Going Deeper into Gangs of New York with Schoonmaker and Ferretti
Thelma Schoonaker has been Martin Scorsese’s editor for nearly 25 years, going all the way back to Raging Bull. But the controversial Gangs of New York proved to be the most stressful experience of all, with Producer and Miramax Co-Founder Harvey Weinstein fighting them every step of the way with his own passionate vision. Not surprisingly, paring down this ambitious opus to a manageable length entailed a lot of creative compromises, and Schoonmaker wasn’t immune to the stress that continued during postproduction. Yet despite the existence of a work print that some film observers prefer to the theatrical release, Schoonmaker, like Scorsese, stands behind the final version, which has earned both of them Oscar nominations.
Below the Line: So how intense was it?
Schoonmaker: It was a monumental task. But I think originally Marty always thought of it as a four-hour movie and we were always cutting it down. Marty didn’t shoot a four-hour movie, but he was forced to make all kinds of decisions so he could do it. People were available; the window was there, so it was hard. It probably would’ve been better if it had taken a year for it to be rewritten to cut it down. As it was, there was a lot of ripping out of things that went on all during shooting, so we had to cope with that in the editing. So that was hard. But that’s happened with us before. We had to wildly restructure Kundun; also there was a lot of rewriting of Casino.
BTL: Other than the last hour, what other sections were affected the most?
Schoonmaker: Also in the very beginning after the battle is over and Vallon [Liam Neeson] has died and Leo [DiCaprio who plays Amsterdam] enters New York. We ended up drastically restructuring that area. And had to cut scenes instead of running them parallel by themselves. For example, we’re down in the cave while Bill [Daniel Day Lewis] and Boss Tweed [Jim Broadbent] are talking upstairs making their plans. I ended up mildly wrenching things out of their supposed order and pulling them up and it did seem to work better. It gave us a more dramatic opening, for example, to go from Leo leaving the reform school and throwing the Bible in the water to fireworks exploding on ‘Slavery Abolished!’ That was quite a few scenes later in the original script. And even though we were violating night and day, it didn’t seem to matter. It was a big, strong opening for New York. So there was a lot that went on in the beginning of the film. Then it settles into its structure; then after Leo is branded we did fool around a lot with the structure of the rest of the film.
BTL: What was the atmosphere like?
Schoonmaker: Well, it was not a comfortable situation with a lot of back and forth arguments–some might be valid and some aren’t. Screening for others is very important to us. We screen for a small circle of friends that we know how to read what they’re saying—we know what prejudice that person has—and then we start widening out. Eventually we got the film we wanted, but it was just not our style of working.
BTL: I guess the biggest complaint about the film was that the Draft Riots at the end overwhelmed the personal revenge story.
Schoonmaker: That was our biggest problem—balancing the personal with the historical because Marty had bitten off such a big piece of it. If you’re going to deal with the Draft Riots, then by implication you’re going to have to do something about the Civil War. Well, of course, we weren’t about to shoot battle scenes. It was a very difficult problem. What was impacting the film so much in terms of time on screen was the historical aspect. You would’ve needed four hours to really lay down the acts that caused the anger [that led to the Draft Riots. It was something we struggled and struggled and struggled with. We added a narration that helped clarify things that Marty hadn’t been able to shoot. We still needed information there and there was confusion from the very beginning from people who were not able to follow [all of the historical information]. Once we put the narration there, it started to work on its own.
BTL: There were also complaints about Leo’s character not being fully developed.
Schoonmaker: Marty had wanted to have Leo insinuate himself into Bill’s circle. He didn’t want him to go up against him right away. He wanted to show, as he had done so well in GoodFellas, what is so attractive about evil and what the consequences of it are. So he wanted to show that Leo was confused at a certain point. But the audience was a bit confused, so that, again, goes back to the truncating of the script. There probably should have been a couple more scenes clarifying it. So we had to knock it on the head with the voice over. And it would’ve helped to have more scenes with Leo and his father as a boy, and some scenes in reform school. But there was so much pressure to get it down to a reasonable length before they started shooting. And then so many decisions were made during shooting that was frustrating. I deliberately did not read the full version [of the script] because I thought it would be better for me to have a clean slate.
BTL: What were some of your editorial ideas along the way?
Schoonmaker: Some restructuring, including the pulling out of some themes, like the ending. Marty knew to shoot several versions of the final confrontation. But it became clearer and clearer that what we wanted was a feeling of 9/11 that if you had a duel and if 9/11 occurred how would you feel at that moment? And that actually became created through editing. We dropped all fisticuffs. Then there was one shot of Daniel [Day Lewis] that I stole from a [discarded] sequence that just nailed it where he sees Jenny [Cameron Diaz] coming on the battlefield. It was the way he put his head down in resignation that stood out. And once I stuck it in the right place, intercutting him watching Shang [Stephen Graham] and McGloin [Gary Lewis] getting killed by the soldiers with the other people dying in the riots, we had our ending–the impact of Bill watching their world dying. Never in a million years would I have thought of that, but there it was–the lynch pin that we needed.