GQ magazine - March 2001


The Epic Struggle of Martin Scorsese



On the fabled back lot of Rome's legendary Cinecittà studios, where Fellini created his hallucinatory masterpieces, Martin Scorsese has gathered Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis and spent $85 million to meticulously re-create 1850s Manhattan ghettos - all in an effort to bring to the screen the movie that has obsessed him for thirty years, Gangs of New York. It could be his supreme triumph. Or the greatest blunder of his career. Peter Bart walks among the cinematic madness and files an exclusive report from the set.


Like a Bantam-size general inspecting his troops, Martin Scorsese surveys the ragamuffin band of actors and extras arrayed before him. It's an old assemblage, some 350 strong, all attired in scabrous faux-Victorian garments, rags really, with men looking like thieves, women like beggars. All of them are crowded onto a surreal set that suggest Fellini is about to direct a scene from Tom Jones

The 58-year-old Scorsese turns his assistant director as if to say "Action" but hesitates and flashes an uneasy smile. "Should I pinch myself to be sure this is real?" he asks no one in particular. Then he starts to shoot his scene.

Scorsese has good cause for reality check. There are certain film projects that, despite their merits, seem destined for oblivion, and his obsession of the moment, Gangs of New York, is surely one of them. In Hollywood, projects like Gangs circulate year after year - Scorsese's has bobbed about townn for neaarly thirty - only to face repeated rejection. After you've been around the studios for a while, you can sense them coming; you can almost recognize their aroma. Sometimes, in an effort to disguise a project's forlorn history, the title is changed, even the names of key characters. But the result is always the same. I remember a finely crafted scenario that regularly hit my desk at Paramount when I was vice president of production. The script dealt with the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe - not exactly commercial fodder. I always felt a pang of guilt sending out the rejection letter.

Until the cameras started rolling late last year, Gangs of New York seemed destined to be another classic entry in the ranks of the "unmakables." Skillfully written by Jay Cocks, a critic and screenwriter, the piece nonetheless has several strikes against it. It was set in a historical nervernever land, New York City in the 1840s through 1860s, a period culminating in the Civil War draft riots. As such, it belonged to no recognizable genre. In pitch meetings, Scorsese would insist it was not a period gangster film but rather a sort of urban Western, which further confused studio suits. Since no existing neighborhood could be dressed to fit the period, an entire set would have to be built, making the movie formidably expensive to produce. Further, its religious subtexts - tensions between the Protestant "nativists" and the newly arrived Catholic immigrants - was anathema to backers. And this film was coming from the man who has already dented so many sensibilities with The Last Temptation of Christ.

I fully understand the skepticism of potential backers. Although other directors of Scorsese's generation - Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg - have demonstrated a flair connecting with their audiences, he remains an enigma. At its best, as in Raging Bull, his work contains a raw energy as well as a masterly use of camera. Indeed, Scorsese is the ultimate film aficionado, a scholar who lives and breathes movies, who not only has seen every film ever made but also tucked away copies of them in his personal library. Smart and engaging, he is immensely persuasive in presenting his story ideas to stars and financial backers. He lasso all but owns the enormously talented Robert De Niro, or so it seems. At the same time, however, he possesses a curious absence of showmanship - witness misfires like New York, New York, his failed musical. More recently he took Bringing Out the Dead, a finely written, starkly original novel, and turned it into a pretentious bore.

I have always liked Scorsese and admired his integrity. Yet I also understand the comment of one associate who has worked with him, who told me, "Marty is locked in his own bread. He can't countenance outside advice. He is excruciatingly slow. He's true to himself, but, God, he's a pain in the ass."

All this did not help propel Gangs of New York. Faced with steadfast lack of interest from the studios, Scorsese in recent years had finally grown fatalistic about Gangs. He knew his best shot for getting the film made was in the '70s, when eclectic director-driven films with arcane subject matters were the order of the day. Through the "high concept" '80s, Scorsese all but hid his project, but in the late '90s he considered shopping it again, after the box-office success of Cape Fear had reasserted his credentials as a commercial filmmaker. This itself was an irony, since it was Steven Spielberg who had developed Cape Fear while his friend Scorsese had nurtured a far more complex, layered script called Shindler's List. Impulsively, because of Spielberg's intense interest in Holocaust, they have switched projects - a shift that became an obscure footnote to film history.

