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CANNES — “Gangs of New York” was gangbusters in its preview here Monday.

Even before the 20-minute presentation of Miramax’s “Gangs” drew an enthusiastic response at the jam-packed Palais, the participants were greeted with a fest frenzy.

Long before the 5 p.m. screening, huge crowds thronged outside to catch a glimpse of filmmaker Martin Scorsese and stars Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio accompanied by Miramax co-topper Harvey Weinstein. Members of the crowd, not deterred by heavy security and the barriers, held up handwritten signs welcoming “Leo” and “Cameron” to Cannes.

Inside, attendees whistled, cheered and gave a prolonged standing ovation to the filmmaker as he walked to his seat.

“I am honored to show an extended preview of ‘Gangs of New York’ that will be released at the end of the year,” Scorsese said as he introduced the presentation.

“The majority of the story takes place between 1846 and 1863 in New York, and it encompasses the American Civil War and also the first great wave of immigration — the Irish — and the film ultimately ends during the worst riots in history — the draft riots of the 1860s in New York. Ultimately this picture asks the question: What is America and what is an American?”

Seven weeks to prep

A few days ago, Scorsese told Daily Variety that it had taken him seven weeks to prepare the footage.

Nearly two years after he began lensing, the helmer admitted that he was feeling the pressure: He is editing the film and is also in the midst of shooting some pickups.

While he said the pic’s violence creates “some tough stuff,” Weinstein has been supportive, according to the director, who shrugged off rumors of battles between the two.

Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and he “put a lot of time into it (the 20-minute preview), and we also relied heavily on the Miramax group,” Scorsese said from his office in New York, where he was deep in the editing process of “Gangs.”

Still shooting

Scorsese, who also heads up the Cinefondation short-film jury, arrived in town Sunday. “Gangs” is slated for a Dec. 25 release Stateside by Miramax Films. Pic was co-financed by Initial Entertainment Group, which sold the pic overseas.

While the release comes more than a year after the original target of Dec. 21, 2001, Scorsese said he’s still not finished shooting.

He completed two days of close-ups and pickups with DiCaprio, Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis last week in New York and will do another two days of insert photography after Cannes. Shooting began Aug. 30, 2000, at the Cinecitta studios in Rome.

Scorsese pointed out that while last-minute shoots are not unusual on films, because of the lengthy process, he’s concerned about public perception.

“When people hear this, they think, ‘It’s a big movie and they’re still shooting,’ ” he said. “But it’s because when you edit the stuff, you discover things you needed. Harvey Weinstein was good enough in the final analysis to turn around and say, ‘Listen, you need two days for some pickup shoots, go ahead and shoot — get what you need.’ ”

Dumps dishings

Industry rumor has swirled around the relationship between Scorsese and Weinstein during “Gangs.” But Scorsese viewed that struggle as an inevitable part of the process between studio exec producer and director.

“He’s passionate, we have a good relationship, but obviously he’s a very colorful character, and I have my own ways,” Scorsese said. “I’m kind of excitable at times, but the reality is there are certain things he has to say to me and he’s gotta say them.

“Filmmaking is always a battle, a struggle, but he’s been supportive and enthusiastic, and he wants to make my movie.”

He said “Gangs” is expected to receive an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s ratings board. But the filmmaker has attempted to depict violence in a different way – by suggestion.

“In one case, I shot five angles to get one move. In less than a second and a half of film, there are five cuts. You never see any blood, just the faces, the hands, the eyes. But there’s no doubt that in the opening battle scene, there is some tough stuff there.”

Nearly three hours

Scorsese said the running time will likely stand at around 2 hours, 44 minutes. “As I speak to you now, I’m going into the editing room to continue working. This is pretty much the picture — it’s pretty much what I wanted to make, and it reflects me in relationship to the material, so I’m pleased.”

As for the future, Scorsese has projects brewing. But now that AMG, which reps the helmer, has significantly changed as a business, given its merger with the Firm, there’s the question of agency representation.

“Mike (Ovitz) is a good friend,” he said, “and has been for the past 20 years, and I’m still very close with him, and basically we think we can still work together in some capacity. For right now, I’m working with (AMG chief) Rick Yorn and AMG and the Firm and the combination of those companies, but my relationship with Ovitz hasn’t changed.”

Back with DiCaprio

Scorsese is developing two projects on which he will collaborate again with DiCaprio and financier Graham King of IEG: “Alexander the Great” and “The Aviator,” a Howard Hughes bio.

“Quite honestly and literally, the water’s up to my nose on ‘Gangs of New York’ right now. I hope once I get a little bit of a rest in a week or two to clear my mind, we will figure out exactly how to go about doing either one or both of these projects. We’d love to do both.”

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