THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is RZA's lifetime-in-the-making kung fu epic. It's a wild, Wu-Tang-infused melange of everything from Shaw Brothers punch-ups to Zhang Yimou's elegantly designed martial arts mythologizing. All of those references to THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXING and SHOGUN ASSASSIN that enlivened such classic LPs as ENTER THE WU-TANG, LIQUID SWORDS and IRONMAN have leapt to the fore. RZA's not just sampling Gordon Liu this time; he's acting alongside him.
Produced by Eli Roth (who also co-wrote the screenplay with RZA) and "presented by" Quentin Tarantino, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS marks the beginning of what could be a fascinating filmmaking career. When it comes to cinema, RZA is no dilettante: he gorged on kung fu movies during his youth (frequenting some of the legendary 42nd Street grindhouses during their heyday), has been mentored by Tarantino, cites GYPSY in the same breath as FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, and is presently gearing up to direct the great John Milius's screenplay for GENGHIS KHAN. RZA's not fucking around.
When I was offered the opportunity to interview RZA, I made two lists of questions: one relating strictly to THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS and another, much longer one filled with everything I've ever wanted to ask about the illustrious history of the Wu-Tang Clan. Given that I only had fifteen minutes, I never really got to the second list, though we did discuss how Russell Crowe's portrayal of the roguish Jack Knife is a tribute to the late Russell Jones (aka Ol' Dirty Bastard aka Dirt McGirt aka Osiris aka Big Baby Jesus).
This was fun.
Mr. Beaks: It comes as no surprise to anyone who's been listening to your music for the last two decades that you might take a crack at making a kung fu film. I know it's something you were thinking about, but I'm curious as to how this concept evolved over that period.
RZA: It's something that did evolve. It wasn't something that was predetermined or predestined. I mean, I've dreamed about it, but that goes back to me being a kid walking to high school when I was a freshman - or even as a nine-year-old kid who used to watch those movies on 42nd Street. The dream was there, but my ambition was all about music, and I found a way to infuse my love of kung fu into my music. To say that one day I was going to have Gordon Liu, Chen Kuan Tai, Leung Ka-Yan in my movie, working with me, the guys who I admired as a kid, was definitely something that could only exist in a dream.
I'm glad that I brought it to life, but what sparked me and moved me to do it was going to Beijing, being a student of Quentin Tarantino's, watching him work, meeting [Yuen Woo-ping], and seeing it. That was my first hands-on touch of it, meeting David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. I just started seeing the potential of opportunity that was before me if I focused. And I focused, man.
Beaks: Many of those kung-fu films you grew up watching were full-on grindhouse. This film goes in a more fantastical direction. What inspired that?
RZA: I'm a movie watcher, and I was taught by a master of pulp fiction. I'm not just going to come in and make it '70s; that was done already. I have to bring something to it, update it, bring it to our time - not to Americanize it, but to give it the American sensibility. Now as much as I love kung fu films, I'm very conscious that Hollywood is the mecca of filmmaking, and that some of the directors and actors that we have are the elite talent of the world. That's not taking anything away from Bollywood, Hong Kong cinema or the great Korean explosion that we're having right now - or the Japanese. But THE AVENGERS? That's Hollywood, baby! So it was to pay homage to their movies, but still add what we do here. I took myself and a team over [to Beijing]. Drew Boughton, the great art director and production designer who worked on movies like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and THE EXPENDABLES, he knew how to bring that kind of element to the game, and they loved it; they loved what we brought to them, and they loved what they got from us. This melding of both styles gave me a film that I think resonates on both sides of the world.
Beaks: You talk about going to film school under Quentin Tarantino. Can you think of a film he showed you, or maybe a few, that absolutely blew your mind, like in a "How does this movie exist" way?
RZA: There's too many to name. There are so many films that I don't remember all the names. Sometimes I'm just like, "What was the one where the two guys were, like, cops and shit?" They did this series of films where these cops would always find themselves in trouble, similar to Gravedigger Jones and [Coffin Ed Johnson] in COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE. But it was two white brothers who did similar movies. But there's so much that I can't put my finger on one thing. What I'm able to do as a student - and this is the same way I am with almost everything - is I erase the names of things. Quentin can sit there and tell you who the director is and who the actor is. I'll tell you the scene, the face and the character's name. Even when I read sometimes, because I read books in so many different foreign languages, if I get stuck on trying to pronounce names, I know I'm not saying it right. I know it. So I may skip the name and take the stories. I think it's the same way with film. I just look at it, and I take the essence and retain it. We talked about the movie GYPSY, me and Eli. We talked about the blossoms. I brought it to his attention, and he's like, "Why are you watching GYPSY?" (Laughs) "Hey, I watch movies! I love movies!" But there was something in that movie, each stripper in that movie had something special about them. And we had something special about all of our workers in our film; it inspired me more to make it distinguishable with the image. So if you look at the film, you notice it's the "Sunshine Room", like Jimi Hendrix sunshine psychedelic. Then there's the Mermaid Room: instead of a waterbed, we've got a little river around the bed and two mermaids on the floor connecting. All these ideas add to the cinematography and the mythology of our film, and I'm taking it from so many obscure ideas.
Beaks: One thing that's interesting is how you asked Russell Crowe to infuse ODB's spirit into Jack Knife. And the jaw harp, with the "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" jingle. How did you go about communicating the idea of ODB to Russell?
