Q&A: RZA talks The Man With the Iron Fists, Wu Tang and more
RZA tells us how he snagged Russell Crowe for his directorial debut, what movies inspired him as a director and his hopes for the upcoming Wu Tang reunion.
Q&A: RZA talks The Man With the Iron Fists, Wu Tang and more
What sort of movie would RZA — the de facto mastermind behind Wu Tang Clan and its hip-hop dynasty — make if he had a chance to direct one? We wouldn’t know precisely what kind because The Man with the Iron Fists, RZA’s directorial debut that he co-wrote with Eli Roth, wasn’t made available to screen before this interview. But you could guess from his background in the theology of martial arts — the skill and its films and their influence on Wu everything — to say nothing from a reel where he, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune, David Bautista and Jamie Chung run roughshod across 19th-century China. It would be a fast-paced bloodbath, especially since it’s being “presented by” his cinematic mentor Quentin Tarantino, with whom RZA has worked on several film scores. Plus RZA created most of the score to The Man with the Iron Fists when he wasn’t developing Chambers headphones (a pair of which we gave away in an Instagram contest this week), the sleek black zip-up pouch it comes in, or trying to get the entirety of the Wu Tang Clan in fighting action for 2013. I spoke to him from the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles.
City Paper: What was the first movie that you absolutely loved?
RZA: Star Wars. It’s still an amazing film. I even love the whole saga.
CP: What was the first film that moved you to pay attention to its direction, do decide that making movies was something you’d like to do someday?
RZA: I can say the first film that I found remarkable enough to want to know more about was Five Deadly Venoms then The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, after that. Once those hit I probably began to look at films from the standpoint of how they were done. The Godfather, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — these were masterpieces of cinema that you wanted to get inside. I watch films with a different eye because of that. Like when I saw The Grey I felt like I was in a rainstorm the whole time. I got cold.
CP: Do you find it hard to just enjoy a film without picking it apart now that you’ve directed one?
RZA: Yeah I can. I’m not jaded yet. Every time I go to the movies I’m excited. I might not walk out excited. (Laughs)
CP: If say the phrase “Shaw Brothers” what comes to mind?
RZA: Those guys were one of my schools of movie-making. They made me who I am and they are responsible for my single most favorite collection of films ever. I pride myself on that collection.
CP: Were you freaked out the first time you stepped before a camera for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog,
RZA: I didn’t know what to think. It just felt cool to be on a big screen. Somebody told me something about me sticking out, that I looked right up there. Then I did Coffee and Cigarettes for Jim and that was even cooler. I was basically being a version of myself but that was fine. Plus you had to figure that on that first film I had two words to say: “power” and “equality.” Coffee and Cigarettes I had 10 minutes of dialogue.
CP: Do you remember how you felt hearing yourself for that long on screen?
RZA: I’ll never forget being in this theater in San Francisco watching it. I shrunk in my seat. I turned to butter and started melting away because I was so nervous I was almost embarrassed, right. Then a minute in, people laughed. Then more people laughed. All of a sudden I wasn’t shrinking anymore. As they laughed throughout the skit, I started growing. By the time that bit ended I was all the way up in my seat. It was like that feeling when you make a girl happy. It was a real "wow" sensation.
CP: Tarantino has talked about having you beside him while he worked on set. Before him, what did you pick up about filmmaking from Jarmusch?
RZA: We became buddies and have had lot of conversations. When I did my Bobby Digital film package it came in part from hanging with Jim as we did that without a script. That’s his style. But Quentin is my teacher. I sought him out. Not just a friend where I’m taking advice but I wanted to learn, hands on. John Woo talked to me. Jarmusch talked to me. But Quentin was serious and made me get more serious. Some days I was over his shoulder, watching everything from three feet behind
CP: When did you know that you were ready to be a director?
RZA: I thought I was ready in 2007. I tried again in 2009. Then on New Year’s Day of 2010, after I finished a big part of the screenplay, I knew it was a go. Months later, I stepped into Universal and we were ready to start. By December 2010, principle photography was on.
CP: What did Eli Roth bring to the table?
RZA: He helped flesh out these characters. I’m not a screenplay writer, too. (Laughs). I can tell you a story and I can make you see the whole thing but to make it into a screenplay with the necessary details? I’m not there yet. It’s a map. You got to make it readable for line producers on down. Everybody has to know what the vision is or it won’t come to life. That’s why the book is sometimes better than the movie.
CP: Any butting of heads? I heard you had nearly four hours ready to roll.
RZA: That was my mistake for saying that out loud, [as] a first time director. We had four hours of assembly — something I thought would be worth two movies. I figured, "Cut here and come back with a second half." That would have been taking a big risk. Jarmusch has a style; a long shot where nothing’s happening which gives you an opportunity to ponder what an actor’s character is thinking. Quentin would fill that scene with constant brilliant dialogue. John Woo would use that same scene to have tables turning and birds flying and guns blasting. What I had to do was find my balance. I didn’t have that sort of balance for a four-hour assembly. After I got my first director’s cut, it was only 2 hours and 17 minutes, most of which you‘ll see on the screen in 96 minutes. I have a lot of eye candy for the DVD extras.
CP: How did you get Russell Crowe? It’s weird thinking of him here.
RZA: I asked him. I saw him in my head as “Jack Knife” and he believed in me as an artist. Simple as that. He came on board to support the vision and he kills it.
CP: As you were writing the film, were you coming up with the soundtrack or was that separate?
RZA: It was mostly separate but I wrote the film to music that wasn’t mine. It could’ve been John Frusciante’s music or the soundtrack to Carrie. I didn’t know that I was going to score the film. Funnily enough, I had a keyboard and a guitar with me in China and started writing music but not for the film. When I couldn’t sleep at night I wound up writing and riffing. Those songs then wound up being perfect for the score, especially this one temple scene ... it fit the scene and the synergy of being in China.
CP: Was it tough filming there? Was the government cool about everything?
RZA: They were mostly cool. They had some demands. They had to proofread the script and there were a few things that they were uncomfortable with — too much reality for a fiction film (laughs). But the Chinese crew was incredible, very ingenuous and quick.
CP: What’s the most personal scene in the movie, the one that reveals who you are as a director?
RZA: There’s a scene where Jack Knife starts his villainous purpose. From that point up to the scene where he meets “Madame Blossom” [Lucy Liu] and she starts her villainous purpose — That whole chunk is great movie magic. Keep your eyes peeled.
CP: You ready for the Wu reunion?
RZA: I am. Only if they are. And for real this time.
The Man with the Iron Fists opens at Franklin Mills, UA Riverview and UA 69th Street on Fri., Nov. 2.
UPDATE: Despite Iron Fists being RZA's directorial debut with nothing proven in the box office department, somebody other than Tarentino must like him. The Hollywood Reporter reports that RZA will direct a movie based on the life of Genghis Khan, written by Apocalypse Now scripter John Milius, and a third film No Man's Land.
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