- 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
There was Mary the butcher, across the street, Mary Albanese, who’s still alive. She’s in her nineties. Her husband, in 1931, was standing in the street talking to some people and happened to be in the way of a gangland raid, and he was killed. That’s how I grew up. That’s how I thought the whole world was. And how I still think it is, actually.
I think that’s hard to comprehend for a lot of us today.
No, there’s nothing like it at all today. I hope that this picture will show people that the things they’ve had since they were born, the world around them, did not just fall into place. That this idea of a country, this idea of equality of race, color, creed, this sense of independence, this separation of church and state, was a very real struggle.
With all these great books now about the Founding Fathers, David McCullough’s on John Adams and Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers , you understand that these are not just stuffy men, with white wigs on, standing around a piece of paper they’re signing with beautiful calligraphy. They could have been hanged, they could have been shot. They were on the line. This country came out of their extraordinary intelligence, but it also came out of great struggle, and it came out of great violence.
Does the fact that Americans have an idealized notion of the past make historical drama difficult?
I think what makes it difficult is the audience thinking the past is too distant to identify with. You have to give a sense of what people wanted, what people always want. What they were looking for in life, and how they had to go about getting it. I think this is the key. The details of how they got water, where they ate, what they ate. These help you make a film.
We shot the picture in Rome, and people keep telling me, “Wow, Rome, for ten months, huh? It was great, wasn’t it?” And I say, I wasn’t in Rome. I was at the Five Points, with all the pigs in the street. I was on the set, but in my mind it was real. I could even smell certain things. I remembered the smell of a little grocery store one of my friends’ grandfathers had up the street. I’ll never forget that smell, the aroma of peaches and nectarines out of wooden crates. My sense memories came right back. Not that there were many real fruit stands in the old Five Points. Then it was mainly rotting vegetables outside “groceries” to disguise the fact that they were really bars.
That tells you something too. It was so primitive. For instance, in the movie there’s a bar, Satan’s Circus—I made it a place with a very low ceiling and a rat pit below, where they bet on how fast a dog could kill a bunch of rats. I wanted one whole wall to be just rock, and a tree grows out of it, and the bar is behind that, behind the roots of the tree.
You’ve made several films about New York City at times when it seemed to be on the verge of coming apart, Taxi Driver, and then Bringing Out the Dead, and even After Hours, which is a comedy but where you give a very sinister feel to the downtown art scene. Yet none of these periods seems nearly as rough as New York in the period you’re doing here.
Nothing. Nothing was as hard as that. It was a new place being formed. There were people coming off the boats with no money, nothing, they couldn’t speak English, and they were thrown into these slums. When they came to America, it was about as much of a trip as it would have been going to Mars.
The 1863 riots were horrendous.
Yes. You know, the riots lasted four or five days, but on the very first night, they started lynching people. We have Horace Greeley, poor guy, running out of his office over to his favorite restaurant, knocking on the window, and saying, “Let me in!” They let him in, and then he says, “The rats have taken the town!” A wonderful description from Herman Melville that we put in his mouth.
Was this the real crucible of citizenship, shooting your friends and neighbors in the street?
We have a scene in the Draft Riots of a confrontation with the troops. The mob just stands there for a second, they don’t realize: “They don’t really mean to shoot us!” But they do. They just blast them. And I don’t know if you have much sympathy for them at that point, having seen them lynching African-Americans. But still, it’s all human, all the suffering. Even the soldiers are suffering. And that’s what I’ve got to find a way to deal with, aesthetically.
The challenge is to have the Draft Riots and the social conditions, the economic conditions, and the political conditions, but to have them as a backdrop to a personal story.
You want to give a sense of a historical background without being too obvious, and it’s very difficult to do in historical films. For a movie like ours, do you explain about the Civil War? You can’t.
You’d have to stop the movie and say, you know, “First there was a revolution.” Let’s explain what the Revolution was. And then there was this thing that happened in 1812., it was really upsetting. And then, funny thing about the Founding Fathers, they didn’t really solve this pesky issue of slavery.
In writing historical fiction, I always try to keep a little axiom in mind: that customs change completely but people don’t change at all. Is that actually true? Or could it be that customs and rituals really do change people?