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Filming In New York And Thailand
"I have to see everything, because it's my homework. I see the inside of places; I see the inside of houses…how people live and dress. I glom on to that kind of information.” —Ridley Scott

From imagining the dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 in Blade Runner to Maximus' ancient Rome in Gladiator, director Ridley Scott has forged a career since his earliest days in advertising as an uncompromising aesthetic master. Re-creating the universe of Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas' 1970s-era Harlem would prove quite an ambitious task for all involved in the American Gangster team.

To the art-student-turned-director who had spent decades making films, however, nothing seemed impossible—not even lensing in 152 different locations with almost 100 actors in speaking roles. Commends producer Grazer, "Ridley creates worlds, and he gets people on screen to have a tremendous connectivity. He can breathe life into the words on a page and make them become three-dimensional.”

American Gangster is one of the most sprawling tales ever told in and about New York City. And while Frank Lucas operated his drug empire primarily out of Harlem, the production took place in all five boroughs of New York City, primarily in practical locations. There were also a few days' filming in upstate New York and suburban Long Island.

While there are inherent difficulties in re-creating a city from three decades ago, the director knew New York City quite well; indeed, he had spent much time in the Bowery District in the early '60s. Scott states, "I knew what to do with Harlem…finding little nooks and corners and crannies of what Harlem must have been.” His imaging for the film was to "take big, wide shots to get a big picture of Harlem.”

Primarily using handheld cameras, cinematographer Harris Savides kept pace with what Scott described as a "guerilla filmmaking” style. Savides rose to the challenge as the director worked with his usual propensity for multicamera setups and shot nearly the entire film on practical locations.

Another longtime Scott collaborator, Arthur Max, turned his production design skills toward exhaustive location scouting to find the parts of New York that could still resemble the city of the early 1970s. He found that Harlem had changed much since the days of Frank and the Country Boys. To capture the look and feel of the neighborhood of the period, the crew shot 20 blocks north of Lucas' infamous 116th Street, lensing on 136th Street and switching those street signs to complete the look.

For the real Frank Lucas, filming in Harlem was a revisit to his days of glory— though not all his old neighbors were ready to give him a hero's welcome. On set nearly every day Washington worked, Lucas sat in his wheelchair, surrounded by his immediate family, and reminisced. "Yeah, he looks like Babyface [one of the NYPD's not-so-finest], right down to the leather coat,” Lucas acknowledged while pointing at Josh Brolin in character. "He even got that walk down, and they got him driving that Shelby car like he did.”

Washington, who was born in upstate New York and attended college at Fordham University in Manhattan, felt at home in this historic capital of urban black culture. "I've had a chance to film all over this city with Spike [Lee],” says the actor. "In fact, we shot in the same church that we used for this movie. It's nice to walk some of the same streets I walked as a child; people walk up that actually know me from back in those days.”

Filming in the midst of the 100-degree-plus summer left at least one member of the cast feeling slightly less nostalgic. "Trying to run up and down stairs in '70s-cut Levis in a New York heat wave,” Crowe says, shaking his head. "I ran 54 steps up and 54 down and another 75 up again, one day. After 10 flights, your jeans are completely wet, and<

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