Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung - December 19, 2001

 

From the City's Ashes

By Verena Lueken

It is hot at Rome's Cinecitta movie studios, and smelly on the set. At high noon, sunlight falls through the haze in the dust. It's late March, the 118th day of shooting Martin Scorsese's film, "Gangs of New York." The smoke machines rumble and emit the poisonous smell of kerosene. The artificial smoke has drifted through the studio's streets ever since the film, set in 19th-century New York, began shooting seven months before. It adds to the real fires that are burning everywhere.

At this point the crew is 15 days behind shooting schedule. One day can cost up to $500,000 (DM1.1 million), but producer Michael Hausman is not alarmed yet. Pansies and primroses bloom in the small garden in front of the office barracks. When a problem occurs on the set, he starts pulling weeds and waters the plants. Hausman has been producing films for 35 years, and he claims to never make a movie if he cannot garden on the set.

In the third week of filming, the two main characters, Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Vallon, ran into each other at New York's long-lost Paradise Square, which is meticulously recreated in Cinecitta. It was unseasonably cold that day in Rome. The two walked together towards the harbor, where the masts of two gigantic sailing ships catch your eye. Now, six months later, T-shirts dominate the set as the second half of the scene is shot. The making of this stretched out over seven months, but will be compressed to a few minutes in the movie, with no evidence of the seasons' passing.

Scorsese has been thinking about "Gangs of New York" for decades. Back in 1976, Jay Cocks wrote (based on Henry Ashbury's non-ficiton book "Gangs of New York") the screenplay about gang wars in New York at the time of the Civil War, when the city nearly went up in flames during the Draft Riots, and when the Irish fought the established Americans for food, power and influence. The battle centered on Five Points, a neighborhood built over a dump in Lower Manhattan. This was America's first slum, where one wave of immigrants after another was washed ashore. Freed slaves lived cheek by jowl with the Chinese and the Irish, later joined by the Italians. The district was notorious for murder and manslaughter. It fostered racial coexistence as well as racial conflicts. Countless bars, bordellos and cabarets held shadowy secrets. In the mid-19th century, Five Points also drew the first slum tourists. Charles Dickens shuddered at its poverty, dirt and naked greed, as did Abraham Lincoln.

To make a movie in this setting would be immensely expensive. Historical photographs were all that was left from that time. Not a single brick in New York City is in the same place today. Paradise Square, once the center of Five Points, has disappeared beneath the buildings and streets of the modern city's court district. Orange Street, where Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Vallon are now stopping their walk to debate with their comrades, has turned into Center Street in Chinatown today. In Scorsese's childhood, all this was known as Little Italy.

The Tears are Worth It

The images shot at Cinecitta will now become primary evidence for this vanished part of New York. Original documents from that area depicting Five Points were stored in an archive located beneath the World Trade Center and were destroyed on Sept the 11th.

After a prologue set in 1844, "Gangs of New York" is set mainly in the 1860s. Until recently, that was the roughest and most violent time in the city's history. It was here that the idea of America was tested under bloodshed, foremost by the Irish who had fled the famine back home. They represented everything that native-born Americans held in contempt: They were Catholic and they were poor. Almost worst of all, they spoke Gaelic, not English.

"Violence was all they had to express themselves. It was their only chance of being noticed," Scorsese says in an interview in New York many weeks after the shooting closed. Anarchy reigned. The city and its politicians were corrupt, the gangs were racist. There was no fire department, only fire brigades which were rumored to often set the fires themselves.

Historically true to these widespread fires the set in Cinecitta seems to smolder. Interior scenes are shot through the haze of oven fires and petroleum lamps. And everybody here seems to be constantly smoking, too. But the teary eyes and acrid air are worthwhile, as the video monitors display stunning images. The smoke adds sharp outlines to the foreground and blurs the background, creating an astonishing composition in depth. "Gangs of New York" is a revelation of many visual levels, each with its own texture. It will show the city as we have never seen it before.

In New York in mid 19th century, every private dispute and every political conflict was taken to the street. Even as the fate of the Union was decided on the battlefields in the South, a different civil war raged in the city. Scorsese's film will be full of fights, from street battles to man-to-man punch-outs. A story of private revenge is embroiled within the wider subject of violence on which America rose.

