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A pair of ring masters

Times Staff Writer

It’s hard to imagine what sort of films Martin Scorsese might have made -- if any -- had he remained in Queens. He draws laughs when he confesses to an audience here that he spent his first years in a two-family house there, with a tree out back. “It had leaves!” he adds in that rapid-fire voice of his, and they roar again at the notion that America’s great filmmaker of the streets might have grown up around anything green. It wasn’t until 1950, when he was 7, that his father had a fight with the landlord and the family moved in with his grandparents on Elizabeth Street, in Manhattan’s Little Italy. That’s where the asthmatic little boy sat by the third-story window and gazed down at the grocery stores and the bums stumbling over from the Bowery and at the local tough guys, of course.

He was so frail he couldn’t join even the benign play down there (“anything with a ball -- no good”), so his parents took him to the movies. Then on Friday nights the Sicilian relatives would crowd in front of their 16-inch RCA television to watch weekly broadcasts of Italian films, the neo-realist classics of Rossellini and De Sica seeming like home movies to them. And when the boy later was able to make films himself, he began with his own version of home movies, re-creating what he’d seen framed out that window.

The film that launched Scorsese’s career began with his own voice saying, “You don’t make up for your sins in church -- you do it in the streets,” and the first image was of a then-unknown Harvey Keitel waking from a nightmare to stare into a mirror, until the sound of sirens interrupted, followed by a Ronettes tune, “Be My Baby,” whose pounding first notes were timed perfectly to the descent of Keitel’s head back onto the pillow. Scorsese turned 30 the night they filmed the climactic scene of “Mean Streets” and his birthday present to himself was a role. The once sickly shut-in played a silent assassin in back of a car who shoots down another near-unknown he’d cast, Robert De Niro.

Three decades later, they all got together again last month -- De Niro, Keitel and others from Scorsese’s creative family -- to celebrate the 60th birthday of a director still making movies about those streets. The day of the party at a restaurant in the Village, he still was tinkering with his new one, which tries to imagine what life there was like a century and a half ago. Scorsese still was giving himself cameos, too, except that in “Gangs of New York” he’s an uptown aristocrat of the 1860s, one of the “swells.” Though that reflects where he’s come -- he does live uptown now, with all the perks -- Scorsese insists that the casting stemmed only from his wish to have his wife and young daughter with him in the film. However tempted he was to play one of the desperate souls in Five Points, the battleground of gangs led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, he was not about to put his infant girl in muddy streets with the pigs roaming loose. So the Scorseses play rich folks, the sort the rest of us rabble can only glimpse briefly, through the window.

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“I’m told by some people close to me that I am rich,” he said the other day. “Though after this film, no.” Then he laughed as heartily as the audiences that hear about his tree, though it’s no joke that he put millions into “Gangs,” a film he dreamed of making all those decades ago.

Here’s what else he thinks is at stake now that it’s a reality: “Can I continue to work? It’s as simple as that.”

Encounter with a 1928 book

Like many of his films, “Gangs” has its roots, Scorsese says, in stories that “came out of the cobblestone.” During his Elizabeth Street days, he sometimes found refuge in nearby Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, built in 1809. It struck him that the name didn’t sound Italian at all, and his schoolboy questions led to tales of “the people that came before us.” One told how early Irish immigrants once massed in front of the cathedral to repel a mob of Know Nothings, the “nativists” who despised the riffraff fleeing Ireland’s potato famine. Scorsese decided that his neighborhood showdown marked “the acceptance of what America’s supposed to be ... letting in the immigrants.”

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Years later, he became intrigued again by those Irish defenders when he stumbled upon a 1928 book by Herbert Asbury, who chronicled sensational tales from the American underworld. Scorsese can give the exact day -- New Year’s Day, 1970 -- that he read Asbury’s “The Gangs of New York.” He was visiting friends house-sitting a cottage on Long Island. It was on the shelves.

The book had no plot, but it told of club-wielding bands roaming the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan, where a courthouse stands today. They dressed in elaborate costumes and called themselves Plug Uglies, Bowery B’hoys, Dead Rabbits and the like. Some lived in an old brewery where a beggar girl was said to have been killed for a penny. Even the visiting Charles Dickens, the voice of England’s underclass, was shocked by the “dirt and filth” he saw at Five Points, all the “drunken frays.”

