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The Life of a Lauded Food Photographer: An Interview with Jeff Kauck

The Life of a Lauded Food Photographer: An Interview with Jeff Kauck

Jeff Kauck has been setting the standard for food photography in Chicago and around the world for over twenty years. A water colorist and artist from a young age, Kauck is known for catching optimum light in his photographs and capturing food in unique ways. He has received several awards, including a prestigious James Beard nomination for his work on the Spiaggia Cookbook. Recently, Spoon had a chance to speak exclusively with Kauck, one of kindest and most talented people on the planet.

Photo by Jeff Kauck

SPOON: So how did you come to food photography? Have you always had an interest for food?
KAUCK: Well, what I loved about watercolor is that it’s all about luminosity and the brilliance and presence of light. When I started doing photography and opened a studio, I started out as a generalist. You take anything you can to pay the bills, so I tried a little bit of everything and none of it really appealed to me. My wife, whom I met in art school, said to me, “You know, what you really need to do is you need to photograph food.” I thought that was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard in my life! But my wife said to give it a try, so I did, and sure enough they actually wanted you to light food similarly to watercolor, with the light like on a bright sunny day, and that’s what led me to food photography. You know if anybody asked me if there is any trick to what I do, the trick is that I love what I do. I am absolutely addicted to photography. It’s a real passion.

SPOON: So you have a lot of corporate clients like McDonalds and Kraft. Would you say you have to approach a photo session with a corporate client in a different mindset than you would for Spiaggia or another restaurant?
KAUCK: Yes and no. The food photo industry is broken into two pieces. There is the editorial, which is cookbooks and magazines, and then there’s the advertising, which is the corporate stuff, like Kraft and McDonald’s. In both cases, you are being hired to represent something. They bring you in to be a problem solver. You might have a chef like Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia: he’s got this wonderful quality about him. He loves to feed people, he loves to have a good time with them, and he wants you to bring that across in his pictures even though you’re photographing high-end Italian food. In the case of McDonald’s or Kraft, they come to you because they may have something they feel is unique about their product, whether it’s bigger or juicier or this or that. So in both cases, you sort of have to sit down with them and go, “Tell me about your product. Tell me about your competition. Tell me what makes you better.” They hire you to be an artist, but they also hire you to solve a puzzle.

Photo by Jeff Kauck

SPOON: How many people are involved in a photo shoot?
KAUCK: Well, today we were shooting for a big company. We had two lead food stylists, two food styling assistants, a prop stylist, a digital tech, a photo assistant, a brand manager, a design manager and a producer.

SPOON: So when you are hired to do a photo shoot, do you get to choose the food stylist or does the client?
KAUCK: It depends on the situation. If it’s the first time with the client, they might say they like working with this food stylist or that food stylist but they’ll also ask for recommendations. If it’s something unique like ice cream then you might have the same person in mind. Other times they say, “Hey, we want to mix it up a little bit. For example, instead of having a normal flute player we want a flute player that came from a jazz background instead of a classical background.” And you go, “But why do you want to do that?” They’ll say, “Well, our new music has a little bit of flavor. We think it’s going to lean a little better to a jazz sort of thing.” So, it’s a collaboration.

SPOON: When you go to a restaurant and see something on the menu, do you think more about how it would taste or how it would look?
KAUCK: That’s a very good question. I think it depends on where you’re going. If you’re going to a great restaurant like Grace, Spiaggia, Alinea or something where the presentation is something like a piece of artwork, then you certainly look forward to that surprise of how they’re going to present that piece of artwork to you. If you’re going to Pizano’s for a pizza you’re not so much thinking about what it looks like, but what it tastes like. I think it’s a combination of things, honestly.

Photo by Jeff Kauck

SPOON: Do you think photographing food is different than other objects?
KAUCK: I don’t think it’s the same and I think even within food there are very different styles and looks. I could list you a hundred food photographers who are all very talented but all very different. For instance, Kinfolk is a magazine that’s very hot right now and they’re sort of anti-light. They’re very into stylistic-cool and Brooklyn-cool and that’s great. I’m not knocking it at all, but they’re not about the light. But other magazines are different, like Saveur. They’re really into the light. And Bon Appétit — they’re very into shooting straight down into the food, being very graphic, and shooting hard edge. That’s because the editor came from GQ. He looks at food kind of like a fashion model kind of thing. And then if you flip through any fashion magazine, they all have a different philosophy. They want to stand out.

SPOON: Is there anything in particular you really like to photograph?
KAUCK: No, I like it all. There’s no food that I don’t like to photograph. It’s all so fun. Think about it, I take pictures of pickles and hot dogs and pizza and pasta for a living. It’s great.

SPOON: This is kind of a joke question but we really want to know the answer: do you get to eat the food afterwards?
KAUCK: We do sometimes. We do a lot of photography for steak companies and sure, we’ll cook them up for lunch and enjoy them or bring them home, absolutely. You didn’t ask me this question, but I get asked all the time if the food on set is fake. It is never fake, it’s all real, but it’s usually cold. I don’t really want to pick up a cold hamburger and eat it. Still, I want to go on record: if I’m photographing at Spiaggia or another restaurant like that and they bring over food, my god, you bet I’m going to eat it.

