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The following written disclaimer appears at the end of the onscreen credits: "While this motion picture is based upon historical events, certain characters' names have changed, some main characters have been composited or invented and a number of incidents fictionalized." Another end credit reads: "Footage from `Djembefeloa' provided courtesy of Laurent Chevallier, P.O.M. Films, Freddy Denas & Gael Teicher." The onscreen credit for Industrial Light & Magic reads: "Special Visual Effects by Industrial Light & Magic, A Division of Lucas Digital, LTD., Marin County, California." Intermittent narration by Leonardo DiCaprio, as "Amsterdam Vallon," is heard throughout the film.
As stated in the disclaimer, the picture is based on several historical incidents and people. The area depicted in the picture, New York's Five Points, no longer exists, but in the 1800s was considered the worst slum in the world. The intersection of what were then Worth, Little Water, Mulberry, Cross and Orange streets, culminating in "Paradise Square," was the Five Points area. Located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Five Points was home to thousands of immigrants from the early 1800s onward. Irish immigrants flooded into the Five Points, particularly from the 1840s, and as noted in the film, by the mid-1800s, approximately fifteen thousand Irish were arriving in New York harbor every week. After leaving Ireland due to the staggering poverty, famine and disease in their native country, the Irish landing in America were met with hatred from the so-called "Native Americans," mostly of Anglo-Dutch ancestry. The Protestant "Nativists," as they were then called, were especially virulent about the immigrants' Catholic religion, as they felt the Irish would "give loyalty to their Church before the nation," according to studio press notes on the film. [In the picture, "Bill `The Butcher' Cutting" makes numerous, disparaging remarks about Catholicism.] Nativists also feared that the Irish and other immigrants, as well as freed slaves, would work for less money than native-born Americans and therefore affect employment.
The gangs depicted in the film, such as the Dead Rabbits (which comes from a Gaelic term meaning "a violent, angry hulk"), the Bowery Boys and the Slaughter Housers, were real gangs that roamed Manhattan, terrorizing citizens, protected by various factions of the police and political organizations and constantly warring with one another. Of the characters in the film, several are based on real people, including Bill, who was based on Bill "The Butcher" Poole. Although Poole actually died in 1855, before the main action of the film occurs, he was a well-known Nativist gang leader who fought against the Irish and was eventually killed in a brawl with an Irish gang member. Poole's purported last words were "Goodbye boys, I die a true American!"
Hell-Cat Maggie, a bouncer in an Irish bar, was known for wearing artificial brass fingernails to kill her opponents and for keeping a jar of ears as souvenirs of her battles. William Marcy "Boss" Tweed [d. 1878] is considered by many scholars to have been the most corrupt politician in American history. The leader of Tammany Hall, Tweed orchestrated the election of hand-picked candidates and was incessantly in search of opportunities for graft. Some historians note that despite his massive corruption, Tweed was important in the history American immigration for his help in obtaining jobs for immigrants and for persuading them to vote, which few of them had ever done in their native countries. As shown in the film, Tweed often relied on various gangs to help him stuff ballot boxes by coercing, or forcing, people to vote several times for Tammany candidates.
The incident in the film in which Bill and his men approach the Catholic cathedral in Five Points, but are turned away by hundreds of parishioners and their priests, was based on a real incident. In 1835, a group of Nativists attempted to storm the old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street, but were repulsed by the parishioners, led by Bishop Hughes. The first major riot between New York gangs in the Five Points occurred on July 4, 1857, when a group of Dead Rabbits and Plug Uglies fought the Bowery Boys. It is estimated that 1,000 people participated in the fight, with hundreds being injured.
The Draft Riots, which are depicted at the conclusion of the film, were the worst riots in American history, and resulted in the greatest loss of life in New York City until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln instituted the country's first military draft, as the Union Army was badly in need of soldiers. Thirty thousand men, six thousand of whom were to come from Brooklyn, were called up, although an exemption to the draft allowed those who could pay $300 to avoid being drafted and send a substitute in their place. Many poorer citizens resented the exemption, and on July 13, 1863, riots broke out in New York City to protest the draft. According to historical sources, rioters in the tens of thousands spread throughout the city, with virtually every city policeman being killed or wounded, and dozens of African-Americans being brutally murdered. An orphanage for African-American children was one of the many buildings burned to the ground during the riots, which lasted for four days before being quelled by Union soldiers.
The following information about the production of Gangs of New York comes from studio publicity, magazine articles and trade paper news items: Director Martin Scorsese first read Herbert Asbury's account of 1800s New York gang life on January 1, 1970. Scorsese was immediately fascinated by the book and intended to make a film based on it. On June 16, 1977, producer Alberto Grimaldi ran a two-page ad in Daily Variety, announcing imminent production of a film based on the book, with Scorsese listed the director. Scorsese could not obtain financing for the picture and so worked on other productions, although he and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter and former Time magazine critic Jay Cocks, had completed the first draft screenplay of Gangs of New York by 1977. In 1991, Grimaldi brokered a deal for Universal to produce the picture for a budget of $30 million. At the time, the only cast member set for the film was Robert De Niro, who was to play Bill. Universal eventually assigned the underlying rights to the book and the project to Disney in 1997, according to a January 3, 2000 Variety news item.
