I spoke with Martin Scorsese about his forthcoming movie, The Gangs of New York, on September 8. The setting was the Park Avenue offices of his Cappa production company, where Scorsese was still hard at work, editing and finishing his film. The offices were spacious and well-appointed, with shelves full of bound volumes of movie magazines, and framed movies posters hanging on almost every wall.
There were also several different portraits, done in the manner of a mid-19th century society painter—one of a prosperous-looking man who might have been a merchant, the other of a mother and child, with red-blonde hair. Scorsese informed me enthusiastically that these would be burned “right up to the eyes” during a looting scene in the movie.
Like its namesake, the famous Herbert Asbury work, The Gangs of New York is a historical drama, set mostly in the city’s notorious Five Points neighborhood, in the years before and during the Civil War. Its climactic scenes take place during the infamous Draft Riot of 1863, in which working-class, white New Yorkers—incensed over a law that enabled rich men to buy their way out of the draft—launched a bloody, five-day battle for the very control of the city. To this day, it is considered to be the worst riot in American history.
No director would seem better prepared to take on this obscure but seminal episode in American history than Scorsese. From the very start of our interview, he insisted from the beginning that he was “not a historian” but more “of what you would call a history buff. And more ancient history.” Yet in fact his knowledge of history—both American and otherwise—seemed lively, deep, and all but encyclopedic.
While we spoke just three days before the terrible bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what he had to say about both America’s and New York’s past seems all the more meaningful in the wake of that attack.
Q: This movie has been a long time in the planning. When did you first read the book?
MS: There’s a misconception, everybody says that the movie, The Gangs of New York, is based strictly on the book. Well, it’s not. We have tons of research. I went through all the old books, even the book that was published by the mission down there, The Old Brewery .
Q: But the Asbury book was the original inspiration?
MS: The original inspiration, yes. I first read it on January 1st, 1970, on New Year’s Day. Found it on somebody’s bookshelf and started looking at it, and then I got a copy. My friend Jay Cox and myself, we talked about doing this for a long period of time, and then by the mid-’70s, Jay started to write a script.
By 1979 the script was finished, and it reflected a certain time and place, and an attitude towards the type of film production that could be done in the ’70s. More personal. It was also bigger, more sprawling. It didn’t tell—it wasn’t a straight narrative. But even then—before the lid was closed on the directorial, superstar issues in the ’70s—even then, we could not get money for it.
Q: And that was in an age of much more ambitious films.
MS: Exactly. By the time we had the script done, I was about to go into Raging Bull. Francis Coppola was making Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate was being made. All at the same studio, UA. All three.
Q: And then I suppose that what happened with Heaven’s Gate really hurt you—a historical movie that went way over budget, and flopped with the critics and at the box office.
MS: Yeah. I mean, “Heaven’s Gate” has got some wonderful things in it. Some really, really amazing things. Talk about detail, authenticity, staging. Just staging people in the frame, in a wide frame! It’s just phenomenal. But what happened just had to happen. Hollywood’s in the business of getting—ideally—a return at the box office. You know, somebody gives you $40 million to make a picture, you should think about making money.
Q: But now, you did end up making the film mostly about gangs.
MS: Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. It’s an allusion to Bill the Butcher Poole [a storied gang leader of the time], but it’s not exactly him.
Q: And he’s the head of the—
MS: The Nativists. He’s a leader of the Nativist gangs. In the foreground, Gangs of New York is a struggle between the Nativist gangs, and the Irish gangs. We’ve twisted gang history a little bit, but the film begins with a gang battle between the Nativists, and the Dead Rabbits, and all the other Irish gangs. And the head of the Dead Rabbits, played Liam Neeson, is killed by Bill the Butcher, and his son is eight years old, and he witnesses that.
And then the boy is sent off to Hell Gate—that’s what we call it, it’s the old House of Refuge [an orphanage]—but when he comes back, the only place he has to come back to is the Five Points, in 1862.
Q: And the son is Leonardo DiCaprio—
MS: Yes, and the narrative motor of the story is for him to take revenge on Bill the butcher for his father. But things don’t go that smoothly. And ultimately DiCaprio’s character, whose name is Amsterdam, is caught in an emotional turmoil between the people he runs into. In a sense, he has too much of a heart to just go and take the revenge. He gets side tracked, emotionally, and there are confrontations, and there are other battles.
