CAPTURING THE VIETNAM ERA: FILMING IN NEW YORK AND THAILAND
"I have to see everything, because it's my homework. I see the inside of places; I see the inside of houses…how people live and dress. I glom on to that kind of information."--Ridley Scott
From imagining the dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 in Blade Runner to Maximus' ancient Rome in Gladiator, director Ridley Scott has forged a career since his earliest days in advertising as an uncompromising aesthetic master. Re-creating the universe of Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas' 1970s-era Harlem would prove quite an ambitious task for all involved in the American Gangster team.
To the art-student-turned-director who had spent decades making films, however, nothing seemed impossible--not even lensing in 152 different locations with almost 100 actors in speaking roles. Commends producer Grazer, "Ridley creates worlds, and he gets people on screen to have a tremendous connectivity. He can breathe life into the words on a page and make them become three-dimensional."
American Gangster is one of the most sprawling tales ever told in and about New York City. And while Frank Lucas operated his drug empire primarily out of Harlem, the production took place in all five boroughs of New York City, primarily in practical locations. There were also a few days' filming in upstate New York and suburban Long Island.
While there are inherent difficulties in re-creating a city from three decades ago, the director knew New York City quite well; indeed, he had spent much time in the Bowery District in the early '60s. Scott states, "I knew what to do with Harlem…finding little nooks and corners and crannies of what Harlem must have been." His imaging for the film was to "take big, wide shots to get a big picture of Harlem."
Primarily using handheld cameras, cinematographer Harris Savides kept pace with what Scott described as a "guerilla filmmaking" style. Savides rose to the challenge as the director worked with his usual propensity for multicamera setups and shot nearly the entire film on practical locations.
Another longtime Scott collaborator, Arthur Max, turned his production design skills toward exhaustive location scouting to find the parts of New York that could still resemble the city of the early 1970s. He found that Harlem had changed much since the days of Frank and the Country Boys. To capture the look and feel of the neighborhood of the period, the crew shot 20 blocks north of Lucas' infamous 116th Street, lensing on 136th Street and switching those street signs to complete the look.
For the real Frank Lucas, filming in Harlem was a revisit to his days of glory-- though not all his old neighbors were ready to give him a hero's welcome. On set nearly every day Washington worked, Lucas sat in his wheelchair, surrounded by his immediate family, and reminisced. "Yeah, he looks like Babyface (one of the SIU's not-so-finest), right down to the leather coat," Lucas acknowledged while pointing at Josh Brolin in character. "He even got that walk down, and they got him driving that Shelby car like he did."
Washington, who was born in upstate New York and attended college at Fordham University in Manhattan, felt at home in this historic capital of urban black culture. "I've had a chance to film all over this city with Spike [Lee]," says the actor. "In fact, we shot in the same church that we used for this movie. It's nice to walk some of the same streets I walked as a child; people walk up that actually know me from back in those days."
Filming in the midst of the 100-degree-plus summer left at least one member of the cast feeling slightly less nostalgic. "Trying to run up and down stairs in '70s-cut Levis in a New York heat wave," Crowe says, shaking his head. "I ran 54 steps up and 54 down and another 75 up again, one day. After 10 flights, your jeans are completely wet, and they're so tight that they cut off your circulation."
Production began in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a newly gentrified section of the venerable borough where artists and musicians vie for high-priced lofts and condo-converted warehouses. The filmmakers were searching for an older, seedier section of the neighborhood and found a scrap-metal shop to serve as a site for a money drop in which Roberts and his partner conducted surveillance. Filming would return to this neighborhood, near Myrtle and Broadway, on three other occasions for subsequent sequences involving drug deals and undercover action.
While the production relocated almost daily--if not several times daily--one of the lengthiest stays was at the Governors Island location, to which the crew ferried each morning for almost a week. The island, a few miles across New York Harbor from the Statue of Liberty, is a former army barracks and training base that transferred from U.S. government hands back to New York State in 2003. The high-rise buildings that once housed military personnel have been vacant ever since. These apartments served the production for several interior sets, including Lucas' infamous heroin-cutting den and the housing projects in which the final drug busts take place.
