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Trivia / Michael Cimino

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  • Box Office Bomb: Heaven's Gate is the Trope Codifier, one of the biggest bombs in history, which, combined with Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart and widespread backlash against the indulgences of directors of the time, helped kill United Artists as a studio and the entire New Hollywood movement.
  • Breakthrough Hit:
  • Creator Killer: Heaven's Gate was this for Cimino - after its massive critical and commercial failure, Cimino was never again given the same kind of creative control or budgets. Most of his films since have been critically and commercially ignored.
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  • Doing It for the Art: Heaven's Gate was a passion project for Cimino. But it ought to be noted that, when you mash together Cimino's dedication to his artistic vision, perfectionism, control freak tendencies and Protection from Editors, what you get is an incredibly Troubled Production and a Box Office Bomb for the history books.
  • Executive Meddling:
    • During the infamously troubled production of Heaven's Gate, Cimino was effectively given ''carte blanche'' to do whatever he wanted and no legal accountability for cost overruns or missed deadlines. However, once he turned in his 325 minute long cut of the film to executives at United Artists (which Cimino claimed was about 15 minutes too long), UA forced Cimino to cut the film down to a reasonable length.
      • When cut that was screened at the film's 1980 premiere ran 219 minutes, Cimino having chopped a solid 100+ minutes at UA's request. When this version was critically mauled,however, United Artists pulled it from release and took a hacksaw to it in an effort to make something salvageable for a wide release.
      • The version which went to wide release in April 1981 ran 149 minutes (less than half the length of Cimino's original cut), and died a quick death at the box office.
      • Note that this is likely an example of Tropes Are Not Bad, since Cimino's intended cut of the film was probably unfeasible.
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    • During post-production on The Sicilian, Cimino (who was granted final cut in his contract on the provision that his film ran under 120 minutes) submitted a 150-minute cut and refused to make any further changes. When the studio demanded he trim it down, Cimino responded by cutting out all the action sequences, which got the film under 120 minutes, but angered the studio enough to take Cimino to court, where it was discovered that producer Dino De Laurentiis had attached a side-letter to Cimino's contract depriving him of final cut. The producers then trimmed the film to 115 minutes without Cimino's involvement.
    • Allegedly, Cimino's film Desperate Hours was also heavily meddled with.
  • Reclusive Artist: Interviews with Cimino were rare; he declined all interviews with American journalists for ten years following Heaven's Gate and he gave his part in the making of that film little discussion.
  • Short-Lived Big Impact: While Cimino was active from the late 1960s to his death in 2016, the period he is most well-known for as a major Hollywood director lasted roughly from early 1979 (when he got his twin Oscar wins for The Deer Hunter) and early 1981 (when Heaven's Gate bombed). In that time, he helped create a genre, and helped kill another, and with it a studio and the New Hollywood movement.
  • Troubled Production:
    • Heaven's Gate is practically synonymous with "ambitious films gone horribly wrong", to the point that it inspired an entire book, Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gatenote  by Steven Bach, the only studio executive to be involved with the film from start to finish. According to Bach:
      • 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 his 1978 film 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 penalised 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,note  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 reputation of Heaven's Gate 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 supporting cast member Jeff Bridges still speak fondly of their experiences making and seeing the film.
    • The production of Cimino's later film The Sicilian, while nowhere as well-known (or troubled) as Heaven's Gate, still deserves a mention:
      • The Sicilian was an adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, and Puzo was paid $1 million for the rights. Producers David Begelman and Bruce McNall hired Cimino, but Cimino butted heads with Begelman over the screenplay and casting - Cimino wanted Christopher Lambert to play the lead, but Begelman (understandably) didn't want a French actor to play an Italian-American in an English-language movie. Begelman and McNall eventually caved so that production could move forward. Meanwhile, Gore Vidal had been hired for major rewrites, and sued the Writer's Guild of America and screenwriter Steve Shagan for a writing credit.
      • Production itself was relatively smooth, and, while the film did go over-budget and behind schedule, this was mostly because of delays that were out of Cimino's control. There was one exception - some shooting locations were controlled by actual mafia men, who were disrupting the shoot. Cimino suggested Begelman and McNall meet the criminals, which they did, finding out that the mobsters wanted parts in the movie. The producers decided to incorporate them in minor roles and as extras, which gave Cimino access to new shooting locations and local labour.
      • This relative smoothness was not to last - in post-production, Cimino disappeared for months in editing, finally delivering a 150-minute cut of the film which he refused to make any changes to. However, in his contract, Cimino had the right to final cut only if he delivered the film at under 120 minutes. Things got worse when the distributor, 20th Century Fox, flatly refused to distribute the film unless it came in under two hours. Once this information was relayed to Cimino, he became enraged, and, days later, he delivered a cut of the film with all of the action scenes removed, which brought it under 120 minutes but angered the producers.