And then, finally, politics come into the issue. Boss Tweed is introduced, trying to work out an alliance with some of the Nativist gangs, in order to use them for muscle.
Q: But that doesn’t work out.
MS: Ultimately, he Nativists have no use for him. Bill the Butcher’s got no use for Boss Tweed, who was rising to power then, because Tweed really wants the Irish immigrants for their votes. And Bill points out a certain thing, that his father got killed in a little-known battle in the War of 1812, the American venture into Niagara Falls. He’s certainly not going to give over the country to a group of people like this, who have just arrived. Tweed tries to reason with him, and says, “Yes, but they vote.” And Bill says, “Yeah, but who tells them how to vote? Their Archbishop tells them how to vote. Who tells the Archbishop? The guy in Rome!”
Q: We don’t really think of religious conflicts so much anymore in America, at least not between Catholics and Protestants.
MS: No, these Nativists whose families had fought and bled here in America—they weren’t going to let these other people come in because they didn’t like the way they dressed, didn’t like how they spoke. But most of all, they hated their religion. Tthis was the first real confrontation [of Catholics and Protestants] in America, and it was going to be brutal. It had to be brutal.
Q: It’s amazing particularly because we think of race, I guess, as much more of a flashpoint in America.
MS: Absolutely. We have that as well in the film. As you know, in the draft riots, when all the chips are down, it becomes racial.
Q: The atrocities perpetrated against African-Americans in the riots were terribly violent, almost too much to read about.
MS: Phenomenal. I mean, we show it. We show it. And the things that were done were so horrible, I think it’s the kind of thing where people would ask “Why?” And you’ll never know exactly why. It comes out of a, political, economic, social situation, that was stirred, that was brewing, and about to explode for many years. And it also comes out of something very human, unfortunately, which is, hating somebody who looks different from you.
Q: And of course, they were was blaming African-Americans for the Civil War, however unjustly.
MS: That’s the other issue. These poor people, the African-Americans in the city at the time, these poor guys—there was nothing they could do that was right!
Q: These white groups, these poor whites, were anxious to define themselves as white—trying to get off the bottom of society—by saying there’s this group below us, because they’re not white—
MS: Right. We hit upon that immediately, because when Amsterdam comes to New York, it’s a day or two before the abolition of slavery is announced—before the Emancipation Proclamation. And there’s a parade but, according to our research, it wasn’t that well celebrated in New York. We show the parade, but we also show some people on the sidelines, with placards that say, “Lincoln will make all white men slaves” and “New York should secede from the union.”
And Bill and his Nativist boys walk across the parade, walk right in the middle of it, and Bill the Butcher, he says something racist like, “Go ahead, go down [to the war] and help out your blackie friends.” He insults them, and his boys try to beat up two black guys who are standing on the side of the street, just because they’re black.
Q: Yeah, it was the same feeling with a lot of groups of that time. I remember reading about the Wide Awakes, a group that supported Lincoln—and many of them hated the immigrants. They held this torchlight, election parade, where they went parading belligerently down Fifth Avenue, in their silver capes, and with their torches. This must have looked like the equivalent of a fascist rally to many of the Irish immigrants.
MS: I know. But you know what it is, even though there were so many newspapers, a lot of people couldn’t read. So, in order for yourself to be understood, or heard, you had to go on a street corner, make noise, have a parade. And tell people, “We’re parading because of this or that. And we look like this, we’re dressed this way, so you’ll know who we are. When you see us coming—you know who we are.”
You know, all the gangs in the movie have different colors on. All taken from the actual engravings of the period—and kind of a precursor to how, let’s say, the gangster Chuck Connors or Monk Eastman must have dressed up in the 1880s and 1890s. And of course, how Al Capone dressed up like like Paul Muni in Scarface, and after that, right up to how gangs dress up to this day.
Q: It’s a continuing gangland thing. Do you find any other similarity between the mobs of this period, the gangs of New York at this time, and the later Mob?
MS: I don’t think so. I find a similarity only in the street-corner sort of gang activity, which is mostly survival. The gangs in New York at this time, they were mainly interested in just taking money off somebody else, you know, without that many sophisticated ruses yet. We do have the Jennie character, Cameron Diaz, who has a couple of things that she does, as a wonderful pickpocket. She was what was called a bludget. [street slang for a female thief]
Q: Wonderful term!
MS: Yeah. And she has an eye to get out of the neighborhood, maybe go to the gold fields in California. She’s raising enough money to get out of there. And, there’s an interesting story between her, and Bill Butcher, and Amsterdam.
