Michael Ballhaus, ASC takes on Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, a 19th-century tale of vengeance and valor set in the city's most notorious neighborhood.

By the time Martin Scorsese teamed with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, ASC for the first time, on the 1985 film After Hours, Scorsese had been thinking about a very different New York story for a number of years. It was set during an especially tumultuous period of the city’s history, and much of the action took place in the area surrounding Scorsese’s boyhood home in Lower Manhattan. The story was Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book The Gangs of New York, a hair-raising account of the criminal activity that shaped life in New York in the 19th century. Subtitled "An Informal History of the Underworld," the book details a city swirling with vice and corruption, where dozens of gangs protected their turf with brass knuckles and brickbats while most authorities looked the other way. It was a world that was continually reshaped by waves of immigrants; many of the gangs formed along ethnic lines, and turf wars were fierce.

According to Asbury, New York’s most fearsome gangs were headquartered in the Sixth Ward, an area bounded by the Bowery, Broadway, Canal (then Walker) and Chatham. Today part of Chinatown, the neighborhood was at that time crowded with Irish, German, Jewish, Chinese and Italian immigrants, who lived alongside a small community of African Americans. The hub of activity – criminal and otherwise – was Five Points, an intersection of several busy streets at the corner of a park called Paradise Square. As immigrants continued to pour into the neighborhood, Five Points became renowned for overcrowded, squalid tenements and pervasive crime; saloons, brothels and gaming halls flourished, and con artists and thieves preyed on those who ventured from Bowery dance halls into the streets nearby. By the middle of the 19th century, Five Points was widely considered to be the world’s worst slum. "Every house was a brothel," noted one visitor, "and every brothel a hell."

Compelled by a keen interest in New York history, Scorsese put Asbury’s book on his "wish list" of projects when his career took off in the 1970s. But the period epic clearly required a substantial commitment of time and money, and it took almost 30 years for the necessary elements to fall into place. During that time, Scorsese collaborated with Ballhaus on four more films: The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, GoodFellas and The Age of Innocence (see AC Oct. ’93). "Marty and I talked about Gangs of New York from time to time over the years, but it never seemed to be possible," Ballhaus recalls. "It was not an easy project to get off the ground."

A Chaotic Canvas

In adapting Asbury’s book for the screen, Scorsese and a team of screenwriters narrowed its scope to 1840-1863, an especially turbulent period in Five Points history. A famine in Ireland in the 1840s led to an explosion in Irish immigration to America, and the years preceding and encompassing the Civil War saw fierce rioting throughout New York, much of it downtown. Gangs of New York focuses on Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young Irish-American who returns to Five Points after spending 15 years in reform school following the death of his father (Liam Neeson). Vallon is bent on avenging his father’s murder, which occurred at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), a Nativist gang leader who rules Five Points with an iron fist and a wicked blade. The Protestant Nativists clash regularly with the growing numbers of Irish Catholic gangs, and when Vallon begins rallying his fellow Irish to join forces and challenge the Nativists for control of Five Points, the action culminates with a bloody showdown during the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863.

Gangs of New York was filmed at Cinecittà in Italy, where production designer Dante Ferretti and his crew built the one-mile-square Five Points neighborhood and other sections of Manhattan from scratch on the studio’s 99-acre lot. (See story on page 50.) Key set pieces included the Old Brewery, a massive tenement that dominated the Five Points intersection; a Chinese-pagoda-style theater/brothel; and a section of the city’s waterfront. "The set design was clear from the beginning and everything was built," Ballhaus recalls. "Although a few elements of the set were added later, we knew which locations we had to have well in advance."

Ballhaus and Scorsese had eight weeks of preproduction before principal photography began in September 2000. "It wasn’t a very long prep for a movie like this, especially for Marty, who was still working on the script," Ballhaus says. "Marty prepares very carefully, and he normally has shot lists for everything – on The Age of Innocence, every shot had notes. His notes are always about the rhythm of the scene; he writes what kind of coverage he wants, how many shots he needs and the size of the shots. We had shot lists for this movie, but they weren’t as specific, and we usually developed them on the day we were shooting that material.

"I think we needed at least six more weeks of prep to be really prepared," he continues, "but in a way it didn’t matter because Marty and I know each other so well. We’d just go on the set, watch the rehearsal, look at each other and immediately agree on how to shoot it. It was a different way of working with him, but it was as wonderful as always."

One tool Ballhaus found useful in planning shots was a MiniDV camera, which he had on set at all times. "I’ve used MiniDV for at least 10 years as a notebook, a visual diary," he explains. "I always used it during rehearsals on this show – I could put it down on the floor or hold it up high and experiment with angles, and then I could show the shots to Marty and my crew."

Gangs of New York was filmed in Super 35mm (2.35:1), a format Ballhaus has long favored. "The main reason I prefer it is that I can avoid panning and scanning when the film goes to tape or to TV," he explains. "When you take an anamorphic film to tape or TV, you have to pan and scan, and not one composition or frame is the same as what you originally shot. When I use Super 35, I shoot with a common top and leave the bottom of the frame clear; when I go to tape, I can get fairly close to my original composition by just opening up the bottom of the shot."

Scorsese gave Ballhaus a book of Rembrandt paintings during prep to illustrate the dark, warm look he desired for Gangs of New York. "We considered using the ENR process to achieve the look we wanted, but I did several tests and decided we didn’t need it," the cinematographer says. "If you have a really healthy negative and work with your printer lights, you can get the same rich blacks. Having our entire set built also helped greatly, because we had complete control over the colors. Dante’s crew just painted the buildings the way they would’ve looked at that time – lots of grays, browns and blacks. I knew that printing on Kodak’s Vision Premier would help us, too, because it increases contrast and takes color away a little bit. I love that stock, and its qualities were perfect for this movie."

Another component of the film’s look was the extensive use of smoke, which was true to the period and also helped desaturate colors. "We had smoke in almost every scene, which helped soften the image," Ballhaus says. "Given the period, there was always a lot of atmosphere in the air. There were fires burning all the time, even outside during the day." Throughout the shoot, Ballhaus used Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filters ranging in strength from 1/8 to 1/2, and he occasionally employed Harrison & Harrison fog filters.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.