Season 3 of Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga follows the group after the release of their debut album and continued rise to fame. While each of the members goes on a separate journeys to figure out where they fit in the world of music, RZA struggles to stay on top of things in order to fulfill the promise he made to his Wu brothers. As money, fame, ego and business threaten to tear the group apart, they must find a way to come together and cement their legacy. The show stars Ashton Sanders, Shameik Moore, Siddiq Saunderson, Julian Elijah Martinez, Marcus Callender, Zolee Griggs, TJ Atoms, Dave East, Johnell Young, Uyoata Udi and Damani Sease.
Marc Wiltshire (pictured) edited Episodes 305 and 308, and faced the challenge of telling that part of the story while staying true to the characters and the show's DNA. Episode 308 stands out, as it was directed by series co-creator, RZA. Wiltshire used pop cultural references and the episode's length to make it into a love letter to 90s hip-hop.
Here, Wiltshire shares insight into his work and some of the show's unique challenges.
How does Season 3 differ, if at all, from the prior seasons?
“Seasons 1 & 2 followed the development of the group, led by The RZA, as they polished the sound of their music and struggled to survive both in the music industry and on the streets. The Season 2 finale is when their first album, Enter the 36 Chambers, is released, and that’s when everything changes.
“When Season 3 begins, they live a luxurious life together in a mansion, buy fancy cars, and are at the forefront of the NYC rap game. This shift drastically changed the tone, conflict and stakes from previous seasons. One of my challenges was to maintain the show’s DNA while elevating the story and characters into this new world. Season 3 also delves deeper into the lesser-known members of the group, exploring their fascinating journeys.
“The series has always played with a fantasy element, utilizing animation and genre techniques like the Spaghetti Western or John Woo movies. Season 3 took this to a whole new level with three allegorical films inspired by solo albums all released in 1995, in between Enter the 36 Chambers (1993) and Wu-Tang Forever (1997). The first of these special episodes focuses on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s ‘Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version’ and was conceived as a 1970s blaxploitation film. The second film focuses on Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’ and is inspired by ‘90s crime films like Belly and Carlito’s Way. The third, which I had the privilege of editing, is an allegorical film inspired by my personal favorite solo album, GZA’s ‘Liquid Swords,’ and was the first-ever episode written & directed by series co-creator (and founding Wu-Tang member) The RZA. This special episode is an homage to hip-hop culture. Just like hip-hop, this episode is a pastiche of cultural influences ranging from ‘90s music videos to movies like Seven Samurai, Naked Island, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Shogun Assassin, Mad Max, The Warriors, West Side Story, and classic Kung Fu movies.”
How did you approach the editorial? What was your workflow and what editing system were you using?
“We cut on Avid [Media Composer] 2018.12.15 on a Mac Pro with a classic three-monitor setup, and all the media was stored on a NEXIS drive. It was a hybrid workflow, so we would work from home part-time, usually for the editor’s cut, then go into the Wu-office for producer cuts and beyond.
“I rely heavily on ScriptSync to wrap my head around all of the footage and takes, which my brilliant assistant aditor — and partner in editorial — Alex Wills organizes using markers across the footage as breadcrumbs. Beyond this, I would build a ‘string out’ of all of the beats or lines of dialogue into one long sequence so that I could quickly audition any given beat of a scene. This was helpful in the editor’s cut and again later during [roducer cuts, when we wanted to audition alt moments.
“Some of the episodes had the added challenge of musical performances. For example, there are four or five music videos in Episode 308 (‘Liquid Swords’). Those are messier and are assembled less linearly than traditional dialogue scenes, so that required a different approach in the editorial. For the music-video sequences, we would make a mega-group containing all of the footage synced to the music. This would become my primary clip for editing, so I could swap camera angles/takes at any time during the song, and it would be in sync.
“Editing is my favorite part of the filmmaking process because we get to experiment, combining music and sound elements to enhance visual storytelling. Especially on a project like Wu-Tang: An American Saga, building the sound design in the offline edit was crucial to the storytelling. It was a very creative environment. We were encouraged to make bold choices in the editing, always trying many ideas with our music choices and sound effects. On the ‘Liquid Swords’ episode, I managed to sprinkle in a lot of fun sound elements that were inspired by the movies we were paying homage to. I recall our sound designer pleading with us not to use the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ that I had slotted in the edit during a musical battle scene, but RZA told them to keep it in, and I’m forever grateful.”
Do you have free reign with the music, or are there limitations?
“Music budgets were limited, however, we were fortunate to be working with The RZA, who, in addition to being a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, is a brilliant composer. The musical score for the show is pure Wu-Tang. Seeing as the show takes place in the mid-‘90s, that’s the music era we had to play with. It was an absolute joy to sift through bins of classic hip-hop from my youth and match the perfect song to a scene with characters from my favorite hip-hop crew. It was a dream project.
“On our special episode Liquid Swords, RZA’s vision for the music was to use newly recorded orchestral versions of every song from the album and have that score the entire episode. RZA also composed two new songs specifically for this episode. That music is so beautiful it deserves to be released on a soundtrack.
“There were a couple of spots that needed a good needle drop. One is when the guys have been walking in a ‘desert’ for some time, and one of them says he thinks he sees a mirage when beautiful women approach. RZA instructed me to find a sexy R&B song. I checked what was on the charts in the mid-‘90s, and it wasn’t long before I found the perfect song; Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy.’ The music video featured Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the lyrics were perfect for the moment, so I’m proud of that contribution.”
Can you point to a scene that is interesting because of the way it's edited?
“Wu-Tang is a very creative show, so we had a unique opportunity to experiment with different editing styles from episode to episode. As a fan watching the show, I enjoyed that aspect, so I was really excited to edit Season 3. In ‘A Better Tomorrow’ (Episode 305), the story follows the three lesser-known crew members on a day in their lives. It was scripted to utilize split screens to transition from one character to the next. Nefertite Nguvu directed that episode, and we talked early in pre-production about the best way to approach this style so that we’d have a clear visual plan for the framing of each character at different points in the story. It was a fun way to connect with the guys.
“’Liquid Swords’ (Episode 308) starts off with the pace of a Kurosawa film, and by the end of the movie, we’re in a kinetic ‘90s music video. The whole episode hops around different styles, so that’s fun to watch from an editorial perspective. The final battle sequence is a recreation of the ‘4th Chamber’ music video. That was a trip to edit because I had to make sure I captured the essence of that music video, with its chaotic cuts and non-linear structure. We had a ton of battle footage to sort through, so we did several passes on that scene due to the sheer amount of possibilities. I edited from my gut rather than being surgical. It was wild, liberating and the most fun editing I’ve ever had.”