Q: I’ve only seen the trailer for The Gangs of New York, but from what I did see it looked tremendously authentic.
MS: Ah, okay, good.
Q: It was really stunning to see the shot when the firemen break through the draft office, at the start of the draft riot.
MS: That’s right, that was the Black Joke Fire Company, which was the [volunteer fire] company that just went in there, and broke through the windows of the office and stopped the draft—though they didn’t plan to start the worst riot in American history!
That’s the kind of detail I wanted to get right. But I don’t want somebody standing up and saying, “Gee, that was the Black Joke.” What I want is for them to be struck with the impression that that was how things worked then, that that was the way you went to show that you disagreed with something. You went out, and you beat on people, and you broke windows and you smashed heads, and you kicked people around.
You know, the movie is not a history book, nor is it even a novel. It’s mostly this personal story. But the idea is to deal with some narrative thread, to find the thrust of the story, upon which detail is then applied. The idea is basically to create an impression of a time, and a place, and an attitude and an atmosphere. That’s the big thing.
Q: I saw your documentary, which was fascinating, on making films, on films that you’ve seen and admired and learned from. You referred to the role of films in trying to create a common unconscious, and to illustrate it you showed part of an early D.W. Griffith short film, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, which was set in lower Manhattan. It was set in an alley that looked like a very careful replica of some of the iconic, Jacob Riis photographs of the terrible slums and alleys down there, from How the Other Half Lives.
MS: Yes, that’s right.
Q: Now, I wasn’t sure, but I thought that in the trailer I saw, that you had reversed the viewpoints of one of those pictures. That it was one of those frightening Riis photographs of gangsters standing in an alley, and looking out at the photographer. But you had reversed the whole image—
MS: Absolutely right.
Q: —which I thought was amazing!
MS: We built an alley specifically to that photograph. “Bandits’ Roost,” I think the photograph’s called. We built the alley to look exactly like it, but in the scenes that we set up I just couldn’t find the time, or the room to show it from that angle. But we did another scene where we reversed it, and went right through the alley with a steady cam.
Q: It is absolutely phenomenal. Talk about a common unconscious! The way you have done it, it really does take up the viewpoint of the gangsters, of the poor and the underclass, looking out from that alley, which is an amazing idea.
MS: We used a number of Riis photographs, and made drawings from them to build the sets. We also recreated Paradise Square, at the heart of the neighborhood, from old engravings and drawings of the Five Points. Plus, there are images of buildings, mostly wooden buildings, that I remember from growing up on Elizabeth Street, and that go back to 1850 or before. One was a live chicken market, between Prince and Spring. There was one on Houston Street, between Elizabeth and the Bowery, that’s still there now. I think it’s a used clothes store, but as I recall there was a pasticerria there—a delicious—smelling, Italian pastry shop.
Q: You grew up right in the area where most of the movie’s set.
MS: Yes. The Five Points were further downtown, but there was a spillover. Of course, by the time I grew up there it had become an Italian neighborhood, but the subculture was familiar. What was important, what was immediate to me, was family, and street, and church.
The street, especially, took in a lot. On the positive side, there was a wonderful sense of communal living, of community. There were three grocery stores on the same block, three butcher shops. A pork store around the corner, a fish market around the corner on Prince Street. Candy stores, shoeshine parlors. Little social clubs where old Italian men from Gemina and Sicily met and drank coffee. Festivals for the saints. So it was very, very much a community.
Q: The patterns of life were the same.
MS: I remember everyday I would come home from my school around the corner, and go up to my tenement apartment. My father was working, my brother was working, my mother was working. And I’d take those two hours before everybody came home for a nice quiet time, do homework—and I saw a lot of films on TV while I was doing that.
Then my mother would come home around 5:30. She’d call me down. You’d always hear mothers calling their kids, or throwing down money for them to buy something for them. She would call me, and I’d go downstairs and usually meet her in the grocery store, and bring up some bags with her for the evening’s dinner, all fresh food. And I remember my father would go visit his mother, who lived two or three doors down, in the tenement that he was born in. And the reason I talk about all this in detail is that it was a family life. It was sons of immigrants trying to make a living, and trying to put food on the table. Becoming Americanized.
Q: It seems almost idyllic now.
