Graeme Robertson continues his series looking at directors who damaged their careers; next up is Michael Cimino…
The story of Michael Cimino can be viewed as a cautionary tale. One that warns aspiring directors that just because you manage to enjoy one major success, don’t think you can get away with anything.
Fresh from the critical success of The Deer Hunter which won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979, Cimino was essentially given carte blanche by studio United Artists to make any film he wanted.
The film Cimino wanted to make was Heaven’s Gate, a historical epic of the grandest proportions, with no expense spared in bringing the 19th century setting to life, and featuring a giant cast of established stars like Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt and rising stars like Jeff Bridges, Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke.
Few could imagine the problems that this film would reap, mainly due to the efforts of Cimino, an obsessive, demanding perfectionist of quite possibly most insane kind.
The film’s production is blighted by tales of Cimino allegedly demanding that a very expensive recreation a 19th-century street be torn down and rebuilt from scratch because he didn’t think it’s looked right, even though the original set had been built to his exact specifications.A look at the impressive sets built for Heaven’s Gate
We also have stories about how Cimino supposedly demanded up to 50 takes of certain scenes, or that he wouldn’t start shooting scenes until a cloud he liked the look of moved into shot, apparently not realising that you can move a camera so the cloud will always be in the shot if you want it to be.
Or, how Cimino took so long filming, that after several weeks with nothing to do, a very bored John Hurt went away to film his highly acclaimed performance in The Elephant Man (1980), with time to spare for him to came back to finish his scenes for Heaven’s Gate.
These stories merely represent a small fraction of the stories and legends surrounding the production of Cimino’s passion project, with various others featuring allegations of animal cruelty, Cimino changing the locks to editing rooms to keep the studio bosses from interfering, and rumours of half the budget being spent of boatloads of cocaine for the cast and crew.
By the time the film was eventually released in November 1980, a then-whopping $40 million had been spent on the film, with the film released almost a full year after its originally intended release date. Essentially the film was over-budget and late.
So how did it fair? Well, it if did, well I wouldn’t be writing about it now, would I?
The film was panned by critics, bombed at the box office and essentially bankrupted United Artists, the studio that funded the picture.
Cimino’s reputation as a rising star in Hollywood was damaged to the point of near destruction, with perhaps the best summation of events being described in a now famous quote from New York Times critic Vincent Canby who in a scathing review wrote that Heaven’s Gate “….fails so completely that you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect.”
It took another five years till Cimino could get a directing job again, with many studios withdrawing various offers after the critical and commercial disaster of Heaven’s Gate.
Cimino eventually made four more films, none of which were particularly memorable, with his final one being the utterly forgotten drama Sunchaser (1995).
Cimino did have aspirations to direct many more films; some of which, when you read about them, might have been interesting, but his battered reputation, and the damage inflicted by Heaven’s Gate ultimately meant that he did not manage to achieve these aspirations by the time of his death in July 2016.
Which is a shame, because while I myself have not watched the entirety of Heaven’s Gate, a mere glance at the film’s trailer gives you just a fleeting glimpse of a truly spectacular feat of filmmaking; this film looks like an epic, with grand sets, massive battle sequences and a massive cast. And it clearly looks like a film made with love and devotion. Cimino wanted this to be what film historians would remember him by; perhaps he wanted them to remember it as his ultimate masterpiece.
While the film will be remembered, perhaps for the wrong reasons, its reputation since its release in 1980 has significantly improved, with a recent restoration in 2012 dubbed a director’s cut, made with Cimino’s help, receiving significant critical praise and a place at the Venice Film Festival.
So, with his recent passing, we should not mourn the death of a self-indulgent ego-maniac who ruined a studio with his ridiculous film-making adventures. Instead, let us remember a director who had a vision of a story about the west, a vision he was determined to tell, no matter the cost, creating a severely flawed, yet incredibly impressive film that truly deserves to be described as a cinematic epic.