13 Epic Facts About Gangs of New York

Miramax
Miramax

Violent criminals and the Big Apple are two of Martin Scorsese’s favorite things, so Gangs of New York was a natural fit, even if the gangs in question were old-timey ones from the 1860s rather than the Joe Pesci kind. Gangs of New York marked Scorsese’s first collaboration (of five, so far) with Leonardo DiCaprio, which may have been a factor in its also being his first box office hit in over a decade. What more is there to know about a bloody epic that was nominated for 10 Oscars but won none of them? Get out your throwin’ knives and your dead rabbits and read on.

1. IT WAS 32 YEARS IN THE MAKING.

Martin Scorsese read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1970 and immediately thought it would make a good movie. He didn’t have any money or clout yet though, so he had to wait. He bought the movie rights to the book in 1979, and even got a screenplay written around that time, then spent the next 20 years trying to get the project off the ground before finding a willing financial partner in Harvey Weinstein at Miramax Films.

2. IT WAS SHOT ON A MASSIVE SET IN ROME.

Mario Tursi/Miramax

What do you do when you want to shoot on location but the location doesn’t exist anymore? You either build it, or you use computers to fabricate it. Scorsese went with the former option, commissioning Italian production designer Dante Ferretti to create a breathtakingly authentic version of New York’s Five Points neighborhood circa 1860. At the legendary Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Ferretti’s team built a mile of sets—stores, saloons, houses, the town square, even the harbor, docks, and ships—all of them fully functional, with no facades. Visitors marveled at how stepping onto the set was like stepping back in time.

3. THE BOOK THAT INSPIRED MARTIN SCORSESE WASN’T ALL THAT ACCURATE.

A modern historian named Tyler Anbinder, who wrote Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum and gave Scorsese input on the Gangs screenplay, said Asbury’s book from the ‘20s exaggerated how dangerous the neighborhood was. Anbinder had access to statistics that Asbury did not, and he said, “Other than public drunkenness and prostitution, there was no more crime in Five Points than in any other part of the city.” Asbury had written that “there was one tenement where there was a murder a day,” but in fact, Anbinder said, “there was barely a murder a month in all of New York City” at that time.

4. SCORSESE IMAGINED THE BLUES BROTHERS AS THE LEADS.

At one point in the late 1970s, when Scorsese was earnestly trying to get the film made, he envisioned Dan Aykroyd playing the Leonardo DiCaprio role, with John Belushi in the Daniel Day-Lewis part. Willem Dafoe and Robert De Niro were also attached to play Bill the Butcher at different times. And in his original conception, in the early ‘70s, Scorsese wanted A Clockwork Orange star Malcolm McDowell.

5. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS WAS TRAINED BY REAL BUTCHERS, BECAUSE OF COURSE HE WAS.

YouTube

Ever the Method actor, Day-Lewis first took lessons from two Argentine brothers with a butcher shop in Queens, then from a master butcher specially flown in from London. If you listen closely, you can hear producer Harvey Weinstein screaming about the expense. 

6. GEORGE LUCAS HELPED WITH AN ELEPHANT PROBLEM.

The Star Wars creator, then working on Attack of the Clones, had visited the massive set in Rome and told Scorsese that it was probably the last of its kind, that such large re-creations would be done on computers now to save money. Lucas’ know-how in such matters came in handy later, when Gangs needed an elephant and none of the animal wranglers in Italy were able to produce one in time.

Weinstein later recalled that he told Scorsese to keep shooting while he called Lucas and asked for help: “We’re effed! We don’t have [an] elephant! Tell us how to shoot it!” Lucas, an old pro at such things, guided them through the process of filming without the elephant and having it digitally created later. It’s the only thing in the movie that’s completely computer-generated. 

7. SEVERAL CHARACTERS WERE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE.

Bill the Butcher was real, though Scorsese changed his surname from Poole to Cutting for the movie to reflect a creative liberty he’d taken, i.e., having the character live to see the Civil War (he was actually murdered in 1855). William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent) was a real politician who controlled the Tammany Hall political machine, as you may recall from your high school U.S. history class. So were the Schermerhorns, the rich people seen taking a tour of the misery and vice of Five Points. (Interesting footnote: Scorsese’s fifth wife, whom he married in 1999, is one Helen Schermerhorn Morris, a descendant of early New York elites.) Perhaps most surprisingly, Hell-Cat Maggie (Cara Seymour)—the vicious female fighter who bites off victims’ ears—was fact-based, being a composite of the real Hell-Cat Maggie (her real name is unknown) and a few other historical lady criminals.

8. SCORSESE HAS A CAMEO AS AN UPPER-CRUSTER, BUT ONLY FOR HIS DAUGHTER’S SAKE. 

YouTube

Scorsese wanted his daughter, Francesca, to be in the movie, because that’s your prerogative when you’re a director. Since she was a babe-in-arms, Scorsese wanted to be in the scene with her, and he didn’t want her to be in the Five Points. “After two weeks of working in those sets, and rain and all sorts of things, they became very lived-in. The streets became very muddy,” he said. The safest, cleanest place was the fancy house of some fancy people that Cameron Diaz’s character steals from, with Scorsese as the fancy dad. (Scorsese assures us in the DVD commentary that he would much rather have played a Five Pointer.)