MS: And yet, at the same time, the whole atmosphere, the whole neighborhood was also riddled with the underworld. The two negative things about it were the underworld, and skid row. Those images were also part of my world, and they were also part of the old Five Points. There were mostly poor people, who were working very hard and trying to make a decent living. But the other things, the gangsters and people who were on skid row, they were part of it, too.
Q: It wasn’t news to you, when you did your research.
MS: No, it wasn’t news to me. There was Mary the butcher, across the street, Mary Albanese—who’s still alive, she’s 92. But Mary Albanese’s husband, in 1931, he was standing in the street talking to some people, and he happened to be in the way of gangland raid, and he was killed. That’s how I grew up. That’s how I thought the whole world was. And I think it is, actually.
Q: But I think that’s hard to comprehend for a lot of Americans, particularly for a lot of middle-class Americans today, growing up today in the suburbs.
MS: No, there’s nothing like that at all. And I hope that what this picture is going to show is that the things they’ve had since they were born, the world around them, did not just fall into place by itself. That this idea of a country, this idea of equality of race, color, creed, this sense of independence—this separation of church and state—didn’t just come together two days before they were born, or while they were hanging out at the mall. I think that it was a very real struggle.
Q: It didn’t just happen.
MS: No. There are all these books now about the Founding Fathers, this book now by [David] McCullough on John Adams, that’s fascinating. And you understand that these are no longer just stuffy Founding Fathers, with white wigs on, and all standing and posing with a beautiful piece of paper they’re signing with the most beautiful calligraphy. No, these are real people, real struggles. They could have been hanged, they could have been shot. They were on the line—they were on the line. You know, Nathan Hale was actually hanged. And this country came out of their extraordinary intelligence, but it also came out of great struggle, and it came out of violence, a great amount of violence.
Q: Is that the sort of thing that makes historical drama difficult—the fact that Americans have an idealized notion of the past?
MS: I think what might make it difficult for an audience is if they think the past is something too distant for them to identify with, to be accessible. I think you have to give them a sense of what people wanted, what people always want. What they’re looking for in life, and how they had to go about getting it. I think this is the key. The details of how they got water, where they ate, what they ate. That helps you make a film.
Q: The atmosphere helps you.
MS: It helps you feel it. We shot the picture in Rome and people keep telling me, “Wow, Rome, ten months, huh? It was great, wasn’t it?” And I say, I wasn’t in Rome. I was at the Five Points, with all the pigs in the street. (Laughs) I was on the set. But it wasn’t a set. It was real. In my mind it was real. I could even smell certain things. I remembered the smell of a little grocery store one of my friends’ grandfathers had up the street. I’ll never forget the smell, the aroma of the peaches and the nectarines, out of those wooden crates. The ripe smell, there’s nothing like it. And my sense memories came right back.
Q: It influenced you that directly.
MS: Well, I don’t think there were many real fruit stands in the old Five Points. Then it was mainly rotting lettuce, and carrots, and other vegetables they had outside these “groceries” to disguise the fact they were really bars. The idea was to get inside, drink it up. But that tells you something, too.
Q: It’s interesting, the idea of authenticity in a historical film. One of my favorite movies is one you were admiring in that documentary, The Scarlet Empress—a biography of Catherine the Great, starring Marlene Dietrich, which featured all these fantastic, eerie sets. They were truly amazing—though I doubt if 18th-Century Russia really looked like that.
MS: But oh, boy, it must have felt like that. (Laughs) Yes, how about that cauldron they have at the dinner table, with the skeleton around it?
Q: Right. Or the chairs, which are carved out of these brooding, ominous figures.
MS: Wow. The way he shoots, [director Josef] von Sternberg, he’s so amazing. Out of all that gloss and sort of glitz in the film, there’s this primitive element that comes through, with the tortured, twisted sculptures, the uses of the crucifix. The idea of a skeleton just embracing a cauldron in the middle of a table Catherine the Great is having dinner at. There are so many elements like that. You do feel that Russia in that period, at the Royal Court—this was their spirit. This really was their spirit.
Capturing that sort of spirit, of impression, is what we’re trying to achieve. But I don’t think Gangs of New York is going to be as elegant. It’s more primitive. So that this bar, Satan’s Circus, for instance—I made it a place with a very low ceiling, and a rat pit below. There’s even a tree growing out of it. I wanted one whole wall to be just rock, and the tree is growing out of that and they put the bar in the back of that, behind the roots of the tree.
