This movie 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 and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to contractually authorize the American Humane Society to monitor the use of all animals in all filmed media.
Wondering why they were paying so much money to rent the land, on which they were filming, United Artists went to check the local tax records to find out who the owner was. It turned out that it was Writer and Director Michael Cimino.
Considered one of the most notorious screen disasters in the history of film. After struggling with personal movies that went nowhere, Writer and Director 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 dollars to make his next project, which was initially budgeted at 7.5 million dollars (according to Steven Bach's "Final Cut"). The movie 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 movie ballooned to a then-astronomical sum of forty million dollars (one hundred twenty-six and a half million in 2015 dollars). When Cimino presented the movie to United Artists, it ran well over five hours. After some squabbling, he agreed to trim it down to less than three hours. The movie was a commercial and critical disaster that destroyed Cimino's career as a director, and nearly bankrupted United Artists. The studio was sold to MGM. That year, MGM had a hit in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Cimino didn't work for another five years, and his career never recovered. When Waterworld (1995) was being made, its production encountered so much difficulty, and Kevin Costner received so much negative press concerning the shooting, it was called "Kevin's Gate".
Tom Noonan called this movie one of the worst experiences of his life. He claimed that Writer and Director Michael Cimino abused the actors, actresses, and the crew, and at one point, held a loaded gun to Noonan's head during a dispute.
Willem Dafoe, in his feature film debut, appears briefly as a cockfighter. According to Dafoe, his role was supposed to be much larger, but during a long lighting set-up, 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 cut. He later narrated the documentary of the making of this movie, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate (2004).
One of the most egregious examples of Michael Cimino's abuse of the 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.
Writer and Director Michael Cimino's sense of perfectionism nearly rivalled Stanley Kubrick in his obsessive number of re-takes. The shot of Kris Kristofferson waking from a drunken sleep and cracking a whip at the group of men that woke him, took fifty-two takes, and required a full day of filming. That single shot lasts about a second in the final cut.
Many of the scenes were shot at "Magic Hour", 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 Hour" shooting on the movie usually allowed only a maximum of three takes before the production would lose the light.
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 this movie to Warner Brothers, and United Artists 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 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 movie's release, the studio was still reeling from this movie's massive losses on its notorious forty million dollar budget, which was about to force United Artists to file for bankruptcy. When the Bond movie took in a worldwide gross of almost one hundred ninety-five million dollars, the studio was saved, and afterwards turned its focus toward blockbusters, and less on personal movies.
Had this movie been a hit instead of a flop, Michael Cimino intended to follow it up with another epic that he had already written: "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.
Kris Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges are very proud of being in this movie. 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.
Michael Cimino's contract stated that he would not be penalized for any cost overruns incurred in completing and delivering the movie for its December 1979 release date, so while costs spiralled, he was protected from breach-of-contract lawsuits.
The actors and actresses all had to participate in what they derisively called "Camp Cimino" every morning to prepare for this movie. It included a series of riding lessons, shooting lessons, wagon driving, dance instruction, rollerskating lessons, and dialect coaching. Kris Kristofferson also had to take whip lessons. Isabelle Huppert, who barely spoke English, had to take English lessons.
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 dollars, 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.
This movie does make use of a few historical events: There really was a Johnson County War in Wyoming, and James Averill, Nathan Champion, and Ella Watson were 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 what happened in this movie.
Michael Cimino wrote the first draft of the script in 1971 under the title "The Johnson County War". By the time this movie was in production, it had become a passion project for Cimino, and he believed that it would be his masterpiece.
Theatrical movie debut of Terry O'Quinn (Captain Minardi). He met his future wife, Lori Binkley, while working on this movie. To prepare for his role, O'Quinn took riding lessons at Wood Gait Farm in northwest Baltimore County, and she was his instructor. They married a year before this movie was released.
Although this movie's effect on United Artists is sometimes overstated, it was an influential factor in its parent company, Transamerica, deciding to sell United Artists to MGM in 1981, ending its sixty-two-year existence as an independent studio. For all of the problems, it wasn't even United Artists' most expensive movie, that was Moonraker (1979).
The period steam engine used in this movie had to be shipped to the production location from Denver, Colorado, on flatbed railroad cars across several U.S. states. The locomotive's journey was a convoluted, serpentine trip, because it was too large to fit through many of the modern railway tunnels along the way.