In 1998, Michael Ovitz, Scorsese's friend and agent, suggested that he consider casting DiCaprio as Amsterdam. DiCaprio, who had heard about the long-intended project several years earlier, states in studio press notes that he "was so determined to do this project with Marty [Scorsese] that I actually changed agencies when I was seventeen in order to be in closer contact [with him]." With DiCaprio attached to the project, Ovitz was able to re-interest Disney Studios in the project, which had been dormant. According to an October 11, 1999 Hollywood Reporter article, "Disney had agreed to co-finance the film after [Scorsese and Cocks] rewrote the script, which added a love story." Eventually, however, Disney chairman Joe Roth decided that due to the violent nature of the film, it "was not an appropriate Disney-themed movie," according to a April 7, 2002 New York Times article.
Scorsese, Ovitz and producer Rick York then attempted to interest Warner Bros. in producing the picture, as Scorsese was contractually obligated to direct a film for that company, but Warner Bros. also declined. After several companies, including Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount and M-G-M, turned down the project, Miramax, a subsidiary of Disney, offered to take over the domestic distribution of the picture and help finance the production. In order to obtain the necessary funds for what was projected to be a large budget, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein sold the foreign distribution rights to Gangs of New York to Initial Entertainment Group [IEG], headed by Graham King, for approximately $65 million. Touchstone, a division of Disney, eventually became allied with Miramax in supplying funding for the production, in exchange for a portion of the proceeds from domestic distribution.
On January 3, 2000, Grimaldi filed suit against Universal, IEG, Disney, Ovitz and several others, alleging breach of promise. Grimaldi's suit stated that he had been forced out of the project after it moved from Universal to Disney, even though he had originally optioned and developed the material. Grimaldi asked for a $10 million award, as well as sole producer credit. In April 2000, the suit was settled, with Grimaldi being awarded $3 million, as well as the right to be listed as the sole producer instead of as a co-producer with Scorsese. In addition, Grimaldi's son, Maurizio Grimaldi, who had worked on the project, was awarded an executive producer credit, and the rights were to revert to Grimaldi if the picture was not made by the end of 2001. According to news items, Scorsese's ex-wife and frequent producer, Barbara DeFina, was no longer involved in the production of Gangs Of New York, nor was their joint production company, Cappa Productions. [DeFina is in the list of individuals and companies thanked by the filmmakers in the ending credits.]
The film's screenplay underwent numerous re-writes and, according to a May 24, 2002 Entertainment Weekly article, the script was not fully completed by the time production began on September 18, 2001. As noted by the Entertainment Weekly article, Hossein Amini was one of the writers who worked on the film's screenplay, although he is not credited onscreen. According to studio press notes, Steven Zaillian "worked on the structure of the story" and Kenneth Lonergan "concentrated on further development of the characters."
By the time the film was ready to begin production, De Niro was forced to drop out due to "personal reasons," according to a November 15, 1999 Hollywood Reporter news item, and Scorsese considered Willem Dafoe for the role of Bill. Dafoe apparently declined the role, which was then accepted by Daniel Day-Lewis, who had not appeared onscreen since the 1997 production The Boxer. News items indicate that Pete Postlethwaite was considered for a role, although he does not appear in the completed film. According to a 23-30 August 2002 Entertainment Weekly article, "virtually every important young actress" was auditioned for the part of "Jenny Everdeane" before Cameron Diaz was cast. A book on Scorsese states that actresses Anna Friel, Claire Forlani, Heather Graham, Monica Potter and Mena Suvari were among those considered. The source also states that Barbara Bouchet was cast as "Jenny's mother," but she instead appears as "Mrs. Schermerhorn."
According to the presskit, Day-Lewis apprenticed to a real butcher to learn Bill's trade, while a January 2003 Premiere article about the production reports that he also "could throw knives with frightening accuracy." The distinctive glass eye worn by Bill, which features a blue bald eagle as the pupil, was achieved by a glass contact lens worn by Day-Lewis. Diaz studied with "a gentleman reputed to be Rome's premier pickpocket" according to a February 2001 W article. In order to assure the authenticity of the slang spoken in the film, The Rogue's Lexicon, compiled by New York City police chief George Matsell in 1859, was consulted, according to a December 2002 Smithsonian article. The presskit states that dialect coach Tim Monich also relied upon "period sources, humorous writings, poems, ballads and newspaper clippings," as well as an early recording of New Yorker Walt Whitman to determine the various accents used in the picture. The studio presskit states that part of the film's authenticity was achieved through the use of over 850,000 items that had recently been unearthed in the Five Points area by an archeological team. After production was completed, however, almost the entire collection was destroyed, while being kept in one of the World Trade Center buildings.
