9:00am PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Of Mics and Men' Director Sacha Jenkins On Assembling the Wu-Tang Clan and Cutting Kanye West
On one chilly January night in Utah, Sacha Jenkins turned the Sundance Film Festival into a raucous Wu-Tang Clan reunion, assembling luminaries including the Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, U-God, Masta Killa and the legendary hip-hop ensemble's producing impresario The RZA. The crowd, which featured a thicker-than-Sundance-average haze of marijuana smoke and more expletive-filled call-and-response, roared through the first two hours of Jenkins' four-hour Showtime documentary Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.
The series traces the Wu from impoverished Staten Island roots to the pinnacle of popular music through internal discontent, the tragic death of founding member Ol' Dirty Bastard and the fiasco that was the Martin Shkreli-purchased, one-of-a-kind Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Highlights including a series of funny and sad conversations with a reunited Wu watching old footage of themselves at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island and a rare conversation with RZA's brother Divine, the group's early business manager and source of much acrimony.
Jenkins spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about Of Mics and Men, which may stage its next Wu-Tang Clan reunion at the Emmys.
On a list of personal accomplishments, where do you rank assembling the Wu-Tang Clan at Sundance?
Assembling the Wu-Tang Clan at the Sundance Film Festival was definitely an achievement. On the red carpet, I was with Ghostface, and he hadn't seen it yet, and he looks at me and says, "Are we good?" and I was like, "You tell me. You've got to see it," and he was vaguely menacing. I think he was halfway joking. He wasn't really serious. Then after the screening, I said, "Hey, Ghost, are we good?" and he took a bit of a pause and he said, "Yeah. Yeah, we're good," and there was a round of applause.
These guys, they're a clan, they're a family. I had the great opportunity to make the film. They left me alone. And many of them saw it for the first time at Sundance, so it was a great feeling of getting this sort of acknowledgment from the Clan, knowing that I'd made a film without their interference and they felt like it captured a lot of moments in their lives and their careers in a way that was engaging.
What other reactions have you gotten from the guys?
RZA is the one member who has seen all of it. A few weeks ago, he was supposed to come by and watch two of [the four episodes], and there was a miscommunication. So he said, "Oh, I can only stay to watch one. I have an appointment after this." I was like, "OK." So he saw it, and it was the third episode, which is really emotional, really personal specifically for RZA because it involves his relationship with his cousin, Ol' Dirty Bastard, who's no longer with us.
I wasn't in the room. I just kind of let him watch it, and his response was super positive. So he left and then 15 minutes later, he called me saying, "I'm going to come back," so I said to myself, "Oh shit, what's going to happen now?" And he came right back and watched [the rest of the episodes], and it was thumbs-up. I don't want to put words in mouth, but this is what he told me: He said that he thought it was even and fair, and that all the guys, although he doesn't agree with everything that they'd said, he thought it was great that they all had the opportunity to speak their piece. And so for me, as someone who has a background in journalism, because that's what I did before this, that was a great validation — me going out of my way to make sure that everyone had their say and that there was balance, and that RZA himself can recognize that.
As you say, you have a background as a journalist. Is it hard sometimes to separate your journalist hat from your filmmaker hat? You say you had no interference from the guys, but having them all as EPs, was that something that was necessary? Was that something you were comfortable with the whole time?
They provided archival and personal photographs. They helped us connect with their family members, and people, places and things that are personal for them, so that was the extent of it. And it's pretty surprising, but none of them were involved in the actual making of the film outside of sitting down with me for interviews, outside of maybe making a phone call or two, giving their blessing to family members for us to get photographs or interact with them. I think that token of acknowledgment just speaks to that contribution, which was major. Getting all those guys together — these guys have been together for 25 years — their story is incredible and it's important that they recognize the value of their story and the fact that it had never been done or done the right way. So I think that's what that acknowledgment meant. As a journalist, going into it I might have had some concerns, but I can speak as a journalist and say, "Hey, these guys left me alone and had absolutely no influence on the film that was made in the end."
RZA has always been so hands-on and controlling with basically every aspect of the brand. That's one of the things that comes through over and over in the documentary. Did you sense that it was difficult for him to actually keep a hands-off approach in this production?
