NEW YORK - The most exciting aspect of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York is its vision of mid-19th century New York as a crucible, not a melting pot, for recent Irish immigrants and Manhattan "natives." It sets a fierce tone from the start, when Irish clad in red-striped pants and Nativists in blue sashes and stovepipe hats face off, then battle for control of the neighborhood known as Five Points.
Broad and original as this vision is, it's also a double-barreled throwback. First, to the history recalled in Herbert Asbury's 1928 book of the same name. Second, to American moviemaking circa 1968 - a time when fearless, talented moviemakers revised Westerns and gangster films and introduced new elements of ambiguity and social criticism, often in inventive, confrontational styles.
Jay Cocks, the author of the screen story for Gangs of New York and the first of three credited screenwriters, was present at the birth of that vision - only to be fired when it was about to be realized. Even so, he remains a champion of the film.
As the movie critic who brought the American film renaissance of the late '60s into the pages of Time magazine, he helped propel the careers of moviemakers like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. But he also supported veteran directors who seized on Hollywood's brief period of creative openness to do their best, most personal work, notably, Sam Peckinpah. "There are always a few directors whose movies speak directly to you," says Cocks. "I couldn't have had less in common with this guy, Sam - he scared me. But my son is named Sam, and that can't be entirely a coincidence."
It was at a screening of Peckinpah's 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch, a Western-cum-historical epic about an outlaw gang's last stand in Mexico, that Cocks and Scorsese began to hatch their scheme for Gangs of New York - even though they hadn't yet read the book. "I remember the experience of seeing The Wild Bunch with Marty," Cocks said recently. "Four of us were there: me and Marty up front in the Warner Bros. screening room, [critics] Judith Crist and Rex Reed in the back laughing and making fun and going 'Isn't that disgusting?' For Marty and me, it's not too much to say that it was a communion at the end of that movie. We turned to each other and knew that we'd been in the presence of something that we couldn't touch. But that wouldn't keep us from trying!"
Scorsese told Peckinpah biographer David Weddle that he and Cocks were "totally stunned, overwhelmed. ... The exhilaration had to do with the way [Peckinpah] used film and the way he used the images with a number of different cameras going at different speeds. You really get a wonderful choreographed effect, it's like dance or like poetry."
Seven months later, Cocks was in his Manhattan apartment when he got a Happy New Year call from Scorsese. "He was staying out in the suburbs with some friends. Not being an outdoor type, he was the only guy left in the house. So he took a book off the shelf and it was Gangs of New York. And I was looking at the same book on my shelf! It wasn't a cult item; no one was writing New Yorker pieces about Herbert Asbury then. It just had a great title. When we opened it up, we were stunned by it. Asbury had picked up on a lot of the stuff Marty had heard on a street-corner, folkloric level down in Little Italy; I grew up in the Bronx, and had heard more distant rumblings of the same things."
Cocks and Scorsese shared an immediate "instinctual feeling" that this book was prime - and fresh - movie material: "All of a sudden you're in this world, and you go, 'Holy Smoke! Where is everybody else? They don't know about this? It hasn't been done before?'"
Well, not except for D.W. Griffith's silent short Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Raoul Walsh's 1933 feature, The Bowery. "We felt as if we'd hit the mother lode and there were no other prospectors around!" Cocks says.
What they needed was a story to go with this treasure. Cocks' initial idea was: "OK, Marty, let's put the end of The Wild Bunch at the beginning of the movie." Peckinpah's gang goes on a homicidal/suicidal frenzy to avenge the death of one of their own at the hands of a Mexican warlord. Doing a similar scene at the start of Gangs of New York meant Cocks and Scorsese would risk comparisons to the greatest action scene in modern movies and face the obstacle of equaling or topping it at the end of their own film. "But," says Cocks, "at least we'd set ourselves a good challenge!"
A New Yorker whose longest times away from the city have been the four years in the early '60s he spent at Kenyon College in central Ohio and nine months in Los Angeles preparing the first draft of this movie, Cocks found Gangs of New York to be as much a dream for him as it was for Scorsese. The writer drew on three main sources of inspiration: "Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch. Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. And Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band."
It started with the Boss
His script began with an epigraph from Springsteen - "You can waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets" - and ended with another Springsteen quote - "Lost but not forgotten from the dark heart of a dream." For Cocks, those thoughts still dominate the opening and closing action, though Scorsese dropped the epigraph (he thought viewers should catch the drift themselves) and the finished film now ends with a song by Bono of the Irish rock band U2.
