Led by actor Jeff Bridges, a horde of 250 new immigrants to the West, still dressed in the coats and ties they wore in the East, pour out of a huge tent building in the town of Sweetwater.
The settlers have learned that local cattlemen hired a band of mercenaries from Texas to kill them, and have just decided to fight for their lives. At the urging of Bridges-- sporting a beard for the movie and wearing a dark cap and tie-- the immigrants, armed with shotguns and pitchforks, jump on wagons and horses. The chaotic scene is one of many for the United Artists movie "Heaven's Gate."
Director Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter") looks on from his perch atop a ladder as cinematographer Vlomos Zygmond films the action at the western town set built on the shores of Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park near here. The immigrants yell and scream in foreign languages and broken English and the wagons go every which way down the streets of Sweetwater, with the cold blue lake and snow-capped mountain peaks in the background.
Because of the mad rush there are several injuries as the scene is filmed over and over for several days. Some of the immigrants-- mostly drawn from some 250 local extras-- are brushed by horses and knocked into the mud. Several persons tumble out of lurching wagons. One extra almost comes to blows with a crew member who tries to speed up the movement of the wagons and horses by telling one driver, "If people don't move out of your way, run them over." Carrying an 1897 Winchester rifle and neatly dressed in brown wool coat, burgundy pants, tie, vest and gray cloth cap, even I fall out of a wagon backward into the mud -- uninjured -- as the driver moves his wagon before I am completely in it. On another day a horse steps on my foot and X-rays show that one toe has a crushed bone. Some extras quit. "We're doing things that stuntmen should do," claims one.
These are only a few of the problems confronting the production. In fact, the range wars that the movie depicts were scarcely less heated than the controversies that the movie -- the 37-year-old Cimino's first since "Deer Hunter" -- is generating here.
Local extras have complained about other working conditions, and turnover is high. The U.S. Forest Service and a county commissioner made the company fix a road damaged during the spring thaw when movie trucks turned several miles of it into a rutted slough. And the National Park Service kicked the company out of Glacier National Park -- where much of the movie was being made -- because of alleged damages and unkept promises.
The local populace is divided over the filming, which began here in April and is expected to last through September. While some extras, environmentalists and park officials criticize the movie-making, businessmen ran a two-page ad in the local newspaper praising its economic impact. The Daily Interlake ran an editorial criticizing Glacier Park officials for wanting to put a "fence around the park."
For its part, the movie company doesn't want to comment on any of the controversies. Ted Albert, movie publicist, says only that "we don't have anything to say." Cimino has declined to speak on the matter and the set has been closed to the press from the beginning. In response to the local uproar, Cimino did hold one press conference in June defending the conduct of the filming and criticizing Glacier Park Supt. Phil Iversen for revoking permission to continue filming.
At the press conference, Cimino called the Glacier Park action "extensive nitpicking and harassment," which "cost us a great deal of money and caused a lot of problems."
The movie is based on a true story of the last of the range wars in Wyoming in the 1890s and stars Kris Kristofferson, Bridges, Christopher Walken (best supporting actor for "Deer Hunter") and Isabelle Huppert, a French actress. The story, written by Cimino, is about immigrants moving West and getting into confrontations with cattlemen, beginning with a rustling incident. Kristofferson plays the local marshal and Bridges is his merchant friend; they aide the immigrants. Huppert plays a prostitute girl friend of Kristofferson.
The sets are elaborate and the background scenery spectacular. A town of mostly log buildings -- complete with steepled church, livery stable, hotel, drug and hardware stores and a hughe tent building used as a combination roller skating rink and meeting house called "Heaven's Gate" -- was built in Glacier Park on a campground parking lot. The Heaven's Gate building is a major focus of the movie, including one scene of 250 immigrants on 1890s antique roller skates.
Outdoor scenes, shot first in Glacier Park and now on adjoining private and Forest Serice land, have 10,000-foot mountain peaks and evergreen forests for background. Most indoor scenes were shot on sets built in or near Kalispell, a small tourist and lumbering center in northwestern Montana.
