“Heaven’s Gate” (1980)
How Did It Begin: Given the critical and commercial success of "The Deer Hunter" -- five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken -- Michael Cimino was basically given a blank check for his next ambitious project.
What Went Wrong? Giving a hubris-filled, feeling-infallible director carte blanche and letting him run wild with it. We’ve detailed a lot of the production problems on “Heaven’s Gate” here, but the short version is that it essentially boils down to a toxic combination of ego and cockiness. Cimino spent insane amounts of money on the dumbest kind of expenditures like rebuilding massive, entire sets, costing thousands and thousands of dollars, simply because he didn't like the way two houses were built next to each other. (Yes that really happened). Endless retakes trying to make everything thusly perfect, also helped the cost balloon way over budget, as did an extensive post-production and editing process.
When The Press Got Hold Of It: Cimino previewed a work print for executives at United Artists that reportedly ran a staggering five hours and twenty-five minutes, and word of its overages were already beginning to trickle out. The 1980 premiere in November was by all accounts a flat out failure. New York Times critic Vincent Canby panned the film, calling it "an unqualified disaster," comparing it to "a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Suffice to say its idyllic pace and long, take-its-time sprawl wasn’t really widely appreciated.
What Happened In The End? One of the biggest and most notorious box-office bombs of all time, “Heaven’s Gate” became the poster child for film productions run amok and is seen as being part of the downfall of the short lived ‘70s American New Wave (by the time the ‘80s hit, all these young directors were having major flops, some like Cimino, Bogdanovich, et al, never recovered). Those disastrous previews effectively shut down the film fast and while a “director’s cut” was screened a year later it too was panned with Roger Ebert calling it, a “scandalous cinematic waste.” The movie was also notoriously responsible for the downfall of United Artists movie studio and it spawned “Final Cut,” the ironically titled book by Steven Bach, VP in charge of production of UA at the time, wherein he lamented the film’s problems and giving his director free reign. That said, a recent restoration that screened at the Venice Film Festival and was issued on the Criterion Collection has helped boost its critical standing, though it still remains a commercial trainwreck.
How Did It Begin: Someone with the ill-conceived idea of a sort of quasi future prequel of the “Terminator” franchise as directed by McG.
What Went Wrong? Mostly everything, though convincing both Christian Bale to star (or co-star? part of the movie's problem) and Jonathan Nolan to rewrite the film on set were admittedly valiant attempts to make some smart creative choices.
When The Press Got Hold Of It: There were lawsuits in pre-production that didn’t bode well, but nothing could prepare the press or public for the very nasty and expletive-filled outburst that was surreptitiously recorded, and then subsequently leaked, of Christian Bale ripping into cinematographer Shane Hurlbut for walking on set during a take (admittedly, this is total greenhorne move). McG tried to take the blame for it, saying he had overworked and exhausted Bale that day, but the damage seemed to be done.
What Happened In The End? ‘Salvation’ happened. The truth is Bale and Hurlbut squashed their beef quickly and shot for a month afterwards, but perhaps it was an overall indication of Bale’s frustration of working on a movie that obviously didn’t seem to be clicking at any point of the production. The proof of that panned out in the movie: a mostly humorless, drab, unfun spin on the “Terminator” franchise that somehow didn’t kill the series entirely (a fifth iteration is in the works with producers Megan and David Ellison and Arnold Schwarzenegger back on board).
How Did It Begin: A script by David Twohy was conceived as a kind of waterlogged version of "The Road Warrior," with an earth consumed by water and Kevin Costner and his "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" director Kevin Reynolds teamed up to bring the script to life.
What Went Wrong? Literally everything. Movies shot on water are notoriously difficult and "Waterworld" was no exception: it almost instantly got behind schedule and stayed there. Costner nearly drowned on at least one occasion and his stunt double was nearly lost at sea. The script was constantly going through overhauls, with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" writer Joss Whedon being brought out to the Hawaii location, an experience he later described as "seven weeks of hell." The relationship between Costner and Reynolds frayed to the point that Reynolds stormed off the movie more than two weeks before principle photography was scheduled to wrap (rumor has it Costner directed those two weeks). The budget ballooned to $175 million, which made it the most expensive movie of all time (at the time). People began referring to it as "Kevin's Gate" or "Fishtar," in reference to those other infamous Hollywood bombs.
When The Press Got Hold Of It: In September 1994 a damning portrait of the production was issued in the Los Angeles Times that described the cost overages and organizational turmoil that had swallowed "Waterworld." From then on out it was the butt of many Hollywood jokes and the basis for endless conjecture and rumor. At the time the piece ran, the film was "around $135 million and is already two weeks behind schedule." Sources for the piece described the production as "a runaway train under water." Things didn't get better, with every new revelation spoken about in hushed, can-you-believe-it? tones.
What Happened In The End? While "Waterworld" was by no means a smash it did end up making its money back after you factor in things like home video and the merchandising drummed up by the long running "Waterworld" stunt show at Universal Studios. Some critics (including Roger Ebert) even expressed a begrudging appreciation and the film has become something of a cult favorite in later years. There's even plans for some kind of Syfy Channel remake. Bafflingly, Costner followed up "Waterworld" with another dreary post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie called "The Postman" (which he also directed), which fared much worse than "Waterworld," and eventually he and Reynolds made amends and then crafted last year's great cable miniseries "Hatfields and McCoys."