- 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
Absolutely. We have that as well in the film. The Draft Riots, when all the chips were down, became racial. And the things that were done were horrible. It came out of a difficult political, economic, and social situation that had been brewing for many years. And it came from something very human, unfortunately—hating someone who looks different from you.
They were blaming African-Americans for the Civil War, however unjustly.
Right. We hit upon that immediately. DiCaprio, Amsterdam, comes to New York, a day or two before the abolition of slavery is announced, before the Emancipation Proclamation. There’s a nativist parade, and right in the middle of it, Bill the Butcher says something racist like, “Go ahead, go down [to the war] and help out your blackie friends.” His boys try to beat up two black guys who are standing on the side of the street, just because they’re black.
That’s how politics worked then. A lot of people couldn’t read, so to be understood or heard, you had to go on a street corner, make noise, have a parade. And tell people, “We’re parading because of this or that. And we look like this, we’re dressed this way, so you’ll know who we are. When you see us coming, you know who we are .” All the gangs in the movie wear different colors. Their costumes are taken from engravings of the time.
The movie looks tremendously authentic.
It is stunning to see the firemen who started the riots break through the draft office.
That’s the Black Joke Fire Company, which was the volunteer company that went in, broke through the windows, and stopped the draft—though they didn’t plan to start the worst riots in American history. That’s the kind of detail I wanted to get right. I don’t necessarily want somebody standing up and saying, “Gee, that was the Black Joke,” I just want them to be struck with the impression that that was how things worked then. You know, the movie is not a history book; it’s mostly a personal story. But the idea is to find the thrust of the story, upon which detail is then applied, to create an impression of a time and a place and an attitude and an atmosphere.
You’ve gone so far as to make a very careful replica of one of the iconic Jacob Riis photographs of the terrible slums and alleys down there, from How the Other Half Lives , and you’ve reversed its viewpoint.
Absolutely right. We built an alley from the photograph Bandits’ Roost and went right through the alley with a Steadicam.
It’s phenomenal. You’ve talked in the past about how films provide a common unconscious, and here it is. We recognize the place. The way you have done it, it really does take up the viewpoint of the gangsters, of the poor and the underclass, looking out from that alley.
We used a number of Riis photographs to build the sets. We also re-created Paradise Square, at the heart of the neighborhood, from old engravings and drawings of the Five Points. Plus, there are images of wooden buildings that I remember from growing up on Elizabeth Street. They go back to 1850 or before. One was a live chicken market, between Prince and Spring. Another was a pasticceria.
You grew up right where most of the movie is set.
Yes. The Five Points were farther downtown, but there was a spillover. Of course, by the time I grew up there it had become an Italian neighborhood, but the subculture was familiar. What was important, what was immediate to me, was family, and street, and church. On the positive side, there was a wonderful sense of communal living, of community. There were three grocery stores on the same block, and three butcher shops. Candy stores, shoeshine parlors. Little social clubs where old Italian men met and drank coffee. Festivals for the saints. So it was very, very much a community.
The patterns of life were the same.
I remember, every day I would come home from my school around the corner and go up to my tenement apartment. My father was working, my brother was working, my mother was working. And I’d take those two hours before everybody came home for a nice quiet time. Do homework—and I saw a lot of films on TV while I was doing that.
Then my mother would come home around five-thirty. She would call up to me, and I’d go downstairs. I’d also meet her at the grocery store and bring up some bags with her for the evening’s dinner. And my father would go visit his mother, who lived two or three doors down, in the tenement he was born in. You’d always hear mothers calling their kids to come home or throwing down money for them to buy something for them. The reason I talk about all this in detail is that it was a family life. It was sons of immigrants trying to make a living and trying to put food on the table. Becoming Americanized.
“I wasn’t in Rome. I was at the Five Points…. I was on the set, but in my mind it was real.”
It seems almost idyllic now.
And yet, at the same time, the whole atmosphere, the whole neighborhood, was also riddled with the underworld. The two negative things about it were the underworld and skid row. Those were part of my world, and they were also part of the old Five Points. There were mostly poor people, who were working very hard and trying to make a decent living. But the gangsters were part of it too.