We Want Answers: Steve Zaillian

We sat down with the Oscar-winning screenwriter to get the real story behind the true crime thriller American Gangster.

American Gangster has so many layers. What made you take on such a sweeping project?
I wasn’t sure if I’d be interested in doing this until I sat down with Frank [Lucas]. It was during the course of those interviews that I started to think there might be something there. Also, during those conversations he mentioned Richie Roberts, so I decided to start talking to him as well. I decided telling both of their stories seemed much more interesting.

How did you deal with writing a script with two lead characters?
It was tough. I really had to think of it as two different films. Each character had to have their own complete story, but I had to cut it up and intermingle the pieces. Once the Madison Square Garden scene happens, their stories are interconnected. But up to that point, it’s really like two first acts for each character.

How much impact does a director like Ridley Scott have on a script like this?
Ridley loved the script, and his approach to it was the same visual approach that I was trying to do in the writing—very terse, very gritty, and epic in size. When Ridley gets involved in a film that I’m involved with, I take a deep breath and relax because I know he’s going to be able to interpret scenes visually in a way that’s more exiting than I could.

Denzel really brings Frank Lucas to life. Did you have him in mind when you wrote the script?
I really don’t do that. In this case, I knew the real people, so the image in my head was the real Frank Lucas. It was actually hard for me to think of anybody when casting did come up because the real people were so clear in my mind. As it turns out, Denzel doesn’t look unlike the real Frank Lucas, but that didn’t dawn on me until much later.

Is it that personal connection that draws you to so many true stories?
I don’t really know what it is. I’m interested in those things—not so much as a moviegoer, but I’m just drawn to writing them. My dad was a journalist, but I didn’t set out to do that. There’s something about a true story that gets to me. Maybe it just gives me some sort of comfort that this really happened. That it’s more than a fascinating, scary, interesting story I heard from sitting down in a room with these two guys.

Are you worried about some of the criticism that suggests this film glamorizes Lucas and his lifestyle?
The word I keep hearing is “charming.” I never got the feeling of being charmed by the guy. He’s personable, in that he’s friendly. But he will not go very long without reminding you of who he is, and the terrible things he’s done. It’s not as if you’re going to fall in some sort of a trap. Plus, fully half the movie is told from the view of Richie Roberts, whose partner dies from the heroin that Frank is selling. I don’t see it glamorizing him in any way.

Even Richie as the “good guy” has his faults…
What’s more interesting to me is that they actually had the same enemy and certainly didn’t realize that in the beginning. Richie felt a lot of pressure to stop, and he was getting the idea that the mob, the cops, and even the government wanted Frank to stay in business because the drug business was good for a lot of people.

Do you think this movie has any social or political implications today?
It’s always safe to make a movie about corruption, because it’s never going out of style. When I wrote this, it was pre-Iraq, so I wasn’t thinking of the Iraq war or making parallels to it. But you can always count on the fact that there’s going to be corruption. You can probably always count on the fact that there’s going to be another war. There’s always going to be criminals. So even though it’s historical in the sense that it takes place in the early ’70s these things are never going to go away.