Many of us have sat in a darkened cinema, gazing at the screen, wondering what mechanics were necessary in getting the respective film distributed and projected. But what about those of us who don’t want to so much peer behind the curtain as tear it back? Well, that’s where Steven Bach’s blistering eye opener, Final Cut comes in.
An unremittingly frank yet surprisingly poignant recount of a movie company (in this case, United Artists) in crisis, Bach painstakingly assembles a dizzying array of personal memories, anecdotes, movie history and financial statistics to reconstruct one of the great crises ever to strike Hollywood: the collapse of United Artists as brought on by the disastrous Heaven’s Gate.
Released in 1980, Heaven’s Gate was tapped as the next opus from Oscar-winning director Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter). What subsequently unfolded during the production in Montana reached farcical proportions, the sort which Hollywood itself would have no problem in dramatizing. Reels and reels of film were processed for mere seconds of footage; the budget ballooned beyond recognition; and the shoot was rife with discontent between Cimino and the executives at UA, one of which was Bach himself.
All these minutiae are put under the microscope by the author (who sadly passed away in 2009). Admittedly, the first 100 or so pages are hard work for those not familiar with financial lingo or with a passing interest in stocks and shares. But persevere and the book soon picks up the pace of a cracking thriller, overlaid with a sense of doom as Bach details the escalating indulgence of the film’s shoot. It was to create a shattering ripple effect through the corridors of power.
And given Bach’s position within those corridors, the book feels breathlessly intimate and also moving. He contextualises the collapse of the company set up by Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and DW Griffith -years of Hollywood history dissolved as a result of one film. But refreshingly, Bach’s argument is never one-sided; instead he touches on something far more troubling -and human.
There is the hint that the collapse occurred not out of spiralling costs and profit loss but because it showed how those in positions of power are subject to the same weaknesses as the punter in the auditorium. It was a watershed moment in demonstrating not only the danger of granting a maverick director lots of money but also the lack of judgement on the part of the executives who put him in that position.
In Bach’s book, no-one is demonized, and indeed, Cimino comes off as a talented if ill-disciplined individual (although the director himself has dismissed the book as ‘fiction’). Bach seems keen to emphasise the mistakes that were made on both sides, both in the boardroom and out in the field, mistakes which accumulated and resulted in the tragic end-game. Throughout the narrative, the author himself is forced to grapple with the possibility he may lose his own job; it’s just one of the many ways in which the personal and the political meld into one. Just like a great movie.