13 Epic Facts About Gangs of New York

Miramax
Miramax

Violent criminals and the Big Apple are two of Martin Scorsese’s favorite things, so Gangs of New York was a natural fit, even if the gangs in question were old-timey ones from the 1860s rather than the Joe Pesci kind. Gangs of New York marked Scorsese’s first collaboration (of five, so far) with Leonardo DiCaprio, which may have been a factor in its also being his first box office hit in over a decade. What more is there to know about a bloody epic that was nominated for 10 Oscars but won none of them? Get out your throwin’ knives and your dead rabbits and read on.

1. IT WAS 32 YEARS IN THE MAKING.

Martin Scorsese read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1970 and immediately thought it would make a good movie. He didn’t have any money or clout yet though, so he had to wait. He bought the movie rights to the book in 1979, and even got a screenplay written around that time, then spent the next 20 years trying to get the project off the ground before finding a willing financial partner in Harvey Weinstein at Miramax Films.

2. IT WAS SHOT ON A MASSIVE SET IN ROME.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese on the set of 'Gangs of New York' (2002)
Mario Tursi/Miramax

What do you do when you want to shoot on location but the location doesn’t exist anymore? You either build it, or you use computers to fabricate it. Scorsese went with the former option, commissioning Italian production designer Dante Ferretti to create a breathtakingly authentic version of New York’s Five Points neighborhood circa 1860. At the legendary Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Ferretti’s team built a mile of sets—stores, saloons, houses, the town square, even the harbor, docks, and ships—all of them fully functional, with no facades. Visitors marveled at how stepping onto the set was like stepping back in time.

3. THE BOOK THAT INSPIRED MARTIN SCORSESE WASN’T ALL THAT ACCURATE.

A modern historian named Tyler Anbinder, who wrote Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum and gave Scorsese input on the Gangs screenplay, said Asbury’s book from the ‘20s exaggerated how dangerous the neighborhood was. Anbinder had access to statistics that Asbury did not, and he said, “Other than public drunkenness and prostitution, there was no more crime in Five Points than in any other part of the city.” Asbury had written that “there was one tenement where there was a murder a day,” but in fact, Anbinder said, “there was barely a murder a month in all of New York City” at that time.

4. SCORSESE IMAGINED THE BLUES BROTHERS AS THE LEADS.

At one point in the late 1970s, when Scorsese was earnestly trying to get the film made, he envisioned Dan Aykroyd playing the Leonardo DiCaprio role, with John Belushi in the Daniel Day-Lewis part. Willem Dafoe and Robert De Niro were also attached to play Bill the Butcher at different times. And in his original conception, in the early ‘70s, Scorsese wanted A Clockwork Orange star Malcolm McDowell.

5. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS WAS TRAINED BY REAL BUTCHERS, BECAUSE OF COURSE HE WAS.

YouTube

Ever the Method actor, Day-Lewis first took lessons from two Argentine brothers with a butcher shop in Queens, then from a master butcher specially flown in from London. If you listen closely, you can hear producer Harvey Weinstein screaming about the expense. 

6. GEORGE LUCAS HELPED WITH AN ELEPHANT PROBLEM.

The Star Wars creator, then working on Attack of the Clones, had visited the massive set in Rome and told Scorsese that it was probably the last of its kind, that such large re-creations would be done on computers now to save money. Lucas’ know-how in such matters came in handy later, when Gangs needed an elephant and none of the animal wranglers in Italy were able to produce one in time.

Weinstein later recalled that he told Scorsese to keep shooting while he called Lucas and asked for help: “We’re effed! We don’t have [an] elephant! Tell us how to shoot it!” Lucas, an old pro at such things, guided them through the process of filming without the elephant and having it digitally created later. It’s the only thing in the movie that’s completely computer-generated. 

