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GQ magazine - March 2001

 

The Epic Struggle of Martin Scorsese

part 2

 

 

To help his cause, Scorsese cast Leonardo DiCaprio as a rebellious kid with the unlikely name of Amsterdam Vallon, who returns to New York City after several years in prison. His intent is to avenge the death of his father - while helping the burgeoning Irish-immigrant population carve out its turf in the city.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays his father's murderer, Bill the Butcher, who is head of a fiercely anti-immigrant faction and who is a key part of the city's unruly power structure. Cameron Diaz plays Jenny Everdeane, a pickpocket who tries to operate independently of the gangs and, as a result, attracts Amsterdam's attention. Scorsese tells me he has decided to shoot most scenes in a surreal, smoky haze but it's a look suggesting science fiction more than period. Working with Michael Ballhaus, his accomplished cinematographer, Scorsese wants Gangs to seem more akin to Satyricon than to pre-Civil War reality, to represent the exotic rather than a history lesson. Perhaps it is appropriate that on the Cinecittą lot, the diminutive Scorsese is working out of a vast, ornate office once occupied by Fellini.

Given the tight security on the set, the Italian press has percolated with wild rumors. At different times, Leonardo was said to have ballooned to pudgy proportions and to be balking at the rigid diet imposed by Harvey Weinstein. Writers were fretfully patching the script at the same time Scorsese was quarreling with Weinstein over the changes.

If any of this was true, I didn't see signs of it when I was there. Leonardo was thin as a rod, the script seemed in good order, and Scorsese appeared to be on relatively genial terms with Weinstein, his rotund, blunt-spoken Medici, as though acknowledging that only Miramax would have had the stomach for this ambitious production.

Indeed, it was Harvey Weinstein's eleventh-hour intervention that saved Gangs from yet another descent into development hell, even with DiCaprio attached. The young superstar had committed to the project on the eve of his departure for Thailand to start filming The Beach. This gave Yorn and Ovitz some breathing room in which to secure financing and distribution.

They would need it. Among all their casting and production problems, they faced a troublesome suit over the production credits. Though Scorsese had been working on various drafts of the scripts for three decades, a distinguished Italian producer, Alberto Grimaldi, claimed he had come up with the idea and had even set it up once at Universal. He filed a suit to obtain a producer credit and didn't want to share it with Scorsese. (He was ultimately awarded more than $3 million by the Federal District Court in New York)

And there was a further complication. Although Scorsese had independently elicited keen interest in his project from Joe Roth, then chairman of Walt Disney Picture, the filmmaker contractually owed his next project to Warner Bros.

Eager to sort this out, Yorn arranged a summit meeting with the then cohead of Warner Bros., Terry Semel, in early 1999. Surely, Yorn suggested, some sort of cofinancing deal could be hammered out between Warner Bros. and Disney, thus allowing them to share the film. The meeting kept growing in size, as each side brought along its deal makers and consiglieri.

"Marty opened the meeting with a brilliant pitch of the story," Yorn recalls. "Listening to him, I couldn't see how any studio could resist." Terry Semel, however, was not similarly transported. Indeed, it soon became clear that Semel's real objective was not to make a deal for Gangs but, rather, to nudge Scorsese into directing Dino, a biopic about Dean Martin with Tom Hanks playing the lead.

Outraged by Semel's play, Yorn was further disturbed by rumors that Joe Roth, his lone Gangs supporter, might now be leaving Disney. What's more, Roth's boss, Michael Eisner, the head of Walt Disney, could not be counted on for help. The Columbine High School massacre that spring had shaken Eisner, who'd always been zealously protective of the Disney image. Eisner felt this was not the time to make a violent-youth movie. Yorn tried taking Gangs to other studios, but both MGM and 20th Century Fox passed. It was beginning to look as though Gangs curse would again take its toll.

Enter Harvey Weinstein. At a celebrity auction to benefit film preservation held at Manhattan's Planet Hollywood in late 1999 (at which one of the items up for bid was a Raging Bull poster), the Miramax boss approached Scorsese to say he's heard about Gangs and wanted in. Scorsese was startled; Miramax, after all, was a division of Disney. Further, Miramax had traditionally specialized in relatively low-budget films and could thus put up only a portion of the money. But at least it was a start. The remainder was about magically appear from yet another unlikely source - Graham King, a burly Brit who had made his money shopping European TV shows. Given his appetite to expand into film, King liked the look of a star vehicle like Gangs, sensing that the Scorsese-DiCaprio combination would whet the appetites of Europe's cash-rich TV stations that needed glitzy film packages. So between King and Weinstein, plus a residual commitment from Touchstone, another Disney subsidiary, the funding suddenly took shape to make Gangs a reality. The deal represented a surprise triumph not only for Scorsese but also for Ovitz and Yorn, who were eager to project the credibility of their new entity.

Their celebration, however, would prove short-lived. No sooner had the deal seemed set than they received word that Harvey Weinstein had contracted a mysterious bacterial infection, one that would sideline him, perhaps for months. Without Harvey's direct support, surely a megaproject like Gangs would never come together, especially since Miramax was now being run by Harvey's brother, Bob, a man whose claim to fame was low-budget horror films such as Scream. To Yorn's irritation rumors were spreading that both DiCaprio and Scorsese were looking for other films.

