RZA is a man of many talents: rapper and co-founder of influential hip-hop outfit the Wu-Tang Clan, music producer and actor appearing in the likes of American Gangster and TV drama Californication.
Now RZA makes his directorial debut with The Man with the Iron Fists, a martial arts thriller that successfully plays homage to 1970s exploitation cinema and stars Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu and RZA himself in the title role.
Matt’s Movie Reviews spoke to RZA about making The Man with the Iron Fists, wooing Russell Crowe to star in the film, the role that martial arts has played in his life and more.
You are a man of many talents: rapper, producer, actor. When did you decide that now is the right time to direct?
Well I’ve had it in my foresights for a number of years, probably five or six years. So it was a five year plan to get to this level, and at the end of the five years fortunately I went back to the teacher and asked if I was ready and he said “Yes, you are ready.” But I wanted to do it since 2005 actually, but I wasn’t prepared, wasn’t ready yet, wasn’t talented enough…I had to go through the studies.
Although this is your directorial debut, I found the direction to be very confident. Where did you learn the tools of moviemaking?
Of course as a film buff , a guy who loves watching movies, I watched a lot of different movies and kung-fu is my biggest genre, so you think of Chang Chen, Lau-Kar Leung, Tsui Hark and all of those great guys…you know, you got John Woo. You see that and that helps inspire me.
I had a chance to spend some time with John Woo in the 90s, who was the first guy who took me to the Cannes Film Festival and give me a taste on what the film world was like. But it wasn’t until I met Quentin Tarantino that I met the man that would become my teacher in filmmaking. As they say in kung-fu my “master”. I asked him if he would teach me and he took me on as a student and under his tutelage for about 5 years I’ll say I was in that position, because in 2010 he said I was ready and I immediately went for it.
Eli Roth co-wrote the screenplay with you. When did he become involved with the project?
Actually I consider Eli a classmate. I would see him up at Quentin’s house when Quentin would invite me over to watch movies and talk about them, and Eli would be there some days so I would see him there.
But we took a trip to Iceland in 2006 to bring in the New Year together, me, Quentin and Elvis Mitchell and that’s when me and Eli bonded as buddies and I told him about the story of …Iron Fists and he loved the story and said if he ever had the chance to help out he would, and when the chance came he helped out.
"Loyalty, and brotherhood, and courage…those kind of philosophies started to stick out on me and that’s what led me to become more of an avid conaseiur of the genre." - RZA
When you’re writing this script…you had this movie in your head since 2006, maybe longer, your writing this script…do you have specific actors in mind for certain characters?
I wrote the first screenplay…sorry, not a screenplay. I wrote the first story, because what is a screenplay…it was about 90 pages long and I wrote it with Rick Yune in mind as Zen Yi. It was during the process of my writing that I had met him, and I just thought that…you know I saw him in movies always as a bad guy. But I saw something in him I thought would be unique. He was always in my head as my Zen Yi character.
I didn’t think of Russell Crowe for Jack Knife until maybe two years later. But he’s been my Jack Knife for 3 years before we got the green light. I talked to him about it early on. But some of the characters was good casting. I had a guy named Mike Leeder from Hong Kong who helped me. Bringing in Kuan Tai Chen was a fucking dream for me. He also brought Gordon Liu to the table which was a dream for me because I originally wrote the part for my real life sifu (master) Shi Yan Ming, who had a problem getting a visa so we had to cast the part and I was able to get the great Gordon Liu, which was a blessing. Pam Grier was brought to me by Denise Chamian, a Hollywood casting director. I always wanted Lucy Liu but I couldn’t reach her, I couldn’t get her but Denise got to her and it was very close cut and at the end Lucy said I was very convincing and we got her in the picture.
But the surprise to me in the film was Byron Mann. I never knew this guy’s work actually, never noticed him. But he did such a great screen test. His screen test was incredible that I really wanted him to fucking play this part of the Silver Lion and we got lucky that he was able to do it for us, and I think he really added a lot to the film.
Yeah, I though Byron played a great villain. You mentioned Russell Crowe who is great in the movie. He’s an actor who’s very picky about what movies he appears in. How did you convince him to star in a martial arts western?
