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The Write Stuff: Screenwriter Steve Zaillian on Crafting ‘American Gangster’

[IMG:L]With a resume that includes crafting the scripts for such modern classics as The Falcon and the Snowman, AwakeningsSearching for Bobby Fischer (which he also directed), Schindler’s List and Gangs of New YorkSteven Zaillian has earned his status as one of the most admired screenwriters in Hollywood. But as he explained to Hollywood.com in a (spoiler-filled) deconstruction of the creation of his latest project American Gangster, it’s a long and not always easy road from blank page to finished film.

Hollywood.com: This is quite an epic film on a lot of levels. What first put the story of New York drug kingpin Frank Lucas on your radar?
Steve Zaillian:
Nick Pileggi, who is a great writer and a former journalist, knew Frank Lucas back when–I think he covered his trial. He spoke to another writer named Mark Jacobson who wrote an article about Frank, and then talked to me about whether or not I would want to work on a screenplay. Basically I felt that I had to meet Frank and really kind of hear his whole story before I knew what to do with it. So I sat down in a hotel room hear in New York, The Regency Hotel, for about a week with him and Nick and just let him talk. It was during those conversations that I started to think that maybe I could do it.

HW: When did you realize that Det. Richie Roberts’ story was equally important and then they became parallel in the film?
SZ:
It started for me really during those conversations, because Frank would mention him quite often. I was only vaguely aware of who Richie Roberts was so at a certain point we invited Richie to join our sessions and then I met him again with Richie in Los Angeles. I sat down with him alone for another few days and it was just the same thing. The more that he talked about his life even apart from Frank Lucas–I basically got both of their life stories from the time they were kids to when they were in their 60s, which was the time that I met them in. I thought that maybe this was what it was, that it was actually two parallel stories. It was a struggle to make that work, too. I spent about 18 months thinking maybe I should’ve just done the one and not the other. I basically ended up writing two completely different stories–and when I say completely different I had to follow their stories completely on their own–and then figure out some way to combine them.

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HW: What makes the film really unique is that there’s almost two entire movies going side by side. How hard was that to accomplish? What were some of the challenges of really making something that complex work?
SZ:
It was hard. I had to basically write Frank’s story without even dealing with Richie, and then doing the same thing with Richie and then realizing that at the end of act one, if you were to break it down, that was in my outline. The Madison Square Garden scene where Richie first notices Frank. That felt kind of good. That felt like “Oh, that sort of makes sense.” In that first act I’m cutting back and forth between the two of them and then follow Richie’s investigation, and Frank as well, what’s happening in his life as his empire is starting to crumble. There’s only a very short period where Frank is successful and without other problems going on–it’s a very short period of time. I think that’s probably true of a lot of gangsters. As soon as you get too successful, trouble is coming next.

[IMG:R]HW: I really liked that scene you mentioned that put Frank on the radar. One flashy moment in the public eye and all of a sudden he’s under the police microscope. Did that actually happen the way that it happened in the film?
SZ:
Yeah, exactly. It was one of those things where Frank really didn’t censor himself. He didn’t really tell me his story in chronological order either. He would jump around or respond to questions that I had or that Nick had and would jump around in his life. I remember when he mentioned this chinchilla coat. That’s when I picked up my pen and made a star next to a note, because it just felt perfect, that this one mistake that he makes puts him on the radar and that’s the beginning of the end. It was something that he did for his wife and something that he would’ve never done otherwise. So that was one of those great moments where if you’re a writer, and Nick is too, we both got very quiet in the room. It was wonderful.

