Among the longest-running and most successful creative collaborations in Hollywood history, the partnership between Ron Howard and Brian Grazer is thriving in this peak-content era. At Imagine Entertainment, the duo has ramped up their television slate, with a portfolio that includes the brand-new 68 Whiskey on Paramount Network, Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, Why Women Kill on CBS All Access, Empire on FOX and the upcoming Genius: Aretha on National Geographic. Key to the duo’s philosophy at Imagine these days, as they look to meet the booming appetite for content from streaming and linear players, is seeking out and championing unique talent. Such was the case on Wu-Tang: An American Saga, in which Imagine partnered with The RZA, founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and Alex Tse, to dramatize the story of the iconic hip-hop group. Howard and Grazer share with World Screen the genesis of that project and note how it speaks to Imagine’s overall approach to delivering compelling content across all screens.
WS: How did Wu-Tang: An American Saga come about?
GRAZER: I met Ol’ Dirty Bastard 25 years ago. I have this discipline of meeting one person every week that has nothing to do with what I have to do for a living. I was in New York producing a movie and I was in SoHo in a taxi cab and I heard this crazy guy talking to Howard Stern. He was saying, “Do not abbreviate me! I’m not ODB to you; I’m Ol’ Dirty Bastard!” And I’m thinking, what kind of a person wants to be called that? [Laughs] I found a way to meet him two days later. And I thought he was insane in an interesting and creative way. That made me very interested in East Coast hip-hop and how it was emerging and Wu-Tang’s place in that world. An editor at The New York Times challenged me—he said, I think it’s an inferior subculture. I thought, wait a second—I think it’s going to be the actual culture itself. He disagreed, and that fueled me to want to prove him wrong, in a cinematic equation. That became the movie 8 Mile. Along the way, I got to know The RZA, who wrote a book called The Tao of Wu. I thought, that’s why they are so different. They were able to adopt this Shaolin Warrior belief system. The book intrigued me and that’s how [the series first] came about. And then I put The RZA in American Gangster as an actor and got to know him better.
HOWARD: Anecdotally, Russell Crowe acted for The RZA in a movie he directed, and he loved him. He praised him as a multidimensional talent with a lot of discipline. I hadn’t really met him, except once very briefly, but I was impressed by that. The next thing is, television and movies have blended and television has become more eventful, raw, real and cinematic. With some of the subjects we’re interested in, up to just a few years ago we would have said, Let’s make a theatrical feature film out of it. We’re beginning to find that these stories can be better realized [on television], whether it’s Einstein and Picasso with Genius or some other things we’re developing. Brian was talking with The RZA—I wasn’t there for that conversation—but the notion of doing this as a show, we probably wouldn’t have even considered a couple of years ago. It’s kind of revolutionary. And now, it seems like the only way to do justice to this story. Here we are, and we’re really proud of it.
WS: How did you work with The RZA on crafting the overall look and feel of the show and its innovative narrative technique?
GRAZER: The RZA is the lead on all of those things. He’s the storyteller of the group, he’s the strategist, and being the strategist, he’s the one who kept [the group] cohesively together. He unified them through watching these kung-fu movies and turning it into a belief system so they could turn their angry energy into peaceful energy.
HOWARD: He’s a tremendous visionary. As I’ve gotten to know him a bit better through the show, I’ve asked him to read scripts and see cuts of movies I’m working on. He’s remarkable. Russell Crowe is right; he’s a very multidimensional artist. Brian has known that for years. I’m just getting to know the man. The other thing that is going on with Imagine Entertainment is, we are more and more throwing our support behind visionaries as collaborators, and much more trying to create an environment for them to flourish and excel. That doesn’t mean we won’t have projects where our sleeves are rolled up and we’re in there every minute of the day. But we’re also trying to use what we’ve learned and the resources at our disposal to give people like The RZA that kind of opportunity.
WS: You went straight to series on this show. Is that your preferred model?
GRAZER: We always prefer to go straight to series. I think that’s everybody’s preference. On this [project] particularly, The RZA and Alex Tse mapped out what would be the ten episodes. They were brilliant in creating the architecture of this season and what would be the next season.
WS: What was the approach to casting?
HOWARD: It was a rigorous process. We all were looking at tapes and really drilling down on it. The show demanded people that RZA felt worked and the directors felt really were authentic. But it was important that Brian’s point of view was in there. Brian has been the guy who can connect themes and ideas and authenticity with a broader audience. There was a lot of mutual respect there. It was about Brian and The RZA agreeing.
GRAZER: In this case, because it was a world that I know a lot about, I would be the lead guy. But anytime I’m even in question, I sneak over to Ron, without telling him my opinion, and I go, What do you think of this person? Every single time, whether it’s an idea or casting, I trust his wisdom, which he’s accrued his entire life. You are able to get the advantage of 50 years of wisdom.
WS: Speaking of casting, I cannot wait to see Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in Genius!
GRAZER: She is going to be so good! She’s going to be amazing. She’s a singer. When I met with her for a couple of hours at the beginning, she said she sang and I said, play some tracks, and she did!
WS: What are some of the other projects you have in the works at Imagine Television?
GRAZER: We have a show called Swagger [inspired by NBA star Kevin Durant] for Apple TV+, which is like a Friday Night Lights set in the world of AAU basketball.
HOWARD: We have an edgy, sexy show called 68 Whiskey that takes a look at the medical corps in a combat situation in the Middle East. That has a great showrunning team, it’s funny, frank and very honest.
WS: Are you looking at opportunities to develop content outside of the U.S.?
GRAZER: Particularly the U.K., yes.
HOWARD: Also China. We’re in some early discussions about Spanish co-productions, and others. In those cases, it would be in the local language.