RZA is excited for The Man with the Iron Fists. Whether it’s of high-quality or not, the Wu-Tang Clan leader got to make a martial arts movie ‐ and, to sweeten the deal, as his first film to boot. That’s something to get giddy over, the chance of introducing an audience to a whole new world. Based on his name drop of Star Wars, that’s what RZA set out to do.
Some may be surprised RZA is taking a crack behind the camera, but speaking with the writer/director while on his Man with the Iron Fists tour, we learned it’s been a dream ever since he was a kid. Now that the dream has come true, The Man with the Iron Fists already seems to have built up his directorial stock, considering all the projects he’s been signing on to make. Hopefully we’ll see more movies from him where he’ll, once again, tell his crew, “I want him looking like fucking Rod Stewart.”
Here’s what RZA had to say about the sober mind directing requires, controlling a team of 400 people, and the importance of preparation:
For this project, you wanted to have an effect on film that 36 Chambers had on hip hop. How did you go about achieving that?
To me, when 36 Chambers came to hip hop, it brought in new sounds and a new imagination with, you know, the names of all the guys. It still had an urban roughness, though. All these songs, like “Bring Da Ruckus,” meant something to all of us, but were also good enough to mean something to other people, and that’s what I want the film to do. First of all, before 36 Chambers, you weren’t hearing nine MCs go crazy like that. With the sonics I was using, the sounds were obscure. A song like “Bring Da Fuckus” is a bunch of fucking different noises put together to make a song.
With this film, it was all the inspiration of a lot of different martial arts movies and my own. Like, in ninth grade, when I would walk to school, I would imagine movies. I probably imagined 100 movies, but at least four of those imaginations made it into the movie. The Man with the Iron Fists is an accumulation of time. When 36 Chambers hit, it was, like, a new thing. For Wu-Tang, it was something we were accumulating, building up, and then finally giving it to the world. This is also an accumulation of energy, time, power, imagination, and fun for a movie with a great cast of people.
Yeah, I read it’s been a project you were seriously developing for around 7 years or so.
Yeah, it was basically a seven-year process, from conception to delivery.
How does that process compare to working on an album? Is it more intense?
It’s very different. I’ve done so many albums that making music is easy. This was super challenging, though. The intensity of mind power that this took…well, it took a sober mind. With music, I could go smoke a blunt, come up with some crazy shit, and we’d all love it. With this, I had to have a focused, sober mind. Like, I had 17 departments, with over 400 people working for me. I had to guide, control, and make sure they’re all making this vision. In the movie, when you see Lucy Liu’s hairstyle, it’s a traditional Asian hairstyle. But Grace Huang doesn’t have that hairstyle, and nor does Jamie Chung. I had an English lady come be the head of the hair department, but we had about 60 people in the hair department, because even the Lion Clan or the Wolves had costume hair designers.
For the women, since it was based in a certain period, they wanted all the women to have a traditional thing. They would send in 20 girls with this fucking thing. I was, like, “Hold on. Nah, I told you all in the beginning I wanted only 30% traditional, alright? I want the rest to be obscure.” When you go to Star Wars, you see humans, but you see other muthafuckas! You just accept that they exist. You accept Greedo is a fucking Sea Horse looking muthafucka. I wanted the same thing for the film.
For some of the guys, you’ll notice I took it right from the fucking ’80s. I was, like, “I want him looking like fucking Rod Stewart.” When the audience sees it, they’ll see Mohawks. With those type of things, you gotta control all this energy. Of course, these people are going to give you feedback, since they’re professionals and good at what they do. If it doesn’t serve the final, proper vision, then it’s a useless idea. It’s different in music. In music, you can freestyle it. Music should also be focused, though. For example, take a band like Wu-Tang. Nine members in a band? That’s a big band, even if it was a playing band. One of the biggest bands is an orchestra. An 80-piece orchestra is a big thing, but they read the music in front of them, so it’s just a big thing for the conductor to control. Try that for 400. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That must be helpful when it comes to distinct hair, which could make you know who’s who in the action. When it comes to the action, it looks like you took a more fluent than rapid approach.
Definitely. The camerawork had to be fluent and moments of choreographing. It can’t be chop, chop, chop, chop, which is what they do in a lot of American films. On some scenes, I wanted that. In a lot of scenes, I didn’t. You know, like, “I want to see her jump all the way down, connect, flip down, and fight.” For the old martial arts movies, I counted how it worked. Before 90s, some martial arts sequences would go up to 20 moves before a cut. In the ’80s, they would go about eight moves, but maybe 10 if they were really good. In the 90s, it became: one, two, three, four, and then cut. In America, sometimes it’s 2 moves or 1 move, and then you cut. We’d do a scene where we’d go all the way up to eight or nine moves, if you got the mind power to count that. I’m conscious of that, so I made sure that we had.
And you have to be more creative with those long takes as well.
Yeah, you do have to be more creative with the long takes. Your actors and everybody has to be committed, and we had a great cast who was committed. I mean, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Rick Yune, Jamie Chung, Grace Huang, and Pam Grier flew to China. All the classic Kung-Fu actors were committed, too, man. I think I had a cast about of about 60 characters in this film. [Laughs]
I was told this was a very ambitious film, and it was, but we pulled it off. When you see this film, you’re going to enjoy. I’m not just saying this because I made it, but because I watch it every week. Even after working on this for all those days and years and seeing it in editing, I still watch it and enjoy it. Now, I was having dinner with some great directors, and one of them said they hadn’t seen one of their movies in 10 years. I got actors who don’t even watch the movies they’re in, and I understand that feeling. I did that for a couple of movies, where I thought it was out of my mind and out of my life. This particular film still stimulates me after… I have no idea how many times I’ve seen it. It’s just got something in it, man. I’m really proud of what we got. I’m sure whoever pays ten dollars will get their money’s worth, and they’ll get that in the first 20 minutes. [Laughs]
[Laughs] As both a first-time feature writer and director, what was the biggest lesson you took away?
As a director, you gotta prepare. I really took a lot of time to prepare myself. I mean, you get antsy and ambitious. When we first got to China, I thought we could start filming in six weeks… nah, nah, nah. It took us 14 weeks to start filming, because everything has to be meticulous. You can’t change it on the day. It costs you $200,000 a day, so you can’t change something.
As a writer, you have to have fluency and be able to understand you have to change any of your lines depending on how your actor can deliver it. I’ve been an actor on movies where they make me say exactly what was written, even if it didn’t fall off my tongue right. When I watch those back, they’re not as good as they could have been. For the movies they let me have leeway and let me be me…
Guys like Judd Apatow.
Exactly. When they let me do that, it comes out much better, cooler, and funnier. A writer has to understand that you’re not writing The Bible. You’re writing a screenplay. A play is something. If you remove the cameras, it has to be what happens, you know what I mean? I think writers should always keep that in mind.
The Man with the Iron Fists opens in theaters on November 2nd.