In any walk of life, when you get the chance to talk to someone who is passionate about the creative process and entertaining people it is always fun to see. Out this Friday in theatres from our friends at Universal Pictures is the debut feature from a multi-talented artist, composer and all around performer who took it upon himself, with a little help from his friends to learn the art of filmmaking. Influenced heavily by Asian action cinema as well as the iconic films from the Shaw Brothers studios, I got the unique opportunity to talk with RZA best known from the Wu-Tang Clan as we talked about some of the journeys that got him here to his feature debut with “The Man with the Iron Fists”.
RZA: Hey David, what up buddy?
DV: Hey RZA, how you doing today?
RZA: Well I’m burning the candle at both ends but I am ready to go for you.
DV: I guess that’s the price you pay for doing your first feature film, eh?
RZA: That IS the price you pay (laughs)
DV: Throughout your entire career, everything that you have always done has always been very cinematic and had that kind of flare. Was directing your own feature always something that was in the cards for you and was part of the plan or did evolve natural?
RZA: I’d have to say it evolved, because it was never part of the plan. I had always had visions of films in my head and things like that but for it to actually come to fruition is something that I could have never predicted, but when I did decide to make it part of the plan I had real focus and “Man with the Iron Fists” is just the start of that.
DV: It’s well documented how much of an influence that the films from the Shaw Brothers studios have had on your career, but to a lot of fans outside of the Kill Bill Vol. 1 opening credits sequence they really just don’t know what they were all about. Could you go into detail about what those films were about and what they meant to you and how you ultimately applied them to “Man with the Iron Fists”?
RZA: Those films had a lot of action and esoteric type things going on with different kinds of weapons and ninjas and stuff like that but they also had a really big sense of brotherhood and loyalty and fighting against oppression; one man sacrificing his life for another and so on. Those were the themes that really resonated with me growing up, it was my escapism. I came from a big poor family, so I would go to the 42nd street theatre in New York and just watch the triple feature and just escape and get away from it all.
DV: Push comes to shove, what is your favorite Shaw Brothers film?
RZA: Whoa…that is one of the hardest questions that I’ve ever come across and I don’t think I could pick one favorite. However when you take a film like “36 Chambers of Shaolin”, I could watch that 100 times because to me it is just a great piece of art that is as good as a film like “Rocky”, that I could watch 100 times as well.
DV: You’ve mentioned how much of an influence Quentin Tarantino was on getting you ready for this stage and how spending time with him was like your very own film school. What kind of films did he expose you to outside of what you already knew about?
RZA: Mostly he exposed me to other genres of film. War movies, Italian mob movie, movies with Yul Brynner, George Segal, Kris Kristofferson; I mean he just has such a vast collection of movies that we would watch together or we would go to film festivals together and sit and watch 6 movies in one day, he just exposed me to a lot of things that I would have never come across otherwise. The funny thing about Quentin really is that with the story of him starting off working in a video store is that this guy is literally an encyclopedia of movies and knowledge of film is something that really interested me and I asked him if he could mentor me not only in filmmaking but navigating Hollywood and he said sure and we spent some years just like that. After awhile when I felt I was ready I asked him if he thought I was ready and he said yeah. I started off a little bigger then he suggested I should (Laughs) but I felt ready and I think I rose to the occasion.
DV: You’ve assembled a real all-star team of talent for “Man with the Iron Fists” not only in front of the camera, but behind it as well. How hard was it to assemble these talents and get guys like Corey Yuen and all these other people in front of and behind the camera working on this film?
RZA: You know it was a process, we reached out to the very best and I told them my vision for the film, ultimately I think it was my vision that inspired people to jump aboard this project since they recognized me as a true artist and it ended up being a true artist’s project. Even when Lucy Liu came on board, it was the art that attracted her in and her faith in me that I knew this particular style and would do it justice. Corey Yuen was such a valuable asset to the film and I am such a big fan of so many of his films, and for us to have him on board was really like an extra layer of security as we were making the film, as he was open to my imagination and vision. I’d lay it out and explain how we needed one scene to look one particular way, and in the very next scene it had to be completely opposite and he thought I was crazy as usually how they do it in martial arts films, the action director will use one particular style throughout the film but I wanted multiple styles of action because we had multiple styles of visuals, fighters and characters. When you look at someone like Dave Batista, a former professional wrestling champion, I don’t want him just doing standard punch, kick, block kind of stuff and I want that wrestling sensibility to come across and design a sequence that matches his style. We also had UFC Fighter Cung Le, and we wanted to make sure we captured his style as well and we did. On top of that we have some great Asian actors like Andrew Lin and Grace Huang and with them we wanted it to mirror more of a traditional Shaw Brothers style of action. So we have the wrestling, MMA and Shaw Brothers type of flow all up in there and when Lucy Liu came we made it more operatic with a Crouching Tiger type of style for her.
