How a Good Script Becomes a Bad Movie: The Inside Story of ‘Lucky Numbers’

Chances are you’ve never heard of Lucky Numbers and if you have, you probably couldn’t get past the one-sheet depicting its stars Lisa Kudrow and John Travolta as they strike a decidedly Poochie-esque pose. Described by its screenwriter Adam Resnick as having “hack comedy written all over it,” the poster is probably the last time the rude, crude and full-a attitude act of ‘shade-tipping’ was utilized without irony. On the surface, Lucky Numbers looks like something you’d notice alone and unwanted on the shelves of a Blockbuster Video two days before it went out of business. Or that faded, unwanted VHS tape you’d find in the bottom of a cardboard box at a flea market that mostly consists of copies of Jerry Maguire and Speed. Disposable and forgettable, Lucky Numbers seems to function as a reminder of how achingly bland cinema was in the early aughts.

At least that’s the perception.

Now, understand, Lucky Numbers carries a distinctive whiff of compromise. It’s a dark comedy shot, scored and performed by people who seem to have no feel for dark comedies. But even in that compromised form, Lucky Numbers is still basically an Adam Resnick movie – or at least a shell of one. As a result, it contains its fair share of uncomfortable laughs and indelible imagery. In Lucky Numbers an asthmatic Michael Moore lays dying as the theme from Happy Days mindlessly plays on a motel television and Michael Rapaport plays a scumbag whose weapon of choice is a commemorative baseball bat he won’t stop bragging about. It’s a world where local television personalities have their own private booth at Denny’s and cokeheads with the name Scatter are lurking just out of frame. Lucky Numbers is one of those films that is just good enough to make you wish it was better. And Lucky Numbers could have been better.

Lucky Numbers was based loosely around The Pennsylvania Lottery Scandal of 1980 (also known as “The Triple Six Fix”) in which Nick Perry, the host of the nightly broadcast of The Pennsylvania Lottery, and a trio of conspirators rigged the three-digit, Daily Number game. Perry injected some of the balls with white paint, ensuring that only those labeled with a 4 and a 6 would remain weightless enough to get sucked into the vacuum tube of the lottery machine. “The actual incident took place in my hometown, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” Resnick recalls. “It was such a great story and so funny, although I don’t remember a lot of people being as fascinated with it as I was. I could so easily see it as a movie, but at that time I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I certainly never thought I’d be a writer or working in the entertainment business one day. But I found myself scribbling down notes about this lotto thing. I was obsessed with the story – the classic ‘what were they thinking?’ type of crime where the plan is so stupid and complicated and carelessly executed – yet it’s driven by some sort of desperation. So you think, does desperation automatically make you lose sight of reality? Does it make you dumb? Do you become so deluded that you can’t recognize how impossible your scheme is and that you’ll absolutely get caught? The fact that it happened in my own backyard, with the type of people I grew up around, was exciting to me. Because nothing ever happened in Harrisburg. Anyway, the notes and scenes and ideas kept piling up, and by the mid-80s, when I was writing for David Letterman, I sort of put it aside for a few years.”

Eventually that pile of notes and scenes evolved into a screenplay called Numbers. But Resnick never intended this screenplay to be a straight-up adaptation of the incident. “I was mostly interested in the launching point – a lotto announcer and his cohorts who tried to rig the state lottery. The characters weren’t based specifically on anyone involved with the crime. Most of them were made up. I added Crystal, the lotto ball girl [eventually played by Kudrow in the film], for example. Wrote her as a crude, take-no-shit kind of girl who’s trying to disguise her rural upbringing. I knew a lot of girls like that. And the main guy – the lotto announcer – I made him a weatherman slash lotto announcer. In small markets like Harrisburg, the newscasters and other on-air people were always pulling double duty. Like doing the news at night and hosting a cartoon show on weekends.”

