Tekashi 6ix9ine, born Daniel Hernandez, is a colorful and somewhat vile character. A man who got famous through gang affiliation, a gang that he later ratted out in court, and controversial social media videos.
He’s a man who started getting attention after creating his own clothing with the word ‘HIV’ on it, plead guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance after posting a video that showed the alleged assault of a 13-year old girl, beat his girlfriend and mother of his daughter, Sara Molina, and plead guilt to nine felony charges including racketeering conspiracy, weapons possession and armed robbery, as well as the aforementioned turning on the Nine Trey Gangsta Blood gang that helped get him famous.
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As Supervillain: The Making Of Tekashi 6ix9ine, directed by Karam Gill, highlights, he’s also a man who has very little respect for the artform that has capitulated him into the spotlight. “I didn’t like rap, I was always into rock,” says the Brooklyn born man who didn’t know the words to Notorious B.I.G’s music.
However, the Showtime three-part docuseries, which is produced by Imagine Documentaries, Rolling Stone and Lightbox, does more than just outline his story and lay out the timeline of these events.
It asks the question of how Hernandez was allowed to succeed. Each episode, subtitled, Identity, Power and Truth, it looks at how society now enables someone like Hernandez and how he became a “supervillain” ala the Joker or Donald Trump.
The film kicks off with new tape of Hernandez, fresh out of jail, discussing his situation, and also includes interviews with those close to him including Molina, and former collaborators and ex-Nine Trey gang members Billy Ado and Seqo Billy.
Narrated by Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, the series, which launches tonight, February 21, was set up by Imagine, Rolling Stone and Lightbox before Gill came on board. Gill, who previously directed G Funk, the story of Warren G, Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg and whose feature doc Ice Cold about materialism and race in hip hop is set to come out later this year, tells Deadline how we wanted to make a film that was bigger than Tekashi 6ix9ine.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved?
KARAM GILL: Imagine, Rolling Stone and Lightbox partnered up on it and reached out to me. Initially, I didn’t want to do the project… he’s not a person at first that I wanted to do a project on, but as I started to think about it, I felt it was a really important story to tell because it taps into a lot of really dark things that are going on in our digital culture and our world right now. I came on board and put my spin on it – the last thing I wanted to do was make a straightforward saga or story about him – that’s not what this is supposed to be. It needs to make people think about who we’re becoming, the people who are rising to prominence and what that means about us.
I saw social media from an interesting perspective; I wasn’t raised with it, I grew into it and saw it as a really fun place to interact and then I saw it become a place where people were doing crazier and crazier shit and the world changed. I’ve always been fascinated by digital culture and I wanted to make a project that captured that. And then through the political landscape of our former President being someone who rose to prominence as an outlandish internet personality and these digital tactics that are so attention driven, caustic and vile. I started to realize as his Presidency got crazier and crazier towards 2019 when we started working on this, that’s what made me want to do this. This kid is a sample of what’s happening and when that clicked in my head, I knew that this was an opportunity to speak to a much wider problem in our society.
DEADLINE: You were keen to tell a broader story than just the story of Tekashi 6ix9ine?
GILL: It’s not a music doc, I’ve said that to the whole team from the beginning. I’ve made music docs and I’m making music docs, to me this isn’t a music doc and it’s definitely not a hip hop film. What inspired me was the Joker, it’s a reflection of our society, it’s a dark film and a lot of people aren’t going to watch it and that’s fine. But the people that do watch it, I think they’ll take a lot away from it.
DEADLINE: Did you struggle with the fact of making a film about him is probably exactly what he wants?
GILL: Yeah, but we’re not glorifying him. While, yes, all attention, good or bad, is attention, I think that it’s extremely important to, as a society, analyze the villain and analyze what goes into these people as a cautionary tale. I think it’s going to be incredibly important that somebody makes a comprehensive Trump documentary in five or ten years that explains everything. That’s a supervillain piece. That was my justification. If I was to go out and make the film asking is he a good guy or a bad guy, with his crazy shock factor, that’s not what I wanted to do. The way I saw it was this is the story that people need to see because it’s a cautionary tale and the next supervillain is around the corner. If we understand how these people create themselves online and how we had a hand in that, maybe we can see the signs coming in the next crazy motherfucker.
DEADLINE: You achieve that through these moments using essentially an action figure and breaking it down. Did that come first or did you tell the story and then insert that?
GILL: My process is that they happen simultaneously. I look at Takeshi’s story and the timeline and all of the things that happened in his life and then I looked at both real and fantastical supervillains, the Joker story’s and the timeline and Donald Trump’s story and the timeline and then a serial killer’s timeline. Different versions of extreme supervillain and less extreme supervillain and I pointed to these cornerstone elements that are prevalent through all of them. I looked at what are the core things across all of these people. That helped me put it all together a make a larger societal commentary.
