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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Martin Scorsese’s DVD commentary