Lucky Number Slevin: McGuigan’s Comic Thriller, Starring Ben Kingsley and Josh Hartnett

Directed by Paul McGuigan and written by Jason Smilovic, Lucky Number Slevin is a comic thriller that twists and turns its way through an underworld of crime and revenge where nothing is as it seems.
Set in New York City, a case of mistaken identity lands Slevin (Josh Hartnett) into the middle of a war being plotted by two of the city’s most rival crime bosses; The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman). Slevin is under constant surveillance by relentless Detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) as well as the infamous assassin Goodkat (Bruce Willis) and finds himself having to hatch his own ingenious plot to escape the maze alive.

The movie began with Smilovics 1997 story about a guy who was just “incredibly unlucky, evolving over the years into a dark genre-bending thriller with surprising plot twists and irreverent characters. Paul McGuigan was chosen to direct based on his crime thriller, Gangster Number One, starring Malcolm McDowell and Paul Bettany.

McGuigan says he responded to the scripts ingenuity and witty dialogue. The language was so great. Gangster Number One was also a crime film and this script had the same resonance for me. I phoned up Jason and we met at the pub and talked about the film. McGuigan was eager to be a part of a project that breathed new life into the crime genre: Its tough to make something new because people recognize character archetypes. People see characters as off of a shelf. This was interesting because they werent written as clich gangsters. Theyre smart and they talk a lot.

In the world of Jason Smilovic, everyone talks too much, McGuigan jokes. We never ad-libbed. None of the actors ad-libbed anything. The words were so particular to this film that if the voice were to change, it would change the film dramatically because of its heightened language.

McGuigan was eager to re-team with Josh Hartnett, with whom hed formed a close working relationship during the filming of the romantic drama Wicker Park. Producer Mitchell describes Hartnetts qualities for the role: We really wanted an actor whos a very charismatic, easy-going guy who you believe could fall down this rabbit hole into this gangster wonderland, and find himself pinging back and forth between these criminal enterprises, and yet transform at the end. I knew Josh had that darker side to him from a movie he did for our company called O.

Its great that your lead character has a broken nose in the beginning of the film. You like him. Hes rather sweet with it, McGuigan notes of the character. Many of Slevins endearing qualities come courtesy of the films leading man: Before Josh was involved, Slevin was more of a smart-ass. He was much less likeable, actually. We re-wrote it to fit Joshs character.

Similarly, when Lucy Liu signed on to play the role of Lindsey, the filmmakers were quick to imbue the role with aspects of the actress own personality. They rewrote the role for her, because she does have so much energy. She made Lindsay a faster talking, more precocious character. Lucys personable and cute and smart, McGuigan says of Liu. The character wasnt fully worked out. We needed to find an actress we could base the character on, in part. Jason liked the idea of having a smart neighbor who was working everything out and helping the audience understand what was going on. She goes over the plot over and over again. Its a nice device. Because shes smart, audiences believe her.

When she signed on, it just became so clear what the part needed, Smilovic says. Lucy has an amazing quirkiness to her, and I thought the character had to embody that. She really completes the Rosalind Russell-Cary Grant kind of dynamic between her and Slevin.

Smilovic wrote the key role of The Rabbi specifically for Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley. The writer, who was on set for Kingsleys first day of filming, observes: His talents surpass my wildest imagination. I was floored when I saw him bringing the character to life. That had the greatest sort of impact, because I remember writing it and thinking about him. That was the most nostalgic kind of event for me. Kingsley says that what drew him the most to the role of The Rabbi was how he mobilized his language. It isnt the combination of gangster and rabbi, but its that combination of creative intelligence and the destructive act.

The filmmakers couldnt believe how well their own luck was running when, eight weeks before the start of shooting, the last two cast members to sign on for two key roles were Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman. When we first got the script, we thought there were so many great roles, and so much great dialogue, that it was really going to gravitate towards actors, but this is really beyond imagination. When Morgan and Bruce signed on, it was totally unexpected. They rounded out an absolute dream cast.

Morgan Freeman portrays The Boss, the sharp-tongued crime lord. Playing a bad guy is always sort of fun, Freeman says of his desire to play The Boss. But look at the cast! Its as much of a joy of working with colleagues who you have this appreciation for as anything else.

Bruce Willis slipped into the role of Goodkat with an ease that impressed his director and co-stars. Willis met Paul McGuigan when their creative paths almost crossed on another project. Though that collaboration never came to fruition, Willis remained eager to work with the director. McGuigan was surprised to learn that Willis would gladly take on a supporting role.

As Morgan Freeman puts it, Bruce and I share the same joy of working, and its very evident. When hes working, hes able to kick on this instant super intensity and thats what we like about him. He carries this edge of danger. You believe him when he kills people. You just believe thats what he can do.

One of the films most memorable scenes is an acting tour de force between Freeman and Kingsley: a long-awaited confrontation between The Rabbi and The Boss in which the two are tied together in a chair. Smilovic explains the two characters complicated history: These guys were best friends, they were partners who used to work together and they had a falling out over a power struggle, and the result was each man was sent to his respective tower of isolation to live until the other guy was gone, but twenty years later, they were both still shut-ins, essentially.

McGuigan found that the confrontation between The Rabbi and The Boss required little direction: These two men have been on the cinema screens for so long that people give them a certain weight. Theres a weight to these men. When you put them on the screen, their characters carry that same weight. Their characters have such gravitas. It was a pleasure. Filming the scene was mesmerizing for the cast and crew. Everyone came in on their day off to watch the scene, McGuigan recalls. Bruce Willis came and sat beside me to watch two great actors. I didnt do much. I sat there and watched it as well.