9. DAY-LEWIS LISTENED TO A LOT OF EMINEM ON THE SET.

The actor is well known for doing a lot of intense preparation before a film shoot, and for staying in character throughout it. That doesn’t mean he only listened to music that Bill the Butcher would have listened to, though. He told Rolling Stone that he listened to a lot of Eminem on the set: “Every morning around five, especially the song ‘The Way I Am.’ I’ve admired him for a while. I’m always on the lookout for music that might be helpful to a role.” Perhaps Eminem’s bravado, egotism, and showmanship spoke to the Butcher. 

10. DAY-LEWIS WAS URGED TO TAKE THE PART BY SCORSESE, LEONARDO DICAPRIO, AND ... TOBEY MAGUIRE? 

Harvey Weinstein would later exaggerate the “courting” process, but Day-Lewis really did take his time in deciding to take the role. While visiting New York to discuss it with Scorsese (whom he’d worked with on The Age of Innocence), Day-Lewis also met with DiCaprio. The two had a heart-to-heart on a bench in Central Park, and later had dinner with DiCaprio’s friend Tobey Maguire. According to DiCaprio, the future Spider-Man told Day-Lewis, “Y’know, when somebody has a talent like yours, it’s almost their responsibility to do it, to get back in the saddle.” 

11. SCORSESE REFUSED TO LET 9/11 CHANGE THE FINAL IMAGE.

YouTube

Weinstein’s official explanation for delaying the release of the film from December 2001 to December 2002 was that it was too soon after 9/11 for a violent movie set in New York that depicts early incarnations of the NYPD. But Scorsese continued to shoot small “pick-ups” (minor snippets of scenes) well into 2002—so either he was taking advantage of Weinstein’s delay, or Weinstein delayed it so Scorsese could finish. Whatever the case, when the movie was released, it still ended with a time-lapse effect that culminates in a shot of present-day New York—Twin Towers included, even though they’d come down 15 months earlier.

“It had to end with [the modern skyline being built], or the movie shouldn’t have existed,” Scorsese explained. “We did the paintings and edited that skyline sequence before September 11, and afterward it was suggested that we should take out the towers, but I felt ... it’s not my job to revise the New York skyline. The people in the film ... were part of the creation of that skyline, not the destruction of it. And if the skyline collapses, ultimately, they will build another one.” 

12. SCORSESE GAVE HARVEY WEINSTEIN A LOT OF HOMEWORK.

To give Weinstein an idea of what he wanted the movie to look like, Scorsese “made” Weinstein watch 80 movies (possibly an exaggeration), including semi-obscure classics like The Man Who Laughs, a silent film from 1928. “Eighty. Can you imagine?” Weinstein recalled. “And remember: no videos, no DVDs. Every movie has to be on the big screen. It was like going to school with Professor Scorsese.” 

13. THERE WERE LONGER CUTS OF THE MOVIE, BUT YOU WON’T SEE THEM.

The first cut, the throw-in-everything-and-see-what-works version, was three hours and 38 minutes, almost an hour longer than the final cut. Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, tinkered with it relentlessly, ultimately producing 18 different versions that were screened for various audiences. Weinstein, rightfully nicknamed Harvey Scissorhands for his ruthless trimming of the movies he releases, no doubt urged Scorsese toward a shorter runtime, but Scorsese said he’s happy with the one everybody saw, which is two hours and 47 minutes.

“There’s not one version that I would say, ‘That’s my original version,’” Scorsese said on the DVD commentary. They were more like drafts: “This was all a series of changes and rewrites and restructuring, until finally it comes down to the movie you see in the theater.” 

14. ELMER BERNSTEIN WROTE A MUSICAL SCORE THAT SCORSESE ULTIMATELY REJECTED.

The legendary and prolific composer, credited with well over 200 scores for movies and television, had worked with Scorsese several times before (including The Age of Innocence, which earned him an Oscar nomination). He composed “a complete score” for Gangs of New York, but over the course of the long editing process, Scorsese’s concept for the music changed. (“He winds up with a Scorsese score, a pastiche,” Bernstein said.) In the end, Scorsese used some orchestral music by Howard Shore, along with contemporary pieces by the likes of Peter Gabriel and U2. You can hear a sample of Bernstein’s version here

Additional sources:
Martin Scorsese’s DVD commentary

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

- Selieve Toys Old Children's Walkie Talkies $17 (save $7)

- Yard Games Giant Tumbling Timbers $59 (save $21)

- Duckura Jump Rocket Launchers $11 (save $17)

- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

- Yankee Candle Large Jar Candle Vanilla Cupcake $17 (save $12)

- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

- Lush Decor Blue and Gray Flower Curtains Pair $57 (save $55)

- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.