No. I think RZA had a level of trust in me, which I really appreciated. We've known each other a bit over the years and we have some mutual friends that go back to the culture of hip-hop, relationships that go beyond the music industry and success, and he knew a bit of my story and what I was about. So for me, speaking to what you're asking me, knowing that RZA had not seen episode three ever, and knowing he's RZA, and I'm saying to myself, "Oh my God, I don't know what's going to happen." That's the one with the whole management situation and [ODB wanting] out of the contract [which RZA and Divine were against]; and they're in the recording studio with ODB, and RZA is writing his rhymes, and ODB has clearly seen better times; and the discussion about his feelings, RZA's feeling, he said he was hurt — on a human, mortal level that whole experience hurt him, and you can see it in the interview, in his face, in the way he's expressing himself. It was a moment of vulnerability.
Even if you go to the moment where they're all in the theater and they're discussing the origins of the name "Wu-Tang," who came up with it? If you pay attention, at one point, RZA says, "Cut," right? He says, "Cut, cut," right? He's not the director! But he's so used to being in that commanding role that he's saying, "Cut, cut, cut." But even in RZA viewing it now, as someone who allowed another filmmaker to make a film about a filmmaker, he appreciated taking the chance in letting someone else tell the story.
What was the actual order of shooting between the reunion at the St. George, between the black-box one-on-one interviews and the neighborhood visits? And were you able to get a sense very early on of what people were willing to talk about in a group setting versus what they were willing to talk about only in private with you?
There's a bunch of guys, so we did what we could, when we could. We scheduled the black-box interviews when we could. The verité stuff, like going to Staten Island with U-God and Meth[od Man], we arranged for that when it could happen. I've interviewed lots of people in my day. You think of a band like Chicago, everyone loves Chicago. Can you name four guys in Chicago? No, but in Wu-Tang, you can name all of them because they each have such distinct personalities.
My style of interviewing is I'm just actually having a conversation, so I went into all the interviews knowing the things that I wanted to hit; everything was well researched. There was a checklist for sure, but I always deviate from that checklist and go where the conversation leads me. And if you look at the interview with Method Man, where he just talks about being in a homeless shelter and that whole experience with his family and then he's name-checking kids that he hasn't seen in 35 years in a very humble, sincere way? These guys — again, I'm not saying it's me, I don't know if they were just ready, it's been 25 years, and they feel the weight of their careers, and they're finally ready to speak their minds — they were very open and humble and honest about their feelings.
Like, Ghostface talking about dealing with depression as a kid and not really understanding it; and having two wheelchair-bound brothers and having the regret of not taking them outside as much as he should have. These are all things that I think Wu-Tang has been very open and honest about their lives in their music, so I guess it shouldn't be that surprising that in these interviews they're equally as open and honest.
Did you have the comfort to sort of shake people out of their established versions of the stories? Because someone like U-God, he did his memoir, he's told his stories before, and you can see the polish in the way that he tells the stories. Did you have the comfort to say, "OK, I've heard the story that way. Try telling it a different way"?
All I can say is after every interview, the director of photography, a gentleman named Hans Charles, would look at me and just say, "Wow, I can't believe I was just in the room for this. Did he really just say that? What made him say that? How did you get him to do that? Wow, these guys are so open." Every interview was almost like, I don't want to say a spiritual experience and I don't know if it was a therapeutic experience, but everyone was extremely forthcoming and honest.
Like, Ghostface talks about an interaction he had with Divine, where he goes and says, "Hey, Divine, I love you." And then Divine says, "Man, keep your love in your back pocket." And then he says, "OK, Divine. I hear you. Keep my love in my back pocket. Cool. Let me see the paperwork." That, to me, it shows you the dynamic of the group. And then later you see this footage that we got early on of the guys having an argument about money and Ghostface says, "You know, Divine, what fucked it up was the money. The money fucked everything up. Nothing has been the same since."
And any family with success can tell you that money potentially fucks up things in a family. So at the end of the day, the core of the film is really a story about a family, a clan — which they are; some of them by blood, some of them by knowing each other since kindergarten — and the struggles of a family. And at the end of the day, family members might not talk for a while, they might not get along, there might be disputes over money, but they always find a way to come together on behalf of the conglomerate, as Cappadonna says, but really on behalf of something that they did as kids.
I, myself, I am a product of hip-hop. I grew up in New York City. I was a graffiti artist. Kids used to breakdance. People made music in the parks. And for me years later to be making films about something that we did as kids without any money, not even thinking that there could be a career or a conversation with people from around the world, I think Wu-Tang recognizes that and I think that they're humbled by that, and I think the conversations we had, they're having a conversation with a black man from a similar environment — single-parent home in the hood, who has had some similar experiences — they're having a conversation with me. And I think as someone who shares the experiences with them, that had a helping hand in creating what we created and them feeling comfortable enough to talk about certain things with me.
