S. Leigh Savidge has lived on Death Row for nearly 20 years. In 1998, the Magnolia native began researching the hugely influential—and hugely controversial—hip-hop label cofounded by Dr. Dre and Suge Knight for what would become his 2001 documentary, Welcome to Death Row. But it’s what came after that earned him both a trip to the 88th Academy Awards—with a best original screenplay nomination for Straight Outta Compton, about gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A—and a controversy of his own, as one of the white screenwriters of a movie about black characters. But he’s okay with that. Nearly $200 million in worldwide ticket sales later, Savidge has learned to love sitting on the hot seat.
I wouldn’t say I was a black music aficionado prior to looking at the N.W.A and Death Row stories. As a kid I was into Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Who. But I think when you’re emotionally tied to music, sometimes that obscures your ability to really see and dig into the story that’s actually there.
The pull wasn’t the music itself. It was the cultural change and the story of these inner city black kids getting a seat at the table and pursuing with ruthless abandon success in a way that any number of nonblacks have pursued it in the history of America.
Initially I was really warded off the story. People said, “You know, you better be prepared to take a bullet. Suge Knight doesn’t want you doing this. Arguably nobody wants you to do this.” But I knew the level of interest in this story. This was a major water cooler story, not only in LA, but also in most of the urban metropolises across the country.
White teenagers embraced hip-hop because they got to hear these stories and embrace this lifestyle without having to live it themselves.
If you’re going to pursue a story, this is about as good as it gets. It has epic success, epic failure, iconic names, and a Shakespearean betrayal between the players. It’s just got everything.
The first time I met Jerry Heller was in 1994, when we went to do an interview with Eazy-E. [Heller was his manager.] I went to the office and there were guys with machine guns at the front door. So that was something.
It was going to be hard enough to do this just as a professional endeavor. But then I would present myself, and there were people who were obviously taken aback. But I was never going to be the guy who tried to take on the hip-hop nomenclature. I’m a white guy from Seattle, from Magnolia. I’m not going to lower my pants or have my belt below my butt. I’m just not going to pretend to be anything other than who I am.
There were people who truly embraced me and others who didn’t want to have anything to do with me. And I understood that. That’s business. There are gonna be people who like you, and there are gonna be people who don’t like you. It’s just that what I was doing had this racial component to it.
With the controversy over the all-white Oscars thing, I’m sure there’s gonna be some examination about the four white writers of Straight Outta Compton. But it’s so self-defeating to discredit a white writer who’s pursuing an American story that shows the accomplishments of black artists. You can’t simultaneously say, “Well, our stories are getting marginalized, they’re not being told,” and then discredit a writer who looks to go in, and in my case, risk his life to get at what happened.
I went to the premiere. I prepared myself—the script went into arbitration so I read all the various drafts from the different writers—but I loved it. I was able to readjust and be less emotionally tied to the story I’d written and look at it in the context of the movie that it was, and I was very happy with it.
We had a scene—it didn’t make it into the final movie—when Eazy is dying of AIDS and he’s in the hospital. Dre comes to visit him, and there’s this whole banter we had between them. We had Eazy able to speak, and in the movie he’s on life support; he’s unable to speak. So they modified that for the version that made it into theaters. But it was them bantering about what was the more important album, what was the most important track—this competitive thing that was always part of their relationship, Dre and Eazy’s relationship.
I put all the characters on the page for the first time, created the basic arc of the story. The studio is going to cut and separate and modify and bring in other characters. But if you’ve been the guy in the room by yourself initially and then with another writer, and you’ve put it all together and it becomes what it becomes, you’re gonna feel an emotional connection to what’s on screen.
Every writer, every entrepreneur who’s thought to have a screw loose is always happy to see a little level of recognition. And yeah, you learn—and I think I get this from my father—to discipline yourself that there will be this element of people that just don’t get you. And all of a sudden at some point they do, and it seems excessive compared to what it was. You just keep that in perspective.
This was the biggest music biopic in history. The significance of that story can’t be denied.