After years of proudly trumpeting his affinity for kung-fu movies, Wu-Tang leader the RZA took the next step by directing his own: The Man With the Iron Fists, a giddily over-the-top adventure derived from a lifetime of combing through flicks both revered and obscure. In addition to directing, he also stars as the main character and scored the soundtrack — more impressive considering the praise he’s accumulated for each role. We caught up over the phone in order to discuss working with Eli Roth, what he learned from Jim Jarmusch, trying to figure out American audiences, and how directing this movie was like becoming Rocky.
How long have you been thinking of this story and about making this movie?
I think it started in the year 2005, but there are some of the things in this story that I could probably date back to my childhood. Some of the ideas or some of the individual characters that I go about, you know what I mean. But the actual writing took place in 2005 and the green light came 2010, and here we are now, 2012, finally in theaters.
I know you’ve been following kung fu movies your whole life, but was there a specific trigger that make you decide now was the time to get to it?
Actually, a buddy saw the “Tragedy” video and told me, “Yo I think you should do a whole movie like that, man. That shit was cool, you looked cool like that, like nobody else could pull this off but you, you should go for it.” But at the same time, Quentin [Tarantino] telling me that I should be writing down my ideas and everything in a screenplay and so I just went for it, yo.
You’ve worked with a lot of great directors as an actor. like Jim Jarmusch and Ridley Scott. Did you find yourself learning something about the whole process of movie making?
First of all, yeah. When I worked with Jim and Ridley, I was very curious about what they were doing. I observed very well. Ridley shared with me so much wisdom and knowledge about filmmaking. Jim Jarmusch is my buddy. He’s one of the first guys to read the Man With the Iron Fists script and told me it was a good script and told me it had lots of potential. You know, he also gave me a lot of wisdom. My greatest teacher and mentor of course was Quentin Tarantino who fortunately asked me to become a student of his and he accepted me as a student, and I worked with some great, great masters. Even working as an actor on different sets allowed me to absorb a lot, also.
I know Quentin and Eli Roth were both involved in the movie. What sort of things were they able to bring?
Eli helped train the story from a 90 page screenplay to 130 pages. His strong side is providing those crazy ideas of his own that were able to fit right into this world, so Eli was invaluable. Same thing with Quentin: he’s considered one of the top elite directors of the world, but he has humble beginnings as well. I was able to call on him so he could let me know, “Well, there is a land mine ahead, and the options are you can avoid it, or you can jump over it, but it is a landmine ahead.” So, having those kind of guys as mentors and as support is great. It’s just like in the music industry, when Wu-Tang first came into the music industry, we already had bad experiences, we had bad contracts, we had bad management, so the other guys benefited from that.
So what was it like when you and Eli get together to co-write the script?
Yeah, Eli and I spent over a year on the script, and we did it through personal emailing each other’s house back and forth, and if we were out of town, we would Skype or iChat. Eli did all the typing, he types at fucking 60 words per minute. I did the fucking talking. He throws ideas to help me develop the characters, and he also was able to add certain things to the scenes.
I’ll give you one scene, when the character named Brass Body — in the original screenplay that I wrote, he walks into the room and they go “So glad you could make it, I’ve got a job for you.” But then Eli was like “Well, that’s not a big enough entrance for this guy, let’s make a bigger entrance.” To make a bigger entrance for him, Eli was like, “Also when he comes into the room, even though the guy knows him, it’s not enough just to say it. You should see the last job he did. So, he walks in the room there, and he says hello to Silver Lion, and hello to Poison Dagger, but then he looks over to the left and sees a fucking head that’s in a motherfucking glass case with a snake in it going through his fucking eyes and mouth, and he says “Oh, I see a familiar face.” Then the guy goes “Oh, yeah, the snake charmer, your best one yet. However, your next job won’t be as easy.”
Why did you decide to film in Shanghai?
