20 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Gangs Of New York
An epic historical crime film directed by one of the most influential figures in the history of Hollywood, Gangs of New York tells the story of one man’s fight for survival on the streets of 1860s New York.
Giving us one of the best casts of the era by bringing together Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz and Liam Neeson among many others, Gangs of New York is a two and a half-hour long masterpiece that is well worth watching if you’ve never done so before. Below are 20 things you probably didn’t know about the Martin Scorsese film that many critics consider the best film of 2002, if not the decade.
20. It’s based on a true story
Gangs of New York might not feel like your typical literary adaptation, but it does take both its name and its plot from a 1928 book by Herbert Ashbury, called The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld.
The book deals with the story of how the gangs of 19th century New York came to prominence and then fell from power, before the domination of the Irish-American Mafia was cemented by Prohibition in the 1920s.
Like Martin Scorsese’s film would go on to do, the book focuses on the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan, which was said to be the most dangerous part of New York.
Given that New York itself was widely considered to be the most dangerous part of America at the time, this made Five Point and the Bowery the most dangerous areas of 19th century America.
Unlike the film adaptation it later inspired though, The Gangs of New York sets its focus a little wider than just the rivalry between the Dead Rabbits and the Nativist Protestants, led by Bill the Butcher.
Instead, it discusses the Dead Rabbits in the same level of detail as other dangerous gangs in the area, from the Bowery Boys to the Plug Uglies, another Nativist gang that allied themselves with the Irish during the Draft Riots of 1863.
19. Scorsese spent two decades developing the film
Martin Scorsese first read the 1928 book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1970, when he was just 28 years old. At the time, Scorsese was not exactly an established filmmaker, having only one finished project under his belt.
Despite only having made his debut project, the 1967 drama Who’s That Knocking on My Door, at the time, Scorsese was determined to transform the book into a film, even if he had to wait a while to do it.
With that said, turning this epic story of warring New York gangsters into a movie would take even longer than even he expected, as it took another 33 years after Scorsese had read the book for the film to be released into theatres.
In that time, Scorsese had released 17 other movies, including a Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. All these undisputed classics gave the director the clout and financial stability to tackle his long-held passion project.
Martin Scorsese had been confident that he could get the movie made in the late 70s, and by 1979 he had both purchased the rights in preparation, and written the first draft of a screenplay. However, it was still difficult for him to find a producer and studio willing to come on board.
It was only when Miramax Films agreed to support the project that the long process of making the movie could begin, but Scorsese soon found pre-production and shooting also stretching out into numerous years.
18. Scorsese originally wanted the Blues Brothers to star
In the late 1970s, when Martin Scorsese attempted his first big push to get Gangs of New York made, his vision of the movie was quite different from what eventually came to be.
Scorsese originally wanted Dan Aykroyd to play Amsterdam Vallon, the role that would eventually be taken by Leonardo DiCaprio, and John Belushi would have played Bill the Butcher instead of Daniel Day-Lewis.
Though it seems odd that Scorsese would have asked this famous duo to play furious enemies instead of close friends and partners, the Blues Brothers version of the film was progressing apace, and seemed as though it would hit theatres in a reasonable amount of time.
Unfortunately, the tragic death of John Belushi in 1982 led to a complete reshuffling of both parts, as Scorsese did not want to only replace one of the core characters and leave Dan Aykroyd alone in the movie.
The casting shuffle after Belushi’s death was not the only one that Gangs of New York went through over the years, as several other actors were also attached to the parts of Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher at various points in time.
In the early 70s, Scorsese had even chased Malcolm McDowell for the part of Bill the Butcher, since he was definitely capable of delivering on the unhinged energy necessary for the character after appearing in Clockwork Orange.
17. The film’s set was over a mile long
As a director, Martin Scorsese has never been known as the type to cut corners, but his commitment to immersion for his actors was taken to the next level when it came time to design the set for Gangs of New York.
