A critical re-assessment of “Heaven’s Gate” is now underway thanks in no small part to the Criterion Collection, who just released on DVD and Blu Ray the new 2K restoration of the controversial 1980 Michael Cimino-directed western. The film’s notoriously troubled production history, scathing first-run reviews and poor initial box office is the stuff of “movie disaster” legend, and understandably downplayed in this new, director-approved release. Clocking in at its original 214 minute runtime, the restored cut of “Heaven’s Gate” features some major color restoration, as is shown in a brief demonstration featured on disc two of Criterion‘s set. This new edition paves the way for a fresh, revisionist take on Cimino’s admirably bold but uneven western, as argued in essayist Giulia D’Agnolo‘s liner notes. But despite Criterion’s noticeably selective references to the film’s negative reputation, the restored cut is in fact reason enough to cheer for Criterion’s new release. A re-evaluation of Cimino’s staggering film is long overdue, and this new restored version will aid that sort of consideration.
After the critical and commercial success of “The Deer Hunter,” Cimino embarked on an even more ambitious project. Based on a script he originally submitted for production in 1971, “Heaven’s Gate” dramatizes the Johnson County War of 1892, a bloody battle that the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) waged on local immigrant settlers (in fact, the original title of the film was “The Johnson County War”). After placing a bounty on several settlers, the WSGA hired killers to decimate the settlers, claiming that the offending immigrants were “anarchists” and cattle thieves. Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, the latter of whom previously worked with Cimino on “The Deer Hunter,” co-star in the film with Isabelle Huppert, Brad Dourif, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, and Mickey Rourke in support. Unfortunately, the legacy of Cimino’s film – and his Malick-ian tendencies and whims – has mostly been similarly one-sided. Its production famously went over budget (it cost $44 million, which wasn’t chump change in 1979, and is almost $140 million when adjusted for inflation), and behind schedule (so much so that the movie exceeded its original $7.5 million budget by 400%).
Furthermore, upon its initial release, “Heaven’s Gate” was met with vicious pans and fared very poorly at the box office – the picture earned less than $3 million of its $44 million budget (for more information about the controversy surrounding the film, check out former United Artists executive Steven Bach’s excellent book “Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists“). Here’s six things we learned about the film from the new Criterion release of “Heaven’s Gate.”
1) Michael Cimino Controlled The Weather Because The Weather Controlled Him
Choosing and constructing the right locations for “Heaven’s Gate” was so crucial that Michael Cimino insisted on scouting locations himself. But when Cimino did not find things that perfectly suited the needs of his film, he painstakingly improvised. For instance, a giant, dying tree was transported to the campus of Oxford University (in pieces!) because Cimino needed a big tree where there was none. “[The] script called for a tree of substantial size,” Cimino says in a featured interview, “but the size of the tree was such that it could not be moved all in one piece. So to get around that, the crew cut the tree into hundreds of sections that were later bolted and cabled together in the location. All the pieces had to be numbered, and it was held up by about forty tons of concrete[…]It took several months just to get it into place and all assembled.”
At the same time, Cimino says that the weather in Idaho and Colorado was so rejuvenating that it had an immediately positive effect on his cast and crew. In fact, in one case, the weather apparently conspired to help Cimino make his movie. “When we were finishing the battle sequence–at the very end of the battle, which we had spent close to a month on–it was the very last day and the very last shot, and as Kris [Kristofferson] was walking away, I felt that we needed wind to blow across the battlefield. We had made no provisions for wind, but somehow I kind of raised my hand–in a gesture of need more than anything–and the wind came up. And I raised it again, and it came up harder. Needles to say, the crew was astonished that it happened.”
He continued: “I think it’s not nearly as mysterious as it sounds. Certainly, the American Indians believed that there is spirit in all things, that everything–the birds in the air, the air itself, the things that move on the earth, trees, water–everything has spirit, and I think that in order to deal with places like that, one needs a certain amount of communication with that spirit. I don’t think you can do without it.”
2) For the Sake of Realism/Perfectionism, Kris Kristofferson Had To Crack A Whip Anywhere From 30-65 Times
Kris Kristofferson recalls that he initially got involved with “Heaven’s Gate” because he wanted to work with Cimino and also liked, “the fact that it was a western, and had a moral, and was about something. I was interested in the whole atmophere at the time that this film was taking place.” Christopher Walken also vouched for Cimino: “‘I trust Michael’s direction implicitly, everything he does. And I took that to heart.” At the same time, Kristofferson recalls that Cimino was fairly demanding. “[He’s] Not afraid to direct. Not afraid to say things that made people mad.” Kristofferson recalls that since around the time that they shot “Heaven’s Gate,” he was going through a bad divorce. “My wife had just left and I was broken-hearted. He could tell it was difficult for me to get up there, and he said, ‘Use it!’ I trusted him, and let whatever personal pain I was feeling show.”
