RZA on The Man With the Iron Fists and Learning From Quentin Tarantino
As the leader and producer of hip-hop legends Wu-Tang Clan, RZA wears many hats. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the actor, author, producer, and musician Bobby Diggs decided to try his hand at directing movies, too.
RZA's directorial debut, The Man With the Iron Fists, opens in the D.C. area tomorrow. He stars in the film, which he also produced, scored, soundtracked, and co-wrote with Eli Roth. It's something that’s been in the works for him for years, after failed attempts at directing two low-budget indies. From its first dazzling trailer, to the announcement of the stacked soundtrack—which features RZA collaborating with The Black Keys, Kanye West, and Wu-Tang Clan, of course—the film has been hotly anticipated for some time now, but the fact that Universal is releasing it smack-dab in the middle of awards season may suggest it has more gravitas than one might attribute to a martial-arts film.
I had the chance to speak with RZA a couple of weeks ago before his show at the State Theatre to discuss the process of making the film, why he almost wasn’t involved in the soundtrack, and the influence of kung-fu in his life.
Washington City Paper: This movie is a long time coming for you, something you’ve wanted to do for a while. What was the process like to finally get it made?
RZA: The process was all preparation, I really had to prepare myself. I tried to make a few independent films years ago, like Bobby Digital and Wu Tang vs. The Golden Phoenix, which we actually have in the can. I think now that I’ve finished this film, I can go back and re-edit those. But anyway, it was a long process. A lot of hard work, a lot of mindpower, even a lot of physical work. Just keeping myself in shape, mentally and physically, it wasn’t easy. But I’m a man that was prepared for the job, a man with a determined idea, and I just kept pushing for what I wanted; I didn’t let the dream go.
I had a lot of opposition, even from my own family. As the producer of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the successful career we’ve had, I was “caking up,” as they say, but I walked away from all that to go after something else I was aspiring to be. I told them all, “Look, I just want to be happy, I want to follow my art, I want to make films, that’s what I love, that’s what I’m in love with.” It’s like meeting a new woman and falling in love with her.
WCP: Kung-fu is such a big part of your life— in your music, your philosophy, and now your filmmaking career. How did that all start for you? When did you first become interested in kung-fu movies and that culture?
RZA: Well, if anything, it’s because it’s eye candy on the big screen. Action and violence always turn us on, no matter what we’re watching. But I think somewhere along the lines when I was little, I started seeing the brotherhood, the loyalty, and the sacrifice in a lot of these movies. Themes like the fight against oppression—Shaolin movies are always about being oppressed by the Manchu—all these things resonated with me. When I made The Man With The Iron Fists, I wanted to make a movie that would entertain, be a lot of fun, maybe give a spoonful of wisdom, but also show some kind of brotherhood and loyalty that men in different walks of life could have. Some of the morals and some of the ideals we had in Wu-Tang you can see in this film, but you can also see the movie magic at play. Personally, I’m a huge film buff, and I took everything I learned from years and years of watching movies into making this movie.
WCP: I read a quote from you in an interview that said you “like to make your albums like movies.” How different is your process for making movies than it is for making music?
RZA: Music can be done by one man. He can make a whole album by himself if he has the talent and the ideas. Although, in a studio environment, in my experience, we’d maybe have about a dozen people—the engineer, a few musicians, those type of people—but it can all be done by one person, essentially. A film is, I want to say, 100 times deeper. First of all, you’re dealing with hundreds of people. I had over 400 people working for me; I had 17 departments, and I had to talk with the heads of each department and then make sure they go back and tell of their people what had to be done. To me, this is the supreme power of the brain, because it’s all still one vision, one thought, and one product, but it’s a massive collaboration of energy that has to come together. And as the director, you have to be able to move all of that energy together to a focal point. It’s like taking all the power and making it into a single laser beam. If you don’t have the ability to do that, it’s going to show and the product isn’t going to come out.
When I look back at this film and I see what we pulled off, when I see the end results of everything—whether it’s the costumes, the actors that participated, the settings, the scenery—I know that my mind is now stronger because I know that the people who worked with me appreciated this vision and gave me 100 percent. My A.D. gave me 100 percent, my D.P. gave me 100 percent, my production designer gave me 100 percent, the actors gave me 110 percent, and I gave myself 110 percent as well.
WCP: As an actor, you’ve worked with a number of great directors over the years. hat did you learn from them that helped you in the process of making this film?
RZA: Actually, I learned a lot from the directors I’ve worked with. Fortunately, I have a director’s mind, so I’ve made it a point to talk to them about the processes over the years. I learned the most from Quentin Tarantino, he’s my mentor; my directorial personal trainer. But I also learned a lot from Jim Jarmusch. When we did Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, that’s when I was trying to be Bobby Digital, and he was one of the men who inspired me to try. Nobody knows this but I’ll share it with you: The first draft of The Man with the Iron Fists I sent to Jim to read. He read it and thought I truly had something special, and that gave me the confidence to pursue it even further. Because Jim Jarmusch isn’t one to lie, and I felt good about that, I felt really good about it.
But each director taught me a little something along the way. I learned a lot from John Woo, whom I became friends with through music. Even when I worked with Todd Phillips on Due Date and Mikael Håfström on Derailed I learned a lot. With Derailed, that was my first real acting gig, and he let me come watch the dailies, and the D.P.— Peter Biziou—would let me ask questions and watch what he was doing. I think being very inquisitive is very helpful for me. I know sometimes I could be a pain in the ass on set, asking people questions, but I never imposed myself; I never bothered anybody. Also, being that I am The RZA from Wu, I have a little respect as well, because they appreciate what I brought to the world. Therefore these directors saw me as their peer and we were able to exchange ideas with one another at that level.
WCP: I read that you weren’t originally going to produce the soundtrack for the movie, but Quentin Tarantino convinced you otherwise. What did he say to you to make you change your mind?
RZA: He’s a producer and the presenter on this film, so he has some authority on it as well. I think he sort of gave me a direct order in regards to the soundtrack. I was complaining to him that the studio was bugging me about scoring the film. I was kind of exhausted from the film at that point. I had done Californication just to get my mind out of it, 'cause it took a lot of energy out of my life, and I was complaining to Quentin and he was like “No, no, hold on Bobby, of course you’re going to score this film, who else is going to score it? Everybody’s going to expect you to score it, even your fans!” And I couldn’t argue with him, he had me. That was checkmate!
WCP: Yeah, I can imagine when Quentin Tarantino gives you an order like that, you obey.
RZA: I rebutted a little bit, but he was adamant. I left his office that night with another new job, scoring the film.