5 Lessons from 'Heaven's Gate' and the Tanked Career of Michael Cimino

Sometimes, we can learn as much from spectacular failure as we can from success.

When Michael Cimino died last week at 77, the erstwhile wonder boy who had won a Best Director Oscar for The Deer Hunter had been largely forgotten in his home country, his life reduced to a cautionary tale. It was all because of Heaven's Gate, deemed "the biggest flop in movie history."

Check out this documentary on the film's production, as well as lessons from the life and work of a director (and film) now undergoing a critical reconsideration: 

As chronicled in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, in the late '60s, Hollywood was stymied by its inability to connect with a new youth culture that it did not understand. After the massive success of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and the accidental success of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey— whose enormous box office success has been partly attributed to repeat viewings by hippies—the studios turned over control of production to a new generation of filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdonavich, Brian DePalmaGeorge Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. Coppola's massive successes with the first two Godfather movies, Friedkin's The Exorcist and French Connection and Scorsese's critical acclaim with films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver led to a period of unprecedented directorial control. 

Michael Cimino's 'The Deer Hunter'

After working on Madison Avenue directing commercials, and making his debut with the idiosyncraticThunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, a young filmmaker named Michael Cimino impressed Hollywood by turning a $4M budget into a $25M hit that earned Bridges a Best Supporting Oscar nomination (his second, the first coming from his role in Lucas's The Last Picture Show.)

Cimino was courted by studios and given free reign on his next project, The Deer Hunter, an ambitious three-hour film about friends from a small Pennsylvania town whose lives are changed forever by the Vietnam war; it was one of the first projects to tackle the subject, still a fresh wound on the American psyche. (At the time of its premiere, Francis Ford Coppola was still in the jungle shooting Apocalypse Now, which he had started to finance himself in the wake of innumerable delays.)

Everyone wanted to be in business with him, and everyone told him he was a genius. And that's probably where things started to go south. 

Cimino's film did go over budget and schedule, but because of the economy of his previous film (which had actually come from Eastwood's reluctance to do more than a few takes, a fact I also heard from legendary editor Anne Coates when she spoke of her difficulty matching Eastwood's actions on the 1993 film In the Line of Fire) and the simple fact that it didn't have nearly the bad production reputation of Apocalypse, no one thought much of the excesses. Five academy awards (two for Cimino, Director and Best Picture, since he had co-produced) didn't hurt either, nor did the rave reviews and $49M profit on a $15M budget. And so, like many young directors before and after, Cimino found himself the toast of the town; everyone wanted to be in business with him, and everyone told him he was a genius. And that's probably where things started to go south. 

Cimino ended up with a script for a western called The Johnson County War. The film that emerged from this, Heaven's Gate, would set records in budget overages and delays, according to the book Final Cutabout the film's production. A testament to the duration of production comes in the story of actor John Hurt. Hurt had to leave the production to go star in David Lynch's The Elephant Man. When he was finished on that set, Heaven's Gate was still shooting and he returned finish his relatively minor role. 

Two weeks in, the movie was already three million dollars over. And it just got more and more intense. 

The troubles continued into the film's release, which was a debacle that turned Cimino into a Hollywood pariah for the rest of his career That being said, the film has undergone something of a critical reevaluation in the past few years, between a Criterion Collection release and 20/20 hindsight. To blame Cimino for the 1980s is unfair (VHS should take some of the blame), but the film is still considered the biggest "flop" in Hollywood history, and is an object lesson for all filmmakers. Here are some of the things we can take away from Cimino's experience:

1. Don't forget the audience

If Cimino is guilty of anything, it's losing the forest for the trees. As described by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (another brilliant talent lost this year, on New Year's day), as well as actors Kris Kristofferson, Cimino was focused obsessively on the details of the period, going so far as to set up "Camp Cimino," which involved shutting down production so that the actors could engage in hours of lessons in everything from horse-riding to roller-skating. He used hundreds and hundreds of extras, and though the two dancing sequences (including the one below) are visually stunning, it could be argued that they didn't contribute anything to the story. Cimino, says Zsigmond in the documentary of Final Cut, "painted with people," meaning he spent hours lining up extras and moving them around, then repositioning them, over and over.

Coppola was accused of similar sins, but he obsessively focused on the story, on what the audience would want to see, what would move them. It's what made bothThe Godfather and Apocalypse Now such big successes.

