This film is notorious for the amount of animal abuse that took place during production. Actual cockfights, decapitated chickens and physical torture of horses including at least four deaths are all proven to have taken place. The outcry prompted the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) to contractually authorize the American Humane Society to monitor the use of all animals in all filmed media.
Considered one of the most notorious screen disasters in the history of film. After struggling with personal films that went nowhere, Michael Cimino finally got to make The Deer Hunter (1978), a very personal project that brought him critical and commercial success and earned five Academy Awards. Afterwards, United Artists was willing to allow him anything he wanted. Cimino got $11.6 million to make his next project, which was initially budgeted at $7.5 million (according to Steven Bach's "Final Cut"). The film was to be a simple lower-budget western about a land war in Johnson County, Wyoming, featuring a first-rate cast. It went over budget almost immediately, mostly due to Cimino's insistence on absolute perfectionism. Stories abounded that he was tearing down sets for no reason and hiring and firing crew members almost weekly. Many of the stories were exaggerated, but the film ballooned to a then-astronomical sum of $40 million. When Cimino presented the film to United Artists, it ran well over five hours. After some squabbling, he agreed to trim it down to less than three hours. The film was a commercial and critical disaster that destroyed Cimino's career as a director and nearly caused United Artists to file bankruptcy. When the studio was sold to MGM, MGM acquired its pictures. That year MGM had a hit in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Cimino didn't get work for another five years. To date, his career has never recovered. When Waterworld (1995) was being made in the mid-'90s, its production encountered so much difficulty, and Kevin Costner received so much negative press concerning the shooting, it was called "Kevin's Gate".
Willem Dafoe appears briefly as a cockfighter. According to Dafoe, his role was supposed to be much larger, but during a long lighting setup, Dafoe laughed out loud at a joke that an extra told him. Michael Cimino was so annoyed that he fired Dafoe, and he is uncredited in the final film. He would later narrate the documentary of the making of this film, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate (2004).
Both Kris Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges are very proud of being in this film. Kristofferson says that he'll be proud of it as long as he's in the business, and Bridges says that he likes it better every time he sees it.
One of the most egregious examples of Michael Cimino's abuse of the film's budget was the construction of an irrigation system under the battlefield to assure the grass would be vividly green before it was turned red by the blood of the ensuing carnage.
The James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only (1981) saved United Artists from fiscal ruin due to this movie's financial losses. At the time of the Bond picture's release, the studio was still reeling from this film's massive losses on its notorious $40-million budget, which was about to force UA to file bankruptcy. When the Bond film took in a worldwide gross of almost $195 million, the studio was saved and afterwards turned its focus toward blockbusters and less on personal films.
Many of the scenes were shot at "Magic Time", which is the brief period of time--around five minutes--between sunset and nightfall where unique blue tints in the camera image can be achieved. The brevity of "Magic Time" shooting on the film usually allowed only a maximum of three takes before the production would lose the light.
After the film received scathing reviews at its New York premiere in November 1980, Michael Cimino sent a signed memo to the head of United Artists that asked the studio to pull the film from theaters so he could go back and re-cut it to a version that everyone would be satisfied with. It had been a misconception for years that it was United Artists that had pulled the film despite its negative press and reviews.
There really was a Johnson County War in Wyoming and James Averill, Nathan Champion and Ella Watson were actual historical figures. In the real war, however, the U.S. Army arrested the cattlemen for hiring the killers and did not threaten to arrest the homesteaders for defending themselves, as happens in the film.
The work print--the first edit of the film that includes all the footage shot--was five hours and 25 minutes long. This has created a rumor that a long-lost 5-1/2-hour director's cut exists somewhere. It doesn't; every movie begins the editing process with a work print, then gets edited down to the intended film. The 216-minute version is Michael Cimino's "director's cut" of the film.
