It was called a "runaway," and never has a term been more appropriate. In this case, it was a movie running millions of dollars over budget with an end nowhere in sight. The 1980 film "Heaven's Gate" has become synonymous with failure, its very name punned whenever big-budget productions flirt with disaster. Steven Bach's "Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists" gives a terrific blow-by-blow account of this gargantuan flop. A former producer at United Artist who suffered the ax after "Heaven's Gate," Bach penned this detailed tome a couple of years after fallout.
The book should be a fascinating account for film lovers. "Final Cut" details the history of United Artists and filmmaking in the 1970s - a truly golden era. At United Artists, Francis Ford Coppola premieres "Apocalypse Now," Woody Allen helms "Manhattan" and Martin Scorsese prepares "Raging Bull." But the man of the hour in 1978 is a quiet guy named Michael Cimino. He just won an Academy Award for directing "The Deer Hunter," and now he wants to make a western - a big, big western.
Bach accurately reveals the difficulties United Artists was going through at this time, losing several long-time executives who jump ship to form the Orion film company. Bach and company, wishing to re-establish United Artists as a major player, take on Cimino's western project. Cimino sets up shop in Montana, the location work a two-hour's drive from the nearest cement road. He ships an antique train across five states to the Montana wilds. He hires over 700 extras. He signs a cast of mainly unknowns including Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt and Sam Waterson. And he films only during the twilight hour, a period right before dusk so scenes will have a golden hue. But what terrifies United Artists most is Cimino is filming 50-60 takes per scene, and printing almost every take. Such obsession was unheard of.
As Bach reveals in "Final Cut," Cimino's western (now hovering around $25 million) was going to have make blockbuster numbers just to turn a profit, performing in the "Jaws" and "Star Wars" neighborhoods. United Artists attempts to fire Cimino, at one point even asking David Lean to take over. Cimino realizes the dire situation, finally bucks up and finishes the film. With promotional and post-production fees, "Heaven's Gate" cost United Artists $44 million - the most expensive film in history up to that time.
Heaven's Gate is premiered in New York, a three-and-a-half hour monstrosity that receives devastatingly bad reviews. It is eventually released to the theaters and makes $1.8 million. It is the biggest bomb in motion picture history (cue dead elephant hitting the cement). Heads roll at the studio, Cimino's career is finished and United Artists, a film company created by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, is purchased by MGM to disappear forever into the sunset.
Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" spelled the end of the free-spirited, amazingly creative decade of the 1970s. Producers and studios took the reins out of the hands of superstar directors (Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" ran a similar "Heaven's Gate" route, but he pulled success from the fires of disaster, perhaps inspiring this debacle as much as anything else). "Final Cut" is a tragedy exposing the end of a golden era of filmmaking and a once-great studio. It's as good as an Irwin Allen disaster film, and a lot cheaper.