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Gangs of New York was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and yet, I still can’t shake the feeling that Martin Scorsese‘s revenge epic has been overlooked. With a filmograpyy as refined as Scorsese’s, a few gems are bound to go unnoticed, but even at the time of its release many were split by the film. It wasn’t a domestic box-office hit, scored a modest 75% on Rottentomatoes, and, from what I can recall, most people I knew weren’t a fan Scorsese’s impressionistic period piece. That’s a pity, because this fictional tale of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeking revenge on the man who killed his father, Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), is one of Scorsese’s most thrilling and hypnotic films.

Even if you found the acclaimed director’s untraditional approach to period distancing, you can’t dismiss it has one of the finest pieces of acting ever put on film courtesy of Day-Lewis. He was so magnificent in a supporting role that the Academy instead nominated him for best actor, but it’s well earned since he is Gangs of New York. Technically speaking the movie is stunning, from the sets to the editing to the you name it, but when Gangs of New York fans start talking, it’s Day-Lewis’ towering performance that usually dominates the conversation.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Commentator: director Martin Scorsese

1. On January 1st, 1970, the title of a book caught Scorsese’s eye: ‘The Gangs of New York,’ by Herbert Asbury. He started to read it and thought “certain aspects of it” would make for an incredible film. Around 1975 [one of the film’s three credited writers] Jay Cocks began writing the film.

2. The opening battle scene is a series of intercuts of people fighting. It was inspired by Orson Welles‘ Chimes at Midnight, which Scorsese praises for having one of the finest battle scenes ever made.

3. A majority of the opening fight was done in three weeks, in bits and pieces. Vic Armstrong took drawings of Scorsese’s and shot even more bits and pieces for six weeks whenever the sun was right. Scorsese had designed a lot of the shots — Maggie (Cara Seymour) flying onto the back of a man and biting his ear off — and they were shot exactly as drawn. He told Armstrong to always keep the camera moving, to start with 48 frames per second, go to 12 frames per second, and then go back to 24 frames per second. Then Armstrong was instructed to do the shot again the opposite way.

3. Scorsese wanted to suggest “the completions of action” in the editing. You never see a knife actually going in someone. Violence is a part of everyday life in this world, but Scorsese didn’t want to “dwell” on it; he wanted to imply it with camera speed.

4. Scorsese did not want to be literal with Gangs of New York, hence the use of Peter Gabriel music for the opening battle.

5. Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York by the end of the 70s, but after making Raging Bull everything changed in Hollywood. If the film was made in the 1970s, Scorsese guesses it would’ve been a more violent film. At the time the necessary budget wouldn’t have been available to him so the project was put aside. It was after Goodfellas that he realized it was time to start working on Gangs of New York again, but it still wasn’t possible. By 1999 the possibility of having Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead improved its chances.

6. Robert De Niro suggested DiCaprio for Amsterdam Vallon. The star of The Family and Grudge Match felt DiCaprio “had a lot of potential.”

7. Scorsese wanted to simplify the gang activity, keeping it all at the Five Points which serve as a metaphor for the whole city.

8. Scorsese says the film is most accurate to the time period’s anarchy, but he sees the movie as an impression of a surreal time, which makes some historical tweaking acceptable.

9.  The idea of Day-Lewis playing Cutting came up while he and Scorsese were making The Age of Innocence, but it was never seriously discussed between the two of them. The only other time an actor was previously mentioned for the role was Malcolm McDowell because of his work in A Clockwork Orange and If…. When they were beginning to seriously discuss casting, Day-Lewis had no interest in film acting. Harvey Weinstein flew Day-Lewis in for a few days and asked him not to play the role so he could win the Academy Award for it.

10. Scorsese and DiCaprio conversed more often with the character of Cutting than with Day-Lewis, which they enjoyed, because they liked the guy. Even when Scorsese talked to Day-Lewis on the telephone or off-camera, he’d be talking to Cutting.

