When the now legendary film director Martin Scorsese first discovered Herbert Asbury’s book “Gangs of New York” in 1970, and decided to make it into a film, Rick Schwartz was a 2-year-old growing up in a Modern Orthodox home in Teaneck, N.J.
It took three decades for Scorsese to complete his dream — the much-anticipated epic film opens this weekend — and it was helped along by hundreds of people.
One key figure was Schwartz, the self-effacing vice president of production for Miramax Films who served as co-executive producer on the movie.
During several recent interviews, Schwartz, 34, who now lives in Englewood, N.J., spoke about the “incredible opportunity” of spending much of the last three years working closely with Scorsese and actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz on the film, an almost three-hour depiction of the brutal and bruising life in Lower Manhattan of the Civil War period, little explored in American movies.
“We all knew that we would never have another experience like this,” said Schwartz, given the size, complexity and talent of the assembled cast.
He has some trouble defining just what his job as a producer entails, but noted that it is mostly about “problem solving,” serving as a buffer between the studio and the creative people, dealing with every aspect of making a film and “a million logistical problems along the way.”
Whatever those problems are normally, they surely were multiplied in making “Gangs of New York.” In the world of Hollywood hype, the film is known as much for the off-screen monumental struggles between Scorsese and Miramax founder and co-chairman Harvey Weinstein over artistic issues and budget (it took 137 days to shoot, was in post-production for 18 months and cost about $100 million) as it is for its content. Not given to gossip, Schwartz noted, diplomatically, that there were “creative tensions and heavy moments” between Scorsese and Weinstein, both of whom he describes as men of great passion, commitment and intellect.
On one level, “Gangs” is the story of a young man (DiCaprio) who as a child witnessed his father’s death in a major war of gangs (between Irish immigrants in the Five Points section of New York and the nativists who resented the newcomers). Years later, the young man returns to the neighborhood to seek revenge on the powerful leader (Day-Lewis) who killed his father. But it is also the story of prejudice, class and race in this country, set against the backdrop of the Civil War and culminating in the 1863 Draft Riots, the deadliest urban uprising in American history.
For those who don’t mind the sight of gore and blood – there are no gun battles but just about every other form of brutal mayhem is vividly depicted – the story is compelling and the visual impact stunning in its scope and authenticity. Scorsese, celebrated almost as much for his perfectionism as his talent, recreated 1860s New York on the outskirts of Rome, building more than a mile of city life as well as two huge ships for several harbor scenes.
All of this made life both incredibly difficult and exciting for Schwartz, who was on the scene throughout the shoot as well as for the post-production process, editing the film down to its final length, and getting to see the genius of Scorsese’s filmmaking up close.
He is indebted to Weinstein (the subject of yet another major profile in the Dec. 16 New Yorker, depicted, again, as a highly talented man given to bouts of abusive behavior and deep insecurity), who hired him after the briefest of interviews more than six years ago.
“By the time I met Harvey I had spent hours with people at Miramax telling me how tough he was, and I was terrified,” recalled Schwartz last Monday while waiting to fly with Weinstein on a private jet to Los Angeles. “They marched me in, the room was small, there were other people there, Harvey was on the phone, and he cupped his hand over the phone and asked me why I wanted to be in the movie business.”
Schwartz said he was tempted to just say he was delivering pizza, and flee. He doesn’t recall his response to the question, but they spoke briefly about family life – “Harvey was trying to find out what kind of a person I was” – and he was hired on the spot. He spent the next two-and-a-half years as an assistant to Weinstein, and was at his beck and call at all times, attending meetings and flying around the world. Along the way he worked on various films in a variety of capacities, and then one day (in 2000) Weinstein casually informed him he had been promoted to associate producer and was to leave for London the next day to work with director Kenneth Branagh on “Love’s Labour Lost.”
When he arrived, Schwartz recalls, he told Branagh he had no idea what to do but said if Branagh was patient with him, he’d be willing to learn and help. It must have worked, because Schwartz became increasingly trusted by Weinstein and went on to serve as executive in charge of production for Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Malena,” and “Birthday Girl,” the Nicole Kidman film, and executive producer of “The Others,” also starring Kidman, before and during “Gangs.”
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“Rick is modest about his talents but he is especially appreciated for his ability to develop relationships and maintain his composure in challenging moments,” said Matthew Hiltzik, Miramax’s senior vice president for corporate communications.
The two young men have become good friends. “We come from the same place, literally and figuratively,” said Hiltzik, who also grew up in Teaneck and is an observant Jew.
Schwartz said that while the rest of his family is “quite Orthodox, I am still finding my way, but I no longer take my Jewish education for granted.” He graduated from the Moriah day school in Englewood and Frisch yeshiva high school in Paramus, and said he increasingly appreciates the rootedness his traditional Jewish lifestyle gives him.
“I operate in two worlds,” he said, “and while Hollywood is filled with Jews, many of them are nominally Jewish. Hollywood is all about fantasy, and it’s very seductive, and I see peers who get lost, searching for something to ground them, whether it’s Buddhism or Scientology or something else.
“So there is an immense benefit for me to come off of Tom Cruise’s private jet and feel very anchored,” he said, referring to his family (he and his wife, Heidi, have two young daughters) and the Englewood Jewish community where they live. He attends Ahvas Torah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue there, and his oldest daughter attends kindergarten at Moriah, where her father started out.
“It’s exciting,” Schwartz said of his professional life, “but literally, you have to know where you come from.”