RZA, the leader and founder of the Grammy Award-winning rap group Wu-Tang Clan and one of the most influential producers in hip hop, proclaims himself a “kung fu geek.” Since childhood, he’s been obsessed with martial arts movies. Fast forward 30 years and RZA’s obsession has become a reality by directing and starring in his own martial arts film, The Man with the Iron Fists, for which he also co-wrote the screenplay (with Eli Roth). Tribute spoke with RZA about his directorial debut, where his love for martial arts came from, having Quentin Tarantino as his mentor and why everyone should always reach for their dreams.
Not only do you have a thriving music career, you are an accomplished author, businessman, actor and producer but now you have taken on directing. How do you manage to keep things straight?
I have good people helping me. I’ve been lucky and I work hard, but bottom line I appreciate everything and I just live it out.
How did you get interested in martial arts movies?
When I was a young kid growing up in Brooklyn I went to every Bruce Lee and Jim “the Dragon” Kelly movie I could get into. I just got sucked right into them, it was like getting your first kiss. As I saw more of them I became more fascinated with the different mythology that they had or the Shaolin aspect of them. For me though, it was just escapism. I would cut school to see these movies and they helped me cope growing up in ghetto poverty with a very large family.
What was it about the films that appealed to you so much as a kid?
I think it was the brotherhood of the guys in the movies and how they stuck together. These guys would meet one day and then the next give their lives for each other, and they’d really kick ass. There was one movie I saw called The 36 Chambers of Shaolin that literally changed my life. It inspired me to read books about Buddha and read the bible and then it just became a drive for me. I thought that one day I wanted to make a movie that might inspire young kids today, just like they inspired and helped me.
This genre has influenced everything you have done from your music to your books and now to your very own film. To be able to live out a dream like this for you must be a highlight of your career.
I will admit that it is fantastic, but I won’t deny that I also sacrificed a lot as well. You’ve got to think about me coming up as a hip hop artist, being a platinum producer selling millions of records and then just stop it. I wasn’t fired, or kicked out because records weren’t selling, I just stopped so that I could pursue my passion and what my heart was telling me to do.
That still had to be a very hard decision for you.
The most difficult part of it was the people around me, you know my family, my business partners and lawyers who were making a lot of money off me thought I was going crazy. It’s hard in life to do something like that because I totally understand if you are working 9 to 5 and making $150,000 a year but you want to do something that expresses yourself fully but you might not want to take that chance and risk the $150. What I learned that is when you do take risks you might be taking a huge loss but you are also happier and more satisfied with yourself because you took the chance.
You have a pretty amazing life so far, one day they are going to be making a movie about you. Who would you want to see playing you in the film about your life?
(laughs) All I know is I would just like to be around to see that, I hope they don’t wait until I’m gone to make it!!
How did you get the idea for The Man with the Iron Fists?
It was really a lot of ideas I have had over the years condensed into one. To be honest, it probably first came to me when I was a young kid going to school in Staten Island. I never had enough money to take the bus so I walked a lot and during those long walks I guess I let my imagination run wild. When I started making videos for my music I had people come up to me and say they’d love to see a whole movie of some of the &^$% that I did. Then I met Quentin Tarantino who let me score his movie Kill Bill and the one thing he said to me right away was man, you got to write. So I took his advice and wrote down the idea I had for the movie as a story and it was good but it had to be turned into a great screenplay. So I connected with Eli Roth who loved the story as well and said he’d like to collaborate with me on turning it into a screenplay.
What was it like working with Eli?
Eli and I used to watch movies together at a small art house, but it wasn’t until I took a trip to Iceland years later with Eli and Quentin that we really hooked up. On the way back to Los Angeles we got snowed in at the Boston airport and we were stuck. So Eli said that his parents live 10 minutes from there and that they’d be happy to put us up until the storm passed. So I went with him and they made us dinner and we all talked for hours. Turns out that I grew up in the same area in Brooklyn that his dad did a generation before me. His mother actually taught at the school that was across the street from my house and it was crazy but it connected us immediately and we’ve been friends ever since.
The movie is “presented” by Quentin Tarantino—a man who has been a mentor to you for many years.
As a music producer I have had a lot of opportunity to work with many people, including Quentin on Kill Bill. Quentin was always a guy that I would go to for advice, especially when it came to filmmaking. He was always there for me. He’s like an older brother who saw my potential. I have to say that Jim Jarmusch, another director I had worked with on Ghost Dog (I wrote the score) was another big influence on my life and my directing style. I’ve been lucky to meet many people who were happy to teach me what I had to learn.
What ended up surprising and challenging you during the directing process?
Fortunately for me I had a lot of preparation because of the great teachers that I had but what really surprised me though at the end of the day was the fact that this is a lonely job. You might have a lot of people around you but trust me, it’s a lonely job.
The cast in this movie is quite outstanding.
Everyone involved in this cast is an artist. That’s why Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe came on board; they knew they were going to be working on something pretty special. I got so many amazing martial artists, some of the best in the business, like Rick Yune, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, David Bautista and Daniel Wu, just to name a few. They put their trust in me and I can with confidence say that I did not disappoint them. I’m an actor as well and I knew how it feels so I had a full understanding of everyone’s needs and how this thing was going to go down.
I am guessing your music fans will be happy with the score?
To be honest I never intended on scoring this movie, but after I finished it even Quentin said that I had to score it. I mean really, who else is going to do it and the fans are going to expect it. I know people are not only going to love what they see in this movie but also what they hear.
Do you have a plan as to where you’d like to see yourself in five years?
I truly feel that my focus in now in film. I just want to settle in and make movies. I think by making this movie and having a chance to get this experience under my belt has changed me for life. I will never give up music and my sideline business ventures but movies are my passion. Movie making is the only medium where I can express all my talents under one big umbrella. I think I have finally found my calling and I know now that I am truly blessed.
~Bonnie Laufer Krebs