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THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY: AMERICAN GANGSTER IS CREATED
The legend of heroin smuggler/family man/death dealer/civic leader Frank Lucas was first chronicled in a New York Magazine article by journalist Mark Jacobson seven years ago. In 2000, executive producer Nicholas Pileggi--who co-wrote the screenplays for Goodfellas and Casino with Martin Scorsese--introduced Jacobson to Lucas, thus beginning a journey in which Lucas recounted his outrageous rise and fall to the journalist. From watching his cousin murdered by the KKK in La Grange, North Carolina, to earning mind-boggling figures in drug sales to facing a lifetime in prison, Lucas had one stunner of a true tale.
Jacobson's subsequent "The Return of Superfly" unfolded the complex story of a desperately poor sharecropper who moved to Harlem and slowly bypassed the usual suspects of its burgeoning heroin scene to rule a New York City empire. Through selling a purer product at a cheaper price to thousands of addicts in the Vietnam-era streets, Lucas amassed a fortune calculated in the tens of millions--and the eventual attention of the law. Had he not been pushing an illegal, deadly substance new to this country, Lucas would have assuredly been celebrated as one of the keenest businessmen of the decade, if not the century, for his family-run enterprise.
Growing up penniless in a small Southern town, Lucas arrived in New York in 1946 as a self-described "different sonofabitch." For two decades, he worked side-by-side with Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (the inspiration for the black godfather of the '70s Shaft films), serving as the kingpin's right-hand man until Johnson's death in 1968--tutored in the ways of gangsters like Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano. And upon Johnson's death, Lucas seized the reins. He changed the name of the game to the hot new import heroin and immediately put his stamp on the city--with a gun to the head of anyone who dared challenge him.
Fascinated by Jacobson's article, Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer optioned the project for Imagine Entertainment and met with Pileggi and Lucas to discuss the gangster's exploits. Many of Grazer's recent celebrated films have been inspired by real-life subjects overcoming the seemingly insurmountable--from 8 Mile and Friday Night Lights to A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Grazer viewed Lucas' story as a metaphor for the greediness of white-collar capitalism and had, admittedly, never heard anything quite like it.
Grazer was fascinated by the cautionary tale of a man with "the dream of corporate America who found a way to make a deal with individuals in Southeast Asia that could lead him to the highest grade of heroin." He continues, "After he had this heroin, he would make a deal with U.S. military officers to import it in body bags of U.S. soldiers traveling from Vietnam back into America [the so-called Cadaver Connection]. I thought that was a remarkable, inescapable and interesting idea." The producer would take this option and turn to veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian to pen a script based on Lucas' life.
Oscar-winner Zaillian--responsible for such landmark cinematic interpretations as Steven Spielberg's directorial masterpiece Schindler's List and Martin Scorsese's lauded Gangs of New York--would spend months with Lucas and his former pursuer (now retained attorney) Richie Roberts to give shape to their improbable tale that spanned decades. Zaillian would also become fascinated with the unlikely relationship between this multimillionaire thug/entrepreneur and this complicated cop-turned-prosecutor. He was certain to weave a shattering parable that didn't just dramatize Lucas' rise and fall but told of the juxtaposed path of his chief tracker and nemesis.
Roberts, who spent the late 1960s to early '70s as an Essex County, New York, detective, was the man ultimately responsible for bringing down the folk hero. Grazer and Zaillian thought that what made this story especially compelling was not just Lucas--who lived by a strict code of family and community as he pushed poison into thousands of lives in the very community in which he lived--but also Roberts, who found his own destiny interwoven with that of the drug kingpin.
The officer of Zaillian's screenplay was a purported ladies' man who struggled to keep his personal life in check, while he lived and breathed the strong arm of the law. One of the few lawmen at the time not pulled into the temptation of a life on the take, Roberts (or at least Zaillian's incarnation of this hardened cop) needed to face the exact opposite issues of the writer's Lucas.
First attached to the project was director Antoine Fuqua, who had directed Denzel Washington in his 2001 Oscar-winning portrayal of corrupt LAPD narcotics officer Alonzo Harris in Training Day. Washington, initially resistant to portray a man whose complex rise to power meant the death of so many, was captivated by the script and came aboard for the lead role. He was intrigued by the intricate story of Lucas' life, and believed the businessman who had hurt so many was, in fact, trying to redeem himself through years of penitence.