For exterior shots, the Marlboro Projects in the Gravesend section of south Brooklyn provided visuals of the 28 buildings that offer low-cost housing to 1,700 families. It is also home to numerous drug dealers, petty thieves and gangs. The film company spent two days there filming Roberts' rescue of his drug-addicted partner, Javier (John Ortiz), from a mob after the addled police detective killed his supplier.
Fortunately, not all the locations were quite so gritty. Among the most beautiful was the estate that stood in for the home of Italian mobster Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) in Old Westbury Gardens, Long Island. The Gardens themselves are 160 acres and surround a mansion built in 1906 for steel-business magnate John Phipps.
The site of Lucas' own country estate was only slightly less grand. Briarcliff Manor, New York--a suburb about an hour north of Manhattan--was home to such old-money families as the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. Two properties were used as sets there: one that served as the stately home Lucas buys for his family after he's brought them north, and the second, a far a more modest spread, that served as the family's North Carolina farm.
One of the biggest scenes shot in New York was a re-creation of the first Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden, when Lucas tips off Roberts--by sitting in the best seats in the house and wearing an extravagant chinchilla coat--that he might be the biggest new hustler in the drug game. Filmed at the 16,000-seat Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, the arena was filled with extras in period costumes--along with many famous faces who were actually in the ringside seats that historic night. At least, they looked like the actual celebrities.
"It took us weeks and weeks to find the right people for the celebrity look-alikes," explains extras casting director Billy Dowd. "We went to celebrity look-alike agencies, put an ad in Show Business and Backstage, newspapers, Craigslist. Some were very hard to find; some walked right into our offices, and we cast them immediately." Fortuitously, the son of Arthur Mercante, the actual man who refereed the legendary fight, played his father in the ring.
If finding the right people to stand in as celebrity extras was a challenge, outfitting nearly 1,000 extras, dressed to the nines for the fight of the decade, was no less a feat for costume designer Janty Yates. "We used a lot of photos from the real event and made replicas of a lot of those outfits for our featured group," Yates explains. "We looked all over New York and had to corner the market on tuxedos and cocktail dresses from the period to dress our crowd."
Stateside filming wrapped in New York and moved to northern Thailand, where Scott would re-create Lucas' time in Southeast Asia. Ingeniously, the gangster had moved heroin shipments on military planes and then sent them to Eastern Seaboard bases with the help of U.S. Army soldiers whom Lucas had on the take. His crew constructed a scheme in which false bottoms were put in coffins that concealed six to eight kilos of heroin; the first trip alone yielded a take of 132 kilos.
In this area of Thailand, approximately two hours north of the city of Chiang Mai, scenes from Lucas' trip to the opium-rich poppy fields of the Golden Triangle--also known as the intersection among Burma, Thailand and Laos--were filmed. This region in Southeast Asia is where the majority of the world's poppy crop was grown 30 years ago.
Production designer Max's team built a traditional Thai village and rice barn in the middle of a peanut field to represent the opium-processing center where Lucas seals his first deals with military drug suppliers, who were likely members of Chiang Kai-shek's former Kuomintang army. There, Lucas makes the connections that will allow him to undercut every other drug wholesaler by buying directly from the source and providing a purer product.
In preparation for filming the scenes in which Lucas meets with his military cousin-by-marriage in Bangkok to secure the trip to the opium fields and meet this supplier, Max recreated the market scenes in the city of Chiang Mai. Matters were not helped by the fact that the government had recently been disbanded in a coup d'etat, and the production had to rely on local workers and a changing political structure to create a city with never-ending nightlife that served as a docking station for service members. Complete with pulsing neon, fluorescent lighting and multilayered sets, one doesn't have to look closely to see the futuristic Asian influences of Blade Runner in this design.
SOUNDS OF A GENERATION: MUSIC OF AMERICAN GANGSTER
Director/producer Scott and producer Grazer were adamant that the soundtrack for their drama was intercut with the great music that was the reality of Frank Lucas' world. Grazer offers, "I wanted the film to be encased with music like B-sides of albums from the era. As much as I like the songs we recognize, I wanted to introduce a visual and sonic world that is a contained entity of the '70s." Likewise, Scott felt it was vital to have "the brand of music that was Harlem at the time."
As the film's music supervisor, Kathy Nelson, explains, "This was probably one of the richest eras of music. It was right at the beginning of the whole funk scene. Harlem was as much about music as it was about drugs and whatever else was going on. The music scene was really exploding, particularly in the R & B and funk areas."
