friend of the director, Joann Carelli. As he cavorted about in his own personal Wild West, she did little to intervene, after all, he had just bagged her an Oscar exactly one week before filming, thus the demented perfectionism was allowed to endure.

By the second week United Artists had calculated that at the current rate, the film would cost them a million per minute of usable footage. That frankly astounding figure, bizarrely, merely prompted the dispatch of another exec, Derek Kavanagh, only for him to be sent packing with a note from Cimino to take back to his Hollywood bosses saying that he was never to show up on location ever again.

As ever with these things, the vision for the film stretched beyond the plot. Cimino was not out there filming a Western, he was pouring himself over the ultimate American saga – it would have love triangles, political analogies for critics to dissect, it was an audit on class, a facsimile of the frontiers past, in short, it would encapsulate the very heart of American values. The troubling thing is, all those grandiose notions proved to be a poisonous concoction, drank down by the director and toasted to unattainable ideals hopelessly strived for at spendthrift ends.

Cimino even saddled up his actors for the majority of the major battle scenes rather than punt for stunt doubles, hoping for a more authentic feel, which led the legendary Jeff Bridges, to quip that, “they were incredibly dangerous, even in a real battle you don’t do it over and over again.”

Cimino’s approach, however, was not one of chaotic abandon, splurging like some band on the run, he was laborious more so than exorbitant, pouring time and money into details so extraneous that nobody except him would ever even notice let alone care about. Though producers might have been exasperated, he never lost the respect of his crew, despite his painstaking methods earning him the nickname Ayatollah Cimino. Sadly, bountiful respect does not bolster a budget and spending was going through the roof. Cimino had fallen in love with his own movie-in-the-making and catastrophe was impending.

How then, did this transpire without somebody from the money side of things putting their foot down? Well, that is an epic saga in of itself. To fully encapsulate how Heaven’s Gate came to pass and the reverberations that still ripple from its epicentre even today, you’d have to go back to the very formation of United Artists. Heaven’s Gate was, in many ways, the perfect storm.

If Hollywood’s initial aim was for artists to capture the tales of America, then UA was akin to the film industries Gettysburg Address, it was a company by the artists for the people. The very first of its kind, UA was established in 1919 by performers D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. The company’s very inception represented a severance from commercial control to the pursuit of artistic interest. The studios first outing was a far cry from the slapstick of the day, with a sensitive silent masterclass in storytelling.

Broken Blossoms was a touching tattered satire: a young girl from the Limehouse region of London is beaten by her alcoholic prizefighting father, she finds solace in the friendship of a Chinese immigrant only for it all to end in tragic circumstances. The film was a statement and shrine to what pictures could be, and UA continued therein up until they arrived at the pearly gates of Heaven brought forth by Cimino’s flopping epic.

If the ’60s are rightfully considered an artistic boom, then it was the ’70s when those trailblazing skills were honed. From Malick to Marty it was a decade of auteurs and they were all-conquering. It’s not that commercialisation wasn’t present in the ’70s, it’s just that you’d graduate from the commercially driven independents to get a chance at a big studio job that granted you artistic control, as opposed to the exact opposite that occurs today. Roger Corman, dubbed ‘The Pope of Pop Cinema’, was a director and producer who doled out ultra-cheap flix that featured sex or violence every ten minutes as a rule. In doing so he would frequently hire promising first-time directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme and allow them the chance to showcase their skills. He once told Ron Howard, “if you do a good job on this movie, you’ll never have to work for me again.”

