Studio magazine - January 2001

Typed with love by Pat_ of Montreal!

 

On the Tracks of Scorsese

 

New York, 1846. Amsterdam Vallon is 12 years old when he witnesses the murder of his father, the Irish leader of the Dead Rabbits. As he grows up, he becomes haunted with the idea to revenge his father’s death. On his path, he will come across Bill Poole « the Butcher », who is the leader of the rival gang, the Native Americans, and the same man who engages his men to be at the service of Boss Tweed, New York’s big chief who terrorizes the city.

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon, a young gangster in search of revenge

Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill Poole, the Butcher - the bloodthirsty leader of the Native Americans

Cameron Diaz as Jenny, a beautiful thief living on the streets, who attempts to rescue Amsterdam

Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon, Amsterdam´s father and Leader of the Dead Rabbits

Henry Thomas as Johnny Scirocce, friend of Amsterdam Vallon

Brendan Gleeson as Monk Eastman, Irish mercenary

John C. Reilly as Happy Jack Mulraney, Mobster´s downcast

Gary Lewis, Bill Poole´s indispensable right hand man, a mysterious character

Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed, the "Big Chief" without scruples, who has the city at his feet

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In secrecy, from Rome, Martin Scorsese is filming Gangs of New York. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis are the leading stars. Four good reasons to call for investigation!

Story by Sophie Benamon

Illustrations by Sébastien Jarnot

 

The craving was too strong and too big the temptation not to succomb to it. Scorsese, at two hours away from Paris, in Cinecittà, filming a movie for which he has been dreaming making for more than twenty years, and for the one he has reunited DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz. It was too exciting not considering to take a closer look. Of course, the set of Gangs of New York is forbidden to journalists « blindato » as the Italians say. But it takes more to refrain us. Acting as paparazzi is definitely out of the question (not our style), but we’ll try to get the scent surrounding the shooting and letting it fill us with traces and signs, counting on chances and coincidences to lift a small corner of the veil…

This is how, on a nice day at the end of October, I ended up in Rome. In this year of 2000 where the pilgrims flow in by millions to celebrate the 20th Jubilee, the only room available I could find in the Italian capital was in … Cinecittà. I saw there a sign of destiny and tried to make the best out of it. As soon as I put my bags down, I rushed to the studio. And instead of walking straight inside, I decided first to stay outside and look around. Very quickly, I saw high frontages exceeding from the enclosed wall. False buildings made of bricks and wood where we could read in white painted letters NYC (New York City). I remember having seen them on paparazzi pictures; there were the settings created by Dante Ferreti for the Martin Scorsese movie.

Already, my heart got carried away. The Roman sun was keeping me company. In front of the Cinecittà studios’ main entrance, via Tuscolana, looked after as it should be by half-dozen of vigils, a score of girls were waiting, eyes fixed towards the inside. I ventured myself near them and in an approximative Italian : « Especta DiCaprio? » « No », they answered. In fact, they are fans of Il grande Fratello, a TV reality show that creates a sensation in Italy and is filmed in studio 1. I am all the more surprised that since August 30, the Italian popular press is filled with rumors connected with the Sorsese movie. The paparazzi indeed do not cease tracking DiCaprio, publishing photos of him - long hair, small beard - and hawking the most insane informations on his alleged nights out and their disastrous consequences on the filming.

For twenty seven years, Scorsese, mad about New York, has wished to do this project..

I stopped at the guardroom. Someone there asked me with whom I had an appointment. We don’t go in without authorization. I could have said that I had an appointment with Martin Scorsese at the Studio 5, the most famous of Cinecittà, because it was Fellini’s one, but I was not sure I’d convince them. Instead, I prefered going back. I had a strategic plan. The day after, I had a meeting arranged with Cinecittà’s director of communication. In the meantime, I decided to call the movie department from the Roman’s big national daily Il Messagero, to learn what was said , here and there in the « serious » press. One of the critics, Fabio Ferzetti, gave me an appointment for lunch.

On my way, I read over the notes I have accumulated for some time from the professional newspapers and also from my internet surfing ( but cautiously because I don’t trust either too much since one contradicts the other). It’s been twenty-seven years since Scorsese, impassioned by his city’s history thinks about this project on the 19th century’s New York mob world. From an historical and sociological account which provided him the idea on the hollows of New York, written by Herbert Asbury and for the one he kept the same title: Gangs of New York.

His movie begins in 1846 and ends in 1863 during the Draft Riots, the worst American’s history riots. And relates the bloody confrontation in one of the poorest districts of two rival gangs. Irish immigrants on one side (lead by Amsterdam Vallon played by DiCaprio) and on the other, « pure native » Americans (lead by Bill the Butcher, alias Daniel Day-Lewis).