7. SEVERAL CHARACTERS WERE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE.

Bill the Butcher was real, though Scorsese changed his surname from Poole to Cutting for the movie to reflect a creative liberty he’d taken, i.e., having the character live to see the Civil War (he was actually murdered in 1855). William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent) was a real politician who controlled the Tammany Hall political machine, as you may recall from your high school U.S. history class. So were the Schermerhorns, the rich people seen taking a tour of the misery and vice of Five Points. (Interesting footnote: Scorsese’s fifth wife, whom he married in 1999, is one Helen Schermerhorn Morris, a descendant of early New York elites.) Perhaps most surprisingly, Hell-Cat Maggie (Cara Seymour)—the vicious female fighter who bites off victims’ ears—was fact-based, being a composite of the real Hell-Cat Maggie (her real name is unknown) and a few other historical lady criminals.

8. SCORSESE HAS A CAMEO AS AN UPPER-CRUSTER, BUT ONLY FOR HIS DAUGHTER’S SAKE. 

YouTube

Scorsese wanted his daughter, Francesca, to be in the movie, because that’s your prerogative when you’re a director. Since she was a babe-in-arms, Scorsese wanted to be in the scene with her, and he didn’t want her to be in the Five Points. “After two weeks of working in those sets, and rain and all sorts of things, they became very lived-in. The streets became very muddy,” he said. The safest, cleanest place was the fancy house of some fancy people that Cameron Diaz’s character steals from, with Scorsese as the fancy dad. (Scorsese assures us in the DVD commentary that he would much rather have played a Five Pointer.)

9. DAY-LEWIS LISTENED TO A LOT OF EMINEM ON THE SET.

The actor is well known for doing a lot of intense preparation before a film shoot, and for staying in character throughout it. That doesn’t mean he only listened to music that Bill the Butcher would have listened to, though. He told Rolling Stone that he listened to a lot of Eminem on the set: “Every morning around five, especially the song ‘The Way I Am.’ I’ve admired him for a while. I’m always on the lookout for music that might be helpful to a role.” Perhaps Eminem’s bravado, egotism, and showmanship spoke to the Butcher. 

10. DAY-LEWIS WAS URGED TO TAKE THE PART BY SCORSESE, LEONARDO DICAPRIO, AND ... TOBEY MAGUIRE? 

Harvey Weinstein would later exaggerate the “courting” process, but Day-Lewis really did take his time in deciding to take the role. While visiting New York to discuss it with Scorsese (whom he’d worked with on The Age of Innocence), Day-Lewis also met with DiCaprio. The two had a heart-to-heart on a bench in Central Park, and later had dinner with DiCaprio’s friend Tobey Maguire. According to DiCaprio, the future Spider-Man told Day-Lewis, “Y’know, when somebody has a talent like yours, it’s almost their responsibility to do it, to get back in the saddle.” 

11. SCORSESE REFUSED TO LET 9/11 CHANGE THE FINAL IMAGE.

YouTube

Weinstein’s official explanation for delaying the release of the film from December 2001 to December 2002 was that it was too soon after 9/11 for a violent movie set in New York that depicts early incarnations of the NYPD. But Scorsese continued to shoot small “pick-ups” (minor snippets of scenes) well into 2002—so either he was taking advantage of Weinstein’s delay, or Weinstein delayed it so Scorsese could finish. Whatever the case, when the movie was released, it still ended with a time-lapse effect that culminates in a shot of present-day New York—Twin Towers included, even though they’d come down 15 months earlier.

“It had to end with [the modern skyline being built], or the movie shouldn’t have existed,” Scorsese explained. “We did the paintings and edited that skyline sequence before September 11, and afterward it was suggested that we should take out the towers, but I felt ... it’s not my job to revise the New York skyline. The people in the film ... were part of the creation of that skyline, not the destruction of it. And if the skyline collapses, ultimately, they will build another one.” 

12. SCORSESE GAVE HARVEY WEINSTEIN A LOT OF HOMEWORK.

To give Weinstein an idea of what he wanted the movie to look like, Scorsese “made” Weinstein watch 80 movies (possibly an exaggeration), including semi-obscure classics like The Man Who Laughs, a silent film from 1928. “Eighty. Can you imagine?” Weinstein recalled. “And remember: no videos, no DVDs. Every movie has to be on the big screen. It was like going to school with Professor Scorsese.” 