Then, a few years ago, Scorsese took on a new manager, the brilliant if mercurial Michael Ovitz, who had just founded his new management firm, AMG. During an early meeting, Ovitz pressed him about future projects; Scorsese recited a list of things studios had offered him. Ovitz was not satisfied. "These are OK, Marty," he prodded, "but what is your dream project? Is there anything you would kill to get made?" The filmmaker felt almost embarrassed to knock the cobwebs off Gangs of New York, but he found himself passionately pitching this uniquely impractical film. Ovitz, instead of knocking it down, as Scorsese had feared, seemed to light up. "I have one thing to say," Ovitz replied. "Leonardo DiCaprio."

When Ovitz launched his firm, he brought with him a bright young partner from the Addis/Wechsler management firm named Rick Yorn, thus acquiring a cluster of promising performers, such as DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. DiCaprio proved to be a demanding client, however. After the mind-bending success of Titanic, 5the young star served notice that he didn't want to devote his career to appeasing his teenybopper following. He wanted quirky parts; he also wanted to be directed by distinguished filmmakers.

Despite DiCaprio's "heat", none of the old questions would go away: Was this a gangster picture or a message picture? How do you re-create an entire section of period Manhattan? How much would all this cost? Studio decision makers salivated for Leo and respected Scorsese, but the mantra of the year 2000 was to be risk averse

His fervor had taken him down some strange paths since Titanic. Not exactly an intellectual, Leo flirted with the idea of playing a yuppie murderer (American Psycho), a Hemingway her (A Farewell to Arms), a cowboy (All the Pretty Horses) and a schizophrenic law student (The Crowded Room) before finally committing to playing a wanderer who finds himself in possession of a map to paradise (The Beach)

DiCaprio was clearly restless, and Rick Yorn knew the actor needed the tutelage of a world-class director. With this in mind, Yorn introduced DiCaprio to Scorsese and then hoped for the best. Surprisingly, the two hit it off - DiCaprio the smart but flaky kid actor, Scorsese the consummate shooter, himself a grown-up street kid. A bit disoriented, as most young actors are, DiCaprio respected know-how and commitment. He would raise a plot point and Scorsese would refer to movies made generations earlier that DiCaprio had never ever heard of. Scorsese, Leo knew, could be frustratingly slow and demanding, but Leo wanted a mentor.

Together they decided to relaunch Scorsese's stillborn saga. During the next eighteen months, there were times they would regret this decision. Despite DiCaprio's "heat," one of the old questions would go away: Was this a gangster picture or a message picture? How do you re-create an entire section of period Manhattan? How much would all this cost? Studio decision makers salivated for Leo and respected Scorsese, but the mantra of the year 2000 was to be risk averse.

In the end, Gangs of New York defied the movie gods and went before the cameras in September 2000 without the anchor of a major Hollywood studio. Indeed, it started production only after a series of advances and setbacks that left even battle-hardened Ovitz and Yorn beleaguered. Its budget at the out set of principal photography was $85 million, making it perhaps the most expensive independently financed movie of all time - not that anyone believes even that number is realistic. And its prime location is not New York but, improbably, Rome. In short, it is at once a sort of miracle as well as a unique self-indulgence.

All of which was further reason Martin Scorsese was pinching himself even as he yelled "Action."

Will it prove to be worth the agony? No one will know, of course, until the film opens later this year. "I just don't get this movie," confessed one high-level Disney executive who was familiar with the project's ups and downs. "It's not an audience movie. It should be funded by a philanthropic foundation."

Indeed, when I visited Scorsese on the set last fall, he was charged up but also realistic about the artistic obstacle course confronting him. Though Gangs depicts a world of intense violence, Scorsese chose to portray the killings and beatings elliptically through sound effects and reaction shots - a departure from the on-the-nose bloodletting that characterized his earlier work.