      • Things really hit the fan when, in response to Cimino's cut, the producers took Cimino to court, claiming he had cost the studio money and violated his contract. The producers hired Burt Fields, a lawyer who had earlier represented Warren Beatty in his battle for final cut on Reds, and who, in doing so, established legal precedent that a filmmaker's contractual right to final cut was absolutely binding.
      • When producer Dino De Laurentiis was called to the stand to testify on whether Cimino was given final cut, De Laurentiis said:
      De Laurentiis - "Final cut? I no give-a him final cut"
      Fields - "But we've seen the contract"
      • Turns out, when Cimino signed his contract with De Laurentiis - a contract which did give Cimino final cut privilege - attached to it was a side letter, written by De Laurentiis, that stated Cimino did not have final cut on an earlier film, Year of the Dragon. The producers argued that, because Cimino withheld the letter, he was intentionally defrauding them. The judge agreed, and Begelman personally reinstated the action scenes and cut the film down to 115 minutes for release, without Cimino's involvement. The Sicilian was eventually released in 1987, to negative reviews and commercial indifference. A 149-minute "Director's Cut" did emerge, and, while it has received better reviews, with critics finding it more cohesive, reception was still average at best.
  • Wag the Director: Clint Eastwood was apparently able to do this with Cimino on the set of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
    Charles Okun, first assistant director - Clint was the only guy that ever said "no". Michael said "OK, let's go for another take." It was take four, Clint would say "No we got enough. We got it." [...] And if [Cimino] took too long to get it ready, [Clint] would say, "It's good, let's go"
  • What Could Have Been:
    • Cimino was once attached to direct Footloose, but his behaviour during pre-production convinced studio executives, who didn't want another Heaven's Gate on their hands, that Cimino was more trouble than he was worth.
    • He claimed that he was briefly considered to helm The Godfather Part III.
    • His dream project was an adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Taking its cue from more than the novel, it was largely modeled on architect Jørn Utzon's troubled building of the Sydney Opera House, as well as the construction of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. He wrote the script in between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter, and hoped to have Clint Eastwood play Howard Roark.
    • He spent two and a half years working with James Toback on The Life and Dreams of Frank Costello, a biopic on the life of mafia boss Costello, for 20th Century Fox. "We got a good screenplay together," said Cimino, "but again, the studio, 20th Century Fox in this case, was going through management changes and the script was put aside." Cimino added, "Costello took a long time because Costello himself had a long, interesting life. The selection of things to film was quite hard".
    • He also wrote a Janis Joplin biopic called Pearl.
    • In 1987, he attempted to make an epic saga about the 1920s Irish rebel Michael Collins, but the film had to be abandoned due to budget, weather and script problems. The film was to have been funded by Nelson Entertainment.
    • He started pre-production work on Santa Ana Wind, a contemporary romantic drama set in L.A. The start date for shooting was to have been early December 1987. The screenplay was written by Floyd Mutrux and the film was to be bankrolled by Nelson Entertainment. Cimino's representative added that the film was "about the San Fernando Valley and the friendship between two guys" and "more intimate" than Cimino's previous big-budget work. However, Nelson Holdings International Ltd. cancelled the project after disclosing that its banks, including Security Pacific National Bank, had reduced the company's borrowing power after Nelson failed to meet certain financial requirements in its loan agreements. A spokesman for Nelson said the cancellation occurred "in the normal course of business," but declined to elaborate.
    • One of his final projects was writing a three-hour-long adaptation of André Malraux's 1933 novel Mans Fate, about the early days of the Chinese Revolution. The story was to have focused on several Europeans living in Shanghai during the tragic turmoil that characterized the onset of China's Communist regime. "The screenplay, I think, is the best one I've ever done," Cimino once said, adding that he had "half the money; [we're] trying to raise the other half." The roughly $25 million project was to be filmed wholly on location in Shanghai and would have benefited from the support of China's government, which said it would provide some $2 million worth of local labor costs. Cimino had been scouting locations in China since 2001. "There was never a better time to try to do Man's Fate", Cimino said, "because Man's Fate is what it's all about right now. It's about the nature of love, of friendship, the nature of honor and dignity. How fragile and important all of those things are in a time of crisis." Martha De Laurentiis read his script for Man's Fate and passed on it. "If you edit it down, it could be a very tight, beautiful, sensational movie," she said, "but violent, and ultimately a subject matter that I don't think America is that interested in."


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