FINAL CUT: DREAMS AND DISASTERS IN THE MAKING OF “HEAVEN’S GATE” by Steven Bach (Morrow: $19.95; 432 pp).
Given the profligate disregard for money that characterized the making of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” from birth to death, it’s a small irony of precision that at the moment of the film’s disastrous premiere in New York on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1980, United Artists knew that its production had cost exactly $35,190,718. That was slightly more than three times its original budget of $11.6 million. When the film was as finally written off as an irrecoverable loss, the figure, now including promotional costs, had grown to $44 million.
It was not the costliest film, nor even the costliest failed film, in Hollywood history, but it remains the most CONSPICUOUS failed film in the annals of American movie making.
It cost the jobs of virtually every United Artists executive who had had anything to do with it, including the author of “Final Cut,” Steven Bach, who was at the end UA’s senior vice president in charge of worldwide production. The failure of the film was a proximate cause of the sale of UA by Transamerica to Kirk Kerkorian of MGM, so that “Heaven’s Gate” can be said to have killed, except as a corporate shell and distribution company, the brave venture in independent artistry that Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and D. W. Griffith had launched in 1919.
Part of the problem with “Heaven’s Gate” was that its timing was all too perfect. As the press reported the escalating costs born of Cimino’s spare-no-expense zeal for visual perfection, and as the hostilities between Cimino and UA became common knowledge, the movie seemed to be the pre-eminent symbol of all that ailed the whole industry, especially the surrender by the studios of their traditional strict controls over production.
How had it all been allowed to happen? Not simply the cost overruns, which a box office smash would have reduced to matters of minor embarrassment and a vow to be stricter next time; but a film so unfocused and unsympathetic that critics generally hated it and, more damagingly, audiences could not be persuaded to go see it.
What gives Bach’s book its fascination, its importance and its uniqueness is that he was not a minor bureaucrat watching events from behind a file cabinet, nor a journalist debriefing the self-interested survivors well after the event, when the secrets no longer much mattered.
He was the senior executive most directly involved with the project from the start, and he has reconstructed the history from what are obviously abundant phone logs, interoffice memos and reports, and his own desk diaries and journals. (It cannot have taken long to see that this might be a production to remember.)
What we might well not have expected was that Bach would not only write as a deeply involved protagonist (or antagonist, if you are on Cimino’s side) but would also write with great skill and a novelist’s gift for scenes, details, feelings and dialogue. What is perhaps even more remarkable is Bach’s balance, his ability to see and report where and why “Heaven’s Gate” went wrong, absolving no one, himself included.
The result is a book that may not be quite so racy as David McClintick’s “Indecent Exposure,” which dealt with an aberrant criminal act and one studio’s scuffle to deal with its consequences. But “Final Cut” is equally well written, and it is more widely significant for being so authoritative an inside look at the way Hollywood film making proceeds in the 1980s. It is not an encouraging look, which is the conclusion Bach reaches.
While “Final Cut” is centrally about “Heaven’s Gate,” it’s also about the whole context of decision making (other projects, other film makers), travel, corporate anxieties and infighting, of which “Heaven’s Gate” was the noisiest part.
Bach, who has been living in Munich since he joined the UA casualty list, has a cast of heroes (very few), villains (more numerous) and victims (most numerous). But if he portrays himself as a wounded victim, which is fair enough, he stops well short of suggesting that he is either a tragic figure or an innocent victim. He was part of the process, and in the end, the troubles seem to stem from the process.
In the end, the process, the system, seems to become a force all its own, dictating a course (often on the basis of dubious conventional wisdom). The project thereafter gathers speed and lability, like a cannonball careening down a toboggan chute, impossible to stop or deflect even if you sense there will be a splintering crash at the bottom.
The conventional wisdom said that Cimino was hot. The rumbles on “The Deer Hunter” were good, although it had not yet won him his two Oscars. But he was a catch, at a moment when UA under its new ownership needed to look clouty, like a force to conjure with in the industry.
One of the several lessons from the debacle is that there is still no substitute for a finished script that everyone has read and agreed upon, and a budget that bears a close and relatively unalterable relationship to that script. But the script, which Cimino has been working on for years and was originally called “The Johnson County War,” was far from set when UA and Cimino made their deal. From the beginning, the REAL film and the final nature of the characters were actually going to be what Cimino vaguely promised they would be.
At that, Bach has no doubt, even from the perspective of Munich, that Cimino always intended, and fought, to make an epic, a masterpiece. In an epilogue, Bach quotes Andy Albeck, another casualty who was president of UA during “Heavens’s Gate,” as saying from his own retirement that he still thinks Cimino “a remarkably talented man.”
Yet Bach’s portrait of Cimino during production--and indeed right through the opening of the shortened version of the film, is poisonous, a picture of a cold and arrogant man who refused to hear about the skyrocketing costs and refused to see visiting UA executives, and whose perfectionist demands approached mania. (Before he was through, Cimino printed 1.3 million feet of film, enough for a movie 220 hours long.)
Bach discusses the several options UA considered as the costs soared like a pinball machine gone haywire. These included suspending production, abandoning the production or firing Cimino and bringing in another director (assuming one could be found who would take over so personal a project). Each solution would have been dearly expensive (though cheaper in the long run than that $44 million write-off).
But, more expensive corporately, each option would have been an admission of grievous administrative incompetence, a loss of face unacceptable to the UA brass and to the conglomerate owners at Transamerica in San Francisco. UA did finally talk tough, forcing Cimino to shoot the film’s Prologue (at Oxford, substituting for Harvard) for $2 million instead of the $10 million he sought. It is some of the best stuff in “Heaven’s Gate,” although it characteristically goes on a good deal too long.
There were still the desperate, lingering hopes that Cimino had brought it off; that, as Bach said before one of the screenings, “maybe the cow would fly.”
It catastrophically didn’t, in either Cimino’s long version or in a much-reduced version that played briefly. There were critics here, and many more in France and England (happy to have David win a round from the Hollywood studio Goliath) who found much to admire.
But Bach says, “The weaknesses and foolishness of an entire industry had been focused and exposed by ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and United Artists.”
He gives the film a penetrating and regretful obituary: “Not only the film-maker but the film, too, was ‘out of control’. . . . Characters and story were sacrificed to the film-maker’s love of visual effect and production for their own sakes. The ‘look’ of the thing subsumed the sense of the thing and implied a callous or uncaring quality about characters for whom the audience was asked to care more than the film seemed to. . . . Whether those characters were well or ill conceived, they seemed sabotaged by their creator’s negligence of them as he pursued the ‘larger, richer, deeper’ things that surrounded them, obscuring them, making them seem smaller, poorer, more shallow. The larger failure of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is not that the ‘golden string’ finally stretched an irrecoverable $44 million. . . but that it failed to engage audiences on the most basic and elemental human levels of sympathy and compassion, and this failure is finally cardinal.”