Michael Cimino Revisits His Notorious Flop 'Heaven's Gate'

Maybe it was a masterpiece all along?

Cimino was so wounded by the initial rejection of Heaven's Gate that he didn't watch the film again until the combined wooing of Criterion and his longtime producer, Joann Carelli, convinced him to sit down in a digital studio on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City and begin the lengthy restoration process. In addition to trimming several minutes from the running time and removing the intermission, he radically revisited the film's color palate, bringing back the vibrant greens, blues and browns that had been muted by a sepia haze in the original release prints.

But Cimino's greatest pleasure lay in rediscovering the work of the film's actors, particularly stars Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert (in her first English-language role), who were largely ignored by critics in their rush to crucify the director. "This thing was shot over a period of four seasons, and the consistency of their work, I think, is remarkable," he says. "I was just flabbergasted at how intense each of the performances were."

Today, it's easy to see Heaven's Gate as a victim of circumstance—it arrived in theaters two weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan, whose promise of a new "morning in America" contrasted sharply with Cimino's vision of the 99 percent mercilessly crushed by the 1 percent. Its arrival also coincided with a Hollywood sea change, away from the iconoclastic writer/directors and character-driven films that defined American cinema in the '70s and toward a new blockbuster model. (Three of the 1980s' top-10 box-office attractions were sequels: The Empire Strikes Back, Any Which Way You Can, and Smokey and the Bandit II.)

Courtesy Criterion

In the decades since, Cimino has managed to direct just four features, up to and including 1996's Sunchaser, featuring Woody Harrelson in a career-best performance as a tightly wound cancer surgeon kidnapped by one of his own patients. Like most of Cimino's post-Heaven's Gate work, it was subject to interference from its producers, barely released and well-worth a second look.

Yet for all of the knocks he has taken, Cimino remains markedly optimistic and forward-thinking. He continues to write screenplays and develop new projects and says that when people ask him to name his favorite of his own films, he answers, "The one I haven't made yet."

After the dinner plates have been cleared and the restaurant has emptied out, he tells me, "It's one of the things that movies do offer you, despite all of their hardships—they offer you moments of transcendence. We all want to experience that in our lives, a moment when we're 2 feet off the ground, and making movies gives you that opportunity. It comes and it goes so fast that it's unreal, but it does happen.

"What other reason is there?" he adds. "Michelangelo spent a couple of years on his back with paint dropping into his eyes while some crazy pope was off fighting wars. What else was he doing it for?"

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