DV: In those early days with Quentin, when you decided that you wanted to learn and you wanted to be a filmmaker what were your early impressions when you put yourself in that world?
RZA: It really was like the first day of school; you know…and I was the new guy in school. Quentin was already up to his fourth movie with “Kill Bill Vol. 1” by then and he had already assembled a crew of people that he was comfortable with and then here comes this new guy who everybody thought was cool because they loved the Wu-Tang Clan but at the same it was different because I wasn’t there with a hip-hop mentality and I was on set with a notebook and a pen, sitting around watching what the DP was doing and paying attention to what the Steady cam operator was doing as well as watching the actors and the beautiful Uma Thurman do her thing from all these different angles with these crazy martial arts sequences and I’d see them do ten takes of something where Quentin would say; “That was good, let’s have one more” (Laughs) Watching how tedious and meticulous the process actually is, if you are an actor, director or the guy who fixed the lights. Then when we went into editing, since he asked me early on to come on board as a composer for the film, I had a chance to be there in post production from dailies to first cuts, second cuts, temporary music, color correction, etc and as I got to see the entire process evolve it was really enlightening to me. It really was the first day of school for me, which can be exciting but as well as very nerve-wracking.
DV: So you basically got to be a fly on the wall from day one?
RZA: Yeah, it was really a fortunate thing for me man and it was something I was really passionate about but let me share something with you. When I was doing music, I started off DJing and sampling and making drum beats and stuff but I wasn’t a musician who knew how to play an instrument. When I was challenged by another musician who basically told me I wasn’t a real musician, I just looked at him like “What do you mean?; I sold a million records?” but you don’t play an instrument hence you’re not a real musician and it dawned me that he was right because even though I am making money for what I am doing, I’m not respecting the craft. So I started studying music theory and stuff like that which lead to me becoming a keyboardist, a drummer, a guitarist and I can now get what I need out of it no matter what the instrument, but I was conscience to always ask other musicians what to do and how to do it and do it properly. I remember talking to Quincy Jones when we had the “Wu-Tang Forever” album out and he gave me some knowledge about music, and I got to meet one of my musical heroes Isaac Hayes and for about 3 years we got to spend a lot of time together recording together in like a gospel/Stax style and we just spend hours together jamming in the studio I had built for myself as I’d bring them up just to learn how these musicians do what they do and soak up as much of their knowledge and experiences as I could. When I thought I was getting good, then I started to compose films and it really is the same with directing films, I started out as an actor and a composer but it was always about paying attention to everything going on around me and finally deciding that I did want to direct because I love that you can play with the black and white on the page and bring the story into this big cinematic experience of light, images, colors and how all these disciplines come together with hundreds of different people working together for this vision and as the director you are the tip of the spear head you are the one that has to try and bring the body of it all together. I’m really happy to be doing it and I truly feel that “Man With the Iron Fists” delivers real well because I’ve got to admit it’s a really fun movie. When I finally watched the print with Quentin I was pretty nervous, not only because I was watching it him but I wanted to know if it worked and he was laughing and cheering in all right spots, then I was sure that I pulled it together. I used to watch all the Shaw Brothers with my little brother who is like 6 years younger than me, and I took him to the movies all the time and he really was my biggest test because I knew that if he liked it then I really did it, and he did so I knew I was in good shape because he had a very similar reaction when we brought him to the first “Kill Bill” screening a few years ago after we finished screening “The Man With the Iron Fists”.
DV: So as far as career accomplishments go, is this the top of the mountain for you right now?
RZA: To date, this is easily my best creative expression to date as far as entertaining people goes and I feel like I am on the same wave length when we made the “36 Chambers” album as I’ve got some more films in me. I’m looking at some scripts from some great writers in Hollywood and working on one of my own that I think is pretty interesting as well, but I’ll finish promoting this film and see how the world accepts it and if they recognize what I’m doing and feel the energy of my talent then we’ll put out another one.
DV: Good luck with everything, and I’ll let you go.
RZA: Bong Bong, David thank you man.
“The Man with the Iron Fists” opens in theatres across the country this Friday; check with your local listings for show times.
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