The film had numerous scenes at various locations in New York gang territory, and so a whole town was necessary for the characters to exist in, with a waterfront dock, as a saloon, a church, a casino, a theatre and a mansion.
Though many other filmmakers would have opted to construct the huge section of the East River and its surrounding buildings in a computer, Scorsese instead decided to build full practical sets, resulting in a shooting location of mammoth proportions.
The result was a two-mile-long stretch of sets built inside Cinecittà Studios, built by legendary Italian production designed Dante Ferretti.
Amazingly, every building that was created for the film was completely functional, with no facades, fake doors or windows. Not only that, but the buildings became more believably worn and lived in as the shooting process continued.
Despite the attention paid to dressing the buildings with period-appropriate details, the real stars of the show were the two full-sized sailboats docked in the East River, which were hugely intricate in their own right.
16. Daniel Day-Lewis was trained by a real butcher
It wouldn’t be a Daniel Day-Lewis film if the actor did not develop a whole new skillset in the name of devotion to a character, or committed to the role in some other dedicated and onerous way.
Given that his character Bill the Butcher was famous for his skill with blades, Day-Lewis decided that it was only fitting that he learn how to properly wield a knife, both in combat and for more practical reasons.
As part of his preparation to play the character, Daniel Day-Lewis invited two Argentinian performers to come to his house and teach him how to properly use knives for performance, with an emphasis on showmanship.
In the time that they stayed on his property, Day-Lewis learned how to properly sharpen and maintain his knives, as well as how to balance their weight in his hands and accurately throw them.
After learning how to use knives the way that a criminal and grifter would in order to both impress people and spread fear, Daniel Day-Lewis also set about learning how to use the knives to make an honest living through butchery.
An expert butcher was flown to the set in Rome from London personally by Scorsese, and Daniel Day-Lewis was taught how to identify cuts of meat and strip down and clean a carcass. What a way to get into character.
15. Robert De Niro and Willem Dafoe had to leave the production due to delays
Gangs of New York’s ambitious scope, as well as a number of reported clashes between Martin Scorsese and producer Harvey Weinstein, meant that its production lasted for three years and contained a number of delays.
These delays, which were in addition to the long stretch of time it took to actually find a studio and get the movie into production, ballooned the budget of the film by over 25%.
Numerous big-name stars were involved in the project, and production delays were a big problem for them, as they kept the in-demand performers from moving on to other jobs and being able to secure more opportunities in advance.
Eventually, the uncertainty about how long the project was going to take and when they would be required to come to set became such a problem that two of the cast members had to step away from the project, in order to avoid getting into contract trouble with other movies they had agreed to appear in.
Both Robert De Niro and Willem Dafoe had to leave the production because of Martin Scorsese’s constant fighting with Harvey Weinstein and the studio, and they both had to be replaced before work on the film could continue.
This slowed the pace of the film down even further, and more was yet to come. Even once the production was done and all that was left to do was piece the movie together in the editing room, the film was delayed for an additional 12 months due to the 9/11 attacks.
14. The first cut of the film was nearly four hours long
The first cut of Gangs of New York was three hours and thirty-eight minutes, nearly an hour longer than the version that would eventually hit cinemas.
Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker were reported to have created 18 different versions of the film, every one of which was screened to an audience, before they settled on the final cut.
The studio was not happy with this excessive length, as they feared it would both put audiences off seeing it, and lead to fewer showings per day in theatres, which meant fewer opportunities for profit.
Not only that, but producer Harvey Weinstein had developed such a reputation for demanding films be cut down to a 90-minute runtime that he had been nicknamed Harvey Scissorhands by those who had worked with him in the industry.
The final theatrical cut was two hours and 47 minutes, which at least came in under the three-hour mark. Though there were many different versions being played with at any given moment, Martin Scorsese has never hinted at the existence of a director’s cut.
Speaking about the film’s editing process, Scorsese said: There’s no one version that I would say, ‘That’s my original version.’ This was all a series of changes and rewrites and restructuring until finally, it comes down to the movie you see in the theatre.”
