Trivia / Heaven's Gate

The film:

  • Box Office Bomb: As exorbitant as the price tag was, this wasn't actually the all-time most expensive film at the time of its release, as is commonly reported (Superman: The Movie and Star Trek: The Motion Picture both had budgets just shy of $50m, and Cleopatra was nearly twice as expensive if you adjust for inflation). Unfortunately, it didn't make even a tenth of its budget back, making it inarguably the biggest box-office bomb that Hollywood had seen up to that point.
  • Control Freak: Cimino. Stories were thrown around about him tearing down a model city because it didn't meet his specifics, refusing to shoot a scene until a cloud he liked rolled into frame and shooting over 1,000,000 feet of film. And those stories are considered scratching the surface.
  • Creator Killer: Killed Cimino's reputation and contributed to the collapse of United Artists.
  • The Danza: Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges. Before filming Jeff learned that his great-grandfather John Bridges had been on the frontier around the same time the film was set, so he convinced Cimino to change the character's name.
  • Doing It for the Art: One of the few examples that just wasn't worth it.
  • Executive Meddling: The only successful instance was the studio brass forcing Cimino to trim the film from its initial runtime of just over five hours to around three hours, forty-five minutes for its one-week run in New York. When that engagement failed, Cimino askef for the film to be withdrawn and recut, and the resultant cut that played theaters in 1981 ran about two-and-a-half-hours, and somehow managed to be far worse. (Today, the most frequently screened version is the three hour-plus cut.) All other attempts to enforce this trope were either considered, but later dropped, or rebuffed by Michael Cimino. The studio brass did consider sacking Cimino and replace him with Norman Jewison (or even David Lean, as hinted in the book Final Cut). However, Jewison wanted nothing to do with the film, so that never happened.
  • Follow Up Failure: Keep in mind that Cimino had just won two Oscars out of the five for The Deer Hunter.
  • Genre-Killer: For the New Hollywood era. Studios were already feeling the effects of giving carte blanche to any reasonably good filmmaker, regardless of how much they might have gone over budget or schedule. This film was the perfect storm of everything wrong with the era, and studios have since held a much tighten grip over creators out of fear that it may happen again. In addition, the film is also blamed for damaging the perceived viability of The Westernnote  until Silverado and Young Guns.
  • Prima Donna Director: Guess who?
  • Protection from Editors
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The scene where Nate Champion writes his Final Speech in a burning cabin, which was unsurprisingly criticized for being melodramatic and an unnecessary historical addition? One of the few scenes true to historical events, actually.
  • Star-Derailing Role: The film killed Kris Kristofferson's career as a leading man. He turned his attention back to his music career and later became a character actor.
  • Troubled Production: Hoo, boy:
    • Michael Cimino had wanted to make a film about the Johnson County War, an 1892 battle between rich Wyoming landowners and European immigrant settlers, since 1971; the good press surrounding ''The Deer Hunter and its dual Oscar wins for Best Director and Best Picture finally gave Cimino the industry clout to get United Artists to agree to finance the film, with initial budget estimates starting at $7.5 million but rising to $11.6 million by the time production began.
    • The first signs of trouble appeared during casting of the female lead. The male leads - Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and John Hurt - were more character actors than box office stars when casting began in 1979, and UA hoped that they could bolster the cast's marquee power with a high profile lead actress, but after Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton rejected the role, Cimino insisted on little-known French actress Isabelle Huppert, whose English was hesitant and heavily-accented. United Artists insisted that another actress be found; Cimino threatened (not for the last time) to take the film to Warner Bros., and UA capitulated (even afterwards, Bach at one point told Cimino to his face that his leading lady was so unappealing that the audience was going to wonder why Kristofferson and Walken "[weren't] fucking each other instead of her").
    • Filming began at Glacier National Park in Montana in April 1979 and was expected to finish in June, with a projected release date of December 1979. However, Cimino's almost fanatical dedication to his artistic vision for the film meant the shoot was five days behind schedule after just six days, and the delays and inflated costs grew from there. Getting to the filming site from the cast and crew's hotel in Kalispell took two hours each way. Many cast and crew members were on site (and on the payroll) for months just to complete a few hours of shooting. Cimino insisted on taking full advantage of the location's natural beauty by shooting many scenes at twilight, scenes which could thus only be shot during a time window of a few minutes each day. Cimino also insisted on countless retakes; a single-second shot of Kristofferson cracking a whip took an entire day and 52 takes to film.
