Long before he delivered the one-two punch of ”GoodFellas” and ”Casino,” Martin Scorsese had another, more ambitious underworld epic on his to-do list. In fact, Scorsese and (future) ”Age of Innocence” writing partner Jay Cocks went so far as to take out an ad in ”Variety” announcing that their next project, ”Gangs of New York,” was about to go into production. That was in 1977. But then came ”Heaven’s Gate.” And, according to Scorsese, the Golden Age of the Director fizzled out like an Alka-Seltzer tablet. ”It was the end of making films that were provocative and maybe not to everyone’s taste,” he laments. ”It’s taken all these years to make it possible again.”
Shot at Italy’s historic Cinecitta studios (where Scorsese used to make pilgrimages to watch Fellini direct), the $90 million Miramax Oscar hopeful is set in the infamous crime-plagued Five Points section of lower Manhattan in the early 1860s. Amid the neighborhood’s election-stealing bagmen, Dickensian con artists, and warring immigrant groups is a young man named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose father has been murdered by ruthless political enforcer Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his first screen appearance since 1997’s ”The Boxer”). Naturally, Amsterdam seeks a little of ye olde street justice with the help of pickpocket Jenny Everdeane, played by Diaz, who considers working with Scorsese both nerve-racking and the pinnacle of her career to date. ”Marty’s an encyclopedia of film history, and he’s talking constantly. And you have to listen because that’s his direction,” she laughs. ”So I just said to him, ‘Look, when you make a reference to some obscure film and you ask if I know it, just assume I don’t.”’
As for all the media attention that’s come with casting DiCaprio — an actor who was only 2 years old when Scorsese was first mulling over leading men for ”Gangs” — the director says Leo’s post-”Titanic” superstardom had nothing to do with his selection. ”Before his rise, all I knew was that he was one of the best young actors around,” the filmmaker says. ”He was certainly in the tradition of actors I admired, like De Niro, Hoffman, and Pacino…and it seemed like the torch had been passed to him. People would say, ‘Marty, someday you should work with this person.’ So in my mind he was always an actor, not a movie star.” Of course, the ”movie star” part probably won’t hurt on opening weekend.