Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ teaches us that great art ultimately triumphs, no matter the circumstances

Michael Cimino with Vilmos Zsigmond during a location shoot for Heaven's Gate ©MGM/Park Circus


By Sven Mikulec

The 1980 epic American Western Heaven’s Gate, a beautiful work and a film we hold in the greatest esteem, found its way into history books. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. After celebrated The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino was finally at the point of his career when he was a hot commodity, wielding enough influence to bring to light a personal project of his, a script he felt very passionately about. Heaven’s Gate experienced so much trouble in its development that it was brought to the silver screen like a lamb to slaughter. The film went way over its budget, the filming went on months over its initial schedule and Cimino, labeled as unreasonbly demanding and even called ‘The Ayatollah’ because of his behavior on set, ultimately had nearly 220 hours of raw footage he needed to drastically cut down. Heaven’s Gate became infamous long before its first screening and the critics jumped at the opportunity to take a swing at it, competing among themselves who could pen the harshest, most entertainingly mean review. The consequences were quite dire. The film’s box office run was extremely short, in financial terms it was a bomb in an almost unprecedented scale, and United Artists, the studio behind the project, consequently went out of business. The fall of Heaven’s Gate instigated a shift in the way Hollywood did business—director-driven films suddenly became extinct and studio control over filming rose significantly. It goes without saying, of course, that Cimino’s reputation was completely shattered.

In the course of time, however, both public and professional opinion shifted, as Cimino’s film gained new attention and relatively strong reevaluation. The brutal treatment of Heaven’s Gate has started to be seen as one of the greatest injustice in the history of American filmmaking. Haunted by all of the aforementioned production problems, the initial reception was biased and subjective, almost completely ignoring the film’s many virtues and strengths. All its traumatic history aside, Cimino’s underrated Western is a thoroughly captivating, beautifully acted and poetically scripted film that abounds in knee-shaking visuals brought to us by the legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. David Mansfield contributed with an understated, somewhat nostalgic, melancholic musical score, and a whole gallery of talented actors and actresses tell a story that is definitely worth hearing and seeing. The fall of Heaven’s Gate and its subsequent justified rise from the dead teach us a lot about business, history and the horrifyingly great responsibility that film critics have to the work they’re evaluating. It also teaches us that great art ultimately triumphs no matter the circumstances. Hollywood has done Cimino a painful injustice, but the wound luckily healed marvelously.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Michael Cimino’s screenplay for Heaven’s Gate [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the new, restored transfer of director Michael Cimino’s cut of the film, supervised by Cimino himself, is available from Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“Michael Cimino was researching the history of barbed wire in the West when he came across the real-life tragedy that would provide the basis for his screenplay for Heaven’s Gate (the cover of which is shown above): the bloody 1892 Wyoming range war known as the Johnson County War.” —10 Things I Learned: Heaven’s Gate by Curtis Tsui


“Just two years after Michael Cimino’s 1978 Vietnam epic, The Deer Hunter, took five Oscars, Hollywood’s newestwonder boy/auteur made one of its biggest flops ever, the $44 million Heaven’s Gate. The fallout turned him into a pariah, and then into the Howard Hughes of directors, living in virtual seclusion and refusing to be photographed, which sparked endless rumors. Now, posing for his first portrait in 20 years, Cimino gives the author the lowdown on his radically altered appearance, his first novel, and his latest screenplay—as well as an unprecedented glimpse into his decidedly eccentric mind.” —Michael Cimino’s Final Cut


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.’ 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.” —Behind the Scenes of a Colossal Flop by Anita Gates

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“It’s one of the things that movies do offer you, despite all of their hardships—they offer you moments of transcendence. We all want to experience that in our lives, a moment when we’re two feet off the ground, and making movies gives you that opportunity. It comes and it goes so fast that it’s unreal, but it does happen. What other reason is there? Michelangelo spent a couple of years on his back with paint dropping into his eyes while some crazy pope was off fighting wars. What else was he doing it for?” —Michael Cimino Revisits His Notorious Flop Heaven’s Gate, Which Maybe Was a Masterpiece All Along



“A cinematographer can only be as good as the director. The story is the main thing, and the director knows the story and the characters better than anyone. I like to be on a picture at least four weeks before it starts, talking to the director, watching rehearsals, thinking. Then I can come up with ideas—how to light it, what kind of a mood I want to build. The most important thing for a cameraman to know is the kind of story the director wants to tell. Then visually, with my lighting and mood, I underline what he is trying to say. The cameraman shouldn’t have his own style. He doesn’t have the right to, because he might kill the story, kill the director’s concept. Together, they should create a style for that particular film. A good cameraman should be able to make his films look different every time. I need to know how the director thinks he will cut the scene so I can concentrate on the overall look. If I know he is going to use the master shot for a long time, I will be damn sure that it looks good and everything important is there. If I know he will only use that shot for the entrance, then I am not going to spend two or three hours lighting it. This is important, because today in movie-making you have to be very economical. We don’t have all the time to shoot. We had lots of time on Heaven’s Gate the first couple of months, then United Artists cut off the money, which meant we couldn’t fool around anymore. If you spend three hours on the lighting, it had better be on the screen.” —Vilmos Zsigmond: Hot Shot With a Camera


Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC recalls the making of Heaven’s Gate.


Vilmos Zsigmond, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer, joined the Higher Learning audience for an in-depth master class and a look back at his 50-year career at the forefront of the industry.


Why every film fan should know and remember Vilmos Zsigmond, one of cinema’s greatest artists… This is a found-footage documentary exploring the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.


Photographed by Ernst Haas © MGM/Park Circus/Jeff Bridges. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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