From critically savaged bomb and expensive disaster that pretty much bankrupted an entire studio, to reconsidered Venice Film Festival and The Criterion Collection-worthy masterpiece (at least to some revisionists), to fodder for Steven Soderbergh's editing machine, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" still causes lots of chatter today. And given the lengthy, tortured production, there are plenty of stories still to tell. And somebody who has one is Terry O'Quinn.
The character actor, perhaps best known for his stint on "Lost," recently sat down with the AV Club for their great Random Roles series, and he shared his experience on "Heaven's Gate," which would turn out to be his first film role. It's pretty great stuff so we'll just let you read the excerpts below. But the short version is, he agrees the film was a mess:
'Heaven’s Gate' I remember, because it was the first movie I ever was cast in. I was doing a play at the Center Stage in Baltimore, and I got cast in this movie, and they said, “Can you ride?” And of course I said I could ride. [Laughs.] I was in Maryland, which is horse country, so I went out to this farm and started taking lessons, because I had time before I shot. They said I was gonna start shooting in May, and it was still the end of March. So as I was doing the play, I went out to this barn and started riding, and I met this girl out there who was teaching. And in May, they said, “It’ll be June.” In June, they said, “July.” And in the meantime, the play closed, I ran out of money, and I moved into the barn. I lived above the barn, and I agreed that I would muck stalls for free. So I did 50 stalls a day, and then I rode horses, and this girl and I gradually got closer and closer. In July, they said, “August.” In August, they said, “September.” ...Finally, in September, I went and made the movie.
It was weird. You know, it was my first exposure, so I thought, “Wow…” They were wasting time and money. When I got there, there was a guy who ran up to me in the lobby of this little hotel in Kalispell, Montana, and said, “You’re Terry O’Quinn? I’ve been here for six weeks, and my first scene is with you!” [Laughs.] I said, “Really?” And it was another week before I worked! People were getting hurt left and right. It was clearly just such a waste of time and effort and money, and people were so jaded and tired that when I went and saw the movie… There were great things about the movie, except it ended, like, five times. It was half an hour too long or something. But I just thought, “Wow, moviemaking is crazy!”
But, at the very least, O'Quinn got his first movie acting credit, and the rest is history. But things could've been worse. A couple of years ago, Willem Dafoe also sat down with AV Club and talked about his experience making "Heaven's Gate," an effort that saw him ultimately axed from the movie.
That’s a whole story. That was a whole experience. I’m working at The Wooster Group, and through a series of weird events—because I’m not really soliciting work so much—they say, “Oh, would you like to work?” And I was very happy, because I liked 'The Deer Hunter,' and [director Michael Cimino] had just come off the Academy Award [for 'The Deer Hunter']. A week later, we were shooting. We were going to shoot in Kalispell, in Montana, this beautiful landscape. It was a special Western, it was going to be great. Even though I had a small role, I didn’t care.
Well, all of a sudden, my small role becomes huge. I’m only supposed to be there for a couple weeks here, a break, then a couple weeks, and then I’m done. So I walk away from The Wooster Group, saying, “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a couple weeks.” And I get there, and they rip up my contract and say, “Baby, you’re here.” So I call home and say, “Hey. [Laughs.] I don’t know…” And they’re like, “What are you doing? You said you were gonna…” I said, “It’s changed.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll wait for you.” Well, it ended up being three months. And it could’ve been eight if I hadn’t been fired, but I was fired one day because we were sitting in a lighting setup, and someone told me a joke. I laughed. Cimino, in a very agitated state, at this point—previous to that, I got along with him great—he turned around, told me to step out, and they put me on a plane. Last laugh, maybe?
I mean, I don’t like to gloat, because that movie has some things to recommend. It wasn’t my absolute favorite.
So, there you go. No matter what the critical status of "Heaven's Gate," it will stand as the titan of all productions gone awry. And we're sure there are more tales to tell from this one.