2. Don't believe your own hype 

After his early success, Cimino was in a position to do anything he wanted, and he did. One of his more audacious moves was to cast his girlfriend, Isabelle Huppert, as the female lead in Heaven's Gate, even though she was supposed to have an American accent and could barely speak English. But according to Final Cut, it was his threat to take the movie to Warner Bros. that alienated the execs at U.A. and sowed the seeds of his downfall. He also started to get bad press as early as interviews like this one with the NY Times in advance of the The Deer Hunter, where he said things like, "I felt the need to unlearn my formal education...Most people I knew had been crippled by their educations. Some were even dying spiritually.” 

Isabelle Huppert Heaven's Gate
Isabelle Huppert in 'Heaven's Gate'

3. Have someone around to say no

The film's production quickly got away from the inexperienced execs at U.A., who found themselves in a sticky spot. As detailed in Final Cut, If they interfered, they would be seen as philistines who took an artist's vision and trampled on it, and if they didn't, they would fall victim to the "Sunk Cost Fallacy", a phenomenon wherein the more money/time/sweat is spent on a project, whatever it is, the harder it is to walk away from the failure. Plus, U.A. was hungry for awards, specifically Oscars.

The film was produced by Cimino's friend Joann Carelli. As neither she nor the U.A. execs were willing to say 'no' to Cimino, the film was already 15 pages behind only two weeks into the shoot, with a mere 2 hours of film shot and printed to yield less than three "usable" minutes. The movie, at this point, was already three million dollars over. And it just got more and more intense. 

4. Nothing is 'bigger than lunch'

Heaven's Gate ends in a climactic battle scene that was, in some cuts, as long as an entire movie (his first cut for the execs was five hours and twenty five minutes).  To shoot the scene (excerpted below), the entire production team got up each morning at 3:30 AM and traveled 3 hours to the location over rocky dirt roads (because the director could not find a location he liked close enough). One day, they waited from dawn until dusk for a cloud to move, running up huge union overages as well as antagonizing the cast and crew, and especially the hundreds of extras, one of whom happened to be an ex-Wall Street Journal reporter. Denied access to the set as a journalist, he signed on as an extra, and began to report scathing stories about the production. One story goes that when Cinematographer Zsigmond asked Cimino, "But Michael, what about lunch?" referring to the fact that no one had stopped to eat because the weather could change at any moment, the director reportedly said, "This is bigger than lunch!"  Not exactly a way to build a good rapport among your team.

5. Time heals all wounds (but the wounds will hurt, at the time)

When the film was released, 18 months after he had accepted his Best Director Oscar, Cimino took one of the most legendary critical drubbings in history. Vincent Canby, who had raved over The Deer Hunter, now wrote, among other things, that the film "fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of 'The Deer Hunter' and the Devil has just come around to collect," as well as comparing the experience of viewing it to "a forced, four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." And it got worse. OnThe Today Show, he was grilled about the morality of shooting a film on whose budget "100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years." Cimino was asked if he thought that that piece of math was obscene, a question, which, to be fair, is not asked of every movie made, but at the time, there was a sort of manic glee in the tenor of the coverage.

“From someone on the outside it would look like it was almost too much, but it never appeared that way to me. It was like, oh, this guy really cares.” 
-Jeff Bridges

After the film, U.A. was sold to M.G.M. and the era of directorial control was at an end. From now on, "high-concept" would be in. And though Cimino would go on to make several more films, none of them garnered anywhere near the budget or prestige of his first three. He seemed like a lost figure in the Vanity Fair profile of him from 2000. But even though Hollywood never warmed to him again, France embraced him with open arms, and he wrote a novel, Big Janewhich was well-received.

In recent times, Heaven's Gate has been getting a critical reappraisal, according to the BBC; remembering the film, Jeff Bridges remarked, “From someone on the outside it would look like it was almost too much, but it never appeared that way to me. It was like, oh, this guy really cares.” And, maybe the last word should go to Clint Eastwood, with whom Cimino remained friends over the years. Eastwood said, “Critics were set up to hate Heaven’s Gate. The picture didn’t work with the public. If it had, it would have been the same as Titanic. Titanic worked, so all is forgiven."     

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Your Comment


Wow. I didn't know Jeff Bridges was in American Graffiti. And here I always thought he was nominated for The Last Picture show.


July 15, 2016 at 11:05AM

Daniel Thoen

I was just about to mention this as well.

July 15, 2016 at 12:37PM

Brad Jones

Thank you for pointing that out, Daniel.

My mistake.

July 18, 2016 at 11:19AM

Justin Morrow

Hi Justin.
You're going to hate me.

You wrote "...(his second, the first coming from his role in Lucas's The Last Picture Show.)..."

