NEW YORK — Steven Zaillian, the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” scribe who’s coming off “Hannibal,” has been signed by Imagine and Universal to write “The Return of Superfly,” the true story of the rise and fall of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas.
U and Imagine chairman Brian Grazer won a bidding battle last fall for rights to a New York magazine profile along with the life rights to Lucas and Richie Roberts, the lawman who chaired the federally financed task force that brought Lucas to justice.
“Wiseguy” author Nick Pileggi also is involved in the project, likely as exec producer, and pitched the tale as “Donnie Brasco” meets “Shaft.” Grazer worked with U chairman Stacey Snider and production presidents Scott Stuber and Mary Parent to land Zaillian.
“Steve is one of the most prestigious and acclaimed writers, to whom I’ve offered a bunch of things but never heard the word ‘yes’ before,” said Grazer. “I’d become borderline stalker, but finally he relented. We think the film is an important story, and he validates it.”
It’s particularly important for Imagine as the company diversifies into more serious films. That move started with “Apollo 13” and continues with the Ron Howard-directed “A Beautiful Mind,” the story of a schizophrenic genius now getting under way in New York, starring Oscar winner Russell Crowe.
“We’ve been very successful primarily making comedic mainstream movies, but the movies that stick with me, whether they’re mine or someone else’s, are dramas like this piece or ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ ” Grazer said. “While I still love comedies like ‘Liar Liar’ and ‘The Nutty Professor,’ this is a direction I’m moving in, even if it’s a subconscious shift.”
U production co-prexy Stuber said Zaillian has “been a huge part of our success over the last 10 years, and this is the first original he’s agreed to write in four or five years.”
Lucas grew up in segregated North Carolina and watched the Ku Klux Klan shoot his cousin for looking at a white girl. Bright but uneducated, he made his way to Harlem and became a heroin kingpin by traveling to Asia’s Golden Triangle to make connections, shipping heroin back to the U.S. in the coffins of soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Dubbed “Superfly” because of his flashy wardrobe, Lucas was shadowed by lawman Roberts, who finally helped bring the kingpin to justice. The two then worked together to expose the crooked cops and foreign nationals who made importing heroin so easy.
Zaillian is no stranger to nonfiction. Aside from “Schindler’s List,” his recent screen credits include “A Civil Action,” which he directed, and “The Falcon and the Snowman.”