Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts were on-set consultants to director Ridley Scott and the crew throughout filming. Roberts was said to have stated, "Lucas is having too much fun, and I want to arrest him again!"
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.
Frank Lucas was excited about the film; however, he admitted that only a small portion of the film was true, and that much of it was fabricated for dramatic effect. Similarly, Richie Roberts criticized the film for its inaccuracy, and said it made Lucas too noble.
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 twenty million dollars, and Del Toro five million dollars, 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 twenty million dollar salary for the previous year's Inside Man (2006), another Imagine Entertainment production.
Screenwriter Terry George was brought on to rewrite the script, in order to downsize the project's budget to fifty million dollars, 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.
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.
Former DEA agents Jack Toal, Gregory Korniloff, and Louis Diaz filed a lawsuit against Universal Pictures, saying that the events in the film were fictionalized, and that the film defamed them and hundreds of other agents. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, since it technically failed to show anyone identifiable as a DEA agent.
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, Brian Grazer bought the rights to the project.
Jay Z sampled Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) saying, "Your success took a shot at you. What are you going to do now? How are you gonna kill it? You're gonna become unsuccessful? Frank, you can be successful and have enemies. Be unsuccessful, too, and even have friends." for his 2007 song "Success."