The rollerskating violinist is David Mansfield, the Composer of the soundtrack. According to Steven Bach, in his book "Final Cut", Michael Cimino bought the rights to the music, and then sold it to the movie production for ten times what he paid to Mansfield. The tune played, by the roller skating fiddler, is well known to Cajun music fans, as the "Mamou Two-Step", composed and performed by accordionist Lawrence Walker and his Wandering Aces on Khoury 78 601 B in 1950. Side A was titled Country Waltz.
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 movie'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.
After this movie received scathing reviews at its New York City premiere in November 1980, Michael Cimino sent a signed memo to the head of United Artists, that asked the studio to pull the movie from theaters, so he could go back and re-cut it to a version, with which everyone would be satisfied. It had been a misconception for years, that it was United Artists that had pulled the movie, despite its negative press and reviews.
The first edit of this movie that includes all the footage shot, was five hours and twenty-five minutes long. This has created a rumor that a long-lost five hour and twenty-five minute Director's Cut exists somewhere. It doesn't. The three hour and thirty-nine minute version, is Michael Cimino's Director's Cut of the movie.
Brad Dourif recalled being at a party thrown by Michael Douglas, where some directors there were greatly upset that their movies couldn't get made at United Artists because this movie was taking up so many resources. He said to Michael Cimino, "Michael, this movie had better be good, or they're gonna kill you."
To build the various large sets, notable for their intricate detail, the production utilized the skills of around one hundred fifty carpenters. This movie was nominated for just one Academy Award, Best Art Direction.
Reportedly, Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond once said that the key personnel who worked on this movie had thought prior to release, that they had made a good movie. Zsgimond has said he was depressed for about a year, due to this movie's massive drubbing by critics, and enormous failure at the box-office.
As a result of the numerous delays, several of the musicians originally brought to Montana to work on this movie 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 reunited for Crazy Heart (2009), and for Bridges' eponymous 2011 album. Guitarist and Songwriter Stephen Bruton was credited with being the inspiration for Crazy Heart (2009). He won a posthumous Academy Award for the soundtrack. His song "What Love Can Do" was the title song of Bridges' album.
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 several months, just to complete a few hours of shooting.
The New York City 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."
At one point, the head of United Artists, along with fellow executives, proposed selling the movie to Producer Barry Spikings, to rid themselves of the financial burden and allow Michael Cimino to finish the movie any way he liked. Under the proposed deal, Cimino would have complete control of the finished product, with Spikings overseeing everything. United Artists would have the U.S. and foreign distribution rights. After looking at all of the movie's financial records, with costs at fifteen million dollars, Spikings instantly refused to take over the project.
According to Isabelle Huppert, Writer and Director Michael Cimino decided to cast her after seeing a clip from Violette (1978) after it was released in the U.S. The movie was actually Huppert's second American movie (Rosebud (1975) had been the first). To prepare for her role as a prostitute Madame, Huppert spent three days observing in a brothel in Wallace, Idaho.
Fog machines and forty million pounds of Fuller's Earth fine dust were used by Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond and Michael Cimino to give the movie a smoky and dusty atmospheric look typical of nineteenth century period photographs. The Fuller's Earth was sprayed into the air using gigantic fans.
Such was Writer and Director Michael Cimino's obsession with getting the right shot, that fifty takes were not uncommon for each scene. More than one hundred hours of film was shot in total, the equivalent of nearly nine days of non-stop viewing.
Another attempt to rehabilitate this movie'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 U.S. Director's Cut version is three hours and thirty-nine minutes long.
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.
Before Michael Cimino showed the work print version to United Artists executives, he said it was very long, and that he could cut fifteen minutes. He was right about its length. It turned out to be five hours and twenty-five minutes long (the length of two or three individual movies).
Despite Michael Cimino's attempts at press secrecy, this movie 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 Apocalypse Now (1979) fresh in the press' memories, they began dubbing this movie "Apocalypse Next".
According to Steven Bach's book "Final Cut", after principal photography had ended, Writer and Director Michael Cimino was allowed three million dollars to film the prologue and epilogue. The prologue scene takes place at Harvard University, but was shot in Oxford, England, after Harvard refused permission to shoot on campus. Cimino 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 dollars. The studio refused, and Cimino eventually agreed to the three million dollars. The studio would have completely scrapped the entire prologue and epilogue, if Cimino had not followed orders.
Many of the actors and actresses had to undergo training in various areas to achieve Michael Cimino's obsessive quest for authenticity. They attended classes in such disciplines as dancing, bullwhipping, horseback riding, wagon driving, and roller skating.