If it served his cause, Scorsese has never shied away from violent scenes. The story of "Gangs of New York," the historic as well as the fictional, is impossible to tell without getting bloody. "On the ashes of the city that we show," the director says, "New York was built." His film ends with a view of this modern city, which itself has passed into history. The last shots of the skyline are dominated by the silhouette of the Twin Towers.

"Gangs of New York" was financed by Miramax and a group of international investors. The most expensive project in the studio's history by far, the film's budget is reported to have been well above $100 million. The studio originally scheduled a pre-Christmas premiere, in the hope of landing Oscar nominations for Scorsese, his crew and, among others, the film's stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, and Liam Neeson.

However, the opening has been postponed. Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, who is also one of the film's executive producers, believes that after the devastation of Lower Manhattan the American audience would not yet be ready to see New York feature as the capital of violence, the violence which was indispensable to the making of America. Consequently, Miramax waived its Oscar ambitions for this year and rescheduled the film start for next May, perhaps with a European premiere at the film festival in Cannes. Scorsese will need the additional time in the editing room. So far, the movie is still too long for a successful opening.

Scorsese's team for "Gangs of New York" shows many familiar faces. His collaboration with Michael Ballhaus, the director of photography, dates back to "After Hours" in 1985. They enjoy an artistic harmony that leaves them relaxed and concentrated, even after a long shoot. "We share the emotional stress," Ballhaus says, "that makes it easier for Marty on the set."

On a quiet Sunday away from the set, we are sitting on the terrace of the apartment that Ballhaus and his wife Helga have rented for the time of filming in a quaint quarter of Rome. We indulge in fruit salad and pastries, and during all the hours of discussing the film, Ballhaus only once hints at the time after "Gangs of New York." He looks forward to taking a break at a spa.

It's no surprise that both Ballhaus and Scorsese have matured since their last joint project, "The Age of Innocence," in 1993. Since then, Scorsese has made three other movies, and Ballhaus has shot nine, both with different crews. But they still share the same aesthetic vision.

One Loves the Set, the Other the Editing Room

As a natural consequence of their long collaboration, "Gangs of New York" will contain a number of references to their earlier films, none of which required any long discussion beforehand. "Marty does not need to come to the set and tell me where he wants to place the camera and where the lights," Ballhaus says. "I know what he wants, and I set it up for him. On the set I try to be of as much help to him as possible, and when people have questions, they ask me, not him. I like to take over this kind of responsibility."

Sometimes Scorsese lets Ballhaus take over entirely, especially when love scenes are to be shot. "He's shy about that," Ballhaus says. "Not about sex, but when it's about strong feelings, he's grateful for some help."

Ballhaus is referring to a scene with DiCaprio and Diaz. They have a heated love affair in the movie, which Weinstein insisted to be included in the script to add some erotic thrill to the epic, and everybody agrees that this was a good idea considering the scale of the cast and story. Ballhaus modeled their first passionate encounter on a similar situation between Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil on a dark street corner in Patrice Chereau's 1994 film, "La Reine Margot." "It's about this urgent desire they feel for each other, and that's something that always gets Marty somewhat uncomfortable."

On the set, regardless of what he does, Ballhaus is the abiding "Zen Master," as one of his assistants calls him. Scorsese says much the same, in different words: "Having him on the set gives me a wonderful feeling of calm." Next to professional authority, composure is the quality that everyone at Cinecitta attributes to Ballhaus. He helps to smooth Scorsese's rough edges. And Ballhaus loves to be on the set, while for Scorsese, the fun starts in the editing room.

No one on the set doubts that "Gangs of New York" will be a masterpiece. This is neither vanity nor misplaced optimism, but an indication of the unique conditions under which the film is being made. The decision to shoot in Cinecitta cut the costs of a production in New York or Hollywood by about one-half.

But the move also placed the project in an environment highly advantageous to both Ballhaus and to the film's architect, Dante Ferretti. Long ago, Ferretti built the sets for six films at Cinecitta for director Federico Fellini, and he marvels about the craftsmanship of his workshop, that created a set fit for display in a museum. Every detail was attended to, no shortcuts were taken, nothing was done "as if." The Chinese pagoda, with which Scorsese wanted to replicate the bordello in Josef von Sternberg's 1941 film "The Shanghai Gesture," includes also decorative elements lifted from the early Chinese theaters on New York's Canal Street in Chinatown. The wooden stairs sag, as if they have been tormented by thousands of bootprints through time.