The Last Picture Show was directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

(**I'll set my head on the chopping block. Make it quick.**)

December 16, 2018 at 5:20PM


Cimino is definitely a cautionary tale of ego destroying your reputation. That being said, he was a damn good filmmaker whose films will hopefully be given a second look now that he has passed away. In recent years, Heaven's Gate has been rediscovered as a misunderstood masterpiece so hopefully people will discover Year of the Dragon and The Sicilian as well. He was a truly unique voice who was punished for his hubris.

July 15, 2016 at 12:50PM, Edited July 15, 12:50PM

Brad Jones

Heaven's Gate is a great film; its among my favorite 10.

In many ways, the technical cinematography treatment was ahead of its time.
The physical diffusion made studio heads think something was wrong with the film.

In other ways, it is a sad example of excess perfectionist desire left unchecked.
The infamous bullwhip shot, was the result of a full day, for 2 secs on screen.

Oliver Stone, years later said of Cimino, "With Michael, it's a 24-hour day... He doesn't really sleep… He's truly an obsessive personality. He's the most Napoleonic director I ever worked with."

This hyper focus and obsession with small details had a very external human cost.
In battle scenes, extras were almost trampled to death - but dare not stop rolling!

This questionable treatment of extras and production staff is huge sore point.
The gross negligence toward basic human rights was a contradiction of the art.
This had a large part in the negative perspective of the film before it was even cut.

Great movie, don't make one this way, and never contradict the art form by undervaluing the human rights of those you are responsible for.

July 15, 2016 at 4:44PM, Edited July 15, 5:14PM

Daniel Reed
Hat Collector

This article is so way off base.
It's based on the premise that heaven's gate was the worst flop in history.
According to who? Can people stop relying on reviewers to form their opinions?.
I saw the movie when it came out. I liked it. I put my opinion up there with any lame reviewer.
It was an artistic movie, that one had to put themselves into the meditation of the piece.
Most reviewers made their reviews based on all the gossip they heard in the industry of how much over budget it was,etc..
That should have nothing to do with whether it was a good movie or not.
And now you can see the directors cut. And everyone is saying it's longer, but now it makes sense,
and is even better.
So much for another movie that producers ruined by cutting it their way.
You have movies that cost millions, takes months out of everyone involved, and some lame reviewer writes a review in 2 hours,and ruins someone's career.
Whether one likes the movie or not, there is no way the first release or the directors cut was the worst flop in history.
Directors should start going after reviewers and destroy their career.
I never go by reviewers, or anyone's opinion. I make my own, as everyone should.
What's great now is having sites like metacritics and rotten tomatoes.
It's very interesting that on the rating system the so called professional reviewers rarely seem to match with the public's view of a movie.
What does that tell you?
I don't go by the reviewers, or the public's reviews.
Leave the movie alone, and let it speak for itself, and let each individual make their own assessment.
The writer of this article loses credibility from the beginning by basing how the movie failed, when there are many people who dont' think it failed.
The writer mentions how much more time and use of extras to get the dance scene accurate.
Whether accurate or not, it was a beautiful scene, along the lines of a Terence Malick scene.
Movie goers need to adjust themselves to the tone of the movie, within that a movie could still be bad,or mediocre, but you can't, or shouldn't judge a movie because you don't like the style, genre, way it was made, or too slow moving for an A.D.D. society.
This reviewer needs to re-evaluate what they've said.

July 15, 2016 at 9:01PM, Edited July 15, 9:01PM

martin woyzeck
Actor, writer, acting teacher/coach

And most definitely a movie shouldn't be judged because they don't agree with its politics.
It should be looked at on whether it was good as a film, or not.
I can disagree with the politics or message of a film,and still feel it was a good movie.
No, you shouldn't consider the audience.
Every filmmaker should make what they believe in, and maybe they will get a smaller audience, but they will get an audience.
What makes most of Hollywood's movies bad is making a movie that will 'please' the public.
How pathetic.
Dino DeLaurento was wrong when he said write for the audience. Who is that?
I'm audience, but I'm sure my likes is not the same as others.

July 15, 2016 at 9:05PM

martin woyzeck
Actor, writer, acting teacher/coach

Art and profit rarely go hand in hand. You wanna please your producer, go ahead and write for the audience. Maybe you will end up a very rich slut, but still a slut.

July 16, 2016 at 1:02PM

Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor

>Nothing is 'bigger than lunch'

And that is the reason you will never be great, my friend. You'd be too busy eating your fat ass off.

July 16, 2016 at 12:54PM

Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor

Hey! No need to get personal!

July 18, 2016 at 11:40AM

Liz Nord
Documentary Filmmaker/Multi-platform Producer

nice one.!! michael does a great job
byadmin (loginanmelden)

July 18, 2016 at 9:45PM, Edited July 18, 9:45PM