Ciné Live #48 (France) - Summer 2001



You can evaluate very quickly the privilege we had of visiting the Gangs of New York set, Martin Scorsese's new film, director generally hardly less secret than a Stanley Kubrick in one of his good days. His epic of noise and fury on the social and maffioso construction of New York is nevertheless filmed thousands kilometers from Manhattan. So, let's go to the studios of Cinecittà in Rome, where the Master has his headquarters since last September.

By Grégory Alexandre

part one

Few people know, but it's been more than 20 years that Martin Scorsese has been hidden, discreetly, in his suitcase of projects, Gangs of New York, hidden epic about a war of gangs that brought together - at least in Herbert Asbury's novel - some Bill " The Butcher " Poole and Amsterdam Vallon, in the heart of the Big Apple in the middle of the XIX-th century. Twenty years in the course of which this project will have been relegated to the fine bottom of the aforementioned suitcase because of the impossibility to gather capital as the professional skill necessities, twenty years marked also by Scorsese's growing will to go towards a certain immoderation, but without losing sight of his specificity as an author marked above all by the theme of redemption. In the same way, after the intimist Bringing Out the Dead, it was time for him to dash into a large-scale film, and Gangs of New York, in spite of its enormous infrastructure, finally conquers investors, mainly Germans and Americans. The postulate which attracts: a merciless duel between two rivals, mixed with a love story, but especially, a film carried by the two "hottest" actors of Hollywood.

Officially, the estimate would only flirt with the hundred million dollar bar, but considering the display of forces deserving of Ben Hur meets Cleopatra on the deck of Titanic, it is allowed to doubt. Twenty years of reflection, so , for Scorsese, in the course of which the dreamer of the 70s, who originally wanted to marry the New York of the 19th century to the music of the Clash, had the time to reason with himself and to direct his project to a certainly furious epic, but also sharply more classic in its shape.

It is also ballasted by numerous rumours (which seem unfounded) on Leonardo DiCaprio's whims, star among the stars summoned by Scorsese, that we penetrate into the mytical Cinecittà's studios, a few cables' length away from Rome, where the film founds its anchorage point. " It is about a film profoundly American, but I've always imagined Gangs of New York conceived with an artistic, italian-style mastery, mastery I've been admiring for a long time as a member of the audience ", declared moreover Scorsese during a press conference. Of Scorsese, this visit of studios will have it nevertheless only the distant savour, the boss as his young stars refusing any media exposition before the release of the film. Opening the doors had a price to be paid, so it will be that one.


Superficialy speaking, seen from the outside, Cinecittà amounts to high wall buildings in parme and ochre tones, constructions without windows and freshly repainted warehouses, joined up together by internal axes geometrically drawn. That is to say the certified true copy of a big American studio, except that if you're not too familiar with this kind of architecture, let's say that all this makes you think more about a gigantic interlacing of warehouses.

Scattered palm trees shade some Roman bimbos inevitably blond and tanned, maybe in search of a role or an extra part, and workers of any age and any corpulence, generally wearing an untidy undershirt, warmed by the april nascent sun, coming out of everywhere, ballasted by some burden. At the moment, Cincecittà, which is on the way up again since its partial repurchase by the Americans, is divided between two productions: Gangs of New York, that ends, the other one, Ripley's Game, with John Malkovich, which starts hardly.

At the end of a path encircled with high blind constructions, we make out finally something like the architecture of the antique New York: a rough wooden substructure which is higher than a building, indicating implicitly the entry of the film set. In a way, the tip of an iceberg of about sixty thousand square meters. Simply watched by a sloppy guard, the entry way throw us, in a few seconds, from our burgeoning 21st century to the formless chaos of a town about to be sprawling.

Stony ground from which emerges a scattered vegetation, loose planks dumps with unbalanced windows, this first shady alley which we go through set the tone of the area that we're about to visit: It's Five Points, first outlet of all the poverty of the world in this island of Manhattan, where landed up, during nearly two hundred years, several million emigrants. The access to Paradise Square - Oh Irony of the name! - is rather easy: all the ways lead to this big place of vaguely triangular shape, among which our alley.

And there, what a spectacle: this central, commercial and social knot of the New York slums, usually livened up by a cosmopolitan and brightly coloured crowd, has made way to a spectacle of desolation, battlefield destroyed by the successive attacks that led there both opposite camps - our famous Gangs of New York-, but especially by a troop of rioters who have sacked everyting. It is necessary to say that it just remains some days of shooting, and that obviously they kept for the end the scenes where all this universe is destroyed.

