Den Of Geek Book Club: Final Cut – Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate

Aliya tackles Steven Bach's account of the making of 1980 epic Western Heaven's Gate in this month's non-fiction film book club...

When I think of big business in the United States at the end of the 1970s I think of something out of Dallas or Dynasty: deals being brokered over chunky telephones or long lunches; penthouse offices with granite desks and shag-pile carpets; male executives with heart conditions, bleeding ulcers, and good-looking secretaries. This is absolutely the world you step into when you read Final Cut. The first thing to say about the book is that feeling of glee you get from that realisation that your mental image of Hollywood at that time turns out to be true.

Steven Bach was the Senior Vice President of United Artists at the moment when Michael Cimino became the hottest director in Hollywood. His film The Deer Hunter (1978) was proclaimed a masterpiece by many and won five Oscars, including Best Picture – and Bach was desperate to sign Cimino’s next project, a Western of grand thematic scope that was known initially as The Johnson County War. That film turned out to be Heaven’s Gate and it sank United Artists.

The book starts off quite dryly, with the formation of UA, and travels through the heights of success before things start to go really wrong, not just for Cimino, but also for Bach and pretty much everyone involved in Heaven’s Gate. By the time you read the final pages you want to cover your eyes, so horrible is this picture of destruction through excess. People say and do terrible things to each other, and tell lies left, right and centre.

In fact, I don’t quite trust our narrator either. He seems like the only rational human being in the book, which rings warning bells for me, but hey, he tells a great story so I’m going to go along with it. He’s particularly good at recounted, reconstructed conversations, and the small details that make the past seem so real: the tree that sheds unsightly brown leaves in the office; the dress sense of some executive who doesn’t know he’s out of favour; the way the leading lady curls up in a chair as they fight over her casting. If Bach did invent it rather than recall it, he did a really good job of it.

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If ever you needed proof that the film industry is all about money, here it is. It also makes the argument that directors need to be controlled, for the freedom to run wild (Cimino had a particularly strange contract that gave him no penalties for running over budget) leads to disaster, which I suppose is to be expected, considering the experience of the writer. But there are also moments in which the love of film, as art and as entertainment regardless of financial considerations, shines through. For instance, United Artists had a long relationship with Woody Allen and Bach’s admiration for his films lifts the book at times when things become heavy-going. Whether Allen’s films made any money really did seem to be beside the point for UA – and this was part of what led to the problem with Cimino. Allen suffered no interference from executives, and nearly always delivered his films on time and on budget; Cimino, extended the same courtesy and treated as an auteur, managed no such feat.

It’s only fitting that such a grandiose film as Heaven’s Gate should have created such a book – a book that is an epic tragedy, with each chapter preceded by telling quotes from filmmakers such as DW Griffith. It’s all very well to say, ‘It’s only a movie,’ (as some of the executives do, every now and again when things get really bad) but it is more than that. It’s a movie that upsets a Montana community and threatens to ruin a natural habitat, a movie that gets so many people fired, a movie that destroys an entire company. I think, after reading this, it would be difficult to say, ‘It’s only a movie’ ever again.

Heaven’s Gate is one of those films that comes up for critical re-evaluation every now and again, as people re-edit. There has been a Director’s Cut of 216 minutes, and a few more versions besides, including Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Butcher’s Cut’ which is only 108 minutes long. As an example of excess, it continues to fascinate. Does a great film lurk within, either by extending or reducing? Some critics now call the Director’s Cut an “absolute masterpiece”. It just goes to show how opinions can change; I wonder if this has anything to do with public perceptions of that difficult relationship between Director and Studio.

When you read Final Cut I don’t suppose it really matters what you think of the film itself, although it might impinge on your perception of Cimino as a director. It’s interesting to wonder what effect this critical turnaround might have had on the book if it was written nowadays rather than in 1985. I think we might have lost a lot of that brilliant detail; not because of fading memory, but because it wouldn’t suit modern sensibilities. There are moments in the book in which the executives have the kind of conversations that you have to hope happen less now. For instance, the decision of whether to make a new Raquel Welch picture depends entirely on whether she will get out her ‘boobies’ or not. But this is a community to whom everyone – not just women – is an object. For every picture mooted the same names are bandied about. Redford, Newman, McQueen, Eastwood: these are the objects of desire in the motion picture business. The question of whether or not it’s really any different now, or if it just might pretend to be different more convincingly, is what kept coming to mind.

Finally, I want to add that there are some great revelations about possible projects and castings in this book. I don’t want to spoil them, but I have to mention the fact that United Artists were apparently, at one point, thinking of casting the Beatles in a live-action version of Lord Of The Rings before Ralph Bakshi came along and made his animated version instead. As Bach says in the footnotes, “The idea of Ringo Starr, say, as Frodo, has an irresistible appeal.” And it certainly might have treated UA better than Heaven’s Gate.

Next time Kaci will be reviewing John Scalzi’s Lock In on Monday the 1st of December. We’d love to hear what you think about Final Cut – please feel free to leave a comment or tweet us!

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