"The problem with taking a more stylized approach [to violence] is that it takes longer to shoot and longer to edit," Scorsese tells me with a sigh between takes. He then glanced at the figure looming off camera - Harvey Weinstein, the cochief of Miramax. While Weinstein's support made the film possible, he hates profligate filmmaking, as Scorsese well understands.

Because of the complexity of the shoot and its incipient tensions, unusually tight security surrounds the set. On the occasions of my visit, I was assured that only Tom Cruise and George Lucas had previously been permitted entrée and that no press had penetrated the environs. Both prior visitors had left their impacts, to be sure. Cruise, who was coproducing another Miramax film, The Others, starring his wife, Nicole Kidman, backed Scorsese in arguing for construction of yet another set - the facade of an entire cathedral, which Weinstein had previously vetoed. "Tom's very persuasive," said Weinstein with a shrug as he signed off on the added expense.

Lucas, on the other hand, while marveling at the intricate period sets that had been built on the back lot of Cinecittà outside Rome - the very place where casts of thousands were assembled to film epics of a previous era, such as Ben-Hur and Cleopatra - was unable to resist teasing Scorsese, telling him that his special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, could have created the same look with less trouble. "After listening to George," Scorsese told me, "I told myself, 'OK, so I'm a vestige of old-world filmmaking and he represents the brave new world.' I felt at once exhilarated and anachronistic."

The set itself, sprawling over several city blocks, is a meticulous and impressive interpretation of mid-nineteenth-century lower Manhattan. Sagging tenements line pitted, garbage-strewn streets, ragged laundry hangs from windows. At one end of a "street" stands a small cathedral, known to crew members as St. Thomas' after its patron saint and champion, Tom Cruise. At the other end of the street, two sailing ships, built to scale, sit docked, having recently disgorged new immigrants. Much of the action takes place in an abandoned brewery, part of which is dubbed Satan's Circus, on which one gang has staked its claim.

It's an amazing set, and it stems from exhaustive research by Scorsese and his celebrated production designer, Dante Ferretti, both of whom steeped themselves in period lore. They worked together on The Age of Innocence, and it's doubtful anyone would challenge about this period of American history.

For the duration of the shoot, Scorsese, however, resided in a home appropriate for a different sort of period film. It is a beautifully restored villa, parts of which are centuries old (no one knows how many), that commands a breathtaking view of the rolling countryside an hour outside of Rome. The villa is surrounded by an ancient aquaduct of Roman Empire vintage. Scorsese, along with his wife and year-old daughter, is here for the duration of the shoot. It's here that we meet the next day.

Given the tight security on the set, the Italian press percolated with wild rumors. Leonardo was said to have ballooned to pudgy proportions and to be balking at the rigid diet imposed by Harvey Weinstein. Writers were fretfully patching the script, even as Scorsese was quarreling with Weinstein over the changes.

"New York" circa 1840 was more a cauldron than a city," Scorsese tells me. "Yet thoughtful people had begun to realize that if New York couldn't be made to work, then the nation as a whole couldn't work. That's what it came down to." New Yorkers of that period, he goes on, bitterly resented the waves of newcomers, especially the youthful Catholic marauders from Ireland. They were also deeply suspicious of becoming entangled in a civil war, a looming conflict that would disrupt trade and pauperize the young nation. Hence, residents aligned themselves into feral gangs that dominated the city's life. Even the police and fire departments were polarized, so that if a Protestant fire company happened upon a fire in a Catholic neighborhood, it would simply turn away and let the fire burn.

It's a dynamic Scorsese understands, having grown up in an Italian enclave on the Lower East Side that was hemmed in by Chinese on one side and Jews on the other. "Violence was always a serious option," he reflects. "If you found yourself in difficulty, you didn't hire a lawyer or call a cop; you ordered a hit." Deep-seated religious antipathies were as integral to his youth as to his characters in Gangs of New York.

While it's clear Scorsese knows the though life of the streets, the big question in Hollywood is whether he can bring the tension of the story - religious warfare, class hatred - to life on screen. "Marty's problem is that he's shooting a cold script," says one associate. "He has to build in emotion from his actors."

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