RZA makes his feature-film debut as a director, co-writer and leading man in “The Man with the Iron Fists,” which opens in theaters on November 2nd. The action-packed adventure is inspired by kung fu classics and blends astonishing martial arts sequences from some of the masters of this world. With the signature vision he brings as the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan and as one of hip-hop’s most dominant figures of the past two decades, RZA embarks upon his most ambitious, stylized and thrilling project to date. Featuring an exciting international cast led by Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, the film tells the epic story of warriors, assassins and a lone outsider hero who all descend on one fabled village in China for a winner-take-all battle for a fortune in gold.
At the film’s press day, RZA, joined by Eli Roth who co-wrote and produced the ambitious project under the aegis of Quentin Tarantino, talked about making his feature film debut, assembling the strong ensemble cast, choreographing the martial arts action sequences with Corey Yuen, and laying the foundation of a story that opens up the possibility for a sequel. RZA and Roth also discussed the martial arts films that inspired them and what they consider the five ‘must haves’ for a successful kung fu action movie.
Question: A few years ago you were hoping to get Yuen Wu-ping to do the choreography for this. Did you ever ask him, and how did you end up with Corey Yuen, who’s also great?
RZA: I actually did ask Wu-ping to help out. He had a tight schedule, and even Corey had a tight schedule, but Corey was able to adjust his schedule to come on board, but Wu-ping was my first choice. But I’m glad Corey came through. He really represented for us and he worked hard for us, so I’m proud that he did it.
Eli Roth: Wu-ping’s daughter worked on the movie though, on the production. So we did have a little bit of family, just not doing the choreography. Yeah, Corey Yuen was really amazing. He went above and beyond and he felt inspired. He wanted to top himself with every fight. The movie wouldn’t be what it is without him.
Q: I’m tempted to ask you a question about how to go to the bathroom with iron fists?
RZA: How does the Blacksmith go to the bathroom with the iron fists? [Holds his arms out to the side] Working on my comedy, y’all, so it’s okay to laugh at anything I do.
Q: This feels like the culmination of Wu-Tang and to finally have it done. Is this the end or the beginning of something amazing?
RZA: If things go properly, it’ll be the beginning. It’s a big relief to have it out. It’s like giving birth to a child, say. I’d hate to compare art to life like that but I think a movie is an entity of its own, and when it’s done, you want everybody to like it like you want everybody to like your children. I’m still nervous because I gotta wait for the public to see it and absorb it and commercially have success if life goes proper, but personally I’m fulfilled. It’s not every day that you get to have a thought in your mind come to fruition. And it’s not every day you get a lot of good people supporting an idea that’s totally artistic. Most movies may have some kind of base in reality, but this is not an American genre, so to be able to bring this to the American screen for me is a great thing.
Roth: We also talked about continuing the story. While we were shooting it, we wanted to write the roots, we really wanted to write the foundation for something that could continue if we decided it to. I mean, obviously our focus wasn’t second or third one, but then we thought oh, you can meet the person with the iron feet. We were talking about that kind of stuff. It was such a great, fun, creative collaboration. Obviously, it depends how the public likes it, but it’s something that we’d love to continue. We spent a year working on the script and the mythology of it knowing every weapon, every character, every clan, the whole world, what’s outside Jungle Village, what else is in this world, so that if people really respond to it, we can continue it.
RZA: Yeah, y’all respond to this, get ready for the RZA, Eli, Lucas mission. We’ll be able to put a lot of these out.
Q: How hard was it to convince Russell Crowe to play an alcoholic madman who has his way with women in a brothel? And how was it directing actors and dealing with actor egos as opposed to rapper egos?
RZA: Well, I do think being a part of Wu Tang Clan, the abbot of Wu Tang Clan, and having such strong personalities in my life, unknowingly prepared me for the job of directing. When things got out of hand or felt like it was going to be crazy, I don’t think I ever lost my cool. Maybe one time we had a little ping pong match, but I think I kept focus. As far as Russell Crowe joining us for the cast, I talked to him about it for a long time and I wasn’t really sure if he was going to do it, but he says that he trusted me as an artist. I think that’s the most driving force that convinced him to come on board, is that he’s seen the young man that has a lot of artistic vision and he appreciates it, and he would like the world to appreciate it as well. So he comes with a validation of what I can do. I’m grateful that he came on board and we found some energy for him to relate to, ODB energy, Russell Crowe, Russell Jones.
