S. Leigh Savidge made his first of many cinematic splashes in 1986, when he founded Xenon Pictures. The company, still alive and well, is often heralded as being the first home entertainment label for “independent black audience films.” Those early years at Xenon involved the purchasing and repackaging of films from directors like Tim Story, Melvin Van Peebles, and Rudy Ray Moore. Jump ahead a decade, and Savidge finds himself hypnotized by the larger-than-life saga of Death Row Records, the label founded by illustrious producer Dr. Dre and infamous “music executive” Suge Knight. Come 1998, Savidge begins production on Welcome To Death Row, a documentary-turned-book that would unalterably change the course of his life. With the release of Straight Outta Compton, Savidge—whose aforementioned projects serve as the foundation for F. Gary Gray’s mesmerizing biopic—spoke with The A.V. Club about his first drafts, major facts about NWA’s story that Universal omitted, and the original ending he envisioned for the acclaimed movie.
The A.V. Club: Let’s begin in 1998, the year you started production on what would become Welcome To Death Row.
Leigh Savidge: People said, literally, “You are out of your fucking mind. Don’t touch this.”
AVC: White people said this?
LS: Everybody said this. There’s a federal investigation into Death Row Records and its funding sources. But also because of the artists that had been killed and artists who were beat up in the office. Crips and Bloods had been part of the office atmosphere. If you polled people in the entertainment business when we started that documentary, everybody warned us away from the product. That was our starting point. A colleague of mine said, “You know, there’s going to be a target on our back if we go down this road.”
AVC: Did you feel that target?
LS: Absolutely. I received innumerable amount of death threats, and people came to the set when we were filming. They were confrontations that in some cases involved guns. I would never ever go through this experience again. But we were always committed to doing a balanced piece on the company. We looked at this like Rashomon. Anybody that’s willing to talk to us under the glare of the government’s federal investigation into Death Row Records, we’re going to have their voice be heard.
AVC: And one of those voices was Suge Knight, but he didn’t want to talk to you.
LS: Well, he was in jail at that time. The kicking episode had happened at MGM Grand, which had preceded the shooting of Tupac. As the prosecutor said, “How many bites at the probation apple does this guy get?” And he had so many cases that [attorney David] Kenner had fixed and this episode was the last straw, even though the event was minor. The court couldn’t stomach one more.
AVC: Have you met him face to face?
AVC: What was that like?
LS: They happened after the filming, because he’s in jail the entire time we’re making Welcome To Death Row. After he was released from prison, he put the word out that he’d like to talk to us about perhaps layering more of his point of view in a subsequent version of the film. So we said, “Okay. All right.” The guy did nothing short of a herculean effort to stop this film initially. It’s sort of interesting he wants to meet after the fact. Death Row Records sent letters to theaters telling them we had unauthorized material. They sent letters to retailers to Wal-Mart trying to suppress the release of this thing. It’s nonstop drama throughout our production, and it’s why the film never received its due upon release. There was a lot of fear around it.
AVC: But you still went to meet him.
LS: Right, and because of the whole “Vanilla Ice scenario”—[with Vanilla Ice] allegedly being held over a balcony [by Knight]—Jeff Scheftel, the producer on the movie, said, “Let’s make sure we do these interviews on the ground floor.” The first meeting was in a Beverly Hills attorney’s office and he shows up. We’re gonna hear Suge out, and we’re on either ends of this long table. He’s got like six cell phones and he lays them out on the table. We realized very quickly that we’re not singing from the same page. We told him, “No, look, we already have a movie that’s made. If you want to answer some questions and layer your point of view, fine.”
AVC: And his response was?
LS: He thinks that somehow we’re going to do some documentary that he has complete control over, because we’re so fascinated with him. And we had no interest in that. We went back and forth and clearly we’re not in sync. At some point he announced that he was going to get something to eat, stood up, and left the room… and we’re all looking at one another wondering, “Is the meeting over? Is he coming back?” That’s meeting number one.
AVC: He didn’t come back?
LS: No. At that point his feeling was, “You should be so enthralled to get to talk to me that you should allow me to compel you to my will.”
AVC: So he was not self-aware?
LS: This guy has been, for many years, in a deep state of denial in terms of not wanting to take responsibility for a lot of the negative and bad things that have happened to him. That’s his Achilles’ heel as a human being. I’m not sorry that nothing ever emanated out of this. I can’t imagine how we would’ve cultivated a relationship that produced objective storytelling. He’s just so anxious to put a single point of view out there and disregard anything that’s relevant to his story.
AVC: Around this time, in 2002, you were writing your first draft of Straight Outta Compton.
LS: The guy I wanted for Welcome To Death Row, more than anyone, was Jerry Heller. He managed Marvin Gaye. He managed John Fogerty. When he breaks away from Associated Booking, he goes into business with this guy Don Fischel. They’re managing acts and they’re also doing tours. He’s the guy who brought Elton John to America, and did tours with Pink Floyd. You can see how, when NWA needs to go on tour, Jerry knows the tour business. That’s where he came from. If you look at his life in the mid-’70s, he’s driving a Rolls Royce, living in Benedict Canyon. He’s got the world by the balls. Van Morrison was another person he managed. He isn’t some guy who came out of nowhere. What happens is he loses his way a little bit as disco goes into punk, and there’s a bad divorce in there, issues with alcohol. When this story starts, mid-’80s, Jerry is crashed on his mom’s house in the San Fernando Valley. I used to liken it to the Paul Newman character in The Verdict. But through Lonzo Williams [of World Class Wreckin’ Cru fame, managed by Heller], Eazy-E gets an introduction to Jerry. It’s different in the film, but that’s how the relationship is actually seeded.
