Antoine Fuqua was originally set to direct this project in 2004 with Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro starring, but production was halted one month before shooting after Universal Pictures canceled the film over budget concerns. However, Washington and Del Toro received their salaries nonetheless. A pay-or-play deal was stipulated in both of their contracts that Universal would pay Washington $20 million and Del Toro $5 million regardless of whether the film was made or not. Once this project was green-lit by Universal a second time, under Ridley Scott's direction, Washington returned to the project without an upfront fee. He also received half of his $20 million salary for the previous year's Inside Man (2006), another Imagine Entertainment production.
The story was first inspired by an article in New York Magazine written by Mark Jacobson. He was introduced to the real Frank Lucas by author Nicholas Pileggi. Not long afterwards, Pileggi encouraged Steven Zaillian to write an adaptation of Jacobson's article. While Zaillian was working on this, producer Brian Grazer bought the rights to the project.
When director Antoine Fuqua was attached to the project, he pursued Ray Liotta and John C. Reilly for supporting roles. This was one of many budget-related concerns that lead to Universal's cancellation of this production while it was under Fuqua's management.
Screenwriter Terry George was brought on to rewrite the script in order to downsize the project's budget to $50 million when it was first revitalized in March 2005. George had planned on reuniting with his Hotel Rwanda (2004) lead, Don Cheadle, to portray Frank Lucas. After George's screenplay was turned down, Steven Zaillian was re-hired to write another draft of his own screenplay.
While filming on-location in the Chiang Mai province of Thailand, Ridley Scott hired many extras from the local villages, some of whom were actual participants in the drug-running operation of Frank Lucas during the Vietnam War.