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Raekwon Got Leonardo DiCaprio to Back a Wu-Tang Biopic, But Says RZA Shot It Down

The MC shares a juicy Hollywood tale that’s also a poignant reflection on friendship, ego, and business in excerpt from his new memoir, From Staircase to Stage

Raekwon performs at the Loud Records 25th Anniversary Concert at Radio City Music Hall on January 30, 2020 in New York City.

Johnny Nunez/WireImage

It’s hard to imagine anyone turning down a major Hollywood film deal that’s got the approval and backing of Leonardo DiCaprio, but Raekwon says that’s exactly what RZA did when he was plotting Wu-Tang Clan’s recent television endeavors. 

In a new excerpt from his memoir, From Staircase to Stage: The Story of Raekwon and Wu-Tang Clan, Raekwon writes about how RZA was spearheading efforts to get a scripted Wu-Tang project off the ground and was particularly taken by the idea of doing a multi-season TV series. But Raekwon had been awed by the success of the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, and not only believed a Hollywood blockbuster was the way to go, for both financial and artistic reasons, but that he could make it happen.

With an assist from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, Raekwon says he scored a meeting with DiCaprio (a friend of Q-Tip’s and a big Wu-Tang fan), and that DiCaprio’s production company was soon on board to back the project. But the Wu-Tang biopic never materialized, and in its place came the scripted Hulu series, Wu-Tang: An American Saga.

The excerpt below is at once a juicy Hollywood insider tale, but more poignantly, a story about how big business and big egos can chip away at long-standing friendships and creative partnerships. Near the end of the excerpt, after Raekwon claims that RZA never intended to take DiCaprio’s deal, he writes, “I kept my cool and didn’t spaz out on him, but in my heart I knew more than ever that his relationships in Hollywood mattered more to him than his relationship with us. He was burying a dream deal over pride.”

The latest adventure we’ve taken together has been in the world of film and television, with the release of our documentary Of Mics and Men on Showtime as well as our scripted bio-series on Hulu, Wu-Tang: An American Saga. RZA had been talking about a Wu-Tang movie ever since he got involved in Hollywood. In his usual way, when he got serious about it he started having conversations with groups of us — one-on-one, three-on-one, whatever — but never to the entire team as one. As usual he said, “I think I can get X amount of dollars for each member. You don’t have to do nothing. All you got to do is say you want to do it.”

To me, a TV series sounded dope, but I was driven to see our story on the big screen. When the N.W.A movie Straight Outta Compton came out and was a huge success in every way, talk began circulating about our story being told in that format. For years, people had called us the East Coast N.W.A. I brought that up to RZA, telling him we should stay on the movie side of things, but he was already out there building his relationships with a certain company that I guess convinced him a series was the better way to go. RZA in turn convinced some of the guys to do it and told others that they didn’t have to be involved if they didn’t want to.

I was against the deal because I didn’t like the terms, the money, any of it. I kept telling RZA to look at Straight Outta Compton, which made $200 million dollars worldwide and was the highest-grossing movie by a black director in history. It made no sense to me to sell our story for a TV series where nobody would walk away with real money. Everybody except RZA, that is, because he was getting more on the deal — as an executive producer, writer, creator, composer, and I’m sure a few other ways we’ll never know about. He insisted that our story was too complicated for a two-hour movie and that it had to be a series. Plus, he said we could keep extending the series into more seasons so guys would ultimately make more. I was skeptical because there is no guarantee that a series won’t be canceled after the initial run of episodes is ordered. If it didn’t connect or if the executives who bought it left the network, it could be axed at any time. When it came to a movie, I knew we could get back-end money, which would amount to a lot more for each of us if the movie was a hit. We could only sell our story once, so I told the other guys to think hard about it.

The guys saw my logic enough so that RZA went out and shopped for a movie deal. He allegedly received a production offer of $10 million dollars, which he insisted wasn’t enough to make an official movie about us. Maybe, but I couldn’t understand how he thought that wasn’t a lot of money as a starting point. Production companies team up all the time to raise the fortunes it costs to make a Hollywood movie — just think of how many company logos you see at the beginning of a film. If we got $10 million off the bat, that was a good sign that we could turn that into twenty if we kept going. But RZA wasn’t having that, and tried to use what he considered a small number to justify his preference to go with a scripted series. I told him before we made that decision final to let me try to get a better film deal because I had some connections too. I’m sure RZA and his brother wanted to drop poison in my chocolate milk, but they let me give it a shot.

First thing I did was call my brother Q-Tip, who told me he’d get me in touch with Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a real close friend of his and a big Wu fan. Next time Leo came to town, me and Tip met Leo and his then-girlfriend out in Brooklyn at an old mafioso-looking pizza spot near Sunset Park that Leo loves. As a gift, I let my brother come along as a fly on the wall because Leo is his favorite actor. We had a great time, eating pizza, telling stories, laughing and shit. Then we started talking about the possibility of a Wu-Tang movie and I told Leo I’d love to see him play a role in it, anything he wanted to do. He talked about his production company and all the directors he thought might do a great job — and these were big names and people he’d worked with. He was super open to the idea, and after that meal, he had his production company executives reach out to me. We took it to the next level with them. They were very interested, so we got the ball rolling, talking real numbers, with the goal of an even bigger release than Straight Outta Compton.

