RZA and Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard talk to World Screen about bringing the Wu-Tang Clan origin story to television with Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
Hailed by many as the greatest hip-hop group of all time, the Wu-Tang Clan has been a defining force in music and pop culture since the 1990s. Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, better known as The RZA, a founding member, teamed with Alex Tse and Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard to bring the Wu-Tang Clan origin story to television with Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, which wrapped its initial ten-episode run in October.
RZA tells World Screen that the idea for the show came on the heels of him writing his second philosophical book, The Tao of Wu. “I was working with Imagine on the TV show Gang Related,” a drama for FOX that RZA executive produced and starred in. “Brian wanted to option the book, and he did. We talked about developing it first as a limited series, as a miniseries—we had all kinds of different ideas. And then three years later we found the perfect partner in Alex Tse. We crafted what it could be and decided we could make it a series. Alex and I spent almost two years getting it tight enough. And then we all went out and pitched it.”
Grazer’s interest in Wu-Tang Clan goes back even further, he tells World Screen Weekly, since meeting the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard more than 20 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 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 the world of East Coast hip hop. 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 The Tao of Wu. I thought, That’s why they are so different—it’s their foundational philosophy. 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 him in American Gangster as an actor and got to know him better.”
Howard was similarly impressed with RZA’s abilities. “Russell Crowe acted for him in a movie he directed [RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists], and he loved him. He praised him as a multidimensional talent with a lot of discipline,” Howard tells World Screen Weekly. “I hadn’t met him, except once very briefly, but I was impressed by that.”
Bringing the story of the Wu-Tang Clan to television, Howard adds, made perfect sense for Imagine’s expanding television roster. “Television and movies have blended and television has become more and more eventful, more raw, more real and more cinematic. 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. Now we’re beginning to find that these stories can be better realized in this way, whether it’s Einstein and Picasso with Genius or some other things we’re developing. We probably wouldn’t have even considered the notion of doing this as a show a couple of years ago. It’s 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.”
RZA and Tse (Watchmen, Superfly) took the lead on crafting the look and narrative arc of the series. “Wu-Tang is a creative entity,” RZA says. “If you look at our music and me as a producer, I try to tell different stories in every album, [finding] different ways to express our art. So that energy had to be present in telling the scripted series. Wu-Tang is what people call urban culture, but it’s infused with martial-arts culture, geek culture, comic books, chess, as well as me over the years being a cinephile. All that energy helped us look at the brand of Wu-Tang, look at the story and know we had the liberty to introduce elements of Wu-Tang that maybe the average show couldn’t do. Look at episode nine, where we shot a whole martial-arts scene in the middle of telling our story. Episode two, we open with an animated sequence. Wu-Tang can allow that. As the creative leader of all this, I knew when it came time to [make] this TV show that we would have to play with those elements.”
Howard calls RZA a “tremendous visionary,” adding, “We are more and more throwing our support behind visionaries as collaborators, and much more trying to create an environment for them to really 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.”
Howard and Grazer both had a say in the “rigorous” casting process, as Howard calls it, as the team sought the best young talent to play the key roles of RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and RZA’s brother, Divine. “We all were looking at tapes and drilling down on it. The show demanded people that RZA felt worked and the directors felt 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.”
RZA spotted Ashton Sanders, the young actor who plays him in the series, in The Equalizer: 2. “There was a scene with him and Denzel [Washington], and he’s deciding if he’ll go into street life or pursue his art. He was painting and his brother was a criminal and he thought he was going to get a gun and be a drug dealer. The way he handled that scene, that’s when I got the inspiration: he can play Bobby. He delivered to me the idea of the confrontation of choosing your passion versus your desperate moment. Once I saw The Equalizer: 2 for the second time, I was like, if we get this guy, he’ll be a great asset for the show.”
While pursuing other projects, including Cut Throat City, an upcoming heist thriller he directed, RZA is eager to make more episodes of Wu-Tang: An American Saga. “We have so much content for this story,” he notes. As for how future seasons will roll out—week to week or all in one go—RZA is on the fence. “We wanted it [weekly]. We’re a little bit old school. In hindsight, I don’t know. The compromise was drop three and then go episodic. We thought that was a great compromise and we think it served a good purpose for telling the story and setting the stage. If we go again, maybe decisions will change.”
International rights to Wu-Tang: An American Saga are held by Endeavor Content.