Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York takes place in Manhattan of the 1860s-a place described by Leonard DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam Vallon, as a “city of tribes; war chiefs rich and poor.” And it culminates in a mammoth battle between two tribes of the latter sort: a gang of Irish Catholic immigrants called The Dead Rabbits and a rival crew of Protestant Nativists, whose ancestors settled America.
The scores to be settled are both personal and profound. The Dead Rabbits’ leader, Vallon, seeks to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the Nativists’ vicious war chief, William Cutting, “Bill the Butcher,” played by Daniel Day-Lewis. But the clash is also a battle over religion, culture and legitimacy in the lawless environs of the city’s squalid Five Points section.
Before these rival gangs can have at each other with their crude knives and cudgels, however, they are laid low by history. They have chosen to rumble on the first day of the 1863 Draft Riots, and in the ensuing chaos, are shelled by the Union Army. Screaming projectiles hurtle into their stomping grounds, killing and maiming some of the combatants, and enveloping the rest in a familiar fog of white smoke and ash.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the circumstances were somewhat inverted, but the similarities were impossible to ignore as a tribe of rich and poor war chiefs from another country used our own technology to attack our way of life. Once again, culture and religion were at the core of the skirmish. Once again, New York had been forever changed.
In the hours following the attack, Mr. Scorsese spoke to his boss, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, about the coincidental similarities between scenes in Gangs , which had wrapped in April 2001, and the news footage of the terrorist attacks. “We were beyond stunned,” Mr. Scorsese said. And that disbelief only grew as the film’s Christmas 2001 release date was postponed-in part because of the attacks, in part because Gangs wasn’t ready. “I was just getting myself around the movie at that time,” Mr. Scorsese said-and the director and his trusted editor Thelma Schoonmaker set about editing the film. “And as we were working, we were stunned because of the resonance, the lines of dialogue, speeches, attitudes, scenes, confrontations, everything throughout the whole movie-especially at the end,” Mr. Scorsese said. “Especially at the end.”
The movie begins beneath the earth, in the fetid tunnels and warrens beneath the Five Points, the slum district that existed at the intersection of Mulberry, Worth, Cross, Orange and Little Water Streets. It is 1846 and the Dead Rabbits, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) are about to face off against his nemesis Bill the Butcher-in top hat and handlebar moustache, with a true heart of darkness-and his Native Americans. As Vallon takes his young son Amsterdam through the maze of tunnels that lead up to their battleground, Paradise Square, the Rabbits are shown donning their crude battle gear-metal fingertips sharpened to points, ill-fitting armor, boots fitted with an array of shivs-and war paint. With the kick of a door that leads to ground level and blinding daylight, the Rabbits, to the sound of rock guitar music, rise up to meet the Butcher’s crew and stain the snowy grounds of Paradise Square with their blood.
Gangs ‘ opening skirmish ends in tragedy as Priest Vallon falls to Bill the Butcher and then insists that his son watch Bill deliver the death blow. “Don’t ever look away,” father tells son before he expires.
The movie cuts to sixteen years later, as a grown Amsterdam Vallon is released from the Hell Gate House of Reform. The city is run by the Tammany machine and the city is filled with Union soldiers, seeking enlistees for the insatiable civil war, but Amsterdam can think of little more than revenge. President Lincoln’s face fleks the city on recruitment leaflets, a reminder of Federal order imposing itself on a tribal city.
And throughout the movie, aside from the growing sense of near-apocalyptic tension between Day-Lewis’ character and DiCaprio’s, the main drama that rises is of a city in the act of becoming, of immigrants growing toward a future providing them with escape, of the cold inexorability of politics and power creating a history surpassing the primitive warring of the nativists. The movie has some stumbling narrative stretches as it tries to process vast territory, but it is surefooted describing the beginning of Democratic politics in the New York, and takes on the growth of the city with a confident precision that few American films have achieved. And before the movie’s done, Mr. Scorsese-and his screenwriters, Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan-are quite convincing about their protagonist’s and antagonist’s places as paradigms.
“It’s almost like these two guys are fighting some ancient blood ritual,” Mr. Scorsese said as he sat in the second-floor living room of his home. “The futility of it, would just go on and on. In the meantime the whole world changes around you.”