This led to a mainstream influx of auteur directors desperate for autonomy over a big budget in order to make their mark on the industry. These were the directors that UA would fund and with the artistic history that stretched out behind them they’d do just that – fund them. The modus operandi that had proved successful so far was simply to lay down a budget then get the film made. This method had worked in the past, almost exclusively so, even with movies that verged on going out of control, like the uber turbulent Apocalypse Now. Therefore, when retrospect is put to one side, it’s somehow easy to see how fresh-faced executives desperate for success could write a blank cheque, see mindboggling overspends, and then continually throw good money after bad. The fact was, as producer Stephen Bach would admit, Cimino was making his own movie whether they liked It or not and to stop him midway would be like “asking Michelangelo to put down his brush”. They were used to folie and success going hand in hand in film, Martin Sheen was having literal heart attacks over on Apocalypse Now set and it was still a critical and commercial smash-hit, the sort that the newbie producers would’ve dearly loved to replicate with Heaven’s Gate.

And it still might have been possible, but another factor was coming into the fore — the growing inches of movie gossip columns. In some ways, Cimino’s film had already failed before it even hit the big screens. The set had been infiltrated by a journalist working as an extra. His inhouse tale of turmoil, with remarks like “Cimino interviewed over 300 horses to cast the right one,” proved damning from the get-go.

The tales of mayhem coming from the Philippine’s regarding Coppola’s Apocalypse Now filled critics and audiences with a burgeoning desire to see what that madness had spawned. They were rightfully vivified by the results, the blood and guts of production spilt onto the screen in a captivating way. Whereas a slow-paced rambling western, with tales of a far less exciting sort of madness pertaining to meticulous detailing, was ripe for ridicule.

With Typhoons and war efforts, Coppola had cause for consternation, whereas all UA had this time round was a western vision going out of control and a studio that had no whip to crack or reins to pull on.

What resulted was a film that had gone from a standard $7.5 million budget to an amended agreement of $11.6 million, finally finishing up 500% over budget at around $44 million. It went to screens and made a measly $1.3 million at the box office. The only cut that enraged producers had ever seen before release was a 325-minute snooze that an exhausted Cimino said he could shave 15 minutes off before official screenings. When the eventual three-and-a-half-hour final cut remarkably made it to cinema’s in time for its intended premiere, it’s possible that nobody, including Cimino and his trusted editors, had ever seen the final cut all the way through. One critic described it as being like a near 4-hour tour of your own living room.

Kristofferson recalls the first signs of the scale of the catastrophe at Cannes when a chance elevator encounter with UA president Norbert Auerbach resulted in the following dialogue:

Auerbach: “The money has to be taken from the creative people.”

Kristofferson: “Who you gonna give it to? The un-creative people?”

It’s a fitting little tableau for what happened to the movie industry, and even more fitting that those very words could have come out of the mouth of Kristofferson’s character.

The movie was also aptly the end of UA. A company by the artists for the people had arrived at ruination in the hands of an artist who took that mantra too far. UA would be swallowed into MGM and the days of directors running riot were over.

The ultimate irony, so perfectly encapsulating of modern times that it seems almost like a Greek allegory, is that Transamerica, the conglomerate that owned UA, was able to recuperate the losses of the movie within 24 hours and stock points recovered within 48. The first fuck-up for the artists proved fatal and money ruled the roost once again, freely bundling its way through flops forevermore.

Coppola himself said the following, “the studios after that period learned how to prevent runaway directors. The famous experience with Heaven’s Gate so traumatised companies that they developed ways the prevent the type of runaway-director behaviour that my generation sort of exploited.”

With regards to Cimino, if you have unabating disdain for the hand that feeds you and you utter a phrase as pretentious as “Break for lunch?! This is bigger than lunch!” then you’re playing roulette with a loaded gun.

As for the film itself, it was touched up for European release, where the baying for blood for perceived wastefulness was absent, and it was lauded with critical success. Flop or otherwise, there’s no doubting it is one of the most gorgeous looking movies ever made and its scope and craft in all areas are beyond impressive. It is perhaps too long, sparse, boredom-bordering and maudlin, but if like Alex Turner you’re fond of watching “cowboy films in the afternoon, tinting the solitude”, then you just might take a fancy to it like one of the 5-star admirers smattered across the DVD cover of Hollywood’s biggest flop.

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