MM: So what do you think about the vibrancy of independent film in New York in this economy, right now? Do you have a feel for that?
MS: Yeah, it’s very exciting. But still I think it’s dangerous for the philosophy of filmmaking to separate the different “movements” of independent film. What are the characteristics of a “New York” film, anyway? It’s shot in the New York streets, that’s all. So I think that mindset keeps some independent film out of the mainstream. I’m worried about that, because that automatically means less money. I came out of a period in the ’70s where directors dealt with themes which independent filmmakers today still deal with. The more dangerous themes. The more personal themes. But we were able to do it within the context of Hollywood cinema and with Hollywood studio money.
But that [financing] is almost gone now. These themes are not “commercial” enough. Yet the same people who say that look back on the ’70s as the “Golden Age” of cinema. It’s certainly debatable. But it’s dangerous if these bigger budgets only go to pictures which have a certain kind of philosophy. Then it becomes a consumer product only, which these days is devoured and absorbed usually on one weekend and maybe on DVD before it’s sent to the rest of the world. It’s one philosophy represented in most of these films—90 percent of them. That may not be the best thing, to give people around the world just one impression of what America is in this day and age. I just think it’s dangerous. And it’s not healthy for American filmmakers. Anyway, that’s my thought about New York filmmaking. [laughs]
MM: You know what, I don’t think I’m going to get through my seven pages of questions…
MS: And another thing! [laughs]
MM: As a follow-up to that, you just made Gangs of New York, a period piece about some violent occurrences in New York City. As we talk today, just a few days after—
MS: —Yeah, but it really wasn’t. It was New York City, but it was still a formation of a city. Which country was it? Was it Confederacy or Union? Who were you aligned with? And basically the gangs of the underworld and the poor people had their own kind of society, which was not fitting in with the power structure.
MM: So with the September 11 anniversary just passing, have you worried that the terrorist attacks desensitized the country and diminished the impact of what you’re trying to say with a movie like Gangs?
MS: Oh, no. The film isn’t about violence.
It’s about a number of things—one of which is ‘what is this country?’ And ‘are immigrants Americans?’ And ‘must we, as Americans, accept and embrace each wave of immigrants?’ Look at what’s going on right now. I’m not defending, supporting or trying to bolster up this movie in any way. I’m saying that this film just happens to be dealing with subject matter which is vital to all Americans at this point.
But the other thing about the picture is it has a historical background that shows New York in a sense representing the country. Because it was this seaport, people who were coming to America would usually disembark here. And what did they do when they disembarked? They had to go get jobs, become part of the workforce or somehow assimilate into American society. They were not welcomed. So what we have is a movie about a period of time in which this quintessential American city was trying to define itself through struggle.
MM: I know you had some struggles of your own as you edited the film, especially toward the end, depicting the violence of the draft riots—
MS:—It ends with the backdrop of the draft riots. The foreground is the playing out of the conflict between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam. Amsterdam is played by Leo DiCaprio and Bill the Butcher by Daniel Day-Lewis. And basically the story in the foreground is Amsterdam having to dispatch, or confront, his own demons in the guise of a man who in a sense has become his father, emotionally.
The villain gets dispatched by the hero, because that’s the tradition of the American epic genre. But my villain is a bad bad guy and my hero is a good bad guy. [laughs] So he dispatches him, but in so doing he represents what’s happening to the country. The old wave is going out and the new wave is coming in. After 1865 it’s a different country. It’s a real country. It’s really the end of the Revolution. The Revolution started in 1776, went to 1783 or ’84. The country never really galvanized until after the Civil War.
MM: So in all those well-publicized bouts to trim the end, you don’t feel at all as if your vision was ever compromised?
MS: No, I don’t feel like the vision was compromised. I just basically keep tweaking to make things clearer. Clearer, or just more in line with my way of pacing. Sometimes I look at it again and say this is too fast or this is too slow. I’m still doing that now. And I’m doing sound effects and music now. But the thing about it is a balance between the historical backdrop and the personal story in the foreground. Because what I’d like to try to do is have a climactic sequence in the film that encompasses both—the climax of the conflict that’s going on in the city and the climax of the conflict between hero and villain. In a sense, ultimately, the history overwhelms everything.
