By John H. Foote
With the publication of the excellent new book “One Shot – The Making of The Deer Hunter”, I thought I would do two things, the first to go back and re-watch The Deer Hunter (1978), which I did, and the second to revisit Heaven’s Gate, the film which ruined United Artists, the American western (for a time) and Michael Cimino. The greatest impact the $44 million-dollar western had was to bring an abrupt end to the director’s era of the seventies, when the film director had absolute power every facet of the film, including budget. Cimino’s behaviour towards the producers and executives at United Artists was an abomination, as obscene as anything you are ever likely to read about, and he did it all in the name of art (he said) though more likely he did it all in the name of Michael Cimino and feeding his massive ego.
Heaven’s Gate was never as bad as the critics made it out to be. It still is not, in fact there is a great deal of beauty in the film. But the critics were out for blood, after being lied to and betrayed by director-writer Michael Cimino over The Deer Hunter and it was blood they got. Cimino made it easy for them given his irresponsible behaviour during the publicity tour for The Deer Hunter and the making of Heaven’s Gate. He was ripe for being dethroned, for being brought down a peg or two, his overwhelming ego needing a serious check.
Cimino had not yet been crowned with an Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture for The Deer Hunter when United Artists (UA) came courting the director for his next film. They had been shown a special screening of The Deer Hunter in the summer, months before it would be released, but upon seeing it they knew it was going to be something very special. Part of that thinking was that Cimino had based the film on what he had experienced while in Vietnam attached to a Green Beret unit. Executives at UA wanted to be in the Michael Cimino business because they felt the film was audacious, powerful and was going to be a monumental work. They approached the director about what his plans next would be, all the while showering him with praise for The Deer Hunter, which he knew was very good, and yes, he understood it was going to be something special. He told them about his dream project, a western called The Johnson County War, a true story about the land barons hiring mercenary killers to deal with the immigrants coming to America for a better way of life. UA liked it, though westerns seemed to be a dying genre, but they wanted Cimino, they wanted a Best Picture contender. With Cimino directing, it could possibly be the greatest American western ever made.
There were warning signs, huge flashing red lights that should have told the executives at UA to run, as fast as possible from this man. The biggest showdown, the one UA lost establishing the fact Cimino could run roughshod over them, came with the casting of Isabelle Huppert as Ella, the prostitute and love interest in the film. Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh and Sally Field had all passed on the role so Cimino decided on Huppert, a little-known French actress. UA immediately protested at which point Cimino became glacial cold with them, freezing them out with his silence. Realizing he could pack the film up and go to Warner Brothers they agreed to go to Paris, listen to her read with Christopher Walken and make a decision based on the reading. Their concern of course was her English. They watched her read, and initially though put off, they became captivated by her presence, though they could not understand a word she was saying. No, and the no to Cimino was final.
He walked out of the restaurant where they had met and composed a letter instructing his lawyer to move the entire project to another studio where his artistry and decision making would not be questioned. UA gathered that night and realized that the star of the film was Michael Cimino and as the executives who had approached him, they owed it to their director to do everything possible to make the best film possible.
A phone call was made and Isabelle Huppert was cast as Ella. In a battle of wills Cimino had won, but he had won a great deal more. He now knew UA feared losing the film, he knew they feared him, and he would use that to get each and everything he desired for the film.
Having gotten everything he wanted (so far), just one week after winning the Academy Awards for The Deer Hunter (Best Picture, Best Director among them) production began on Heaven’s Gate, the new title of his film. There would be more issues with Cimino, and he would quietly go to war with them over anything he felt was necessary for his film. Filming began, and within the first week there were issues that sent red alerts up to the highest office at UA, they were behind, and falling farther behind by the day. Cimino was doing up to forty takes per scene and printing almost everything at enormous cost to the production, but that was just the beginning.
Among his transgressions:
- He built a western town, and because the sun did not hit it just right, ordered it tore down and moved over a foot.
- He sent out a memo that none of the UA executives were to speak to him on set, approach him, or look in his direction. Remember, these were the men who had hired him, who had given him the money to make his masterpiece.
- The location was a three-hour drive from the hotel, housing the actors and crew. Thus, do the math, six hours driving to and from on an eight to ten-hour day.
- The budget crept from $9 to $12, to $15, to $21, to $25 million when finally UA panicked.
