Martin Scorsese participated in Q&A discussions following a December 4 screening in New York and a December 15 screening in Los Angeles of his latest film, Gangs of New York. Director Steven Spielberg moderated the discussion in Los Angeles, returning the favor of Scorsese moderating a discussion with him about Catch Me if You Can in New York. What follows are highlights from the Los Angeles discussion.
Steven Spielberg: We've known each other since 1967. I love The Big Shave. We met over that. I remember the time, about 25 years ago, when I first read the script for Gangs of New York by Jay Cocks. In all these years, why did it take so long?
Martin Scorsese: I think, ultimately, it took all that time trying to find myself in those characters and how much history, and what period of history. Originally it was set in the 1840s, 1850s, then I realized I wanted to end with the Draft Riots. I was sort of locked into that date, 1863, the summer. Originally what we had on paper was more novelistic, more literature than cinema, in a sense, at least that's the way I saw it. There was just so much background. Every page was so rich.... And it took a long time.
Spielberg: You constructed a world in this picture.
Scorsese: This has been the biggest problem in getting the picture made: to actually construct lower Manhattan. None of the sets existed. And I didn't want red bricks, there was some red brick, but not as much in 1865 or 1866. This place was like the end of the world. Wooden buildings, mud, the pigs that were there were the sanitation department. The pigs would eat the trash.
Spielberg: The thing that struck me when I saw it was the clash of cultures. All these shiploads of immigrants speaking different languages, and the fact that Bill the Butcher [played by Daniel Day Lewis], probably a character we won't forget as long as we live, he calls himself a Native American. Were there any Native Americans before him?
Scorsese: Apparently. Mark Twain's old line, "When the Europeans discovered America they fell on their knees, then they fell on the aborigines."
Spielberg: There was also something Dickensian, something Oliver Twist, Fagin and Oliver in a way is Amsterdam [Leonardo DiCaprio], but much more violent than Lionel Bart's musical certainly or David Lean's movie.
Scorsese: You're absolutely right. This is all coming out. As I'm finishing the film, I'm still quite close to it. I never quite finished the edit credits, but I think they're OK. Seriously, it's one of those things, I'm still going back, there's a couple mistakes. But the closer we get, the sense of what you're talking about is coming to me. There's been some obvious references to Satyricon; it was even going to be more stylized than this, but then I decided against that. Certainly to Once Upon a Time in the West, I never got as near to that masterpiece, but just the opening where he kicks open the door and goes out into the white snow. That's Sergio Leone. But we did study the beautiful restoration of the black-and-white David Lean Oliver Twist.
Spielberg: Exactly. The thing that I was noticing: 37 fire brigades? Each was a gang against the other?
Scorsese: Yeah. Actually there were more than 37. They had names like the Black Joke which actually is the fire gang that started the Draft Riots. That's why you see them breaking the windows, because three or four of their guys had been called up that morning and they thought it was bad. They didn't intend to start the Draft Riots, but they were the first ones to throw bricks through the windows. What would happen is that [at a fire] they would put a barrel over the [water] pump until their fire brigade got there. It was really territorial, and a lot of it was plundering. Massive battles. Growing up downtown, if there was a fight on the corner everybody would run and see.
Spielberg: What about that moment, where the immigrants are getting off the boat and they say, "Sign this document and you're American citizens. Sign this document and you're a private in the United States Army."
Scorsese: It's different groups of shots and men, ultimately leading to the coffin coming off the boat. No, it didn't happen in one day. But the reality was that so many of those guys, once they had the guns in their hands and they were in some place they had never heard of and being shot at, it might as well have been one day. A lot of them joined because they didn't have any food: they couldn't get any jobs. So three meals a day was not bad. And nobody had seen the Matthew Brady photographs [of Civil War battlefield aftermaths] yet. Who knew? War? Especially in Ireland, they were peasants. They fought with the British, but it wasn't the kind of 19th-century military warfare they were involved in. A lot of the kids who went to the war thinking it was more innocent wound up in the stills that you see.
