Having the RZA direct a martial arts movie is only bizarre because it’s taken so long to come to fruition. “2005 I put the first word on the page, 2010 we got the green light, and 2012 the world got to see it,” the RZA told me, but when I asked how long the idea has been in his head, “Who knows?”
A rapper, mogul, actor, director, RZA has many titles and many nicknames. His co-star in The Man With The Iron Fists, Lucy Liu, constantly referred to him as “Bobby” during our interview. The man looks ridiculously stylish as we sit down, wearing bright colors, to go along with his obviously branded Gucci eye glasses. It’s intimidating. Bobby, meaning Bobby Digital. When asked on an appearance with Conan O’Brien, he said that the reason he has so many nicknames is because of the different career paths he follows. To many, though, RZA is the brains behind The Wu-Tang Clan. Recording albums is difficult for most solo artists, but when you have 12 other guys in the group, it must be a process, something that he was able to translate into making movies. “You have to multiply, by 10, maybe even hundred, the creative aspects of what you’re doing, depending on the magnitude, being a producer, having worked with a lot of bands, but [with movies] you’re talking about 17 departments with 400 people working in them.”
The movie in which RZA takes the lead as the eponymous “Man with Iron Fists” also stars Russell Crowe, WWE star Batista, and martial arts legend Rick Yune. The collaboration for the movie brought RZA together with Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth.
The length and passion at which RZA talks about the directing process indicates this will not be the last time we see his name with a director’s credit. “For me [filmmaking] is a medium for me because I’m a musician-director, maybe it’s because I’m into fashion, maybe it’s because I’m a man with an imagination who makes crazy looking weapons … of course without talent, you can’t bring visions to life. I was blessed to have great actors. Some of the Asian cast members, it was only their second or third film, and they was wet behind the ears. Oatience is important.” Working with some younger actors did create problems. “We were filming it, and I had to cut. This is the first, about 20 days in, first day where I felt like I wasn’t making a movie. And so I had to pull everybody aside, I had to call Eli [Roth], and say come over, saying ‘you gotta write new lines for these guys,’ we’re getting out of the movie for some weird reason. I realized they were nervous, didn’t absorb what the characters were supposed to bring. It took hours to get what we need, we almost lost a day.”
Obviously, this being a martial arts movie that involves Tarantino and Roth, there’s going to be blood. The fight scenes are the glue that holds the film together. Lucy Liu, who plays the madam of a a brothel in the movie, was surprised with the methodology applied to the fighting scenes. “We didn’t do a lot of rehearsal, we just got straight into the fighting, it was a really different experience for me compared to the other films that I’ve done.”
Having already cut her teeth in the martial arts movie world with Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Fists still offered something completely new for Liu: “Quentin has a completely different energy to Bobby — he’s energetic, he’s got a history of movies and television, and music in his mind, they’re just two different people.”
Agreeing to make this kind of movie requires some trust. “When you sign on for a movie, you give yourself over to that person. And just that they’re going to do something that’s going to be to best of their ability … you can’t really give your opinion at that point, you have to know that they’re doing something that they want to be special just like you do.”
This is a specific genre film, coming to you from obvious obsessives to the genre of Hong Kong-style action, and it won’t appeal to everyone. But RZA’s style and attention to detail are remarkable, a solid debut from a first-time director. Not to mention a director who was also undertaking the lead role, which he portrays effortlessly, and fits him in the pantheon of martial art movie heroes easily.