RZA: We had a real man-to-man conversation during the filming of THE NEXT THREE DAYS about my book and my life and some things. It was more of a touching conversation, because Russell Jones was such an important man to me in my life, and [Crowe] could recognize it in my face and my eyes and my tone. And he said, "Well, now there's a new Russell in your life." And then a year later, when that movie was done, I said, "You know, we're gonna go Ol' Dirty on this film." And when I was in China, he called me up two weeks before his arrival and he said, "I'm going Ol' Dirty." And I was like, "That's gonna be great. You're gonna have a lot of fun." And he came and had fun. There's a line in the film where he says, "What're you looking at, you dirty old man." That was not written. That was just him ad-libbing and throwing a little Ol' Dirty in there.
Beaks: On a technical level, how difficult was it to manage all of these fight sequences on your first film? What was the most difficult to pull off?
RZA: I had predetermined my style of fighting for these movies. When we were writing the movie, I would come to Eli's house with a whole bunch of tapes. Of course, he couldn't sit through all of them, but I would show him and say, "That's one style I want to use, and that's another style I want to use." And we would write it in somehow into the screenplay. But the one that came out beautifully to me was the Gemini fight. And the reason why was because the fight that I wanted to top was an old Shaw Brothers movie. There's been a few movies where they have guys and girls fighting together. There's a movie called THE LEG FIGHTERS. But I wanted to do it like nobody had ever seen it before. So I kept pushing Cory Yuen, and he's such a smart dude. We had a great relationship. I'd seen all of his movies as well as the Shaw Brothers movies. So I could pull out scenes and say, "We've got to do something that's cooler than that! Something that's not that, but still has that flavor." He would take days and meditate on it, and sometimes he'd give me resistance. But at the end of the day, we worked hard to make these scenes come together, and I think the Gemini fight is one of the ones that came together great.
Also, the end sequence with the Blacksmith against Brass Body, that fight was actually inspired by David Bautista himself. I saw him on the internet sparring with some people, and he just had a certain speed and style about him. And I said, "I want to emulate that." And we worked on it, and we added the wrestling sensibility. You know how in wrestling the good guy is winning, then he starts losing, then he turns around and gets the pin? (Laughs) It was all those different things we brought to it, and when I watch it on the screen, I say, "Man we really brought our ideas to reality." That doesn't every time. I've been in films as an actor where I wish it could've gone another way, but in this film we really hit home runs on a lot of things, and definitely got on base with everything we tried.
Beaks: I like how you talk about combining all of these different influences from different genres, like working in stuff from GYPSY. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, is it wide open for you? What other stories do you want to tell? What kinds of films would you like to make?
RZA: It is wide open. We recently signed on to do one of the best screenplays I've ever read, John Milius's GENGHIS KHAN. I read it... it's been almost a year now, but it's the only one out of all the ones they sent me where I said, "Yo, I'll do that. I'll do somebody else's work if it's work of this quality." It's such a beautiful screenplay, man. He wrote a masterpiece. To get a chance to bring that to life... that's like me skipping five years. It's a great fucking piece of writing.
But for myself, I want to really surprise the moviegoing audience. I think there's a niche in comedy, action and drama; there's a way that all of it can be contained in different atmospheres. I call Quentin the master of pulp fiction. He's actually the father, I guess, of modern-day pulp fiction. But I'm a student of that. I want to be able to take that kind of ideology that he has with his films and put it in the world of my imagination. To give you an example of that, if you look at INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, you get these great dialogue scenes and then you get these great shootout scenes, and then you get this fable ending to history, the dream ending to history! To me, that's incredible. I'm not going to take his style, but in my style, if you look at THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, you do see that this is a fictional story backdropped with real history. And the history it's backdropped in is actually the future of our characters. That's my trick. "I'm not going to change history. I'm going to act as if these guys are the ones who spark history."
When you look at the Blacksmith character, you notice in his laboratory that there's a big bessemer. The bessemer was not brought to Pittsburgh for U.S. Steel until forty years later, and it's actually twenty times the size of the one the Blacksmith uses. But by having a replica of it there... when we flashback to him as a slave, and he sticks the two books in his bag, the first book is Newton's book on mathematics. That's the joke to me. He's already studying Newton; he's already in a scientist mind. And the second book is The Bible. And when the guy says, "You can't read." (Laughs) Of course he can read, but he ain't supposed to know how to read. So when Jack Knife finds him and says, "You've got quite a fascinating operation going on here..." my idea is that the chracter, because of his chi, because of his esoteric knowledge with the monks, and his American heritage as a blacksmith, and from studying the laws of Newton, he's able to come up with this bessemer before the rest of the world gets it.
And Jack Knife... the guns at that time weren't sophisticated. He's got a one-shotter, and the Gemini Killer has four barrels on her gun. These people are all making the future, like how NASA took the technology they had from the space program and in the '90s released it to the music industry, to Yamaha, Kawai and Roland. And now we have touch-screen keyboards, and touch-screen telephones and all of that. This was available to NASA in the '60s and '70s, but they finally released it to the world. So it's kind of that ideology that I wanted to add to the film mythology, and that comes from being around a man like Quentin, and knowing specific things that make a movie stand out as a movie.
Last thing I was going to say, even if you watch STAR WARS, you look at Luke Skywalker living on Tatooine. His family lives underground, and they drink out of square cups. Now, a square cup don't mean anything, but being that these are space people, the square cup has greater significance than a real cup. (Laughs) It's these little things that make movies great.
I hereby nominate RZA for EPISODE VII.
THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS opens Friday, November 2nd.