Q: You’ve made several films about New York City at times when it seemed to be on the verge of coming apart—
MS: I did?
Q: Well, of course, Taxi Driver.
MS: Oh. Oh, that was the ’70s! (Laughs) You forget, John Lindsay’s campaign at the time, “New York is a summer festival.”
Q: Yeah, “Fun City—”
MS: What’s the problem? We were having fun in the summer!
Q: And then also, you know, in Bringing Out the Dead, you know, another difficult period [in the 1980s]. And even in After Hours, which is a comedy, you give a very sinister feel to the downtown art scene.
MS: It is sinister.
Q: And yet none of these periods seem nearly as rough as New York was in the 19th century—as it was in the period you’re doing here, around the Civil War.
MS: Nothing. Nothing was as hard as that. The more research over the years we did, the more we got a sense of what these places were really like—nothing can compare, really.
It was a new place being formed. There were people coming off the boats with no money, nothing, they couldn’t speak English, they were thrown into these slums, with all these people. I think that to a certain extent, when they came to America it was about as much of a trip as it would be for astronauts going to Mars.
Q: The riot also sounds horrendous. It may be, now, that another anti-black, race riot in Tulsa led to more deaths [in 1920], but otherwise it’s the worst, bloodiest riot in our history. And it reminded me of something that you said, in regard to the movie, Silver Lode, about how easily the fragile veneer of democracy can be stripped away.
MS: Yeah. You know, the riots lasted four or five days, but on the very first night, they started lynching people.
Q: Even the fire company that started it, the Black Joke, they seemed appalled by what they had started before the day was out. Going back to trying to put out burning buildings the rioters were setting on fire—
MS: Yeah, though I also show them, the firemen, later jumping the Tribune building, which they stormed during the riot. We don’t show a lot of it, but we do have Horace Greeley, poor guy, running out, and running over to his favorite restaurant. He’s knocking on the window, and saying “Let me in!” And they let him in, and then he says “The rats have taken the town!” That wonderful description from [Herman] Melville that we put in his mouth.
Q: Yes, that’s an incredible thing, too, when the mob stormed Newspaper Row. Apparently Winston Churchill’s grandfather [Leonard Jerome, principal owner of The New York Times] was at the window of the Times—
MS: With a gattling gun! With a gattling gun! (Laughs)
Q: The currents of history!
MS: Yeah. “Better not come in here, boy, I’ve got a gattling gun!” And, you know, the ships were off Wall Street, ready to move the gold out of the city.
Q: It’s also very interesting that most of the people who put the down the Draft Riot—the police and some of the army units brought into the city—most of these men were also Irish-Americans, just like most of the rioters.
MS: I know.
Q: Was this, then, the real crucible of citizenship, shooting your friends and neighbors in the street?
MS: We do have one scene of the draft riots that is a confrontation with the troops. And the mob just stands there for a second, they don’t realize—“They don’t really mean to shoot us!” But they do. They just blast them.
There’s a quote from General Wool [commander of the troops in the city], who was asked “What do you want us to do with prisoners?” And he said, “What prisoners? The mob isn’t taking any prisoners.” Bam! And, I don’t know if you have much sympathy for them at that point, having seen them lynching African-Americans. But still, it’s all human, all the suffering. Even the soldiers are suffering. And that’s what I’ve got to find a way to deal with, aesthetically. I have the shots, and I’m working on the sound track now.
Q: The sounds of the mob yelling to the soldiers to join them, or something?
MS: Yes, but it’s also a distancing. A distancing, so you can look back, and look at all these people, sort of from God’s point of view. Looking at all this extraordinary suffering. On all sides.
That’s what I try to get to. But the problem is, to have the draft riots and the social conditions, the economic conditions and political conditions, but to have them as a backdrop to a personal story. You always need to put it into that personal story.
Q: There’s an interesting thing about historical foreign films and television show, in that they don’t bother to explain the whole background. In something like the British series, I, Claudius, everybody’s in a toga, but they don’t bother to stop and explain the whole background of the Claudian dynasty. They just present the basic relationship, and you quickly understand that everybody’s trying to poison everybody and grab the throne.
Q: Whereas in American [historical] films and television, somebody always seems to say, “Well, I’m off to the Louisiana Territory. Which was purchased by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, for the amount of— ”
MS: Who knows, we may fall into similar things in our picture, but you do want to give a sense of a historical background without being too obvious. It’s very difficult to do in historical films. And I think part of it is now, for a movie like ours—how many young people know that there was a Civil War? So what do you do? Do you explain about the Civil War?
