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Martin Scorsese has wanted to make Gangs of New York for some 30 years, and now heís done it, but the pressure and the challenge was enormous, with schedules (and phones) flying out the window at times, as Jenny Cooney Carrillo discovers, when Scorsese explains how primal is this story.

In the early 1860s, New Yorkís Five Points was a violent, lawless and vice ridden district, home to waves of poverty stricken immigrants like the Irish escaping the famine. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a young boy when he saw his father slain in one of the many battles between the Irish and the gang of Native Americans led by the charismatic and deeply nationalistic William ĎBill The Butcherí Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). After 16 years in an orphanage, Amsterdam returns to Five Points, intent on revenge, and works his way into Billís inner circle. But his mission becomes less personal when he sees the potential for the thousands of Irish to act in unison, and becomes a catalyst for them. Meanwhile, his attraction for the feisty pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) is on a collision course with her past links to Bill Ė and the destinies of all three collide with the Civil War Draft Riots in 1863.

This particular project has been in the works for a very long time. And there was plenty of pleasure and conflict in making this epic, wasnít there?
This picture has been on my mind for a very long time, but it wasnít like I wanted to do this exact script for many years. It was a project about the gangs of New York, about this period. There were many different ways of telling this story and I had worked on it for a long time. I really tried to get it made in the end of the 70s or early 80s, but we wound up realizing that the nature of the industry had changed. Years went by and we always tried resurrecting the project and never quite believed that the film would get made. We tried and then we put it away again. But then the American audience began to accept and understand and welcome foreign films and different cultures but by then we had to deal with the past of the film. There were so many people involved with the picture over the years. There were all kinds of a paper trail and legal issues and it was almost impossible . . . And then with the September 11 tragedy, the picture was sort of put on a hiatus in a way. But then finally things began again in January of 2002.†

Why were you so obsessed with getting this movie made?
I wanted to show a period of time in whichÖhow should I put it? Everybody today in the world is struggling to make a decent life for themselves, especially if youíre not privileged. So youíre just trying to get some sense of security so you can feed yourself and your family and I see that as a condition of being human. But itís also political in that sense of different societies having been formed out of this need. And that means, unfortunately in the depiction of this film, and really in the world around us, usually through violence and thatís the tragedy of it. But ultimately (if the species doesnít completely annihilate itself), if the city comes down it will be rebuilt again.†

How do you approach directing an historical epic like this?
In the case of Gangs, the background is important. So for every scene I had so called set-pieces and within those set-pieces I have bits and pieces of action which I had found in research. I compiled tons of research ÖAnd every background shot, each little scenario going on in every scene would give you a sense of a life and what it was like to be there at the time. And then we had the characters woven through those set pieces.

Your attention to detail is legendary. How do you handle the pressure of working like that, especially when the budget of this film was so much higher than your others?
It had a new level of stress, there is no doubt about it and it was very hard to deal with. The pressure of finishing, getting things on film, the pressure of dealing with the issue of different actorsí schedules, people flying in and out of town, when certain people are flying in to shoot a scene, but one actor canít make it because they were doing a play in London - and then when you finally get them all together, the weather isnít right. There were a couple of scenes in the movie we kept shooting for three months just to get a close-up. So there was just the basic physical pressure of that, plus working on the script, improvising sometimes because I felt we could do that on this film and deepen the characters. The pressure of just getting it done and also in the last couple months utilizing whatever money was left efficiently, that was the thing. Whatís efficient and what isnít? What do I really need and what donít I need? What do I want that I donít need but want? To deal with what the realities are. This canít be done because it isnít ready or this we canít or this is too much- itís a logistical nightmare and it was a very stressful thing. And Iím also pretty hot-tempered at times and Iím constantly throwing things around, throwing phones through windows and that kind of stuff. But phones are annoying. Theyíre ringing all the time, especially those cell phones. [laughs] There were times you didnít think you were ever going to come out of it, but thatís my own boring kind of fatalism.†

You are also notorious for the violence factor in your films. How did you approach this one?
If I had made this picture in the 70s I would have dealt with the violence somewhat differently but I was somewhat of a different person then. No, Iím the same person, only a little older now, so whatever I did, good, bad or indifferent, Iím stuck with it, as a person and filmmaker. But the reality is that the violence in my films was very strong. Again, it was reflected in the subject matter and the way that people lived. By the time we finally got to do this film I didnít really feel that I had to prove how I could do violence on film. I mean graphic violence. In this particular world that we are depicting violence was not just an option, it was the main form of expression. So I decided to approach the violence, since it is so important for the film in a way that is not graphic and to do it through editing and suggestion and some sound effects.

How hard is it for you to edit your films?
With a film, you put it all together and you look at it and you say, hit it over here and cut it there and change that. I mean itís the same old story. With this picture it just happens that the first cut when we put it all together was 3 hours and 40 minutes, but I had to work for nine or ten months of editing to cut it down - and Iím happy with the end result.

Published February 6, 2003

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Martin Scorsese



Leonardo Di Caprio on set with director Martin Scorsese

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