How 'Power Book III: Raising Kanan' Creator Sascha Penn Brought the 'Family Drama' to Life

'Power Book III: Raising Kanan' series creator Sascha Penn talks about how he got the Starz job, how expensive outfitting actors for a 1991 series is, and much more.

Sascha Penn attends 'Power Book III: Raising Kanan' global premiere event and screening

Image via Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for STARZ

Sascha Penn attends 'Power Book III: Raising Kanan' global premiere event and screening

Tonight, the third book in Courtney Kemp’s massive Power universe—Power Book III: Raising Kanan, which already got its Season 2 renewal—debuted on Starz. A prequel series, Raising Kanan is focused on 50 Cent’s infamous Power character Kanan, who began as a mentor for Ghost and Tommy but ended up becoming their biggest perceived threat. This is how the man became who he was in a tale overseen by Power veteran Sascha Penn, who was hand-picked by Kemp and 50 to work on this series, which he views as a family drama more than anything.

“Power is a family drama,” Penn told Complex during a recent Raising Kanan press junket, “this is a family drama. It was always going to be some version of a family drama, so when they came to me and said, ‘Look, we want to do this origin story,’ I went back and said, ‘All right, let me figure out what that would look like,’ and I really felt the central relationship would be [between] mother and son.”

Penn—who’s next project, April 29, 1992is a heist film set during the 1992 LA Riots starring Tyrese Gibson and Ray Liotta—broke down how he got this particular gig, why Patina Miller is perfect for the role of Kanan’s mother, the Raising Kanan theme, and how expensive it is to get era-specific sneakers and clothes for a series set in 1991.

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I know you’ve written and you’ve produced on Power before, but how do you go from, “I’m creating an episode,” to now, “Give me this entire section of the universe?”
I think part of it is I was a writer on Power Season 1, so I have a lot of the OG Power DNA in me. I’ve done a lot of feature work, some of which probably isn’t even on IMDb, and a big part of feature writing is creating a world and that’s very much the skillset that you need as it relates to a series, too. Now obviously, it’s a much longer road ahead of you and you have a lot more time to explore characters and stories and narratives and whatnot, but it’s still a very similar process in terms of visualizing and thinking.

Look, I was really, really fortunate. Courtney, who is a good friend, and 50, who’s also a good friend, came to me and said, “Look, we have this idea.” And really, all they had was, “We want to do the origin story of Kanan”—they were using GoodFellas as the template, or as they called it, “HoodFellas”—and they said, “What do you think?” I thought about it and came back with what I thought was an interesting, compelling… It’s a daunting job to do an origin story for a character that’s as compelling and as fully realized as Kanan.

Power Book III: Raising Kanan

Did it always start out as Raising Kanan, as it’s going to be his origin story but also be as much the story of his mother, and his mother really being the one to driving a lot of that going on in his life?
It didn’t start off at that. That was something that, excuse me, in talking to 50 about his mom, his grandmother, his extended family. As I started thinking about that stuff, the larger world started to come into focus for me, as it relates to the series. The best shows like this are family dramas. Power is a family drama; this is a family drama. It was always going to be some version of a family drama, so when they came to me and said, “Look, we want to do this origin story,” I went back and said, “All right, let me figure out what that would look like,” and I really felt the central relationship would be [between] mother and son.

What was it about Patina, specifically, to you guys that said, “Hey, this is Kanan’s mother right here?”
It’s one of those things where you sit in a room, and someone walks in, and they read the stuff that you’ve written, and you’re like, “Wow, you just made that about a million times better than what I ever thought it would be.” And she just has… You see what she has.

It’s there on the screen.
Yeah. It’s pretty undeniable, man. And it was that way in the room too, by the way, the first time. She came in. She had already worked out the New York accent on her own. She came in fully prepared, but aside from all that, she is just truly an amazing, amazing actress. I was saying to someone earlier, I’ve seen all 10 episodes and I can tell you, I was like, “She deserves an Emmy award.” If she doesn’t get one, it will be yet another crime that’s been committed in Hollywood.