Well that was not an easy job. He laughs about it now days…he told me I asked him about it over a drink or some shit (laughs)…he wasn’t sure if I was serious, but as it became more real and it became really what it was going to be and I was able to describe the character to him and show him the weapons and show a lot of what he would be doing, he became artistically moved by what I was doing. He gave me a shot, yo.
Corey Yuen choreographed the fight scenes. He’s a legendary fight choreographer and director as well. What’s the process like in choreographing the fight scenes with him? Did you have ideas already that you shared with him? Or do you let him go about doing it himself?
Corey working on this film was a blessing for me. I originally wanted Yeun Woo-ping, but his schedule was terrible and just a lot of things was working against Woo-ping. Then I had a few other guys in mind, and then somebody told me I had a chance to get Corey.
I watched Corey’s movies like Fong Sai-yuk and Prodigal Son…even when he was acting in Dance of the Drunken Mantis, you know? So I am a fan of his work. But he also had a schedule problem and he couldn’t come in for the four week prep that I needed. He only came in one week before we shot.
But fortunately for him he’s a master of his craft, and fortunately for me I had storyboarded my fight sequences so I knew what I wanted to do. So when he came he didn’t come to an empty American director who says “Ok, you do this and I do that.” No! He came to a young guy with a lot of ideas and he was able to bring them to fruition and there were some ideas he felt were too difficult, some ideas he improved upon and some ideas he was totally original with.
For the Gemini Killers my idea was that the two Gemini blades was going to come together and make the ying-yang symbol when it cut somebody’s head off. After shooting some scenes and going through it for a few weeks he was like “Cutting another head off is a waste of time for this couple. Let’s have the weapon be something used to help each other with.” I said “Show me what you mean” and he showed me and I was like “Spectacular!”
For me that’s one of the best fight sequences in the film. It took us weeks to get that sequence together and figure out how the weapon was going to work and the moves he is going to do, and he was such a genius with his craft and I was a guy who has a lot of ideas, and us coming together was really good and I think me and Corey should do it again. I think we are a great combination.
"As it became more real and it became really what it was going to be and I was able to describe the character to (Russell Crowe) and show him the weapons and show a lot of what he would be doing, he became artistically moved by what I was doing." - RZA
You’re love for kung-fu is well known. What is it about kung-fu both as an art form and martial arts as a movie genre that appeals so much?
I think as a movie watcher it’s just the action and the ability of one man to five or ten men, or hand to hand combat with no guns…growing up in the ghetto and all that stuff guns are a nuisance, you know?
So I think as a kid it was a fascination of a guy being able to beat more than one guy. But as a teenager, as I kept going and going back and back to these theatres I started seeing that some of these men were sacrificing their lives for men they never met, you know? Loyalty, and brotherhood, and courage…those kind of philosophies started to stick out on me and that’s what led me to become more of an avid conaseiur of the genre, not only in watching the films but also getting books and learning about how they did things and wanting to become the guy who made his own films because of the things they out inside of it.
If you look at …Iron Fists, the one cool thing about it is that The Blacksmith, Zen Yi The X-Blade and Jack Knife, these guys become buddies! It’s Jack Knife who gives his arms for the moulding of the iron fists, and if you knew Jack Knife’s backstory which we wrote, his family was actually killed by slaves in the revolt. He hates blacks! (laughs) That didn’t come out in the movie, but the character was a certain kind of man and for him to find compassion for the character…those movies do that.
Even when John Woo was making his movies Bullet in the Head and The Killer, where the cop and the killer become friends…those movies have a certain kind of bromance to it that I like. We’re not gonna kiss each other (laughs) but there’s gonna be some cool bromance going on.
News has it that you are next to direct a movie about Genghis Khan. What can you tell us about the project so far?
Well, it’s a John Milius script. It’s one of the best screenplays that they have put in front of me. I’m getting dozens and dozens out in front of me these days, and this one is just magical. I mean this guy wrote a masterpiece and it’s not gonna be an easy job, so right now I’m basically taking a course study on Genghis Khan. This is not gonna be easy…there may be something in between this one, because this is a serious endeavour and I know I can handle it, and I’m glad John Milius is comfortable in giving me this screenplay. He wrote it for himself to direct and he gave it to me.
For me it’s like I skipped a line. It’s a masterpiece and hopefully...you know in Hollywood things go left and right in here, but this one will be a great endeavour for me.