Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Star Citizen and the Lessons of Heaven's Gate

Star Citizen appears to be circling the drain. Which is a pity because I was very much looking forward to a Chris Robert's version of a Wing Commander for the 21st century.  And I was pretty far from the only one.

Derek Smart is the guy to read if you want the inside skinny on how this failure became an epic failure that will put the memory of Duke Nukem Forever to rest as the most extravagant flop in gaming history.

The exodus of key talent from the four studios around the world, has also been an on-going event this past year. To the extent that the project is so toxic, that at this point, anyone working on it has basically earned themselves a Black mark on their resume. Ridicule aside. But, in an unprecedented move, that hasn’t stopped two (John Dadley, Darian Vorlick) recent departures from immediately taking to social media to stress that the sky isn’t falling. Because, you know, it’s perfectly normal to bail on such a high profile project just as the general outlook is that it’s all falling apart, gamers are being screwed etc. A project which, as of this writing, has over 60 positions that it can’t fill. And this month alone, there are rumored to be at least four more high profile people looking to leave. But everything’s fine though. That’s just normal game development turnover you know. The thing about this industry is that we never – ever – forget.

Meanwhile, Sandi Gardiner, wife of Chris Roberts and “head of marketing” (<— lol!) was recently posting pictures of staff at the LA and UK studios on social media. Funny thing, some people (including the two aforementioned people) in those pictures are actually gone. And at least four are on their way out. I guess the teams over in Frankfurt and Austin, for all the hype they get for being key parts of the game’s development, don’t get their pictures taken.

These kind of management failures are an interesting study for me.

Once they are over and done with and the corpse of the failed project is dissected. Everyone always assumes they are things of the past and can never happen again. And yet they do.

Michael Cimino just died at the age 77. He was the director of the notorious bomb of Nagasaki like proportions; Heaven's Gate. This was the film that famously broke United Artist's studios.

There were three factors at play that time. First a very young and ambitious artist, who had a vision for a film that was at best, questionable in terms of boxoffice appeal.   That in itself was nothing to worry about, everyone in Hollywood has one of those.

But very few of them get the Green light because it's the studio's executives' job to make sure they don't.

Heaven's Gate was a passion project for Cimino.  He had been shopping the script around Hollywood for years.  There were no takers on the grounds that no one thought that a Marxist flick about the evils of capitalism in the Old West would move tickets.  These wiser-heads were completely right of course. 

Which brings us neatly to the next factor of; inexperienced executives. There had been major walk out by the senior executives at UA. They had to be replaced of course and it was a bunch of younger guys who were way down on the corporate totem pole who were bumped up. These guys were in over their heads and now needed to prove themselves, it was the age of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (back when none of them sucked).  "Anybody with a beard and a script got the Green Light back then."

Ciminio didn't have a beard but he did have a script and an Oscar for best picture (The Deer Hunter). This script was right out of 1969 and it was the dawn of Reagan's America.  But they kicked open the vault door to a project that had zero box office appeal.  Welcome to Hollywood kid.

And last was the most destructive addition of all.  The Line Producer.  The person who is supposed to rein in the excesses of the artist.

In fit of abject stupidity the studio agreed to Michael Cimino's choice of Joann Carelli.  A woman whose primary job qualification was that she was fucking Michael Cimino.

At every turn where a line producer was needed to say, "no, Michael we can't do that."  She invariably said, "yes."  Shoot for a week in Yale because I've suddenly decided the film needs a bookend? "Yes, Michael no problem!"  Tear down one entire side of the set and move it few feet back?  "Absolutely, Michael this is your vision!"  Have an authentic and period correct 1880s roller disco scene? "OF COURSE! Michael, you're a genius!"

Whenever she should have said, no.  She said, yes and actively encouraged him.

What followed after that would make a pretty good movie in and of itself.  Certainly it would be more entertaining than watching Heaven's Gate. 

Before a frame of film was shot, Heaven's Gate's cast (which included Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert) had to go on some extensive training courses, what Jeff Bridges later called "Camp Cimino". Lessons ranged from shooting to horse riding to cock fighting lessons to Yugoslavian dialect coaching. One early scene would see several prominent members of the cast dancing on skates, which required actors Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges and Brad Douriff to spend hour after hour in training.

"They had to skate for a couple of hours a day, prop master Robert Visciglia said told the makers of the Final Cut documentary, "for maybe a week or two weeks."

Brad Douriff puts the length of time spent training at a much longer six weeks - enough time for the cast to become adept at waltzing around on skates for Cimino's lengthy scenes.

