- Historic Sites
“You Have To Give A Sense Of What People Wanted”
Martin Scorsese has drawn on his own youth and his feelings about the past—and has rebuilt 1860s New York—to make a movie about the fight for American democracy. Here he tells why it is both so hard and so necessary to get history on film.
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
I spoke with Martin Scorsese in early September about his forthcoming movie Gangs of New York. The setting was the Park Avenue offices of his Cappa production company, where he was still hard at work, editing and finishing his film. The offices were spacious and well appointed, with shelves full of bound volumes of movie magazines and framed movie posters hanging on almost every wall. There were also two portraits, done in the manner of a mid-nineteenth-century society painter, one of a prosperous-looking man who might have been a merchant, the other of a mother and child, with red-blond hair. Scorsese told me that we’d see these being burned “right up to the eyes” during a looting scene in the movie.
Like the book of the same title, a history of New York’s worst neighborhoods in the 1850s and 1860s written in the 1920s by a newspaperman named Herbert Asbury, Gangs of New York is a drama set mostly in the city’s notorious Five Points area, in the years before and during the Civil War. Its climactic scenes take place during the infamous Draft Riots of 1863, in which white working-class New Yorkers, incensed over a law that enabled rich men to buy their way out of the draft, launched a bloody four-day battle for the very control of the city. To this day, they are considered the worst riots in American history.
No director would seem better prepared to take on this obscure but seminal episode in American history than Scorsese, whose previous films include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and The Age of Innocence. From the start of our interview, he insisted that he was “not a historian” but “what you would call a history buff. And especially of ancient history.” Yet his knowledge of history, both American and otherwise, is lively, deep, and all but encyclopedic.
We spoke just three days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in their wake what Scorsese had to say about both America’s and New York’s past seemed all the more significant.
Gangs of New York, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Henry Thomas, and Brendan Gleeson, will open early next year.
You wanted to make the movie for a long time, didn’t you?
Yes, I first read The Gangs of New York in January 1970, on New Year’s Day. I found it on somebody’s bookshelf and started looking at it, and then I got a copy. My friend Jay Cocks and I talked about making a movie of it, and in the mid-seventies, he started to write a script. By 1979 the script was finished, and it reflected the kind of film that could be done in the seventies. It was personal, big, sprawling. But we couldn’t get money for it.
By the time the script was done, I was about to go into Raging Bull, Francis Coppola was making Apocalypse Now, and Heaven’s Gate was being made, all at the same studio, United Artists. And then Heaven’s Gate lost a lot of money—and Hollywood’s in the business of making money.
But now you have brought the same vision to the screen, a story of gang warfare in antebellum New York.
Yes, and we have a great cast. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a fictitious Irish gang member, and Daniel Day-Lewis is “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, a leader of the nativist gangs, who hated immigrants. In the foreground, Gangs of New York is about a struggle between nativist gangs and Irish gangs. We’ve twisted history a little bit, but the film begins with a gang battle between the nativists and the Dead Rabbits, an Irish gang. The head of the Dead Rabbits, played by Liam Neeson, is killed by Bill the Butcher. Neeson’s eight-year-old son witnesses that.
And the part of the son is played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
“The nation wasn’t really a nation yet. It had to be battled out. What we show here is based on that.”
Yes. The narrative motor of the movie is for him to take revenge on Bill the Butcher for his father’s death. But things don’t go that smoothly. Ultimately, DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam, is caught in the emotional turmoil among the people he runs into. And politics comes into it. Boss Tweed is introduced, trying to work out an alliance with some of the nativist gangs, in order to use them for muscle.
In the end, though, they wanted nothing to do with Tweed, because he was also trying to recruit the Irish immigrants. These nativists, whose families had fought and bled here in America—they weren’t going to let those foreign people come in. They didn’t like the way they dressed, didn’t like how they spoke, and most of all, they hated their religion. This was the first real confrontation of Catholics and Protestants in America, and it had to have been brutal.
Today, we think of race as much more of a flashpoint.