The film that sank a studio: 'Heaven's Gate' was filmed here 25 years ago

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As one of the world's best-known blues harmonica players, Norton Buffalo understands another artist's need for perfection.

So when he looks back 25 years to the time he spent in Northwest Montana filming "Heaven's Gate," Buffalo empathizes with what director Michael Cimino was trying to achieve - even though Cimino bankrupted a studio in the process.

"I saw a man that was possessed to produce a film that was not just a story, but a visual vignette and a period in time," Buffalo said. "A mood … one that you can see, smell and taste when you watch the film."

The on-location shooting in East Glacier, West Glacier, Polebridge and Two Medicine, and at numerous sites near Kalispell including the Conrad Mansion, helped Cimino achieve the look he wanted.

The general critical take on "Heaven's Gate" was that the film succeeded in creating the Old West atmosphere of 1890s Wyoming - but it failed miserably in every other way.

"Heaven's Gate" became synonymous in Hollywood with monumental disaster and epic mismanagement, a cautionary tale of how one man's unchecked artistic ambition can bring down an empire.

A recently released documentary, "Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of 'Heaven's Gate,'" details how the film led to the downfall of United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith.

"Final Cut" was shown in October at the Toronto Film Festival and in New York City as a double bill with "Heaven's Gate" and aired on the TRIO television network.

Caroline Suh of Viewfinder Productions in New York said director Michael Epstein was drawn to the story after reading the book "Final Cut" by former United Artists studio executive Steven Bach.

In the compelling documentary, narrated by actor Willem Dafoe, Academy-Award nominated director and producer Epstein relives the "Heaven's Gate" debacle through interviews with studio executives, actors Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson and Brad Dourif, production assistants and others who spent extensive time on the set. Cimino was not interviewed for the documentary.

Cimino was the toast of Hollywood when filming commenced on "Heaven's Gate." His film "The Deer Hunter" had just won five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, at the 1979 Oscar ceremonies.

Cimino wanted "Heaven's Gate" to be the definitive Western. The story, based on the Johnson County wars in Wyoming, revolved around a violent conflict between immigrants and ranchers in the 1890s.

He had already won a significant power struggle with studio heads, casting French actress Isabelle Huppert as the madam of a bordello, though the executives insisted she was completely wrong for the part.

It was a foreshadowing of all that would go wrong with the film. Cimino's need for absolute control and his fanatic attention to detail slowed the pace of filming to the point where, after only two weeks, he had spent $1 million per usable minute of footage.

"Final Cut" offers a scene where Kristofferson cracks a bullwhip after he is awakened by men bursting into his room. Cimino required 52 takes of the scene, which covered only a few seconds of screen time, before he was satisfied.

The actors spent countless hours learning to dance, roller skate, ride horses and shoot. The quest for perfection led to ravishing footage and faultless authenticity, but Cimino was falling behind one day for each day of shooting.

By the time United Artists decided it needed a voice of financial reason in Montana, the press had gotten word of the unfolding disaster.

Freelance journalist Les Gapay had taken a job as an extra on the set. In a Los Angeles Times story with a Kalispell dateline, Gapay painted a picture of the "obsessions of perfectionism" Gapay had witnessed, laced with stories of horses injured and people fainting.

"The press loved it," Dafoe narrates. "The story ran in almost every media outlet in the country and many outside it."

When the shooting wrapped up in Montana on Sept. 29, 1979, Cimino had produced 1.5 million feet and 225 hours of film. United Artists demanded that Cimino be ready for a 1980 Christmas-season release.

After eight months of editing, Cimino showed studio executives a movie that was five hours and 25 minutes long.

"I was angry," Bach said. "The company had been put through turmoil, other pictures had been canceled … Our internal hope that had kept us going for the two or three years of this process - that it would be a masterpiece - was gone."

Bridges said the New York premiere of Cimino's 3 1/2-hour product in November 1980 was strained and awkward.

"You had this terrible, [scattered] applause at the end," he said.

Critics were merciless. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, "'Heaven's Gate' fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of 'Deer Hunter' and the devil has just come around to collect."

He added that the film had all the excitement of "a four-hour tour of your own living room."

After one week in New York, Cimino requested that "Heaven's Gate" be pulled so he could give it more attention. Five months later, a version cut by over an hour was released again in Los Angeles. It was still reviled by most critics and ignored by the public.

The film found some redemption in Europe, where it is still regarded as an accomplished work of art, and Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times was one of the sole American critics who appreciated Cimino's vision, praising the film for its craftsmanship, its story and its acting.

But with the deluge of bad press, the damage had been done. The film, budgeted at $7.5 million, ended up costing $36 million to make and $44 million to release. The domestic box office take was $1.4 million.

The infamy of "Heaven's Gate" was sealed forever when, in its wake, United Artists was taken over by MGM.

"The unthinkable had happened," Defoe says. "A single film had sunk a studio."

Reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4431 or by e-mail at hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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