The story behind ''Gangs of New York'''s delay -- Scorsese's historical epic had a soaring budget, a rocky shoot, a nervous studio -- and Leo. Where have we heard that before?
Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, ...
Credit: Gangs of New York: Mario Tursi

You might say the problems plaguing Martin Scorsese’s long-delayed Miramax epic ”Gangs of New York” began the day Tom Cruise strolled onto the set. In August 2000, the actor had been with Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein in Madrid for ”The Others,” which Cruise was producing for his then wife, Nicole Kidman. After Cruise and Weinstein flew to Rome to surprise the star’s ”Color of Money” director on the Gangs set, Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti (who worked on Cruise’s ”Interview With the Vampire”) started complaining that Weinstein wouldn’t let them build a church — yes, a church — for a key scene. At that point, the building was only a two-sided facade.

Scorsese and Ferretti’s dream? To be able to pan a full 360 degrees around the church. ”Harv was concerned about what the interior of the church would cost,” Scorsese recalls. ”He was asking question after question. Finally Tom said, ‘Will you please give Marty the church? He needs it.”’ Flanked by Scorsese, Ferretti, the film’s other producers, and a grimacing Cruise, Weinstein capitulated and approved $100,000 for the building, later dubbed St. Thomas. ”Ironically enough,” says Weinstein, ”it’s 180 [degrees] in the movie.” Of course, that’s not how Scorsese sees it. ”Oh, no, no, no,” he says. ”I like the full church.”

The fate of St. Thomas isn’t the only thing in doubt about ”Gangs,” an epic marked by a budget that climbed from $84 million to at least $97 million, a shooting schedule that stretched from six to eight months, a release date moved back more than a year to Dec. 20, 2002, and ongoing reports of high-volume spats between Scorsese and Weinstein. (More on that later.) On the eve of a lush 20-minute preview of ”Gangs” set to unspool at the Cannes Film Festival May 20, the filmmakers spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the controversy surrounding the movie. ”A lot of it has been blown out of proportion,” says Scorsese, who had strived for nearly three decades to film Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book on immigrant clashes in 19th-century New York City.

The saga of ”Gangs” recalls another much-postponed, over-budget epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio that drew titanically negative prerelease buzz — and then wound up winning 11 Oscars and outgrossing every other movie ever made. Scorsese dismisses the ”Titanic” parallel — at least in terms of money. ”This budget is nowhere near where they started or ended up,” he says, conceding he’d welcome a box office smash. Still, he notes, ”Titanic” ”was a different kind of movie.”

We’ll say. Set in the gritty New York of 1846 to 1863, ”Gangs” follows an Irish immigrant (DiCaprio) who enlists the help of a pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) to avenge the murder of his father (Liam Neeson) at the hands of the Tammany Hall political enforcer Bill ”the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Instead of a bittersweet love story à la ”Titanic,” the ”Gangs” Cannes preview includes enough explosions, blood, and nudity to suggest that a teen-friendly PG-13 rating will be out of the question.

The film’s violence is one reason Miramax decided not to release the film in 2001, to avoid unsettling filmgoers so soon after Sept. 11. In the midst of editing when the attacks occurred, Scorsese went on a two-month hiatus. ”The film deals very much with New York, with the creation of New York, with the police department,” he explains. ”We all felt after Sept. 11 we should take a step back.”

For the director, who took a year to cut both ”GoodFellas” and ”The Age of Innocence,” the delay was nothing new. In fact, postproduction dragged on so long that after finishing ”Gangs,” costar Jim Broadbent shot ”Iris,” saw that film released, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor — a cycle completed nine months before ”Gangs” will hit theaters.

Gangs of New York
  • Movie
  • 165 minutes