10 stories of excess from the production of Heaven’s Gate

We look back at one of the most infamous film productions in history. Here are 10 stories of excess from Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate...

In 1979, director Michael Cimino was at the height of his powers. Having just won five Oscars for his finely-honed, controversial Vietnam film The Deer Hunter, Cimino suddenly found himself in the enviable position of being able to make just about any project he wanted. The film he chose to pursue was based on the Johnson County War, a moment in 19th century American history where the conflict between settlers and wealthy landowners was at its height.

United Artists, with a reputation for fostering creativity and Oscar-winning films, eagerly agreed to make what would become Heaven’s Gate, and set aside a generous budget of $11.6m to make it. Anxious to have the film in cinemas by the winter of 1979, making it legible for Academy Award nominations the following year, UA tried to have it written into Cimino’s contract that Heaven’s Gate had to be ready in time for Christmas.

Instead, Cimino managed to get UA to agree to a more complicated contract, and one that the studio would come to regret. The director pledged to make every effort to make Heaven’s Gate in the allotted time. In return, any overspends Cimino incurred in his attempt to get Heaven’s Gate ready for Christmas would be paid by United Artists, and would not be regarded as going over budget. Further, Cimino wouldn’t be held responsible if, despite his best efforts, Heaven’s Gate still missed its Christmas 1979 release date.

In effect, Cimino had coaxed United Artists into giving him almost complete creative and financial control over the project. The following article provides a brief insight into the legendary spending and excess that occurred, as related by United Artists’ former vice-president Steven Bach in his 1985 book, Final Cut, and the 2004 documentary of the same name.

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Both they and dozens of other articles printed 34 years ago chart the fitful progress of Heaven’s Gate, from the pursuit of perfection to its infamous premiere in November 1980. United Artists may have wanted Oscars, but what they got was a nightmare.

1. The cast spent at least six weeks learning to roller skate

Before a frame of film was shot, Heaven’s Gate’s cast (which included Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert) had to go on some extensive training courses, what Jeff Bridges later called “Camp Cimino”. Lessons ranged from shooting to horse riding to cock fighting lessons to Yugoslavian dialect coaching. One early scene would see several prominent members of the cast dancing on skates, which required actors Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges and Brad Douriff to spend hour after hour in training.

“They had to skate for a couple of hours a day, prop master Robert Visciglia said told the makers of the Final Cut documentary, “for maybe a week or two weeks.”

Brad Douriff puts the length of time spent training at a much longer six weeks – enough time for the cast to become adept at waltzing around on skates for Cimino’s lengthy scenes.

Deflatingly, for the actors involved, the roller skate waltzing scene was one of many, many sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor in the 149 minute ‘directors’ cut’ of Heaven’s Gate released in 1981.

2. Cimino would pick and arrange his extras one at a time – for every scene

Although films told on an epic scale are by no means unusual in Hollywood history, Cimino’s obsessive attention to detail certainly was. Cimino spent huge amounts of time planning and creating every single shot, as he chose each individual extra – from a line-up of dozens – and arranged them around the set depending on their look and height.

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“He would actually paint by selecting extras and putting them in the right place,” recalls Vilmos Zsigmond, Cimino’s cinematographer. “Pretty much like a painter would paint. He’d paint by picking people up and dropping them into place.”

This process was made more laborious because of the sheer scale of the film – some scenes required 50 or more extras, all personally selected by Cimino. “It took time,” Visciglia remembers. “Maybe a couple of hours to pick 50 people.”

The end results are undeniably beautiful, with individual shots composed like Renaissance oil paintings. But the cost to United Artists, as Cimino single-mindedly pursued perfection, would soon add up to terrifying sums – it’s estimated that, in the first week of shooting, just one and a half minutes of film had been racked up. The cost? An estimated $900,000.

3. Cimino would order “a minimum of 32 takes” for certain shots

Certain directors are famous (or infamous) for asking for multiple takes – Stanley Kubrick was but one such exacting filmmaker. But Cimino was unusual even by the standards of someone like Kubrick, as he not only demanded multiple takes for certain scenes, but also takes of the same few lines of dialogue delivered in multiple ways.

“I’m not used to doing 57 takes, I’m really not,” Brad Douriff says. “I’m not used to doing a minimum of 32 takes. It was like workshopping on film – we did the happy version, we did the crying version, we did the furious version.”

An entire day was spent shooting more than 50 takes of Kris Kristofferson drunkenly cracking a whip in a hotel room. The shot in the finished film is over in a matter of seconds. With Cimino demanding absolute creative freedom to make Heaven’s Gate, the production quickly went behind schedule; within the first five days of filming, the film was already five days behind its target.

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4. Cimino insisted on shooting his battle sequence in a field three hours’ drive from the production’s base of operations

Heaven’s Gate’s grandest set piece was – and is – its battle sequence between settlers and mercenaries. Requiring dozens of horses, extras, wooden wagons and explosions, it took weeks of planning and around a month of arduous filming. Just to make things even more difficult, Cimino had chosen for his battle location a field located some three hours’ drive from his base of production in Kalispell, Montana.