The actor would have to wait a few more years to take the role to the screen.
Prior to the start of principal photography in 2004, Universal Pictures stopped the development of the project. Remembers producer Grazer: "Everything just flatlined, and I was devastated for about a week. But I still really believed in this project."
During several more drafts by other writers and some other flirtations with actors and directors, Grazer kept pursing Ridley Scott as his ultimate dream director. Scott believed in the epic trajectory that Zaillian had created--chronicling the life of a man viewed as both martyr and murderer, depending upon the source. It would take the combined power of producer Grazer and Scott to resurrect the project and welcome back Washington.
Grazer offers, "I charged forward with all my energy and full commitment to get it made. I'd taken the script to Ridley Scott seven or eight times, and he always liked it, but the timing was never right for him. This time--the ninth or tenth time--he said, 'Yes.'"
The British filmmaker--known for his four decades of creations from science-fiction films Blade Runner and Alien to dramas Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Thelma & Louise and Hannibal--was drawn to the muddy ethics and ultimate paradox of the two protagonists in Zaillian's story. But it would be some time before he was ready to step behind the camera to make American Gangster.
Indeed, Scott had encouraged Zaillian to flesh out more of Richie Roberts' tale in the previous versions of the script he read. Scott was quite interested in the paradox that, while Lucas was dealing drugs--yet reportedly had a sterling home life--Roberts had a personal life that was "shot to hell" and "he became infamous fairly early on in his career within the police department when he found a million dollars in the trunk of a car on a stakeout. After he turned it in, he could no longer be trusted inside the department."
The director felt the double-helix dynamic was worth investigating, and, that if he were to tackle the project, he would "explore two universes--hopefully making them both fascinating and gradually bringing them together. They're carefully intercut, because every time you intercut between these two worlds, they're getting closer together." He would do the picture if his frequent partner joined him in the effort, proposing that Crowe play the part of Richie Roberts and that Washington rejoin.
With Crowe and Scott on board, Washington found he couldn't say no to preparing to play Frank Lucas one more time. The actor states, "Brian came to me and said, 'I've got Ridley.' Well, Ridley's one of the great filmmakers of our time, so you can't say 'No.'" He would finally begin playing the man who had grown from chicken thief to the king of Harlem.
To prepare for the role, Washington acknowledges that he, "got in a room with Frank, turned on the recorder and talked with him. I didn't try to imitate him, necessarily, but Frank's such a charmer; that's key to his character. I played Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter and did the same thing with him--just hung out with him, got him alone and got the truth--or, hopefully, got some version of it. But with Frank, I said, 'Don't tell me anything I don't need to know. I don't want to have to testify.'"
In his research, the New York native learned more than he ever thought possible about the drug trade, specifically, the Country Boys' Blue Magic. "In those days, as the story is told, heroin was sold for $50,000 to $60,000 a kilo at 50 percent, 60 percent purity," he comments. "Frank found it 100-percent pure for $4,200 a kilo and sold it on the street at a higher purity and lower price than his competition. You can do the math. He made an incredible amount of money, at one point claiming about a million dollars a day himself."
Continues Washington, "What interested me in the story was not to glorify a drug dealer, and I told Frank that when I met him." Interestingly, Washington wrote the biblical passage Isaiah 48:22 ["There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked"] on his shooting script to remind him of Lucas' journey and quest for redemption.
Game for a third collaboration with the director and a third with producer Grazer, Crowe signed on for the part of the complicated and hardened police officer Roberts. He was interested in how Zaillian's story captured the time and place in which the corrupt New York City, the borough of Harlem and the slightly simpler world of New Jersey operated as satellites for one another in the drug-fueled era. Corruption had become so rampant within the Narcotics Special Investigations Unit (SIU) community, according to journalist Mark Jacobson in "The Return of Superfly," that "by 1977, 52 out of 70 officers who'd worked in the unit were either in jail or under indictment." Roberts was the exception to the norm, and Crowe admired what he learned of the man.
