Meet Mister Big

a
 

Harvey Weinstein is a big movie producer in the old style - and Gangs of New York, his epic tale of Irish immigrants in 19th-century New York with all its violence, squalor and corruption, is a film made in 'colossal' Hollywood style, with huge expensive sets, rumours and rows. The Miramax boss with 42 Oscars tells Michael Dwyer why it took so long to get it tothe screen.

Reviewing the new Sam Mendes film, Road to Perdition, Variety concluded: "With Gangs of New York on the way, this looks like the year of the Irish-American gangster". The Mendes film, which has opened to excellent reviews in the US, is set in 1930s Chicago and stars Tom Hanks as gangster Michael Sullivan and Paul Newman as his mobster boss, John Rooney. Martin Scorsese's long-delayed Gangs of New York, which opens here early next year, is an epic picture of the Irish immigrant experience in mid-19th century America.

Mendes has already won Oscars for best picture and director with his first and only other film, American Beauty, while Scorsese, arguably the most respected film-maker working in American cinema today, has never won an Oscar. This time, Scorsese has an ace up his sleeve - the producer and distributor of his movie is the legendary Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax Films supremo who was described recently by New York magazine as "definitely the biggest (in all senses) cultural force in the city".

Now 49, Weinstein runs Miramax with his brother, Bob, who oversees their genre division, Dimension Films, which has enjoyed lucrative hits with the Scream movies and Spy Kids. The company was bought by Disney for $60 million in 1993, but the Weinsteins remain uniquely independent operators within the studio system.

Weinstein is clearly obsessed with securing Oscars for his releases, and his track record is remarkable. In the past two decades, he has scored 159 nominations and 42 Oscars. He firmly stuck his foot in the Academy's door at the beginning of the 1990s when he masterminded the campaigns that made hits and Oscar-winners of Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot and The Crying Game, and he ended the decade with successive best picture winners in The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love.

Nevertheless, in the long saga that has been the production history of Gangs of New York, Weinstein has been cast as the villain of the piece, the pushy producer who has forced the great artist, Scorsese, to cut down his epic film.

The film started shooting at Cinecitta Studios in Rome on August 30th, 2000, and had been due for release in the US last Christmas. It will now open a year later - a delay which has had the rumour mill buzzing with tales of acrimony between Weinstein and Scorsese, of escalating budget problems, and a running time well in excess of three hours. Not all this is true.

When we talked over lunch recently, Weinstein was barely picking at his food, choosing to guzzle down Diet Coke and to smoke a succession of cigarettes. His menu was exactly the same some years ago when we sat next to each other at the Irish Film Ball in Ardmore Studios. This time, he was primarily concerned with setting the record straight on Gangs of New York.

"We went into the film with a $100 million budget and we finished it for $97.5 million," he says. "We've already taken in $70 million in selling the film to distributors around the world. Marty cut his price, and Leo (DiCaprio) cut his price in half before the movie started and then gave another three million back to help us bring it on budget.

'But they're both in a position where, if the movie grosses around $100 million, Leo will get two or three times what he gave back, and Marty will get about one and a half times back. We all wanted it to be the best, and not just one of the best movies. We all believed in it.

"When you're dealing with this story, you're painting with a broad canvas.

"It's history, it's politics, it's extortion, it's union, it's gangs, it's emigrants. And when you're setting this against the backdrop of history, you better have your narrative straight, too. You won't want to go to the movie just to get a history lesson about Boss Tweed of whatever. Audiences want more than just that."

To present their side of the story and to show a united front, Scorsese and Weinstein agreed to assemble "an extended special preview", a 20-minute showreel of Gangs of New York, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May. It is, of course, impossible to assess the merits of a movie that will run for two hours and 44 minutes on the basis of this much footage. What is immediately evident, however, is its sheer scale of ambition and scope - a full-blooded, operatic epic exhibiting a potential for greatness that may or may not be realised.

