In the winter, summer and fall of 1979, a large chunk of Hollywood relocated to Kalispell. The director running up the colossal hotel tab at the Outlaw Inn was Michael Cimino, the recently crowned genius behind The Deer Hunter—which had just claimed five Oscars and earned Cimino a blank check from United Artists.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Epstein wants to take viewers back to Kalispell circa ’79. Epstein, whose previous documentaries have examined the story behind Citizen Kane and the career of Alfred Hitchcock, is now searching for clues to explain why Heaven’s Gate became one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops. He plans to be in the Flathead and Glacier National Park—the film’s two main locations—this summer interviewing former cast, crew and anyone else touched by Heaven’s Gate.
On home video, the film runs four hours, plodding along slowly like a Victorian novel as it examines anti-immigrant tensions in the cowboy West. Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert star. Bill Kuney, former manager of the Outlaw Inn, recalls how Kristofferson would jam with his band in the hotel’s lounge when he wasn’t rehearsing scenes with love-interest Huppert. Once, Kristofferson stormed into the lobby demanding a little privacy.
“He was mad as the dickens,” says Kuney, who now works as a locations coordinator for the Montana Film Office. Some of the Outlaw Inn staff were apparently caught sneaking peeks of a rehearsal session, and that didn’t sit too well with Kristofferson (aka “the Rubber Duck,” from 1978’s Convoy).
For Heaven’s Gate, Kristofferson and the rest of the cast had to learn how to roller skate—1880s-style—inside a roller rink specially built for the film on the outskirts of Kalispell. Looking back, the roller rink is considered just one more footnote in a film weighted by costly excess. Kuney remembers that the film’s producer, Joann Carelli, often appeared anxious.
“She seemed troubled, to say the least,” recalls Kuney. “You could tell that something was amiss.”
When all was said and done—after the Outlaw Inn knocked out a wall to give Cimino more space in his room, after the studio paid for the construction of an entire town on the shore of Two Medicine Lake, and after Cimino demanded 52 re-takes of a single scene involving Kristofferson and a bullwhip—Heaven’s Gate came in tens of millions over budget at $36 million. At the time, that figure was astounding. The critics seized on this largesse and peppered the film with bad publicity.
“Cimino genuinely believed that he was acting responsibly and that he was going to make a great film and that the studio would get its money back,” says Epstein from his office in New York City. That didn’t happen, and now, adds Epstein, “It’s seen as an epic failure. It still scares every executive in Hollywood.”