Writer-director Paul Schrader says that when he met Scorsese in Los Angeles in 1972, the New Yorker “mentioned he wanted to film two books, ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ and ‘Gangs of New York,’ a statement I thought grandiose coming from someone whose most prestigious credit was a Roger Corman film,” that being the drive-in friendly “Boxcar Bertha.” Another friend, musician Robbie Robertson, thought the “Gangs” book “ideal” for Scorsese. Why? Because it showed a hidden New York that was the opposite of charming, “the skankiest, most corrupt armpit of the world.”

Scorsese did seem intent on countering sanitized visions of the streets. Woody Allen could set Manhattan to Gershwin’s soaring music, not him. Francis Ford Coppola could portray Mafia chiefs as the embodiment of honor and family values in “The Godfather,” but that wasn’t how Scorsese saw the wannabes below his window.

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He enlisted his best friend, Jay Cocks, a Time magazine film writer, to work up a script for “Gangs.” They had a draft by 1977. By then, Scorsese had directed “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Taxi Driver,” and he and Cocks fantasized about creating a “Gangs” franchise, ending their first movie with New York’s 1863 draft riots and having their characters help build the Brooklyn Bridge in “Gangs II.”

Whatever clout Scorsese had earned by then, it wasn’t enough. The studios passed. “It’s too big, it’s too expensive, it’s too crazy, it’s too violent -- whatever,” Cocks recalls. And that was before United Artists’ disastrous “Heaven’s Gate” made Hollywood leery of indulging any director’s costly pet project.

Scorsese is the first to say, “My films aren’t for everybody.” But the irony with “Gangs” was that he was proposing, for once, to embrace a Hollywood formula.

He normally was more interested in a culture than plot, in showing how Ray Liotta dished out the tip money in “GoodFellas,” say, while winding his way to a front-row table at the Copa. Scorsese also “didn’t care” if audiences empathized with his “really negative” characters, such as Joe Pesci’s mobsters, who might kill you for looking at him wrong. “Yet some people identified,” Scorsese notes, and that was his genius.

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With “Gangs,” however, he wanted to try his hand at an established genre, “the American epic ... something sweeping ... with a traditional story and a traditional conflict.” He still relied heavily on “milieu,” and researched scores of true-life details, from how bar patrons in 1860 might gulp liquor through hoses to how pickpockets used fake arms for cover. But he also envisioned main characters with familiar roles, “the ingenue and the villain and the hero.”

He and Cocks settled on a revenge story, of a son having to avenge a father’s death, an ancient theme that has driven popular films from “Godfather II” to “Batman” and “Harry Potter.” Their script pitted a young Irish immigrant, Amsterdam Vallon, against the leader of the nativists, William Cutting, or “Bill the Butcher,” who had slain his father, the head of the Dead Rabbits. During his quest for justice, the hero falls for an alluring street thief, Jennie Everdeane.

The filmmaker who demythologized the Mafia decided to do the opposite with these gangs. “We extrapolated a lot. It’s a figurative film, not a snapshot from history,” says Cocks, who began the process with the first line of dialogue -- the father instructing his son that “blood stays on the blade” as he slices into his own cheek, ritualistically preparing for battle.

An actual 19th century brawler known as “Bill the Butcher” (“I’ll taste your mutton yet,” he’d threaten) was shot in a gambling house. But the script’s gangs eschew guns for more primitive hand-to-hand combat.

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In his other work, Scorsese kept a tight focus on bondings of men -- into mob crews and rat packs -- that through his lens seemed more primal even than family. But here he consciously evoked ancient myths, by having his gang leaders await death like a priest in Sir James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” who prowls a sacred grove at night with his sword drawn though he knows that his successor must murder him, sooner or later, because that is “the rule of the sanctuary.”

Not until 1989 did he decide that that the hero and villain needed a more complex relationship. During a time when his own parents were ailing, he took the script on a trip to Japan and thought that Amsterdam Vallon and Bill the Butcher could become a surrogate father and son to each other. Cocks had a revised script by 1993. Still no sale. “I never believed it was going to get made,” Scorsese says.

Who can figure Hollywood?

By his mid-50s, Scorsese’s filmmaking was becoming more internal, and less commercial, with “Kundun,” about the early life of the Dalai Lama, then “Bringing Out the Dead,” about a paramedic desperate to save anyone on New York’s streets. Scorsese was filming that in January 1999 when Mike Ovitz visited. The onetime superagent had formed a management company whose client list included the heartthrob of “Titanic.”

