By Steve Daly
Updated February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Some Oscar-nominated movies can trace their origins to the burning desire of an actor to direct. Others come together because an established director simply had to work with a certain star. But many successful films exist mainly because of the dogged persistence of producers. They find the material, they look for collaborators, they water and fertilize and fret and wonder if their idea will ever blossom into anything. And so it went with Laura Bickford.

She’d optioned the rights to a British miniseries about the heroin trade in England and Pakistan called Traffik. It wove a large tapestry of a drug industry through multiple story lines. Director Steven Soderbergh was interested in helming a movie version for Bickford. But who could write it?

They found their way to Stephen Gaghan, who already had a deal with producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz to write a drug-trade script. Fortunately for Traffic, Gaghan had stalled out — and his employers graciously agreed to meld the two movie ideas. ”Part of the problem,” says Bickford, ”was how to have one protagonist experience so much information. So when we came to [Gaghan] with the idea of multiple story lines, it was like a lightbulb.”

A bulb, yes, but the light changed maddeningly from green to red and back again. With Herskovitz and Zwick now coproducers, Bickford had to see her baby through casting turmoil (Michael Douglas, who plays a drug czar with an addicted daughter, passed on an early script draft), financial hiccups (a budget of about $50 million was eventually secured), and a nerve-racking balancing act as Soderbergh trimmed a 3-hour-10-minute rough cut to 2 hours 27 minutes.

Bickford calls her shepherding act ”the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” It’s already the most professionally gratifying as well — but stay tuned to see if the head rush gets any headier come Oscar night.