DEADLINE: The series kicks off with tape of him talking. Where was that from?
GILL: That’s actually tapes that we acquired from an unreleased interview that he did out of prison. I didn’t conduct an interview with him. They are tapes of him fresh out of jail so it captures him at a very vulnerable and interesting place.
DEADLINE: Did you try and speak to him?
GILL: We toyed with the idea. I’m not exactly sure, I’d have to talk to the producers. Our whole thing was not necessarily to give him a platform. Some music documentaries are very they’re authored in a sense by the artist and that’s not a criticism, whereas his story can be told through the people who were impacted and that’s a much more pure story. If you were making a Donald Trump documentary would you interview Donald Trump? Probably not. You’d probably interview everyone around him to find out exactly what happened.
DEADLINE: You speak to a lot of people that were close to him. Were people willing to talk?
GILL: Certain people, yes. The reality is that so many people were so scarred by this guy, a lot of what we did was approaching people from a human perspective. A lot of people we just sat down with in New York and grabbed drinks with, pre-Covid and built relationships. People realised I wasn’t trying to make this flashy thing about this guy, I actually want to know about what they went through and once they were reassured that I wasn’t trying to take advantage of their story, they said ok. I also explained to them that this is a cautionary tale so that it doesn’t happen another vulnerable girl who falls in love or others. I think once people understood that and we built trust, it was a lot easier, but yes, everybody was reluctant at first.
DEADLINE: Given that some these people has unseemly pasts, was that a challenge?
GILL: The challenge didn’t necessarily come from the fact they were gang members, but these are real genuine human beings and they have kids and families and they bought into him. A lot of them come from disenfranchised communities and they saw [him] as an opportunity or a way out, to legitimize their lives. There’s a humanity behind everybody so the characters weren’t actually the difficult challenge. The challenge was that a lot of this was being made during Covid. We only really did one or two shoots when things were open. A lot of production happened right before we shut down, we shot the first week of March 2020. That was the most difficult thing. I’m a very hands-on person and I love to hang out with the people I’m interviewing and get to know people and it was very difficult to do that as much as we wanted.
DEADLINE: You also have quite a lot of footage that hasn’t been seen. What was that a challenge?
GILL: It was but it comes down to building relationships and trust. We got footage of him that no one has ever seen when he was a teenager, when he was in the process of becoming a monster. A lot of that was provided by his old videographer back in the day and that just came from me grabbing dinner with him in New York before the pandemic. He’d been approached many times, but he realized that this was not every other 69 project, this is not doing what everyone else has done, go out and make a doc about a crazy person.
DEADLINE: There have been a few other projects about him including another documentary and a podcast series. Did that concern you or were you confident that you were approaching it from a different angle?
GILL: I always felt there was something larger to be said and I’m not knocking any other project, they’re all interesting in their own respect but I wouldn’t have done if it was something I’d seen before. There’s been podcasts and short form and long form projects and articles, but nothing to me spoke to our societal shift, specifically the idea of manufactured celebrity and how it happened and that was fascinating to me.
DEADLINE: Do you not think that the music industry was one of his enablers?
GILL: I would disagree. What enables these people to actually rise is the platforms that we use, they’re democratized. It doesn’t matter who the executives are, it matters because everyone has their own platform now and that is actually what I think enables. If everyone has their own platform to say exactly what they want, whenever they want to millions of people, there’s no gatekeepers anymore. It’s not like the record business or the film business is the gatekeeper anymore. If you want to put out a song that curses out another rapper, you can go do that on Instagram.
DEADLINE: There’s quite a sad point at the end when he comes out of prison, and it appears his popularity is waning.
GILL: Exactly. What I was trying to achieve with this idea about supervillains at large, they rise because we allow them to rise. Everyone loved Trump when he was on the debates making fun of Jeb Bush and then it started getting bigger and then he becomes a supervillain. Then what happens, and is what happens in this film, eventually we get desensitized to them because they operate on hype and attention. The statement at the end of the film is that we got desensitized and then they become pathetic.
DEADLINE: Is there a danger, like in the movies, that just when you think a supervillain is dead, he comes back for one more kill? What’s next for him?
GILL: That’s largely the point of this film, to show you the cycle and show you where we’re at. This film will have a larger role in putting that final nail of his career. I think he’s at that point where he’s irrelevant. Yes, he might put out a single that’s crazy and people might listen to it one time, but the fascination is done. We’re on to the next. I think his career is over. He’s kind of a loser now.