During post-production, Michael Cimino changed the lock to the studio's editing room, prohibiting United Artists executives from seeing this movie 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."
Tom Noonan, who appeared in this movie, had auditioned, but wasn't cast. Having moved on to a play, and preparing for weeks, he got a last-minute call from his agent, notifying him that they did need him for the movie. 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 movie. Upon arriving at the set, he learned, because of the movie's notorious production delays, that he'd be waiting significant lengths of time until his scenes were to be shot, and spent much of his time in his hotel room. He later went on record at his displeasure working on this movie.
In former United Artists' Executive Steven Bach's book on the making of this movie, "Final Cut", he said of the initial rushes that it looked "like (Sir) David Lean went and made a western". When production spiralled out of control, Bach apparently visited a director (against Directors Guild of America 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" asked 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.
During one of the scenes, Allen Keller (Dudley) 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.
The scenes set aboard Jim Averill's yacht at Newport, Rhode Island in 1903 were filmed aboard the steam yacht MEDEA in San Diego, California. Built and launched in Glasgow, Scotland in 1904, she was deck loaded aboard a steamship, brought to a repair yard in British Columbia, and restored to her original configuration starting in 1973. MEDEA is at present a vessel of the Maritime Museum of San Diego, is fully operational, makes occasional special tours on San Diego Bay, and is generally open to the public.
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 Tribune, 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".
Kris Kristofferson and 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.
Writer and Director Michael Cimino's obsessive behavior earned him the nickname "The Ayatollah". This was most likely a reference to Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious extremist who had seized control of Iran in 1979. His coup led to a hostage crisis, where approximately fifty staff members of the American embassy in Tehran were held captive for over a year between 1979 and early 1981.
A favorite quote from Steven Bach's 'Final Cut: Dreams & Disasters On the Making of Heaven's Gate' book which refers to the studios' imminent firing of Writer and Director Michael Cimino midway through production is "Michael Cimino did not get fired. He got smart. He hurried up."
After this movie was pulled from distribution and extensively re-cut, the first time viewers got a chance to see the original version, came in December 1982, when Los Angeles pay-per-view station The Z Channel aired the movie uncut.
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.
Harvard refused permission to film on campus, so the prologue was shot at Mansfield College in Oxford, England. 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.
This movie, first known as "The Johnson County War", was turned down by all of the major studios, until United Artists green-lit the project after Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
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 (1984). Three out of the four were also box-office failures. Pale Rider (1985) was the only box-office hit.
One of very few movies 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 movies blown-up to 70mm.
It has been rumored than some of the excesses in this movie's troubled production history may have been caused by drug use on the set. In Harry and Michael Medved's book "The Hollywood Hall of Shame", an anonymous production insider, who worked on the movie, was quoted as saying, "A lot of people wonder how a movie like 'Heaven's Gate' could cost forty million dollars. I'll tell you. Twenty million dollars for the movie, and another twenty million dollars, you can bet, for all that cocaine for the cast and crew."
In addition to Christopher Walken also co-starring in it, two other elements that this movie shares with The Deer Hunter (1978) are a love triangle, and a focus on Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in the U.S.
When parent company Transamerica sold United Artists to MGM after the critical, commercial disaster of this movie, the stock market value of United Artists shares were considerably lower than were bought, which then earned a hefty profit for Transamerica. The ultimate irony was that this movie actually earned a financial success for Transamerica after all.
When this movie was earlier known as "The Johnson County War" prior to being made, it was originally announced as a Michael Winner project, with Steve McQueen starring. The latter ended up starring in another western, Tom Horn (1980), which debuted the same year as this movie.
The mini-series Johnson County War (2002) covered the same historical subject matter. This movie's original title was "The Johnson County War", and was inspired by, and loosely based on, the 1892 Johnson County War in Wyoming.
in 1983, the original theatrical three hour and forty-eight minute version was released for a limited screening at the National Film Theatre in london. This was the first U.K. theatrical release of the original, critically mauled theatrical cut, as opposed to the heavily edited two hour and twenty-nine minute version, which was previously released theatrically in the U.K. in 1981. After a favorable and positive response from critics, the three hour and forty-eight minute version was then shown exclusively at The Plaza cinema (now a Tesco Superstore) in London's West End. after moderate ticket sales, which resulted in a profit of about three thousand British pounds, further planned theatrical releases of the three hour and forty-eight minute version in the U.K. were shelved.