After the critical and commercial success of "The Deer Hunter," Cimino embarked on an even more ambitious project. Based on a script he originally submitted for production in 1971, "Heaven's Gate" dramatizes the Johnson County War of 1892, a bloody battle that the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) waged on local immigrant settlers (in fact, the original title of the film was “The Johnson County War”). After placing a bounty on several settlers, the WSGA hired killers to decimate the settlers, claiming that the offending immigrants were "anarchists" and cattle thieves. Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, the latter of whom previously worked with Cimino on "The Deer Hunter," co-star in the film with Isabelle Huppert, Brad Dourif, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, and Mickey Rourke in support. Unfortunately, the legacy of Cimino's film – and his Malick-ian tendencies and whims – has mostly been similarly one-sided. Its production famously went over budget (it cost $44 million, which wasn’t chump change in 1979, and is almost $140 million when adjusted for inflation), and behind schedule (so much so that the movie exceeded its original $7.5 million budget by 400%).
Furthermore, upon its initial release, "Heaven's Gate" was met with vicious pans and fared very poorly at the box office – the picture earned less than $3 million of its $44 million budget (for more information about the controversy surrounding the film, check out former United Artists executive Steven Bach's excellent book "Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists"). Here's six things we learned about the film from the new Criterion release of "Heaven's Gate."
Choosing and constructing the right locations for "Heaven's Gate" was so crucial that Michael Cimino insisted on scouting locations himself. But when Cimino did not find things that perfectly suited the needs of his film, he painstakingly improvised. For instance, a giant, dying tree was transported to the campus of Oxford University (in pieces!) because Cimino needed a big tree where there was none. "[The] script called for a tree of substantial size," Cimino says in a featured interview, "but the size of the tree was such that it could not be moved all in one piece. So to get around that, the crew cut the tree into hundreds of sections that were later bolted and cabled together in the location. All the pieces had to be numbered, and it was held up by about forty tons of concrete[...]It took several months just to get it into place and all assembled."
At the same time, Cimino says that the weather in Idaho and Colorado was so rejuvenating that it had an immediately positive effect on his cast and crew. In fact, in one case, the weather apparently conspired to help Cimino make his movie. "When we were finishing the battle sequence--at the very end of the battle, which we had spent close to a month on--it was the very last day and the very last shot, and as Kris [Kristofferson] was walking away, I felt that we needed wind to blow across the battlefield. We had made no provisions for wind, but somehow I kind of raised my hand--in a gesture of need more than anything--and the wind came up. And I raised it again, and it came up harder. Needles to say, the crew was astonished that it happened."
He continued: "I think it's not nearly as mysterious as it sounds. Certainly, the American Indians believed that there is spirit in all things, that everything--the birds in the air, the air itself, the things that move on the earth, trees, water--everything has spirit, and I think that in order to deal with places like that, one needs a certain amount of communication with that spirit. I don't think you can do without it."
Kris Kristofferson recalls that he initially got involved with "Heaven's Gate" because he wanted to work with Cimino and also liked, "the fact that it was a western, and had a moral, and was about something. I was interested in the whole atmophere at the time that this film was taking place." Christopher Walken also vouched for Cimino: "'I trust Michael's direction implicitly, everything he does. And I took that to heart." At the same time, Kristofferson recalls that Cimino was fairly demanding. "[He's] Not afraid to direct. Not afraid to say things that made people mad." Kristofferson recalls that since around the time that they shot "Heaven's Gate," he was going through a bad divorce. "My wife had just left and I was broken-hearted. He could tell it was difficult for me to get up there, and he said, 'Use it!' I trusted him, and let whatever personal pain I was feeling show."
And to prove why Kristofferson thinks of "Heaven's Gate" as "probably the hardest film I've ever worked on," there's the story of the scene where Kristofferson's character has to crack a bullwhip. Cimino says that it's hard enough for a person to crack a bullwhip while standing up, but Kristofferson had to do it while lying down without hitting anyone in a cramped room packed with extras. Cimino remembers that it took about 65 takes to get that scene just right, while Kristofferson thinks it was more like 30. But basically, Kristofferson had to snap a whip while feigning being woken up from a drunken, depressive stupor and hit a specific spot on the wall without injuring anybody. No wonder Kristofferson says it took him, "hours and hours of preparation!"