“Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate,” a documentary 10 times as engrossing as the film that is its subject. “It takes a lot in this town to ruin a career,” says the documentary’s narrator, Willem Dafoe, after photos of Hugh Grant, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. flash across the screen. “But there is one sin for which Hollywood has always been unforgiving: failure. That’s what happened to Michael Cimino, the writer, director and general moving force behind `Heaven’s Gate.’ “
Mr. Cimino, a former television-commercial director, was 40 and had just won the best director and best picture Oscars for his second film, “The Deer Hunter” (1978), when he began filming “Heaven’s Gate.” It was a western story, set in Wyoming in 1892, about the Johnson County War, which he interpreted as a government-sanctioned slaughter of immigrants. Mr. Cimino was fanatic about period authenticity, no matter the cost (the construction of an entire town, for example, and antique roller skates for hundreds of extras), but mysteriously accepted Oxford as an embarrassingly unconvincing stand-in for Harvard. He wanted and got Isabelle Huppert as his female lead, although no one else thought she spoke English well enough. He did unheard-of numbers of retakes. “It was like workshopping on film,” says Brad Dourif, who played Mr. Eggleston. The budget swelled to $36 million, almost five times the average Hollywood movie budget then, and, followed by the film’s two-part failure — a re-edited version was released in 1981 — destroyed United Artists financially.
“Final Cut” tells an intriguing story, with on-camera input from many of the people involved, but not Mr. Cimino, and apt comparisons with other notorious film disasters. But Michael Epstein, the writer and director, wants to have it both ways. He spends much of his time making the case that Mr. Cimino was out of control, causing the movie’s problems, then pronounces the result “a beautiful, ambitious film waiting to be discovered.”
Kris Kristofferson, the film’s star, expresses the opinion that “Heaven’s Gate” was “used by powers that be to stop a way of filmmaking, where the author was the director and was in control of the money.”
“Final Cut” is based partly on the 1985 book of the same name (with a different subtitle) by Steven Bach, a United Artists production executive when the film was made. He recalls, on camera, seeing Mr. Cimino’s first cut of the film. It ran 5 hours and 25 minutes.
The film’s talking heads are entertainingly philosophical, like the costumer who says, “We thought we were making the next `Gone With the Wind.’ ” It’s also interesting to know that Jeff Bridges, who played John H. Bridges, kept the whorehouse set as a country home.
The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate
Directed by Michael Epstein; written by Mr. Epstein, partially based on the book “Final Cut” by Steven Bach; director of photography, Michael Chin; edited by Penny Elliott Hays; music by Joel Goodman; produced by Mr. Epstein and Rachael Horovitz. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 90 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Willem Dafoe (Narrator), Jeff Bridges, Kris Kirstofferson, Brad Dourif and Vilmos Zsigmond.
Source: The New York Times