Deflatingly, for the actors involved, the roller skate waltzing scene was one of many, many sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor in the 149 minute 'directors' cut' of Heaven's Gate released in 1981.
Although films told on an epic scale are by no means unusual in Hollywood history, Cimino's obsessive attention to detail certainly was. Cimino spent huge amounts of time planning and creating every single shot, as he chose each individual extra - from a line-up of dozens - and arranged them around the set depending on their look and height.

"He would actually paint by selecting extras and putting them in the right place," recalls Vilmos Zsigmond, Cimino's cinematographer. "Pretty much like a painter would paint. He'd paint by picking people up and dropping them into place."

This process was made more laborious because of the sheer scale of the film - some scenes required 50 or more extras, all personally selected by Cimino. "It took time," Visciglia remembers. "Maybe a couple of hours to pick 50 people."

The end results are undeniably beautiful, with individual shots composed like Renaissance oil paintings. But the cost to United Artists, as Cimino single-mindedly pursued perfection, would soon add up to terrifying sums - it's estimated that, in the first week of shooting, just one and a half minutes of film had been racked up. The cost? An estimated $900,000.

Certain directors are famous (or infamous) for asking for multiple takes - Stanley Kubrick was but one such exacting filmmaker. But Cimino was unusual even by the standards of someone like Kubrick, as he not only demanded multiple takes for certain scenes, but also takes of the same few lines of dialogue delivered in multiple ways.

"I'm not used to doing 57 takes, I'm really not," Brad Douriff says. "I'm not used to doing a minimum of 32 takes. It was like workshopping on film - we did the happy version, we did the crying version, we did the furious version."

An entire day was spent shooting more than 50 takes of Kris Kristofferson drunkenly cracking a whip in a hotel room. The shot in the finished film is over in a matter of seconds. With Cimino demanding absolute creative freedom to make Heaven's Gate, the production quickly went behind schedule; within the first five days of filming, the film was already five days behind its target.

Heaven's Gate's grandest set piece was - and is - its battle sequence between settlers and mercenaries. Requiring dozens of horses, extras, wooden wagons and explosions, it took weeks of planning and around a month of arduous filming. Just to make things even more difficult, Cimino had chosen for his battle location a field located some three hours' drive from his base of production in Kalispell, Montana.

Cast and crew were bundled into vans at 3:30 each the morning, still clutching their pillows so they could catch a bit more sleep as they were ferried to the location. When they finally got there, the day's filming was long and potentially even dangerous, as Cimino whipped up a dervish of dust, wagons and gunfire.

"I don't know how long we shot those battle scenes," Bridges remembers, "But it was frightening, some of it. Each time I'd pray to God that none of us got hurt. We'd just keep doing it over and over."

"We would ride around in a circle for three or four minutes at a gallop", recalled extra Eric Wood. "You've got wagons in the mix. Dust so you can hardly see."

Still, if the actors and extras were getting tired and frustrated, some of the crewmembers didn't seem to mind. "Hell, this picture can go on forever as much as I care," horse wrangler told Steve Bach. "My boys and I have never been paid like this. I looooove Montana!" (*True enough they were routinely getting time and half and even triple time.*)

When it came to Cimino's exacting methods - and his lack of interest when it came to lunch breaks - assistant editor Penelope Shaw summed it up best. "He thinks, there's that beautiful cloud. That'll be there for an eternity if I get it on film. Nobody will care about lunch 20 years from now, but they'll be able to see that visual I've created forever."

The problem was, Cimino's determination to craft the great American movie was resulting in some quite bizarre directorial choices. Legend has it that a tree was chopped down and relocated to improve the composition of a solitary shot. A gigantic set - of a Wyoming street circa 1892 - was built, torn down and completely rebuilt again because the director wanted the gap between the houses to be six feet wider.

Actor John Hurt spent so long waiting around on the production for something to do, he went off and made The Elephant Man for David Lynch in the interim, and then came back to shoot more scenes on Heaven's Gate.

Then there was the vintage locomotive Cimino wanted for the film. Too large to fit through modern railway tunnels, the thing had to be placed on the back of a truck and driven from its original resting place in a Denver, Colorado museum to Montana at presumably huge expense. The train appeared in the film for a matter of minutes.

At the end of the day the film had cost 44 million. Which is nothing by today’s standards but back then it would have comparable to around half a billion in production terms. It was the kind of film that not only had to be a hit but had to be the biggest hit of all time.

Famously, it did not. However, there is no denying that Cimino did in fact finally deliver a movie that was close to his vision.

There is just as little doubt at this point that Chris Roberts simply cannot.

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