As a fledgling director, Scorsese could only dream of taking Asbury’s characters to the screen. But two years after his hard-edged portrayal of his old neighborhood in 1977’s Mean Streets, which brought him critical acclaim, Scorsese acquired the screen rights to the book. It would take him three decades to bring his vision to fruition.
Beginning with a bloody gang war in 1846, Gangs of New York culminates amid the Götterdämmerung of the 1863 draft riots, in which perhaps as many as 70,000 men and women, aroused by the introduction of mandatory conscription during the third year of the Civil War, rampaged through the streets of New York, setting houses afire, battling police and lynching African-Americans. Federal troops had to be brought in to quell the disturbance.
As early as 1800, immigrants, nativists and others had confronted one another in the streets of New York. Here, competing groups vied for living space and economic survival in a cramped district near the tip of Manhattan. Though Scorsese’s film does not claim to transcribe events of long ago with documentary precision, its fictional plots of vengeance, romance and political intrigue evoke an all-but-forgotten urban past, as if Scorsese had pried loose one of Lower Manhattan’s ancient cobblestones, and the teeming world of the 1850s had risen emphatically from the depths.
Re-creating this lost world was a daunting exercise. Very little of 1860s New York City—in particular, two- and three-story wood frame buildings, which began disappearing in the 1830s—survives today. Ultimately, Scorsese’s solution was, in effect, to transport 19th-century New York to the vast Cinecitta Studio in Rome, where most of the film was shot. Scores of buildings (laid end to end, the structures would extend for more than a mile) were constructed to replicate entire sections of the city. Production designer Dante Ferretti’s army of carpenters built a fiveblock area of Lower Manhattan, including the notorious Five Points slum (so named because of the angular convergence of streets there, a few hundred feet east of today’s criminal courts and a short walk from Ground Zero) and a section of the East River waterfront replete with two fullscale ships. They also built a mansion, replicas of Tammany Hall, a church, a saloon, a Chinese theater and a gambling casino.
Says the amiable Ferretti, a protégé of the late legend Federico Fellini: “When I make a movie, my goal is not just to re-create the past but to imagine it as if I were a person living in that world. Fellini always told me, ‘Don’t just copy. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination.’”