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Gangs of New York was Martin Scorsese’s passion project, which makes sense given his love and history with the city. After gestating and going through numerous rounds of production starts and stops, the film was released in 2002. While it may not have hit all the right notes the entire time, Scorsese’s passion leaked off the screen, thanks in no small part to the incredible performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. Here are a dozen things to know about the film’s production and history…
1. Most of the gangs mentioned by name were real 19th-century New York gangs. Bill “The Butcher” Cutting is based largely on real-life New York gang leader Bill Poole, who also was known as “The Butcher” and had much the same prestige as Daniel Day-Lewis’ character.
2. Both Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio took hefty salary reductions to preserve the budget of the film and get it moving forward.
3. Leonardo DiCaprio accidentally broke Daniel Day-Lewis’ nose while filming a fight scene. Day-Lewis continued to film the scene despite the injury.
4. The initial battle between Cutting’s gang and Priest Vallon’s appears to have been based on an actual event that took place on June 21, 1835 on Pearl Street between Chatham and Centre Streets, which is in the heart of the Five Points. The “New York Sun” wrote of “a most disgraceful riot” whose origin “was a dispute between two native citizens and several foreigners.” According to the paper’s account, “the riotous assemblage amounted to several thousand (people), many of those concerned armed with stones, brickbats and bludgeons.”
5. When the film was first conceived in 1978, Martin Scorsese originally planned to cast Dan Aykroyd as Amsterdam Vallon and John Belushi as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting. The project fell apart after Belushi died. A cast reshuffle had Mel Gibson as Amsterdam Vallon and Willem Dafoe as The Butcher. Eventually, Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Amsterdam Vallon and Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as The Butcher.
6. Martin Scorsese recreated 19th-century New York on the lot of Cinecitta studios in Rome. When George Lucas visited the massive set, he reportedly turned to Scorsese and said, “Sets like that can be done with computers now.” Of course he did…
7. To make sure his facts were accurate, Martin Scorsese contacted Tyler Anbinder, a professor of history at George Washington University and author of the book Five Points.
8. Scorsese makes a cameo in the film as a wealthy man being conned by Jenny (Cameron Diaz).
9. Bill the Butcher is a rabid opponent of Abraham Lincoln and in one scene he’s shown throwing a knife at a picture of the president. Ironically, Day-Lewis would later play Lincoln in Lincoln.
10. Daniel Day-Lewis became so uncomfortable with the greasy hairstyle he wore as Bill the Butcher, that immediately after filming completed, he shaved his head.
11. When Boss Tweed considers being with a prostitute, Bill The Butcher warns him that she’s been “frenchified”. Frenchified was a 19th-century term for venereal disease.
12. Martin Scorsese ends the film with a shot of the New York skyline which includes the World Trade Center Towers, even though the film was finished after the buildings were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Scorsese chose to end on that shot rather then continue with a skyline without the WTC because the movie is supposed to be about the people who built New York, not those who tried to destroy it.