- At $25 million they approached another Oscar winning director to ask him if he would step in and finish the film. He laughed, telling them they were fools for replacing a man who had just won the Academy Award and Director’s Guild Award as Best Director. Beyond that he knew the footage, he knew the complexity of the story. No, he would not help them, because he sensed disaster. Rumours say this director was David Lean, but no one knows for sure.
- He refused to answer phone calls from UA citing he was too busy.
- Cimino had a massage trailer set up exclusively for himself where a great more than a massage went on with the beautiful woman hired to give him and only him massages.
- He shot more than 30 takes of Kris Kristofferson cracking a bull whip.
- He would wait hours for the right natural lighting to capture what he called the “poetry of America”. Yes, all the crew were on overtime most all of the time.
- Contractually bound to deliver a cut not exceeding three hours, the first cut shown to UA was five hours and 40 minutes long and Cimino told them he had 20 minutes still to remove. He actually expected UA to release a five hour and 20 film. Under brutal pressure of his own making, an armed guard at the door he whittled the film down to over four hours in time for the release date and premieres.
- The average battle scene in a film is 20 minutes tops, but in this film it was to last nearly an hour. Most of it you cannot see through the dust, realistic but not so great for the audience. As one of the executives exclaimed, “I cannot see anything!!”
- His attention to detail was near maniacal, driving his actors and crew to near madness.
- Insisted that the film be known as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, that his name precede the title in all advertising, posters, TV ads, every piece of advertising.
- Actor John Hurt had sat around for months waiting to work, left the production for four months to shoot The Elephant Man (1980) in England, came back and sat around some more waiting to shoot, furious.
- Though Cimino had written a prologue, the studio had threatened to not shoot it. He insisted and they agreed, with a set budget and timeline. The moment they began filming he told the studio he needed more money and they would need an extra day. The studio told him to stop filming, they were shutting it down. He shot the scene with the allotted budget and time. One of the only times he stuck to his budget and schedule, the only time he did not control it.
- To gain insight into his madness, consider Raging Bull (1980). A period film set in expensive New York City, the film was shot in black and white, actor Robert De Niro trained for months for the brutal boxing sequences, then production shut down while he went away and gained 80 pounds. Consider there were makeup effects, many expensive shots of vintage automobiles, many of the same issues Cimino had, granted in a more modern setting. Yes, cast and crew were kept on salary. Cost of Raging Bull? $8 million dollars.
Shortly before he won the Academy Award and DGA Award, his lies about being a Vietnam veteran were exposed by the New York Times. It seems Cimino had never been in the military, had never been attached to a Green Beret unit, had never, in fact left the United States other than to shoot The Deer Hunter. And his original screenplay, based on aspects of Vietnam he had claimed to witness? Bull, the script was based on an original script entitled The Man Who Came to Play, about a group of friends who come to Las Vegas to play Russian Roulette, given to Cimino by producer Michael Deeley, who by the time Cimino won his Oscar despised the director.
By now he was plagued with controversy surrounding the film because sharp eyed reporters had it in for him and researched his life. Cimino had lied, and he had continued to lie after being caught in a web of lies. First it was minor, lying about his age, then about his degree. But then he had lied about serving in Vietnam, he never had, and that made his entire film a lie. Having not been there, he could no longer claim the Russian Roulette sequences were based on fact, and suddenly his film looked racist, downright fascist. Digging deeper they found the script had been initially written by another, and Cimino had taken it and rewritten it as his own. Jane Fonda attacked him on Oscar night, rightly, because her film Coming Home (1978) was a vastly superior work about the impact of the war. Those critics who had praised Cimino’s film now looked like fools, and they did not forget what he did to them. Their time would come.
UA now knew he was not beyond blatant deception, looking them in the eye and lying to them. So they checked into every statement he made and found, more and more, that they could not trust Cimino. He had purchased a small parcel of land for the climactic battle sequence with studio money, though the deed was in his name. It was irrigated and seeded with Kentucky Blue Grass for the battle at enormous cost, sold off when they were finished, and the money did not go to the studio but into the pocket of Michael Cimino. And still the budget soared out of control, until finally they stopped the money flow, called him to come to Hollywood and blasted him about his blatant disregard for their authority, his irresponsibility, and arrogance. Unknown to Cimino they had been shopping around for a director to replace him, but no one would replace the man who had just won an Academy Award, and who knew and understood the footage, the millions of feet of footage
UA decided to finish the film, giving Cimino a ceiling budget of $38 million dollars, an enormous amount for any film, let alone an artistic western. They attached a production manager to him and made him responsible for the day’s shoot. Cimino was told: stray from the schedule and we will shut you down. They were, they told him, prepared to eat the cost of the film rather than allow him to blatantly display his complete lack of respect for them.