Well for us, it was Shanghai, Bejing, and all of China. We thought about filming a movie at a studio but I got a chance to see some photos of different sets and different locations and said to myself, “Yo, ain’t nothing like the real thing.” So, we went to China and went for it. And Shanghai, the beautiful city, happened to be the best place to base our location. But because we had good company, good food, great city — the city just looks like fucking Vegas on steroids — being in the middle of all that shit gave us a good time and made a family vibe out of us. It all resonated back on Mondays when we go back to filming, we would go back to rural China, going back to a small town, dealing with the day-to-day crisis of that, everyone was ready and prepared and everybody gave their A-game. I couldn’t be more proud of the crew and cast for this film, yo. Anyone from Hollywood, we really appreciated the professionalism and the way we handled ourselves out there in China.
How did you get involved with someone like Russell Crowe or Lucy Liu?
Well, Russell, I talked to him about the movie for over a year, and as it got closer to getting the green light, I went back to him again and told him, you know, “We’re going to film it and we would love you to be Jack Knife.” And he trusted me as an artist. He was just basically like, “You know what, I trust Bobby as an artist. This movie is kind of crazy, it’s not my style,” but he’s been around me and saw me in other mediums and trusted me to deliver this.
And the same thing with Lucy: She trusted me, you know. I give them both my thanks for trusting me because I wanted them for the film, and there was a choice where other people were offered to me like you know “Take this guy” or “take this woman,” because you know, you can pay for people to be cast. But I was adamant about who I wanted and I really wanted those two actors and actresses in my film and I did everything in my power to make it happen and I was glad at the end that everybody agreed to come on board and play these characters.
I read an interview in which you talked about the painful process of editing. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the stuff that didn’t make it in?
There’s a lot of things I edited that I would like to include, especially there’s some stuff that happened at the Temple. But have you ever watched a movie like 7 Grandmasters?
No, I haven’t.
Well, like Jackie Chan’s old movies like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow?
Well, those movies, there’s a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, like: hit block block hit, right? And I shot one scene like that, with Kuan Tai Chen and Leung Ka-Yan. Now, these two guys haven’t fought each other on the screen since the first Iron Monkey. Not the new Iron Monkey with Donnie Yen but the old Iron Monkey from the ’80s was the last time these two guys had a fight on the screen. I got both of these guys on the same movie. Actually, one of the guys asked the other guy… he wanted to fight him again. And I got both of them in the movie and they fight and they do their styles: Tiger style against hyena style,,and we edited it out.
Would you like to release it at some point?
I don’t know, yo. I don’t know. In the DVD, we’re going to put in about 13 or 17 minutes, but it would probably take about 40 minutes to get a real strong director’s total revision. But keep this in mind, the film has about a total vision at 96 minutes. It’s just that when you’re a director, you’re kind of spoiled. You’re looking forward and you think that everyone’s going to love everything you do. I watched some of the old footage recently in my hotel room, I was like that was a long shot, I just have to care more why this guy walked all the way up to the Warrior Palace with the wind blowing on his head. Now who would wanna watch that? I do, because I’m a fan of that guy, but the average American would watch it and be like, “Who the fuck is this guy I have to fucking look at for two minutes?” You know what I mean? So I realized a lot of it was having to edit things these days more like the Hollywood style of editing, instead of doing the more Jim Jarmusch style of editing, you know?
What you said about the American perspective got me thinking: Certainly in hip-hop, your career is iconoclastic, and I was wondering if you ever feel that pressure in promoting divergent interests against what you might see in normal hip hop culture?
Well, I definitely felt nervous in what I did here, in the sense that it is nerve-wracking to have this much of an investment and to deliver it, and hopefully the audience will love it and have fun with it. I’m very confident because I prepared very well for this job, yo. It’s like getting into the ring with a champion like Rocky. You know, with Rocky, he got into the ring, and Rocky won. He might not have won the fight, but he won the crowd, you know what I mean? And I think that could happen. I’m not gonna get no Oscar for this shit, but the audience is going to feel like they got their money’s worth. They’re going to feel like, “You know what, I went to the movies this fucking weekend and I fucking paid twelve dollars, and I fucking appreciate these twelve dollars. It was a good spend.” This movie is fun, and it really fulfills and delivers on so many levels, yo.