13. George Lucas talked Scorsese through CGI
The making of Gangs of New York was an undeniable accomplishment of cinema: shot on a mammoth practical set, with countless extras and hundreds of period-appropriate costumes, sets and props to make, manage and shoot.
Not only that, but Martin Scorsese’s was determined to shoot everything practically, from the fight choreography and stunts to the sprawling riot scenes that required hundreds of actors to be present on set all at once.
The shooting of the film was such a feat that other filmmakers couldn’t help but come along and observe it for themselves. In particular, George Lucas took a break from shooting Star Wars: Attack of the Clones just to come to set and watch Scorsese work.
The story goes that Lucas remarked upon the fact that Gangs of New York would probably be the last of its kind, as all future movies would opt to create such intricate and large-scale crowd scenes in a computer in order to save time and money. In response, Scorsese admitted that he didn’t have much interest in, or knowledge of, the new world of digital effects.
Not long after this conversation, Lucas received a panicked phone call from Scorsese. The director had requested an elephant for one particular scene, but none of the animal wranglers in Italy were able to find and deliver one safely in time.
Lucas recalled a distressed Scorsese saying “We’re effed! We don’t have [an] elephant! Tell us how to shoot it!”, until Lucas happily obliged and walked Scorsese through the process of filming the scene without a real animal, in order to add it in digitally later. What a good friend.
12. Everyone urged Daniel Day-Lewis to take the role
Martin Scorsese is one of the all-time greats of Hollywood, a director that most young actors would jump at the chance to work with. That’s why it’s so surprising that anyone would turn down a chance to appear in one of his films, especially if they were invited personally to take a role.
Nevertheless, when the late Pete Postlethwaite was approached by Scorsese about appearing in Gangs of New York, Postlethwaite turned the opportunity down outright, upset that he was being asked to work for a reduced salary when other actors in the cast were being paid exactly what they asked for.
Postlethwaite was not the only actor sceptical about appearing in the project either, as Daniel Day-Lewis was planning on declining to appear in Gangs of New York as well. It took personal chats with his peers in the industry, as well as a very unexpected name, to convince him to sign on.
Day-Lewis had previously worked with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence, so he agreed to travel to New York to discuss the new project with the director. While there, he also wound up talking through his decision to decline with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.
DiCaprio took Day-Lewis for lunch in Central Park, and talked about his own enthusiasm for the project, as well as how excited he would be to get to work with Day-Lewis on the film. Then, the two went to lunch with DiCaprio’s friend and fellow actor Tobey Maguire.
The former Spider-Man apparently jumped straight into convincing Day-Lewis to come out of his hiatus, saying: Y’know, when somebody has a talent like yours, it’s almost their responsibility to do it, to get back in the saddle.” Surprisingly, Maguire’s plea worked, and Day-Lewis signed on to Gangs of New York shortly after.
11. A real pick-pocket was present to advise the actors on set
Many actors go over and above what is expected of them when they prepare for a role. They spend their own time developing the skills that their character would have by visiting a workplace or shadowing a professional, or by living in the way that they believe their character might have lived.
Cameron Diaz doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a method actor but, like many of the other people cast in Gangs of New York, she also made sure to pick up some of the tricks of the trade that her character, Jenny Everdeane, would have had.
Given that Everdeane is shown to be a proficient pickpocket throughout the film, as well as a full-time grifter, Diaz was eager to learn how to be light-fingered and adept at stealing… or at least be able to fake those skills well enough for them to work on screen.
To accomplish this, Scorsese scoured the world for someone who could teach Diaz the ins and outs of stealing and showmanship, and he soon found the perfect man in the aptly-named Magician.
The Magician was an Italian man who had spent 30 years as a pickpocket, and had recently pivoted into making an honest living by teaching others how to identify and distract potential marks, steal for themselves, and avoid getting caught.
