By 1977, Martin Scorsese had every reason to feel bullish about his career. After the gritty and dazzling one-two punch of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, he was being treated like the poet laureate of New York City cinema. He had to be feeling a bit like the prettiest girl at the prom, too. After all, what studio head wouldn’t kill to get in the sack with a hot young director?
Scorsese was 34 at the time. Confident, talented, and seemingly unstoppable. So he figured it was the ideal time for his most ambitious New York story yet — a sweeping 19th-century epic about warring immigrant groups. It would have a marquee name in the lead role of an Irish-American roughneck named Amsterdam, who’d set out on a hero’s quest to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of a bloodthirsty political fixer named Bill the Butcher. There’d be a love interest — a sassy pickpocket — and a hugely expensive battle scene at the climax. In other words, it would be big. Scorsese didn’t have a script yet, but he knew it would cost a fortune. So in June 1977, with the cocksure certainty of a man on an unbroken winning streak, Scorsese took out a two-page ad in Variety trumpeting his next project: Gangs of New York.
But within a few years, a string of big-budget, big-ego productions from similarly hot young auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) ran aground. Studios panicked. Checkbooks snapped shut. And mavericks like Scorsese saw their green lights turn red. ”It was the end of the power of the director,” says Scorsese 25 years later. ”It was the end of making films that were big and provocative. There was just no way Gangs of New York could get made after that.”
Scorsese is almost 60 now. Sure, he still spits out sentences with his signature rat-a-tat speed — especially after he gets an espresso in him. But he does so while padding around the living room of his Manhattan town house in a pair of black slippers. His face is unshaven and heavy with gray stubble. His eyes seem tired.
He’s two weeks away from finishing postproduction on Gangs. With the help of Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz, the movie it has taken him 25 years to make is almost done. But rather than triumph, his weary eyes bring to mind the old saying ”Be careful what you wish for….” After all, judging from the dire dispatches from the Gangs set in Rome last year — the out-of-control budget, the script being tapped out as they went along, the clashes with his bristling financier, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein — making his dream film may have at times resembled a horrific nightmare. ”All I know is I did the best I could,” Scorsese says, shrugging. ”If people are watching the movie 20 years from now? Who knows? I’ll be dead.”
”When we saw Mean Streets, the whole world just expanded for us — all us ragamuffins who were looking for something to believe in.” — Daniel Day-Lewis on his favorite Scorsese film