"America was born in the streets" is the publicity slogan for the film, which spans the years 1846 to 1863. It captures the animosity and pitched battles between the Irish immigrants, who were arriving in New York at the rate of 15,000 a week at the time, and the self-styled Nativists of English, Welsh, Dutch and German stock who despised them.

This conflict is detailed through the film's fictionalised narrative in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Amsterdam Vallon, a young Irish-American who is still a child when his father, the Irish immigrant leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) is slain by the ruthless William Cutting, who's nicknamed Bill the Butcher and played with mutton-chop sideburns and a huge handlebar moustache by Daniel Day-Lewis.

The only significant female character is Jenny Everdene (Cameron Diaz), a resourceful pickpocket who becomes involved with the grown-up Amsterdam when he returns to seek revenge on Bill the Butcher. The squalor of the settings and the brutality of the film's graphic violence make it clear that this is no shamrock-tinted picture of the Irish immigrant experience in the soufflé style of Far and Away.

"I'm very, very happy with the way the film has turned out, and I'm happy with the length, too," Weinstein says. "I'm delighted we showed that preview footage because finally it gives people an idea of what we were doing over all that time. We didn't spend eight months in Rome making a home movie, and that will be very clear to anyone who sees the footage. This is an epic film.

"There has been so much speculation about the movie, but now that people have seen parts of it, they can start taking it really seriously rather than listening to all those stories which have been going around about the production, most of which were just fantasies in the minds of people who had nothing else to say about the movie."

Although Scorsese originally wanted to make it a longer movie, Weinstein insists that what we see in cinemas will be the definitive version. "What we are releasing is the director's cut," he insists. "It will be exactly the same when it comes out on DVD. Marty is very happy with what he's got now, and so am I. If you saw the footage he has left out, you would realise that nothing important is left out, and no scenes are missing. The only difference was that there was loads of it, just loads of everything in it, and it's just been trimmed down to something more manageable now. That happens all the time when movies are made."

He cites a battle sequence that originally ran for about 38 minutes and now runs for 22 minutes. "Marty told me six or seven months before we started shooting that, when I saw the big battle sequence, it would blow me away.

Then I walked the set before they shot the battle, and it was an extraordinary experience. It was like tourist city when we were in Rome. We had so many movie people calling by to see these amazing sets.

"It was like being back in those days when they made colossal movies. Of course we were making a colossal movie, but probably for less than what it cost them to make Dr Dolittle 2. Think about it.On a movie like that, Eddie Murphy gets about $25 million, (producers) Ron Howard and Brian Grazer get 10, and then the director gets five, so you're at 40 already. Then the special effects cost 20 million, and there are all the other costs of making a movie after you're at that level of spending."

He recalls a visit to the Rome set by George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and head of the special effects experts, Industrial Light & Magic. "George looked at this vast set and said: 'You know, Marty, this is going to be the last one of these, because I can build that out in San Francisco on a green screen'.

"My problem, like the rest of the audience, is that I can tell when it's green screen. There's no substitute for the real thing, and the audience is getting so sophisticated. We had some effects, which George Lucas supplied, but I think we pulled them off. They are very convincing and I'll bet that audiences won't be able to tell the difference between what's for real and what are effects."

The events of September 11th were cited among the reasons for the delay in releasing this violent picture of New York. "From the outset, Marty said he wanted the violence in the movie to be stylised, and that's what he achieved," Weinstein says. "But there are so many scenes that are at least as intense and powerful as anything you've ever seen in a Scorsese movie.

"This is not a walk in the park."

The film is based on a 1927 book by Herbert Asbury, and the screenplay went through four writers - Jay Cocks, the former Time critic who collaborated with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence; Steven Zaillian, the Oscar-winning screenwriterof Schindler's List; playwright and film director Kenneth Lonergan; and Weinstein's favourite screenwriter, Hossein Amini, who scripted the Miramax releases, The Wings of a Dove and The Four Feathers, and is writing an adaptation of the Leon Uris novel, Mila 18, which Weinstein himself will direct.

