ENTER THE 35 MM CHAMBER: WU-TANG CLAN’S RZA TALKS ABOUT HIS DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS by AllMovie’s Mark Deming
From the opening track of Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), two things were clear – this was a group boldly re-writing the rules of hip hop, and these guys knew and loved classic kung fu movies. “Bring The Ruckus” beings with a scratchy voice declaring, “Shaolin shadow boxing, and the Wu Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu Tang could be dangerous!” That fuzzy voice was a sample from Chia Hui Liu’s 1981 martial arts epic Shaolin and Wu Tang, and it was the first of dozens of dialogue and music samples from vintage kung fu flicks that would appear on tracks by Wu-Tang Clan and their various members, while martial arts references are common in their lyrics. The RZA, Wu-Tang Clan’s producer, key conceptualist, and de facto leader, was obviously a keen student of kung fu films, and almost twenty years after Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released, RZA has gone from fan to filmmaker. RZA (known to family and friends as Bobby Diggs) has already established himself as an actor, appearing in such films as Derailed, American Gangster, Funny People, and Repo Men, as well as landing a regular role on the cable series Californication, and he scored Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai for Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Now, with help from his friend Eli Roth (the actor and horror auteur behind Hostel and Cabin Fever), RZA has written an ambitious period martial arts adventure, The Man With The Iron Fists, and he’s directed the film as well, in addition to playing a key role in a cast that also includes Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and a handful of noted wrestlers, mixed martial arts fighters, and kung fu champions. (His friend Tarantino also served as an executive producer.) Shot in China on a $20 million budget, The Man With The Iron Fists finds RZA stepping into the director’s chair in a big way, with the film opening nationwide on Friday, November 2.
Several weeks before The Man With The Iron Fists was set to debut, RZA staged a concert tour that served double duty as a publicity junket for the film, and several hours before taking the stage at Detroit’s Saint Andrews Hall on October 12, he sat down with journalists to discuss the making of the film and his fascination with movies and kung fu. (Please note: most of Wu-Tang Clan’s albums feature a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker, so we’ve opted not to censor RZA’s occasional F and S bombs. The easily offended should proceed with caution.)
ON BEING A NINE-YEAR-OLD FAN OF MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES: In those days, we had Saturday Morning Kung Fu Theater (on TV), and I’d always stay at ODB’s house – his mom had a job, so they’d have pancakes (laughs). I’d stay there for the weekend, and Saturday afternoon we’d watch kung fu movies, fighting kung fu together, figuring out costumes and all kinds of things, and then at night, we used to make demos, rap about the kung fu movies!
ON THE STUDIO’S TAGLINE, “YOU CAN’T SPELL KUNG FU WITHOUT F AND U”: I was nervous about that tagline. Because in China and Hong Kong, I did a video about martial arts there before and I got approached by martial artists. They take martial arts serious – you hear stories about Bruce Lee getting into fights and all that. That’s part of the martial art culture! So when they came up with that, I said, “I hope nobody don’t wanna come and fuck me up!” (Laughs.) But it’s been going along well.
ON TURNING AN IDEA INTO A SCREENPLAY: It started with a story in my head. I wrote the story out, took it to Eli (Roth) one day, and he saw the whole vision. I’m not a screenwriter by trade, of course, but I try to be a renaissance man, as they call it. Eli agreed to help me, and we spent about a year together – paying visits to each other’s houses, Skyped whenever we could – to write this thing to a format that’s presentable to a movie studio, so they could see the same vision that he saw in the story. And I think we did it – I know we did it. That’s the beginnings of this game, but it goes way back to me being a nine year old kid, seeing these kung fu movies and having an imagination about them, dreaming I was a kung fu fighter and all these different things. But as I got to Hollywood, (working on) Ghost Dog with (Jim) Jarmusch and Kill Bill with Quentin (Tarantino), scoring films, all that stuff just kept me realizing that it’s possible to bring this passion project to life.