And to prove why Kristofferson thinks of “Heaven’s Gate” as “probably the hardest film I’ve ever worked on,” there’s the story of the scene where Kristofferson’s character has to crack a bullwhip. Cimino says that it’s hard enough for a person to crack a bullwhip while standing up, but Kristofferson had to do it while lying down without hitting anyone in a cramped room packed with extras. Cimino remembers that it took about 65 takes to get that scene just right, while Kristofferson thinks it was more like 30. But basically, Kristofferson had to snap a whip while feigning being woken up from a drunken, depressive stupor and hit a specific spot on the wall without injuring anybody. No wonder Kristofferson says it took him, “hours and hours of preparation!”
3) John Williams Was Originally Supposed To Score “Heaven’s Gate”
Cimino may have been famously demanding of his cast and crew, including cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who Cimino says he liked working with because of his “obstinacy” and refusal to just kowtow to his every whim. But one major, albeit necessary, concession that he made was in working with music arranger David Mansfield. Mansfield was only 24 years old at the time that he arranged the music for the film, including the variations on “The Mamou Two-Step” and “The Blue Danube Waltz.” In fact, “Heaven’s Gate” was, not surprisingly, Mansfield’s first job as a film composer. But after seeing him perform with Bob Dylan, producer Joann Carelli vouched for Mansfield and asked the young musician to submit a demo tape for Cimino’s perusal. Cimino was so impressed that he collaborated with Mansfield three more times, including the 1985 Mickey Rourke vehicle “Year of the Dragon” and the 1987 Christopher Lambert actioner “The Sicilian.”
Cimino, however, would not even have considered working with Mansfield had he gotten to work with his first choice: John Williams. Williams, who would work on the score for “The Empire Strikes” back later that year and then “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the year after that, had to decline Cimino’s offer because he was just offered a job as the conductor of The Boston Pops. Cimino understood that Williams’ demanding new job was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and moved on. But while Mansfield’s rich score, full of moving folk songs inspired by Eastern-European traditions, is fantastic, it’s hard now to watch “Heaven’s Gate” and not wonder what Williams’ score would have sounded like.
4) Cimino’s Extras Were Often Filmed Just As Much as His Stars
During an interview conducted earlier this year, Cimino relates how much he dislikes the term “extras” given how much these actors contributed to his film. This makes sense given how adamant Cimino was on peopling his film with as many performers as his script required. Music arranger David Mansfield notes that the same extras, particularly the film’s immigrant settlers, were constantly filling out the background of crowd scenes. “Some bit character might be in the background while the lead actor is in the foreground. So you always see everybody in the community constantly, become familiar with them over the course of the picture.” This is especially true of the big battle scene at Heaven’s Gate, a scene which Cimino says took a long time to cover because he wanted to make sure that all of the characters we’ve seen up until that point are shown fighting.
Furthermore, Michael Stevenson, the film’s 2nd assistant director, recalls how 250 professional dancers were hired for the opening dance scene at Harvard University. This, to Stevenson, who had previously worked with such directors as Anthony Mann, David Lean and Richard Brooks, was one of many signs of Cimino’s professionalism. When asked why the film had to feature so many people, “Michael’s answer would be: ‘Because that’s how it was.’ He wanted that energy, and he wanted the screen filled with many characters, many people. In certain scenes, if you wanted the film to look like it should and how the director really sees it and how the script portrays it, then you’ve got to have that number of people.” So while Stevenson readily admits that Cimino “lost his temper sometimes when people tried to interfere,” he also says that the cast, “also loved working with Michael because Michael treated them with respect.”
5) For The Sake Of Realism/Perfectionism, Isabelle Huppert Lived In A Brothel For A Week
Cimino laments that there was never enough craftsmen and artisans to fulfill the particular needs of his film. For example, he says that it was very hard to find a place that could supply him with enough top hats for the opening graduation scene at Harvard University. Cimino’s constant struggle to get everything just right made it so that even restoring a Studebaker buggy that Kristofferson’s character could give to Isabelle Huppert‘s was a vital chore. “We had to go to one state to get the wheels done, we had to go to another state to get the upholstery restored, we had to go to another state to get the harness right. That kind of stuff, you can’t find people to make those things anymore, that’s the problem.” So it’s not surprising that Cimino asked of his actors a similar level of professionalism and first-hand knowledge of the lives their characters were living. Cimino recalls that years before making “Heaven’s Gate,” he himself went to acting school in New York in order to better understand how his actors performed, so it stands to reason that, as Mansfield recalls, when actors weren’t performing, they were taking lessons in how to ride a horse, how to practice their characters’ trades, how to dance, etc.
