Heaven's Gate was a western created by Michael Cimino in 1978—and 1979 and 1980, to the horror of the people paying him. The plot concerned a real-life 19th century event, the Johnson County Massacre, in Wyoming; briefly, immigrants inhabit a town called Heaven's Gate, but nasty cattle barons hire mercenaries to kill them all and take the land, and it all ends unhappily. Kris Kristofferson played an educated lawyer who moved from New York to help the immigrants; Christopher Walken was a mercenary; Isabelle Huppert—in her first Hollywood role—was a tart with a heart, loved by both Walken and Kristofferson, with inevitably tragic consequences.
It was produced by United Artists, who were famous at the time for the James Bond films, the Woody Allen films, and the Pink Panther films. It was a famous financial disaster, the three main contributing factors being:
1. As detailed in the excellent 1985 book "Final Cut : Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate" by ex-UA executive Stephen Bach, Cimino's directorial style mirrored than of Stanley Kubrick, with each shot running to several dozen takes, each of which was subsequently printed. After the first six days of shooting, Cimino had produced a little over a minute of usable footage, and was five days behind schedule. Under pressure from UA, he did not accelerate his schedule until threatened with replacement.
2. Cimino's approach to making 'Heaven's Gate' can be summarised thus:
- Build a town on a raised platform in Wyoming;
- Fill it with hundreds of extras;
- Put some actors in front of them, and make everybody talk at once;
- Shoot. Print. Take. Retake.
- Review the film - decide to add a few hundred more extras. Repeat from step 1.
3. Cimino's previous directorial effort, The Deer Hunter, had won five Academy Awards, including best picture, and one for Christopher Walken as best supporting actor. This made Cimino a hot property. Then and now, directors who create a hit movie are usually given financial leeway on their subsequent project - witness Francis Ford Coppola's contemporary, archetypal Apocalypse Now, David Lynch's Dune, and Kevin Costner's double-whammy of Waterworld and The Postman'.
United Artists' key management team had recently split to form Orion Pictures. Those who remained at UA badly needed a large, credible hit movie to re-establish their standing amongst the artistic community. When Heaven's Gate started to go off the rails, the team faced a stark choice between admitting failure and cutting their losses, and carrying on in the hope of greatness; they chose the latter option, and whilst the film didn't technically bankrupt United Artists (which was, by 1978, merely a division of the giant, anonymous Transamerica), the negative publicity and financial losses caused Transamerica to pull out of the film business, something it was only interested in as a way of massaging brand equity.
Heaven's Gate was filmed largely on location, in Wyoming, a two-hour drive from the nearest major town. This meant that all the extras and crew members were being paid to do nothing for at least four hours of their working time as they commuted - and Cimino insisted on shooting at the twilight "magic hour", which meant that everybody was on overtime. Executives could not see this, however, as they could not readily visit the set. Wyoming is a long way from Hollywood and Cimino did not want to meet them.
Cimino was warned repeatedly to produce a film no longer than three hours. Nonetheless, his first cut was five and a half hours long, and apparently consisted of stunning shots of Wyoming interspersed with actors mumbling dialogue, topped with a ninety minute battle sequence which consisted of explosions and shouting and gunfire and noise.
The film was quickly cut to four and a half hours, four hours, and finally three and a half hours, at which length it was premiered to hostile critics in New York. But only for three nights. It was quickly withdrawn and re-edited down to a little under two and a half hours, but the damage was done; the film now made no sense at all, and whatever buzz it had built up died. It was re-released a year later, stillborn, and failed to recoup even the tiniest fraction of its reported $35 million production cost (grossing $1.5 million dollars, it was a flop on a scale seemingly impossible today, given the great improvements made in tie-in marketing). The film became a byword for Hollywood hubris and directorial excess, and effectively ended Cimino's brief career as a major artist; it was as if Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Lucas' Star Wars had been absolute failures of the highest magnitude. In 1978 Cimino was spoken of in the same breath as Francis Ford Coppola, whose expensive and troubled Apocalypse Now was almost a parallel-universe version of Heaven's Gate, one that actually turned out to be a success. Nowadays, Cimino is not spoke of in the same breath as anyone; he is not spoken of at all. His subsequent films, The Sicilian and Year of the Dragon do not feature on anybody's 'best film' lists. He does not have studios beating a path to his door.
The film's budget was originally set at $7.5 million (slightly less than Star Wars); it grew to $11 million, and then to $25 million. The final tally was somewhere in the region of $35 million, although this will never be known for sure, as the accounts were forever obscured when, in 1981, United Artists were sold by their parent company, Transamerica, to MGM.
Heaven's Gate is called La porte du paradis in France. The film was released in Europe in its 210-minute version, where the allegations of studio interference prompted critics to review it favourably, if only out of loyalty for a spurned artistic talent. Despite this, the film is remembered only for its notoriety.