Music of the soundtrack offers an album full of not just funk and R & B, but also classic blues, soul and hip-hop. Tracks from blues originator John Lee Hooker; guitar legend Bobby Womack; rhythm, country and blues greats The Staple Singers; gritty, ill-fated soul duo Sam & Dave; and multihyphenate blues man Lowell Fulson permeate the film.
Drawing upon inspiration from such legends, the first single released, "Do You Feel Me," written by legendary Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren and performed by platinum artist Anthony Hamilton--a musician known for his raw emotions and smooth sounds--reflects a 2007 perspective on the world influenced by Frank "Haint of Harlem" Lucas. It serves to introduce him to his bride-to-be, Lydia, in Small's Paradise, a nightclub filled with the smooth, dangerous characters one would easily find at the hottest club in town back in the day.
An event no one involved in the production expected was that the film would have such a profound effect on one hip-hop mogul that he would create an album of entirely original material to be released in conjunction with American Gangster. After he viewed an early screening, rap superstar and president of Def Jam Records Jay-Z was deeply moved by Denzel Washington's portrayal of Frank Lucas. So much so, he felt inspired to create original material that drew upon his past experiences as a hustler and drug dealer, a life somewhat parallel to the '70s gangster Lucas.
The artist notes that the film sparked an unexpected burst of creativity from him, because it felt like "this guy was looking in my window." He was so affected by this true story, because where he was from, "we had never seen someone ascend to those heights. It was unfathomable to be over the mob, for people coming from these neighborhoods. I felt a sense of being proud, but at the same time, it was illegal activity with human beings on the other side of this tale."
The film's trailer was already using "Heart of the City," an older song by Jay-Z, when Jay-Z made his decision. For the conceptual album he wrote to accompany Gangster, the singer/songwriter notes that he wanted to go a different direction from previous work. He admits that he is taking the listener on a musical journey that speaks to the harsh reality of the drug trade occurring in our nation. In the songs, the rapper articulates a tale that follows the conflicting lure of a gangster's life and stands as an example of one who chose to leave the danger of those streets behind for a career in music.
The Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn native has become one of the most successful black entrepreneurs of our day; his difficult journey is not lost in this album. To complement the story of the film, Jay-Z takes the audience into a world rich in family, thrilling in hustling and descriptive in the brutalizing effects of drugs on an inner-city community in which "the game and the life take over." He, like Frank Lucas, knows all too well the dizzying effects of becoming "addicted to what's happening."
Principal photography wrapped, editing finished and music scored, Scott, Grazer and the cast and crew find the end of a journey that started with a young North Carolina sharecropper who had risen to the heights of power in New York City…only to have the fruits of his labor taken away by a hard-edged cop who grappled with demons of his own.
Best concluding our story is the American Gangster's director. Of his hopes for audiences who experience the film, Ridley Scott reflects: "I hope they feel fully engaged by these two great actors and how they suck you into the world and evolution of these two characters."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
RIDLEY SCOTT (Directed by/Produced by) earned consecutive Academy Award nominations for Best Director for his stunning re-creation of the deadly 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, in Black Hawk Down, one of 2001's biggest box-office hits, and for the epic adventure Gladiator--his vivid and dramatic evocation of ancient Rome that won five Oscars, out of 12 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Russell Crowe, as well as directing nominations for Scott from the DGA and BAFTA.
Gladiator also won the Golden Globe and British Academy Awards for Best Picture, and has earned more than $800 million at the global box office. Both motion picture triumphs further solidified his reputation as one of contemporary cinema's most innovative, influential and versatile visual stylists.
Scott was born in South Shields, Northumberland, England. Reared in London, Cumbria, Wales and Germany, he returned to Northeast England to live in Stockton-on-Tees. He studied at the West Hartlepool College of Art where he excelled in graphic design and painting, two strengths that would later serve as his signatures on the movie screen. He also studied at London's Royal Academy of Art, where his contemporaries included the famous artist David Hockney. During his studies there, Scott completed his first short film.
Graduating with honors, Scott was awarded a traveling scholarship to the United States. During his year there, he was employed by Time Life, Inc., where he gained valuable experience working with award-winning documentarians Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. Upon his return to the U.K., he joined the BBC as a production designer and, within a year, graduated to directing many of the network's popular television programs.