13. THERE WERE LONGER CUTS OF THE MOVIE, BUT YOU WON’T SEE THEM.

The first cut, the throw-in-everything-and-see-what-works version, was three hours and 38 minutes, almost an hour longer than the final cut. Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, tinkered with it relentlessly, ultimately producing 18 different versions that were screened for various audiences. Weinstein, rightfully nicknamed Harvey Scissorhands for his ruthless trimming of the movies he releases, no doubt urged Scorsese toward a shorter runtime, but Scorsese said he’s happy with the one everybody saw, which is two hours and 47 minutes.

“There’s not one version that I would say, ‘That’s my original version,’” Scorsese said on the DVD commentary. They were more like drafts: “This was all a series of changes and rewrites and restructuring, until finally it comes down to the movie you see in the theater.” 

14. ELMER BERNSTEIN WROTE A MUSICAL SCORE THAT SCORSESE ULTIMATELY REJECTED.

The legendary and prolific composer, credited with well over 200 scores for movies and television, had worked with Scorsese several times before (including The Age of Innocence, which earned him an Oscar nomination). He composed “a complete score” for Gangs of New York, but over the course of the long editing process, Scorsese’s concept for the music changed. (“He winds up with a Scorsese score, a pastiche,” Bernstein said.) In the end, Scorsese used some orchestral music by Howard Shore, along with contemporary pieces by the likes of Peter Gabriel and U2. You can hear a sample of Bernstein’s version here

Additional sources:
Martin Scorsese’s DVD commentary

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

15 Game of Thrones Products Every Fan Needs

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Though Game of Thrones might be coming to its official end, that doesn’t mean that your fandom can’t—or won’t—carry on. Whether you’re a years-long defender of House Stark or have been rooting for House Targaryen since the beginning, there’s a candle, collectible pin, coffee mug, card game, and pretty much anything else you can imagine with your name (and preferred sigil) on it.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire Book Series; $46

Bantam's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series

Bantam, Amazon

If you’ve never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the series is based, plenty more Westerosi drama awaits. And just because you’ve seen every episode of the series 10 times doesn’t mean you know which way the books will turn. (The TV show diverged from their narrative a long time ago—and dozens of the characters who have been killed off on your television screen are still alive and well in the books.) Plus, as Martin has yet to complete the series, you may just catch up in time for the newest book.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Map Marker Wine Stopper Set; $50

Nobody solves a problem like Tyrion Lannister … and his thought process usually includes copious amounts of wine (Dornish if you’ve got it). Something tells us you’re going need some vino yourself to get through the giant, hour-long hole left in your Sunday nights once Game of Thrones officially ends. Make sure you don’t let a drop of it go to waste by keeping one of these six wine stoppers—each one carved to represent the sigil of the most noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms—handy.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

3. Winterfell Coffee Mug; $25

If coffee is more your speed—we get it: the night is dark and full of terrors—this simple-yet-elegant Winterfell mug is an easy way to communicate to your co-workers why you’re typically a little bleary-eyed on Monday mornings.

Buy it: HBO Shop

4. Hodor Door Stop; $12

A 3D-printed Hodor door stop, inspired by 'Game of Thrones'

3D Cauldron, Amazon

An important part of being a Game of Thrones fan is accepting that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have no problem killing off your favorite characters, often in brutal ways. One of the series’ most memorable deaths was that of Hodor, Bran Stark’s personal mode of transport, who we loved despite the fact that the only word he ever uttered for six seasons was “Hodor”—and who we loved even more when, in the final moments of his life, we learned why that was the case. Pay tribute to the gentle giant, and his backstory, with this 3D-printed door stop.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Tarot Card Deck; $25

A 'Game of Thrones' tarot card deck, from Chronicle Books

Chronicle Books, Amazon

Channel your inner Maggy the Frog and see what the future holds for you and your loved ones (your enemies, too, if the mood strikes you) with Chronicle Books’s gorgeously packaged tarot card deck. The tarot tradition and Game of Thrones mythology blend seamlessly together in this box of goodies, which includes an instruction book and illustrated cards featuring your favorite characters and most beloved scenes from the show.

