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Harvey Weinstein is a guy whose nature leads to intensely polarized opinions. He’s a mogul in the old style, who exerts his will with force, and grandstands, and makes good movies and irritating decisions in equal measure. Having been part of some of the biggest films of the last couple decades, Harvey also has endless stories to tell, and when he opens up there’s great stuff to learn.

Take Gangs of New York, the Martin Scorsese film that Weinstein produced in 2002. The massive project shot in Rome, and quickly became legendary in some circles as an example of Harvey’s heavy-handed demands for a shorter cut than the filmmaker wanted to deliver. Weinstein recently talked about that aspect of the film, but he also explained the origin of the CG elephant that roams through the elaborate riot sequence that acts as the climax of the film.

In Toronto on Tuesday, Weinstein was in a talkative mood. Asked about the production of Gangs of New York, which saw his ego clash with that of Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Daniel Day-Lewis, Weinstein talked about a few aspects of the shoot. One anecdote involves one of the more memorable, if brief bits used in the climactic Draft Riots sequence:

We needed an elephant on Tuesday at four o’clock in the afternoon. They assured us the elephant would be there, we called them on Monday and they said, ‘The elephant will be there,” and then [the day we needed it], the elephant’s not there. They literally brought a tiger in a cage. “We said an elephant, and you gave us a tiger!” And they said, ‘There are no elephants in Italy.’

The end of that story is I said, ‘Marty, just keep shooting,’ and I called George Lucas and said, ‘We’re effed. We don’t have a goddamn elephant. Tell us how to shoot it!’ And it’s the only CGI shot in the movie — they told us how to shoot it and how to create the elephant walking through the streets with [CGI].

(I’ve been under the impression that there are other shots with CG enhancement, but the elephant is likely the only purely CG creation in the film.)

As for comments on the battle over running time, Weinstein explains that Scorsese’s first favored cut ran over three and a half hours. “If you thought there was action in Gangs of New York the movie, you should have seen that editing room!” he exclaimed. An hour was cut, and the producer says that Scorsese came to accept the result. Scorsese calls the released version his director’s cut, despite the fact that Scorsese himself reportedly distributed a few tape copies of a longer cut to friends before the movie hit theaters.

Weinstein says of the idea of any release of a longer cut:

[Scorsese] says, ‘You think I’m that fucking stupid that I’m gonna put out the director’s cut at three hours and 36 minutes? That would prove Harvey’s a genius!’

Vulture notes that Weinstein added as a parting shot, “By the way, that’s how final cut works.”

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