Usually in a story about a director, you’d say something about his or her filmography and style, but in the case of rapper turned actor turned director RZA (The Wu Tang Clan), we can only talk about the future. Despite an acting resume that goes back to 2005’s Derailed (or Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes from 2003 if you want to be picky, although he played himself), The Man With the Iron Fists is his directorial debut.
What’s more, it’s already launching him into the big leagues – his next project is a biopic of Mongol warlord Genghis Khan penned by none other than John (Conan the Barbarian, Apocalypse Now) Milius. If his Fists co-writer Eli Roth is at all worried his partner might take a credibility leapfrog over him, he didn’t show it as the pair talked about their love of kung-fu, how their movie is like Star Wars and letting Russell Crowe off the leash.
You’ve been working on The Man With The Iron Fists for a long time and it’s finally being released. Does it feel like the end of something or the beginning?
RZA: If things go proper it’ll be the beginning. It’s a big relief to have it out. It’s like giving birth to a child. I 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 everyone to like your children. And I’m still nervous because I got to wait for the public to see it and absorb it and for it be successful commercially.
But personally, I’m really 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. Plus this isn’t an American genre, so to be able to bring this to the American screen for me is a great thing.
Eli: 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. Obviously it depends on how the public likes it but we spent a year working on the script and the methodology of every weapon, every character, every clan, what’s outside the village, what else is in this world. If people really respond to it we could continue it.
You have experience dealing with rapper egos, what about actor egos?
RZA: Being part of Wu-Tang Clan and the strong personalities in it unknowingly prepared me for the job of directing. I don’t think I ever lost my cool. Maybe we got into a few little ping-pong matches but I think I got focused.
How hard was it to convince Russell Crowe to play Jack?
RZA: I talked to him about it for a long time and I was never sure if he was going to do it but he says he trusted me as artist. I think that’s the most driving force that convinced him to come on board – he’d seen a 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. And I’m grateful that he came on board and the energy he bought to it.
Eli: When we were writing the script we talked about Russell as Jack. When I first got to China [RZA was] busy directing so I sat with Russell for 24 hours in a hotel room and we talked about the character, all the stuff RZA and I had talked about and I realised how willing Russell was to go crazy. So we said ‘all right, let’s do Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks, Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, let’s do something that’s so completely fucking nuts it’s completely out of character from what you’ve seen him doing.
And it was great that RZA created an environment where Russell wasn’t carrying the whole movie, he was part of an ensemble. We thought of it like a super group, you’ve got Cung Le who’s a star of MMA and Dave Bautista from wrestling and me from horror and RZA from music. Russell just felt like he was in a group of really creative people so he gave one of the most fun, wild, alive performance he’s done since Romper Stomper.
RZA: In fact Romper Stomper was the film he told me to watch. I watched Romper Stomper and then I wound up putting some extra shit in The Man With the Iron Fists. He didn’t want to be the Romper Stomper motherfucker but he wanted me to know just how wild he would go with it.
What are the essential elements to a good kung-fu movie?
Eli: Kung-fu, would be number one.
RZA: I think you got to have a story. It has to be a story that if the kung-fu wasn’t in the movie you still enjoy the story.
Eli: Also diversity in the fights. One thing we talked about was fight fatigue, how we didn’t want the audience to say ‘oh, we have to sit through another fight?’ So we really tried to change the style with every fight and introduce a new weapon, a new villain. 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, just wrap this up’.
RZA: I also think you’ve got to have some humour? People have got to have a moment to laugh and feel that it’s not 100 percent serious.
Eli: It’s also great when you see people that have a new weapon you’ve never seen before. That’s one of the things we actually loved in Star Wars. When you look at the cantina as a kid you were like ‘that’s Hammerhead, that’s Greedo, that’s R2D2’. You knew every droid and creature, and that’s the fun of this, coming up with that stuff and creating methodology and sticking to it.