Buy it: Amazon or Chronicle Books

6. Fire and Blood Candle; $12

Mad Queen or not, show that you still stand behind the Mother of Dragons by filling your home with this House Targaryen-inspired votive candle. Best of all: Just wait to see the look on the faces of your guests when they ask “Mmmm … what’s that smell?” If you’d prefer not to answer with “fire and blood—doesn’t it smell delicious?,” there are other scents available: one called "Moon of My Life My Sun and Stars," another called "Be a Dragon," and one inspired by the Iron Throne itself (which must smell like victory).

Buy it: HBO Shop

7. Clue: Game of Thrones; $50

Margaery Tyrell with the battle axe in Cersei’s bedchambers. Rewrite the rules—and brutal deaths—of Game of Thrones with this special edition of the classic board game, which tasks you with figuring out who murdered whom, using what weapon, and where the incident took place. A double-sided playing board lets you choose whether you want to set the game in The Red Keep or Meereen.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

8. Game of Thrones Monopoly; $24

'Game of Thrones Monopoly' game board

Hasbro, Amazon

Who wants to be the Lord or Lady of Winterfell when you can become the preeminent real estate mogul of all the Seven Kingdoms? This special-edition Monopoly board puts a distinctly Westerosian twist on the classic game, with silver tokens to represent the sigils of each of the main houses and a card holder that plays the series’ haunting score whenever you press it.

Buy it: Amazon or Best Buy

9. House Stark Hoodie; $60

If you really wanted to dress like a Stark, you’d have a master blacksmith on hand to help customize your armor—or at least turn your IKEA rug into a luxurious cape. If you’re far less crafty, there’s always this full-zip hoodie featuring an embroidered direwolf on the front and an outlined illustration of the same on the back. The minimalist design is a way to show your fandom in a way that, to the untrained eye, might just look like you’re a fan of wolves. But the rest of us will know better. And approve.

Buy it: ThinkGeek

10. Deluxe Iron Throne Funko Pop! Set; $130

Funko's Iron Throne Pop! set of five

Funko, HBO Shop

Though it seems unlikely that a few of these characters will ever sit on the Iron Throne (either because they’re dead or have gone mad), a fan can always hope. And buying them as part of this five-piece set is an easy way to collect them all. If you don’t see your favorite character here, Amazon has got plenty more squat-headed figures to choose from, including Arya, Brienne of Tarth, Rhaegal (poor Rhaegal), and Ghost (poor Ghost). If you ever happen upon a headless Ned Stark Pop!, grab it; this hard-to-find figure can sell for more than $2000 on eBay.

Buy it: HBO Shop

11. Iron Throne Bookend; $60

After devoting more than eight years of your life to seeing Game of Thrones all the way through, maybe it’s you who deserves the Iron Throne. You can’t sit on this 7.5-inch replica, the base of which features sigils from all the noble houses, but you can show off your fancy George R.R. Martin book collection … or all that dragon fan fiction you’ve been working on.

Buy it: Best Buy or the HBO Shop

12. Game of Thrones Music Box; $13

'Game of Thrones' music box

Shenzhen Youtang Trade Co., Amazon

Channel your inner Arya by psyching yourself up with the iconic Game of Thrones theme song whenever you feel the need to hear it with this hand-cranked music box.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Iron Throne Tankard; $70

Show your guests who's boss at your next dinner party—or raucous feast—as you take your place at the head of the table and guzzle your mead (or giant's milk—we don't judge) from this Iron Throne-themed tankard, completed with sword handle.

Buy it: HBO Shop

14. Game of Thrones Socks; $8

It gets cold in the North. Keep your tootsies warm with this six-pack of stylish ankle-cut socks.

Buy it: Target

15. Living Language Dothraki; $16

A copy of the Living Language Dothraki language course

Living Language, Amazon

By now, you've surely learned at least a handful of common Dothraki words and phrases. But if you wan to become fluent in the (fictional) language, this language course is one way to do it. Now: Finne zhavvorsa anni?

Buy it: Amazon

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