Created and written by Alex Tse and The RZA, and based on one of the most influential groups in hip-hop history, Wu-Tang: An American Saga tracks their formation and follows the vision that Bobby Diggs (Ashton Sanders), aka The RZA, had to unite a dozen young black men, in the early ‘90s at the height of the crack epidemic in New York City. Torn between music and crime, the members of Wu-Tang grew to become as much of a force individually as they were together, reaching a height of success that cemented their place in music history forever.
While at the Hulu portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat with executive producers Alex Tse and The RZA about how this TV series came about, talking to the other Wu-Tang guys before going into production, deciding where to deviate from fact and how much to fictionalize the story, playing with time in the storytelling, finding the right actors to play these larger than life personalities, what they hope audiences will take away from watching this show, and the impact that Wu-Tang Clan has had on music and the culture today.
Collider: This is such a fascinating story that it’s easy to see why it would make for great storytelling. Did you talk to the other Wu-Tang guys before doing this, or were you going to make this, no matter what?
RZA: Actually, I’m the type of person that will decide to do something, either way, but I talked to the guys. Alex took a long time to crack the story. I feel like that took a year, before we even started. That was before we even had a treatment. But during the process, we had this weekly Wu Wednesday call, and I would bring up what I was doing and what I was striving for. I had a plan. I can say it now, but I couldn’t say it then. I had what I would call a five-year plan. When I do my five-year plans, the first one was to come together, put out 36 Chambers, and in five years, have it be number one, which we did. I’m not going to tell you this plan, but this is part of a five-year plan, that started with the documentary (Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men) and now this series. I informed the guys that this is where our story and our art is at, an that this is the medium for it to travel through, and that they should trust me and come on board. That was the hard part. But eventually, we got them on board.
Was anyone most reluctant?
RZA: The Wu is the Wu. One thing about this show that I love is that you sit there and watch the actors portray these roles, and you actually remember the energy and the moment of the situation or the relationship. There’s a scene were Dave East is playing Shotgun, who’s Method Man, and he’s at Bobby’s house and he’s rapping a demo. But then, Raekwon, played by Shameik Moore, comes over, and he’s not interested in his demo, his style or his swag. He’s confronts him and says, “Nah, you’re doing that bitch shit.” That confrontation is known amongst us. When Method Man blew up, we called him the Michael Jackson of rap, and he hated that. That was part of some of the members picking on him. When you watch the show and you see that same dynamic of energy that existed from youth, and carried into adulthood, there’s something cool about that. As far as different guys being reluctant about this, their personalities are their personalities.
ALEX TSE: It’s a challenge, especially in hip-hop, when you need to be vulnerable. In order to have a show, you need to show your vulnerabilities and be willing to peak behind the curtains, and that wouldn’t be easy for anybody. So, there were a lot of challenges with that.
Was it challenging to tell a story that involves so many people, who each have such distinct personalities, and figure out which threads to follow, at any given moment?
TSE: We’re calling it historical fiction. It’s grounded and based in a lot of truth. I would challenge you to find a biopic that doesn’t take license. The whole point is that, as long as you’re being spiritually true, that’s the most important thing.
How did you decide where you would deviate and where you wouldn’t?
TSE: It started in the foundation, when we first met and talked about, is there a show here? Once he started telling me some stuff, I knew that for there to be an actual television series and not just a movie, it had to be based in truth. Within the truth itself, you could deviate. Knowing that there was architecture working off of the bones of the truth, then we could fill it out with different little embellishments. But there had to be a TV series that was based in history, for us to go forward, in my opinion.
RZA: The famous director who did Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet, wrote in his book, that I read about five years ago, that film is the medium where you can suspend and play with time. What a film does, more than any other medium, is that it plays with time. So, understanding that principle, after Alex was my therapist for a couple of years and I poured out my brain to him, with his very unique way of listening, when we starting writing it, we had to figure out how to frame the reality, and the best way to do that was to play with time. So, you meet the characters in a pivotal moment in time, with something that happened that we don’t talk about with the rest of the world. To talk about that was not easy ‘cause there were a lot of people that we had to talk about that with, but it opened up the world. And then, when you meet Ashton [Sanders], you meet him as Bobby. Throughout the course of the season, Bobby has to make it to become RZA. Since we could play with time, we can actually see Bobby making this beats, and we can go flashback to what Bobby went through, in his earlier life. And you can see Dennis in a situation that’s crazy because it opens up on a fateful night, but then we can see, later on in the series, what happened two weeks before that because we can play with time. That’s been the biggest gift to our creativity. Even when it seems like some fiction is slipping in, it’s actually not that much fiction slipping in. It’s just the timeline that changes a little.
RZA, what’s it like for you to go back and revisit all of this? Did it give you a different perspective?
RZA: I’m able to approach it as a filmmaker and a producer. Early on, in one of our meetings, Alex pointed out that Bobby has the ability to look at himself in the third person, and maybe he’s right. As a creator, I’m able to separate from it. But during the process, we had to go back to the address of 88 Laurel, where my development years, as a teenager, happened with my family. We went to the real house, and we walked through that house. My little brother was with me, who’s a man now, and we both were like, “Wow, we lived here.” There’s a Spanish family that lives there now, and they had great hospitality and let us use the use the place. And then, our production designer, Scott Murphy, scaled it and built it over on the stage for the interiors. We called my sister for the wallpaper. She had an old picture of that and how the floor was, and he had to recreate that. That became pretty surreal. One day on set, during Episode 7, I popped up and I had my daughter, who had never stepped foot in that house before ‘cause she wasn’t born and has only see the RZA side of life, and she was able to get a sense of where I started, and that was beautiful thing, as well.
Alex, what’s the collaborative process like for you, when you’re working with someone who has that history to bring to the table but who also has a filmmaker perspective?
TSE: I can’t begin to tell you how valuable that is. He understands the need for story. When it’s your life, you can get caught up in reality having to be reality, but the bottom line is that sometimes that’s just not gonna work for an episode or a season of television. But we never really had to have that discussion because he’s an artist and filmmaker and understands that. He has a really incredible ability to have an objectivity of his own life. Not everyone’s willing to be vulnerable and to put this out in the world. Even in some cases, he probably makes himself more vulnerable than what reality was. So, in that regard, it was incredibly invaluable, not just personally, but because of the skill set that he as. I really don’t know how it would have worked without that.
RZA: Being creative is one thing, but if I can say something about myself, in a vain way, when something doesn’t work and we’re like, “We know what happened, but that can’t happen, and we got to get over this wall, so how are we gonna get over this wall?,” fortunately, I’m a mature man who’s had a lot of living, and there’s a day that we can pull out where something similar happened. So, there’s a scene in Episode 2 where Shameik’s character, Raekwon, on is really barking on Bobby. It’s a great fucking scene, but my wife watched it and felt a little offended that I was in such a vulnerable position to him. But I’ve been in a vulnerable position with him before. Not maybe during the period of me being The RZA on the uprise, but when he was evolving to he thought he was, and he challenged me before. That happened in real life. Did it happen, at that time? No. But we were trying to get over that hump, and there was a time that actually happened. That was another great thing that helped us. We’d stop and think about things and talk about things, to see if we could find something from reality. The secret of writing is that there’s always a spoonful of reality, and the secret of making movies is that there’s always a spoonful of magic, also . You’ve gotta put that together. Tea is better when you put that sugar in it.