You know RZA as one of the founding members of revolutionary rap group the Wu-Tang Clan, or perhaps via his solo work as alter ego Bobby Digital, but the producer behind most of the Wu’s tracks has taken his career to the next level: film director. Any fan of Wu-Tang knows RZA’s love of cinema – specifically the kung fu genre – is essential to his artistry, and his first full-length feature, The Man with the Iron Fists, pairs his directorial vision with two Hollywood heavyweights. Namely, Eli Roth, who cowrote the film with RZA, and Quentin Tarantino, who is presenting it.
The homage to martial arts classics – set within a warring 19th century Chinese village – also pits RZA in front of the camera as tortured-yet-talented weapon maker Blacksmith. Russell Crowe costars as Jack Knife, a delightfully unhinged soldier with a penchant for destructive behavior and blade play, Lucy Liu is Madam Blossom, the cool, calculating owner of a local brothel, and Byron Mann plays Silver Lion, the epically coiffed traitorous leader of one of the village's many warrior clans. RZA’s formidable ensemble also includes turns by Pam Grier, Jamie Chung, Dave Bautista and Rick Yune.
Movies.com sat down with RZA while he was in New York City promoting the film, and he discussed the possibility of future Wu-Tang gatherings, an aborted tie-in linking Iron Fists with Tarantino’s Django Unchained, director’s cut content, hitting the right tone with his movie’s violence and his possible involvement in the upcoming film about his late cousin and fellow Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Movies.com: "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" has its 20th anniversary next year. Is Wu-Tang planning to do something to commemorate it?
RZA: Yeah, yeah we are aiming at it. It's up to the rest of the brothers to just come onboard with me.
Movies.com: There's a four-hour cut of The Man with the Iron Fists and you had to edit it down to 96 minutes. That must've been madness for you. Can we expect to see a director's cut at some point?
RZA: There's a director's cut that they just finished for the DVD. And we added about 16, 17 minutes back. So we got some more Pam Grier in there. And some more Russell, actually.
Movies.com: Russell is so unhinged and funny in this – he really goes for it. There are some pretty in-your-face scenes involving sex toys and sexual acts. Did you have to coax him to do any of that, or was he game for everything?
RZA: He was rollin' with me! [Laughs] Like when he came out of the tub? So he comes to set, and I'm like, "Okay, buddy – check it out – now this scene right here, it starts off with a girl in the water." The long version is in the director's cut. So I'm like, "The camera goes, and she's, 'Ahh, ahh, ahh,' and she has an orgasm, 'ahhhhhh,' then it comes up, and you come out of the water!" He was like, [pause] "Okay, Bobby!"
Movies.com: You guys must have a great personal relationship, to have that kind of trust.
RZA: It worked! We do, and I appreciate it. And, you know, a character is a character. I mean, my character is all f--kin' morbid. For a minute you're like, "What the f--k is wrong with this guy?"
Movies.com: You're creeping around in hooded capes and stuff, it's true. But you have a pretty cool arc.
RZA: Yeah! But as an actor you're supposed to go ahead in. Don't worry about it, just be part of that world. If I would've been a bum eating roaches, that's what I would've done. And that's what he does.
Movies.com: What's the difference between cutting a film and cutting a track?
RZA: Similar – they're similar things. That's one similar part about music-making and filmmaking: the editing process. When you make an album, you have to put the songs in order – especially when I was making my albums. I would have my skits and my storyline lined up and then I gotta make sure that the song chronologically sounds right. The music and the vibe and the flow of it always has to be right, as if it's a movie. That's how I pictured it; that's how we do it. So when it came to editing a film, I had that in mind – I just wasn't willing, at first. Because it's my first film and I'm just in love with everything that I did. I don't give a f--k if it's got a big-ass wart on its forehead! [Laughs] You know, and somebody's like, "Hey – we can remove the wart!" And I'm like, "Hey – it's a beautiful wart!" And then they go, "No, remove the wart, Bobby!" "Aight, f--k it, take the wart off!"
Movies.com: Kung fu has obviously always been so integral to the Wu and your personal film education. Did you revisit any specific classics or favorites to nail a certain tone for your own movie?
RZA: Oh, I mean – they are stored in my head like an encyclopedia! I know these movies by heart, some of these films. Name any one!
Movies.com: Well you obviously know all of Bruce Lee's movies – he's among your seven "Pillars of Wisdom" in "The Tao of Wu," after all!