After three years, he left to form his own company, RSA, which soon became one of the most successful commercial production houses in Europe--later adding offices in New York and Los Angeles. Over the years, Scott has directed over three thousand commercials, including the captivating spot for Chanel No. 5 entitled Share the Fantasy and the memorable Orwellian homage for Apple Computers that aired only once, during the 1984 Super Bowl. His work in the commercial arena has collected awards at the Venice and Cannes film festivals, as well as being honored by the New York Art Directors Club. RSA still maintains a high-profile company in the global marketplace and represents some of the most-acclaimed directors in the film and advertising arenas.
Scott made the leap from commercial production to movies with 1977's The Duellists, the lustrous Napoleonic War saga that brought him the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His second film switched genres, taking the filmmaker from the past into the frightening future with the groundbreaking sci-fi thriller Alien, which walked off with an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. He stayed in the future, and set the stage for future filmmakers, with his next feature, Blade Runner, which is considered one of the milestones of contemporary moviemaking and was also added to the National Film Registry, maintained by the U.S. Library of Congress, the "youngest" film to be so honored.
Scott followed this triumph later in the decade with three more films--the big-screen fairy tale Legend, ; the urban thriller Someone to Watch Over Me, and the cross-cultural gangster epic Black Rain.
In 1987, Scott formed Percy Main Productions to develop and produce feature films. The first production, which he helmed, was Thelma & Louise. which won the Best Original Screenplay prize and was also nominated for two British Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. He followed with 1492: Conquest of Paradise, his historical epic, and The Browning Version, produced by Scott.
In 1995, along with younger brother Tony, also a successful filmmaker, he formed Scott Free Productions, which produced White Squall, G.I. Jane, and the blockbuster sequel Hannibal, all three directed by Ridley Scott. Scott directed his own caper comedy, Matchstick Men, and the epic story of the Crusades Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom and Jeremy Irons. Scott also recently executive-produced Kevin Reynolds' costume epic Tristan & Isolde; Curtis Hanson's family drama In Her Shoes; and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. He is also currently directing and producing Body of Lies, starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, and producing Churchill at War, continuing the story line of The Gathering Storm for HBO Films. The company also produced Showtime's CableACE-winning anthology series The Hunger, adapted from Tony Scott's 1983 film, and the Emmy-and Golden Globe Award-winning HBO telefilm RKO 281, starring Liev Schreiber as Orson Welles in the docudrama re-creating the making of Citizen Kane. Scott Free also executive-produced The Gathering Storm for HBO. The telefilm won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for Best Made for Television Movie, depicting the life of Winston Churchill. and starring Emmy-winning Best Actor Albert Finney and Emmy nominee Vanessa Redgrave. The company also recently signed a two-year deal with CBS to develop up to three projects for the network, the first of which is the acclaimed drama Numb3rs. Scott, together with his brother, Tony Scott, was part of the consortium that purchased two preeminent European film studios, Shepperton Studios and Pinewood Studios, which merged in 2001. The studio complex houses 42 stages, backlots and locations, as well as award-winning postproduction and production support services. Scott originally filmed Alien at this facility. In recognition for his contributions to the arts, Scott was awarded a knighthood in 2003 from the Order of the British Empire.
STEVEN ZAILLIAN (Written by/Executive Producer) won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation for Schindler's List and was nominated two other times, for Awakenings and Gangs of New York. He most recently wrote, directed and produced the remake of All the King's Men, whose star-studded cast included Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins. Born in Fresno, California, to parents of Armenian descent, Zaillian graduated from San Francisco State University in 1975 with a degree in cinema. He began his film career as an editor in 1977 on a series of low-budget films before adapting a screenplay for a true story about a pair of young spies, The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) . His next produced script came five years later with an adaptation of an Oliver Sacks story about a medical miracle entitled Awakenings, In 1993, Zaillian wrote the screenplay for the comedy-drama Jack the Bear, then turned his talents to directing with Searching for Bobby Fischer. He waited five years before directing his next film, A Civil Action, based on the remarkable book by Jonathan Harr, which he also executive-produced. Among Zaillian's other screenplay credits are the spy thriller Clear and Present Danger, Ridley Scott's Hannibal and Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter. He also received a story credit for the action hit Mission: Impossible.
BACK TO PREVIOUS PAGE HOME