The Magician was present on set throughout production, coaching Cameron Diaz to ensure she could play a perfectly convincing and formidable pickpocket. Here’s hoping the rest of the cast and crew remembered to keep their wallets nearby and their wits about them!
10. Daniel Day-Lewis went to a diner after work in character
Over the years, many actors have received media attention for the lengths they have gone to in order to commit to a role, whether they have significantly altered their appearance with weight gain or loss, learned a new language or agreed to live in total isolation while preparing to play a character.
With that said, there are very few actors who have become as well known for their method acting antics as Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis’ commitment to understanding his characters have often led him to do extreme things, and his experience with Gangs of New York was no different.
As had come to be the norm for him, Day-Lewis stayed in character the whole time the movie was in production, whether the cameras were rolling or not. This meant keeping his distinctive early American accent at all times, as well as his fearsome attitude.
Part of playing the notorious New York gangster was that Daniel Day-Lewis would keep to himself for the most part, minimising speaking to the crew as much as possible, and rarely socialising with the cast. However, on one occasion Leonardo DiCaprio was able to convince Day-Lewis to go out for dinner with him once the shooting was done.
DiCaprio and Day-Lewis went to a local diner near the shooting location, and things went about exactly as bizarrely as you might expect. Day-Lewis stayed in character the entire time, even while ordering, and made many of the other patrons incredibly nervous.
Not only that, but the waitress serving the actors was so scared of Day-Lewis’ gruff attitude, odd voice and heightened mannerisms, that at one point during the meal she refused to wait on them any longer, and instead kept herself busy at the other end of the diner. Yikes.
9. Several characters were based on real-life people
Gangs of New York might take its historical elements seriously as far as props, settings and costumes go, but it is far from a meticulously crafted documentary. Scorsese was open about his wish to take creative liberties with the story he was given, and so there are many examples of accuracy being discarded in order to make a more entertaining film.
With that said, some elements of the story are indeed based in fact, as many of the characters in Gangs of New York were once real people who really did much of what they are seen to do in the film. Even some of the more whimsical and unbelievable characters we see were real people once upon a time.
The most obvious example is Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Bill the Butcher, who really was an active and notorious gangster. However, Bill’s surname was actually Poole, not Cutting as he goes by in the movie, and Scorsese changed it in order to signal to the audience that the film was not going to be a completely truthful affair.
William “Boss” Tweed, played by Jim Broadbent in the movie, was also a real politician who influenced and controlled the political machine of Tammany Hall, making him a pivotal part of American history. Even the Schermerhorn family were all pulled from the pages of the history books.
None of these facts are particularly surprising, but there is one character that you might be surprised to learn has a real-life counterpart. As unbelievable as it sounds, there really was a Hell-Cat Maggie walking the streets of New York, and that was her actual name.
Hell-Cat Maggie is a composite character that melds the characteristics of many female criminals who were around at the time. However. her brass claws, teeth sharpened down to points and tendency to bite her victims all came from the real Hell-Cat Maggie. Documents from the time mention her, but little is known about her other than stories of her violence and the fact that she died at age 24.
8. Daniel Day-Lewis was always listening to Eminem on set
While filming 1989’s My Left Foot, Daniel-Day Lewis insisted on staying in a wheelchair for the entirety of the production, and was carried around by crewmembers and even spoonfed on set to better connect with the struggles of his character.
Compared to that level of commitment and behaviour, what he chose to listen to on the set of Gangs of New York to himself into the right state of mind is a relatively small thing, especially when he was also staying in character the entire time.
With that said, it may surprise you to know that Daniel Day-Lewis was spending his time between takes wearing full period-accurate garb, and staying in character while eating his lunch or talking to the crew, while also carrying around an iPod full of music.
Not only that, but the music he was listening to was almost exclusively Eminem, as he often just listened to the song The Way I Am on repeat. Apparently, the aggression of the music and the anger in the lyrics were exactly what Day-Lewis needed to bring his character to life.