The change in the city is represented by Amsterdam. He’s the younger person representing the new society in America. I’m not talking about the movers and the shakers, the George Templeton Strongs who wrote those diaries at the time. Those were the upper classes. I’m talking about what Bono meant when he wrote the song about the hands that built America. My grandfathers came here. One was a ditch digger for Con Edison, the other built scaffolding for construction. So their hands literally “made” the country… the Italians, Jewish, Irish. The Irish were the first major wave—they caught it all. So it’s an interesting backdrop to have this story about fathers and sons worked out. But the father and son story is an ancient one in which the son has to kill the father. Just as we all pretty much have to do in our own lives.
MM: You’ve always said that you see film as a means of self-expression. Are you ever frustrated that after all these years, all the movies, all the acclaim—many of course believe you’re the greatest living American director—
MS: —Some do.
MM: Does it ever frustrate you that you can’t simply make movies the way you want to make them? That there are still people who have to ultimately “approve” your art? And part two—how do you feel about the stripping down of the moviemaking process with the advent of digital video? Moviemaking without all the apparatus?
MS: Well, there are two questions there. The answer to the first one is that I’m not a person who could write a script on my own every year or two which wouldn’t demand too much of a budget. The stories I’m attracted to are just not that way. They have bigger canvases; they’re more complex. As with Casino or Goodfellas, let’s say, or The Age of Innocence, to a certain extent, or Kundun, even, and this picture. So that’s what I’m drawn to, and it would be great to be able to say “Okay, my films have made the most money in the history of cinema. (Most of them, not all of them.) And although I don’t want to open a studio, I am now entitled to get the bank loans, whatever, to write checks for as much as I need.” But that’s just not the reality. And one has to work within the reality. When you have something you’re burning to make, you have to consider the pros and cons of independent money. With a budget of $96 million or something you have to be responsible for that money. So you have to try to combine what interests you with some elements of box office and some responsibility to the studio.
MM: So you always have to consider the box office before you’ll develop a project.
MS: You really, really do. I mean, with some films more than others. In the case of Kundun, the best we could do is make it as honestly as possible. We had an excellent budget for a film that might be termed more of an “art film” than a commercial picture. No one can complain about that [budget]. But in a case like this [Gangs], when you want to make a picture that’s “sprawling,” and you want to give the impression on the big screen—on a wide, anamorphic screen—that the story and the people are just falling off the edges; that you can hardly contain them… That means you need a good budget. First you have to create the city, because nothing like it still exists. So when you’ve been wanting to do something like Gangs of New York for 20-some-odd years, the main thing that kept it from happening was the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.
MM: And you were finally able to do that at Cinecittá in Rome.
MS: Yeah, because of the artistry they have. And also because it was a good deal, from what I understand. You can ask [producer Harvey] Weinstein about that. But I think the main thing was that I’m dealing with the tradition of the American epic here. Which means you need the negative, the positive, the love story—you need all of it in order to have something that’s attractive to the box office. And hopefully also to work out a personal story that means something to me. But the key thing is the more money you get, the more responsible you are for it. I think that’s the main thing that’s changed from the ’70s.
MM: I want to ask you a couple of “process” questions before we run out of time. After watching Who’s That Knocking at My Door again the other night it occurred to me that many of your signature visual elements—the MOS shot with music over it, the tableau, the voiceover, certain camera moves—these elements of your style were there right from the beginning. Do you believe one can ever actually “develop” a visual style as a director? Or is one’s style simply refined as his career progresses?
MS: It’s a tough question because that’s over 30 years ago for me. If you’re still doing the same thing year after year, maybe that’s not such a good thing. Maybe I’m looking for some sort of development. Maybe I’m searching for something that can make me grow. On the one hand, it’s a good thing if you can make only one picture in your life. On the other, you can make the case that if your style doesn’t evolve you haven’t grown as a person.