Like Cimino's "Deer Hunter" the movie uses many visual gimmicks. There are long scenes of roller-skating ("Deer Hunter" had a wedding party) and a cock fight. There is a great deal of violence, including a rustler blown to pieces, prostitutes being beaten and a long battle scene. Some makeup people say that the violence is among the most gruesome they have seen and tell extras not to take their children to the movie when it is released next year.
Cimino has a reputation as a perfectionist obsessed with details. He sets up each shot himself, sometimes for hours, and often shoots scenes 20 to 25 times, compared to six for most movies. One scene of a drunken Kristofferson lashing a bull whip at town merchants was shot over 50 times.
Such perfection has resulted in the movie's budget escalating from the original estimate of $12 million to about $31 million now. Filming was scheduled to end in Montana on June 23. But "Cimino has a reputation to uphold after 'Deer Hunter,' and wants to make sure this will be a major movie," explains one crew member.
In one typical scene, Cimino moves some suitcases around and orders a prop man to "give that man some glasses and put a wedding ring on that woman's hand." In another scene he spends several minutes having an assistant move around socks drying beside a fireplace. He remembers from one day to the next if an extra is slightly out of place. "You had a cigar yesterday," he tells one extra in a cockfight scene.
The director, most often wearing jeans and a scarf, usually operates very quietly, giving his orders through an assistant director. Cimino usually merely says, "Okay Michael," to assistant director Michael Grillo, who by megaphone then gives the orders to roll the cameras and begin action. Cimino demands formality. Crew members call him "sir." He is never seen making small talk and even during breaks and lunch he continues working. Cimino rarely eats with the actors and crew at lunch tables and usually has his food brough to him on the set. A woman extra tried for three days to present him with a tablecloth she made before she finally got a secretary to halt Cimino's car to give him the gift.
When he talks with actors, though, most of it is at a near whisper -- hard for even those nearby to hear. Sometimes Cimino is giving the actors directions, but any real coaching is minor. His main technique is shooting scenes over and over at several different angles until he gets the look he wants.
The director spent months choosing the spectacular outdoor locations, personally picking out the wardrobe, wagons and even horses. "Cimino interviewed 300 horses for this movie," quips one crew member. He also personally approved and disapproved costumes for each of the hundreds of local extras. In my case, prior to filming, Cimino ordered three costume changes, because Polaroid photos he had seen showed an "imbalance of color and fitness."
Cimino's major problems began in May and June in Glacier Park. After much debate and opposition from the Montana Wilderness Association, the park allowed the movie company to build elaborate sets at Two Medicine Lake and also gave permission for shooting at several other locations.
"From the beginning there were problems," says Park Supt. Iversen. "A ranger would talk to one guy to keep out of a certain area and would put up a rope. Later someone else would take the rope down. The problem was that the only guy who could call the shots was Mr. Cimino himself. We had a big communications problem."
Iversen says that the company covered the Two Medicine parking lot with soil and weeds foreign to the park, put dirt on top of vegetation, painted some grass, brought trees in "by the truckloads" for use as props without park knowledge, and antiqued buildings with oil that got into the lake.
In another incident, Iverson says, a shooting permit in the Many Glacier area provided for the use of a cow carcass at a scene near a cabin. "There was a clear understanding there would be no slaughtering, no blood, no guts because we have bear problems there." The park superintendent says a ranger visiting the scene found three cows were being butchered and ordered it stopped.
Finally the park service withdrew its permission for filming at another location in the park, near the north fork of the Flathead River, because the area was considered especially environmentally sensitive and was being used in May and June by elk for calving, Iverson says.
At his press conference, Cimino criticized the park service action as arbitrary and unnecessary, but Iversen says the director is merely "trying to live down the Hollywood image of lack of empathy for local problems. This hurt his pride."
The incident prompted Gary Wunderwald, the state of Montana's film coordinator, to say that park officials overreacted and to defend the movie as good for the state's economy.
