From the outset, Scorsese made no secret of his ambitions. Early on, he handed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus a lavish book of Rembrandt prints and told him this was how the film should look. "He loved the use of light and shadows," Ballhaus explains. A former instructor at NYU, Scorsese even foisted a syllabus on Weinstein. "Marty made me watch 80 movies to prepare for the movie," says Weinstein. "Eighty. Can you imagine? How about The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt, a 1928 silent movie with the worst organ music you've ever heard? And remember: No videos, no DVDs. Every movie has to be on the big screen. It was like going to school with Professor Scorsese."
Defying Hollywood's drift toward computer graphics, Miramax agreed to build a spectacular re-creation of the Five Points, designed by Ferretti, at the famed Cinecittà studios in Rome. The atmosphere on the set proved nearly as volatile as in the old ghetto itself. Day-Lewis didn't simply play the homicidal Bill the Butcher but became him. If he called his agent back in New York, he spoke to the secretary as Bill. He practiced tapping his eyeballcovered in prosthetic glass, to simulate Bill's fake eyewith the tip of a sharp knife to learn to do it without blinking. Every morning, the idiosyncratic actor would pump iron in a gym under Scorsese's office, Eminem throbbing up through the floorboards. "He was filled with this extraordinary rage, and he just stayed that way for seven months," Scorsese says, sounding a bit envious.
Obsession became infectious. During the last week of shooting, Scorsese and Ballhaus were inside a tent peering at a live video feed from the set when they noticed, on the fringes, a fight breaking out. It was DiCaprio and "Bill" going at it, getting very Methody, clawing away at each other and rolling around in the dirt to the point of near-exhaustion, even though the cameras weren't yet rolling. "You remember that kid in This Boy's Life? He's not like that anymore," Day-Lewis recalls with grudging admiration. "I'll tell you, I'm glad I had been working out."
The scale of the project required the usually reserved Scorsese to play the "general," Day-Lewis says, so there Scorsese was, whirring around the twisting streets among hundreds of Italian extras in a golf cart, as if it were Patton's white steed. He would park long enough to explain to the costume people precisely how much dirt to grind into each garment. "There was one rack for lower-class characters, one rack for middle-class," says Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor. "Marty's very meticulous."
Weinstein, meanwhile, had concerns of his own. Lots of them. Why cast two of Hollywood's premier heartthrobs then cover them in grime? What's with that bizarre stovepipe hat on Daniel? What about his garish plaid trousers? Miramax sent around ceaseless memos detailing Weinstein's concerns"It was constant," Scorsese moansbut they couldn't have fallen on deafer ears. "There was one that said there was 'too much oil in the hair,' " Day-Lewis says with a chuckle. "So I said, 'Great, let's put some more oil in.' When I bumped into Harvey on the stairs at Cinecittà, I said, 'Harvey, I got the message about you wanting more oil in my hair. Is it okay now?' "
For one scene, Scorsese insisted on a historically accurate Rat Pit, in which a single terrier fought against dozens of sewer rats while onlookers placed bets. For another, Scorsese demanded a jar of human ears on the bar of Bill's brothel headquarters, Satan's Circus. "Harvey didn't want the rats. He didn't want the ears," Scorsese says with a dismissive wave. "I mean, you give an ear, you get a drink. That's the way it was. You don't have to dwell on it."
Weinstein, however, thinks too much has been made of the give-and-take. "There was no give-and-take," he says with a wheezy chuckle. "All the things I asked Marty not to do, he did, and you know what? I'm totally fine with all of it. Make no mistake, this is Marty's movie, top to bottomcompletely uncompromising. And I didn't ask for compromise."
As the budget ballooned beyond its original $84 million to $100 million, however, Miramax began to assert more influence. "I was there for the last week of shooting. The pressure on Marty was extraordinarily intense," Cocks says. "He was shooting the final confrontation between Daniel and Leo, and they actually made him stop before he got all the shots. They said, 'That's it, that's it!' It's like you're running the vacuum cleaner and they pull the plug out. So Marty actually had to go back when the movie was already put together and get a few more shots in New York because he didn't have enough coverage."