At one point during filming, Michael Cimino decided that the spacing of the buildings on one of the sets didn't look right, despite it having been built to his exact specifications. He ordered both sides of the street razed and rebuilt, at a cost of $1.2 million over the objections of his crew, who reasoned that it would be easier and cheaper to knock down one side of the street and rebuild it twice as far away.
The shot of Kris Kristofferson waking from a drunken sleep and cracking a whip at the group of men that woke him was shot in 52 takes and required a full day of filming. The single shot lasts less than a second in the final film.
The actors all had to participate in what they derisively called "Camp Cimino" (after director Michael Cimino) every morning to prepare for the film. It included a series of riding lessons, shooting lessons, wagon driving, dance instruction, rollerskating lessons and dialect coaching. In addition, Kris Kristofferson also had to take whip lessons and Isabelle Huppert had to take English lessons, as she barely spoke the language at the time.
Wondering why they were paying so much money to rent the land they were filming on, UA went to check the local tax records to find out who the owner was. It turned out that it was none other than Michael Cimino himself.
Many of the actors had to undergo training in various areas to achieve director Michael Cimino's obsessive quest for authenticity. They attended classes in such disciplines as dancing, bull-whipping, horseback riding, wagon driving and roller-skating.
At one point the head of United Artists, along with fellow executives, proposed selling the movie to producer Barry Spikings in order to rid themselves of the financial burden and also to allow Michael Cimino to finish the film any way he liked, as long as it was not under the banner and scrutiny of United Artists. Under the proposed deal, Cimino would have complete control of the finished product with Spikings overseeing everything. UA would have looked after the US and foreign distribution rights. After looking at all the film's financial records up until that point--when costs were at approximately $15 million--Spikings instantly refused to take over the project.
Reportedly, the film's cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond once said that the key personnel who worked on the picture had thought prior to release that they had made a good film. Zsgimond has said he was depressed for about a year due to the film's massive drubbing by critics and enormous failure at the box-office.
To build the various large sets, notable for their intricate detail, the production utilized the skills of around 150 carpenters. The picture was nominated for just one Academy Award--Best Art Direction.
Isabelle Huppert was cast as Ella over the objection of United Artists executives. Michael Cimino insisted on casting her and threatened (not for the last time) to take the film to Warner Bros., and UA capitulated. Even afterwards, Steven Bach at one point told Cimino to his face that his leading lady was so unappealing that the audience was going to wonder why Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken "[weren't] fucking each other instead of her". Cimino told him to go fuck himself.
The period steam train engine used in the film had to be shipped to the production location from Denver, Colorado, on flatbed railroad cars across several US states. The locomotive's journey was somewhat of a convoluted, serpentine trip because it was too large to fit through many of the modern railway tunnels along the way.
Jeff Bridges played a character with the same last name as his own. His role as saloon keeper John H. Bridges was expanded during the course of principal photography, the part being originally much smaller in the film's shooting script. Michael Cimino liked Bridges' performance so much that he continually increased his scenes during filming, thus requiring re-writes to the script.
According to Steven Bach's book "Final Cut", after principal photography had ended Michael Cimino was allowed $3 million to film the prologue and epilogue. The prologue scene that takes place at Harvard University, but it was shot in Oxford, England, after Harvard refused permission to shoot on campus. He was given that money with an ultimatum, which was to have the prologue done in the specific amount of time ordered by the studio with no more money to be spent on wasted film. However, Cimino asked for $5.2 million; the studio refused and Cimino eventually agreed to the $3 million. The studio would have completely scrapped the entire prologue and epilogue if Cimino had not followed orders.
Property master Robert J. Visciglia Sr. contacted his old friend, director Sam Peckinpah, about doing second unit on the final battle sequence, not realizing the director had recently suffered a heart attack and was therefore medically unfit. Nonetheless, Peckinpah visited the set and met with Cimino, staying for four days.
Such was Michael Cimino's obsession with getting the right shot that 50 takes were not uncommon for each scene. More than 100 hours f film was shot in total, the equivalent of nearly nine days of non-stop viewing.