On the right-hand, a big building of bricks, smashed open from top to bottom. Impressive. It is the " Brewery ", a disused brewery, meanwhile become the den of Bill The Butcher and his henchmen, and that has just been blown up with a cannon by the police forces during these popular riots, said " Draft Riots ". We are in July 1863, and the common people rebels then as a single man against the injustices of the conscription generalized in the army of the Union, from which the richest could escape from. Riots, which, additionally, make the historic counterpoint to the last confrontation between Bill The Butcher and Amsterdam. At the bottom of the distillery, italian workers, all a little amazed to see coming near external guests (We are well and truly the very first - and the very last - visitors authorized on the set), dig, with a crane, a deep crater at the edge of which stirs Dante Ferretti, the set designer, who arranges on the edges rubber marionettes supposed to be corpses


So, almost everything in Gangs of New York takes place near this poor area of the South of Manhattan where are done fratricidal wars between the very big first waves of immigrants, that is to say, in this case , before the 1880 italian wave. Therefore, no mafia around in Gangs of New York, but a duel to the death between two men, two Irish.

On one side Bill the Butcher, influential big shot of the local underworld, born on the American ground, and who tries as he can to protect America from the new influxes of immigrants, wearing rather beautiful behind his big mustache and his top hat. Dragged out by Scorsese, after De Niro's failure, from his Irish refuge where he would have set up a business of luxury shoe-repair shop, it is Daniel Day Lewis who gives life to this dark and tormented character.

Opposite, grievously fiery after a long stay in prison, the young Amsterdam Vallon comes crying out for revenge, considering Bill the Butcher as the person responsible for the death of his father (played by Liam Neeson in the prologue of the film), several years before. In the part of the young Irish immigrant (the Titanic is not far, but here the action takes place fifty years earlier), Leo DiCaprio is again going to be able to make roar out his henceforth legendary charisma. Since, in the manhunt which leads him, he is going to meet a young lady, Jenny (Cameron Diaz), little insignificant swindler whose robberies in the high society allowed moreover Gangs of New York some of its very rare scenes filmed outside Cinecittà's walls (six days out for 100 days in the studios). The film contains more than 120 speaking parts, among which John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas, Jim Broadbent and Gary Lewis (Billy Elliot's dad). And, to finish it with figures, including technicians and extras, about 12000 people will have worked, closely or by far, on Gangs of New York. A piece of work worthy of the more demanding guild...

part two

And that's really saying something that the set designers had the sense of the detail to polish up this first category product, everything, even the tiniest slight trembling of rubber on this rocky heap overhung by a hut, was thought, drawn, chiselled with the love of the well done work. The smashed open stores - from the undertaker's workshop to the grocer's one , from the the nauseating saloon up to the bell tower of the local church - the show posters stuck on the walls, loose cobbelstones (which make "knock knock " when you hit them), you could be in Main Street Disneyland, but it is not really the case. The glamour is completely absent from the hyperrealist immensity of this place, where resounds the heavy echo of a world of decay and misery.

As a reply to this sensation of anarchy mixed with hope, one of the numerous ways which end to Paradise Square leads us to the port, where land a horde of immigrants in the first scenes of the film. In a vast tank (which was used notably for Cleopatra's filming), looking like a port but now empty, stand two magnificent ships of about thirty metres long, among which, one sailing under the French flag, and both decorated, at the prow, of a buxom siren which gives itself, with arms outstretched. What a spectacle. At the stern, an immense wall which will offer, with the help of blue screens, a view of the bay, some of the rare digital special effects of the film.

For Gangs of New York is well and truly a craftmen's film, based above all on mechanical special effects, that is to say made on the set. " The films sets are all real" insists the spokesman of the film. " Nothing to do with Gladiator, where the amphitheater was for example divided in two by computer from a simple section of the set".

The definite bias remains nevertheless, mixing historic integrity (but few documents were preserved about this area in that time) and the recourse of imagination. " I want imagination inspired by reality" as Scorsese so nicely formulated it. The director finds on this occasion Dante Ferretti, his official set designer since The Age of Innocence. Ferretti, little man, half bald, squat and with a high and sweet voice as the one of his alter ego Federico Fellini, gets out for a moment from its last duties on this spectacular building site to show us other film sets.

At first, a visit to the interior of the famous disused distillery is imperative, because it is there that often hides, in a muddy and stifling atmosphere, the famous Bill the Butcher. His very shabby den rises up on several levels, low ceilings and creaking floors, where, following one another, stand a vast number of small rooms, filled with poor chairs and tables, guardrails and weakly lamps, beds and beer stills. You realize that this place is in fact situated in the basement when you find out that the ceiling of what looks like a bar was crossed by tree roots, henceforth spread, as in weightlessness, over our heads. A vision of nightmare to relieve the animal aspect of the darkest character of the film.