When Gangs of New York is released on Dec. 20, the nation’s film critics will decide if it’s a good film or not, but they will not lack for material to masticate. Mr. Scorsese’s film is as dense and rich as a fruitcake full of blades and bullets with scene after resonant scene that can be dissected, analyzed and discussed for its symbolism and relevance to present-day America. It also works as a kind of master statement of the subjects that Mr. Scorsese has broached in his previous movies. From the disenfranchised gangs of GoodFellas and Mean Streets to the class struggles of Age of Innocence to the discomfort of uptowners lost downtown in After Hours- not to mention his favorite fuel of choice, rage- Gangs of New York has it all.
As Mr. Scorsese pointed out during an interview with the Observer at his Upper East Side home on Nov. 16, Gangs is “not a film that is historical fact,” like, for example, Glory . Rather, he said, it is “an impression of time.” Though actual New York characters, landmarks and incidents populate the film, including William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), P.T. Barnum (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), Horace Greeley (Michael Byrne), the Old Brewery tenement building that was the heart of the Five Points district, the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Draft Riots, and other characters and incidents are based on actual ones, Mr. Scorsese took some dramatic and chronological license to make his film.
Though it recreates 1860′s New York in dress, custom, language and a more than one-mile-long set built at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, there is nothing fossilized about the movie. “The past is the torch that lights our way,” Amsterdam says at one point in the film, and by combining his obsessions with film and New York history, Mr. Scorsese shows us that though this squalid chapter in the city’s history has been built over-the Federal courthouse stands roughly where the Five Points once did-power, class, culture and political struggles that took place then continue today, with different players but no less fervor.
Onto the revenge story that forms the backbone of Gang s, Mr. Scorsese has grafted many memorable images of this city’s and our nation’s growing pains. In one, a row of newly inducted Union soldiers files onto a boat from which fresh coffins are being hoisted off. In another, a black man dances an Irish jig-”A jig dancing a jig,” is how Bill the Butcher describes it-foreshadowing the birth of tapdancing, which was spawned in the Five Points. And in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, a theater production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , played by actors in blackface, is interrupted first by a rain of vegetables thrown by the disgusted audience, and later by the an assassination attempt on Bill the Butcher’s life. All of this chaos is presided over by an actor playing Abraham Lincoln, who dangles helplessly like a marionette from the ceiling. Finally, there is a scene in which Bill the Butcher utters the line that is destined to become the film’s bloodcurdling “Heeere’s Johnny!” sound bite: “Whoopsy-Daisy!”
When I told Mr. Scorsese that there was a lot of meat in Gangs , he laughed. “That’s what he was telling me too,” he said. Mr. Scorsese meant Mr. Weinstein. “He would say, you know, there’s a lot in there. I would say yeah, yeah, but it’s going to be really rich.” He laughed again. Clocking in at two hours and 38 minutes, Mr. Scorsese said that no major scenes were sacrificed for length and the eventual DVD won’t have any additional scenes.
“Sometimes Weinstein would say. You know, Marty there’s DVD’s and I said, no, once it finally comes down to size it’s going to be the picture. “It’s all shaved down like a piece of sculpture,” Mr. Scorsese said. “It’s all tightened and tightened.”
As for the Gangs that’s going to open on Dec. 20, Mr. Scorsese admitted that the day he spoke to the Observer he had gone back and tweaked a scene: “There’s part of me that will never stop. I just did something today on something”-that was explicit as he got-”and Harvey says, ‘That’s it. Is he crazy?’”
Over the course of the production of Gangs , much was made of reported battles between Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Weinstein, but, the director said: “Things were taken and blown out of proportion,” in some cases, because of Mr. Weinstein’s larger-than-life nature. “Harvey’s a showman. He’s flamboyant,” Mr. Scorsese said. “He makes statements. Some of which I agree with totally. Other things, Uh, you had to say that, right?” He laughed. “So, I mean, it drew a lot of attention, I think, to a lot of stuff that goes on with any big movie.”
When I asked Mr. Scorsese if Mr. Weinstein had ever tried to do his own cut of Gangs , he replied: “No.” And then he said: “In other words, he was very patient with me. And I could see him trying to be patient.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows. “I could see it. It was almost better.”