One of the main challenges in recreating the area of the Five Points was that few photographs of the time period depicted in the film exist. In press notes, production designer Dante Ferretti, who collaborated with Scorsese on four previous films, relates that he was influenced by the photographs of Jacob Riis, who took many well-known photographs of New York slums in the 1870s. Some of the buildings erected on the vast Cinecitt Studios set for the movie-which covered more than one square mile-included real buildings of the time, such as the Old Brewery. Built in the 18th century, the Old Brewery became a notorious tenement, occupied by thousands of people. Other sets based on actual buildings included Sparrow's Chinese Pagoda. Ferretti also designed two full-sized ships in the water section of the Cinecitt backlot and constructed a replica of New York harbor, in addition to several blocks representing other areas of Manhattan. According to the 2001 W article, Gangs of New York was the largest epic shot at Cinecitt since the 1963 Twentieth Century-Fox production Cleopatra (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70).
According to the studio presskit, the picture contains more than one hundred speaking parts, and "before filming was complete, a total of 22,000 background player man-hours would be logged." Scorsese carefully chose light-skinned Italian extras who could portray Irish immigrants, while "a large group [of extras] was also recruited from local US Army and Naval bases," according to the presskit. Second-unit director of photography Florian Ballhaus is the son of director of photography Michael Ballhaus, who had worked with Scorsese on five earlier films. Several sources note that Scorsese and Ballhaus were inspired by the paintings of 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt in creating the film's lighting.
Many sources report that the film's budget was increased from approximately $83 million to at least $103 million during shooting, which was often plagued by bad weather and other delays. According to a April 7, 2002 New York Times article, Scorsese and DiCaprio "agreed to pay a combined $7 million to help defray the cost overruns." The film eventually became the most costly production ever made by either Scorsese or Miramax, as of January 2003. According to the January 2003 Premiere article, filming was completed after "going eight weeks over schedule." Numerous reports surfaced as to extra shooting done after principal photography was completed, with everything from inserts of special effects models to close-ups of lead actors to a clarified, new ending being shot. The exact dates of additional filming are vague, although a January 2003 American Cinematographer article reveals that Silvercup Studios in Astoria, NY was used for additional shooting.
Harvey Weinstein originally hoped to release the film at Christmas 2001, but after the terrorist attacks on New York City, Scorsese and his editing team took a two-month hiatus, delaying post-production. Miramax also feared that it was not a "politically correct" time to release such a violent film, with its negative portrayals of police officers and firefighters, according to a October 26, 2001 Screen International article and an October 8, 2001 Daily Variety news item. Various sources state that tensions existed between Scorsese and Weinstein due to the film's length, which in October 2001, reportedly ran approximately three hours and forty minutes. Despite alleged disagreements between Weinstein and Scorsese, a May 14, 2001 Daily Variety news item noted that Scorsese had signed a five-year, "first look deal with Miramax as an extension of his `Gangs' deal."
On May 20, 2002, a twenty-minute "preview" of the picture, with French sub-titles, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. According to a May 21, 2002 Daily Variety news item, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, with whom he frequently works, spent seven weeks compiling the preview trailer, which was well received. According to the news item, after completing the trailer, Scorsese returned to "editing the film and is also in the midst of shooting some pickups." Gangs of New York was next scheduled to be released on July 12, 2002, but that date was also pushed back until December 25, 2002. On October 18, 2002, Entertainment Weekly reported that the film's music score was not yet complete, as the music written by Elmer Bernstein was being discarded in favor of a score by Howard Shore. Although a August 16, 2002 Wall Street Journal article stated that the filmmakers intended to retain a "portion" of Bernstein's music in the film, he is not listed in the onscreen credits. The January 2003 American Cinematographer article states that the special effects done by Industrial Light & Magic, which took approximately two years to complete, were "being refined right up until the film's release." The December 25, 2002 release date became controversial due to the simultaneous release of the DreamWorks production Catch Me If You Can, which also stars DiCaprio. Eventually, Miramax decided to release Gangs of New York on 20 December 2002.
In addition to being named one of AFI's top ten films of 2002, Gangs of New York received Golden Globe Awards for Best Director and Best Original Song ("The Hands that Build America" by U2). The film also garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Diaz) and for Best Actor-Drama (Day-Lewis). The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song ("The Hands That Built America") and Best Sound. Day-Lewis was named Best Actor by film critics in New York, Boston and Seattle, and tied with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt in the awards given by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Day-Lewis also was selected as Best Lead Movie Actor by SAG, and BAFTA awarded him as Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. The film was nominated by the PGA for its Darryl Zanuck Producer of the Year Award, and Scorsese was nominated by the DGA for Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film. At the time of Scorsese's DGA nomination, it was announced that the guild also had selected the director to be the recipient of their 2003 career achievement award.
Herbert Asbury's book was also the basis for the 1938 Republic production Gangs of New York, directed by James Cruze and starring Charles Bickford and Ann Dvorak, although the earlier film was set in the 1930s and was completely fictional in tone.