The interview with Divine, it's the spine of this because it's the perspective that feels the most "new" to me. Did you always know that you were going to be able to get this guy, who doesn't talk about this stuff frequently, to go on the record? And looking back, do you think you could have made the documentary without his participation?
This is where going back to your question about the guys getting these executive producer credits: RZA had to convince his brother to do it. He had to say, "Come on, Divine, sit for the interview." He didn't initially want to do it. And knowing that going into it, I didn't know what to expect, but interviewing him, I was like, "Wow, this guy!" You understand why Wu-Tang was successful. He is a brilliant guy. He is a creative guy. He is a passionate guy. And when you're a brilliant, creative, passionate guy and you're doing business with eight other brilliant, creative, passionate guys, there's going to be conflict.
But I think Divine definitely makes the difference in the film because RZA, as we know now, he has to wear multiple hats. Sometimes he's in the role of the artist, and sometimes he's in the role of the businessman, and as Divine says, "I didn't want to let these guys out of their contracts. It was my brother who told me to do it." And he's like, "How crazy is that? That makes no sense. Why would you want to do that?"
So Divine represents sort of a different side of RZA on one hand, but in his own way, he's in a very important part of the entire story. And yes, if we didn't have Divine, I don't think the film would be the same.
Talk a bit about showing the guys the ODB footage sitting there in the St. George Theater. Did you warn them that this part of the conversation was coming up? The transitions between laughing and crying as they watch ODB are rather beautiful.
I was inspired by two things. There's a film called Cooley High where there's a classic scene where there's a fight in a movie theater. And then also the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster. The dynamic of having all those guys together talking about their issues and confronting them, I felt like if we did the same thing with Wu-Tang that it would be golden.
But also, it's a pain in the ass to get all of those guys together at once. Or separately! So I knew if we could get everyone to commit to be in one place, there could be magic; there could be one place where they're collectively having this experience where they're watching something and they have to react to it, I knew that there would be something special about it. And being in the room with them, no, we didn't give them any advance notice. We were like, "Yo, we're sitting your asses down in a theater in Staten Island, it's a beautiful theater, and we're going to show you moments from your lives and your careers." That's all we said.
And they sat there and what you see is their in-the-moment response. You see Ghostface and U-God crying about their lost friend. So I think that these guys are so on the move and so in the moment that getting to this place 25 years in, they're very reflective, and showing them key moments from their lives and their careers, and them sitting down together witnessing this, there was a magic. In that magic that you see onscreen, it's a sort of re-creation of the magic that made Wu-Tang in the beginning.
It's a chemical thing. You can't fabricate this; they're not a boy band. These are guys who come from really rough environments, who beat the odds being black men from Staten Island — going to really crappy schools, dealing with police abuses and drugs and everything else. The film starts really humbly. You learn that behind where they lived there was a pond, and U-God said, "We played with the salamanders and made our own rafts." And he's like, "And there was a white boys side. There was our side and there was the white boys side." So you learn early on, before they were rappers, when they are just kids, that there is something that is going to affect them, and that is racism.
And then they go from selling newspapers on the Verrazzano Bridge to selling drugs. These are all the things that I wanted people to come away from the film knowing and understanding. And I wanted to make a film where if you knew nothing about Wu-Tang Clan, you could watch this movie and be engaged, and feel like you're learning something about not just the Wu-Tang Clan, but guys like them.
This is what Wu-Tang is made of, and not just Wu-Tang; many of us who come from the inner city, that is our experience. And that is why Wu-Tang is who they are. They told stories, they shared their blues in a way that was unfiltered. They didn't care what anyone thought. They just expressed themselves. And while the music was a way out for them, it was also therapy for them. And I hope that people can see this film and understand that.
The fourth episode has a fair amount of discussion about the fiasco of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which seems to me like a subject enough for a whole documentary on its own. What was your approach to this semi-album and did you feel like you got more candor out of the group because you could bring it up as part of this bigger discussion?
The guys sort of detail that they were not happy about it individually, and then in the theater, if you look at RZA's reactions as these guys are talking, he's not saying much. And it's interesting, it's RZA, right? He's always in these interesting situations where he can go either way. He's on both sides of the fence in many ways. But the idea of this album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, what that was and what it is and what it represents, and looking at music as a work of art, and pricing it accordingly because it's a one-of-a-kind thing that's not for everyone, it's not being marketed or sold, that is a brilliant idea to me. I think it's a fascinating, really brilliant idea. Amazing that it happened.
