On leave from ''Gangs of New York,'' Martin Scorsese talks letterboxing, old movies, and ''The Sopranos''

By Troy Patterson
Updated June 22, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Gangs of New York

  • Movie

Martin Scorsese has lobbied Congress to protect filmmakers’ rights, coaxed Kodak into creating more durable film stock, and supported the restoration of more classic movies than you can shake a Cahiers du Cinema at. He also directs. Scorsese will release ”Gangs of New York” — an epic about the meanest Manhattan streets of the mid-1800s — in December, so he ought to be busy and anxious: ”Gangs” has been a quarter-century in the planning and, at a reported $90 million, nearly twice as expensive as any picture he’s made before. But his passion for film history is such that he recently took a day off from editing to hype the Philips wide-screen campaign — an effort to spread the word (apparently not as obvious as a film buff would hope) that home viewers should watch movies as their directors envisioned. We chatted the maestro up about pan-and-scan butchery, his influences, and a certain letterboxed HBO hit.

You didn’t make a wide-screen movie until 1991’s ”Cape Fear,” which you reedited for TV yourself. Well, anamorphic wide-screen, yeah. [That is, with an extreme aspect ratio of 2.35:1.] I’d wanted to use it from the very first, and I just couldn’t because I knew [the studio] would have to redirect the film for television.

Is there any single example of cropping for TV you find especially barbaric? The pan-and-scan version of ”2001: A Space Odyssey” is a great calamity. A disgrace. A great sin in a way.

You think of this as a moral issue. Well, yes…we should have some respect for where we came from and what our culture is.

And yet you grew up watching movies on TV. A black-and-white 16-inch TV. I saw my first Italian films on TV. I was 5 years old. I saw ”Paisan” and ”Open City” and ”The Bicycle Thief” and ”Shoeshine.” A 5-year-old can’t tell the difference [in composition]; those movies affected me in a whole ‘nother way. They were in Italian. The people in the films were speaking the same language my grandparents and my parents spoke. Yet I was American… I’ve always felt split between Hollywood cinema and European cinema.

You often watch old movies for research when you’re editing. What have you seen for ”Gangs of New York?” I looked at a [1951] Anthony Mann noir called ”The Tall Target.” It’s about a Pinkerton detective on a train between New York and Baltimore, going to Washington in 1860 or 1861 when Lincoln was just elected, and Lincoln being on a train and being a target for assassination, which is a true story…. [And] 1958’s ”The Big Country.” William Wyler. That picture because of the way he used landscape. And it has one of the most extraordinary one-on-one fight scenes ever in film, between Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck.

Do you watch ”The Sopranos”? Not really. When it first became famous, I watched like one or two episodes. I can’t — I just find that I dealt with that world in Mean Streets and some of it in ”Raging Bull,” certainly in ”GoodFellas,” and very much in ”Casino,” and I…I don’t know if I can get myself around somebody else’s vision of it. I need to move on.

Episode Recaps

Gangs of New York

  • Movie
  • R
  • 165 minutes
  • Martin Scorsese