Mr. Scorsese said that length was a concern of Mr. Weinstein’s. “He was always, ‘Isn’t it a little too long. Yeah. And sure enough, in some cases-not all the cases-I heard it. I got it.”
“I guess what I’m getting at is, often he’ll tell you the result. He’ll want the result right away,” Mr. Scorsese said of Mr. Weinstein. “I got to go through a process. And it would be frustrating for anybody who wants to get to a certain result.”
Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Weinstein said of Gangs and Mr. Scorsese: “I love the movie. I love Marty. This experience has been one of the highlights of my film career and it was a true privilege to serve Marty.”
Asked if he would work again with Mr. Weinstein, Mr. Scorsese said: “I think so, yeah. Yeah, there’s no doubt. It’s just a matter of, a matter of, well, how shall I put it? This was something that was so unique that I would want, it depends on the subject matter, on the script really. Another big picture, personally, I don’t know if I would do it. Any big film.”
Indeed, there is the sense that Gangs of New York will be the last epic, big budget picture from the generation of filmmakers that produced Mr. Scorsese.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Mr. Scorsese said, when I asked him if he thought this was true. “I’m a different generation,” he said. “Through Vietnam, through the 50s, where the whole culture opened up in a way, where Otto Preminger was breaking the code making his films.” The new generation of filmmakers and filmgoers comes from a realm of experience, he said. “But they’ve experienced something else, which is this now.” He knocked the coffee table with his hand. “The world as we thought we knew it is gone.
“So it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t take away the ability to laugh about one’s own society or themselves with cerain kinds of humorous films. But I think they have to start reflecting and thinking about the world they’re in now. What should American movies be saying now dealing with the world situation the way it is? What is the image of America that we want sent abroad? Films are the biggest export we have. And I can tell you around the world, a lot of people resent them. I face it. I get there and they tell me.”
“I guess one of things I wanted to do with the film is to make younger people understand the nature of how this place was created and the desperation that you had to have to get in a boat to come here,” Mr. Scorsese said. “I’m not talking about the rich. The rich were here. I’m talking about the ones who had no choices, no choice at all.” Mr. Scorsese counted among them the Irish, who were fleeing famine, the Jews coming out of eastern Europe and Russia from the pogroms and the Italian peasants, “like my grandparents in Sicily, where forget about trusting in a government or even the church-they took your land.
“It’s all been assimilated now, it seems,” Mr. Scorsese said. “The problem is it’s going to go away. What I mean by that, if one doesn’t become conscious of it and become part of, in a constructive way, a system to sustain it, but not only for ourselves, for others and to learn respect for others, it is going to go away.”
Earlier, Mr. Scorsese had recalled researching his film and coming across a map of Manhattan’s churches from around the 1820′s. “In the lower right-hand corner,” he said, “there was a tiny little tablet index that said ‘Miscellanea: St Patrick’s Cathedral, Quaker House, a synagogue, about two or three others.’ “
He smiled and his eyebrows did a quick flex. “But America’s not that way. It’s all parked together. So it also means Muslim, it means Hindu. And it behooves everyone to learn more and understand more about the world around them. The more you understand the less you fear. Unfortunately, the danger is that so much is out of control. There’s been so much injustice in a way that violence is the form of expression.
“It’s a long, long process, but there has to be a change from inside. For everybody. If we can’t make it, it’s got to be for our children. Or we’re never going to see the end of it.”
Mr. Scorsese recalled reading a Turkish writer “who talked about creating the dispossessed over the years. You know. Travis Bickle is dispossessed. It’s as if we’ve created hundreds of thousands of them. In a way, through politics, through economics, whatever. It’s there now. And think of Travis.”
The world had changed around Mr. Scorsese, too, since he started production on Gangs . The glass coffee table before him was ringed with an elastic padding, testament to the presence of his daughter Francesca, who had turned 3 that very day, Nov. 16, and greeted me at the door with the announcement: “I had a big birthday.”
And the very next day, Mr. Scorsese would turn 60. Downstairs, in the same room where Francesca’s presents were piled high on a sideboard, a wooden case of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1993 topped with an envelope bearing Mr. Scorsese’s name suggested that the gift giving had already begun.