Q: Do you?
MS: I’m sorry, you may not. I don’t know if you could stop the movie and say, you know, “First there was a revolution— ” (Laughs) Let’s explain what the Revolution was. And then there seemed to be this thing that happened in 1812, it’s really upsetting. And then, funny thing about the Founding Fathers. They didn’t really solve this pesky issue of slavery—
Q: Does it seem to you that there’s a kind of deadening effect in films now, as opposed to when all those terrific, ambitious moviess were being made in the ’70s? There was a scene in Pearl Harbor, during the attack, of these planes chasing each other between buildings. And it seemed to me like the same, basic shot, the same idea from Star Wars, and the attack on the “death star” that was shot 25 years ago. Are films now too self-referential? Do they suffer from no longer having a literary tradition behind them?
MS: No, I don’t know about that. I mean, I myself, and my generation, we all refer very much to films. Every shot in every film I’ve ever made, I can tell you that it came out of this or that. There’s that danger of assuming the superiority of literature over the visual image being. Whereas, I don’t think one is superior over the other. I don’t. I just think they’re completely different.
No, I think the problem with many films is something deeper, and more troubling. There’s a lack of intellectual curiosity. When it comes to the depth of the story, the implications of what the characters do, and how they move and what they do with each other or to each other. Or in the historical background.
I find that now, everything has to be very, very heavily underlined for the audience to—for what they think an audience has to know, to understand. “They,” meaning the studios. They’re trying to make spectacles, but too many films today do not have the complexity, the layered complexity, or the emotional, intellectual complexity that they used to have. And I think it has more to do than with just not being based on literature. I think it has to do with making a lot of money, and with battering the audience down into thinking that they don’t want to see foreign films. They don’t want to read subtitles. They don’t want any other culture influencing this culture of America right now.
Q: You know, in writing historical fiction, I always try to keep a little axiom in mind. That is, that customs change completely, but that people don’t change at all. But is that actually true? Do you think it’s possible that the rituals people have, the kind of iconography they have, and their customs—can that actually change them, do you think?
MS: Good question. I don’t know. I think it might be so if the philosophy changes, on how to live life. For instance, I’ve always been fascinated by the supposedly smooth shift between paganism and Christianity in the ancient world. It may not have been that smooth. As I understand it, when Constantine made Christianity the state religion, I believe that for another 150 years, maybe more, gladiatorial combats still took place.
Q: It wasn’t wiped out—
MS: No, it can’t stop, it was a great show. You can’t do that to the people. They say, okay, we’ll worship Jesus, and, you know, peace and love, but gladiatorial combat, that’s pretty good!
I was always interested in trying to make a television series on a Roman family that starts off as “pagans.” And you’d see their daily rituals. The sacrifice to the household gods, going to the Senate—how one would live one’s life with the sense of a pantheon of gods that were disinterested in humanity. With the sense that everything was more up to chance, and luck.
If, say, you were a Roman senator and something terrible happened, there was a ship wreck or something, someone would turn around and say, “Well, maybe you didn’t sacrifice to Mercury. Or you didn’t sacrifice to Neptune.” And you’d say, “Oh, you’re right! I did this one, I did that one—I should have sacrificed to Neptune!”
Q: That would be a truly different way of life.
MS: Yes, living in that way, feeling the gods don’t care about you, they can kind of toy with you. And then, maybe, it’s into the fourth century, and there’s the edict from Milan, I think, and now Christianity is the state religion. And by the last two or three episodes, they’re Christian, they really, really have the philosophy of Christian. And everything is different. I thought, that that would be very interesting to do, I would love to do something like that. You know, the fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon, has been dealt with. But to do it on a small scale, in one family—
Q: It’s an amazing idea.
MS: The Blue Kite is that way. You know, Jiuan Jiuan, do you know that film?
Q: I don’t—
MS: He’s a Chinese filmmaker, he’s a wonderful film maker. And he did The Blue Kite, which is basically about a peasant family in China, and he went through the whole 20, 30 years of Mao, and the whole revolution, and you saw just how it affected these people, and the little village they lived in.
Q: Is there anything in this era, do you think, in American history, that has also changed our basic way of comprehending our world?
MS: If there is anything, I think it is that wars are no longer fought on American soil. I think the generation at the [last] turn of the century, and certainly the generation now—younger people now—have no concept now, of how this all came about. Whether you criticize this country now or not, they have no concept of how it all came about.