In fact reporters for Daily Variety were receiving fervid "tips" that DiCaprio was about to commit two other projects with firm start dates. Inevitably, Yorn suspected that agents at Creative Artists Agency were coaxing along this blizzard of rumors. CAA had recently declared war on Ovitz, charging that its founder was stealing clients for his management company - Robin Williams was presumably a prime example. Ovitz denied these accusations, arguing that most of his management clients continued to employ the services of agents, albeit not many at CAA. The rivalry continued to fester, however, and so did the rumormongering over Gangs.

Amid all this static, Yorn was thrilled to receive a surprise call from Bob Weinstein, the cochairman of Miramax was still committed to making Gangs despite Harvey's illness. The green light was flashing, Bob advised, provided the cast could be rounded out and the script locked.

So with DiCaprio in place, Scorsese focused on nailing down the role of the movie's heavy, Bill the Butcher. Scorsese's instinct, not surprisingly, favored Robert De Niro, with whom he had made eight films. Their friendship had been enhanced by hits such as Raging Bull but had also endured flops such as New York, New York. "They function more like brothers than like director and actor," says one man who has worked at their side. "They build a performance together, one anticipating the reaction of the other. De Niro is not the most verbal of actors, but they communicate on gut instinct."

Scorsese gave De Niro the script, confident he'd accept. But De Niro opted to pass, reportedly because he was unable to relate to the character. Those associated with the movie have offered a different spin: "Let's just say De Niro didn't want to spend months away from New York at this moment in his life," says one Miramax executive.

With De Niro out of contention, however, Scorsese had to scramble. He set his sights on another actor whose work and attitude he greatly admired - Daniel Day-Lewis. They'd collaborated on The Age of Innocence, and Scorsese had watched him lose himself so completely in his role that his identity all but disappeared. It was a familiar pattern. While filming The Crucible, Day-Lewis, who holds both Irish and English passports, traveled early to film location to construct with his own hands the house that his character was supposed to live in. Four years ago, Day-Lewis topped even this: After he announced that he'd lost interest in acting, he moved to Florence to apprentice himself to a master shoemaker.

Would the eccentric star now give up his career as a cobbler? Scorsese contacted him and sent him a script.

An old hand at roping in reticent actors, Scorsese managed to persuade Day-Lewis to fly to New York. He then marshaled DiCaprio to join him and Day-Lewis at meeting to discuss their roles. Leo was now consulting regularly on the script and felt more and more like a surrogate producer. So did a now healthy Harvey Weinstein, who orchestrated an extraordinary dinner for Scorsese, Day-Lewis, DiCaprio and himself at a Harlem restaurant known to be frequented by hoods and him men. To ensure an appropriate atmosphere, Weinstein even phoned the owner and told him to spread the word about his visitor. "I wanted to get the real shooter there," Weinstein noted. "I wanted Daniel Day to see what 'the boys' looked like - the real ones."

 

Even as Harvey Weinstein paced their set, joked with the actors and teased them about their ragged wardrobes, a bystander could chart his occasional worried glances. For it was the rotund, ever garrulous Miramax chief who bore the full burden of the venture.

Whether or not this act of showmanship impressed the shy actor is not known, but after they met several more times with Day-Lewis, his resistance melted; he agreed to set aside his shoemaking career, travel to Rome and throw himself into the part of Bill the Butcher.

To be sure, the actors - Day-Lewis, DiCaprio, Diaz and the others - did not have to concern themselves with the risks inherent in the subject matter. Like most actors, they were reacting to their specific roles to the director's mystique, to their lines of dialogue, to the dramatic riffs that they would pull off together. But even as the frenetic Harvey Weinstein paced their set, joked with them between setups and teased them about their ragged wardrobes, a bystander could chart his occasional worried glances, his furrowed brow. For it was the rotund, ever garrulous Miramax chief who bore the full burden of the venture. He has willed into existence an enormously expensive and controversial movie that dealt with a distant blur on America's time clock, an era when a curious ethnic underworld ruled New York and when the entire city was ultimately convulsed by rioting mobs opposed to the draft.

To succeed, Gangs of New York will have to be more than an art picture. After all, art pictures don't boast budgets of (at least) $85 million. (By the third week, the production was falling behind schedule.) Besides, as Harvey Weinstein knows all too well, the audience for art movies is rapidly dwindling in the United States.

For whatever reason, the mass audience seems to want "event" movies such as The Perfect Storm or lowbrow comedies such as Meet the Parents. Miramax rose to its present lofty status with offbeat films such as The Crying Game and The English Patient, yet no one else seems to be making similar films, and even Miramax is struggling to regain its impetus.

Despite his reputation as a rough-and-tumble negotiator, Harvey Weinstein has gained renown for his exuberant love of films and also for his extraordinary savvy about the medium. He can talk for hours about Truffaut and Godardi a feat his Hollywood brethren certainly cannot match. Even Miramax's biggest critics grudgingly admire Harvey Weinstein while privately predicting his ultimate decline. "He can't sustain it" is the common cry.

And Gangs of New York is perhaps the crucial turning point. Will it ass to Harvey's luster or contribute to his downfall? Will he live to regret picking up the yellowed, thirty-year-old screenplay that Martin Scorsese had so long savored?

Martin Scorsese was clearly thrilled to cry "Action." But will Harvey yearn to yell "Cut"?

GQ writer-at-large Peter Bart is the editor in chief of Variety and Daily Variety.

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Thanks a lot to Ann who scanned the whole article and to Pitssymoon from Omni Leonardo for typing it !

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