Prinncipal photography on Lucky Number Slevin began in Montreal in early January 2005 and wrapped in March with a week of exterior scenes in New York. A week of filming was also completed in Toronto in June 2005. For McGuigan, shooting in Montreal was a homecoming. The director shot much of Wicker Park in the city. I love Montreal in the winter, McGuigan says. Its the most magical place. Because no one really comes from there, we all become very tight. Everyone becomes really good friends.

Echoing the dual standoff between The Rabbi and The Boss are their opposing living spaces. Smilovic was inspired by two buildings he saw in Abingdon Square while living in New York. He says, You could look at these two very nice buildings that were just across the street from each other, and the buildings themselves kind of were characters to me, and I started thinking how great it would be if The Boss and The Rabbi lived in those buildings, these fairly typical facades where there was a lot of underworld activity going on, with them being the neural center at the top of each one.

The faade for both buildings was actually a single building found near the meat packing district in New York. Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Robertson helped McGuigan create a spectacular 180-degree shot which moves from The Boss at his window, across the street, and in on the Rabbi in his opposing window. Freeman and Kingsleys close-ups were shot on different days on the same Montreal set, which had been re-dressed as different interiors. The frame seamlessly pans to an exterior shot of The Bosss building, moves past visual effects plates of the New York skyline, then moves in on the exterior of The Rabbis building, and finally pushes in for the close-up of the Rabbi, completing the 180 degree pan.

Production Designer Francois Seguin helped heighten McGuigans visual style for the film with his richly textured sets. The Boss and the Rabbis office interiors were shot on the same stage, four days apart. Morgan Freemans scenes as The Boss were filmed first, followed by the climactic showdown between The Boss and The Rabbi. Then Seguin and his crew completely redressed and turned the set into The Rabbis interior. It was incredible, his use of materials and how to change it over so quickly, McGuigan says of the feat.

There was a decided lack of specificity with regard to a specific era of clothing design. I wanted Josh to look like he was from the 1970s, McGuigan says. I didnt want him to wear anything too threatening. I wanted him to be a bit quirky and soft.

Lucky Number Slevin is McGuigans fourth collaboration with cinematographer Peter Sova. The DP and director first worked together on GANGSTER NUMBER ONE. Weve got this language now, McGuigan says. Peter would light for 300 degrees and sometime 360 degrees so I could shoot anywhere. He knows the way I work.

McGuigan earned the admiration of his talented cast during the shoot. Says Morgan Freeman: I like directors who have a sense of surety about them, but who allow you to play with them. Paul knows what hes doing, and his sense of humor is intact, and thats the next best thing. I think hes very humane, Sir Ben Kingsley adds. He has an intuitive grasp of patterns of human behavior and how a dynamic will flow. I like him very much.

Screenwriter Smilovic says, He has so much vision. He can tell a story with language and with images like nobody else. Hes one of my favorite directors because of his ability to find that marriage between style and substance. His images are breathtaking but theyre essential to telling a story.

Everyone wanted to be a part of this movie because of the script and because of Paul, Liu says. Paul shoots everything in one take, lets it go on for four pages of dialogue, lets the camera roll and basically lets you experiment. I think that makes you feel really good, because thats what youre brought on the set to do, to do your job. It made me feel like I was back in New York doing theater.

McGuigan comments: I just let the camera run. Lucy could do a scene ten times perfectly. Its good because you understand the rhythm of the scene. Theres a natural rhythm to it. Hartnett seems to capture the feeling of the cast members when he says, Ive never been involved in a film where every actor was so talented, where you can learn all of these little tricks just by watching. Sir Ben is on a whole other level of acting, so that all of us just kind of stood back and were wowed by him. Hes always mining the words to find something new within the text that will create a more interesting approach to the character. Morgan is such a warm human being and has such a dedication to and understanding of the film business thats just, like, were here, lets play ball. Morgan just seems to like the process. Just to be in the room with the two of them and watch them work was amazing. To be able to goof around with Lucy and have fun with Bruce and Stanley Tucci, the whole cast through and through was astounding.

Ideally, I think the audience should be in Slevins shoes, a guy whos an unwilling participant in this strange underworld experiment, Smilovic says. I want the audience to feel that same helplessness, paranoia and just see a guy who in spite of all thats happening to him remains remarkably calm and funny. Everybody has to deal with the same struggle, but its our response to it thats admirable. In the face of great adversity, sometimes you have to just smile, crack a joke ” and get your nose broken.

Paul McGuigan’s Career:

A native of Scotland, Paul McGuigan was a successful photographer in Glasgow before branching out into television commercials and documentary films, including Football, Faith and Flutes about religion and soccer in Glasgow; and Playing Nintendo With God, about children with AIDS.

In 1998, he won the Best Newcomer Award from the Royal Television Society for his short film, The Granton Star Cause. He expanded this into a trilogy based on stories by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and released it as his first feature length film, The Acid House (1998). The movie won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Stockholm Film Festival, the AMC Audience Award and the Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver at Fatasporto and was named Best Film at the New York Underground Film Festival.

McGuigan next directed the controversial Gangster Number One (2000) starring Malcolm McDowell and Paul Bettany, which both dazzled and disturbed audiences with its darkly violent tale of a criminal in London. McGuigans third film The Reckoning (2003) was a murder mystery set in the Middle Ages, again starring Bettany. Most recently, McGuigan directed the romantic thriller Wicker Park (2004) starring Josh Hartnett.