Heaven's Gate (lost workprint cut of Western film; 1980)

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The film's hyper-perfectionist director, Michael Cimino.

Status: Lost

Heaven's Gate is an American Western film directed by the late Michael Cimino. The movie is infamous for being an extreme critical and box office bomb, grossing only $3.5 million dollars against its $44 million dollar budget.[1] It is also notorious for being considered one of the worst films of all time at one point (however, modern critics have lightened up to the film, and a few have even called it one of the greatest of all time), and also for the film's hyper-perfectionist director, Michael Cimino.[2]

Production[edit | edit source]

In April 1979, filming began.[3] But by the sixth day of filming, the film was already five days behind schedule. This is due to Cimino's infamously extreme attention-to-detail way of directing. One example of this is where Cimino had a street built exactly to his precise specifications torn down because it didn't look right to him. He wanted it to be six feet wider. The lead construction worker said it would be a lot cheaper to tear down one side of the street and move it back six feet, but Cimino forced the construction workers to tear down both sides of the street and move them three feet.[4] Another example of his crazy perfectionism is when he demanded up to fifty takes of individual scenes, and delaying filming of one scene until a cloud he liked went across the sky.[5]

Cimino made more than 220 hours (1.3 million feet) of film, costing United Artists $220,000 per day in location, salary and acting fees.[6]

By March 1980, Heaven's Gate had finished filming. Allegedly, during post-production, Michael Cimino locked the doors to the studio's editing room and changed the lock, preventing United Artists executives from seeing the cut until he was finished making changes to the film, though Cimino denied doing this.[7]

Post-Production[edit | edit source]

The initial cut screened for executives came in at around 325 minutes (five hours and twenty-five minutes). According to Stephen Bach, senior vice president of United Artists, Cimino told them before the screening that this version did not represent his final cut and he could "lost maybe 15 minutes" of footage. The climatic battle sequence was initially as long as many feature length films. After the screening, the United Artists executives refused to release the film at this excessive length, and contemplated firing Cimino. However, Cimino promised the executives that he would re-edit the film, and did so over the summer of 1980 with the film coming in at 3 hours and 39 minutes (approximately 219 minutes). The film's December 1979 release date was already long past, so UA and Cimino eventually set a November 1980 release date for the film. [8] According to cast member Jeff Bridges, the final cut was barely finished before its disastrous New York premiere.

Reception and Controversy[edit | edit source]

After the premiere of the original 219 minute version, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby panned the film and, at Cimino's behest, United Artists removed the film from theaters while Cimino re-edited it. The 149 minute version was released in April, 1981 and still received bad reviews. The film flopped spectacularly, grossing way below its budget,[9] and receiving extremely negative reviews from critics (though as mentioned above, modern critics have given the film better reviews).[10]

It was also accused of animal cruelty by the American Humane Association. They stated that horses' blood was used on the actors, that one horse was blown up with dynamite (this appeared in the final film), and that actual cockfights were filmed. They also said that cows were disemboweled and were used to provide fake intestines for the actors. The film is currently on their list of "unacceptable films".[11] (The film is also believed to be responsible for starting the use of the "No animals were harmed" disclaimer in movies.)

The film ended up making United Artists go out of business, and as a result, its parent company Transamerica Corporation sold the studio to Metro-Goldwin-Mayer; from that point on, Michael Cimino's career was officially ruined due to public perception of his films being tainted by Heaven's Gate. Every film Cimino made after Heaven's Gate was a critical or commercial failure, or both.[12] Cimino died on July 2nd, 2016.[13] However, after the Los Angeles based cable outlet Z Channel aired Cimino's original 219 minute version in 1982 on Christmas Eve, critics began reassessing the movie and the airing helped popularizing the concept of the "director's cut." This critical reassessment continued with the release of a 216 minute cut (which eliminated the intermission and removed the sepia tones present in the original version) at the Venice Film Festival in 2012. The final version has subsequently been released on blu-ray.

Availability[edit | edit source]

The workprint cut of the film has not surfaced since it was first shown to United Artists executives. It may no longer exist due to being directly edited on for a 149-minute version of the film.[14] The chances are extremely slim that another copy of the workprint exists. Due to this, many missing scenes from the film may be lost forever.

References[edit | edit source]