Speaking to Rolling Stone, Daniel Day-Lewis gave a rare interview and explained that he would often get up at 5AM and start listening to the music, in order to get himself into the right frame of mind. He also admitted that he had a lot of respect for Eminem himself, as both a musician as a person.
Talking about his choice to listen to the famous rapper throughout the long process of filming the movie, Day-Lewis said: “I’ve admired him for a while, and I’m always on the lookout for music that might be helpful to a role.”
7. Scorsese and his newborn daughter had a cameo
When it comes to cameos, Martin Scorsese isn’t quite as committed of a completionist as Alfred Hitchcock, as there are a few works of his in which he doesn’t appear. With that said, you can spot him in a number of his movies, from Taxi Driver to his documentaries.
Sometimes Scorsese is just going about his business in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background shot, while other times he acts out whole scenes, including dialogue. In Gangs of New York, it is fairly easy to spot him, even if he doesn’t do a whole lot.
If you want to see Scorsese, look closely during the scenes at the house of the fancy people Jenny Everdeane is planning to steal from. Dining at the table is the father of the house, who also happens to be the director of the movie.
If you’re wondering why Scorsese chose to appear as one of the few upper-class characters in the film, rather than getting his hands dirty in the streets where the majority of the characters spend their time, it was a choice motivated by more than just getting to wear a nice outfit and stay clean while shooting.
Scorsese wanted to include his newborn daughter Francesca in the movie, and cameo alongside her, as a sweet little tribute to his family. However, most of the Five Points sets were muddy, filthy and cold, since they had been used so much throughout production.
Therefore, Scorsese made the good parenting decision to include both him and his daughter in the most comfortable and luxurious setting in the movie, so that he could be sure that she was safe and comfortable during her first professional film shoot. What a good dad!
6. Daniel Day-Lewis learned to tap his fake glass eye without blinking
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher is a fearsome character, who is capable of ruling a huge swathe of New York gang territory through a terrifying mix of intimidation, murder, corruption and charisma.
Day-Lewis developed a swaggering manner that would match the gangster’s brutal reputation, as well as creating a manner of speech that could both inspire loyalty in his goons and make the blood of his enemies run cold.
As if all that was not scary enough, Daniel Day-Lewis also came up with some additional character flourishes that would emphasise just how dangerous of a man Bill the Butcher really was.
The most extreme of these was learning to scratch his left eye, which was covered in a layer of glass, with the tip of a real knife without flinching.
Bill the Butcher had a glass eye, and Daniel Day-Lewis was keen to incorporate this detail into his character, so a prosthetic glass cover was designed to sit over his eyeball and give the appearance of one throughout the film.
In a bid to make the effect more convincing, Day-Lewis learned to scratch the tip of it with the knife he always carried with him, even though it took many attempts before he learned to control his blinking.
5. Scorsese forced his producer to watch over 80 movies as research
As seriously as all the actors in Gangs of New York took the project, Martin Scorsese took it more so. In fact, he was so determined for the film to be a success that he wasn’t afraid to give people homework, whether they were set to actually appear in the film or not.
For example, Harvey Weinstein may not have been acting in the film, but as a producer on the project, Scorsese was dead set on making sure he understood the context that the film was being made within.
In order to make sure Weinstein’s knowledge was up to his standards, Scorsese insisted that he watch over 80 movies to complete his cinematic education, from well-known modern blockbusters to more obscure and niche picks.
As just one example, Scorsese asked that Weinstein specifically watch The Man Who Laughs, a 1928 romantic drama from the silent era, made by German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni. As the story goes, Weinstein got increasingly frustrated because he couldn’t find a place to watch it.
Speaking of the experience, Weinstein recalled: “Eighty. Can you imagine? And remember: no videos, no DVDs. Every movie has to be on the big screen. It was like going to school with Professor Scorsese.”
Harvey Weinstein was allowed to keep his producer credit on the movie, so Scorsese must have been ultimately satisfied with his understanding of the industry after making it through his list. However, after watching so many films over one period, it’s surprising that Weinstein even wanted to continue to produce them.
