Scheme Team

Screenwriter Jay Cocks and director Martin Scorsese thought big when the hatched their ideas for `Gangs of New York.'

January 01, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

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

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