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“Mike Ovitz came to me on the set -- ‘Which picture would you like to make? I have Leo DiCaprio.’ ”

‘Street’ smarts

Asked what “the street” is about, Scorsese says: “Survival.

“You learn rather quickly how to stay alive, if you want to stay alive. That means emotionally, psychologically, every which way.” He views making a film the same way. “It’s a hellish process,” he says, and he does not pretend that “Gangs” was an exception.

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During four hours of conversation in his offices above Park Avenue, Scorsese grew testy only once, when asked what input the studio had on the finished “Gangs.”

“This is about the business of Miramax and Weinstein and me and all that stupid stuff,” he says. “I’m so tired. I can’t go through this.” He was exhausted, in fact, from a promotional trip to Japan with DiCaprio. But he was tired also of the gossips who seemed startled to discover “it’s a big movie, it’s over budget and the studio and the director are fighting. No kidding? What else is new?”

Scorsese recalls being summoned by a studio executive in 1976 when “Taxi Driver” was headed for an X rating. The message? “ ‘Cut it for an R or we cut it. Now get out.’ That was the meeting.”

Many lifetime achievement awards later, he may have a bit more pull. But he knows that the reality remains the same for any filmmaker who needs a studio to come up with a fortune: “More money, less freedom.” Though much of the financing for “Gangs” is being covered by the sale of overseas rights -- the Initial Entertainment Group paid $67 million for that privilege -- it is being distributed domestically by Miramax Films, which also has a stake. That meant Scorsese had to play out the money-freedom dynamic with the imposing Harvey Weinstein, who made his mark garnering wide American audiences -- and Oscars -- for indie-style films that others might have written off as too artsy.

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They made “Gangs” at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, which Scorsese considers “sanctified turf,” for it spawned many of the Italian classics he used to watch on his parents’ small black-and-white TV. Technical experts turned the back lot into 19th century New York for his 137 days of shooting that concluded in March 2001.

Cocks, who visited at the end, says he witnessed “the usual” haggling, from “It’s gotta be shorter” to “Do you really need this elephant?” And when Scorsese was ready to film the final confrontation between DiCaprio and Day-Lewis, “they said, ‘OK, Saturday, it’s all over.’ He said, ‘But I haven’t got ....’ ‘Sorry. Money’s gone. You’re gone. Goodbye.’ ”

Yet the elephant stayed -- running loose from P.T. Barnum’s museum during the draft riots -- and Scorsese got to reshoot the finale.

“The trick is, you never give up,” Scorsese says. “You try to keep shooting until they take the camera out of your hand.”

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In the annals of overruns, “Gangs” -- originally expected to cost $90 million -- is far from a record breaker. “Now they say 100-something, 105, 108,” Scorsese says.

Weinstein was among those toasting the director at his birthday party Nov. 17. Whatever was said in the heat of editing and cutting -- to 2 hours, 38 minutes -- Scorsese won’t blame the boss if the audience doesn’t like it. “Whatever we took out, we took out ... I have total responsibility. I signed it,” he says.

“Harvey and a bunch of guys say, ‘Marty, you know you can put this in the DVD. I said, ‘Harvey, there’s no DVD.... This is the director’s cut.’ For better or for worse, under the circumstances, in 1999 to 2002, [with] Miramax, Joe Roth, Mike Ovitz, Rick Yorn, Leonardo DiCaprio” -- he names 15 people who had input, from the actors to the agents -- “this is the result.”

He wasn’t done, either. Tired as he was, Scorsese was still the detail freak. He was working to make sure the end credits hit the screen to the beat of the closing music by U2, “The Hands That Built America.”

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“I’ve got to let go of the damn thing,” he says. “It’s like a child getting out. Let it go, that’s the end of it. Let it go, let it be seen, let people talk about it, let them argue ... I got what I wanted ultimately.”

He also may have gotten a bigger piece of the picture than he’d count on. As the cost rose, he volunteered to put “most” of his salary back into the film, reportedly $2 million.

“It puts me in a nice state right now. I am now, what’s the word, inspired to work again,” he says, laughing again. “Because I need to.”

The year of the gossips

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Scorsese has never been one for Hollywood endings, but this film was supposed to have one for him. After the shoot wrapped in the spring of 2001, the expectation was that “Gangs” would be ready for release last Christmas and that Weinstein would work the Miramax magic to gain him the Oscar that has been denied him to date.