She’s incredible. Everybody on the show is incredible. Her, Mekai [Curtis], who had the real daunting challenge of basically fitting into 50’s shoes and capturing what 50 established beforehand, but then London Brown, Malcolm Mays, Omar Epps, Shanley Caswell, Joey Badass, who’s an absolute revelation, Haley Kilgore, who is incredible. She’s in the new Aretha Franklin movie that’s coming out. It’s been amazing. The best part of this job is when you have something that exists on the page, and then you give it to these actors, and they take it, and they just make it their own in ways that you never expected. It’s a pretty humbling and powerful experience.

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In pressing play on the first episode of Raising Kanan, I was prepared for the theme, because of how iconic the theme song of Power became. I had a feeling that Raising Kanan was going to have a theme song that would live up to or at least do justice to “Big Rich Town.” When it came to the theme for Raising Kanan, “Part of the Game,” were you in conversation with 50? Talk about how the show’s theme came to be.
From the beginning, 50 said, “The theme song needs to feel like the South Side. I need it to feel like the South Side in ‘91. It has to have that vibe.” 50 always talks about this show being set in what he calls “the golden era” which, in ‘91, he was hustling. That was always the creative mandate for him. I don’t tell him how to do his job because he knows how to do it a lot better than I do, so I just waited. When I heard the track the first time, and I heard a very rough version of it, I was in New York at this time, or shortly thereafter. I was like, “Yeah, it brings you back. It brings you back, and it’s iconic in the same way.”

Now listen, “Big Rich Town” is its own thing. “Big Rich Town” became a movement. This song, I think, is equally amazing, but very, very different. I think he captures time and place in the same way that “Big Rich Town” captured time and place.

Speaking of music, in the first episode, that opening scene is so violent and so intense, but I was tripping off of the Run-DMC track used [Ed note: The song is question is “Can You Rock It Like This,” from their 1985 album King of Rock]. I had to go back and Google. I’m like, “I have not heard this track in a while, but for whatever reason, this was the perfect song for that scene.
It’s interesting [that] you circled in on that track, because we had a long conversation [about that song]. Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who’s one of the composers on the series, was talking specifically about that track because we’ve gone back and forth on it a little bit. It was an expensive track.

I bet.
Ali, Adrian Younge, and I were talking about it, and Ali said exactly what you said, which was, “You know what? I haven’t heard that song in so long. It really brings me back.” I had the same feeling. It’s one of those songs that’s in your head, but you don’t really remember it.

It fit, especially for the scene, because it was eerie but also so on-the-nose for that time in the city. Sidebar: I hear you’re a sneaker guy?
A little bit. A little bit. I’d say the whole set, we’re very focused on footwear. There’s a lot of SNKRS app conversations that we get into because there’s a couple of people on set who seem to have way more success on SNKRS than the rest of us.

Power Book III: Raising Kanan

On a series like this, you have to get era-appropriate clothes and shoes. Talk about gathering the right kicks and gear to showcase 1991.
We tried. This is really the challenge of the series. That wardrobe of that era is not that easy to find. Keep in mind, we have to have doubles and triples of it, because if it gets dirty or if we have to shoot someone… one of the real challenges is getting wardrobe that was authentic to that particular moment. We try to get the real stuff.

Oh, I imagine it could get pricey depending on the pieces because of the vintage market.
It’s crazy, and to your point, it’s not just wardrobe. Music, as you can imagine is really, really pricey. If you’re talking about that particular era, even songs that didn’t really hit, it’s still really, really expensive. But again, when you’re creating a world like this, it has to feel authentic, because you’re watching it and you’re like, “Shit. I remember 1991.” The music is such a visceral connection to the time period, which goes right back to you talking about “Part of the Game.” You hear these songs, whether it’s BDP or Pete Rock or LL, it does, more than anything, bring you back to that particular moment in time and who you were and what you were… It just does. And so that stuff is really, really important. That’s money well spent, frankly.

Power Book III: Raising Kanan airs Sunday nights on Starz and on the Starz app.

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