Showtime's "Of Mics and Men" chronicles the dramatic rise of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, U-God, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Cappadonna, RZA, and GZA are born storytellers. That much is evident from the first scenes of Of Mics and Men, the four-episode docu-series directed by the documentarian and former music journalist Sacha Jenkins.
The series, now streaming on Showtime, illustrates how the lyrical genius of a group of young men from the Staten Island projects gave rise to one of the most influential hip-hop groups of all time. Of Mics and Men is a deeply personal journey, told through meticulously sourced archival footage—much of it shown here for the first time. Though it does pay tribute to them, the series doesn't simply take us through a timeline of Wu-Tang's accomplishments; it's more interested in how the rap collective coped with poverty, systemic and overt racism, and other difficulties that face disadvantaged youth, as well as the way the group navigated the tension between brotherhood and the music business, which often threatened to tear it apart.
"I feel like everybody in the world has said that they're going to do a documentary on the Wu-Tang Clan, and it never happens."
Jim Jarmusch, in an interview in the series, just about sums it up: For Wu-Tang, "the power of words was stronger than guns or money."
Behind the supremely enjoyable and deeply moving series is a team of editors who crafted its intricate dramatic arcs and wrestled with multiple hundreds of hours of archival footage. No Film School caught up with two of them—Paul Greenhouse, an editor on the series, and Nicholas Pacchiano, technical producer and Senior Director Post Production and Technology—to discuss their process.
No Film School: What were your roles on Wu-Tang's Of Mics and Men?
Paul Greenhouse: I was lead editor and co-writer on the series.
Nicholas Pacchiano: I'm the senior director of post-production technology for Mass Appeal, and I was also the technical producer.
NFS: At what point in the development phase for this project did you both come on?
Pacchiano: For me, it was the very beginning. I worked for Mass Appeal in May of 2017, when this project was in the early conceptual phases of being pitched around. Then, we had our pre-production meetings and whatnot.
Greenhouse: I was brought on in February of 2018. They had our main assistant editor, who also did some editing on the series Ephraim. I was the first [lead] editor brought onto the project. They were still shooting, and they continued shooting throughout post-production.
NFS: What was initially the most compelling aspect of working on this project?
Greenhouse: I was familiar with the Wu-Tang Clan. Their first record came out when I was probably about 13 years old. I was a fan of their music in high school. I knew a bit about their background, but I guess once I started looking at the material, I was really engaged by all of the members' storytelling. I hadn't ever heard hip-hop artists tell stories about their lives in that kind of intimate, sensitive manner. I was really struck and taken by it.
Pacchiano: For me, I remember when our CEO was passing in the hallway. He's like, "Oh, we're going to do a feature on Wu-Tang," and my jaw dropped. I grew up on Long Island, New York, and my town was very much a Wu-Tang town. I remember the Wu-Tang logo spray-painted in multiple locations. Wu-Tang graffiti in the bathrooms. I thought [the CEO] was joking when he said we're going to do a Wu-Tang Clan movie because I feel like everybody in the world has said that they're going to do a documentary on them, and it never happens.
NFS: Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the story? There was so much ground to cover!
Greenhouse: About half of the master interviews that we built the story around had been filmed when I started. I just started by watching those. A lot of them were these long sit-downs, maybe four hours long, in one straight shot. These guys told a lot of the stories, and not all the stories made it into the final piece. While watching, I was simultaneously angry and sad. Then, sometimes, I would be laughing, because the way they tell their stories, they have a lot of humor that they incorporate, even when they're describing [something] that might be traumatic for them.
"All stories are sculpted around conflict, so we had to hone in on the central conflict in the series. There's an episodic arc to it, stretched from episode one to episode four."
I started by identifying some of the key moments in the stories that resonated most with me, or seemed most dynamic, and contained those different elements of humor and sadness and injustice. Then, there were landmark events in their career, and in their personal lives. And their childhood in Staten Island—what a unique and interesting environment it was. Then there were big, dramatic plot points in the trajectory of their career, such as the way they broke their first single, Protect Ya Neck. Their first business deal is very unique in the way they were able to structure it. Then, later on, there're moments like when they go on tour with Rage Against the Machine, or the incident with Summer Jam.
So we knew we had these landmarks to build around, but then we had to come up with a structure for the four episodes. That was really a process. All stories are sculpted around conflict, so we had to hone in on the central conflict in the series. There's an episodic arc to it, stretched from episode one to episode four. We identified that that conflict was business versus brotherhood. In their interviews, whenever [the group] would talk about one another, they'd talk about the love they shared, but this distaste for the business, and how the business got in the way of their relationship at certain points of their career. That's identified at the end of the opening sequence of the first episode. It's a thread that weaves throughout all four episodes and comes to a head, I would say, in episode three.