During lunch, Ferzetti tells me that lots of Italian actors who were enthusiastic with the idea of being part of a Scorsese film were disappointed when they saw the casting announcement. Indeed, - and thanks to the Messagero archive files -, I found an explicit fax sent to all Roman agents by the Italian casting director Shaila Rubin : « the movie is set in the 19th Century in New York, and at the time there were very few Italian immigrants. Therefore, no actor with an italian accent will be taken in consideration. On the other hand, actors with very pronounced physical characteristics will be required, with frightening faces and large noses. Any physical oddness is welcome ».

Amazingly, an « italian » actress got Martin Scorsese’s attention: ex-starlet Barbara Bouchet. Of German origin, this 56 year-old, sexy icon from the sixties has started her career in the U.S. with Otto Preminger and Bob Fosse, before settling in Italy to pursue an erratic career till 1983. There, at 40 years old after playing opposite to Gregory Peck, she decided to end her career as an Italian sex symbol and - with great success - moved to the «shape» business. In Gangs of New York, Scorsese gave her the part of Cameron Diaz’ mother.

From an interview she gave to the Oggi magazine, I detected that she opens willingly about herself. I decided to get in touch with her. I managed to find her whereabouts. I phoned her and immediately reached her. She was not filming on that day, so she accepted to greet me. The taxi driver who took me to her place said she was quite a wealthy woman - moreover, she lives in an ultra protected area for millionaires only - and that in Italy, she was still very popular. He was very excited to escort me. Unfotunately for him, I had to leave in front of the gates where a young 25 year-old man was awaiting me: Allessandro Borghese, Barbara Bouchet’s oldest son. I went inside his red Ferrari and he drove me to their villa.

In the living room meticulously decorated, she greeted me. In the backround we could hear an air of classical music. Charming and relaxed, Barbara Bouchet entered quite naturally into conversation. «When I learned that Scorsese was going to film here, I called the production and they told me to come for a testing as everyone else. I accepted straghtaway. After all, Brando has done one for THE GODFATHER! I went there without a trace of make-up and had asked my hairdresser to remove all light blonde color from my hair, so we all could see my roots. In other words, I really didn’t look glamorous. And I was chosen! The first day, when i went on the set, Mr Scorsese came to see me and told me: « Hi, Miss Bouchet, I just wanted to thank you for accepting to be in my film! » It was topsy-turvy! And then, he told me he had seen all my movies I did in America. » Barbara Bouchet highly praised the director’s work approach « He is a genius. He is so concentrated on his work, very prepared. Despite the tension that surrounds the movie set that is very heavy and complicated. I saw him coming near people to tell them jokes. Then, leaving laughing at his own stories. A very good way to break the ice.

It has been said that Scorsese shouted at DiCaprio. It’s not true.

What kind of actor’s director is he? Rather close or far to his actors? « Considering the complexity of the settings and the centrings, he is mostly behind his video monitor when we play the scene. Then, he reappears and says : « it was good, but now… I think…, finally… am sorry…, we will do it again. » And we redo it until he is completely satisfied. There are so many extras (I heard there are sometimes over 500) , so many details, that he doesn’t want to neglect. But you know, I don’t count the takes. I only know I must have gone up and down the very narrow stairs during the whole day of shooting with a very difficult dress to wear. By the way, the costumes are magnificient. Sandy Powell, the designer has already won an Oscar for her work in 'Shakespeare in Love'. There are a lot of people on the set. The closest person to the actors after Scorsese is certainly the dialect coach with whom we repeat our scenes to make sure the accents - Irish, German or Dutch - are not only good, but absolutely perfect. He is always there to rectify us.»

Max, the actress’ youngest son who is about 10 years old irrupts in the room. He greets me in English… If the connection is easy between Barbara Bouchet and her screen daughter, Cameron Diaz, « a girl full of vitality, she is like sunshine », her contacts with Leonardo DiCaprio were more distant: «I have barely talked to him, he is rather calm and often recluse. I only asked him if he intended to do some tourism in Rome and he answered me : « I would like it ». The poor man, he can’t really go out because of the paparazzi. I don’t wish this kind of life to anyone. Since he doesn’t give interviews and the journalists are not allowed on the set, they make up stories that are all the more inacccurate…

It was said for instance, that Scorsese shouted at him because of his lateness on the set (it was even said that he asked him to make excuses in front of everybody). This is completely untrue. »