Described as “a freaking knockout” by John Altschuler - co-creator of HBO’s Silicon Valley – the script for Numbers generated a fair amount of heat upon its completion. “It did seem to get some attention at the time,” notes Resnick. “Some cool people were interested in it, but I later found out that Paramount was determined to turn it into a lighter comedy.” Drastic changes to the screenplay appeared as early as pre-production when the title was changed into the cheerily banal Lucky Numbers (“That really bugged me,” laments Resnick.) Furthermore, the ‘weatherman slash lotto announcer’ simply became a weatherman and studio meddling transformed him into a sillier, more comedic character. “In the movie, Travolta’s character is one of those goofy local weathermen. I never would’ve written him like that. To me, he was a just a guy who thought he was too big for Harrisburg; a huge talent just waiting to make his ‘big move.’ But I hate that goofy weatherman stuff. It was a hack cliché even back in 2000,” Resnick recalled.

Paramount’s efforts to transform Lucky Numbers into a lighter, airier affair continued with the addition of a director some considered to be inappropriate, “Nora [Ephron]’s name was never in the mix.” Resnick remembered. “I didn’t even know that they’d sent her the script. The first time her name came up was when my agent called me and told me she was going to direct it. He said it was a done deal and nothing could be done about it. I almost jumped out the window. Nora was good at her thing, romantic comedies, but this just wasn’t something for her. I guess she wanted to try something different. The funny thing is, the studio thought Nora would lighten it up and make it audience friendly, but she was determined to make a dark comedy – something different than what she’d done before.”

However, to Ephron’s credit, she understood Resnick’s concerns and graciously brought him into the filmmaking process. “She didn’t have to do that,” recalls Resnick. “She invited me to casting sessions, I was on the set a lot, especially the Pennsylvania locations. She tried to include me as much as possible. It was nice of her. I had many lunches and dinners with her so I got to witness the whole ‘Nora Ephron’ thing – her love of food and gossip and hanging out with other famous people. Unlike me, she seemed to be someone who really enjoyed life.”

Unfortunately, things changed after Resnick watched the first cut of the movie. “It was very upsetting. Disturbing. During pre-production I went back to Pennsylvania and took a lot of location photographs, hoping to show Nora what Harrisburg was like – pictures of the news station, where most of the film is set, and the squat little buildings in the neighborhood and places like that. All very authentic. But Nora obviously didn’t want to go for that kind of shabby realism, so she did the impossible – she made Harrisburg look beautiful. The look was so important to me. Every time I wrote a scene I had a specific location in mind. I really wanted to show off the town I knew. Maybe ‘show off’ isn’t the right term, but I wanted people to feel it the way I felt it.”

From there, Resnick attempted to make the best of disappointing situation, “I sent her pages of notes even though I knew it was unfixable. As it turns out, if there’s one thing directors aren’t fond of, it’s editorial notes from the writer. So things cooled off considerably between us after that. I remember they wanted to reshoot the ending and I refused to be involved. In my mind, it was hopeless. They eventually got another writer. My agent told me, ‘Look, it might not turn out to be the movie you wanted, but Nora makes hits, so you’ll be able to write your own ticket after it comes out.’” Resnick laughs. “Completely wrong. A disaster on every level. Just a bad, bad movie.” Resnick isn’t far off. Although Ephron deserves credit for tackling material that was well outside of her wheelhouse, Lucky Numbers resembles – at least according to the AV Club’s Keith Phipps – “an Elmore Leonard novel as reworked by the writing staff of Veronica’s Closet.” It’s broad. The kind of broad that’s rarely seen without the accompaniment of a blaring laugh-track. Yet, in its early pre-Ephron script form, Lucky Numbers read like a cruder, less alienating Coen Brothers movie. Odd, scummy characters populate the film like a bitter ex-jockey and gambling addict named Skitch who, at one point, calls Secretariat “a cunt” and proclaims that he would “cut off his balls” if the horse was still alive. Additionally, the script hints at a far more cinematic movie then the one we eventually got. The various artful montages that were mapped out in the screenplay were scrapped in favor of a bland visual style better suited for a romantic comedy on the Hallmark Channel (no surprise, the film’s cinematographer John Lindley has done a fair amount of TV work). Essentially, this film needed a Robinson Devor or even Resnick’s old High Life collaborator Peyton Reed. Instead it got a less gritty Gary Marshall.