4. Daniel Day-Lewis studied Walt Whitman to create a lost American accent
Most people can do at least a passable New York accent on-demand, so many were surprised when they watched Gangs of New York and heard Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher talk like a modern Brooklynite with his mouth full of cotton wool.
However, as bizarre as Day-Lewis’ Butcher sounds, the voice isn’t the result of a bad accent coach or a bold artistic choice, it was just the filmmaker’s best approximation of what the real Billy Poole would have sounded like.
American accents have shifted significantly since the period of time in which Gangs of New York takes place, and Scorsese wanted all the voices in the film to be as close to historically accurate as possible, even if they sounded strange to a modern film-going audience.
To rediscover the historical American accent that is now mostly lost to time, Scorsese found recordings of Walt Whitman reading his work, hitting the vowels in an unusual manner that was more in keeping with how people would have spoken in the past.
Daniel Day-Lewis then blended that accent with what he gleaned from reading the scripts of historic plays from that period, which had been written out phonetically. By reading the lines this way, he got a sense of the way pronunciation had changed over the years, and incorporated that into his performance.
Day-Lewis was not the only actor in the cast who had to work hard to make sure his accent was up to snuff either, as Scorsese was also hypercritical of the voices used for the Irish gang members, the Dead Rabbits. Actors were instructed to study specific regional Irish accents and blend them with some American pronunciations, rather than settling for a generic Irish brogue.
3. Scorsese was fascinated by the history of New York since he was a child
Martin Scorsese has revealed that his interest in New York’s history began as he explored the streets of Little Italy, Manhattan as a child. During that time, his curiosity about some of the city’s older streets and buildings encouraged him to find out more.
Speaking of his love for the city, Scorsese said: “I gradually realized that Italian Americans weren’t the first ones there, that other people had been there before us.”
Scorsese went on to say: “As I began to understand this, it fascinated me. I kept wondering, how did New York look? What were the people like? How did they walk, eat, work, dress?”
Several of Scorsese’s films have showcased his love of the place, even when the movies themselves vary wildly in genre and tone.
For example, Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York is a musical drama that showcases the glitz and glamour of the city.
In contrast, the New York seen in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a very different place, with all its moral decay, crime and seedy underbelly.
2. It failed to win any of the ten Academy Awards it was nominated for
When Gangs of New York was finally released in 2002, it garnered an overall positive reaction from both audiences and critics, but critics were divided in how far to go with their praise.
Both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper reviewed the film on their show At the Movies, but while Ebert said the film was a touch untidy and fell short of Scorsese’s work, Roeper considered it a contender for Best Picture at the Oscars.
In the end, both critics turned to be right, as Gangs of New York was judged to be good enough to be a contender for Best Picture, but was not quite good enough to win.
All together, Gangs of New York was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis’ intense performance as William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting.
However, it failed to win a single Oscar, losing out to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist in a number of the categories for which it was nominated.
Thankfully for Martin Scorsese, his next film 2004’s The Aviator, won five Academy Awards in total, including Best Cinematography.
1. The book it was based on was later revealed to contain a number of inaccuracies
Since the film’s release, historian Tyler Anbinder has revealed that the 1927 Herbert Asbury book that Gangs of New York was based on is not as historically accurate as was once thought.
Anbinder, who, it’s worth noting, had access to a number of statistics that Asbury did not, wrote that Asbury had grossly overstated the dangerousness of Five Points compared to other parts of New York.
Speaking of the exaggeration, Anbinder revealed that: “other than public drunkenness and prostitution, there was no more crime in Five Points than in any other part of the city.”
Not only that, but Asbury also exaggerated the danger that visiting New York posed compared to visiting any other city or urban centre in America at the time.
While Asbury claimed that “there was one tenement where there was a murder a day” further examinations revealed that there was scarcely one murder a month in New York at the time. Not as scary as the movie makes it out to be then!