11. Aside from prostitution and thievery, people from the underground didn’t have many options. Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) represents someone taking the crime outside of the Five Points, showing what the underworld would later become in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1890s. She’s the start of the confidence man.

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12. Scorsese didn’t give himself a cameo as one of the upper-class figures because he sided with them, but so he could have a scene with his newly born daughter which didn’t take place in the Five Points.

13. Even when the sets were constructed Scorsese still had doubts that the movie would happen.

14. The idea of Irish men getting off the boat, becoming a citizen, and then immediately becoming soldiers was a dramatically condensed idea. Realistically, that process took days, but that scene at the docks captures the spirit of the idea.

15. In the last two months of editing they found the balance between the fictional personal story and the historical backdrop. All fictional characters were meant to represent certain beliefs of the period.

16. Scorsese describes Amsterdam’s revenge as killing the man who becomes his father, Bill, who’s also in need of a son.

17. For an unexplained reason, screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) came onboard the project. He spent six months on the project helping to find the structure, before Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) was brought to polish up the character work.

18. Because New York is a multilingual city, they had to create an accent for Cutting. One piece of inspiration was Walt Whitman’s pronunciation of “apple.”

19. The 40 day/night shoot of After Hours rejuvenated Scorsese.

20. The look of the film was one of the reasons why the film took so long to get financed. A few of the required interiors existed, but New York had radically transformed over the years that it wouldn’t have been possible to shoot on the streets. Scorsese believes the scope of the sets built for Gangs of New York will rarely ever be matched in the future, thanks to CGI. Apparently George Lucas was so impressed with the sets that he had to have a photo with Scorsese on one of them. Lucas said this way of moviemaking would soon be diminished once people realized it’s cheaper to create those environments with CGI.

21. Sydney Pollack came up with the idea of the Dead Rabbits doing the red stripes in a more primitive way, by painting the stripes on whatever shirts they had.

22. Scorsese jokes that, if it was up to him, he’d still be on the streets shooting new scenes for Gangs of New York. He says another story or aspect could be easily added to the film.

23. Scorsese praises his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, for her tenacity in finding the emotion of a scene. She doesn’t ever read the script, so she can have “a cold and objective point of view.”

24. The assembly cut was three hours and 38 minutes long. Not everything worked, so two days later the film was brought down 3 hours and 37 minutes. There were 18 screenings in total and there’s not one version Scorsese would call “my version.” The whole process was a series of rewrites until the final version was found.

25. There are only two corners left of the real Five Points.

Best of commentary:

  • “I wanted to start with a group of people who had been battered into the ground. They had no choice. They have nothing to lose. Faith binds them together, and faith can fuel the flames of war. Half of these people represent any group that’s ever been oppressed. They’re the men of the underworld.”
  • “I’ve done violence in pretty flat and straightforward ways. I didn’t know how else to do it, but, by the end of Casino with the killing of Joe Pesci and his brother, in my mind, I thought it was important to depict the downside of that lifestyle. You have to be honest in the portrayal of violence.”
  • “In a sense, this film represents a foundation upon which my other movies are based. It creates a world in which the worlds I depicted in Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and, to a certain extent, Taxi Driver, emerge from.”
  • “Naturally I lean more towards the villainous sides [when it comes to protagonists].”
  • “I wanted The Clash to write music for this. We got together many times and discussed the idea. The movie almost got made in 1981, but, again, the industry changed and everything had to be rethought. In any event, in the designing of the film, The Clash’s music still helped.”

Final Thoughts:

This commentary track is arguably as much of a history lesson as it is a technical breakdown of the film, but that’s perfectly acceptable since Scorsese exhibits real passion for history. He talks at a rapid pace and is full of interesting anecdotes, whether about the film or New York’s history, so the commentary moves as fast as his 2 hour and 47 minute epic allows. There are frequent gaps of silence, but Scorsese remains lively all the same.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives


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