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'Gangster' gets a shot

The film is full of twists and turns -- and so is the saga of getting it to the screen.

October 15, 2007|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

The upcoming movie, "American Gangster," is a gripping real-life story about a Harlem drug kingpin who in the '70s smuggled heroin out of Southeast Asia in the caskets of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam.

The plot is dense, with lots of twists and turns.

So is the saga of the movie's three lives.

Fraught with emotional trauma, crushed egos, humiliation and passion, the movie's tortured journey to the big screen was unusual even by Hollywood standards. The project was killed off twice by Universal Pictures when the budget soared out of control, then resurrected three years later, at a much higher cost. Seven years in the making, "American Gangster" premieres Nov. 2., with such headliners as producer Brian Grazer, director Ridley Scott, and stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. It weighs in at $100 million, with worldwide marketing likely to add $80 million to the cost, not to mention the $30 million Universal spent to shut down the original production.

In an age when bean counters and focus groups drive movie decisions, the film is the type of highflier reminiscent of Hollywood's past, when studio bosses such as Louis B. Mayer trusted their gut.

"Universal's decision to make this movie defies any kind of logic of how the studio system works today," said Grazer, the Oscar-winning producer behind "American Gangster."

Grazer's ability to revive the movie also shows the power that a handful of top producers have in Hollywood. It's hard for studios to say "no" to people such as Grazer, whose company, Imagine Entertainment, is Universal's most prolific movie supplier.

"Brian is a great producer. He put this project back together in an irresistible way," Universal Studios President Ron Meyer said. "Given the scope of the film and the excellence of the cast, the director, the script and the production qualities, we think it's a very sound investment."

The movie's connection with gangster rap could help it bring in young viewers. Rapper Jay-Z released an album titled "American Gangster" as a companion to the movie's soundtrack that was inspired by scenes from the film.

"The hip-hop generation reveres the gangster culture -- you see it in the lyrics of songs, fashion, style and cultural choices," Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger said.

Careening out of control

"American Gangster's" long road to the silver screen began with author-screenwriter Nick Pileggi, whose book "Wiseguys" was the basis for Martin Scorsese's enduring 1990 gangster classic "Goodfellas." It was through Pileggi, an executive producer on the film, that Grazer met the real-life characters depicted in "American Gangster": Frank Lucas, a semiliterate guy from North Carolina who came to New York and hustled his way to becoming Harlem's drug king. Richie Roberts is the tough New York detective bent on bringing him down.

Pileggi, a seasoned crime writer who had worked for New York magazine, knew Lucas when the gangster was behind bars. In 2000, Pileggi introduced him to reporter Mark Jacobson, who wrote a profile of Lucas in New York magazine.

Pileggi and Jacobson tried to sell the movie rights to Hollywood but no one bit until Grazer became enthralled after his first meeting with Pileggi, Lucas, Richie and Jacobson. The producer suggested hiring Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List"), who after talking through the story with Pileggi and meeting Lucas and Richie, agreed to write a 22-page treatment and later a full-length script.

In its original incarnation, "American Gangster" was to be a joyous reunion of "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua and his Oscar-winning star, Washington. Benecio Del Toro, who won an Academy Award for his supporting role in the 2001 drug crime drama "Traffic," was to portray the cop, Roberts.

Production was to begin in November 2004. But as the date approached, Universal executives began to fret. The film's $85-million budget was careening out of control. Scenes were being cut, then added back in, making it impossible for Universal to get a "locked script." The budget would easily soar past $100 million once production was underway.

In a meeting with Fuqua in New York, Stacey Snider, who at the time was chairwoman of Universal Pictures, and two of her top executives could not rectify the ballooning budget. With cameras set to roll in New York in just a few weeks, Snider and her boss, Meyer, made a rare decision so late in the game: They pulled the plug, opting to cut their losses rather than risk even greater disaster down the road.

"Everybody had a map of how to get the budget down, but nobody was following the map," recalled Snider, who dreaded having to shut down the movie.

"It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made," said Snider, who left Universal in February 2006 to head DreamWorks SKG.

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