In the first episode, the conflict is Wu-Tang versus their environment. It's really about them trying to escape the confines of Staten Island and the systemic racism that they experienced as kids. Their vehicle for escape is music. We go through these different obstacles in episode one, that they're trying to overcome...poverty in the housing projects, the literal racism that they experienced in Rosebank, the crack epidemic, the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex. Some of the members go to jail. By the end, they make this single, and it gets played on the radio. That's really their ticket out.
That launches into the next episode, where the conflict is Wu-Tang versus the music business. Then the third episode, it's Wu-Tang versus themselves. That's following the business versus brotherhood conflict. The last episode, the conflict to me is Wu-Tang versus their past. There's this idea that time exists in a circle—they call it a cipher. After the death of ODB, even until now, I got the sense that they're still navigating this conflict that they have with one another, where they love one another, they're all brothers, they have this amazing shared experience with one another, and at the same time, they're trying to do right with their careers and their own families and their future.
Greenhouse: Even though this was a documentary about Wu-Tang Clan, who's a rap group, Sacha [Jenkins, the series director] made it clear that he wanted to make a film that told a bigger story about them as men, and about their experience growing up in New York City. We definitely took that into consideration when we were formatting it. The story itself is about these men and their family, and their relationship with one another. I think that audiences are engaging with that. It's not just a hagiography of Wu-Tang the rap group, or a survey of their career. It's really letting them tell their story, focusing on their voices. All of them are very talented storytellers.
Early on, the team was also filming a lot of talking heads with interesting personalities and intellectuals. We had a lot of this additional material with Jim Jarmusch and Cheo Coker and Nas. I think from some of the executive's standpoint, they might've felt like maybe Wu-Tang isn't as relevant as they were in the '90s, and we should fit in "names." They filmed Kanye West at one point. Kanye was very familiar with the story of Wu-Tang, and the members, he sat down and he's like, "I don't really know why you guys are interviewing me. I don't know what I have to say. What's really interesting is to have the members of Wu-Tang telling their stories. That's what's going to be amazing for people to see."
He was right. We cut Kanye out.
"It's not just a hagiography of Wu-Tang the rap group, or a survey of their career. It's really letting them tell their story, focusing on their voices."
NFS: For the editing process, what kind of tech did you use to collaborate?
Greenhouse: In Premiere, you can work where you have multiple seats all working from the same project file, or the different systems can all have their own individual project files. It's just more listing for the AEs, to make sure that each room has the same material length. For a long time, we were all working from one singular group project. At some point, we had to split it up, because we just had so much material and so many files. Once we had all of our archival and every interview—each had, I think three angles—it became a lot. We were getting so much rich archival material that any non-linear editor would've been struggling with. It was too much media.
Pacchiano: We had half a terabyte of shared storage that we set up for this project. We were running iMac Pros, 14 cores, fully loaded with memory, all proper monitors, broadcast monitoring, Black Magic 4KIOs with quiet monitors up above.
We had one lead animator, four designers in-house, and two lead archival producers working on this project. They were all able to work within the same media, within the same projects. It made dailies a lot easier, and it made making the string-outs a lot easier.
Workflow-wise, we also played around with some dynamic linking between the editors and our animator. Sacha's a big fan of documentaries having different types of animations in order to play with the stories.
We were doing a lot of digitizing on the premises as well. I got to the point where we had too much media coming in the door, so we had to start outsourcing that as well.
We did a RED Helium workflow for this, for shooting the interviews. It was great working with 6.5K and sometimes 7K footage. That would be some people's problems, but for us, it was digitizing Hi-8 footage, RAM and DZ formats, at such a high volume. It was challenging to keep up with.
NFS: The archival was amazing and there was so much of it. How did you obtain it?
Greenhouse: Well, there was a crew embedded with ODB after he was released from prison—an MTV reality show was filming. We had access to all that material. A lot of it was really personal moments between him and his mom.
Near the end of [editing], a tape came in that was recorded in RZA's living room, where he and all of the Wu-Tang Clan members are just talking about their plans. It's 1991 or 1992. It's a moment we play near the end of the first episode.
The range of places where the material came in from, and when it would arrive, made the process thrilling. It goes without saying, we were extremely lucky with the hard work of Amilca Palmer and Vanessa Maruskin, the archival producers.
Greenhouse: Vanessa was making trips to Staten Island and visiting childhood friends, and going to their houses, and encouraging them to dig through boxes. That's how we got some of what you see.
Pacchiano: Yeah. Vanessa would just show up with all these VHS tapes, or Hi-8 tapes, and would be like, "All right, we got all these tapes to load." It's like, oh my God, we don't have enough stations to load all this stuff. It was just so much footage.
Greenhouse: Between their entourage and their extended business management teams and different people who worked with them over the years, there were a lot of very creative people who were working with them who were also great image makers. One of their early managers who's in the film, Michael McDonald, kept very organized, detailed archives. He took amazing photos.