HW: You had the luxury of getting to know both of these men pretty well over a period of time. How do you pick and choose what to use from reality and then where to depart from reality? Also, how do those guys react to that when they find out about the way you told their stories?
SZ:
At a certain point I start to forget what’s what. I do know, though, that on this one there’s so much that was compelling and true and things that they were talking about that it was more of a case of what do I use and what do I not use. That alone can sometimes skew things in a certain way. But honestly it was more of a case of editing too much story. I tried to keep it all within this three or four year period, rather than telling the life stories–which quite frankly at one point I was tempted to do. I sort of have an inner sense of what’s okay to dramatize or change and what shouldn’t be. I’ve done it a lot and so I sort of have my own compass on what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

HW: When a pair of actors like Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe sign on for the parts, does that help shape or cause some tweaks in the script as the movie goes forward?
SZ:
Oh, yeah. Ridley [Scott] and I met with both of them and they were both very helpful and had great ideas. Some of those made it into the script and then other times they’d make it in on the set. What was great about the two of them is that they were so tuned into their characters that their suggestions would come as if from the characters. Both of them spent time with their counterparts, quite a bit of time with their counterparts and I think really began to think like them. So it was great. I mean, it’s not always like that, but it was great in this case.

HW: With two actors of that caliber and two characters as interesting as these, was there a temptation to not delay the gratification of getting them in scenes together until later and try to do it earlier–or was part of the whole fun to wait and wait and wait until we can finally see these guys in a room together?
SZ:
It was part of the original design. My original outlines have them coming together at the end. That was kind of like the big idea. At a certain point, and I can’t even remember who brought it up–it might’ve been someone at the studio or someone else altogether, I don’t know–but they suggested having an earlier scene with them. I sort of resisted the idea and then thought “Well, let me try it.” So I actually did write a scene that comes about two-thirds of the way through the script where they’re in the same place at the same time and I fell in love with the scene [laughs]. I loved the scene and everybody else felt that it wasn’t necessary and so they didn’t shoot it. It’s one of those things though where I fought it and then thought “Wait a minute, this could actually be really good.” It was a scene where Richie knows who Frank is, obviously by that point, and Frank thinks he might know who Richie is or knows that he might be a cop, anyway. And they have this conversation. It was fun to write it. They’re both sort of circling around each other and not letting on how much they know about each other.

[IMG:L]HW: From the time that this was an idea in your mind to do as a film to actually becoming a film, a lot of time passes which isn’t atypical for any movie project. As a writer how do you deal with the passage of time and the development process and all the different things that make it take a while for a movie to actually come together?
SZ:
Well, in this case I did a lot of things in between. From the time that I started it, it had such a checkered history and such a start and stop process that I obviously went on and did other things before I came back to it. But coming back to it was easy. If you spent as much time as I did writing something, with about 18 months to begin with on the first draft, you don’t forget about it. You fall right back into it. It was very easy to pick it right back up again.

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HW: What did Ridley Scott bring to the table when he signed on to it? How did he effect the project as it moved forward?
SZ:
Well, first of all, his love of the original script was a great relief to me, because it had gone through other revisions by other writers and he wanted to go back to the beginning. So I’m eternally grateful to him for that, and then from a directorial standpoint it’s like every shot in the movie is done by someone who just has this kind of innate sense of style and composition and visual ideas. I don’t know if it’s innate or not, but it’s extraordinary, and so I think the whole style of the film is Ridley‘s and it’s perfect as far as I’m concerned.

HW: Were there any other movies you used as a template in designing your plan for this one?
SZ:
I grew up and first got interested in film about the time that this story took place and certain kinds of movies were being made on this subject in the early ’70’s. So when you’re that age I think that everything–movies and art in general–have a really big effect on you. I love those movies, and when I say those movies I mean things like Serpico and French Connection and Prince of the City. Those are some of my favorite films and were certainly in mind when I was working on this.

[IMG:R]HW: What do you think this film, the story of Frank and Richie, really tells us about that moment in time?
SZ:
I mean, I think it’s about a lot of things and I don’t think that it’s only a historical piece. I think the themes it’s dealing with from kind of examining American business and race and wars and corruption, those are unfortunately probably things we’re always going to have. So it’s using a time in history where something happened in a certain way, but I don’t think it ever goes out of fashion. I think it’s current in that way today as well and will be 10 or 20 years from now also.

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