And the other actors, how are they? « There is Henry Thomas, the kid from E.T. He is another person now. There is also Daniel Day-Lewis who for the occasion, makes a return in front of the cameras after 4 years of absence. « He is so concentrated that he gives the impression he doesn’t get off his character. When I first came on the set, I didn’t recognize him. He has changed so much. » Daniel Day-Lewis who plays Bill the Butcher, a bloodthirsty WASP gangster took a couple of kilos, has grown a superb mustach and sideburns and went to train with a meat chopper at a butcher in the South of London. They also say that he asked a famous New York ophtalmologist to design him a contact lens on which is drawn the U.S symbol (an eagle and a red, white and blue banner). A very stylish glass eye! Just thinking about it gives me the chills », as I leave the blonde and elegant Barbara Bouchet. By chance, I meet someone who happens to have an access on the set! While I was in the city I took the opportunity to meet a Roman friend of mine. She invited me to join her for dinner with a couple of her friends. The conversation was about cinema. With an incredible coincidence, there was a man among the people who had access on the set of Gangs of New York! The chance smiles to the optimistics. Even if for not having to transgress Scorsese’ silence orders, - under the condition of course that I respect his anonymity, - he gave me very few informations.

«The shooting is exhausting says my informant, because some days you can reach 16 hours of work. Recently they also shot during the nights. » Everything is going well? « Yes, except that the bad weather had caused delays in the planning. » I asked certain details about the atmosphere on the set. Silence. The man hesitated. « The violence contained in the movie worries Scorsese enormously. » Not surprising. In a interview given to the American TV, one year ago, the director himself had evoked that concern: «It’s a very difficult movie, because there is much violence. And how can we treat violence today in movies? Especially when someone like me who did Casino, where at the end, Joe Pesci and his brother are beaten to death by their best friends with baseball bats! When you have done this, it’s difficult to go any further. For Gangs of New York, I must be careful. I must find the way to convert the violence differently, without having to aseptisize it.»

My speaker specified that « suddenly , Scorsese goes over his script daily, again and again. » One says that he is at his 18th version. In 1975, already, he had written a first scenario with Jay Cocks (with whom he wrote The Age of Innocence). In 1993, both of them had completely taken their work from the Herbert Asbury’s book. Then, Scorsese the perfectionnist has transmitted the flame to Steven Zaillian, The List of Schindler’s scriptwriter (and, recently Hannibal). But the story of New York gangsters, even if written by one of Hollywood’s favorite « pens », still remains tough and bloody. « Scorsese cares about it and at the same time he is ready to struggle against Miramax to establish his vision. But assassinations, obnoxious crimes, and orgies are all scenes that could decide Miramax to forbid the movie for people under the age of 17», said my observant.

Scorsese wanted to build a cathedral.

During his stay in Rome, Tom Cruise encouraged him to do it.

And the boss at Miramax, Harvey Weinstein keeps a watchfull eye too by coming frequently to Rome. Especially since the $100 million budget for Gangs of New York makes it the most expensive movie ever produced by the studio. This won’t keep Weinstein from playing the big chief, and according to the newspaper 'Variety', he won’t soon forget the visit of his friends Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman on stage no 5. He confided to the American paper: « Tom Cruise backed up Marty on the fact that we needed to build an extra set - a cathedral, and nothing less! I was opposed to it, hoping we could turn over an existing setting. Finally we have built one and it is called St-Thomas cathedral in honor of Cruise! » Or would it rather be St-Patrick’s replica, the first cathedral in New York built by Catholic emigrants and which has fascinated Scorsese for so long?

From the cab that takes me back to my hotel, I can see dozens of spotlights over Cinecittà. The night team of Gangs of New York is at work. Artificial rain sprinkles the set. I can imagine Five Points main district lit up by gas lamps, gangsters on the alert, and « Satana’s Circus », the brothel that never empties…

As expected, the first thing I do the following morning is to give a phone call to the communication manager at Cinecittà and meet him at his office. He is proud to have Scorsese and his team on the spot. He will not, of course, break the silence rules surrounding Gangs of New York, but tells me a few details about the opulent times of the most famous Italian studio. I store information for a prospective article on the fabulous story of that district of Rome. It was once so active and prestigious that it was called « Hollywood-on-Tiber ». Since Fellini’s death however, it has become the headquarters of telefilms and reality shows.

As I leave his office located just at the studio entrance, I naturally decide to venture through the streets and buildings of Cinecittà. Studio 5 can easily be found since it is the most imposing. A strange mood surrounds the set. A few people give orders through their walky-talkies. There are many extras, men and women, wearing faded and thicky costumes, entering a building from which I can’t see anyone coming out. No one seems to pay the least attention to me, but I have the odd feeling that if I move any further, someone will suddenly stop me.

To Part Two

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GANGS OF NEW YORK

FILMOGRAPHY

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