The process of conceiving the script, for Cocks, "was a lot like the way a song is written - God knows a very lengthy song." He snatches a page off a legal pad and says, "The first thing I wrote, I grabbed a piece of paper like that, and I scrawled, 'The blood always stays on the blade.' I hadn't even started the research; I had no idea of what that meant. But the whole thing started to come out of that exact line."
Once he and Scorsese agreed "to put the end of The Wild Bunch at the beginning of the movie," Cocks required a personal trauma to motivate the character of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), their Irish would-be savior rising from the streets.
"What do you do for a traumatic event in a civilization that is this savage? Marty and I come from very close families; the worst thing I could imagine was not to have a mother and to be orphaned and in some way be a collaborator in the death of your father. So once 'the blood always stays on the blade' was written, and we had this primal thing of losing your father and somehow feeling you were collaborating in his killing, that gave us our three pivotal characters: a son, a father and a killer."
Liam Neeson plays Amsterdam's father, Priest Vallon, and Cocks says, "I think it's fantastic the way Liam, who's in the film for maybe 10 minutes, gets his innings in. His ghost has to hover over the movie, and he is in the back of your mind the way he is in Amsterdam's the whole time."
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the Nativist boss and killer, Bill the Butcher, and Cocks is in awe of Day-Lewis' intensity in the part. "Can you imagine Daniel and Sam Peckinpah?" he asks. "I don't know if either could have survived, because once Daniel's in, he's in for it all and then some."
Staging prize fights on rafts, robbing corpses and selling them to medical students - Cocks planned these and many other unsavory activities for the hero, Amsterdam. (The raft episode owes part of its flavor to another Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.) Cocks and Scorsese insisted that the movie retain a sooty integrity and a scale commensurate with their ambition to reclaim a lost chapter of urban legend.
"I loved the idea of the fire at P.T. Barnum's Museum, and a jungle animal running down the street," says Cocks. "That apparently drove [Miramax chief] Harvey Weinstein crazy - 'What do you need that elephant for? You don't need that thing!'"
But the moviemakers also realized they couldn't simply string along some thrilling set pieces. Amsterdam works his way into Bill's good graces and forges a familial bond with him. The team knew that for the drama to have any credibility, by the middle of the movie Bill would need to see through Amsterdam and force a confrontation. "We didn't have what is wretchedly called, in current screenwriting jargon, the 'tent-pole scene' until the early '90s," Cocks says, "When Marty looked at me and said 'You know, I've been thinking about Chinese acrobats and knives.'" Bill the Butcher is a virtuoso with knives; Scorsese envisioned his crucial showdown with Amsterdam as part of a theatrical exhibition of Bill's expertise in a garish Chinese nightclub out of Josef Von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture. (The sequence allows Scorsese to pay homage to such great Italian theater/film directors as Luchino Visconti: it's like Visconti's operatic Senso for the underclass.)
When the movie was finally set up at Miramax in the late 1990s, Cocks was the first to go. "It was Harvey Weinstein who fired me," says Cocks. A succession of screenwriters followed, some credited, like Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me), others not, like Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove).
"But you've got to recognize that through the entire 30-year process there was one guy who was on top of everything all the time, and that was Marty. This became a necessary step for him to take and as painful as it was for us both, he and I handled it between us. Kids, don't try this at home. It took some effort and understanding on both our parts. But the friendship: Unchanged. I mean, Marty is my son's godfather; everyone needs a Sicilian godfather. "
In the end, Cocks hopes that a project that started in the '70s still "has that '70s feeling of 'let's go for it!': the feeling that you could at least try to do anything, and maybe if you were lucky enough you could not only rattle the doorknob, you could kick down the door.
"That's what Sam Peckinpah did, and he paid an incredible price for it, self-inflicted though much of it was. Marty's personal velocity is very different, but he's very much like Sam. He doesn't give an inch and he doesn't make nice. And in this time when writing about movies is like sports reporting - 'How much did your movie make this Saturday?' It's like asking your batting average - here's a guy who does not play that game. He's a guy who says to the audience, 'I think I'll open the door for you a crack. But you've got to walk through it; you've got to come to me.' "