Scorsese is not so much the artiste that he doesn’t care about such matters. He may believe that what’s most important is how a work holds up before future generations, but “I have to tell you, coming where I come from, and struggling to do what I tried to do over the years, it’s great to get the recognition.”

He says it never was realistic to expect “Gangs” to be ready a year ago, and that he and Weinstein worried that it might not have been appropriate to show chaos in lower Manhattan so close to 9/11.

But the extra year has seen the initial buzz of anticipation give way to the gossip about him and Harvey, and the is-something-wrong speculation. “Gangs” also lost its novelty as the film that would reestablish DiCaprio as an actor and star after a couple of post-"Titanic” flops. For a while, it was scheduled for release the same day -- Christmas -- as the film DiCaprio worked on next, “Catch Me if You Can,” in which the 28-year-old actor is not asked to stretch as much, playing a teenage con man, and is guided by the most crowd-pleasing of directors, Steven Spielberg. After a game of studio chicken, “Gangs” was moved up to Dec. 20.

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Scorsese and Spielberg have known each other since they were fledglings in Los Angeles, and Scorsese joined the DreamWorks chief for a recent screening of “Catch Me if You Can” in New York. Other than DiCaprio, there’s little in common between their holiday offerings. Yet they inevitably will be compared. “Anything you do, you’re pitted against each other in the industry,” Scorsese says. “And by the end of the year, you’re pitted against each other because of academy consideration.”

He finds himself, then, in the classic Scorsese moment.

Those are when he reminds us how precarious life is, as when Pesci in “GoodFellas” seems to take offense at Ray Liotta’s remark that he’s “funny,” and no one knows if the crazy little guy is going to kill Liotta or let him in on the joke. There’s a moment like that in “Gangs,” when DiCaprio, as the hero Amsterdam Vallon, finally beds the ingenue-pickpocket, played by Cameron Diaz, then wakes up to find the murderous Bill the Butcher seated in a chair, watching them. Playing the butcher in a handlebar mustache and top hat, the 45-year-old Day-Lewis without question steals the film. He’s also a vintage Scorsese character, frightening and intriguingly appealing. Whatever formulas the director may have followed this time, he again served up a killer we can’t take our eyes off. As he sits by the bed, we don’t know if Bill the Butcher will slaughter Vallon or tell him, “Whatever your heart desires, young man.”

Such moments are both funny and scary, but what defines them, Scorsese notes, is “it could go any way.”

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There are many reasons to pull for him: for how some of his films were seen at first as too edgy, or violent, only to be declared, later, the best of their decade; for how his work is so imitated you see clay-animated figures on TV asking themselves, “You talkin’ to me?”; or for his campaigns, with Spielberg and others, to preserve old films, both classic and mundane, before their negatives disintegrate.

“I think he understands people pull for him,” says Schrader, Scorsese’s screenwriter on “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and other films. “He also understands that as many, if not more, pull for him to fail. A director who is not paranoid is delusional.”

Even a healthy paranoia allows for optimism, though. After his return from Japan, Scorsese was heartened that some early viewers had seen the gangs of Five Points as more than a precursor to what happened in America -- as a parable for the current moment in history when nation states everywhere seem less significant than tribal bands built around ritualized terror. “It’s worldwide,” he says.

But how could he have imagined that his scenes of draft riots, which first intrigued him during an unpopular Vietnam War three decades ago, would hit the screen amid new war preparations, only in a time of patriotic fervor?

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Friends say Scorsese is more nervous than they have ever seen him, as when he says, “the only recognition I want now is to be able to make another picture.”

He doesn’t mean that literally. He has already signed on to do another film with DiCaprio, “Aviator,” about the young Howard Hughes, an obsessive compulsive who kept testing airplanes even after he kept crashing them. Before self-destructive pride and head injuries turned him into a recluse, Hughes also got his dream project off the ground. He flew the enormous Spruce Goose for less than a minute, but fly it he did.

Scorsese has no firm plans after “Aviator.”

He once believed a director should be able to make any kind of film, whether a musical, light comedy or pirate movie. But while he’s dabbled in such fare over the years, he’s never felt comfortable as a director for hire.

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“It’s hard for me to make somebody else’s picture,” he says, and that’s what worries him -- having to do that. “I guess I can continue to work if I could do films other people want me to do. I don’t know if I can do that, though. What are the challenges -- for me to make a summer blockbuster? Not interested,” he says, throwing out a pairing as anomalous as him and the tree. “Could I go back and try to do a film that grosses $200 million, $300 million in the summer, a beautifully made slick article? I wouldn’t know where to begin.” It comes back to making personal films.