Cast and crew were bundled into vans at 3:30 each the morning, still clutching their pillows so they could catch a bit more sleep as they were ferried to the location. When they finally got there, the day’s filming was long and potentially even dangerous, as Cimino whipped up a dervish of dust, wagons and gunfire.

“I don’t know how long we shot those battle scenes,” Bridges remembers, “But it was frightening, some of it. Each time I’d pray to God that none of us got hurt. We’d just keep doing it over and over.”

“We would ride around in a circle for three or four minutes at a gallop”, recalled extra Eric Wood. “You’ve got wagons in the mix. Dust so you can hardly see.”

Still, if the actors and extras were getting tired and frustrated, some of the crewmembers didn’t seem to mind. “Hell, this picture can go on forever as much as I care,” horse wrangler told Steve Bach. “My boys and I have never been paid like this. I looooove Montana!”

5. A gigantic irrigation system was installed to grow grass

The problem the producers faced was that, as well asfrom Cimino’s award-winning stature, the actual footage he was producing looked spectacular – when Cimino begrudgingly showed off a few minutes of finished film a few weeks into the shoot, the producers were taken aback at how beautiful it looked. Cimino may have been taking a painfully long time to shoot even one page of his script, but at that point, UA were still convinced they could have a hit on their hands – an expensive one, admittedly – but a hit nevertheless.

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It was when UA execs David Field and Steven Bach visited the set of Heaven’s Gate that alarm bells started to ring again. The field Cimino chose for his climactic battle sequence? Not only was it costing a fortune to hire (from a tribe of native Americans, according to producer Joann Carelli), but it was also costing a fortune to irrigate.

Cimino, in his wild perfectionism, had decided that his battlefield had to be covered in lush, green grass. This meant that the land had to be cleared of rocks and an irrigation system had to be installed to encourage the grass to grow – meaning yet more expense.

“He’s talking about hundreds of people and horses and wagons and explosives,” Bach reasoned. “Who the hell is going to see grass?”

Any suggestions to Cimino that the grass was unnecessary – or that the battlefield location could, perhaps, have been a bit nearer to home – fell on deaf ears. It was all, he said, “part of the poetry of America”. If Cimino wanted grass, then grass he would have.

6. Cimino made his cast and crew wait for the right clouds to roll over

One of the more celebrated stories from Heaven’s Gate’s oral production history is of Cimino’s insistence on the right light and ambience while filming on location.

Key grip Richard Deats remembers it this way: “We’d started work at four in the morning with a dawn shot. We shot in the morning and the dawn was there. Then the clouds came in and we lost the light until it was totally overcast. And we waited. And we waited and we waited and we sat and we sat…”

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“Michael was waiting for this weather to clear, and it was three o’clock in the afternoon and we hadn’t had lunch yet”, recalled key costumer Sandra Jordan. When someone finally plucked up the courage to ask whether it wasn’t time the crew took a break to have a bite to eat, the director reportedly said, “Lunch? This is bigger than lunch!”

7. A train was rerouted especially for the production

When it came to Cimino’s exacting methods – and his lack of interest when it came to lunch breaks – assistant editor Penelope Shaw summed it up best. “He thinks, there’s that beautiful cloud. That’ll be there for an eternity if I get it on film. Nobody will care about lunch 20 years from now, but they’ll be able to see that visual I’ve created forever.”

The problem was, Cimino’s determination to craft the great American movie was resulting in some quite bizarre directorial choices. Legend has it that a tree was chopped down and relocated to improve the composition of a solitary shot. A gigantic set – of a Wyoming street circa 1892 – was built, torn down and completely rebuilt again because the director wanted the gap between the houses to be six feet wider.

Actor John Hurt spent so long waiting around on the production for something to do, he went off and made The Elephant Man for David Lynch in the interim, and then came back to shoot more scenes on Heaven’s Gate.

Then there was the vintage locomotive Cimino wanted for the film. Too large to fit through modern railway tunnels, the thing had to be placed on the back of a truck and driven from its original resting place in a Denver, Colorado museum to Montana at presumably huge expense. The train appeared in the film for a matter of minutes.  

8. There were reportedly on-set 16 accidents in one day

By the time Heaven’s Gate had gone 200 percent over its originally estimated budget in July 1979, United Artist’s bosses had lost their patience. With other solutions to the Gate problem proving impossible to pursue – EMI turned down the offer to buy the production from UA, while firing Cimino could have caused the film to break down altogether – UA decided to fire Cimino’s producer Joann Carelli instead. With the studio now in control as producers, Cimino effectively forced to work as the company’s employee. The message was clear: stick to the budget and the schedule for the remainder of the shoot, or you’ll lose the right to final cut.

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Then, just as Cimino finally began to get Heaven’s Gate back on schedule, the production’s reputation in the eyes of the world’s press took a major blow. A journalist named Les Gapay, having been refused a request to visit the set of Heaven’s Gate, got a job as an extra on the set. Gapay spent two months getting paid $30 a day on Cimino’s secretive production, and emerged with a story of obsession and excess that was quickly picked up by newspapers all over the world.