RZA: That's right. I know all of his movies. I mean, me and my wife just watched Bruce Lee again just before the tour started. I watch colorful movies. I'm not shy to say it, it's what I watch. And my little brother does the same sh-t, so if I go out to the guest house – say my wife wants to watch Law & Order -- I just go to the guest house where all the guys hang. And I go up there, and my two brothers are up there, and guess what they're watching? Kung fu movies! [Laughs]
Movies.com: Your friend and mentor Quentin Tarantino owns the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, as you know, and the theater specializes in double feature showings of movies. So if The Man with the Iron Fists were to screen at the New Beverly, what would you want it billed with?
RZA: Five Deadly Venoms.
Movies.com: You didn't even hesitate on that one!
RZA: No, no – that'd be a great one. It's a great double bill.
Movies.com: What about the inspiration behind the Silver Lion's hair in Iron Fists? Because that bouffant has some serious Rufio from Hook going on.
RZA: No, I was going Rod Stewart/Tina Turner! For real! I mean, all the Lions have the lion thing. You gotta see the long version. In the long version, you see that his hair is contained until the Gold Lion is killed. In the new version, first he does the speech… and his hair's not so bad. Then the next time you see him he's in the mirror, and his sh-t is starting to just f--kin' unhinge. And then by the time you see him come for the gold, him and the big guy… it's like – these guys are divas!
Movies.com: Your character, the Blacksmith, has a backstory as a slave named Thaddeus Henry Smith – is there a Django Unchained tie-in with him by any chance?
RZA: Well, I couldn't do it – we tried to do it. There was a tie! And because of the schedule for Iron Fists, I had to let another character do it. I didn't make it into the film. The idea was that Thaddeus would be on the auction block. You've seen the trailer, when the camera passes by all the guys? So Thaddeus is supposed to be on that line.
Movies.com: So is the Django tie-in why you wrote the Blacksmith's backstory into Iron Fists?
RZA: No. When Quentin started writing Django he was up to only page 20, and me and Eli were finished. And we brought in New Year's together, and we were telling each other stories and kicking it, you know – just guys being guys. "And my scene – I got a scene like this and a scene like that." So then when Quentin finished Django, he read the whole thing to me – it was 90-some pages at the time. I spent a few days with him. And this is right before I went to China. And then when I came back I was like, "Yo Quentin - we should have Thaddeus -- one of the slaves is Thaddeus!" So this way, we'd tie both movies together. And I told him that'd be the ultimate tie-in. That'd really rock the fans. And he's like, "Yeah – you're right!" But my schedule f--ked it up.
Movies.com: At least you tried! But as far as your character in this movie, you get in on some of the action at certain points. Are you a student of martial arts, or did you have to hard-core train for it?
RZA: I had a coach that trained me and got me in shape for the film. So, that was a blessing. I spent about two months with him. Just doing the prepping. The only guy in China was me and a few of my crew – no cast. And so every night at seven o'clock – we'd finish work at five or six, then we'd do a wrap-up with the department heads, and then seven was me to the martial arts trainer. And then bed. If I could go to sleep!
Movies.com: What about the violence in this movie – it's very much in the vein of classic, hyper-bloody kung fu, but it's kicked up a little. How did you hit those marks?
RZA: Only for a small, brief moment did I ever think of PG-13. And that was because I thought of more screens and stuff like that, because rated-R movies sometimes don't get the big distribution. But it's me, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino presents – this is rated R! So it was like, yo – we're going for it.
Movies.com: It skirts the right line. Quentin's violence can really make some cringe.
RZA: We were careful not to go all the way on him, because I'm not taking his world – I'm a student of it. But I gotta make it my own. And so I had to do that. And Eli, also – Hostel is not easy to watch. But there's one scene that I said I'm gonna give to the Hostel fans. And that was my idea, not Eli's. I wanted to let him know, listen, I watched Hostel. And I didn't blink one time. But my brother couldn't take it! But I know the sensation of it for those who like it. And I was like, "Your name is on this thing – I'm gonna go along with it. I'm going to give them something." That's the one thing I know – because even Gerard Butler said it made him flinch.
Movies.com: That scene is a spoiler, so we'll just have to let everyone see for themselves. But they'll know when they're watching it. So one last thing – what's the latest with the ODB movie, Dirty White Boy, set to star Michael K. Williams? Word is that all the Wu-Tang members are written in to play themselves. Have you been approached?
RZA: I read the script. It's very good. It's an awesome movie. But I'm thinking of coming onboard as the guy who controls the music for that. I'm thinking I'll make sure that the music is proper. And I read the screenplay; it has some members written in. So we'll see who'll agree to do it. But I wanna protect the music for that one.
The Man with the Iron Fists hits theaters November 2.