AVC: Why is it different in the film?
LS: I don’t know. The film, which is a great film, a seminal film, is based on a true story. I’m a documentarian, so the things I write tend to be closer to we think has happened. But the movie that you see is the movie Ice Cube and Dr. Dre wanted to tell, which is largely based in fact. The nuance of the story, how people meet one another—they can change that for dramatic purposes. The primary goal of the studio is to create the most commercially viable product.
AVC: What’s fascinating is that most biopics are not spearheaded by the subject(s) of the movie.
LS: Yes, this is made by characters in the film, so you’re going to get, as Dre said many times, “his legacy.” That’s his primary concern: the way he appears.
AVC: But don’t you think his legacy is falsely depicted? They seemed to have decided, “Eh, I know how our lives really played out, but we’re just going to put in what we want.”
LS: It takes a village to make a movie like this. When I started, Dre, Cube, Heller, and Tomica-Woods Wright [Eazy-E’s widow] are not talking to one another. My job is to a) get information out of Jerry, and then b) get someone who doesn’t like Jerry do business with me on this screenplay. Then I know I’m going to hand this over once we get it to the studio and it’s going to be someone else’s vision. And unless you sort of play ball with that scenario, unless you’re a big boy and accept this is how this stuff is going to get made… I’m pragmatic about that process.
AVC: So your rationaleav club is: You’d rather have the story out there, even with the fictitious elements, than no story at all?
LS: Oh yeah. It would be hypocritical to try to marginalize the film when so many biopics and the history of Hollywood have done the exact same thing. The process of creating a piece of successful entertainment will often trump the truth-based details. It’s not my first rodeo.
AVC: Your pragmatism makes sense.
LS: Would you rather have no story told. To not have the movie?
AVC: But the story is told! You told it!
LS: And this is what’s helpful about the Welcome To Death Row book. If people want to hear from the people who were there, with me as a moderator of sorts, they’ll get it. I think what happens is that Straight Outta Compton sets up a level of curiosity about this milieu.
AVC: Do you truly believe the general populace, the people who paid to see this film, will leave the theater and think to research this era and the veracity of the movie?
LS: They’re doing it right now. You’re getting the Dee Barnes stuff.
AVC: But those reports are coming out because those people were in the thick of it, and they’re watching a movie, flummoxed, and saying, “That’s not what happened.”
LS: They’re also using this moment to come out. No one had thought about them. Their raison d’être for coming out is the film as the mechanism.
AVC: Did you think about them in your original drafts?
LS: Dee Barnes was absolutely in my draft, and likely was part of the reason we weren’t retained going forward. Remember, I’m writing the draft for Tomica Wright. I’m writing an Eazy-E story, because the first leg of the journey is to get her to put her music rights to something she’ll approve. The studio buys that and it’s up Dre, Cube, and Wright to work out difficult history with one another and come to agreement on a story that passes muster.
AVC: Did you have any dialogue with them?
AVC: Is that because you didn’t want to?
LS: No, no. I think I wasn’t invited into the process. Again, if your goal is to get a movie made, you accept that. I created the characters and the foundation, along with Alan Wenkus. Once NewLine bought it, we did two or three more drafts. We called them internally “the Tomica drafts” and she gave me more information about her relationship with Eazy. And then the studio said we need Cube and Dre behind this… we took it as far as we could.
AVC: You paused for a few seconds there.
LS: I know the normal reaction might be to feel misused, but I just don’t feel that way. I wanted to be part of the productive process of making the movie. You don’t get anywhere by banging your fist on your chest. In Hollywood, people work with who they want to work with. That’s just the way it goes. You can say, “Oh, it’s not fair.” We waited nine years. We sold this thing in 2006. I can only imagine the amount of times that things broke down on the NewLine phase before Universal, on the back of Ride Along, comes in and works out its business deal.
AVC: Did your drafts include the general misogyny of the group?
LS: I didn’t put Dee Barnes in there to demonize Dre, and I’m sure that’s the way it was perceived. I put it in there because that showed the growing influence of Suge Knight on Dr. Dre. You don’t create this music and be the Patron Saint Of Goodness. You just don’t. You don’t sing a song like “Fuck The Police” and not have a level of anger. And you don’t come from a broken home, like he did, and emerge from that without some attachments to the things that happened in the ghetto. This is what goes on in the inner city. There’s anger. There’s the question of, “How do I get out?” There is violence against women. It’s not good, but it exists.
AVC: In your draft, where did the story end?
LS: The story ended with Jerry hearing of Eazy-E’s death on K-Day and doubling over crying on the side of the road. There was a close bond between those two. The business relationship had ended by that point, but Jerry feels a very deep connection to Eazy-E today. The thing he’s most upset about, in his portrayal, is that he appears as this huckster. When, in fact, Eazy was shoulder to shoulder in a lot of those business decisions that pissed off Cube and Dre.