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John Williams Turned Down Scoring 'Heaven's Gate' & More Learned From The Criterion Edition Of Michael Cimino's Cult Film

The Playlist By Simon Abrams | The Playlist November 29, 2012 at 10:59AM

A critical re-assessment of "Heaven's Gate" is now underway thanks in no small part to the Criterion Collection, who just released on DVD and Blu Ray the new 2K restoration of the controversial 1980 Michael Cimino-directed western. The film's notoriously troubled production history, scathing first-run reviews and poor initial box office is the stuff of “movie disaster” legend, and understandably downplayed in this new, director-approved release.
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Heaven's Gate

3) John Williams Was Originally Supposed To Score "Heaven's Gate"
Cimino may have been famously demanding of his cast and crew, including cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who Cimino says he liked working with because of his "obstinacy" and refusal to just kowtow to his every whim. But one major, albeit necessary, concession that he made was in working with music arranger David Mansfield. Mansfield was only 24 years old at the time that he arranged the music for the film, including the variations on "The Mamou Two-Step" and "The Blue Danube Waltz." In fact, "Heaven's Gate" was, not surprisingly, Mansfield's first job as a film composer. But after seeing him perform with Bob Dylan, producer Joann Carelli vouched for Mansfield and asked the young musician to submit a demo tape for Cimino's perusal. Cimino was so impressed that he collaborated with Mansfield three more times, including the 1985 Mickey Rourke vehicle "Year of the Dragon" and the 1987 Christopher Lambert actioner "The Sicilian."

Cimino, however, would not even have considered working with Mansfield had he gotten to work with his first choice: John Williams. Williams, who would work on the score for "The Empire Strikes" back later that year and then "Raiders of the Lost Ark" the year after that, had to decline Cimino's offer because he was just offered a job as the conductor of The Boston Pops. Cimino understood that Williams' demanding new job was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," and moved on. But while Mansfield's rich score, full of moving folk songs inspired by Eastern-European traditions, is fantastic, it's hard now to watch "Heaven's Gate" and not wonder what Williams' score would have sounded like.

Heaven's Gate, behind the scenes
4) Cimino's Extras Were Often Filmed Just As Much as His Stars
During an interview conducted earlier this year, Cimino relates how much he dislikes the term "extras" given how much these actors contributed to his film. This makes sense given how adamant Cimino was on peopling his film with as many performers as his script required. Music arranger David Mansfield notes that the same extras, particularly the film's immigrant settlers, were constantly filling out the background of crowd scenes. "Some bit character might be in the background while the lead actor is in the foreground. So you always see everybody in the community constantly, become familiar with them over the course of the picture." This is especially true of the big battle scene at Heaven's Gate, a scene which Cimino says took a long time to cover because he wanted to make sure that all of the characters we've seen up until that point are shown fighting.

Furthermore, Michael Stevenson, the film's 2nd assistant director, recalls how 250 professional dancers were hired for the opening dance scene at Harvard University. This, to Stevenson, who had previously worked with such directors as Anthony Mann, David Lean and Richard Brooks, was one of many signs of Cimino's professionalism. When asked why the film had to feature so many people, "Michael's answer would be: 'Because that's how it was.' He wanted that energy, and he wanted the screen filled with many characters, many people. In certain scenes, if you wanted the film to look like it should and how the director really sees it and how the script portrays it, then you've got to have that number of people." So while Stevenson readily admits that Cimino "lost his temper sometimes when people tried to interfere," he also says that the cast, "also loved working with Michael because Michael treated them with respect."

Heaven's Gate
5) For The Sake Of Realism/Perfectionism, Isabelle Huppert Lived In A Brothel For A Week
Cimino laments that there was never enough craftsmen and artisans to fulfill the particular needs of his film. For example, he says that it was very hard to find a place that could supply him with enough top hats for the opening graduation scene at Harvard University. Cimino's constant struggle to get everything just right made it so that even restoring a Studebaker buggy that Kristofferson's character could give to Isabelle Huppert's was a vital chore. "We had to go to one state to get the wheels done, we had to go to another state to get the upholstery restored, we had to go to another state to get the harness right. That kind of stuff, you can't find people to make those things anymore, that's the problem." So it's not surprising that Cimino asked of his actors a similar level of professionalism and first-hand knowledge of the lives their characters were living. Cimino recalls that years before making "Heaven's Gate," he himself went to acting school in New York in order to better understand how his actors performed, so it stands to reason that, as Mansfield recalls, when actors weren't performing, they were taking lessons in how to ride a horse, how to practice their characters' trades, how to dance, etc.

So again, it's not that surprising to discover that Cimino had the actresses that played prostitutes in his film learn first hand about the trade by living in an Idaho brothel for a week. This includes Huppert, an actress that Cimino had to fight to get cast because the studio executives did not think she would appeal to American audiences. Cimino says: "I wanted the girls to see what it was really like, to be a real hooker. So I made a deal with this madam. Her name was Lee; she was great. I said, 'Lee, I want these girls who are playing hookers to live here for a week.' She didn't bat an eye. She said, 'Ok, Michael.' She said, 'But! If they get caught out in the hall after the bell rings, they have to go with the customer.' "

He goes on: "The girls were giggling like little schoolgirls when they heard that, but they all did it. They all wanted to go. What I wanted them to see, unlike the girl at the bar in the red dress and the blonde hair and the buoffant whatever--I wanted them to see the real, day-to-day reality that working girls live in."

This article is related to: Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino, Criterion Collection, The Criterion Collection, Features, Feature, DVD / Blu-Ray


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