The New York premiere was, by all accounts, a disaster. During the intermission, the audience was so subdued that Michael Cimino was said to have asked why no one was drinking the champagne. He was reportedly told by his publicist, "Because they hate the movie, Michael."
Although the film's effect on United Artists is sometimes overstated, it was an influential factor in its parent company, Transamerica, deciding to sell UA to MGM in 1981, ending its 62-year existence as an independent studio. For all the problems, it wasn't even UA's most expensive film-- that was Moonraker (1979).
Some of the street scenes utilized 80 horse teams which had been harnessed and trained by retired horsemen, some of whom had not worked in motion pictures since they worked on the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) 21 years earlier.
Another attempt to rehabilitate the film's "broken masterpiece" reputation arose at the Film Forum in New York City in March 2013, when a newly restored print played for a full week. This 2012 US "Director's Cut" version is 216 minutes long.
Had the film been a hit instead of a flop, Michael Cimino intended to follow it up with another epic that he had already scripted: "Conquering Horse." Based on Frederick Manfred's novel, the screenplay was a generational saga, tracing the history of the Sioux Indians in America. Cimino planned for the entire movie to be told in authentic Sioux dialogue, with English subtitles. It was never made.
Tom Noonan, who appears in this film, had auditioned but wasn't cast. Having moved onto a play and preparing for weeks, he got a last-minute call from his agent notifying him that they did need him for the film. Noonan was hesitant to take the role, as he was still committed to the play. However, he was able to do the play and then commit to the film. Upon arriving at the set, he learned because of the film's notorious production delays, that he'd be waiting significantly until he shot his scenes and spent much of his time in his hotel room. He later went on record at his displeasure working on the film.
According to Isabelle Huppert, Michael Cimino decided to cast her after seeing a clip from Claude Chabrol's Violette (1978) after it was released in the US. The film was actually Huppert's second American picture (Rosebud (1975) had been the first). To prepare for her role as a prostitute, Huppert spent three days observing in a brothel in Wallace, Idaho.
In former United Artists' executive Steven Bach's book on the making of the film, "Final Cut", he said of the initial rushes that it looked "like David Lean went and made a western". When production spiraled out of control, Bach apparently visited a director (against DGA rules) with the intent of seeing if he would replace Michael Cimino. As he did not want to create problems for that director, in the book Bach only refers to him as "The Famous Director". When "The Famous Director" asks what the rushes look like, Bach told him that it looked "like you went and made a Western", the implication being that he asked Lean. In any event, "The Famous Director" saw some of Cimino's footage and turned Bach down.
Heavy snowfall made exteriors impossible to shoot when the production arrived at Kalispell, Montana, in May 1979. Cover shoots of interiors had to be scheduled to overcome this problem, but the sets had not yet been built so construction crews had to work around the clock to get them ready.
Historical special thanks went to "all the early reporters who contributed to the Cheyenne Daily Leader, The Casper Weekly Mail, The Buffalo Bulletin, The Great Falls Tribunte, The Omaha World Herald as well as all those pioneers whose words and deeds are recorded in the Northwestern Livestock Journal, the Western Brand Book and the Annals of Wyoming".
The picture, first known as "The Johnson County War", was turned down by all the major studios until United Artists green-lighted the project after director Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
During one of the scenes Allen Keller was injured when the Sharps Buffalo Rifle he was issued to use exploded. He later sued the company that provided the firearm, Stemburgen Gun Rentals, but he waited until 1986 to do it. By that time, the statute of limitations in Montana had run out.
Fog machines and 20,000 tons of Fullers Earth fine dust were used by director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond and director Michael Cimino to give the film a smoky and dusty atmospheric look atypical of 19th-century period photographs. The Fullers Earth was sprayed into the air using gigantic fans.
In addition to Christopher Walken also co-starring in it, two other elements that the film shares with The Deer Hunter (1978) are a love triangle and a focus on Ukrainian/Russian immigrants in the U.S.
