The Great Movie Books #1: Final Cut by Steven Bach

In this new series, What Culture!'s Tom Barnard takes a look at a selection of great books written about and around that endlessly interesting subject: movies.

(In this new series, What Culture!'s Tom Barnard takes a look at a selection of great books written about and around that endlessly interesting subject: movies. Be it a tell-all memoir of Hollywood scandal, or a chronicle of a filmmaker's struggle to make his masterpiece, each of the books in the series have several things in common: they are classics; books that will stand the test of time; books that will be referenced and sighted for their unique contribution to movie literature. Above all, they are relentlessly entertaining works.) No. 1: FINAL CUT: DREAMS AND DISASTER IN THE MAKING OF HEAVEN'S GATE By Steven Bach (1985) By the early 1920s, four major Hollywood players decided that the early studio system wasn't for them. Like being caught in the grip of a boa, it was restricting, terrifying, and - ultimately - soul crushing. The big question posed by these talented individuals went something like, "Where's the creative freedom?" The four were Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the biggest and most popular Hollywood personalities of their day. Their efforts to escape the studios culminated in something very special: their own studio, United Artists, where creativity would trump the schedules, memos, budget cuts and manic executives of the Hollywood scene. Well, ideally. If it never really worked out as these uniting artists had hoped (there were numerous internal squabbles), United Artists still went on to become one of the great studios of its time. Films include: City Lights, 12 Angry Men, High Noon, Annie Hall, Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull. Hardly the work of a studio that failed to make an impact. Then, in the eighties, something happened. United Artists ceased to exist. It was put up for sale. The executives were out of work. For all purposes, the entire studio had reached an untimely end. How does something like that happen, seemingly out of nowhere? Steven Bach's sensational book Final Cut tells that story. How the combined efforts of misguided studio executives and the rampant ego of one director ruined an establishment. The director? Michael Cimino, fresh from The Deer Hunter. His project? The infamous Heaven's Gate. Steven Bach, the only person who was involved with the project from its inception to its final cut, renders the story with such ease and clarity that it has earned a reputation as one of Hollywood's essential cautionary tales. For the destruction that reigns through Final Cut is unbelievable. A budget that soars from $7.5 million to $36 million? Check. A director who will stop at nothing to see his vision cast on the screen with an unrestrained sense of authenticity? Check. A director who makes casting choices against the advice of his studio, shoots a mere third of a script page each day, and insists that nobody see the finished product until its premiere? Check. Check. Check. If that doesn't get your movie-mouth watering, what will? Final Cut, which spans 400 pages and covers every stage of Heaven's Gate's production, begins with a short history of UA and moves with such skilled tension towards the inevitable deal that Steven Bach (the author), and his co-head of production, David Field, made with Cimino. Desperate to nab the recent recipient of the Best Picture Academy Award for his next project, they were somewhat ignorant of the possibility that Cimino might make a terrible picture. Heaven's Gate, after all, has fallen into relative obscurity - odd for the follow-up feature to one of America's most lauded cinematic endeavours . Envisioned as a western on the scale of a David Lean picture, Heaven's Gate was greeted with distain upon its release in 1980 and grossed less than $4 million at the box office. Using standard UA policy in their favour (that creative freedom was most important), Bach and Field settled a picture deal that spiralled out of control from the very first day. Bach's style is clean and honest: he doesn't pull punches, but is happy to punch himself in the face at the same time. For this is a motion picture production absolutely crammed with disaster. Not one aspect of the picture is able to run smoothly once Cimino gets on board. He demands everything and anything, ruins his relationship with UA from very early on, and chooses to ignore his responsibilities at every turn. This creates turbulence for the coming years of production, when Cimino, like a child, chooses to ignore UA personnel when they show up on set. But UA give in time and time again, convinced of the director's "wunderkind" status, and fearful of losing the money they've already invested. Final Cut crafts an unforgettably candid ride through the systems that were working motion pictures in the 70s and 80s. Bach's style is never condescending, and always entertaining, as he weaves the narrative as a semi-thriller, ending chapters with paragraphs that demand you read on. One of the most amusing (and ultimately gut-wrenching) moments occurs just under half-way through the book: "David and I made triumphant eye contact. We were now running production at United Artists with Danny's blessing and Andy's and Transamerica's, and our first official act, a fairly routine one at that, had been to make the deal that would destroy the company." How's that for a cliffhanger? The book also crafts an intimate picture of Michael Cimino - an obviously talented director - who cannot help but give in to each and every one of his creative requirements. During production, he insists he has "no personal life" and is never seen taking a break. The extent of his ego? He would waste time shooting 50 different takes of a single shot, waiting for a cloud he liked to move into frame. Why didn't UA fire him? Everybody expected another Academy Award-winning masterpiece, and what they got (as critic David Thomson describes) was "a wounded monster." In one heart-breaking scene, during the picture's premiere, Cimino questions why nobody is drinking the champagne, only to be told: "Because they hate the movie, Michael." That comment hurts even more once you've digested the entire production history and the extent to which Cimino ruled over it. Final Cut is one of the most fascinatingly sincere books ever written about Hollywood. It also touches deeply on egomania and the creative process. For Heaven's Gate played a major part in removing the notion of the director in the driver's seat. After this fully-fledged disaster, Hollywood couldn't think of anything more laughable. Bach's book enforces the idea that producers and executives waving budget sheets in the faces of the creative forces is necessary, even if he doesn't come right out and say it. What's important here, however, is that the blame is spread across the board. Nobody did their job properly. Everybody failed in one way or another. When you've finished reading, you just might breathe a sigh of relief and thank God you're not working in Hollywood. But there will be sympathy, too, for the director who destroyed an institution: it is always sad when a creative vision cannot be fully realised, and Cimino, for all his shortcomings, had one hell of a vision. Next time:The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson


All-round pop culture obsessive.