Dante Ferretti Raises Gangs of New York's Mean Streets at Cinecitta Studios

Dante Ferretti has designed movies for many venerable Italian directors — Fellini, Pasolini, Liliana Cavani, Luigi Comencini — as well as one equally venerable Italian-American: Martin Scorsese. Ferretti and Scorsese first worked together on The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's tale of moneyed old New York, and went on to collaborate on Casino, Kundun, and Bringing out the Dead. For Gangs of New York, Scorsese's latest, long-delayed, and highly touted project, Ferretti returned to roughly the 19th-century time and place of Age of Innocence, but with a big difference: the new film is set among downtown streets crowded with immigrants, criminals, and assorted lowlifes, in a social landscape much further removed from Wharton's than the span of a contemporary subway ride might imply.

But Scorsese being Scorsese, detailed squalor is every bit as important as detailed opulence. “Martin likes to be very accurate, and he doesn't want to put anything on the screen that's not real,” says Ferretti, a five-time Best Art Direction Oscar nominee for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Hamlet, The Age of Innocence, Interview With the Vampire, and Kundun, which also earned him a nomination for Best Costume Design. “Plus, everything was built in full scale, nothing was smaller — maybe bigger.”

Gangs of New York, which has long been a dream project for Scorsese, is loosely derived from the 1928 Herbert Asbury book of the same title: a collection of facts, lore, and anecdotes about New York gang life from the mid-19th to early 20th century. The film's screenplay, which has been successively toiled over for decades by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan, and Hossein Amini, focuses on two gangs — the Irish-led Dead Rabbits, and the anti-immigrant Native Americans — and climaxes with the Civil War draft riots of 1863, which also provides Asbury's book with its most vivid passages. The main characters are Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), son of a murdered Dead Rabbit leader (played by Liam Neeson in the film's 1846-set early scenes); Bill “The Butcher” Poole (Daniel Day-Lewis), Native American gang boss and murderer; and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), DiCaprio's pickpocket love interest.

Ground zero for 1800s Manhattan vice, which has been well documented not only by Asbury but also by Low Life author and Gangs of New York consultant Luc Sante, was the Five Points — an intersection of five downtown streets with a park carrying the unlikely moniker of Paradise Square at its center. Today, Five Points has been all but erased by the rerouting of streets and proliferation of court buildings. But 150 years ago, the district was unparalleled in its concentration of prostitution, thievery, drug and alcohol abuse, kidnapping, murder, and gang activity. Resurrecting the neighborhood was Ferretti's chief task.

“We had to start from scratch, because the story takes place in a neighborhood in New York that's not there anymore,” says the designer. Enough of the world of The Age of Innocence remained to shoot that film on various locations around the city, and in the upstate towns of Albany and Troy. But Gangs of New York required a studio. To keep costs manageable — the $97 million-odd budget was supported by American distributor Miramax, parent company Disney, and foreign investors — filming outside the US was also considered prudent. “We thought about making the movie in Canada, but then we thought maybe Canada was too cold, or cold for too long a time,” Ferretti says. “Then we thought maybe eastern Europe. But then we said: Why not Roma?”

Roma, of course, is the home of Cinecittà, the vast studio complex that has produced not only such Italian classics as La Dolce Vita and 8½, but also American epics like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. The studio is also the home base of Ferretti and set decorator Francesca LoSchiavo, not to mention a roster of “very good artists, craftsmen, carpenters, and painters, all people with a long tradition in the movies.” Scorsese, an Italian cinema aficionado, was certainly game, so, says the designer, “We decided to do it here, at Cinecittà.”

The production took up the studio's entire 10-acre backlot with the recreation of Five Points and Paradise Square, plus a 300'-long portion of more fashionable lower Broadway, including mockups of such establishments as Delmonico's and the P.T. Barnum Building. Around Cinecittà's famous tank, a portion of New York's East River harbor was built, with two full-size sailing clippers constructed in the water; a 300'-wide × 80'-high bluescreen backing was erected for Industrial Light and Magic to add the rest of the city skyline digitally in postproduction.

Research for the film was sketchy, since the lives of the rich have always been better documented than those of the poor. Still, says Ferretti, “Martin was planning for a long time to do this film, so he did a lot of research, as did a lot of people in his office. When I started the movie, I received five books of research that had already been made. Plus, when I came to New York, I did my own research.” Photographs were scarce, with drawings and written descriptions somewhat more common.

As is reflected in the Gangs of New York sets, most of the Five Points neighborhood comprised flimsy two-story wooden buildings; surrounding streets were either dirt or paved with stone, and lit with gas lamps. One of the film's most prominent sets is the Old Brewery, an imposing 1792 structure that took itself out of the beer business in 1837, when the by-then dilapidated building was transformed into a tenement dwelling. According to Asbury's description, the Old Brewery “was five stories in height, and had once been painted yellow, but time and weather soon peeled off much of the paint and ripped away many of the clapboards, so that it came to resemble nothing so much as a giant toad, with dirty leprous warts, squatting happily in the filth and squalor of the Points.”

Ferretti says, “For the Old Brewery exterior, I had a lot of research — some daguerreotype, but mostly engravings and drawings. But there was nothing from the interior, so I based my research on another brewery of that period.” According to Asbury, a large central “Den of Thieves” in the Old Brewery was encircled by a series of balconies off of which hovel-like rooms branched; several layers of cellars also contained airless and light-deprived chambers overpopulated by Irish immigrants and poor blacks. This interior, with its thick beams and simulated filth, was brought to life with such vivid detail on Cinecittà's 262'-long × 131'-wide Stage 5 that when Luc Sante visited the set, he told Ferretti, “Now we have what we have never seen before.”

Other major interiors include a pagoda-shaped set functioning as a combination Chinese opera house-brothel-opium den-gambling club; the birdcage and stuffed tiger-furnished office of Tammany Hall boss William Marcy Tweed (played by Jim Broadbent); Bill Poole's butcher shop, containing incongruous tree roots and the already-notorious pickle jar of ears; and several uptown mansions closer to The Age of Innocence model. In all, says Ferretti, “We did 65 sets.”

The designer started work on Gangs of New York all the way back in July 1999; shooting took place from fall 2000 to spring 2001. Complicated by postproduction troubles, feuding between Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein over the film's length and level of violence, and 9/11 fallout, the release date has hopscotched from late 2001 to mid-2002 to December, when Miramax finally opened the movie nationwide.

Whatever its final cost, Gangs of New York is definitely the most expensive Miramax film ever, though for such a detailed historical epic, says Ferretti, there is never enough. “The art department budget was $7 million with construction and dressing. It's a lot of money, but very low for a movie like this.” ILM models and matte paintings also figured into the art budget.

With carpenters, sculptors, painters, and propspeople, the Cinecittà art department crew totaled about 200. Even LoSchiavo's set dressers had to work from scratch, fabricating furniture and other items. Ferretti and the set decorator have collaborated on several projects, including Fellini's And the Ship Sails On, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Interview With the Vampire, Kundun, and Anthony Minghella's upcoming Cold Mountain; they also happen to be married. “When I speak of her, I don't want to say we're husband and wife, because it looks strange,” says Ferretti. “But she does an incredible job, and I think we've done pretty good movies together.” If buzz is to believed, they also may be climbing the Kodak Theatre stage together in March, to collect their Oscars for Gangs of New York.