So again, it’s not that surprising to discover that Cimino had the actresses that played prostitutes in his film learn first hand about the trade by living in an Idaho brothel for a week. This includes Huppert, an actress that Cimino had to fight to get cast because the studio executives did not think she would appeal to American audiences. Cimino says: “I wanted the girls to see what it was really like, to be a real hooker. So I made a deal with this madam. Her name was Lee; she was great. I said, ‘Lee, I want these girls who are playing hookers to live here for a week.’ She didn’t bat an eye. She said, ‘Ok, Michael.’ She said, ‘But! If they get caught out in the hall after the bell rings, they have to go with the customer.’ ”
He goes on: “The girls were giggling like little schoolgirls when they heard that, but they all did it. They all wanted to go. What I wanted them to see, unlike the girl at the bar in the red dress and the blonde hair and the buoffant whatever–I wanted them to see the real, day-to-day reality that working girls live in.”
6) The Iconic Photo Of “Heaven’s Gate” Was Not Shot By Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
At the very least, “Heaven’s Gate” is gorgeous, and up there with the most beautifully photographed films of all time thanks to the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who apparently Cimino pushed relentlessly). Visual accuracy was Cimino’s chief obsession, and according to Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan‘s “Heaven’s Gate: Western Promises” essay in the Criterion DVD, the director “painstakingly constructed his film according to photographs from the time.” As Vallan notes, Zsigmond “devised dark, often smoky interiors pierced by outside light, alternating with huge sets of bustling streets and beautiful, wide vistas.” The result is an amber hue that looks like a stunning photograph from the late 1800s. But the most iconic photograph of “Heaven’s Gate” – Kris Kristofferson bathed in shadow and light — was actually taken by the film’s producer Joann Carelli. Even more interesting, Cimino was actually standing in the shot on set and he was later airbrushed out of the image for what became the final poster. Check it out above.
Even More “Did You Know?” Trivia, Legend, Lore & More
Bach’s ‘Final Cut’ is obviously the authority on “Heaven’s Gate,” and you should read it if you haven’t already. It heavily implies that United Artists seriously considered firing Cimino when production ran out of control and they had Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night,” “Fiddler on the Roof“) in mind to take over. According to the book, Jewison was even asked if he’d be interested, but rejected the offer. It’s also been rumored that David Lean was approached to take over as Cimino’s rushes were described to many as if “David Lean had made a western.”
– The book tracks Cimino’s almost outlandish, out-of-control perfectionism. “There is always that need to feel that you’re doing your possible best,” Cimino said in a 1982 Cahiers Du Cinema interview when asked about his “obsessiveness.” “On a certain level, this is what the creator feels, whether he is a maker of furniture or a maker of arms: it is the feeling of all who work with their hands. Even the details of a rifle, which are nothing but mechanical, if they are made carefully, with attention, become beautiful, satisfying.”
And obviously more than one person posited that the success of “The Deer Hunter” — which won 5 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Sound and Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken) – was to blame for Cimino’s ridiculous fastidious and obsessive demands. It resulted in “Heaven’s Gate” being five days behind schedule on the sixth day of shooting, with skyrocketing expenditures because of Cimino’s insistence on detailed realism. The director would reportedly shoot up to 50 takes of everything and would even delay filming until a cloud that he liked rolled into the frame. Much of this is possibly exaggeration, but ‘Final Cut’ does discuss an example where the space between buildings on two sides of a street constructed for the film didn’t look right and Cimino spent $1.2 million to tear them down and rebuild them to his specifications.
– According to legend, Cimino kept an armed security guard posted outside the editing room during postproduction to keep United Artists executives from interrupting him. This is probably bullshit, but it’s fun to imagine. Bach’s book says that at one point, Cimino previewed a work print for executives at United Artists that reportedly ran five hours and twenty-five minutes.
– According to the book, Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (almost 220 hours) of footage, which cost approximately $200,000 per day. The myth is that Cimino had expressed his wish to surpass Francis Ford Coppola’s mark of shooting one million feet of footage for “Apocalypse Now.” Who knows if that’s actually true, but it makes for good copy.
– John Wayne was offered the lead in the 1970s, several years before it was made. Ironically, Wayne, struggling with cancer at the time, was the actor who presented Cimino with the Best Picture prize at the 1979 Oscars for “The Deer Hunter.”
– Sam Peckinpah was approached to do some second-unit photography on the final battle sequences. The producers, however, didn’t know he had recently suffered a heart attack and was unfit to do so. Friends with the film’s property master, Robert J. Visciglia Sr., he apparently visited the set for a few days regardless.
– At the time of its release, “Heaven’s Gate” entered the record book as biggest and most expensive Hollywood flop ever. Hence its notoriety to this day. Its colossal box-office failure resulted in United Artists folding and being sold off to MGM. [Photos Courtesy of the Criterion Collection] — with additional notes by Rodrigo Perez
Here’s the Criterion’s 3 Reasons To See “Heaven’s Gate” video piece.