Plenty of movie directors have talked authors into adapting their books for the screen. But to pull together the film version of Casino, due in theaters Nov. 10, Martin Scorsese made Nicholas Pileggi an unprecedented offer he couldn’t refuse: In late 1993, Scorsese suggested that Pileggi take four years of research on the doings of real-life Las Vegas hoods and turn it into a fictionalized screenplay he turned it into a nonfiction book. And because Pileggi’s publisher would be loath to promote a $24 hardback once moviegoers could sit through much the same story for $7.50, Pileggi had to gamble he could then pull together Casino, the book, in time to beat Casino, the movie — if only by a few weeks.
”The plan was, book first, but Marty suddenly had a window,” says the 62-year-old Pileggi, who spent over three decades as a newspaper and magazine crime reporter before turning book author and Hollywood scribe (and speaking of going Hollywood, he’s been married to Nora Ephron since 1987). ”When Marty has a window, you better jump through it before five million other people do.”
The window opened when Scorsese decided to turn over Clockers, based on Richard Price’s novel, to Spike Lee for shooting last fall. Once Casino was in place as a substitute, Scorsese and Pileggi, who together won an Oscar nomination for adapting Pileggi’s Wiseguy into GoodFellas in 1990, turned a room at a midtown Manhattan hotel into an impromptu office and settled in for a five-month workfest beginning in February 1994. The scriptsmiths relied on Pileggi’s 700-page, single-spaced factual chronology of Vegas history, chockablock with details that ”Marty just took a bath in.”
Pileggi marveled at some of the observations made by Robert De Niro about the real ”Lefty” Rosenthal — the actor plays him in the movie, opposite Sharon Stone — as well as the narrative lines Scorsese often connected before even Pileggi could. ”The guy’s a dramatic genius,” he says. ”It’s like sitting with Mozart.” By the time Pileggi turned to the book, written between January and June of this year, he had a clear vision of it as as a quotation-driven piece. ”I came to feel this story needed to be told in the voices of these real people,” he says. ”I wanted to disappear and become an invisible, omniscient narrator.” Only fitting, perhaps, for a guy who knows all there is to know about rubbing people out.