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.
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.
AH: You wanted to make the movie for a long time, didn’t you?
MS: 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.
AH: But now you have brought the same vision to the screen, a story of gang warfare in antebellum New York.
MS 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.
AH: 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.”
MS: 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.
AH: Today, we think of race as much more of a flashpoint.
MS 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.
AH: They were blaming African-Americans for the Civil War, however unjustly.
MS: 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.
AH: The movie looks tremendously authentic.
AH: It is stunning to see the firemen who started the riots break through the draft office.
MS: 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.
AH: 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.
MS: Absolutely right. We built an alley from the photograph Bandits’ Roost and went right through the alley with a Steadicam.
AH: 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.
MS: 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.
AH: You grew up right where most of the movie is set.
MS: 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.”
AH: It seems almost idyllic now.
MS: 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.
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.
AH: I think that’s hard to comprehend for a lot of us today.
MS: 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.
AH: Does the fact that Americans have an idealized notion of the past make historical drama difficult?
MS: 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.
AH: 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.
MS: 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.
AH: The 1863 riots were horrendous.
MS: 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.
AH: Was this the real crucible of citizenship, shooting your friends and neighbors in the street?
MS: 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.
AH: 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?
MS: Good question. I don’t know. I’ve always been fascinated by the supposedly smooth shift between paganism and Christianity in the ancient world. As I understand it, when Constantine converted to Christianity, gladiatorial combats still took place for another hundred years, maybe more. They say, O.K., we’ll worship Jesus, and peace and love, but gladiatorial combat, that’s pretty good!
I’ve always wanted to try to make a television series on a Roman family that starts off as “pagans.” You’d see their daily rituals, their sacrifices to the household gods, how they live their life with the sense of a pantheon of gods that are uninterested in humanity, how they feel that because the gods don’t care about them, they can kind of toy with them. And then Christianity becomes the state religion. And by the last two or three episodes, they really have the philosophy of Christians, and everything is different. I would love to do something like that. You know, the fall of the Roman Empire has been dealt with in film, but to do it on a small scale, in one family!
AH: Is there anything in this era, or in American history, that has changed our basic way of comprehending our world?
MS: If there is anything, I think it is that wars have not been fought on American soil for a long time. Younger people now have no concept of how wars came about. They think you can run this democracy without a struggle, but there’s a constant struggle. It’s a daily struggle. In the nineteenth century, everything seemed to be settled by force. And from the Revolutionary period to the end of the Civil War, the nation really wasn’t a nation yet. It had to be battled out.
What we show is based on that idea. But again, it’s an impression, a kind of artistic interpretation. As one of our guys put it, it’s the truth wrapped in a package of lies. We hope.
AH: So there is an obligation to the truth. Films like Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation really affected how we looked at the South and slavery in a very ugly way.
MS: The Birth of a Nation is almost impossible to watch, because of its racism. Which does not change the fact that Griffith was a genius, in terms of his art.
AH: Can any film today influence our idea of a time, of a period, the way those two films did? Is it possible to make a film that really shapes Americans or America?
MS: Right now, I don’t think so. Each film costs more and more to make, and you need a bigger and bigger return at the box office, and that leads you to take fewer chances. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do it. You have to try. You have to have some sense of responsibility to say something that may have some meaning, and some depth, and may help people understand a little more of what this extraordinary experiment is all about. And that includes understanding the implications of immigration, which is also now occurring all over Europe. What happens in Gangs of New York, with immigration, is happening now in France, in Italy, in England. And that’s why if we lighten up on the history at certain points in the movie, we don’t lighten up on the passion and the rage that these opposing groups felt.
AH: You’ve spoken in the past of directors smuggling ideas into films. Is there any idea you’re trying to smuggle into Gangs of New York?
MS: I think not. I think in this one the ideas are out front. But how does one stop a war if the new generations have not experienced it? They may know about it, and see movies about it, but they haven’t lived through one. How does one change human nature—the worst aspect of which is settling everything by violence—if people haven’t experienced it? It’s the old line: If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.
This picture, we feel, has something to do with what it means to put together a country based on our principles, the principles of the Founding Fathers. What Adams called this great experiment. And it’s about how people could be totally wrong and feel they were totally right. I mean, totally wrong about what the country’s supposed to be. Bill the Butcher looks at the Irish immigrants coming off the boat, and he curses them, and his nativists throw rocks at them. Because they consider themselves the true Americans. That’s what this is all about.