Roth: CroweDB as we called him. And when we were writing the script, we talked about Russell as Jack Knife and we thought, “We really gotta give him a reason to go to China. We can’t just go okay, you’re friends with him. He said he’d do it. We want to give him something great.” I remember when I first got to China, because you were busy directing, shooting, I sat with Russell for 24 hours in a hotel room. We talked about the character which was all stuff that RZA and I had talked about. I realized how willing Russell Crowe was to go crazy, and we’re like all right, let’s do Marlon Brando in “The Missouri Breaks,” Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast.” He’s like if you got me out here, let’s do something that’s so completely f***ing nuts that no one else could’ve done it, and it’s something completely out of character for him after what you’re used to seeing. I remember the first day of shooting, it was weird when you’re throwing a table at him, he’s got a knife that shoots an imaginary blade and splits it. He’s like, “This is not normally what I do. I do “A Beautiful Mind.” And he’d watch the playback, he’s going, “Okay, do that again. Throw the table again.” And he just went for it. He wanted to do something. It was great that RZA created an environment where Russell wasn’t carrying the whole movie, he was part of an ensemble, but the way we thought of it was like a super group. You’ve got Cung Le who’s a fighting star, Dave Bautista in wrestling, Eli from horror, RZA from music and Quentin. Everyone is bringing something special, so I think that Russell just felt like he was with a really good group of creative people. It was RZA who created that environment, but I think he gave one of the most fun, wild, alive performances he’s done since “Romper Stomper.”
RZA: In fact, “Romper Stomper” was a film he told me to watch. I hadn’t seen it at the time, so I watched “Romper Stomper,” and then I wound up putting some more extra sh*t in there. He said, “No, no, no, I don’t want to be the romper stomper mother****er,” but he wanted me to know just how wild he would go with it. I recall one scene that we kind of made up on the fly. He was like, “Yo,” he’d seen our set and everything and we wanted to get into the scene. So there was a tub in the middle of the room and I’m like, “Yeah, I got it, okay. Check it out. You’re gonna do this.” So he comes into the set that day, like, “All right, big brother, look. We’re going to start with this girl. She’s moaning, she’s screaming her ass off, all right? And then the camera’s going to pan by her, her leg is going to be up and you’re going to come out of the water with these booty beads in your mouth. Trust me, it’s going to be a crazy cut.” He’s like, “Okay, papi.”
Roth: And then, he got really into it and he would call me in the morning. He’s like, “I got an idea from the scene.” And every morning so far I’m like, “Oh, what’s he going to do?” He’s like, “All right, I think I should say to Lucy, ‘Let me put the baby’s arm inside you.’” And I said, “Russell, that line is going to win us the screenplay Oscar, so yes, you can certainly do that.” And I remember he did it, we’re sitting there, I remember just looking at you, like we’re on the earphones going, “I can’t believe we have Russell Crowe telling Lucy Liu, ‘Let me put the baby’s arm inside you.’” That will be on my tombstone. If there’s anything I’m remembered for in my life, it will be that one grand achievement, but we were laughing on set, man. It was just a great time.
Q: What are five ‘must haves’ for a successful kung fu action movie?
Roth: Kung fu would be number one.
RZA: I think you’ve got to have a story that if the kung fu wasn’t in the movie, you’d still enjoy the story.
Roth: Also diversity of fights. One thing we talked about was fight fatigue, how we didn’t want people at the end of the movie to be like, “Ugh, we have to sit through another fight.” So we really tried to change the style of every fight and introduce a new weapon, a new villain. Like oh, now here’s the one with the blades. Okay, that’s the brass body fight. So that by the time you get to the end, you want to see the Blacksmith and Brass Body go at it as opposed to just sitting there thinking, “Okay, wrap this up.”
RZA: Number four, I think you gotta have some humor. People gotta have a moment to laugh and feel that it’s not taken 100% serious. So that’s important.
Roth: And I think it’s great when you see people that have a new weapon you’ve never seen before. Creativity in weapons. That was one thing that RZA really, really had figured out. He’s like, “Okay, the Blacksmith, he puts his chi in the weapons. The Lions, they got a claw. What do the Hyenas fight with? What do the Lions fight with? What do The X-Blade fight with? What does Brass Body fight with?” That’s one of the things we loved in “Star Wars,” you look at the creature cantina, as a kid you were like, “That’s Hammerhead, that’s Greedo, that’s R5D4, that’s R2D2.” You knew every droid, you knew every creature, you knew every weapon. Okay, he has the red light saber, they have this. That’s fun. The fun is coming up with that stuff and really creating mythology and sticking to it. I would say the last thing is have a strong, well thought out mythology.
Q: Which martial arts films inspired your vision? What was the most difficult aspect of writing and directing this?