Schrader, who is directing a potential blockbuster himself -- a “prequel” to “The Exorcist” -- believes that Scorsese overstates the case if he worries that his ability to make personal films is at stake. “What is at stake is his ability to make high-budget personal films at a leisurely pace,” Schrader says. “He went back once before, in ‘After Hours,’ proved that he can make a film on a budget.... He can do that again. He doesn’t want to and I don’t blame him for that. But he can.”

Scorsese does not really disagree. “Maybe I should give full rein to what made me feel most comfortable,” he says, which brings him back to one more project inspired by the view out his window.

The old neighborhood

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Last year, when Paul McCartney headlined a fundraiser at Madison Square Garden for the Sept. 11 victims, a handful of filmmakers identified with the city -- Scorsese, Woody Allen, Spike Lee and a few others -- were asked to make shorts for the event. Scorsese’s was called “The Neighborhood” and started with an uncle’s 1940 home movie of a festival on Elizabeth Street. He also showed the real butcher across the street from his window, who turned out to be the farthest thing from Bill the Butcher. She was Mary the Butcher, a sweet lady, then 97.

“This is how it goes,” Scorsese explains on his filmed tour of the old neighborhood. “My grandparents were Sicilian. My parents became Italian American. I think of myself as an American Italian. And I suppose my children -- my children are American.”

It’s that progression he wants to capture in a feature film someday, particularly the sense of loss with the disappearance of the older generations and their links to the old country. It’s not a boy’s view of the streets that’s preoccupied with the young toughs and their fight for daily survival, but an older man’s reflections on the precarious survival of traditions.

It’s a theme with which almost any descendant of immigrants -- which means almost any American -- could identify. Scorsese already has a draft of a script he worked up with Nicholas Pileggi, his collaborator on “GoodFellas” and “Casino.” They hope to go back to 1870s Sicily, but other than that, “you could do it cheaply,” Scorsese points out. “It’s mainly interiors.”

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There even would be a short Queens section, presumably with a family and its little boy almost getting stuck there, away from the cobblestone and the stories that connected them to their past.

“Oh, that’s in there,” Scorsese says. “Yeah.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Street smarts

Martin Scorsese has returned repeatedly to the streets of New York to explore how the city gives rise to such heightened passion -- violent, shadowy and intense. Here’s a streetwise guide to his work, with commentary from The Times’ critics.

After Hours (1985). Griffin Dunne spends the night stranded in SoHo with neither cab fare nor subway token. “In his sweetly ominous ‘After Hours,’ ” wrote Times critic Sheila Benson, "[Scorsese] catalogs our fears. Then he shuffles them and deals a personal-size comedy, so relentlessly exact that it’s hilarious.”

Raging Bull (1980). The devolution of boxer Jake La Motta from the streets of the Bronx to bloated dissolution. “An unrelenting, densely textured, harshly honest and mesmerizing film,” wrote Champlin, “and an achievement likely to go unchallenged for a long time.”

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Taxi Driver (1976). That would be Travis Bickle, the Vietnam veteran turned vigilante, and perhaps the most chilling creation of Scorsese’s New York. “The streets got meaner, a lot meaner in Scorsese’s nerve-scraping new film about the making, or more accurately the triggering, of a psychotic killer,” wrote Times arts editor Charles Champlin.

GoodFellas (1990). Ray Liotta grows up to be a wise guy with De Niro and Joe Pesci -- and winds up in the witness relocation program. “To see an artist working at the peak of his power, everything extraneous stripped away, is an extraordinary exhilaration,” said Benson.

The Age of Innocence (1993). Here the streets are the genteel avenues of upper-class 1870s New York and tribal law the harsh judgments of polite society. “The man who specialized in characters who never suppressed an emotion,” wrote Kenneth Turan, was not the obvious choice “to take on a love story of almost agonizing restraint. Scorsese impresses by how masterfully he comes up to the challenge.”

Mean Streets (1973). A band of friends from the neighborhood on the prowl in Little Italy. Times critic Kevin Thomas wrote that “Scorsese’s way with actors, words and images is nothing short of prodigious. Harrowing, intense, grueling even, ‘Mean Streets’ is an unqualified triumph.”

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