People think now, oh, you can do this, you can run this democracy without a struggle, but there’s a constant struggle. It’s a daily struggle. You know, it’s interesting to note that the 19th century is the most violent century in American history. Everything seemed to to have been settled by force, or by demonstrations of force.
There was a constant struggle for everything. Even the issue of votes for women, everything. And from the Revolutionary period to the end of the Civil War, the nation really wasn’t a nation yet, you know. It just had to be battled out.
Q: A struggle to preserve freedom, to preserve our rights—
MS: The very structure of the society, and the idea of checks and balances, it seems to be working. It sort of creaks along. You know, it doesn’t quite flow smoothly. But it seems to flow.
What I think could be a problem also, are more the values again. Of philosophical values, or how to live one’s life. The profit motive is so strong now. And the idea of making profit for the sake of profit is kind of dehumanizing.
Q: You know, speaking of struggle, and the Draft Riot, Asbury and some others put the death toll very high in the years afterwards. Maybe as many as 2,000 dead. Yet, most serious historians estimate that there were in fact about 115 killed—still terrible, still the bloodiest riot in American history. But not nearly as many.
MS: Well, I’m not one of these conspiracy theorists. But I must tell you that, the figures at that time, especially—no one could tell how many people were really killed. Just because it’s not recorded officially, by those in—how should I put it?—by upper middle-class, upper-class people, who knows?
Q: This gets back to the old Liberty Valance line, “When the truth and the legend collide, print the legend.”
MS: Right. You got to print the legend. I tend to go to the fact, if I can. If I can. Here, it’s based on fact. But again, it’s an impression, a kind of artistic interpretation of a time, a period, and a place. Of struggle. As one of our guys put it, it’s the truth wrapped in a package of lies. We hope.
Q: But is there an obligation to truth—you know, in terms of films like Gone With The Wind, or Birth of a Nation. Epic, seminal films, but ones that really affected how we looked at the South and slavery in a very inaccurate, racist way.
MS: Well, in Birth of a Nation it went too far in terms of his [director D.W. Griffith’s] personal belief, on the racial issue. That was his personal belief, and he choose a piece of material, The Clansman [a novel by Thomas Dixon] that’s supported that, and distorted what the reality was.
But he [Griffith] really believed that. I’m not saying that’s good, I’m just saying he was really convinced of it. And that does tear you apart, when you watch that film. It’s almost impossible to watch, because of that [the racism]. And I think it’s apt, that it’s the first American feature.
Q: So in this case, the lie really does take away from the work.
MS: It really does. It doesn’t take away from the genius that he [Griffith] was, purely in terms of his art.
Q: Do you think any film can really influence our idea of a time, of a period, the way those two films did? They way they cemented false ideas about slavery and Reconstruction for a generation?
MS: What do you mean?
Q: Is there any film today that has really shaped Americans, or America? Do you think it is possible to make such a film about history today?
MS: Right now, on this planet, I don’t think so. Each film now is costing more and more to make. You need a bigger and bigger return at the box office, and I think that leads you to take fewer chances. So that something that would reflect history, shape the mind the way those films did, about the history of the 19th century—I don’t know if there would be that much interest to an audience today. Especially a younger audience.
But I think that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do it. You have to try. You got to try it, and you got to figure out how to use the money, and to try to figure out how to make some profit. You have to have some sense of responsibility. So that you can say something that may have some meaning, and some depth, and may help people, in America, to understand, a little more of what this extraordinary experiment is all about. And that includes understanding the implications of immigration, which is also now occurring all over Europe.
Q: So it will be something, maybe, that speaks to the whole world.
MS: It’s interesting. I mean, what’s happening in Gangs of New York, with immigration, is happening now in France, it’s happening in Italy, it’s happening in England. And, I think that’s why if we lighten up on the history at certain points in the movie, one thing we don’t lighten up on is the passion, the rage, that these [opposing] groups had for each other.
Q: It’s trying to get at a kind of greater truth.
MS: Yeah, human truth, is what we’re trying to get at. I think you can look back to certain films in the ’70s or the ’80s. Maybe Platoon was a film that affected people that way. Maybe Platoon was the film that made people—even if they disagreed with the war—made them feel compassion for the soldiers as human beings. And that was a major hurdle to get over in America. The soldiers are still human beings, you still embrace them and give them comfort. Yes we may have been wrong, they may have been wrong there. But you know, do you think those guys wanted to be there?