Ballhaus also sees many reasons why "Gangs of New York" is his best work, and will likely remain so. Most of the Italian technicians who work on the film do not speak English, which slowed things down greatly, complicating every detail and inspiring worries among the producers. But the stop-and-go gave Ballhaus more preparation time than he has ever had on a production. "There was time to think about how I would solve certain problems, how to take complicated shots," he says.

Only few people remember movies in their entirety. But even the most forgetful will recall certain scenes that might have long lost their original context. These isolated scenes will linger in memory forever. The opening shot of Orson Welles' "A Touch of Evil" is one of these, as is an extended shot from Theo Angelopoulos' "Traveling Players" or the final sequence of Scorsese's "Goodfellas." "Gangs of New York" features more than a few shots that similarly realize a truly cinematographic manner of storytelling.

In one scene at the docks, the whole drama of immigration is captured in a single shot of landing and departing of ships. One ship brings the Irish newcomers to New York's harbor. There are recruiters for the American army right behind the gates handing out rifles. Armed like this, the Irish soldiers are sent on a second ship that is about to leave for the battlefields of the Civil War in Georgia. From a third vessel coffins with dead soldiers are unloaded. This is an immensely complicated shot, one of those that Ballhaus needed extra time to prepare.

'We Do Real Work'

It is this kind of imagery that excites Ballhaus. He recalls his enthusiasm when he worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany, who also had an extremely visual imagination. Ballhaus' career started with Fassbinder, with whom he worked until "The Marriage of Maria Braun" in 1979. "Of all American directors that I know," Ballhaus says, "Marty thinks the most in images. That is extremely inspiring. The dynamic in each shot, his love for moving the camera, that's wonderful."

Ballhaus is certain that "Gangs of New York" will be a milestone. Not only because of the sheer size of the project or its impressive cast and crew, but also because it might be the last of its kind in the history of the movies. "We won't see many more films like this. There will always be big action movies, but perhaps no one will ever again invest this kind of budget and time in an epic period drama," he says.

"Gangs of New York" runs against the trend towards increasingly synthetic images designed to create an ever greater sensation. "I'm not interested in that," Ballhaus says. The visual refinement of this film is as real as is the smoke that filters through the atmosphere; post-production brush-up is kept to a minimum. Even the big fight scenes between the gangs were fully staged, without computer assistance. "We do real work. In the end the film will have about 800 shots," he says. "Only about 22 of these will have some kind of digital manipulation." That is almost as incredible as Scorsese's insistence of 15 takes of a scene where other directors are happy to average a mere five.

A movie's success is unpredictable. Not many masterpieces are listed as box office hits, and director Scorsese has rarely pulled in a mass audience. But in this case, the stars should help to draw the crowds. "This story has all the crowd-pleasing elements," Ballhaus says. "It starts out with a mad battle scene. It is a very dramatic story with lots of action, the actors are great, and you will get these magnificent images from a fantastic set. It will be a true spectacle."

On the morning of the 119th day of shooting, everyone on the set is waiting for a cloud. Bill the Butcher's gang, the Natives, faces off against Amsterdam's Dead Rabbits. The fight is about to begin, but not under bright skies. The key grip, who came with Ballhaus from America along with the lead lighting technician, is a reliable weatherman. He seems to always know just the right time to be ready for the shot. Some clouds appear. Ballhaus rushes out of the cabin where he and Scorsese are following things on monitors and holds up his light meter, like a doctor putting a stethoscope to a patient's chest. The grip, however, shakes his head; these clouds are not good enough.

Since the first day of shooting, Day-Lewis, as Bill the Butcher, has rarely appeared out of character or without his costume of plaid trousers, long coat and stovepipe hat. Now, he is nowhere to be seen. DiCaprio hangs out in front of a house with a couple of his gang, smoking a cigarette. The sun is shining, the sky is blue. Scorsese comes out to rearrange the extras, moving a leg here, a whole body there. The "weatherman" looks up, everyone else looks at him. "We need a juicy cloud," he says. The air is clear, everything silent. "One more minute," he suddenly announces.

The generators start to rumble, the air fills up with the smell of kerosene. Day-Lewis runs in. A minute later, the fog has come up from the vents. Everyone is in position. The sun disappears. DiCaprio shouts. Day-Lewis throws his coat away and drops his hat. DiCaprio raises an axe. They repeat this eight times. Then the sun comes out again.

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