Lucky Number Slevin, the 2006 cult-favourite thriller with the all-star cast, has just been digitally re-released. Below, director Paul McGuigan (Inside Man, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, Sherlock, Gangster No 1) shares his memories of making the movie and his hopes that it will find a new audience.

The first thing that comes to mind about Lucky Number Slevin is working closely with Jason Smilovic, the writer.
It was his first gig. His enthusiasm was infectious and it was a lot of fun. I think that kind of comes over in the movie where we're having fun and the idea that everyone was there for the right reason, ie the script. His script was the catalyst for everybody. We shot the film in Montreal during the winter months, which is kind of cold! But it was good; it was a good, collaborative, genuinely everyone-was-there-for-the-right-reason [movie]. It was a good vibe. That's what I remember - just the vibe being really good and the creativity being very high because it was demanding of us from the script.

"Everyone was there for the right reason"

I'd done a movie with Josh Hartnett, Wicker Park, and so we were hanging out a lot in New York and Jason was writing the script for Josh.
I remember thinking, 'Oh, this is interesting. We're getting a lot of interesting cast coming forward...' And then you realise that it's the script. Nobody ever wanted to change it. They were just there. They were like, 'We love the script! We're coming to Montreal!'. We're like, 'We can't afford you!'. But they were like, 'No, it's ok. We'll make it work!'.

I had done a film called Gangster No 1. Bruce Willis was a fan of that film.
When I was in Los Angeles, when I took the film to screen at the AFI (American Film Institute), I had a night with Bruce Willis screening the movie. He said to me, 'Look, I'm going to come and work with you one day!'. As usual, you're just like, 'Ah whatever! I'm a big fan of yours!'. Come Slevin, I'm in Montreal prepping and we got a call that Bruce was coming and I said, 'We didn't even offer it to Bruce!'. It's like, 'No, he was reading it because you're directing it!'. But also, you know, it was the script. That was the main force. Of course, once you get Bruce, once you get Lucy Liu and Josh and all these people, then came Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman and Stanley Tucci. It just snowballs. I wish I could take credit, but it's all to do with the script. That was a great place to be in.

Bruce Willis and Paul McGuigan at the New York premiere of Lucky Number Slevin in March 2006

Bruce Willis was a big influence on this whole movie.
The way he conducted himself, how generous he was, how funny he was on set, how encouraging he was to everybody to make this the best film. I'd heard all this rap before I worked with him that 'he's a bit difficult' blah, blah, blah. It was the opposite. I just love that man. I just loved working with him... He's genuinely a film actor. That's what I liked and then Morgan as well and Ben - they all came in for the right reasons. And I had the best time working with them because you could tell they were really into the work.

A lot of the actors had one-page dialogues - they never stopped - and I was like, 'I'm not going to cut it, so you'll have to learn it!'.
They all came prepared, which was interesting actually. It's the only movie I think I've done where actors have come in on their day off and sat behind me and watched other actors! Bruce Willis came in on his day off and watched the scene with Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley. The interesting thing about that scene was that it was never in the original script. It wasn't until we cast Kingsley and Freeman that we kind of went, 'Oh, we should really put them in a scene together! This would be, like, a terrible thing if we didn't do this!'. We rejigged the whole script at the end. That was a two-day shoot or something - and I remember Bruce came in every day and just sat and watched. That was the kind of camaraderie that was on the set, which sometimes happens, sometimes it doesn't. That was a great example of actors, no matter how big they are in their own careers, just really love watching other actors working. 'There's lots of things to do in Montreal!' - that's what I kept saying. 'You don't have to come to work!'.

"People might go back and watch it again just to see what they missed"

It was a very tight shoot as always with these more sort-of indie movies.
You see, the script is a bit like how Jason Smilovic thinks - he has this sort of intellectual Tourette's! In a way, it was mostly about trying to make sure we weren't missing any of the pieces of the puzzle and that we weren't just sitting there loving the fact that we were all in a room together! 'Oh look! There's Morgan Freeman! And there's Ben Kingsley!'. As a director, you've got to go, 'Right, ok, this is fun, but I'm going to look after the story, look after the script!'.

It was interesting when we screened the film for the test screenings.
The film was bought by Harvey Weinstein - but he never had anything to do with the production of it. He came into the edit suite when we were editing and he bought it. There's a sort-of marking structure when you do a screening - you know, like a 0 to 100. So you get 400 strangers in a cinema watching your movie with sharpened pencils! That's quite a scary thought. They're sitting there being asked to critique this movie. The producers had done a deal that if it tested over 80 Harvey Weinstein wouldn't be allowed to touch it in the post[-production] editing. So it did test over 80 and that's when I kind of figured and it was a younger audience, it was a sort-of New York audience and I thought, 'You know, this is interesting...' And then Harvey Weinstein tried to get it to go to out of state and go up to upstate New York. He thought it was too much of a hipster audience and he wanted to show it [in] just a mall somewhere upstate. And when they did that, it scored even higher!

"We had a boldness about how we approached it"

Then we went to Sundance with it.
I realised that some people were really raving about it and other people hated it! And I love movies that polarise! That's my joy, really, as a filmmaker!

It wasn't until a few years later that I was on set on another movie and a couple of the people in the crew came up to me and they were like, 'We just want to say that Lucky Number Slevin is one of our favourite movies!'.
They always take you aside because they don't want to seem to be sucking up to the director! That kept happening quite a lot on set with crewmembers, which is always great that other filmmakers enjoy it. And then I kept getting phone calls about it and asked about it. Occasionally myself, I would see it myself on the TV and I'd be like, 'Ah, it's pretty good!'. I remember somebody was watching it on an aeroplane - I was flying from LA to New York or something - and I remember all I did was I looked at them to see what the reaction was the whole flight to see if they liked my movie! As a director, you're always looking for that affirmation.

I think it's got a really unique energy to it - and I think again that's down to Jason Smilovic's writing.
At that time everyone was saying, 'It's kind of Tarantinoesque' and all that stuff. We never made it like that; we made it just as a fun piece of filmmaking and we were all out to do it. Those were the days when you were getting $20-million movies made as indie films! We did have quite a high production value! Occasionally, I'll go to a film school and I'll do a little bit of a chat about my career. I never really talk about any particular movies, but when you give it out to the audience Lucky Number Slevin is the first film they come back with.

"It's the only movie I think I've done where actors have come in on their day off and sat behind me and watched other actors!"

It's great that a new audience will now discover Lucky Number Slevin.
I also like the idea that people might go back and watch it again just to see what they missed. The complexity of the storytelling is something I had to really hold on to. People got really confused by it because the idea was the misdirection. When you see a scene and suddenly there's this mental wallpaper everywhere - that was my idea that the audience would be kind of looking at the wallpaper and forgetting a little about who was there and suddenly they're surprised by how the film goes! There was all this misdirection in it. When I see the wallpaper, it just makes me really happy because I love design in film and I love getting away with that. I remember the producers at times going, 'Paul, can we have a word?'. Like an intervention - a wallpaper intervention! 'What the f*** are you doing?!'. And I'd be like, 'I don't know, but it seems like the right thing to do!'.

Lucky Number Slevin gave us - it gave me especially as a filmmaker - permission to be as creative as possible.
The only other project that's really done that or kind of opened those kind of doors has been when I did my first television, which was Sherlock. When I started that show off, that again was a character that you needed to be incredibly creative as a director in order to take the audience with you and misdirect them occasionally but also have fun with them and mess with them. And I think that's what Slevin is: it's unapologetically manipulative. I look forward to showing it to my 11-year-old!

Lucky Number Slevin is available to rent on Apple TV+ now

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