Back up in the living room, Mr. Scorsese, dressed in a gray button-down shirt open at the neck and lose fitting blue pants, looked a little weary. His once dark wavy hair had gone gray, but his bushy expressive eyebrows, which he often used to underscore a point or express one nonverbally, had refused to go along for the ride.
When I asked him what it felt like to finish a picture that he’d been trying to put on the screen for more than two decades and that had taken a year and a half to edit, he answered flatly, “I don’t know.
“I’m still so close to it,” he said. “Honestly, I just want to go to sleep for a while. I don’t want to deal with it.” But then Mr. Scorsese thought some more. “It’s been such a long haul,” he said, adding that “the film as we were making it achieved a sort of resonance that we didn’t quite expect. It’s emotionally overwhelming.”
I asked Mr. Scorsese if he found the New York of today anywhere near as volatile as the city he portrays in his movie.
“For me, somehow it’s always been a struggle,” he said. “A lot of historians said about the 19th Century, particularly-though it could be very true for this century and the 20th, too-that if democracy didn’t work in New York it wasn’t going to work anyplace else in the country. It just wasn’t. Because everybody is on top of each other.
“It’s the same today. But it doesn’t seem like it,” he continued. “I mean, the standard of living has gone up. Slums that bred such madness like the Five Points were so bad. That’s been eradicated to a certain point. Now it’s off in the inner city and the outer boroughs. But what’s disquieting is, it’s not just New York now, it’s the world.”
In his world view, were men mostly good or bad, I asked him. “I really want to think that they’re basically decent,” he said, adding that coming of age in the Little Italy section of Manhattan, “I did grow up around some people who generally did bad things. But were they bad people? The ones who did all the time, maybe. They crushed anything in their souls that had any good in them, you know, to toughen themselves up and destroy everything around them. But just because a person does one or two bad things doesn’t make that person a bad person.
Then the director squinted a bit and smiled.
“The realer side of me, I don’t have much faith in that,” he said. “It’s just the nature of what we are as animals.” Mr. Scorsese shifted again. “We’ve evolved to a certain point, but we’re still-it’s what Bill keeps saying, he deals with animals, he deals with carcasses. They are made up of the same things.”
The director is referring to a scene in Gangs where Bill the Butcher, unaware that he has taken a liking to Priest Vallon’s son, teaches him how to kill a man using a pig carcass as a stand-in. In it, he mentions that the consistency of pig flesh is actually quite close to human flesh, and Mr. Scorsese said that line came from the English village butcher under whom Mr. Day-Lewis studied for his part.
“I mean isn’t there anything in our evolution, that’s going to evolve us more where we don’t deal with our animal natures, where we don’t have instincts of violence. But the way things are going now, the only way some people can express themselves is with violence.”
Like many of Mr. Scorsese’s movies, the subject of rage looms large. At one point in the movie, Bill the Butcher, a man whose anger is as finely honed as the meat cleaver he wields with samurai deftness, tells young Amsterdam, “you have a murderous rage inside of you, and I like it.”
“Well, where they are it is a good thing,” Mr. Scorsese said. “Otherwise he’s not going to survive. Unfortunately, that’s the way everything’s becoming.”
I asked Mr. Scorsese if making movies has quelled the rage in him that resides in most creative people. “You know, I actually think so. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t yelling and screaming every day. Throwing phones out the window,” Mr. Scorsese smiled. “It’s a whole thing. Especially mobile, cell phones that go out? That’s it. Gone.”
“When we were younger too we were crazy and arrogant and pains in the neck,” Mr. Scorsese said. “In those days it was somewhat different. And, for me now, it’s conserving energy. The anger’s there, there’s no doubt. But I also thing the anger’s important. If I could channel the anger into the creative energy. Sam Fuller said it. The best time to make a film is when you’re angry about something.
“You can rage and scream against it, it’s just that at a certain point, I try to find the right places to express it,” he said. “And then with young kids, things change.”
Mr. Scorsese recounted a moment with his daughter in Italy. “She’s less than a year old. She’s having Sunday lunch,” he said. “She’s playing with her hand and she sees light. The light of the sun is on the table and she sees there’s a shadow. It’s the first time she’s noticing her shadow. So I’m noticing the shadow. Everything kind of stops.” The director was quiet for a moment. “You begin to see life again.”