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Script Magazine
September/October 2007
The Costs of Doing Business: Steven Zaillian's American Gangster

"There's this guy you should meet."

That chance remark seven years ago by noted crime writer Nicholas Pileggi led his friend, Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian, to what he readily admits has been one of the toughest and most frustrating, but also one of the most rewarding, projects in his career to date.

The real-life crime drama American Gangster, opening this fall under the direction of Ridley Scott, stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a self-made man who rose from the Deep South down Harlem's mean streets to become the nation's most important heroin supplier during the 1970s. Opposite himin every wayis Russell Crowe as the flawed, but incorruptible, narcotics detective whose mission it was to bring the kingpin down.

Their remarkable parallel story contains elements familiar to moviegoers. Some of its corrupt cops were actually personified or inspired by the rogue of Serpico and Price of the City. And anyone who haunted the grindhouses of the 1970s has witnessed any number of versions of the battles between the Mob and the urban drug lords.

Still, Zaillian insists that audiences will find the combination of narratives, and the themes explored within them, to be fresh and new. "I think we have a story that hasn't been dealt with before except in the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, or the later, more hip-hop versions, the New Jack Citys. We weren't approaching it for its sensational value, but more as a character study of American business. At the same time, it's not like this is a sober dissertation on a subject. You're dealing with gangsters and cops, you can't not be exciting." He doesn't add, but could, that the starpower assembled for this movie both above and below the line is unprecedented for a story of this nature and contributes to its unique interest.

Zaillian's saga began at New York's Regency Hotel where he sat down with Frank Lucas for a week's worth of interviews and, as it turned out, a dazzling set of stories. The youthful protg of the legendary gangster Bumpy Johnson (memorably portrayed by Laurence Fishburn in Hoodlum), Lucas rose to the top of the heap through a unique approach: Cutting out the middleman, he would become the supplier. He and his many brothers and cousins brought back the stuff from Southeast Asia themselves during the Vietnam Waroften, Lucas alleges, with the direct collusion of the U.S. military. (The Lucases would famously use the coffins of soldiers to transport their goods stateside, one of the many startling details from which American Gangster doesn't flinch.)

The Lucas family's product "Blue Magic" was known on the street as the purest shit available. That, and the conspicuous wealth it generated, contributed to Lucas' own legendary reputation but also made him a marked man. Says the screenwriter, "The Sicilian connection was interesting to me. Frank, essentially, became bigger than the Mafia by cutting out the importers and selling to them. The idea of an uneducated black guy from North Carolina who comes to the big city and essentially has the Mob coming to himthis had never been done before. It didn't last; it couldn't last! This isn't the way things are supposed to be done.

"The richer one guy gets, the less rich someone else is going to be; it's a zero-sum game. Those people who make less aren't going to be very happy." And, since among those getting richer were local cops and rival drug kings, it was inevitable that however meteoric Lucas' rise, some kind of fall was most definitely in the cards.

Zaillian sat spellbound as Lucas wove his narrative, "At the beginning there's a certain level of performance. You know something about how dangerous this character is, he knows you know it, and at least initially he wanted to uphold that image. But, the more I talked to him, the less I saw of that. Spending as much time as I did with him, after so many hours, the bravado falls away and I saw him as more down-to-earth." Did Lucas suffer any moral qualms? "Not really. He did what he had to do to survive, to make a living for himself. No apologies."

Time and again, however, he would say, "I don't remember that guy's name or when that was. You should talk to Richie." Zaillian was only dimly aware of Richie Roberts as the cop who ended up catching Frank, so he decided to reunite the ex-cop, now attorney, with his former quarry and see what they had to say to and about each other.

Roberts was one of the models for Robert Blake's Baretta character, and you can hear it in Zaillian's description. "He's the bantam figurenot tall, he's very solid. Pumped up; he must be in his 60s but he's in tip-top physical shape. At the same time, he's very soft-spoken and well-spoken. He's a defense attorney now, and genuine and personable; he talks about his colorful escapades on a very down-to-earth level." Those "escapades" included his rep as one of Jersey's honest copsthe screenplay dramatizes his ostracism on the force when he turns back drug money instead of taking his cut.

The fact that Lucas and Roberts each knew elements of their stories that the other did not started to make them of equal interest to the screenwriter, who emphasizes that he had no initial idea of what theme or "message" (not that he'd ever use that word) would come out of those conversations. But he became interested, and then fascinated, by what emerged.

