Ridley Scott

Directors in the Oscar race

In three decades of directing films, Scott has collected three Oscar noms, for “Thelma & Louise,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Gladiator,” which won best picture. With “American Gangster,” the Englishman tackles a new genre: the gangster epic. (Before Scott came onboard, the project had been headed for production with Antoine Fuqua at the helm, then shut down by Universal over budget concerns.)

GENESIS: “Brian Grazer and Imagine had developed ‘American Gangster’ with Steve Zaillian. I got to know him well, on ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Black Hawk Down.’ They thought of me, I read it and liked it. I couldn’t do it at the time, four and half years ago. It was pre-‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ Later, I saw that ‘Gangster’ hadn’t been made. I called Steve. ‘What happened?’ ‘It flat-lined. Twice.’ I read it again. I called up Brian, and said, ‘Do you want to go again, with the Zaillian draft?'”

VISION: “I try to keep it as real as possible. Whether it’s sci-fi or reconstituting fact, you have to create your own parameters, that box becomes your truth. I was constantly rejecting things. I didn’t want too many bellbottom trousers; wardrobe was massive; 180 locations; 130 speaking parts. I wanted to keep the color palette monochromatic: cinder, toffee, back, cream, let very little color seep in. We shot with two to four cameras. It’s about saving the actor. They wear out, get tired with repetition. I’m trying to sustain freshness. Those first three takes are loaded with tension, you invariably capture something.”

CHALLENGES: “I had to get Denzel to come back to the starting gate after the gas had gone out of it for him (after the misfire on the prior version of the project with Fuqua). That took a bit of effort. Frank Lucas had to be Denzel Washington. He carries a visceral punch, confidence and capability. Denzel asked, ‘Who’s Richie?’ Russell Crowe read it, but the part was small for Richie. Russell said, ‘Frank Lucas is the best part. I want to play that.’ I said, ‘We need someone who can give as good as he gets. That’s you.’ He said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ ”

MAGIC: “I was constantly on guard to keep it accurate, constantly asking questions. Denzel spent hours with Frank Lucas. He was on the set every day for the entire shoot. By the end, he had us all all working for him.”

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