ON GETTING ON-THE-JOB TRAINING FROM QUENTIN TARANTINO: When Quentin asked me to work on the music for Kill Bill, he said to me, “I like the way you produce. I want you to produce the score for my movie how you produce your music albums. I love the Wu Tang albums. They’re cinematic.” So I said, “You got it, but I like what you do as well. The way you think, the way you take those opportunities, and I would like to become your student in filming.” He said, “It would be my pleasure, Bobby.” And so I went to China, and while they were filming Kill Bill, I would sit in the corner, write my notes and watch what everybody did. I would talk to the crew day and night, for a long time. Death Proof, the same thing.
ON REAL GORE VERSUS DIGITAL GORE: On this film, you got special make up artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, they do The Walking Dead now, and I met them on the set of Death Proof. I’d seen them doing their work, and I asked them, “Why keep it practical in the age of CGI?” And they said, “Practical (effects) gives a better shock factor. It’s gonna last longer than a GCI effect.” Because they feel with digital, you get some digital breakup over the years — you watch Ghostbusters today, Slimer don’t look like Slimer no more! (Laughs.) So I said, “When I do my film, I’m gonna hire you guys.” And years later, when I got my budget, they found the time to come help out.
ON ACTING AND DIRECTING (AND DOING ACTING EXERCISES WITH METHOD MEN): I wrote it to be the director. Eli believed in me as a director, Quentin said I’d graduated, I was ready. There was always a plan for me to direct this movie. Now, to act in the movie, that wasn’t always the plan. The producers – Eric Newman and Marc Abraham – they were like, “No, no, Bobby, you’re the Blacksmith.” And I’m thinking, “I can do it, of course, but I’m doin’ some shit here, all right? I’ve got my hands full now!” (Laughs.) That was a challenge. But it’s the same thing, see, when I do something, I try to study it. I try to take time and study. When I started acting at first, I was called to act in the film Derailed by Harvey Weinstein, he personally called my office, and I went to a coach immediately after that. I’d already read books – there’s a great book by Tony Barr called Acting For The Camera that has exercises in it, and when I got that book, and I had the chance to work on Derailed, I would hang with (fellow Wu-Tang member) Method Man and do exercises. Method Man had already made movies, he’s a star already, so I would practice with him.
ON THE ART OF THE BACK STORY: One acting coach I met gave me a piece of information that when it came time to rewrite the screenplay with Eli, it helped me in the writing process. This was for a small part in Repo Men, I was actually uncomfortable with the size of the part, you know what I mean? She said, “Well, listen. What you have to do is, what your character is doing is making a song. What is the reason this character is making this song? The audience will never know this, but you have to create in your mind a history of this character, and a reason for it that we’ll never know. And if you believe in this history, it’ll come through in your acting.” And I was like, “Well, I’m making a song for my daughter before I have my operation.” So we just started doing all that, and after a few weeks, when I did it in the film, I looked at it back, I thought, “I do look like a lost man, I do look a certain way.” And so when we was writing, I was like, “Hold on, why is Lady Silk, Jamie Chung’s character, why is she the way she is?” And in the movie, you don’t see this, but she’s a fuckin’ orphan. Her and her mother were (payment for) a gambling debt – her father kills himself, they take the mother and her into the brothel, her mother don’t want to do it, of course, so her mother kills herself in front of her, and gives her some words of wisdom about men. And that’s the mentality behind that character. For each character, we would write back-stories for them, and then file ‘em away.
ON TAKING TIME OFF FROM MUSIC TO DIRECT A MOVIE: I had a lot of opposition against me. The opposition was my own music buddies, my music partners. I have do have partners, I have companies, like the Wu Wear company, which I left alone. (Laughs.) I have Wu-Tang Productions, which me and my brother are partners in. He was always calling me, “When you comin’ back to make an album, man? We got fuckin’ music shit! Fuck this movie shit! You can make millions fuckin’ producing! Why are gonna walk away from that?” And I said, “I ain’t doin’ it for that. My heart feels happy.”