And so he finished the film, at a final cost of $44 million dollars. He then locked himself under armed guard, again charged to UA, into the editing room and began to find his film among the millions of feet of film. Slowly he whittled it down to a massive five hours and 45 minutes, showed it to the executives, and was banished back to the editing suites to get it down to a reasonable release length. Premieres were set for Los Angeles and New York in November, followed by a second premiere the next night in Toronto. Under brutal pressure, the film gradually came down in length as the premiere dates approached.
Finally, in November of 1980 Heaven’s Gate screened for the industry and press with the cast, executives and Cimino present. The following night in Toronto I saw the film, with Cimino and Kristofferson present, looking a bit shell shocked given the reviews coming out of New York. Four hours later we knew why they had attacked the film as they did. Pauline Kael said famously, “I could tell you what to cut, but could not tell you what to keep.” Everything felt clouded in dust, the sound mix was dreadful, the immigrants were cartoonish rather than realistic, John Hurt spent the entire film shouting “James”, and you could never tell who was fighting who. Undeniably beautiful, with a burnished look to it, Cimino had indeed captured the poetry of America, a stunning look at the landscape of early America, which contained a breathtaking roller-skating sequence, a haunting musical score, but little else.
And the critics, smelling blood, pounced on Cimino, getting even for the lies he had told about The Deer Hunter, for making them look like fools, for his treatment of the UA executives, his arrogance, his blinding selfishness, for every transgression he had made in making the two films, they attacked. So complete was the failure, UA withdrew the film from release, like a Broadway play closing after a single performance, they pulled it, to allow Cimino yet more time to cut the film down to size. Realizing they were dealing with a megalomaniac, they moved like sharks in for the kill, and it became a feeding frenzy.
The movie shook Hollywood right to its foundation, because a single film was responsible for the bankruptcy of one of the oldest existing studios in existence. It became a legend and cautionary tale for self-indulgence.
In 2012 Criterion Blu Ray released a restored DVD of the film, cleaning up the print, taking it back to its original length, fixing the image to bring out the golden burnished quality Cimino had intended. Watching the film again, years after the initial release, it is clear that it was never as bad as critics attacked it for being. The cinematography is beautiful, bringing to the film a haunted quality of a time gone by, the score by young David Mansfield, the fiddler player who roller skates working the crowd up is superb, a mix of fiddles, mandolins and piano, just beautiful and deserved an Oscar nomination. The art direction, production design and costumes are perfect, but the film moves at a snail’s pace and we still do not care about the characters because we are never given a chance to. The opening at Harvard is a tedious mess, John Hurt gives a strange performance spending most of his early scenes calling out “James” after his friend. Kris Kristofferson looks terrific throughout, but never really digs into the character, which is true of all the cast including the great Christopher Walken, haunted as a gunfighter. So, while a few things work, so much still does not. The battle sequence is still wildly overlong and filled with screaming and shouting which is drowned out by the explosions and gunfire. Sam Waterston, as the villain Frank, might as well be wearing a pair of horns, or twirling his mustache like Simon Legree, he is terrible.
Uneven, but often breathtaking to behold, the film captured what Cimino often called the poetry of America.
What a shame he sold his soul to the devil to do so and the devil came calling. He never made another major film, his name became an industry pariah, and he became something of a joke.
Even the Academy Award winning The Deer Hunter could not escape the wrath of the critics, who upon revisiting the film, found it unbearably racist, nearly fascist, manipulative, and one that could not decide if it was patriotic or not. Much has been stated about De Niro having more to do with directing the film than was initially believed, but the film was forever coloured by the lies Cimino told about it being based on truth, what he had experienced. What would make him say such stupid things? He must have known the press would dig?
His name is forever synonymous with arrogance, wretched excess, blatant disregard for the studio and failure. Forever. Not likely the legacy he intended. Certainly not the one he saw in his mind. Oh no, he was a genius, all you had to do was ask him when he was alive.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.