By EW Staff
Updated August 24, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

GANGS OF NEW YORK

STARRING Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Henry Thomas

WRITTEN BY Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

DIRECTED BY Martin Scorsese

THE PITCH ”It’s a cross between a Western and a gangster film.” — Scorsese

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 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 (DiCaprio), whose father has been murdered by ruthless political enforcer Bill the Butcher (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. (Dec. 21)

VANILLA SKY

STARRING Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell

WRITTEN BY Cameron Crowe

DIRECTED BY Cameron Crowe

THE PITCH ”A man on a journey…look, I need way more than 10 words.” — Crowe

The closely guarded secrets of Vanilla Sky should be easy enough to reveal. After all, you could just rent Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes, the 1998 Spanish film on which it’s based. If Sky followed the plot of Eyes, Cruise would be playing a vain playboy who finally finds a love that redeems him (Cruz), only to take a flying leap into the surreal when a suicidal ex (Diaz) drives him off a road. The ensuing weirdness would be marked by horrifying disfiguration and twist after twist after twist.

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