Other controversies resolved around the local extras. For example, Jim Carlyon, of Whitefish, who worked with his wife and children in the movie for six weeks, wrote a letter to the Great Falls Tribune claiming that they quit their job after 16 accidents in one day on the set and what they said was indifference to the problem by movie officials. The paper reported that the movie company didn't respond to the criticism.
Many of the extras were not dissatisfied with working in the movie. Some were quoted in the local Whitefish Pilot as saying they were just glad to be in a movie and that the working conditions were "part of show business."
But some complained about long hot scenes in smoke-filled rooms, about long work hours without sufficient food and sleep, and about low pay -- $30 for a 10-hour day, and overtime after that.
In one scene I was in, extras used for background noise were put into a loft above a bar and stood in unbearable heat on a rain-wet floor with electrical cables running across it. One woman fainted. In another scene, I was on a hammock strung from a ceiling in the bunkhouse as the immigrants reacted to Kristofferson, Bridges and Walken coming through the building at various times. About 120 extras wearing suits, winter coats, hats, ties and wool dresses sat through four hours of shooting without a break in a hot crowded room filled with smoke for effect.
"Smoke it up Kenny," cinematographer Zygmond would say continually. Some extras fainted. The next day Cimino apologized and said conditions would improve, but the changes were minimal.
In the week-long filming of the cockfight scene in heat and smoke, extras and actors wearing heavy clothes were given few breaks. Crew members fought off the smoke by wearing surgical masks. The birds were removed from the building between takes and periodically replaced by fresh roosters, but there was no such treatment for the humans. On one train scene, with immigrants piled on the roof of box cars, the engine repeatedly lurched forward without warning, but no one was injured.
Many children worked as extras, and there were several complaints to the Montana state Department of Labor about long hours and insufficient food and sleep for the children. Although Dick Kane -- administrator of Montana's Division of Labor Standards which received the complaints -- said that no laws had been broken, he did write the film company "expressing our desire that the health and welfare of the children be protected."
The local extras have ranged from unemployed loggers and welfare recipients to a dentist on vacation, merchants, housewives and students. In their costumes, and with short hair on the men, "it's impossible to tell the hippies from the rednecks," says one extra.
Most of the days have been long, often from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., without permission to leave the set and with only one mid-day meal provided, for which extras pay $3 a day.
Some of the conditions had comical results. In a roller-skating scene the heat was so bad inside a tent building that one extra, Joe Pastor, wore a ziplock bag filled with ice cubes under his hat all day to keep cool. Some extras didn't like the quality of the haircuts and makeup given in one trailer; they avoided it each morning and lined up at another makeup trailer thought to do more professional work. And since many of the scenes called for extras to be muddy, a group of locals after one scene playfully tossed director Cimino and some of his assistants into the mud.
Overall, though the extras were made to know their place. A notice handed out ordered: "Please do not approach the actors or crew members." Extras and crew had separate lines for food and separate bathrooms. The locals were relegated to outhouses; for the movie people, there were portable bathrooms with running water. During the filming at Glacier Park the crew and actors stayed at the huge Glacier Park Hotel that was opened prior to the season for the movie and Cimino flew in daily by helicopter from Kalispell. Extras were required to report daily, as early as 5 a.m., at Kalispell for a 2 1/2-hour bus ride to the site. "It's a regular caste system," said one extra.
The controversies resulted in a flurry of debate in the local press. But if some citizens were unhappy with the Hollywood invasion, some businesses were delighted. The state's Gary Wunderwald estimates that half of the movie budget will be spent in Montana, and notes that local contractors were paid $750,000 to construct sets and that $50,000 to $70,000 a week is spent on motels for crew and actors.
There are other benefits to the economy. One crew member paid $5,000 for an Edsel he noticed in someone's backyard, and film people bought all kinds of cowboy hats, boots, coats and local art. The biggest spender of all was Cimino, who not only bought a $10,000 Jeep but also 156 acres of land adjacent to Glacier Park. The land will be used first for a battle scene in September between immigrants and mercenaries -- and then as a house site for the director.