Recalling Grazer's initial discussions with him, Crowe says, "I'd read five or six different versions of the script, and I knew which way I would lean, but it all comes down to the captain of the ship. I'd gotten a call from Brian on Friday, and on Saturday I got a call from Ridley about something else, and I asked if he'd read the latest draft. He said he had, and he'd loved it. So, I said, 'Do you think we'd appear greedy if we did another film together so quickly?' He said, 'Who cares?'"
However, making a movie about real people, Crowe notes, is not the same as making a documentary about their lives. "Our script breaks down a period, and the timeline is condensed to tell a story," says the actor. "There are things we have Richie do in the movie that he didn't do. Everything about him is contradictory. None of his real story has traditional elements--and he's not somebody you can easily categorize. When it comes down to it, you're doing an impression."
With the two lead talents in place, the production began the search for the cast of actors who would fill out an all-star ensemble with more than 30 principal roles.
COUNTRY BOYS AND LAWLESS MEN: CASTING THE FILM
To perform opposite Washington and Crowe in American Gangster, Scott and Grazer recruited a top-notch group of actors. For Lucas' family, they would need to cast a crew of brothers and cousins whom he brought to Harlem to help sell product. For the roles of the cult figure's heroin-dealing ring known as the Country Boys--so named because of their upbringing in the backwoods of North Carolina--the production looked to a mix of talent with backgrounds ranging from classical training to hip-hop performance. The real names and relations were changed for the film's screenplay.
The lead Country Boy, Lucas' younger brother and right-hand man, Huey, was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor with an impressive American film resume. "I'd worked with Chiwetel on Inside Man," says Grazer. "He played Denzel's partner in that movie, so they already had a terrific working relationship. Even though he's British, he slips into an American character like he was born in this country. His character is very flamboyant and unpredictable, which makes an interesting contrast to Frank's cool and low-key personality."
Other Lucas family members prominently featured in the film include a couple of best-selling artists relatively new to film--rapper Common as Frank's brother Turner and rising hip-hop artist T.I. as Frank's impressionable nephew Stevie. Scott, aware that these performers might not warm to the slow pace of making movies, was impressed by how they adapted to the unique demands of film work. He commends, "It seems that acting is a natural step from singing. We see some great performances from Common and T.I."
Matriarch to the clan is legendary actress Ruby Dee, portraying Mama Lucas. The recipient of the John F. Kennedy Center Honors and Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award, Dee served as inspiration to many of those on set. For the Harlem native, revisiting the world of her youth proved helpful insight for all with whom she worked. The actress notes, "The time of Frank Lucas that American Gangster is about doesn't seem as much of a film to me as it does more of a memory. Gangsters played a very important role in the life of the community, because they were part of the community. They controlled the rackets."
As a child, she lived in an apartment building on 137th Street and 7th Avenue. Of that time, Dee recalls, "People who looked like Denzel would come to the door in twos or threes, and they would give you a greeting and hand you a shopping bag. In there would be a turkey at Thanksgiving; at Christmas there would be toys." Only later in life would she learn that they weren't just helpful citizens; there was a "political connection to the gangster element."
Oscar® winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., was tasked to play Lucas' major rival in the heroin trade, Nicky Barnes. Also a big-time player in the Harlem drug land, Barnes, like Lucas, would eventually turn state's evidence after his arrest. But until that time, he wanted all that Lucas had and more, once appearing on the cover of The New York Times Magazine asserting that he was "Mr. Untouchable." Gooding was curious about the role these dealers played in New York City in the early '70s. He summarizes Barnes and Lucas' appeal: "These cats were looked upon as the true celebrities. Today we have sports celebrities like the Mets and the Yankees or actors, but back then you had the drug dealers. They were the ones that were directly connected to the inner city and the people."
Typifying the mafioso of the day, Armand Assante plays Dominic Cattano, the powerful thorn in the side of Lucas who, like everyone else, is shocked that a black power player has usurped the structure and brought less-expensive, purer heroin to the streets. Assante offers, "Cattano is a powerful man who believes that he and his business are above the law and any competition. Shaken by what he's seen in Frank Lucas, he attempts to work out a mutually beneficial relationship. After Frank declines, Cattano will not stop until he's brought down the full force of his empire upon him."