"I spent one year developing the script with Marty and with Hossein, who's the unsung hero of the movie in my opinion. Jay Cocks and Marty worked on the script of the movie for 20 years. If I saw something in it that wasn't cinematic or gripping, I would tell Marty to his face. We have that kind of relationship. Amini had some wonderful ideas and he broke the back of the script for Gangs of New York. I didn't green-light the film until I read his draft.

"All the writers got along great. I'd call them Marty's ex-wives all the time and I'd tell them that to their faces. Hossein would go in and work on it and then go off on to Four Feathers. Then Steve Zaillian would come in and then he would go off on to something else. And then Kenny Lonergan would work on it.

"They worked on the script like they were an old-fashioned relay team. I convinced Marty to do it this way, the way they used to do it in the old studio system. In those days they had John Steinbeck on the studio payroll, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler and Bill Faulkner. Those guys were incredible writers who could bring so many incredible things to a movie, and that became our model, too."

Weinstein is convinced that Gangs of New York, the biggest gamble in Miramax history, will be a major Oscar contender, and he is particularly confident that Daniel Day-Lewis will collect his second Oscar for it. "Put your money on now," he declares. "I'm telling the other guys to leave town. They should just desert the ballot."

Is he worried about being out in such a crowded Christmas market against the second films in the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series and the new James Bond movie? "I'm more worried about DiCaprio's other movie," he says in reference to Catch Me If You Can, which co-stars DiCaprio with Tom Hanks, and is directed by Steven Spielberg.

He has other reasons to be concerned, with two other major Miramax productions opening around the same time - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell and Julia Roberts, and the musical, Chicago, with Catherine Zeta Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere.

"We shot Chicago head-to-tail, like the old movie musicals," he says proudly.

"Catherine, Renee and Richard can all sing and dance, which was great because we didn't have to do quick cuts around them at any point. As for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, we handled George's first movie, From Dusk Till Dawn, and he was always loyal to our company, and when he was so passionate about directing this film, we talked about the material and we agreed to do it."

More than most US distributors, Weinstein is alert to the critical responses his releases receive. "There's no doubt - with the huge success of movies like Spider-Man - that these giant corporations are going to make more of that kind of movie, and it doesn't matter what the critics say about them, the audience will turn out in their millions for them. At the other end of the scale you have, say Atom Egoyan's new movie, Ararat, and if it doesn't get great reviews, nobody will see it. If the reviews are mixed, you don't get a pass for noble ambition, even though noble ambition was attached to it.

'I can tell you from the commercial movies I've made, that there wasn't an iota of noble ambition attached to any of them. They were strictly monetary, strictly commerce. They were transactions, and they are part of what we do to help us prosper as an independent. Playing the artistic game is the highest stakes game you can play, both as a director and as the company that finances it. There's no quarter.

"If you don't like my horror movie, it doesn't matter. We'll just market it. But how do you market Ararat unless you have critical acclaim? You can't."

Weinstein's reputation for cutting movies to tailor them to the perceived demands of the audience has earned him the unflattering nickname of Harvey Scissorhands. He doesn't even blink when this is raised. "Well, let me put it this way," he says. "Nobody called Maxwell Perkins Maxwell Scissorhands. Here was a guy who edited Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and like him, I think editing is a noble tradition. Maybe I'm like the editor-in-chief at Miramax instead of the co-chairman. I don't do it much any more, anyhow.

"But it's funny, you know, there are so many incidents when these directors fess up. When they go before St Peter, they're all going to say stuff like, 'You know, Harvey was right about that fight scene or that love scene - it bored the shit out of me'. Would you really like me to put another hour back into In the Bedroom, or do you really want to see the four-hour Iris?

"I'm happy to show you all that, but I don't think you would care to see it."

Gangs of New York is due to open here on January 10th

a