Photo by Jeff Kauck

SPOON: What is the policy on using hairspray on set? We’ve heard that’s a photography trick.
KAUCK: All of this discussion on fake food, shellac and hairspray came from the 1940s and 1950s. They didn’t use daylight or window light back then, they had lights they called “hot lights” because they were really, really hot. Just like on the news; if you watch the news, the newscasters are lit with hot lights and you see them sweating all the time. That was in the infancy of food photography and the lighting was hot and they didn’t know what they were doing, so they would paint the food with all that crazy stuff. But they don’t do any of that anymore. It’s illegal. You can’t spray hairspray on food and say that it’s food.

SPOON: What is your favorite place your food photography has taken you?
KAUCK: I’m going to give you a bunch. I love the people and the culture and the light in Vietnam. The food in Vietnam is amazing. I could say the same thing for Italy, France, Spain, Hong Kong…I mean the food is just so fabulous everywhere. There are wonderful people everywhere in the world and we all love to eat. They all have a good time when they’re eating and they’re all very proud of their local dishes. We were recently on the East coast of Africa — the food is good!

SPOON: So in Chicago what are some of your favorite places? Top 5.
KAUCK: Not in any kind of order: Spiaggia, Balena, Girl and the Goat, avec, Publican…I’m probably missing a thousand places, there are too many to choose from. I just love food. My wife and I go to Pizano’s on Friday nights to do a pizza and a beer. I could eat that stuff all the time.

SPOON: A lot of restaurants don’t allow their diners to take photos of their food anymore. Being a photographer and primarily an artist, how do you feel about Instagram?
KAUCK: First of all, anyone can do anything they want to do. But if you want my opinion, I think they should all put their phones down, enjoy their meal and the people they’re with. I’ll use me as an example to explain this. If for some reason there was some freaky person in my house who photographed me the second I rolled out of bed and published that photo, I’d be furious. And that’s what kind of happens at restaurants. There are people in terrible light. They are using their iPhones. There’s nothing wrong with the iPhone, but it’s not a great camera to photograph food. I think people are also disrupting the rest of the restaurant. Just imagine if you were on stage playing an instrument and everyone in the audience is whipping out their microphones and their sound equipment instead of listening to you and you wonder, “Is anyone listening to the music?” I don’t know why people want to go to restaurants and spend all that money just to take a photograph.

Photo by Jef Kauck

SPOON: What can you say to people who think of eating as purely sustenance rather than an experience?
KAUCK: Well, we all gotta eat. But eating at a restaurant is such a wonderful time because, you know, there’s the beginning of the meal, the end of the meal and there’s during the meal. It’s like the score of music and how you perform that score. What you do during that score is life. I mean you have to eat to live, but it ought to be this magnificent experience where you can talk to your friends or your parents or whoever it is you’re talking to and really have a wonderful time while you feed your body.

The post The Life of a Lauded Food Photographer: An Interview with Jeff Kauck originally appeared on Spoon University. Please visit Spoon University to see more posts like this one.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


The film flop that reshaped Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson chuckles and then sighs as he recalls what it was like working on the climactic battle scene in “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic anti-western that became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

“It was an ordeal,” the raspy-throated actor and singer recalled in a phone call this week from his home on Maui as he talked about how Cimino required 52 takes just to film one scene of Kristofferson’s character being slapped awake in a bed and lashing a bullwhip at town merchants. “We kept doing it right,” the actor recalled, “but some guy [in the scene] didn’t do it just right.”

It has been nearly a quarter-century since “Heaven’s Gate” debuted in New York to disastrous reviews. The New York Times compared “Heaven’s Gate” to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” The Toronto Globe and Mail said “it really is that bad.”

Even today, the film’s title is a symbol of failure.

On Sunday night, Trio, the arts and culture cable television channel, will air “Final Cut: The Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the Unmaking of a Studio,” an original 90-minute documentary on the production of United Artists’ “Heaven’s Gate” that, in the words of one of the producers, will “revisit the crime scene.”

“Final Cut” director Michael Epstein and his co-producer, Rachael Horovitz, argue that the UA film was unfairly judged a generation ago and that its demise ushered in a new era of doing business in Hollywood -- one in which the studios took back control from the artists and box office trumped everything.

The documentary is part of a monthlong Trio series called “Flops!” celebrating pop culture’s great failures, from the DeLorean automobile to a Madonna movie marathon. A commercial-free showing of Cimino’s film will follow the documentary.

Although Cimino declined to be interviewed for the documentary, Epstein said the director helped convince Kristofferson to go on camera. “Kris didn’t want to sit down unless Michael said it was OK,” Epstein said.

