Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts were on-set consultants to director Ridley Scott and the crew throughout filming. Roberts was said to have stated, "Lucas is having too much fun, and I want to arrest him again!"
While filming on-location in the Chiang Mai province of Thailand, Ridley Scott hired many extras from the local villages, some of whom were actual participants in the drug-running operation of Frank Lucas during the Vietnam War.
Not only did the real Richie Roberts serve as Frank Lucas's lawyer after he went into private practice, he was godfather to Lucas's son.
Ridley Scott recalls that this production was one of the most massive undertakings of his career. There were 360 scenes filmed in over 180 different locations.
In the Madison Garden Sequence, only 650 of the spectators on camera were real extras; the other 1,500 were inflatable dummies.
Russell Crowe requested tape recordings of Richie Roberts speaking, in order to match his voice mannerisms accurately.
Frank Lucas was excited about the film; however, he admitted that only a small portion of the film was true, and that much of it was fabricated for dramatic effect. Similarly, Richie Roberts criticized the film for its inaccuracy, and said it made Lucas too noble.
David Fincher was interested in making the film back when the script was still titled "Superfly," but he and the studio could not agree on an appropriate budget for the film.
The film cast includes four Oscar winners: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Common; and four Oscar nominees: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, John Hawkes, and Josh Brolin.
Antoine Fuqua was originally set to direct this project in 2004 with Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro starring, but production was halted one month before shooting, after Universal Pictures canceled the film over budget concerns. However, Washington and Del Toro received their salaries nonetheless. A pay-or-play deal was stipulated in both of their contracts that Universal would pay Washington twenty million dollars, and Del Toro five million dollars, regardless of whether the film was made or not. Once this project was green-lit by Universal a second time, under Ridley Scott's direction, Washington returned to the project without an upfront fee. He also received half of his twenty million dollar salary for the previous year's Inside Man (2006), another Imagine Entertainment production.
Screenwriter Terry George was brought on to rewrite the script, in order to downsize the project's budget to fifty million dollars, when it was first revitalized in March 2005. George had planned on reuniting with his Hotel Rwanda (2004) lead, Don Cheadle, to portray Frank Lucas. After George's screenplay was turned down, Steven Zaillian was re-hired to write another draft of his own screenplay.
Ridley Scott had read the first draft of Steven Zaillian's screenplay before filming Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and instantly became interested in directing it. While filming his next feature, A Good Year (2006), Scott and Russell Crowe extensively discussed the project, which ultimately led to them signing on.
Even though he plays his father, Common is only eight years older than T.I. in real life.
In the much-forgotten science fiction action thriller, Virtuosity (1995), Denzel Washington starred as a heroic policeman while a then-unknown Russell Crowe was cast as the villain.
When director Antoine Fuqua was attached to the project, he pursued Ray Liotta and John C. Reilly for supporting roles. This was one of many budget-related concerns that lead to Universal's cancellation of this production while it was under Fuqua's management.
Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt were Ridley Scott's and producer Brian Grazer's first two choices to portray Richie Roberts.
In the late 1980s, screenwriter Thomas Lee Wright wrote an outline of The Godfather: Part III (1990) for Francis Ford Coppola. Included in Wright's version was a character based off of famed Harlem gangster, Leroy 'Nicky' Barnes (portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in this film). During the time that Coppola was considering this idea, Wright discussed the role with Eddie Murphy, who immediately accepted the role without reading a script.
During the first stages of production, this film had a few different titles, such as "Tru Blu" and "The Return of Superfly".
Former DEA agents Jack Toal, Gregory Korniloff, and Louis Diaz filed a lawsuit against Universal Pictures, saying that the events in the film were fictionalized, and that the film defamed them and hundreds of other agents. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, since it technically failed to show anyone identifiable as a DEA agent.
This is Ridley Scott's and Denzel Washington's first collaboration together. Washington did five film collaborations with Ridley's late younger brother Tony Scott.
The story was first inspired by an article in New York Magazine written by Mark Jacobson. He was introduced to the real Frank Lucas by author Nicholas Pileggi. Not long afterwards, Pileggi encouraged Steven Zaillian to write an adaptation of Jacobson's article. While Zaillian was working on this, Brian Grazer bought the rights to the project.
Peter Berg met briefly with producers to direct this, and was given the okay by Denzel Washington.
Rapper Jay Z was invited to a screening of the film. He was so impressed with the film he made an album called "American Gangster".
Clarence Williams III portrays the character Bumpy Johnson. In the film Hoodlum (1997), Clarence goes head to ahead with Bumpy Johnson (portrayed by Laurence Fishburne) as the character Bub Hewlett.
Composer Marc Streitenfeld blended blues and soul music into the musical score to fit the 1970s setting.
When Terry George was set to direct the film, with Don Cheadle as Frank Lucas, Joaquin Phoenix was a definite consideration for the role of Richie Roberts. Phoenix previously co-starred with Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000), which was also directed by Ridley Scott.
Ridley Scott previously directed Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000), A Good Year (2006), and Robin Hood (2010).
Jay Z sampled Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) saying, "Your success took a shot at you. What are you going to do now? How are you gonna kill it? You're gonna become unsuccessful? Frank, you can be successful and have enemies. Be unsuccessful, too, and even have friends." for his 2007 song "Success."
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Huey Lucas) and John Ortiz (Javier Rivera) both went on to play Othello on stage: Ejiofor in 2007 in London and Ortiz in 2009 in New York City.
Dania Ramirez was originally cast in the film when Antoine Fuqua was still directing the production.
Denzel Washington and Roger Guenveur Smith appeared together in Malcolm X (1992) and He Got Game (1998)
The car driven by Richie Roberts is a Volkswagen 1600 Variant (Type 3). There was a dual-carbureted, air-cooled engine installed underneath the rear trunk.
Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe previously worked together on Virtuosity (1995).
Rza, who plays Jones, has a tattoo clearly visible on his left shoulder. It says Rza in the middle of the letter W. Rza was a vocalist for the group Wu Tang Clan, which the W represents.
The character, Dominick Cattano (played by Armand Assante) was loosely based on real life mobster and drug trafficker Vincent Papa. At the time the movie portrays, the Italian Mob were supplying much of NYC massive amounts of narcotics that were confiscated from the original "French Connection" case from the early 1960's where an approximate $400 million dollars of heroin were stolen from the NYPD property clerks office located at 400 Broome Street in Manhattan, NY. The scope and depth of this scheme are still not known, but officials suspect it involved corrupt NYPD officers who allowed Vincent Papa, Virgil Allesi, Anthony Loria and other notorious mafia members access to the NYPD property/evidence storage room, where hundreds of kilograms of heroin lay seized from the now-infamous French Connection bust, and from which the men would help themselves and replace missing heroin with flour and cornstarch to avoid detection.