At the very least, “Heaven’s Gate” is gorgeous, and up there with the most beautifully photographed films of all time thanks to the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who apparently Cimino pushed relentlessly). Visual accuracy was Cimino’s chief obsession, and according to Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan's "Heaven’s Gate: Western Promises" essay in the Criterion DVD, the director “painstakingly constructed his film according to photographs from the time.” As Vallan notes, Zsigmond “devised dark, often smoky interiors pierced by outside light, alternating with huge sets of bustling streets and beautiful, wide vistas.” The result is an amber hue that looks like a stunning photograph from the late 1800s. But the most iconic photograph of "Heaven’s Gate" – Kris Kristofferson bathed in shadow and light -- was actually taken by the film's producer Joann Carelli. Even more interesting, Cimino was actually standing in the shot on set and he was later airbrushed out of the image for what became the final poster. Check it out above.
Even More “Did You Know?” Trivia, Legend, Lore & More
Bach’s ‘Final Cut’ is obviously the authority on “Heaven’s Gate,” and you should read it if you haven’t already. It heavily implies that United Artists seriously considered firing Cimino when production ran out of control and they had Norman Jewison ("In the Heat of the Night," "Fiddler on the Roof") in mind to take over. According to the book, Jewison was even asked if he’d be interested, but rejected the offer. It’s also been rumored that David Lean was approached to take over as Cimino’s rushes were described to many as if “David Lean had made a western.”
- The book tracks Cimino’s almost outlandish, out-of-control perfectionism. “There is always that need to feel that you’re doing your possible best,” Cimino said in a 1982 Cahiers Du Cinema interview when asked about his “obsessiveness.” “On a certain level, this is what the creator feels, whether he is a maker of furniture or a maker of arms: it is the feeling of all who work with their hands. Even the details of a rifle, which are nothing but mechanical, if they are made carefully, with attention, become beautiful, satisfying.”
And obviously more than one person posited that the success of "The Deer Hunter" -- which won 5 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Sound and Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken) – was to blame for Cimino’s ridiculous fastidious and obsessive demands. It resulted in "Heaven's Gate" being five days behind schedule on the sixth day of shooting, with skyrocketing expenditures because of Cimino’s insistence on detailed realism. The director would reportedly shoot up to 50 takes of everything and would even delay filming until a cloud that he liked rolled into the frame. Much of this is possibly exaggeration, but ‘Final Cut’ does discuss an example where the space between buildings on two sides of a street constructed for the film didn’t look right and Cimino spent $1.2 million to tear them down and rebuild them to his specifications.
- According to legend, Cimino kept an armed security guard posted outside the editing room during postproduction to keep United Artists executives from interrupting him. This is probably bullshit, but it’s fun to imagine. Bach’s book says that at one point, Cimino previewed a work print for executives at United Artists that reportedly ran five hours and twenty-five minutes.
- According to the book, Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (almost 220 hours) of footage, which cost approximately $200,000 per day. The myth is that Cimino had expressed his wish to surpass Francis Ford Coppola's mark of shooting one million feet of footage for “Apocalypse Now.” Who knows if that’s actually true, but it makes for good copy.
- John Wayne was offered the lead in the 1970s, several years before it was made. Ironically, Wayne, struggling with cancer at the time, was the actor who presented Cimino with the Best Picture prize at the 1979 Oscars for "The Deer Hunter."
- Sam Peckinpah was approached to do some second-unit photography on the final battle sequences. The producers, however, didn't know he had recently suffered a heart attack and was unfit to do so. Friends with the film’s property master, Robert J. Visciglia Sr., he apparently visited the set for a few days regardless.
- At the time of its release, "Heaven's Gate" entered the record book as biggest and most expensive Hollywood flop ever. Hence its notoriety to this day. Its colossal box-office failure resulted in United Artists folding and being sold off to MGM. [Photos Courtesy of the Criterion Collection] -- with additional notes by Rodrigo Perez
Here's the Criterion's 3 Reasons To See "Heaven's Gate" video piece.