Equally heartbreaking to realize is just who Resnick originally had in mind to star in Lucky Numbers. “When I’m writing a script I hardly ever think about actors, I’m just picturing the characters. Faces I’ve never seen before”, says Resnick. “Every now and then something will pop into my head, like “so-and-so would be good for this,” but it doesn’t drive me creatively or influence the voice of the character. Eventually though, on this one, I started thinking about George Clooney as the weatherman. That seemed to be the bull’s-eye, but obviously you can’t count on things like that. Later, when the script was being sent to actors, Clooney really liked it and was, I’m told, very interested.” But as with everything else, things changed when Ephron came aboard. “Nora brought on John Travolta and I didn’t immediately think that was such a bad choice. This was during the post-Pulp Fiction period, but before Battlefield Earth. I thought he was great in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. The guy’s a great actor, but he didn’t really shine in this,” Resnick laments. “I thought Lisa Kudrow was good casting as the lotto girl, but if the chemistry’s not there between the actors, and things in general aren’t firing properly, a good performance gets lost.” Sadder still, a frequent and beloved Resnick collaborator nearly appeared in a supporting role. As Resnick recalls, “There was a part I wanted Chris [Elliott] for but I was powerless to do anything about it.” The role eventually went to Bill Pullman who as Det. Pat Lakewood seems – to me at least – to be channeling Elliott’s ‘cocky idiot’ persona. Although Resnick disagrees, “Chris would have been so great, but I don’t think Pullman was trying to do Chris. From what I remember, Bill Pullman was funny in the role. He might have been one of the few things in the film that kind of worked.”

Clearly the potential for something better was always within Lucky Numbers’ grasp, but even though the film is a disappointment, it’s far better than you’d ever expect it to be. Years before Resnick wrote his critically acclaimed collection of essays Will Not Attend (now available in paperback, incidentally), Lucky Numbers captured the dreary banality of life in Central Pennsylvania. The film also has funny things to say about local celebrity and the delusions that go with it. Lucky Numbers also boasts amusing performances from Kudrow, Tim Roth and a seemingly improvising Maria Bamford who appears briefly as a Denny’s waitress. However, I’m not as close to the film as Resnick is and unlike me, he views the creative merits of Lucky Numbers a bit more pragmatically.

“For a long time I was really angry about the way the movie came together. The final result was everything I’d feared. Here’s where I was a better executive than the people making the thing – I could evaluate the elements before it was even shot and I knew there was no chance of it succeeding, not commercially, and not as a movie anyone could be proud of. This was a classic case of a script stirring up a certain amount of excitement and everyone getting swept up in it because talent likes it, directors like it, and the package, as they say, comes together. But no one stops to think if it’s the right package. No producer is going to turn down a green light. The fact is, and I’m living proof of it, a lot of times you’re better off not making the movie. Movies can turn out bad for so many reasons, even with the right people involved. Sometimes the reasons are indefinable. When a film works, it’s practically a miracle. But in the case of Numbers, if anyone really sat down and thought it through, it was a risk. The right elements weren’t there to turn this script into a movie that worked. You can’t get caught up in a director’s track record and assume they’re guaranteed hit makers. That’s only a good bet if they’re directing material similar to something they’ve done well with in the past. This was not an Ephron-esque script, so right away it was a gamble. The only way to cover your ass on a gamble like that is to make the movie cheaply. But Numbers was expensive. I’m a fairly stupid guy, but I could tell it wouldn’t work. It was so obvious.”

After a beat, Resnick adds, “I don’t have the strength or thankfully the memory to rattle off all the reasons the movie didn’t work for me. It’s been so long since I’ve seen it. But it’s usually just mission creep. Bit by bit, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in barely perceptible ways, the movie just slips away. It becomes something different than what you intended. As far as the process goes, who am I anyway? Just the writer. Just the guy who created the fucking thing.”

Resnick then lets out a self-aware chuckle and reveals, “It’s nice that I’m no longer bitter about it.”

How a Good Script Becomes a Bad Movie: The Inside […]