RZA: There are so many martial arts films I’ve seen over the years that I could lay down as the foundation as inspiration. If I think of movies like “Five Deadly Venoms” or there’s a film called “36th Chamber [of Shaolin]” which Gordon Liu is the star of, and so many others. It’s a long list, but the main thing though was to make sure that knowing that martial art films have their pros and cons, I try to stick with the pros. I try to make sure that this is being made from an American sensibility. Most of these films are made from an Asian sensibility and sometimes it’s subtitled. I was trying to think about can I be able to do what Quentin did in “Kill Bill,” was he was able to give us a modern day martial arts film that’s a movie. I was striving to do the same thing, have a lot of action, have a lot of characters, but at the same time, have some kind of glue that you could just relax yourself and enjoy a film. So I felt like I achieved it. My first cut was four hours.
Roth: But that’s natural because he shot a million feet of film. The first cut being four hours is reflective of he’s over there in China, he’s got crews, guys like oh, you need to have him fight him. So we just kept adding stuff and adding stuff and adding stuff, and then when you cut it all together, it’s four hours. That’s just everything we shot.
RZA: That’s one of the good things with having Eli ride this journey with me is that like he just said that’s natural. I didn’t know that was natural. To have Quentin and Eli on my side throughout this, they let me do my own thing. This is my film, but having them prepare you and letting me know that look, there’s going to be a landmine 10 feet ahead. You can go through it or you could jump over it or you could go around it. Eli was that person because he knew, he’d been there before. Sometimes I looked at him and I went through the land mine, like “Yo, I’m going this way.” And sometimes it was like, “You know what, bro? I think I’m going to go around that one.” That was important. That was important for me.
Roth: And in terms of movie influences, obviously we watched “House of Traps.” There were so many movies. We went deep. But we also talked about “Star Wars” and again the “Star Wars” mythology being completely thought out. But I remember talking about musicals and relating it to music. I remember writing dialogue, we talked about – –
RZA: What’s the musical with all the strippers with Natalie Wood? “Gypsy.” In “Gypsy,” each stripper had a theme. One stripper had light bulbs. So we thought of our hookers, we should at least have girls with themes. They just can’t be a hooker. So we got the Lady Sunshine room that her room looks like Jimi Hendrix could’ve been in there painting or something. We got the lady with the aqua room, instead of a waterbed we put a river outside the bed and pecans floating on the bed. So we were very creative, and being cinephiles, we were able to be inspired not only by martial art films or sci-fi films or horror films, but just good old American movies.
Roth: And also in musicals, I know that in musical theater, if you have a song, it has to advance the plot. If you have a song in a musical and it does not advance the plot, it gets dropped, and that’s how we looked at our fights. These aren’t musical numbers, but we’ve got to learn something at the end of this fight, and this fight has to have a purpose. We can’t just have gratuitous martial arts going on or the movie’s going to get boring. So we were very conscious of making sure that – – look, the funny thing is we’re all victims of our own reputation. When you see philosophy in the movie, you’re going to go, “Oh, that was RZA.” When you see a great line of dialogue, you’re like, “Oh, that was Quentin.” When someone’s arms get chopped off, you’re like, “That was Eli,” but the truth is it was a blend of really both of our sensibilities and everyone contributed to everything and that’s why it was so much fun. It was expressing that other side of ourselves.
Q: How did you decide on the elements like time period, costume, and magic?
RZA: I’d say martial arts films is definitely the foundation and backdrop, but comic books, horror movies, sci-fi, all these things play a part in entertaining us. So even finding those glasses, we did check historically about the things we did. If you notice in this film, a lot of things that they’re doing happens 20-30 years later. For instance, to make the iron fists, he uses a Bessemer. Now, I discovered a Bessemer when I was in Pittsburgh working on “The Next Three Days” with Russell. When I’m walking through the city, I’m studying the city, and I came across the Bessemer that U.S. Steel used to make temperatures rise to a higher level to make the strongest metal in the world. Now, that doesn’t happen until 30 or 40 years later. So my idea is this character, if you noticed, the character when the guys came in for the horseshoe, he stuck two books in his bag. The first book was the book of Newton, laws of mathematics and physics. So he’s a scientist. And then he stuck the Bible in, so he’s a religious man. So when you take those two things, science and religion together, you should be able to be advanced. That’s the idea. Here in this little laboratory underneath the main blacksmith house, he has his big Bessemer that he’s mixing mercury, magnets which are hard to merge together, steel and for the movie magic, he put the blood in it because chi travels through our blood. We use the real chi acupuncture dummy to make the statue. And you look at Brass Body, we kept trying to figure out how the special effects team was going to make him look. They came with the Silver Surfer look, all these different [ideas]. No, we want the acupuncture body doll to be his body so that people realize what he’s doing also is channeling his chi to become Brass Body. Therefore, to defeat him is the weak spot, because really the girl got him. The Blacksmith would’ve never been able to beat Brass Body if Lady Silk didn’t help him. That was another thing of romantic I wanted to add to it. He’s like, “I’m gonna drill you like I drilled your little whore.” Oh no, you didn’t. So we thought of all these things from one way or another to merge this world together so that the audience could feel like they are definitely watching a kung fu movie, but they still gotta think they’re, like George Lucas, taking you to a land far, far away.
