Hollywood knocks at 'Heaven's Gate'

April 03, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- One version features the reptiles and the orbs duking it out for control of Pluto. Another has a lucky few humans morphing into bald, dome-headed aliens as they drift off into cosmic bliss.

Then there's the psychological drama approach: A youngish set designer, a film biz type, responds to a newspaper ad and joins a cult, following its rituals and adopting its values until suddenly he decides to cut out on his own -- just a few weeks before all 39 of his buddies pull out purple shrouds and commit mass suicide.

As inevitable as the crowds at "Star Wars," as predictable as Hale-Bopp's orbit, proposals for movies, documentaries and television series inspired by the strange saga of the Heaven's Gate cult are popping up everywhere.

To be sure, most of the projects have little chance of making it to the screen. Still, several producers are having a go at it. They're betting on an unusual pitch: They can tell the Heaven's Gate story in the disciples' own words.

Years before they swallowed sedatives and tugged plastic bags over their heads in Rancho Santa Fe, members of the cult were etching a remarkable record of their lives on paper, video and computer. They completed one screenplay and sketched an outline for another. They also granted on-camera interviews that one producer hopes to turn into a documentary -- a sort of Q&A on Luciferians, mother stars and castration.

Their aggressive publicity efforts spun such intrigue, in fact, that producer Alan Landsburg whipped up a TV movie about them back in the late 1970s. He based his story on news accounts of the charismatic duo Bo and Peep, who founded the cult that became known as Heaven's Gate.

The movie, "Mysterious Two," starring John Forsyth, languished for years before airing on NBC in 1982. It painted the cult's leaders as "possibly aliens, possibly charlatans," writer and director Gary Sherman said.

Alex Papas, head of the aptly named Way Out Pictures, is definitely hot on the idea of a cult-inspired movie: "Are you kidding? It's the flavor of the day."

Papas' prize is the meandering screenplay that several Heaven's Gate members wrote while they were renting his house on Mummy Mountain, in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley.

"It's a very Shakespearean type of story," Papas said. "Good vs. evil, a big battle." Without giving away the ending, he promised the script would be perfect for Hollywood. "Good," he said, "wins out in the end."

Titled "Beyond Human: Return of the Next Level," the screenplay came in a bit wordy, with lots of talk of aliens tromping around Earth trying to find humans suitable to zap up to the Orion nebula. It was also crowded with characters; the original draft had more than 100 speaking parts. But Papas said he helped them cull it to a more manageable scope.

But it's also very far-out. And some Earth-bound entrepreneurs are betting that human viewers will prefer a more accessible story on Heaven's Gate.

Beverly Hills businessman Nick Matzorkis sees great potential in a documentary (or movie of the week, he hastily amends) about the apparently lone surviving member of Heaven's Gate, former set designer Richard Ford, who was known in the cult as Rio D'Angelo.

Matzorkis, who employs Ford as a computer programmer, envisions the docudrama as a sort of psychological thriller, a look at how one man found the cult so persuasive that he cut off ties with his family, shut off his sexuality and tried to rid himself of all the "human aspects of his life."

The story would climax, of course, with Ford's decision to leave the group a few weeks before the suicide -- and his shattering discovery of the 39 decomposing bodies in the Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

'You know Hollywood -- they keep saying, 'Where's the conflict?' " Matzorkis complained. "But I see this as the ultimate conflict, of deciding between human-ness and non-human-ness."

Still, Matzorkis is willing to pander a bit to Hollywood sensibilities. He promises any documentary would include "a twist of outer space and the spaceship things that are getting everyone's attention."

The first Heaven's Gate spinoff to hit the market will probably be a half-serious, half-snide documentary based on video footage of Heaven's Gate members discussing their philosophy at Boise State University in Idaho. Santa Monica free-lance producer Sergio Myers, who calls his company Rising Sun, plans to market the 90-minute tape to video distributors starting this week.

A student of UFOs who founded a group called Believers of the Unknown, Myers pokes fun at the group; the segment on their suicide, for example, is set to "Happy Trails." And he tries to point out inconsistencies -- like how they're drinking Coke as they talk about the need to abstain from earthly temptations.

Still, he said, the video is eerily persuasive.

Asked if he worried about recruiting people to a group that led its members to mass suicide, Myers responded: "I do, I do. But it's business."

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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