“American Gangster” producer Brian Grazer must have a special sort of sympathy for Richie Roberts, the New Jersey detective portrayed in the film who doggedly trailed Harlem underworld baron Frank Lucas for five fruitless years before finally bringing him in. After all, that’s two years fewer than Grazer spent bringing Lucas and Roberts’ story to the screen.
“I bought the rights almost immediately,” Grazer says of reading Mark Jacobson’s 2000 New York Magazine profile, “The Return of Superfly,” introduced to him by Nicholas Pileggi. “I asked Nick if Lucas and Roberts would be interested in having their stories told, the three of them flew out to see me, we had an hour-long meeting, and I said, ‘I’m intrigued, let’s make a movie.’ ”
Despite such smoothly-laid plans, things quickly went awry. Shortly before the start of shooting in 2004, with Antoine Fuqua behind the camera and Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro in front of it, Universal shut down production. Grazer had to then laboriously rebuild the film over the next two years, recruiting Ridley Scott as both director and producer and Russell Crowe for the Roberts role vacated by Del Toro.
After such a long, difficult gestation, once the cameras were finally rolling, the film came together at a dizzying pace — 85 shooting days in 150 locations scattered across all five boroughs of New York, New Jersey and Northern Thailand.
“It was very quick, four cameras every day,” Grazer recalls. “And I think that gave the movie energy. You’re forced to make choices. You end up shooting rehearsals. Things look raw, there’s a sense of danger, it almost becomes docudrama-like because you have to move so quickly.”
Even with all the trouble, Grazer wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I don’t think it would have worked with any other director or any other cast,” he says. “And it was just impossible to give up on a story that has that kind of power, that sits on your psyche with that kind of weight.”
NUTS & BOLTS
Talent: “Denzel and Russell are both movie star alpha males, so I think it excited them to face off with each other; each one brought the other’s game up. I think it turned them on to do this. And for me and Ridley, the idea of them finally colliding seemed so dynamic.”
Biggest hurdle: “The hardest thing was shooting wide shots in a New York that looks entirely different from Harlem in the ’70s. It’s hard to create density. But Ridley is very good with that, filling the frame with everything that’s going on politically, socially or culturally, to put the audience in that timeframe.”