Now, don’t forget, in that time there were other films that tried to humanize the soldiers. There was Boys of Company C, there was Hamburger Hill, there were a lot of films—
Q: Apocalypse Now.
MS: Apocalypse Now. But Apocalypse Now was more of how people already looked upon the war. Apocalypse Now deals with the very tragedy of the human condition in terms of war. And the surrealist spectacle of such a mad state of being—particularly in that war.
Or any war. Pork Chop Hill has that too, with Gregory Peck, where they’re attacking the hill at night, and all of a sudden, the North Koreans are playing “Stella by Starlight,” or something—you know, a very sweet piece of music, an orchestral American standard, over the loudspeakers. And guns are going, and bombs are going off. And then searchlights are put right on Gregory Peck and his men, and he goes, “Those are our own lights, get them out of here!” They’re being shot, by their own men. That was the first film, I felt that I saw, that had a sense of what the condition of being in a fire fight must be like.
Q: I thought Saving Private Ryan also did that well.
MS: [Steven] Spielberg said to me years ago, he said he always wanted to make a war film where he showed how bloody it really is. “How bloody it is” is not exactly the right words to use, because you don’t want it to sound like a bunch of kids throwing blood around on the screen.
MS: But to show the truth of it. His [Spielberg’s] father had been in the army. Mine hadn’t. But, he heard those stories. He knew it. And, so when I saw the opening, I said, extraordinary thing. It says it all, in the first—I think the second shot, where the gate opens on the landing vehicle and everybody gets shot immediately. The poor guys didn’t have a chance to even take a breath.
Q: They’re even shot underwater—
MS: They’re shot underwater, and everywhere. That I think has more shock. But I think the scenes in Pork Chop Hill are more psychological, with the North Koreans playing music over the battle—
Q: Or The Thin Red Line. The psychological terror of just getting across that field.
MS: Yes, just the feeling tracking that camera through the field. That picture has a feeling of such great poetry. Great poetry. And I think a lot of it’s because, you deal with the human beings. And they say, well we don’t know whose voice-over narration it is. I said it doesn’t matter, it’s everybody’s voice. It’s all of them.
And also, talking about authenticity, you see the scenes in the boat when they’re shipping out, and they’re all in the bunks on the boat. In the older films, in the ’40s, fighting World War II, they’re well done. But for the scenes in the boat, the men are nervous, but they’re playing harmonicas, there’s playing cards, they’re making jokes. You look at The Thin Red Line, you get a sense that these men are going to their death.
Q: You spoke in your documentary of directors smuggling ideas into film—
Q: —and the importance of the context a film is made in, the time and the atmosphere it’s made in. Is there an idea you’re trying to smuggle into Gangs of New York?
MS: I think not. I think in this one, the ideas are out front. And in the political backdrop, the historical backdrop. I hope that it’s more provocative than hidden.
I think it’s interesting—how does one stop a war, if the new generations have not experienced it? They may know about it, they may see movies about it. But they have not lived through it. America’s never been bombed, aside from Pearl Harbor. But how does one change human nature—the worst aspect of which is settling everything by violence—if they have not experienced it? The generation I came out of—I was born during the war, when it was all very, very clear. Then there was the Korean War, and there was Vietnam.
Q: Which made it less clear.
MS: Yeah, but for the past 30 years, there’s been nothing. If you don’t know, if you’re not made aware— You know, it’s the old line, if you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.
And so this picture has, we feel, has something to do with what it means to put together a country, based on our principles, the principle of the Founding Fathers. What Adams calls this great experiment, you see. And it’s about how people could be totally wrong and feel they’re totally right. I mean totally wrong as to what the country’s supposed to be.
Q: You mean the Nativists, the Know-Nothings.
MS: Bill the Butcher looks at them [the Irish immigrants] coming off the boat, and he curses them, and his Nativists throw rocks at them. They use the worst language. Because they consider themselves the true Americans. They even have a flag that says, “Native Americans against foreign invaders.” It was an actual flag of the period.
Q: One last question. Do you have a favorite historical movie?
MS: Oh, good Lord. There are so many. My problem is, I like to watch historical films mostly for the detail. Sometimes just for costume, or props, certain locations. And there are so many different kinds. I guess if I had to pick one, Barry Lyndon would be the one.
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