Lucy Liu and Josh Hartnett
Lucy Liu and Josh Harnett in Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin (2006). Photo: The Weinstein Company

Watching cinema scribes hit it big is a beautiful sight. But take things a step further and imagine actually being in their celebrated shoes. Here’s the set-up: You’re the son of a New York video store owner, proclaiming to your mom, “I’m gonna make it as a screenwriter.” Using her unconditional support as fuel, you fire up the ol’ laptop and churn out more words per minute than Mavis Beacon can track.

The resulting script, Lucky Number Slevin, involves a bumbling, stumbling mystery man (Josh Hartnett) who—through mistaken identity and a strategically placed net of deception—becomes the bane of two looming, Big Apple crime bosses. You learn the entertainment industry ropes by producing television shows. But you’re also patiently waiting for the screenwriting stars to align. Then, producer buddy Robbie Kravis jumps in to shop your script. A veteran of the Indie Wars who developed projects at The Shooting Gallery and Miramax, Kravis makes the hand-off.

Suddenly, multiple production teams jump on board. Paul McGuigan, director of the cult hit Gangster No. 1, joins the team. To seal this sweet deal, Sir Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis sign on. Things become exciting.

This is the life of screenwriter Jason Smilovic. But it’s merely the Cliff Notes version. MM recently caught up with Smilovic, who was happy to elaborate on his love of complex characters and what it feels like to watch the world’s greatest actors breathe life into a story that originally hatched in your own fertile imagination.  

KJ Doughton (MM): Let me get this straight. You were producing television shows at 28?

Jason Smilovic (JS): Yes. I created [the television series] “Karen Sisco” when I was 28.

MM: How does somebody do that at 28?

JS: With a lot of luck. I was living in New York City and got a call from an agent at ICM, Matt Solo. He was head of the TV lit department and he called and said, “Would you be interested in doing some television?” I had never thought about it.

He said that he had shown the Lucky Number Slevin script around town and said that a lot of people were interested in making a deal with me. I got a call from John Landgraf over at Jersey Television, the company that includes Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Danny DeVito; they had done the movie Out of Sight. He asked if I was interested in taking that core relationship of Marshall and Karen Sisco and adapting it to the small screen. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ That all began because John had read Lucky Number Slevin and really liked it.

MM: So the Lucky Number Slevin script actually came before your television work?

JS: Yes. Slevin was the first thing I ever wrote.

MM: Is it true that you had a hand in choosing Paul McGuigan to direct Lucky Number Slevin, after being impressed with his work on Gangster No. 1? Was that film the catalyst for this choice?

JS: Yes. Ten minutes into Gangster No. 1, I felt that nobody else could direct the movie. He told his story on so many different planes. It’s about the rise of this gangster. There’s one point where Paul Bettany is in a car, and he starts to hiss. The character sitting next to him doesn’t notice it. We’re now to believe that all of a sudden, the movie has gone into Bettany’s own point of view, and that we’re actually seeing some sort of external manifestation of an internal mechanism. We’re seeing something that nobody else is privy to. He didn’t have to explain it—it just evoked something. That’s why Paul McGuigan is such a genius. He puts things out there without explaining them. It’s just understood.

MM: You are a young screenwriter, yet you cite influences going back several decades, like Alfred Hitchcock and Preston Sturges. How did you access these films?

JS: I went to film school at the local video store. When I was a little kid my dad started buying video stores and I would watch as many movies as I could, every week. In college, I watched an unbelievable quantity of movies. After graduating from college, I spent a year unemployed, watching two movies a day for 12 months.

MM: Someone once said, “In the world of Jason Smilovic, everyone talks too much.” Your script is so involved, do you think that Lucky Number Slevin could ever be improvised, John Cassavetes-style?

JS: I think that with the right actors, and people who were all dedicated to the cause, anything is possible. All of those conversations were arrived at with me talking to myself; with two people doing it, it would probably be a lot easier. I think that you would have to have some boundaries within each scene, to know what you were trying to accomplish.

MM: Ben Kingsley plays a villain who is half gangster and half rabbi. How did this idea come about?

JS: A friend of mine has a father who had spent some time in prison. He had gotten into some illegal activities, loan sharking for the mob. He had two partners: One was a dentist and one was a rabbi. They were silent partners, and weren’t criminals per se, but they had given him money for a money laundering scheme. I thought, wouldn’t that be interesting if there was a rabbi who really was a bona fide gangster, who could encapsulate both sets of ideals—that of the gangster and that of the rabbi. The character is basically manifesting Jekyll and Hyde at the same time.

MM: What about the idea of a female coroner who is also a nosy neighbor (Lindsey, played by Lucy Liu)?

JS: That just came from left field. A coroner is constantly surrounded by death, kind of talking to the dead to get answers. I thought that would be a good character to help solve a mystery. Also, the job is grave and serious. So I wanted to make the coroner a vivacious, sweet girl whose curiosity and macabre sensibilities become the engine to drive the story.

MM: What about the idea of plastic bags as murder weapons? The image comes up repeatedly in Lucky Number Slevin. It’s very disturbing—and original.

JS: I was always obsessed with the will power it would take for someone to asphyxiate himself. I thought about that act, and about a means for putting someone to death. That seemed to be one of the worst ways to do it, because you actually live through your own death in a way. It’s kind of odd. It’s like the movie The Mechanic, with Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent. They go to a girl’s house and she has slit her wrists. She’s doing it for the attention; she thinks they will take her to the hospital. And Jan Michael Vincent starts describing to her what it’s gonna feel like to die.

MM: The tour-de-force scene in Lucky Number Slevin involves the film’s two villains tied together and facing away from each other. How does one get people to act from the neck up?

JS: The way that you do it is to get two of the best actors in the world. (laughs) The rabbi (Kingsley) and the boss (Freeman) become two talking heads, struggling to look at each other and unable to make gestures. That’s why the scene is so interesting. You’ve limited them. You’ve cut them off. Basically, you’ve turned both of these very physical men into quadriplegics. All they want to do is rip each other limb from limb. I love it. They wind up having to intellectualize everything they are feeling emotionally. It’s the reason for the naked honesty of their words. They are taking all their anger and verbalizing it. Otherwise, they would be beating each other to bloody pulps.

MM: How much do actors change the flavor and direction of your script, as the subtleties of their personalities drip into the film?

JS: Not drip—pour! And thank goodness for that. That’s their job. My job is to write words into a creative framework. They are the ones who make decisions concerning what gets dropped and what is throwaway. They decide what to do during those moments between words and what to do with the voice. It’s amazing to me, when actors inject themselves into the world of the characters. Otherwise, it’s just words.