“Yo, how’d it go?” Tip asked me after my meeting with Leo’s people.

“Yo … Tip, I think we found the big fish. Thank you, man. I appreciate you.”

“That’s incredible, man. I’m glad to hear it.”

A lot of other cats would have said they’d make that call and maybe never get around to it. In entertainment, people are always gassing you up while making themselves look important. But Tip is such a humble and genuine person that when he tells you he’s going to do something, he does it. He was truly excited to see this happen. The next step was to sit down with RZA. He’d let me go do my thing, but I know he didn’t expect me to come back to the table with one of the most in-demand, influential, and highest paid actors alive. I couldn’t wait to blow his mind.

raekwon from staircase to stage

I got back with RZA and told him Leo’s production company was ready to raise all the money needed to make a major motion picture. They just needed assurance that all the guys wanted to be a part of it. I got a typical nonchalant response, but RZA agreed to take a meeting in Beverly Hills with the top executives of Leo’s company. The day of the meeting, we all sat down at a rooftop spot and got into the details of what they were ready to bring to the table, which was pretty much everything. It was the perfect situation for Wu-Tang, but I looked over and saw that RZA wasn’t comfortable. I’ve known the guy for years and seen him act all kinds of ways, and in that moment, I saw him playing a role. He sat there, taking it in, watching to see how far I could get. At the end of the meeting, without emotion, he just said, “Okay, I’ll get back to you,” and Leo’s people left. I sat there with my index finger to my temple, elbow on my armrest, leaning back in the chair, staring at him.

“What’s goin’ on, RZA?” I asked him.

“Yo, that’s big shit right there,” he said.

“Yeah, it is. Listen, let me tell you something. You told me to go out there and fish, see what I could find. I came back and brought a fucking whale to the table. You need to think about the logistics of what this could be as a movie on that level compared to a damn cable TV series. You can’t look at up-front money, because a movie like this will gross so much money for us that we have an opportunity to take home more from it than we have made in our entire music careers. This could be our big payback.”

“I agree, Raekwon, I agree,” he said. We kept talking, and I left feeling good about the conversation.

It seemed like he was cool with it, so I set up another meeting with the same players. It would be the most important one — the third meeting is when you close the deal. We met somewhere in the Valley, and the minute he got there, RZA’s energy was entirely different. He barely said anything and seemed to be going through the motions, nothing more. I could tell he wasn’t going to agree to do it, and my instincts told me why: my guess is that he was already in bed with a production company, deep into developing the scripted series for TV, even though none of us had signed off on it.

It was clear that something was very different, so after a respectable amount of time, Leo’s people ended the meeting and got up to leave.

“Thanks,” RZA said. “We’ll call you.”

“You son of a bitch,” I thought to myself. “You had something in your pocket the whole time and knew you’d never close this fucking deal. You didn’t think I could put something together that was better than what you got. You ain’t about us. You about you, motherfucker.”

I kept my cool and didn’t spaz out on him, but in my heart I knew more than ever that his relationships in Hollywood mattered more to him than his relationship with us. He was burying a dream deal over pride.

The two of us sat there for the next hour as he tried to justify it, saying that a series was a better way to tell the story, that people streamed more than they went to the movies, that a series would be around for more years than a movie. I’d agree with him if we were looking at an indie, small budget movie, but that wasn’t the case. We were looking at something produced and backed and probably featuring Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s a whole other level. No matter what he said, nothing was going to change my mind or the fact that the series wasn’t making us real money. When he tried to convince me that we were going to get the biggest actors and actresses in the business attached to the series, I’d heard enough.

“Yo, stop frontin’, RZA,” I said. “Stop frontin’. There ain’t no way Hollywood’s biggest talent going to sign up for a Wu-Tang TV show. But a major motion picture produced by Leo with a top-tier director? Yeah, that they might do. So stop frontin’.”

This bullshit hurt my feelings because it proved to me that he’d already counted me out before I began. He didn’t think I could bring that kind of power to the table, but I’d gotten them there, all ready to rock and roll. They were excited and connected, so with the snap of a finger they could have gotten the ball rolling for real. Not to mention that even if he had signed some preliminary agreement to develop a series, deals get called off and bought out all the time, so if RZA were honest about it and admitted to me that he’d signed something already, it could have been worked out. But the dude wouldn’t cop to that. He just kept insisting the scripted series deal he had found was better than the major motion picture deal I had found. As I left him that day I had tears in my eyes.

Reprinted from FROM STAIRCASE TO STAGE by Raekwon with Anthony Bozza. Copyright © 2021 by Corey Woods. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

From Rolling Stone US