ON TARANTINO AND ROTH’S INFLUENCE: You’re gonna blame Quentin for some of the stuff in the film, you’re gonna blame Eli for some of the stuff. And the only thing about the film is, you may be blaming each one of us for the wrong reason! That’s what I love about it. When I set back with Quentin and Eli, I say, “They’re gonna swear you did this, they’re gonna blame you for this shit, and I’m gonna get away with it!” (Laughs.)
ON THE UPCOMING (AND LONGER) DVD RELEASE: Eli’s the gore factor, man. And we’re not shy with the gore. (While shooting), there’s a couple of scenes, I’m like, “No! I need more!” And this is a rated R film, we didn’t want NC-17, but the DVD is NC-17. We just put back in about fifteen more minutes of the film, and a nice portion of that is just some nice gore. Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero at their best!
ON CUTTING HIS FOUR-HOUR ROUGH CUT TO 96 MINUTES: That four-hour cut was me as a first time director loving everything I did. That’s like your son, you may need to cut his hair, but he’s your son, he’s beautiful to you. You don’t see those flaws. But there’s flaws, you know what I mean? And fortunately enough for me, I know this is my first endeavor like this, so I surrounded myself with a great team of people, and I wasn’t shy to take advice. My first impression was, “We should make two movies out of this!” Why? “Because it worked on Kill Bill! Because I seen what Quentin did, and I can do it!” But it took him years to get to that level. And Eli’s like, “No no no, Bobby. I’ve done this. I’ve been in the four hour cut before! You have to go in there, hone in, and streamline that story.” Eli would said, “I hear you, Bobby, but you just gotta cut.” I’d say, “But Jim Jarmusch, he fuckin’ holds scenes long like this!” He was like, “Yeah, Jim is great. But Jim doesn’t make Hollywood films. He makes independent films. This is a Hollywood film.”
ON PACING AND HIS FAVORITE DIRECTORS: I’m definitely happy with the final cut. Two things that I thought the audience would enjoy, just as extra raisins in your raisin bread, I got back into the DVD. Just extra fun. The film is about 96 minutes now, and the story is there, the action is there, the spirit is there. There were no compromises. There was only a thing of style. I love Jim Jarmusch’s style of filmmaking, I love Quentin’s style, I love John Woo’s style. Those are my three favorite styles … and Sergio Leone, of course. If you look at The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, sometime it gets long. It’s probably my favorite film, but sometimes, I go, “OK. The Civil War? Where the fuck did that come from?” But the same thing, I think my film had things in it where we didn’t need all that.
ON HIS SECRET BERNARDO BERTOLUCCIO INFLUENCE AND FINDING GREAT LOCATIONS: Eli made a joke on me, because I had talked to him about a movie called The Last Emperor. The Last Emperor was a film I saw as a kid — the reason I watched it was because I thought it was a kung fu movie. And I’m looking at it, and there’s not one fight in that joint! I fell asleep on it. But as a grown man, I watched it again, and it’s a great movie. So Eli makes the joke, “See, The Last Emperor influenced you more than you realized! That’s why you got this long shot of these guys walking all the way through the Forbidden City” – and I did have a long shot there, you could eat a whole Snickers bar in there! I stumbled across that location. There’s a scene about the governor, and when the governor asks for the gold to pass through the village, and we had different locations for it. But we stumbled across this Forbidden City scale for scale set (at the studio) – you could fit two full-scale studio lots in this place. These Chinese brothers built this scale for scale exact replica, and when I saw it, I said, “We’ve got to use this!”