"Here was a gangster, a criminal, who had a very secure family life as the patriarch of this extended familyalmost a Sicilian figure in the way he insulated himselfwith a wife he adored and a strict moral code. And on the other hand, you have a cop who's on the correct side of the law, but he's divorced, got problems with women, various other vices. That difference became quite important in the script, this juxtaposition of two sides of the American family experience I just knew it was important to deal with both men equally."

Telling Parallel Tales
Many a film has dealt with a pair of opposing central figures, but Zaillian's story presented unique challenges. For one thing, his antagonists were unaware of each other's existence for many years, and only really got to know each otheror even speakat the very end of their struggle. "How do you write a story about two characters who basically aren't ever in the same room?" (Look for models to draw upon and you come up with Michael Mann's Heat andwhat else?) At the same time, they may not be in the same room, but they're certainly living the same narrative.

"I knew that you didn't want to repeat the same informationmeaning you see Frank do something, then cut to Richie's discovering what he didso you have to make these jumps where some information is coming out of Frank's scenes and some out of Richie's; otherwise, you're telling the story twice from different points of view.

"But it's hard to know which information to put into which person's story! I mean, early on it's obvious when it's just Frank before Richie gets involved, but once it starts cross-cutting" Zaillian's voice trails off and he runs his hand through his hair, a characteristic gesture when he's deep in thought. He is compact and bantam, not unlike his description of Roberts, with a shy smile that belies his intensity of manner. He's not someone you'd want to get mad, and you can practically feel his pain as he recalls struggling with his story's construction and details the remarkable answer he found to his problem.

"The point I'm trying to make is that I couldn't repeat. So, what I ended up doing was writing two separate scripts: one completely from the point of view of Frank without any Richie Roberts, and one completely from Richie's viewpoint. Then I was able to put those two together once I saw what was most interesting about each one. It almost became a matter of dropping every other scene from each! That explanation is oversimplified, but it was something like that."

He notes that he resisted this radical, two-for-one approach "for the longest time, trying to do it all the quick way, but finally admitting I had to write two separate scripts. It took me 18 months from those first interviews through the first draft, going in every day" during the period of 2001-2002.

The resulting fiascothe setting up of the project under director Antoine Fuqua; some unspecified "fallings-out" that led to work by other writers on the order of Richard Price and Terry George; the project's much-publicized collapse over the issue of (what else?) budget disputesis complicated and not especially relevant to the finished product. What matters, at least to Zaillian, is that he was sure the picture would never get made. "So much money had been invested before they stopped production. I mean, they ere two weeks away from shooting before they shut it down. It seemed like it wasn't going to happen. I just figured tied be written off as a tax loss. Why I went back to Ridley, I don't know. I'm just Pollyanna, I guess.

But shop it to Scott (who had read it years before) he did. Are you sure you don't want to do this? Zaillian asked. He got a re-read and a thumbs-up. A short time later, Russell Crowe signed on, and, as Zaillian puts it with a smile, You've got Denzel, you've got Russell Crowe; you have Ridley Scott and a script they all like. How are you going to not make the movie?

As it happens, Scott had been looking for a contemporary, light-on-its-feet project, and he responded to something loose and gutsy in Zaillian's scriptcharacteristics directly related to the movies of Frank Lucas' heyday. I made a conscious effort to incorporate the influence of the films I loved from the 1970s into the style, says the writer. Films like The French Connection and Serpico, with short little scenes, not much dialogue, told mostly visually. In that style you can go for 10 minutes without a line of dialogue.

It was intentional that it could be filmed in a non-fussy, non-gorgeous style not necessarily hand-held, but less elegantly composed and more documentary-like than something such as The Godfather. I felt we'd be lucky to capture that quality.

That feel is what Scott was after, as well. These are 350 scenes in American Gangster tiny little scenes, sometimes one-line scenes and he had a normal 75, 80-day shooting schedule. Well, do the math, that's four or five scenes a day, and with company moves, not just one set-up of people talking. So, you have to know exactly what you're going to do with two or three cameras; not just block blithely, but in a way that makes sense and still get in and get out.

