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'Gangs' all here for Scorsese

NEW YORK--In 1977, right after he made "Taxi Driver," Martin Scorsese took out a two-page ad in Variety to announce his next production: "The Gangs Of New York."

"It's been on my mind for many, many years," Scorsese was saying the other day. We were having lunch in his hotel suite, and he was eating a bowl full of something that looked like puppy chow but which he said was on the Zone Diet.

He asked his longtime collaborator Jay Cocks to do a screenplay about the incredibly violent years between 1830 and the Civil War, when gangs ruled New York's streets and engaged in warfare. But then he made "Raging Bull," and then "The King of Comedy" and then "The Last Temptation of Christ," and by then, he said, the moment had passed and Hollywood wasn't making pictures like "Gangs" any more. By which he meant, although he didn't say it, that Hollywood had turned to formulas and was afraid of such an ambitious project.

So 20 years passed and he never stopped thinking about the film, and now here it is, a year after it was first scheduled to be released, surrounded by rumors of power struggles, "Gangs Of New York." Scorsese's film, which opens Friday, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon, a tough Irish kid whose father was while martyred leading the Dead Rabbits, a gang of recently-arrived immigrants. Daniel Day-Lewis plays William Cutting, also known as Bill the Butcher, leader of a gang called the Nativists, who hate immigrants. Cameron Diaz is Jenny Everdeane, pickpocket and con woman, who was once Bill's woman but now loves Amsterdam.

The film was made at a cost of untold millions (the figure changes from story to story) on enormous sets built at Rome's Cinecitta to duplicate the notorious Five Points area of New York in the decades before the war. No movie has ever depicted American poverty and squalor in this way: Immigrants huddle on shelves in a rooming house, starving children die in the streets, there is no law except the rule of the mighty, and each immigrant or racial tribe battles the others.

"It's not about guys with wigs writing with feathers," Scorsese said, chuckling over his gruel. He is quick to explain, however, that his movie should be seen as an "opera, not a documentary"--that he played with the facts to tell a better story. He has a scene, for example, when Navy ships fire their cannons on rioting draft resisters. "Actually, they unloaded some howitzers and fired from land," he said. "They were joined by Army troops fresh from fighting at Gettysburg--I had to cut out the part explaining that--and these troops were impatient at draft resisters and also feared they might be facing a British-led rebellion."

Scorsese tells me these things and many more during our lunch. He is not one of those film promoters who sticks to sound bites and is focused on selling his picture. He talks about whatever comes into his mind, and I learn that he thinks "The River" is Jean Renoir's best movie, that he would love to make a film from a book by Joseph Conrad, that he has finally gotten through James Joyce's Ulysses, that he needs to work because he plowed half of his salary back into "Gangs of New York," and that there will not be a "director's cut" of the film on DVD.

That last he makes particularly clear, because of all the controversy over reported arguments he had with Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein about the length of the film.

"The debate was about how you get a picture to play, not about how long it was," he said. He talked about a long process with his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked on all of his pictures, as they made versions that ran from three hours and forty minutes to as little as two hours and 36 minutes. They screened before test audiences: "This is a film that needed to be screened that way because it contains a lot of information. How much was getting across? How much wasn't getting across? How much was getting across that you didn't need to get across, because you could just drop or forget it?"

At one point, he said, it was too short. Scenes played too fast. "I added three or four minutes, clarified certain other things. The rhythm was still off, I felt. This went on and on over a period of about a year. At one point I put too much back in."

His discussions with Weinstein, he said, were always about finding the length where the picture worked. When that got to the press, it was translated into fights. The movie is currently 168 minutes long, he said, and that is the right length, and that's why there won't be any director's cut--because this is the director's cut.

Scorsese explains these things in a torrent of enthusiasm. I have known him 35 years, and this has never changed: He loves movies to an unreasonable, delirious degree, and he has unalloyed zeal for making them and talking about them. Words pour from him. Let me provide statistics. I tape-recorded exactly 45 minutes of our conversation. It contained 8731 words, which means he was speaking at 194 words a minute--but even faster, actually, because some of the tape is me, speaking more slowly. I say that just to illustrate that in a time when many people in the film business speak guardedly or even with paranoia, Scorsese wears it all on his sleeve.

The film's art director, Dante Ferretti, created catacombs carved from the rock of Manhattan for the opening scenes. Scorsese said they are based on fact. "Right now in Chinatown they have sweatshops beneath the basements," he said. "A friend of mine did some research a few years ago, going through underground areas in the Chinatown. He actually saw sweatshops below."

Are any of the catacombs like those shown in the movie still down there?

"Oh, I think they're there. Just covered over. And I know for a fact that the basements of the Lower East Side where I grew up, you could go in a basement on Elizabeth Street and come out somewhere on Mott Street. That was mainly to get away from the police. And also the Italians used it a lot for making wine down there, which was against the law. The city has a whole....underneath. I was trying to employ that with these caves."

Now, Scorsese said, he needs to go to work again. "I have a three-year-old to feed," he smiles. What will he make? Two projects are in his mind. One is a biopic based on Dean Martin, which he has been talking about for years. Another is "The Aviator," based on the early life of Howard Hughes, who has an earth-shaking love affair with Katharine Hepburn.

"You know who looks uncannily like young Howard Hughes?" Scorsese mused. "Leonardo DiCaprio."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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