Even United Artists, now an arm of MGM, cooperated. “After 25 years of watching the press eviscerate the film and Michael Cimino, there was an obvious and understandable reluctance” on the studio’s part to participate, Epstein said. “One of the things we told people was, ‘We like “Heaven’s Gate.” ’ . Our goal was not to dredge up all the old garbage.”

Still, the documentary does not pull its punches. The film makes clear that UA never researched Cimino’s background to discover that he had come from the world of TV commercials, where directors are lauded for doing shot after shot of the same scene. It also features the actors recalling how they spent hours every day for weeks learning how to roller skate -- even backward. And the cast and crew recalling how tiring it was to travel three hours each way on dirt roads to get to the location where Cimino wanted to film the final battle.

Cimino based his film on a real-life chapter from the American West: the Johnson County range wars in 1890s Wyoming. The film starred Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

“ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is held out in the industry as amateur hour or the worst movie ever made. All these things are untrue,” Epstein said.

At a time when the average major film cost $12.5 million, Cimino’s came in at $36 million. The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood and nearly destroyed United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The documentary is filled with footage of the film, along with shots taken on location in Montana on the movie set, as well as TV news footage.

In one interview around the time the film came out, “Today” show critic Gene Shalit tells Cimino he has done a little arithmetic and figured out that 100 American families making $25,000 a year could live 14 years on $36 million. “Is it obscene to spend that much money for a single movie?” he asked Cimino.

“I think one has to understand what the motives were,” Cimino replied stiffly. “Is it obscene to spend $30 or $40 million on a blatantly commercial effort whose sole purpose is to make more money? Is that obscene?”

Only 18 months before the release of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino was being hailed for his gripping Vietnam-era film, “The Deer Hunter,” which had captured the Oscar for best picture. On only his second film, Cimino also walked away with the Academy Award for best director.

“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah -- everybody’s whipping boy,” Kristofferson said. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”

Kristofferson would not escape entirely, either.

“I’m sure it knocked me off the course I had been on right then,” he said. “I think that it made me, for a while, unmarketable. But a lot of things I was doing then made me unmarketable,” like traveling to Nicaragua and supporting the leftist Sandinistas.

“There was a sense in the industry that lunatics had taken over the asylum and we are going to drive everybody into the ground,” Epstein said.

The documentary was partly inspired by Steven Bach’s 1985 Hollywood insider book, “Final Cut,” in which the onetime head of East Coast and European production for United Artists chronicled the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco from ground zero. Bach, who was a consultant on the documentary, is interviewed on camera, as are former UA production vice president David Field, actors Kristofferson, Bridges and Brad Dourif, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and others.

Narrator Willem Dafoe points out that “Heaven’s Gate” was not unusual in what it set out to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films, from “Ben-Hur” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” had been made on such a massive scale. What separated “Heaven’s Gate” from almost every other epic film, Dafoe tells viewers, is “the extreme, almost fanatic attention to detail its director paid to every single shot.”

“By the end of the first six days of shooting, Michael Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film,” Dafoe says in his narration. “Two weeks in, he was 10 days behind schedule and 15 pages behind. By then, Michael Cimino had exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of that he was willing to approve -- all at a rough cost of $1 million per usable minute. The alarm bells went off at [United Artists].”

The negative buzz surrounding the production wasn’t helped when Les Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had moved to Montana for a change in lifestyle, signed on as a $30-a-day extra for two months and wrote an eye-opening “unauthorized” account of his experiences on “Heaven’s Gate” in the Los Angeles Times.

After its disastrous opening in New York, the film was quickly withdrawn to allow Cimino more time to work in the editing room. Five months later, a radically re-cut version of “Heaven’s Gate” opened in Los Angeles, but the damage had been done.

The documentary makes clear that while the film is still regarded as “the film that bankrupted a studio,” the reality is that Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that was then the parent firm of UA, wrote off the entire loss of “Heaven’s Gate” -- $44 million -- two days after its New York premiere. “Its stock fell half a point, which it fully recovered the next day,” Dafoe says. UA was subsequently sold to MGM, which years later resurrected the name for its art-house unit.

Yet, for all the controversies over cost overruns and the perception that this was an out-of-control production, Kristofferson believes “Heaven’s Gate” fell victim to an era of conservatism that swept the country in 1980 with the election of President Reagan.

“It was a negative piece of U.S. history -- the Johnson County wars -- where people were allowed to go in with a death list and kill citizens because of the cattleman’s association,” the actor said. “It was right when Reagan and all those guys were going in. It was the dark side of the American dream.”

The documentary drives home the point that the controversy over “Heaven’s Gate” ushered in a new era in Hollywood.

“In the 25 years since ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ much has changed,” Dafoe tells viewers. “Box office totals are now tracked by every media outlet in the country, and films are judged a success or failure in a single weekend. The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

‘Final Cut: The Making of “Heaven’s Gate” and the Unmaking of a Studio’

When: Premieres 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday, with numerous additional airings through June 28.

Director, writer, Michael Epstein. Producers, Epstein and Rachael Horovitz.


Watch the video: myVancouver Food Photographer (December 2021).