Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists

Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists



The Pequod Review:

Steven Bach's Final Cut is a profile of the infamous 1984 Hollywood flop, Heaven's Gate. As Bach explains it, Heaven's Gate "did not merely fail (failure is forgivable, sometimes even embraced, in the strange labyrinths of the Hollywood psyche). Heaven's Gate did the unthinkable: It sank a studio. Less than a month after the picture's second release, United Artists — the company founded by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin — for all practical purposes ceased to exist. What happened?" Final Cut is Bach's extraordinarily successful attempt to answer that question.

The book is astonishing first and foremost because of its author's background. Steven Bach was Senior Vice President and Head of Worldwide Production for United Artists throughout the entire two-year Heaven's Gate production process. He would be fired after the film became a critical and popular disaster. But instead of a defensive or self-justifying account, he has written an intelligent and lucid analysis that points blame in every direction, including his own. Through it all, he shows exactly how it all snowballed, as the budget gradually ballooned to $36 million (from an original $7.5 million) and an acclaimed director (Michael Cimino, fresh off his Best Picture Oscar for The Deer Hunter) was given such freedom and control that he could override any misgivings from others.

By using a specific case study, Bach has produced one of the best insider accounts of what it is really like to make a movie — how the studio, director, producers, and actors all work together to steer a project from the time of screenwriting through its release. And where Bach especially shines is in his review of the tension between financial and creative concerns; some of the best parts of the book show how closely the studio was tracking the real time financial performance of its various pictures in process. At the end of the day, studios are a business, and it takes an extremely unique combination of circumstances for a film to evade the usual controls and bring down an entire company.