A little farther, the Pagoda of the Squirrel, a gigantic orientalizing whorehouse where is situated a music hall stage flanked by heavy red draperies, with, hanging from the ceiling, bamboo cages, conceived to support the prostitutes offered to men. Dante Ferretti traipses round in his work with a jovial humility, almost disturbing. The magnificence of the place is become so ordinary to him. " You know, my job, it is just to make what the others want. I too am a prostitute ! "

But nevertheless, he has some sparklings in his eyes when he take us on a Broadway's portion, recreated by the application of "sheets("leaves") on a pre-existent street set. A rich victorian universe, decorated with calicos and banners celebrating the conquering America, which contrasts sharply with Paradise Square's greyness. Luxurious bourgeois interiors, accessible from this famous main road warmed by the Roman sun, were not spared by the destructive madness of the common people, and the spectacle of the interiors is worth to see, like the first one, apocalyptic, we have seen. Torn up walls, overturned furniture, places which you imagine left hurriedly by their occupants : by attacking these representatives of the rising aristocracy, the people also wanted to express its ulceration facing Tweed, the corrupt mayor, played by the colorful Jim Broadbent.

part three

Going back to his crater and its moss corpses, Dante Ferretti enjoins us to visit the costume wherehouse. The slightest garment of each and every extra has been labelled, stamped and accompanied with a picture of the « belonger ». And at a time where accessories made the suit, what could be more normal than to discover at the bend of a corridor a room exclusively reserved for hats, or another one for gloves, before getting into the workshop where masses of wardrobe workers and dressers are fussing still surrounded by materials in the kilometer. They are overseen by young English Sandy Powell (rewarded by an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love) who finds herself relieved to see these two years of hard labour coming to an end. On the wall, there are pictures of Daniel Day-Lewis' costume fitting, steep as a « i » in its various tail coats.

We look around, but there is no sign of pictures of Leo or Cameron (who will have her hair red in the film). Could it be that they've been removed from the panel in order to secure the surprise of their appearance? Ouf, we are allowed to enter for a few seconds in the « saint of the saint », the room where they store the costumes of the main actors. We don't catch it, but we fiddle with it. With the impression of feeling the Holy Shroud! This coat of greenish cloth, the very one that Leo wore during these eight months of shooting. Nothing in the pockets? Too bad, it would have made a sweet souvenir...


Before heading to the exit, small cherry on the cake... Vic Armstrong, the director of the second team is shooting a scene in the middle of Paradise Square. One of the numerous scenes of the final riots sequence, where we can see Cara Seymour (who was Bjôrk's neighbour in Dancer in the Dark) in rags, transpierced at the chest with a picket of wood stained with blood, and giving her last sigh in the arms of a thin and bearded male silhouette. In other words, an inverted image of La Pietà revised and settled by Scorsese still and always viscerally attached to the christian imagery.

As an ornemental background sound, an explosion coming from te church and ending at our feet in the springing of some stony blocks crashing on the ground with the firmness of a Chamallow. But the detail of the blood stained picket does not deceive Scorsese, does not enjoy, question of violence of practicing the understatement. He shows the real frame. The press manager reassures us « The violence was really unbearable in the first versions of the script, but it was - a little - diminished since. Nevertheless, he admits that the film will be inevitably rated « R » by censorship (whether prohibited to age 17 and under, except if accompanied). » The price to pay for a movie which announces to be ultra violent, but with the Scorsese's signature and and american release planned for Christmas - already assures a number of nominations for the next Oscars -

It is always beautiful and warm in this paradoxical European dream manufacture named Cinecittà. Dirty extras, in crossed-off knee breaches and hats darkened by dust, discuss while drinking a coca, and sitting on boxes. The Italian workers continue to look at us with their flabbergasted expressions while we are taken gently towards the exit. On the side of a path, an old barefoot guy rather weird sprays, a tiny square of earth sowed with pansies. Surely a retired gardener who is kept by pity. He is introduced to us. He is Michael Hausman, the film producer. « Look, he says, I placed these flowers in the shape of G, N and Y for Gangs of New York » he tells us proudly. Fixed to a lamp post, a plate commemorates « Michael Hausman's personal garden ». Welcome to the tragic universe of the 7th Art.


Part One and Two was translated by Lou, Part Three by Pat from the Thai Boards - thanks a lot for your work !