Why did Denzel Washington's next big project die? -- The inside story of what shut down the Oscar-winning actor's ''American Gangster''

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh and Jeff Jensen
October 22, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

When it comes to power, Denzel Washington seems to have all the trappings: the Oscar, the $20 million salary, the right to approve directors, and a track record of seven No. 1 movies in six years. But even Washington — and an Oscar-winning costar, Oscar-winning screenwriter, and Oscar-winning producer — couldn’t save American Gangster. The $90 million-plus biopic about 1970s drug dealer Frank Lucas, who smuggled heroin into the U.S. in the coffins of Vietnam soldiers, was supposed to start shooting next month. Instead, Gangster‘s now sleeping with the fishes, victim of a movieland rubout that’s left a major director fighting for his reputation and a major studio at least $30 million in the hole.

Written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), produced by Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind), and costarring Benicio Del Toro (Traffic), Gangster was to be directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). But on Oct. 1, Fuqua was fired. Four days later, Universal Pictures killed the project altogether, deciding it was worse to pay the mounting costs of delays than to eat $30 million — $20 million of which went to Washington and $5 million to Del Toro, whose pay-or-play deals required they be paid even if the movie didn’t get made. (Nice work if you can get it, huh?)

In the aftermath, the studio has pinned the blame for Gangster‘s demise on Fuqua. Coming off King Arthur, for which Disney forced him to make creative concessions to win a PG-13 rating, Fuqua jumped into Gangster, a politically and racially charged epic, bent on proving himself an auteur. Neither Fuqua nor Washington would comment, but sources close to the director say the prospect of two African Americans mounting and fronting a big-budget, Oscar-worthy film factored greatly in their desire to do the movie. Last summer, Fuqua described to EW his ambitious vision for Gangster: ”America was changing. Everything was happening. War. Assassination. Drugs…. I’m going to exploit all of that. This is it. This is the one I’ve been building up to. This is the one that will define me.”

But what was actually building was a rift between the studio and the director over costs. Universal execs assert the project was greenlit with a budget of $80 million, yet jumped to $93 million when Fuqua requested an additional $10 million for development costs; another $3 mil was added when he delayed the start date. (Sources close to the director insist the budget was $93 million from the get-go.) Universal wanted to go the cheaper route and shoot in Toronto instead of the pricier New York City. Fuqua fought it but acquiesced to the plan as long as Universal kept trying to make New York work — which it did, thanks to parent company GE’s scoring tax credits from the Big Apple. But the move back to New York bumped the budget up to $98 million.

According to Fuqua’s camp, he was in fact trying to find ways to cut costs. Still, it was clear to everyone involved that his vision was prohibitively expensive?and could run well over $100 million. A Vietnam sequence, which the filmmaker wanted to shoot in Thailand, was one source of contention. Another was Fuqua’s desire to cast notable names in smaller roles (among them: Ray Liotta and John C. Reilly). Fuqua — who clashed with Bruce Willis while making 2003’s Tears of the Sun — has developed a reputation for being uncompromising, and observers say it was in full effect on Gangster. ”The budgetary issues [weren’t] working,” says a source close to the film. ”You discuss it with your director, and discuss it with your director, and then you have another discussion with your director…. When [he says], ‘F— you,’ [and the studio says], ‘No, f— you,’ you can scream at the studio, but all they have to do is fire you.”