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 DePalma, George 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.
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 Cut, about 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.”
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.”
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 Jane, which 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."