    • The glacial pace of filming was not the only factor in the skyrocketing costs. Upon deciding that the spacing of buildings either side of a street on an outdoor set "didn't look right", Cimino ordered both sides torn down and re-built.note A 19th-century locomotive was shipped on flatbed rail trucks from Colorado; as it was too big to fit into the modern tunnels, it had to take a longer and more expensive route to Montana. Cimino put an irrigation system in the rocky field in which the climactic battle sequence was shot so that it would be green with grass at the beginning of the battle, and red with blood at the end of it. And of the masses of footage shot by Cimino, an unusually high fraction was printed for possible inclusion in the finished film (far exceeding the part of the budget devoted to printing); ultimately, of over 1.5 million feet of exposed film, 1.3 million feet were printed, amounting to 220 hours of raw footage.
    • To make matters worse, Cimino's contract stated that he would not be penalized for any cost overruns incurred in completing and delivering the film for its December 1979 release date, so while costs spiralled, he was protected from breach of contract lawsuits. He clashed repeatedly with UA executives, who at several points considered simply scrapping the film, unloading it on another studio (unsurprisingly, they couldn't find any takers), or firing Cimino and replacing him.note
    • UA was able to cut one cost associated with Cimino, though. Wondering why they were paying so much money to rent the land they were filming on, they went to check the local tax records to find out who the owner was. It turned out that it was none other than Cimino himself.
    • Location shooting in Montana finally wrapped in October 1979,note with only a Harvard-set prologue and Rhode Island-set epilogue to film. However, Harvard refused permission to film on campus, so the prologue was instead shot at Mansfield College, Oxford.note Though this was the only part of the shoot to finish on time and on budget, Cimino was refused permission to film near Christ Church on Sunday, and had to prepare and shoot the scene in secret just after dawn before the Sunday morning services. The final production budget came to nearly $40 million, over three times the original figure.
    • Despite Cimino's attempts at press secrecy, the film was already beginning to draw negative publicity during shooting. A freelance journalist landed a job as an extra, then sold the story about the catastrophic time and budget overruns.note With similar problems on UA's Apocalypse Now fresh in the press' memories, they began dubbing Heaven's Gate "Apocalypse Next". The shoot also attracted controversy for (mostly, but not wholly, exaggerated) claims of animal cruelty, with live cockfights being filmed, livestock entrails being used for some of the gorier scenes, and a horse being killed during the filming of a special effects scene for the climactic battle sequence. The film is still on the American Humane Association's "unacceptable" list.
    • The sheer volume of raw footage meant that the Christmas 1979 release date had long since become unfeasible, and the date was pushed back to Christmas 1980. Cimino changed the locks on the editing suite to ensure that he could cut the film his way. His work print of the film, screened for UA executives in June 1980, was a staggering 325 minutes long; under threat of dismissal as director, Cimino agreed to cut the film down to 219 minutes for a trio of premieres in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles in November 1980.
    • The New York premiere was a disaster, with the audience reacting with indifference to the story and struggling to hear the dialogue, and critics, led by Vincent Canby of The New York Times (who, in a much-quoted review, called the film "an unqualified disaster"), tearing it to shreds. A humiliated Cimino withdrew the film before its Los Angeles premiere, announcing that he wanted to edit it further.note He finally trimmed it down to 149 minutes for general release in April 1981; this time, the critics were not so much merciless as disappointed, and the film, the final production and promotion budget of which came to $44 million, made just $1.3 million in its opening weekend and was quickly forgotten by audiences. Although it received a more positive response in France (particularly at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival) and the UK, its worldwide gross was just under $3.5 million.
    • The film left a veritable bloodbath of dead or dying careers in its wake. Michael Cimino is the most noted victim; he only made four further films, all largely ignored by critics and audiences. Kris Kristofferson's leading man potential withered, and he turned his attention back to his music career. Although the film's effect on United Artists is sometimes overstated,note it was an influential factor in its parent company, Transamerica, deciding to sell UA to MGM in 1981, ending its 62-year existence as an independent studio.note Interest in Westerns also declined for most of the 1980s, and the film is generally credited with hastening the demise of New Hollywood and the auteur director movement.
    • The film's reputation has, however, improved in the years since its initial release. Cimino assembled a 216-minute "director's cut" of the film which won acclaim at film festivals in 2012, and Kris Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges still speak fondly of their experiences making and seeing the film.
  • What Could Have Been: Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Robert Redford were considered for James Averill.


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