Ridley was looking forward to that [challenge] because it would give [the film] a kind of energy. He wasn't after anything glossy, anything with a strongly deliberate compositional style like Blade Runner or Gladiator. We all felt that something more frenetic and on-the-fly would be right for the story. The l970sfilms that we loved felt like that to us, and the craziness of shooting in New York on the streets of Harlem seemed to fit the approach.

I love working with Ridley. He's not a writer, but he respects and admires writers and works with them as partners. You have the faith that he knows exactly what he's doing as a director and can bring something to the table.

American Gangster; American Businessman
Zaillian jokingly asserts that From now on, everything I write is going to be about gangsters. I think it's no accident that movies about gangsters are all successful and entertaining and fascinating. More seriously, he mulls over the themes inherent in the Frank Lucas story and how they drew him and Scott to construct something more than just a fast-paced crime thriller.

As I was writing, I wasn't thinking Oh, he's dealing heroin. He's in business, and it could be any business, the mechanism to get to the top is the same. In a way, this is the story of American business, not just the drug story. I said that to Ridley early on because he expressed some concern about making a movie about a heroin dealer, but to me it's not whether you're glorifying it or not; you're telling a story, and it is what it is.

Zaillian points to a sequence in the script, but much more powerful when you see itthat cross-cuts between the Lucases' huge Thanksgiving feast and people overdosing on the streets of Harlem. It's devastating, that sequence. It was important to Ridley never to forget the cost of what Frank is doing.

Of course, Lucas himself faced a steep cost. Frank had a lot of pressure, feeling as if someone was going to shoot him, and it could've been anybody: rivals, cops At one point somebody says to Frank, Your success is what took a shot at you. What are you going to do to protect yourself against that: You can be unsuccessful if you want; you'll be safe? But the price of success can be high.

As a highly successful black businessman, Frank Lucas was an inevitable target to other drug dealers, the cops, the Italians, the whole world of doing business. As the writer puts it, His life was in danger constantly. With Frank Lucas out of the picture, things could go back to normal. Part of the normal is the interplay between the under-world and the authorities who especially at that point in time often fell short of their nominal responsibility to society, and that relationship is central to American Gangster.

What Nick [Pileggi, an executive producer on the film] and I talked about earlier on was the strict moral code within the criminal side of the story, and sort of the exact opposite on the police side. Something I wrote on a card so that I wouldn't forget it was: THE CORRUPTION OF THE OFFICIAL WORLD. That official world is a lot more secret and not as openly criminal as people dealing heroin on the streets, but it allows the order criminals to thrive.

And right up until he's arrested, Frank never thinks it'll come to that because he knows how the system works. As he says, I put more cops kids through college that the National Merit awards. I support the police. They're not going to let me get arrested. What he didn't reckon on was an honest cop's coming along.

Fundamentally, Zaillian sees Richie Roberts as a dogged cop who would never give up, who was going to get his man. At the same time, Roberts had a certain ambivalence about his quest, because The obstacles to bringing down Fran Lucas were not Frank Lucas and his family. It was the guys on Richie's side of the law: the crooked cops who made money with Frank and who wanted him to stay in business; some of the Feds, who had other things going on and didn't care about Lucas. There was a time when Richie wanted information from FBI about Frank's travels, and they wouldn't cooperate. So, he was very frustrated and upset; that's his struggle in this story to get through all of that and get Frank Lucas.

Zaillian ingeniously employs a visual analogue for both Roberts' investigation and the characters lives. In terms of Frank's rise and Richie's fall, what was important to me was the pyramid of power that runs through the whole script. The Table of Organization. Frank rises from an unimportant figure to the top spot, while Richie's life is going in the other direction. So when Richie puts Frank's picture at the very top of the chart, he's at his very lowest point in his own life, and catching Frank becomes the only thing that will redeem him.

How Lucas and Roberts lives finally intersect, and the astonishing outcome of their parallel story, are things we'll leaver for viewers of American Gangster to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that whole the characters are face-to-face only toward the very end of the movie, it wasn't meant to be that way at first.

The funny thing is, I had another, earlier scene where Frank and Richie did meet, and it was cut for budget reasons. It's Christmas-time. Frank is at a Christmas tree lot and Richie is following him, with Frank wondering whether Richie is tailing him. He gets a sense that he might be a cop, and they have a conversation. So, Richie knows who Frank is; Frank thinks he might know who Richie is; and neither one wants to reveal who they are or how much they know, so they have a conversation in which not one word out of their mouths is the truth! I really like that scene.