"We went over a few dollars, and so what?" Weinstein says now. "I made this movie for Marty. I served him. That's what I did as producer on this film. For Marty, hopefully, it will be vindication at the end of a long, hard, 27-year road." For his part, Weinstein's great "gamble" is already looking more and more like a sure thing. He sold off the foreign rights aloneto British television producer Graham Kingfor $65 million.
Still, given the potent brew of personalities, it was natural that rumors would flourish, and they did. There was chatter, apparently baseless, that Leo's weight was ballooning on Roman pasta, or that he was on a star trip and clashing with Scorsese. "All bullshit," Ballhaus says wearily. But then Miramax started to push back the release dateWeinstein originally pushed for a Christmas 2001 release but determined that the film was too brutal for the raw nerves of the country after 9/11. To judge from the press, the movie was starting to look less like the film Titanic (to summon that other pricey DiCaprio historical epic once presumed to be folly) than like the actual Titanic. It seemed almost impossible that this behemoth would ever stay afloat.
"The film has taken on an aura of mystery. There's been so much hogwash written about it," Day-Lewis says. "But that's provided a kind of smokescreen under which Martin has just quietly got on with making the film he wanted to make in the first place."
As the wind hurls raindrops violently against the tall windows at the rear of his townhouse, the director looks oddly serene, warmed by the room's golden glow as he sips coffee from a china cup beneath a gigantic thirties poster for Renoir's Grand Illusion. There's some reason, at last, for serenity, and it's not just tonight's safety from a storm: The behemoth, to say the least, floats. Gangs is without question spectacularpossibly great.
Regardless, the conversation can't quite seem to remain buoyant. It's a nasty world, Scorsese agreesa world of too much passion and too little sense, of ancient blood feuds and perilous clannishness. We're talking about the world of Gangs but also the world in general. "We're in it now. The whole world is in it," he says. "The whole world is New York now, New York in the nineteenth century. We're going to have to learn to smile and deal with everybody. In the meantime, there's going to be a lot of damage, and there's a war. It's a state of war that will probably go on for a couple hundred years."
For anyone else, it's a dreary thought. But as Scorsese talks, the eyebrows as coarse as boar bristles begin to dance behind his huge black-framed eyeglasses. That perverse titillation over looming disorder once made Scorsese seem unique. For most of his career, the violence of Scorsese's movies seemed excessive, phantasmagoric. Well, the world caught up. Scorsese, ironically, has moved on. In Gangs, it's the ever-present threat of violence, not actual gore, that frays the nerves. "In this movie, I wanted to create another world, one that's very primitive," he explains. "A lot of the violence is actually implied through editing, because ultimately, that world is violent in such a way that it's everyday violence. You become numb to it."
Scorsese sits quietly for a moment but seems unable to pull himself from the topic. "Some of my films are known for the depiction of violence," he says, choosing his words with precision. "I don't have anything to prove with that anymore. I don't feel the poetry of violence the way Peckinpah used to." Another pause. Scorsese can't quite abandon the matter. "You take Casino. There's the scene where Joe Pesci's character and his younger brother are killed by their closest friends with baseball bats in a cornfield. That way of life that we depicted, that's where it really endsyour closest friend smashing you in the head with a baseball bat. Not even a gun. Not cutting your throat." The eyebrows ominously begin to twitch once again. "You're going to get hitmany timesand you're still going to be breathing when they put the dirt on you. If you want to live in that lifestyle, that's where you're going to go."
Funny, but that sounds just a little like the "lifestyle" Scorsese himself has chosen: If you're bold enough to take on Hollywood, history, and Harvey Weinstein, you will get hit. They will throw the dirt on you. The point is, you will still be breathing in the endwhich makes it only more ironic when Scorsese adds, with a weary smile, "If that isn't a deterrent, I don't what is."