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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

8 Haunting Horror Movie Gimmicks

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the 1950s and 1960s, horror movies were making studios huge profits on shoestring budgets. But after the market hit horror overload, directors and studios had to be extra creative to get people to flock to theaters. That's when a flood of different gimmicks were introduced at movie theaters across the country to make a film stand out from the crowd. From hypnotists to life insurance policies and free vomit bags, here's a brief history of some of the most memorable horror movie gimmicks.

1. PSYCHO-RAMA // MY WORLD DIES SCREAMING (1958)

In order to truly become a classic, a horror movie can't just work on the surface; it has to get deep inside of your head. That's what Psycho-Rama tried to achieve when it was first conceived for My World Dies Screaming, later renamed Terror in the Haunted House. Psycho-Rama introduced audiences to subliminal imagery in order to let the scares sink in more than any traditional film could.

Skulls, snakes, ghoulish faces, and the word "Death" would all appear onscreen for a fraction of a second—not long enough for an audience member to consciously notice it, but it was enough to get them uneasy. Obviously Psycho-Rama didn't really catch on with the public or the film industry, but horror directors, like William Friedkin in The Exorcist, have since gone on to use this quick imagery technique to enhance their own movies.

2. FRIGHT INSURANCE // MACABRE (1958)

Director William Castle didn't make a name for himself in the film industry by directing cinematic classics; instead, he relied on shock and schlock to help fill movie theater seats. His movies were full of what audiences craved at the time: horror, gore, terror, suspense, and a heaping helping of camp. But his true genius came from marketing—and the gimmicks he brought to every movie, which have since become legendary among horrorphiles.

His most famous stunt was the life insurance policy he purchased for every member of an audience that paid to see Macabre. This was a real policy backed by Lloyd's of London, so if you died of fright in your seat, your family would receive $1000. Now who wouldn't want to roll the dice on that type of deal? Of course, the policy didn't cover anyone with a preexisting medical condition or an audience member who committed suicide during the screening. Lloyd's had to draw the line somewhere, right?

3. HYPNO-VISTA // HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)

How do you make your routine horror movie stand out from the crowd? Hypnotize your audience, of course. Thus Hypno-Vista was born. For this gimmick, James Nicholson, president of American International Pictures, suggested that a lecture by a hypnotist, Dr. Emile Franchel, should precede Horrors of the Black Museum, which had a plot focusing on a hypnotizing killer.

For 13 minutes, Dr. Franchel talked to the audience about the science behind hypnotism, before attempting to hypnotize them himself in order to feel more immersed in the story. Nowadays it comes off as overlong and dry, but it was a gimmick that got people into theaters back in 1959. Plus, writer Herman Cohen said that eventually the lecture had to be removed whenever the movie re-aired on TV because it did, in fact, hypnotize some people.

4. NO LATE ADMISSION // PSYCHO (1960)

Though this isn't the most gimmickiest of gimmicks, Alfred Hitchcock's insistence that no audience member be admitted into Psycho once the movie started got a lot of publicity at the time. The Master of Suspense's reasoning is less about drumming up publicity and more about audience satisfaction, though. Because Janet Leigh gets killed so early into the movie, he didn't want people to miss her part and feel misled by the movie's marketing.

This publicity tactic wasn't completely novel, though, as the groundbreaking French horror movie Les Diaboliques (1955) had a similar policy in place. This was at a time when people would simply stroll into movie screenings whenever they wanted, so to see a director—especially one so masterful at the art of publicity—who was adamant about showing up on time was a great way to pique some interest.

5. FRIGHT BREAK // HOMICIDAL (1961)

Another classic William Castle gimmick was the "fright break" he offered to audience members during his 1961 movie, Homicidal. Here, a timer would appear on the screen just as the film was hurtling toward its gruesome climax. Frightened audience members had 45 seconds to leave the theater and still get a full refund on their ticket. There was a catch, though.

Frightened audience members who decided to take the easy way out were shamed into the "coward's corner," which was a yellow cardboard booth supervised by some poor sap theater employee. Then, they were forced to sign a paper reading "I'm a bona-fide coward," before getting their money back. Obviously, at the risk of such humiliation, most people decided to just grit their teeth and experience the horror on the screen instead.

6. THE PUNISHMENT POLL // MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

The most interactive of William Castle's schlocky horror gimmicks put the fate of the film itself into the hands of the audience. Dubbed the "punishment poll," Castle devised a way to let viewers vote on the fate of the characters in the movie Mr. Sardonicus. Upon entering the theater, people were given a card with a picture of a thumb on it that would glow when a special light was placed on it. "Thumbs up" meant that Mr. Sardonicus would be given mercy, and "thumbs down" meant … well, you get the idea.

Apparently audiences never gave ol' Sardonicus the thumbs up, despite Castle's claims that the happier ending was filmed and ready to go. However, no alternative ending has ever surfaced, leaving many to doubt his claims. Chances are, there was only one way out for Mr. Sardonicus.

7. FREE VOMIT BAGS // MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)

Horror fans are mostly masochists at heart. They don't want to be entertained—they want to be terrified. So when the folks behind 1970's Mark of the Devil gave out free vomit bags to the audience due to the film's grotesque nature, how could any self-respecting horror fan not be intrigued? It wasn't just the bags that the studio was advertising; it also claimed the film was rated V, for violence—and maybe some vomit?

8. DUO-VISION // WICKED, WICKED (1973)

Duo-Vision was hyped as the new storytelling technique in cinema—offering two times the terror for the price of one ticket. Of course Duo-Vision is just fancy marketing lingo for split-screen, meaning audiences see a film from two completely different perspectives side-by-side. In the 1973 horror film Wicked, Wicked, that meant watching the movie from the points of view of both the killer and his victims.

Seems like a perfect concept for the horror genre, right? Well, Duo-Vision wasn't just employed during the movie's most horrific moments; it was used for the movie's entire 95-minute runtime. The technique had been used sparingly in other films—most notably in Brian De Palma's much better film Sisters (1973)—but it had never been implemented to this extent. A little bit of Duo-Vision apparently goes a long way, because it fell out of favor soon after.

John Carpenter May Be Planning a They Live Sequel

Universal Studios Home Video
Universal Studios Home Video

John Carpenter is one of the horror genre's biggest names. The man behind the original Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing, ​Carpenter has had a long enough career to see many of his most popular creations be remade, including this year's new Halloween film, which features some of the original actors returning to their iconic roles to continue a decades-long story.

But in a recent interview with ​Den of Geek, when Carpenter was questioned about whether his cult classic They Live might he ripe for revisiting, Carpenter teased: "Well, I’m not gonna tell you about that, because it might be closer to reality than you think."

​They Live, which came out in 1988, featured the late professional wrestler 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper in his signature role as a man who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the true state of the world and uncover an alien invasion. Like so many of Carpenter's other films, it has continued to amass a cult following in the decades since its release—especially among those viewers who understood and appreciated its underlying political metaphor.

Today's highly divisive political climate makes it a perfect time for a sequel/reboot/reimagining of They Live, and it sounds as if Carpenter might agree.

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