I can't speak to the business dynamic of what these guys were told, what they were promised, but again everyone had the opportunity to say, "Yo, that album's bullshit. It was a mixtape. Had I known it was going to be this album that sold for $2 million, it would have cost you way more than what I gave it to you for. I just did this on the strength of our friendship, or because you're RZA's friend. I don't really know you, Cilvaringz." And then Cilvaringz had his opportunity to say, "I don't know what these guys are talking about. I called each and every one of them. I spoke to their managers. They were fully aware." And RZA said something that's somewhere in between.
So I wanted people to see where Wu-Tang came from, these housing projects, and where it's gone. It's gone into Sotheby's or wherever it's gone, and albums get sold for $2 million. And then this Martin Shkreli guy, who's somehow some supervillain out of a comic book, purchases the album and then his whole madness of the drug that he owns and how he raised the price. And then Shkreli attacks Ghostface with some really silly quote-unquote "goons" threatening him and then Ghostface comes back with his own video. It just shows you how the essence of hip-hop and the power of it can transcend so many different arenas of everyday life.
Now the Wu-Tang is synonymous or connected to Martin Shkreli, this weirdo who bought the album for $2 million, who's now in jail for doing what he did. I can't name another rap group in history that has had this kind of evolution and has had its brand zoom across the universe the way that it has. The Rolling Stones tongue-and-lip logo, obviously, was iconic for a long time and still iconic today. But today's version of that Rolling Stones logo is the Wu-Tang "W." And it's amazing to see where it's gone and where it continues to go.
I just love what a perfect illustration it is, though, of RZA's business savvy or pragmatism that after all of the discussion of the utter fiasco that this album was on one level, that he's able to sit there and go, "Yeah, we got $25 million worth of free publicity out of it, and that's something."
It just shows you how RZA thinks. The awareness, he recognizes that that awareness only feeds that "W." And when you feed the "W," you feed RZA and all his cohorts. When I was publishing my hip-hop newspaper, Beat Down, we were the first to put Wu-Tang on any cover. A friend of mine named Mike McDonald, he was a radio promoter and he grew up with the Wu-Tang guys, and he was helping them. And so we were doing our route, as in going to newsstands and record stores, and ran into Mike McDonald. We were distributing our newspaper, and it was like, "Hey, what are you doing?" "Oh, working my records. Here, take this." I said, "What's this?" He's like, "Oh, it's the Wu-Tang Clan. They're my friends from Staten Island. Check them out."
So we go into the rental car, we pop in the cassingle, and I heard "Protect Ya Neck" for the first time. And I was like "What the fuck is this?" And I loved it. We were an underground newspaper, an underground hip-hop newspaper, we're like, "We like these guys. They represent what we represent. We're going to put them on the cover." There's no way I would have though when I first heard "Protect Ya Neck," that Wu-Tang would become what they became. And RZA will tell you that he knew from day one, and maybe he really did. But to me, it's amazing.
I'm from Queens. I don't understand half of the Staten Island slang, so if I don't understand it, how do people in Poland understand it? But there's just something so natural about how they express themselves that is so intoxicating, and I think the honesty is just so alluring that even if you don't understand what they're saying, you can have an overall sense of, "This music is coming from somewhere; these guys have been through something. This is a movement, there's a lot of them, they're powerful. I want to hear what they have to say even if I don't understand what they're saying."
The first hour has a couple of celebrity fans pop up. You have Jim Jarmusch, you have Ta-Nehisi Coates, you have Seth Rogen. And then they aren't used subsequently at all. There's obviously an approach to this documentary where you could have all of their celebrity fans popping up and talking about what the Wu meant to them. What was your approach to having just that little taste of representing their reach, but not giving the documentary over to the stars?
I wanted people to understand their reach, and when you hear Jim Jarmusch talk about what Wu-Tang meant to him and his experiences with them and how he feels about race and racism, I think that's powerful. But I do lots of interviews. I tend, and maybe it's the journalist in me, I interview way too many people. There's so many great interviews that didn't make the cut that I did, but in the process of making the film, we said, "What do you need anyone else for? You have Wu-Tang."
These guys are, there's not a dud in the bunch. There is not a dud in Wu-Tang. So we interviewed this one and that one and I didn't interview him, but someone interviewed Kanye West and it didn't make the cut, but Kanye himself said, "You know, I hate these movies where it's all celebrities talking about blah blah blah." And you know what? He was right. But he didn't make the cut. Maybe for the same reason.
I wanted people who had a direct relationship with Wu-Tang to have things to say. And between Wu-Tang themselves and the people that we carefully selected, in addition to some celebrities that go beyond what you would expect from Wu-Tang. Again, we wanted balance, but I had Wu. I didn't really need anyone else.
A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.