Roth: And that’s one thing that’s so great about RZA is he’s so f***ing smart as you can see, but his research, his passion for history and historical research all came out in the storytelling. He wanted a movie that you could watch 100 times the way he watches a kung fu movie or I’ll watch a horror movie 100 times. Even when Russell Crowe’s character sees the basil in [Yang Si Grains], he’s like, “Well, basil came from Marco Polo.” His understanding of the history of the grains of China and where they went through, everything was written into every character, including the opium wars and Russell Crowe’s character being left over as a relic from the opium wars in China just after that period in history. We planted the seeds for things that were going to be invented, the idea being that the Blacksmith created all this stuff. So, even the sunglasses we historically researched. But yeah, we wanted that bit of movie magic too where you just see the guy’s skin turn brass.
RZA: And for farther, the hairstyles, that was ‘80s. Duran Duran, Tina Turner.
Q: What do you see in RZA that you feel makes this the first chapter of a very long book?
Roth: Well, it’s what I saw in RZA when we took this plane flight from Iceland in 2005, which is crazy to think about that. It was January of 2005, right before “Hostel” came out. I think it was 2006, January 2006 right before, all those years ago, which is someone who they’ve got the vision and the creativity and the passion, and the ideas, the fresh ideas. I didn’t need to watch anything else he shot to know he could direct the movie. I didn’t need it. I just knew it. In the same way that when people said to me, “How do we know you can direct a movie because you haven’t directed a movie?” I just knew I could do it. You have to have that vision and that belief. But what I love about RZA is that he was so humble and was so willing to learn and really, really took the time to learn. In the year of writing the script, I basically hit him up with the questions that every costume designer was going to ask, the production designer was going to ask, the stunt coordinator, the fight coordinator. It was almost like a year-long pre-production meeting. So when he sat down with the production guys, they’re like, “Okay, what goes on in this room?” He’s like, “It’s this, this, this. These rooms are this color. The weapon looks like this.” It all moved so fast because he had taken the time to really, really think everything through. So I just know that he has the passion, he has the commitment. He has vision and it’s different. And he has balls and he’s willing to put it out there, so it was just a great, great experience all around, start to finish. It was a very, very, very hard shoot, especially for your first movie, let alone an experienced movie.
RZA: And I think, I feel when I say I can do this and carry this opportunity to make movies, it’s because I took the time to study it. A boxer can’t just jump in the ring. You’ve got to practice and practice and practice — like it says about Carnegie Hall. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. I practiced. I watched so many films. I went and got the Canon 5Ds and 7Ds and I knew all the lenses. I started studying ISOs just so I could talk to my DP about how much light I wanted. Saturations. As you’ll notice if you watch the making of this film, you’ll see after 12 hours of work, I still went and trained with a kung fu instructor. I still got up the next day and practiced with my camera in the morning, walking around, taking shots. I had the 5D. One time the shot couldn’t really be understood, I had to pull out the 5D and like, “Hold on.” And do it with that first and say, “No, this is what I’m looking for.” Then show my DP. Through great input you get great output, and I know that Eli is the witness of me being very determined and very focused and delivering this project first, but also letting this be the foundation of me bringing more movies to the silver screen.
Roth: No, he was amazing. His ability, his focus. That’s the hard part. That’s easy saying, “I want a shot of that.” It’s dealing with 700 crew members in three different languages and dealing with them well and keeping your cool. I told him, because I knew this from shooting in Prague, sh*t just gets built wrong because of mistranslation. And I was like, “You have to look at every set. Every time you get a break, you tell someone you want a visual effect to look like this, you gotta check it and you gotta check it and you gotta check it and you gotta check it. You have to be meticulous about every detail, all the time. Everyone’s costume, it never ends and it’s going to be right through editing and right through the press.” And he’s had that, like in the martial arts movies, those students that learn to have total focus and commitment and a sense of humor.