Spielberg: But when the cannons are firing, all this technology took Bill the Butcher — who was a god — and reduced him to dust. Amsterdam and Bill were sort of dust at that point. It was very interesting to see how quickly you diminished their stature, especially Bill's stature. How much of this was storyboarded and how much did you wing it?
Scorsese: The battles were storyboarded. The fight scene at the beginning was storyboard. It's like Hellcat Maggie jumping into the air, swinging down, tracking down to the guy's shoulder as he looks up and then the ear coming off this way so nobody can really see the ear coming off, all of it was designed on paper. The montage itself was storyboarded, but I gave it to Vic Armstrong [action unit director] to shoot, some of those close hand-to-hand combat bits. But what I wanted to do was (similar to) the Russian montage films of Eisenstein.
Spielberg: They had money in those days.
Spielberg: They had more money than we did. A hundred thousand extras.
Scorsese: A lot of extras. But there's one thing in Potemkin, it's when the sailor looks at the dish and says, "Give us this day our daily bread," and they've been starving on the boat. And he gets angry. He's washing the dishes, and he stops and looks and looks. He's got a black-and-white striped shirt on — and he takes the plate and breaks it. It's one action he just did. But it's five to eight cuts. What I was interested in was the cuts: three times to his shoulder after breaking the plate. It was almost like ballet. It was very cubist in a way. So I designed it to get those shots Vic did. I wasn't interested in seeing the connection, the action of violence. I was interested in creating the impression. So I would tell him to get a shot, start at 48 frames, go to 12 then come up to 24. Then do the same thing and just reverse.
Spielberg: I thought it was fascinating because I can dish it out, but I can't take. So the first scene I'm like this [covering his eyes]. I can blow arms and heads off people in my films but I can't watch his. At the same time, when I thought I was able to watch, I realized something: there's no connection. You see someone bashing their head into the lens and then you see the person taking the head hit going away with a little blood. You see swords and knives, not going into a body, just swinging; then you cut to the ground and a body just falls to the ground. I've never seen anything staged this way before, and I thought it was just amazing.
Scorsese: It's when I realized it's the pieces of the shots we usually throw away. It's the resolution of the action. That's what I realized with the breaking of the plates. I said, "Let's do that. Let's go back and forth and never really see the connection of the bodies." For example, in the scene where Bill stabs his friend Harvey's hand at the table while they're playing cards. It's five shots but you don't see the knife going in at all.
Spielberg: You've got three great writers credited on this — Jay, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. Can you explain what their contributions were?
Scorsese: Well, it was Jay who worked on the original draft. It was the late '70s. By the time we were set to do rewrites on it, I'd finished Raging Bull, King of Comedy, and everything had changed. I couldn't get another big film like that made at the time. Especially because it was a very complex draft as you remember. It was 170 pages or something. I put my energies toward Last Temptation of Christ, and that couldn't get made. So I kind of put everything down for about ten years. And I took the script with me when I went to Japan and worked on [Akira Kurosawa's] Dreams and read it again and asked Jay to do some rewrites. He basically rewrote it in 1989, condensed it and added the revenge theme, which is really just a motor to get the thing going. Ultimately, that didn't work out either. Finally, Steve Zaillian came in and did more of a restructuring and re-tightening. Things like the scene "Sign here and you become a citizen."And then before shooting started, Kenny Lonergan offered his help. I was one of his producers on You Can Count on Me. And Kenny came in and we started working on the characters, particularly Amsterdam and Jenny. Basically when I wanted to go further with the complexity of whether or not he should go directly to Bill and kill him (but he would never do that; he would get sidetracked by his heart, really). That's where I worked really strongly with Kenny during shooting and finally in the editing too.
Spielberg: It's very seamless. You don't hear three voices. You hear one voice. You.