Clearly, American Gangster is the latest in a long tradition of screen crime dramas. In discussing its place within that tradition, Zaillian evokes his power metaphor: The Godfather is at the top of the pyramid, the Table of Organization. I don't think anything will ever touch it. And The Sopranos occupies a pretty high spot. What was important to me was to take a really serious, down-to-earth approach to the story, something that wasn't as operatic as The Godfather or with the heightened reality of Scarface, which I also love.

And where does the film fit within the arc of his own career? He says, I tried to be very careful right at the beginning to work on things that I thought were good, rather than what people asked me to do. Or doing something where I thought, Oh, I can sell this idea even though I'm not that interested in it. He points out that the common denominator among his more personal films among which he cites Awakenings, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and The Falcon and The Snowman was that They were troubled pictures. That is, not overly commercial prospects. They were movies that barely got made because the elements barely made financial sense.

Yet his rsum also includes some titles Clear and Present Danger, Mission Impossible, Hannibalwhich were, by his definition, financially safe rather than troubled. He allows that The times I have done things that were, for lack of a better phrase, less me, was to accomplish something else, like the chance to direct something or to make a different kind of deal than I could before. That was important to me because for a long time I've been fighting this idea that writers only get paid a percentage for their work unless the movie gets madeof writers being the only ones on a picture working on commission, as it were. Some of these deals were made to put a stop to that.

The pedigrees of American Gangster's stars and director certainly seem to guarantee at least initial commercial interest, though because of its darkness and thematic elements, it likely belongs in Zaillian's more personal category. To be sure, Schlindler's List was (to put it mildly) a financial risk as well, and the success both financially and artistically is now legend. So, Steven Zaillian's track record would seem to give his new film a better than even-money shot.

It'll just come down as it always does to business.

Writing Real-Life Characters [sidebar]
In the simplest terms, Steven Zaillian was inspired to write American Gangster because he met a fascinating fellow to whom interesting and unique thins happened. Many of us meet such people in our everyday lives and say. Wow, that life would make a great movie. Yet when we sit down to tell the tale, somehow we can't get it to work in movie terms. The veteran adapter of such true stories as The Falcon and The Snowman, A Civil Action, and of course Schlindler's List advises those who want to bring real lives to the screen to avoid cramming in everything they've got.

It's always hard. I mean, it's not like I've done it so often that now I know what the formula is. But one thing I've decide I that you need to know everything about a character by the time the film is over. You don't need to know everything in the first 10 minutes. If you can get that information in at some point, that's enough. In Schlindler's List, I put what we needed to know about his past in the beginning of the third act, when he returns home and we hear his friends amazement that anything ever became of him, because he was such a loser. But before that, seeing how he behaves at the cabaret in the opening scene is all we need to know about how he works.

Also, some smart person once said that your screenplay should start as late as you can and end as early as you can. And I do think that containing the story as much as possible, finding the shortest time period, works for me. Inside a person's larger story there's a second story, and that's what you want to bring to the film.

In terms of American Gangster, Frank Lucas told me the whole story of his life from when he was a kid in North Carolina, and there were a lot of interesting parts on either side of the portion that ended up in the script. But I focused on just a three or four-year period, ignoring all the rest. Oh, there might be some expositional reference here and there. But not much.

There were people along the way who said, I want to know more about Frank's lifewhat is was like to come to New York when he was 15, and how he got to be the bodyguard of Bumpy Johnson. And I'd say, well, if you have all that stuff in there, it's not going to be the same movie. Then it belongs on the Biography Channel, and I'm not interested in writing that kind of birth-to-death story.

It's a lesson that Zaillian says he learned when writing a screenplay covering 40 years in the life and career of columnist and opinion-maker Walter Winchell. But it didn't quite work. It was too much. And then I saw Sweet Smell of Success againthe famous Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman film noir whose main character J.J. Hunsecker was Winchell-inspired, and which takes place over three days"and I said, that's how you do it. That told me everything I needed to know.

So, you can capture the scope of a life by dramatizing only the events of three of its years, or even three of its days. But Zaillian adds, It's got to be the right three years.

What we do in life...echoes in eternity

Isis,Queen of Pits
Military Historian, RHR