Gapay told of the chaos that ensued during the shooting of that colossal battle scene, where he claimed that extras had been “doing things that stunt men should do”, and that 16 of them had been injured as a result.

“Because of the mad rush,” Gapay wrote, “there are several injuries as the scene is filmed over and over for several days. Some of the immigrants, mostly extras, are brushed by horses and knocked into the mud. One minor actor has both feet stepped on by horses. Several persons tumble out of lurching wagons.”

These and numerous other snippets from Gapay’s expose were circulated in the news. Before production had even wrapped, Heaven’s Gate would have to fight an uphill battle to prove to the public that it was a masterpiece and not an expensive catastrophe.

9. Cimino shot 1.3 million feet of film by the time filming ended

When the cameras finally ceased rolling in 1980, Heaven’s Gate was about a year behind its original schedule – filming was supposed to have been over by June 1979, with a final cut delivered by September that year. Instead, Cimino had gone vastly over budget and schedule, and in his pursuit of perfection, had compiled an estimated 1.3 million feet of film – a staggering amount, and considerably more than the million feet of film said to have been shot during the troubled production of Apocalypse Now.

The problem Cimino and his team of editors now faced was a daunting one: they had approximately 220 hours of footage to comb through in order to compile their finished film. That finished film, as defined by Cimino’s contract with United Artists, had to be three hours in length, or preferably shorter.

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Imagine the studio executives’ horror, then, when Cimino presented them with a work print that weighed in at an eye-watering five hours and 25 minutes.

“It’s a little long,” a hollow-eyed and visibly exhausted Cimino conceded. “I can lose maybe 15 minutes…”

10. Cimino turned his editing room into a fortress

Having viewed the incredibly lengthy early cut of Heaven’s Gate, United Artists remained adamant about two things: one, they wanted a version short enough to be commercially viable, and two, they wanted the film out by Christmas 1980. They may have missed the 1979 festive slot they’d optimistically planned about 18 months or so earlier, but they were still determined to pull Oscar glory out of what threatened to become a public debacle.

Cimino was equally determined to get the final cut he wanted. With pressure mounting and the Christmas deadline looming, Cimino spent 18 hour days holed up in his editing room – and went to drastic measures to keep his precious footage away from the eyes of meddling executives.

“It’s quite funny actually,” recalls assistant editor Penelope Shaw. “He had bars put on the cutting room windows, and he had all the locks changed, so that nobody could come in. He said, ‘I’m not showing it to them until I’m ready.'” One report even suggests that, just to be on the safe side, Cimino also had an armed guard blocking the entrance.

The cut of Heaven’s Gate that emerged in the autumn of 1980 weighed in at three hours and 39 minutes – considerably slimmed down from the work print, but still far longer than United Artists wanted. If executives were angry at this still ungainly duration, it was far too late to do much about it – delay the production further, and they ran the risk of missing another Christmas release window, and with it any possibility of a golden statue at the Oscars.

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The toxic reaction by critics at the Heaven’s Gate premiere on the 19th November 1980 has since passed into legend. Vincent Canby’s review for the New York Times quickly became one of the most quoted pieces of film criticism of all time; the words, “unqualified disaster” were repeated by news anchors and reprinted in newspapers worldwide.

Canby’s statement that Heaven’s Gate “fails so completely that you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect,” summed up the air of overwhelming negativity surrounding not only the film itself but its director.

If the Hollywood film industry can turn a director into a star and a celebrated artist overnight – as it had when Cimino won five Academy Awards for The Deer Hunter – then it can also turn against them just as quickly. Cimino’s secrecy and perfectionism while making Heaven’s Gate were regarded as arrogance by the press; his huge expenditure on the production angered some fellow filmmakers.

When reviews and articles about Heaven’s Gate proliferated, its fate was sealed. After just one week, United Artists pulled the film and cancelled its wider release. Cimino wrote an open letter, published in trade papers, stating his intention to re-cut the film and release it in a tighter form. This shorter, two hour 29 minute cut surfaced in April 1981, but the poor reviews persisted, and audiences stayed away.

Heaven’s Gate became a salutary lesson in Hollywood, as its failure ultimately saw investment corporation Transamerica sell United Artists to MGM. In the wake of other high-profile box-office failures, like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and Steven Spielberg’s 1941, Heaven’s Gate was seen as the end of an era of director-driven productions.

Thirty-four years on, and Heaven’s Gate has enjoyed a certain amount of critical reassessment, yet its title is still a byword for vast expenditure. But as well as a tale of excess and financial disaster, Heaven’s Gate is also the story of a director seduced by his own grand vision. A crewmember once said that Cimino had fallen in love with his own movie. That adoration in turn led to an obsessive pursuit of what he thought was perfection.

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Little could Cimino have known that his love affair with Heaven’s Gate would not only jeopardise his career, but also change the American film industry forever.

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