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 takes 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 chronicles how the gangs of 19th century New York came to and then fell from power, before the 1920s domination of the Irish-American Mafia. Like the film, the book focuses on the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan, said to be the most dangerous area of New York.
Unlike the film adaptation it later inspired though, the book 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 that, he was determined to transform the book into a film. 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 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.
18. Scorsese originally wanted the Blues Brothers to star
Scorsese’s first attempt to get Gangs of New York made 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.
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.
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. A whole town was necessary for the characters to exist in, with a waterfront dock, a saloon, a church, a casino, a theatre and a mansion. 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 designer 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.
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. 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. 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.
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%.
Eventually, the uncertainty about the project timeline 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 Scorsese’s constant fighting with Weinstein, and they both had to be replaced before work on the film could continue.
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.
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.
13. George Lucas talked Scorsese through CGI
Gangs of New York was shot on a mammoth practical set, with countless extras, hundreds of period-appropriate costumes and stunts all shot practically. It was such a feat that George Lucas took a break from shooting Star Wars: Attack of the Clones just to come and watch. Lucas remarked that Gangs of New York would probably be the last of its kind, as all future movies would opt to create such large-scale crowd scenes on a computer in order to save time and money.
In response, Scorsese admitted that he didn’t have much interest in 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 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 a director that most actors would jump at the chance to work with. However, when the late Pete Postlethwaite was approached by Scorsese about appearing in Gangs of New York, Postlethwaite turned it down outright, upset that he was being asked to work for a reduced salary when other actors were being paid in full. Postlethwaite was not the only actor sceptical about appearing in the project either, as Daniel Day-Lewis was also planning on declining.
Day-Lewis had previously worked with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence, so he agreed to travel to New York to discuss the project. While there, he wound up talking through his decision with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. DiCaprio took Day-Lewis for lunch to talk about his own enthusiasm for the project. Then, the two went to lunch with 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.”
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. 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 on screen.
To accomplish this, Scorsese scoured the world for someone who could teach Diaz stealing and showmanship, and soon found the perfect man in the aptly-named Magician. The Magician was an Italian who had spent 30 years as a pickpocket and had recently pivoted into making an honest living by teaching others how to identify distract potential marks 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.
10. Daniel Day-Lewis went to a diner after work in character
Very few actors have become as well known for their method acting antics as Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis’ commitment to understanding his characters has 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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. As unbelievable as it sounds, there really was a Hell-Cat Maggie walking the streets of New York with sharpened teeth and brass claws, and that was her actual name.
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. By contrast, in Gangs of New York 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 rap 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.
7. Scorsese and his newborn daughter have cameos
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. 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, but didn’t want to risk her getting cold or muddy. How sweet!
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, though it was a lengthy process.
5. Scorsese forced Harvey Weinstein 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 actually acting in the film or not. For example, Harvey Weinstein wasn’t set to appear on screen, but 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.
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.”
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 talk like a modern Brooklynite with a mouth full of cotton wool. However, as bizarre as Day-Lewis’ Butcher sounds, the voice isn’t the result of a bad accent coach, 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 1800s, and Scorsese wanted all the voices in the film to be as close to historically accurate as possible.
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. 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.
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 on 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 best work, Roeper considered it a contender for Best Picture at the Oscars. In the end, both critics turned out 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.
Altogether, 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!