ON DIRECTING AND ACTING IN THE SAME FILM: As an actor, I’m able to channel my own energy. I’ve studied under the Susan Batson school, that goes all the way back to the Actor’s Studio, back to the Russian style, so I’m able to channel my energy. But the difficult part I was having was on some days, the scheduling was tight to where I had to direct somebody else from morning to lunchtime, then after lunch time I had to get into costume and get ready for my own fuckin’ scenes. And as the director, I’m worried about everything else, and now I gotta get ready for the scene. And I have to breathe and relax and focus on myself. Eli stayed with me for the whole shoot, and if I felt nervous about something, I would ask him, “Yo man, you think I rocked that right?” “Bobby, you’re doing great!” “Man, we need Marc back – Marc always finds something wrong!” (Laughs) Marc Abraham came back to the set some days, he didn’t say nothin’, he’d say, “You’re doin’ great,” so I just let myself be free as an actor. But the funniest thing is, if you ever get a chance to see some of these dailies, you’ll see a scene where the character is very quiet and internal. He’s all morbid and shit … he’s got all this blacksmith stuff around his neck, he’s tired … he pauses, takes a drink … breathin’ hard … NAH NAH NAH, CUT CUT! (Laughs.)
ON WAITING FOR THE FILM’S RELEASE: I’m definitely nervous, first thing is nervousness. I was nervous making the film. This is a nerve-wracking thing for people to trust you with raw sums of money and expect you to bring back a piece of product. I’m nervous in the sense that it ain’t just for myself, I got Russell Crowe putting his trust in me, coming on board for this film, which is very different from the movies that he usually makes. I got Cung Le, who’s an established UFC fighter, who has to trust me with wearing makeup and hair. There’s the big wrestler Dave Bautista. You got Rick Yune, who’s known for paying villains, right? Rick Yune always is a villain in every movie he’s been in so far, and I’m asking him, “I want you to be the hero.” We’ve got Lucy Liu, who I gotta give a big compliment, it was very hard to get her, it wasn’t easy, and she put some trust in me. So then you got the studio, and all the agents, all the people who worked on this film, with the cast and crew you’ve got four hundred people there. The Chinese Government, you know, they don’t green light many American movies over there. I mean, Harvey Weinstein has a hard time doing Marco Polo (in China) right now, he called me, said, “RZA, what the fuck did you do to get it?” (Laughs) So the success of it is important to me, not just for me, because I already accomplished it, I achieved the dream. But the success of it commercially is important, so all these people that have invested their time and trust in me can feel the gratitude from the people. So that’s what I’m nervous about. SO PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE GO SEE MY MOVIE NOVEMBER SECOND! (Laughs.)
ON DOUBT, CELEBRITY, AND SHOWING THE FILM TO TARANTINO: It’s not about doubt, because the future’s always uncertain, you know what I mean? It’s really just nervousness. And even if it do do big, I still gotta be nervous, because that’s a different kind of pressure that comes over me then, too. One thing I like about my kind of celebrity is, I’m the kind of celebrity who can get out of my car, go in to Starbucks, get a cup of coffee, shake a few hands and that’s cool, but there ain’t no paparazzi looking at me, you know what I mean? If I go to the strip club in Atlanta, like I did the other night, I can get in there and get out! I like that! (Laughs.) And sometimes the bigger things get, you lose certain feelings. But I want this film to win, I want this film to be really successful for everybody that’s involved. And I know one thing – it’s a fun movie. And I will not say that because I made it. I saw the first 35 mm print about three weeks ago, with Quentin, for the first time. I sat beside him, I was nervous as a fuck, of course, because I’m right beside the Godfather, but it didn’t take no more than six, seven minutes before he was laughing all out. He was into it.
ON HIS FUTURE AS A FILMMAKER: I see a future in it. I see that I’ve graduated college. Music was something I did all my life, right? I feel like I proved that already. We got platinum records, we got Grammys, nominated for Oscars and BAFTAs, I’ve proved that I can do it. But film, this is like my new love, my new girl, and you know how you get your new girlfriend? You show her everything you got. This is my calling, if I’m allowed to do it. I don’t control that aspect of it, but if there’s a spot for me, I’m taking that spot, because I love it.