NFS: Nick, as a technical producer who also works on post-production, how much do you interact with the creatives?
Pacchiano: I am a creative, but I chose to support the creative instead. I find that there are so many people right now in [the film] world who call themselves creatives and are blocking the way of true creatives. For me, I love supporting people like Paul and Sacha and Vanessa and help with their storytelling, their technical logistics—whether it's scheduling or learning the capabilities of Adobe Premiere.
For many people, their ego gets in the way. I've assisted a lot of great storytellers in the past, and I've learned to keep my mouth shut and listen to people—how they want to tell the story. Basically, I think it's important to let people get into trouble a little bit. Instead of just saying that, "Oh, this is a horrible idea," we have the technology now to quickly execute that idea. So instead of everybody plowing on somebody else's idea—this is just my common philosophy, not necessarily pertaining to this project—but if somebody has an idea and I can be easily executed within a few hours, maybe we should take a look at that idea. Maybe [trying it] isn't as technically challenging as you might think.
"There are so many people right now in [the film] world who call themselves creatives and are blocking the way of true creatives."
NFS: When you look back on the evolution of your work on the project, what generally do you find was the most challenging aspect for each of you?
Pacchiano: In old buildings, you get leaks. After our first shoot, we had our roof leaf right in front of our edit share server. It looked like a waterfall of water that came down and completely destroyed our studio. It destroyed all the offline rooms that I was setting up for this edit. We had to do a quick turnaround of a month and a half of gutting out everything, rebuilding everything. Luckily, technical equipment-wise, we were pretty spared. But I was shutting down the server with two inches of water around my feet. Literally, what we did is formed an umbrella tunnel to take out our edit share server so that it could stay dry while this waterfall was coming down in front of it. It was the most insane start of a project I've ever had.
And then finishing the series too was a little bit of an issue because we were trying to figure out the workflow of how to make the archival look. It's kind of funny—archival footage should look like archival footage. But a lot of people like to over-polish stuff, to make it look as sharp and clean as possible, which then makes it almost look superficial. I was given the [chance] to try to make it look as native as possible at that time period. It's hard to do that with a lot of trans-coding programs out there. Especially with consumer NTSC formats. They all look horrible. At the same time, you want them to look as broadcast-able for that time period as you can. That was a little bit of a challenge.
NFS: As a viewer, it's confusing to watch archival footage that looks like it could've been shot yesterday. You want there to be some sort of delineation. You're expecting that.
Pacchiano: Yeah, exactly—you want to be transported to that time. To me, that means making sure that the Codec looks close to one from that time. NTSC stuff on broadcast TV shouldn't look like 4K sharp footage.
We used a Telestream program called Vantage. That did most of the SD archival that we used. It worked great.
NFS: Paul, what about you? What was a major challenge for you, throughout the editing process?
Greenhouse: In the beginning, we were working on a very accelerated schedule. The project was supposed to be wrapped in August, so that they could finish and put it out last Thanksgiving, for [Wu-Tang's] 25th anniversary. Everyone was rushing. We all felt like we had some really special material, but we just didn't really have the time that it required to really think through the story and put it together. I don't know how they were able to extend the schedule, but whoever was able to make that happen, I really appreciated that.
Pacchiano: Yeah, those were some fun conversations Peter [J. Scalettar, writer and executive producer] had, to try to ask for more time.
Overall, if you look at the scope of this product, the biggest challenge was time. As U-God says in episode four, "time is a motherfucker." What Paul did and the team did should've taken five years. They did it in close to a year and a half.
"What [the editors] did and the team did should've taken five years. They did it in close to a year and a half."
Greenhouse: We were always up against the clock. It was frustrating, especially when all the sudden, you get 20 hours of new material.
Premiere has this feature where you can fast forward through material and somehow it preserves the sample rate, so you can still understand what people are saying and they don't sound like chipmunks. A lot of times, I was watching hours of material at hyper-speed, with my eyes glued to it, just digging for a moment that I thought was there.
Near the end, we committed to a format for each episode where we had to get it under an hour, to 58 minutes and 30 seconds. There were some tough choices we had to make in terms of removing sequences that we liked, and then compressing an episode. I tend to like more airy, spacious cuts. Maybe an episode, for me, might've wanted to be 68 minutes, but that's not the format we're working in. Creatively, [it was a challenge] to get everything to flow and not feel overly dense for an audience.
Then, one of the other creative challenges was there were some pieces of music and [archival footage] that we wouldn't be able to clear. We had to Fair Use those. And to do that, you have to cut them in a certain way. I would have wanted to live in those moments for longer.
When you're making a series like this, there are all kinds of guidelines that you have to work within. There are a lot of creative sacrifices that we have to make.