Another thorn in Lucas' (and ultimately Roberts') side is the on-the-take NYPD detective Trupo, played by Josh Brolin. The Ridley Scott-termed "badass cop" will let anyone sell drugs on his streets, as long as they give him a hefty kickback. Brolin was curious to examine the mind of this "criminal with a badge" who personified the police corruption of the day. To inform his character, he recalled a conversation with a seasoned police officer, who candidly told him, "All you had to tell a drug dealer was, 'All I have to do is shoot you, put the gun in your hand, and I'm gonna get a medal. That's it. It's that simple.' Back then, there weren't a lot of drug dealers or gangsters who killed cops, that was just off-limits; you just didn't do it."
Adding to the ensemble was Lucas' wife, Eva, the former Miss Puerto Rico whom he gently seduces into his life of crime. Scott wanted a young woman with "pleasant innocence" for the part, and turned to Lymari Nadal, an ingénue from Puerto Rico who had earned her master's degree in chemistry before venturing into the acting field. Notes Nadal, "I had a chance to go through the script and make choices about Eva before I met the real person [naturally, her name had been changed for the script]. I'm trying to honor the way she sees her life. The most important things for her, I think, are her love story and how much she could buy, or how much money she could have."
Compliments Denzel Washington of the fellow actors who play Lucas' family and competition, "When I took a look at the cast list, I said, 'Man, these guys are putting this together here.' Actors like Ruby Dee, who plays my mom…she's a legend. Fantastic actors like Armand Assante; Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Clarence Williams III; Chiwetel--this was an unusually interesting group."
On the parallel side of Frank's universe lived Richie Roberts and the players in his world. Once Richie turns over a million dollars in found drug money to the authorities--much to the chagrin of his heroin-sampling partner, Javier Rivera (John Ortiz)--he is a marked man, distrusted by dirty cops and crooks alike.
Given the chance to run a division of the Essex County SIU, Roberts must select an elite group of undercover detectives who are as savvy and streetwise as the criminals they pursue. For these roles, Scott and Grazer looked to veteran character actors John Hawkes and Yul Vazquez, as well as another music-world luminary, RZA--co-founder of the iconic hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. RZA, who had made his mark in films such as the Clive Owen-Jennifer Aniston thriller Derailed, had a long association with Grazer; the two worked together on 8 Mile.
It was interesting for the new SIU team to learn that many narcotics officers work this job because of the rush they get from it; some actually describe the work as a drug itself. Hawkes, who plays Detective Spearman, understood that the bureau--headed by veteran character actor Ted Levine as Lou Toback--was "a precursor to the DEA, one of the first federal drug task forces." The actor explains, "Richie must choose some honest cops, and he finds me, looking like a criminal. I tell him, 'I won't come with you unless you take my other guys, too.' He doesn't know them--Jones and Abruzzo, played by Yul Vazquez and RZA. We just look like complete derelict, crazy men and turn out to be really great cops."
"They're a motley bunch," Crowe says of his crime-fighting teammates. "We did a lot of improv with dialogue, because Ridley gives his actors a lot of space to create. He wanted more out of these situations where they're together trying to figure out how all the pieces fit and who these blokes (in Lucas' criminal underworld) are. In these performances, you had to be on your toes and know your character and the situation, because it's all about the interaction."
While Roberts' professional life is taking off, his personal one is crumbling around him. Chosen to perform as Laurie, the wife in the process of leaving him, was Carla Gugino. The actress felt sympathy for the tough-talking New Yorker who has had enough of her cheating husband and finally decides to move on. "There's absolutely a genuine love there," she says, "but it's the kind of relationship that's impossible, because he's a total philanderer. She's tried to think that he might change, and realizes that he won't--and ultimately decides to take her son to Las Vegas to live with her sister." This was yet another blow to Richie and an even greater reason for him to become obsessed with bringing down the Lucas empire.
Key cast members chosen, Scott, Grazer and five-time Scott production-design partner Arthur Max would begin the painstaking process of re-creating Harlem and Vietnam in the late '60s and early '70s.
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