Feature debut of Terry O'Quinn. NOTE He met his future wife Lori Binkley on it. With his role requiring horse riding, O'Quinn took riding lessons at Wood Gait Farm in northwest Baltimore County and she was his instructor. They married a year before the film was released in theaters.
Before Michael Cimino showed the work print version to UA executives, he said it was very long, and that he could cut 15 minutes. He was right about its length--it turned out to be five hours and 25 minutes long.
Michael Cimino's contract stated that he would not be penalized for any cost overruns incurred in completing and delivering the film for its December 1979 release date, so while costs spiraled, he was protected from breach-of-contract lawsuits.
As a result of the numerous delays, several of the musicians originally brought to Montana to work on the film for only three weeks ended up stranded, waiting to be called for shoots to materialize, and simply sat there for six months. The experience, as the Associated Press put it, "was both stunningly boring and a raucous good time, full of jam sessions, strange adventures and curiously little actual shooting." The jam sessions served as the beginning of numerous musical collaborations between Jeff Bridges and Kris Kristofferson; they would later reunite for Crazy Heart (2009) and for Bridges' eponymous 2011 album.
During post-production, Michael Cimino changed the lock to the studio's editing room, prohibiting UA executives from seeing the film until he completed the editing (in a 2015 interview, he denied this ever occurred). Working with Oscar-winning editor William Reynolds, Cimino slaved over his project. As one person involved in the project noted, "Michael didn't want respect. He wanted awe. The idea was that the magic man was in his workshop doing his magic, and we should all just leave him alone and let him finish."
Brad Dourif recalled being at a party thrown by Michael Douglas, where some directors there were greatly upset that their films couldn't get made at United Artists because this film was taking up so much resources. He said to Michael Cimino, "Michael, this movie had better be good, or they're gonna kill you".
Despite this western's notorious financial and critical failure, Hollywood within about five years revived the genre, producing a mini-cycle of Western movies. In 1985 it churned out such Westerns as Silverado (1985), Rustlers' Rhapsody (1985), Pale Rider (1985) and Lust in the Dust (1985).
Kris Kristofferson and director Michael Cimino were planning to do a remake of The Fountainhead (1949), with Kristofferson in the starring role, after this movie was finished. Since it was, as Kristofferson puts it, "universally trashed", they had to give up on the idea.
One of very few films whose 70mm prints kept it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (letterboxed within the 70mm 2.20:1 frame), instead of simply being cropped to 2.20:1, as was done with most widescreen films blown up to 70mm.
Getting to the filming site from the cast and crew's hotel in Kalispell took two hours each way. Many cast and crew members were on site (and on the payroll) for months just to complete a few hours of shooting.
Harvard refused permission to film on campus, so the prologue was instead shot at Mansfield College in Oxford, Englandf. Though this was the only part of the shoot to finish on time and on budget, Michael Cimino was refused permission to film near Christ Church on Sunday, and had to prepare and shoot the scene in secret just after dawn before the Sunday morning services.
Despite Michael Cimino's attempts at press secrecy, the film was already beginning to draw negative publicity during shooting. A freelance journalist landed a job as an extra, then sold the story about the catastrophic time and budget overruns. With similar problems on UA's Apocalypse Now (1979) fresh in the press' memories, they began dubbing this film "Apocalypse Next".
Writer-director Michael Cimino wrote the first draft of the script in 1971 under the title "The Johnson County War". By the time the film was in production, it had become a passion project for Cimino and he believed that it would be his masterpiece.
It has been rumored than some of the excesses in the film's troubled production history may have been caused by drug use on the set. In Harry Medved's and Michael Medved's book "The Hollywood Hall of Shame," an anonymous production insider who worked on the film is quoted as saying, "A lot of people wonder how a movie like 'Heaven's Gate' could cost $40 million. I'll tell you. Twenty million dollars for the movie and another $20 million, you can bet, for all that cocaine for the cast and crew."