Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, better known as RZA of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, performed at The Shelter in Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall Oct. 12 as part of “The Iron Fists” eleven-city tour to promote his directorial debut “The Man With the Iron Fists,” which will be hitting theaters Nov. 2.
RZA said Detroit has a rich culture and is a special city for hip-hop.
“Detroit … has a great history from all sides of culture, whether it’s from the white culture or the black culture … this is a unique city,” he said. “And I know something about some of the history here … I’ve been coming to this city for years as a Wu-Tang member … this is a cool city. I dig it.”
“The Man With the Iron Fists” is an action-adventure kung fu movie set in feudal China about a blacksmith (played by RZA) who makes weapons and must defend himself and his fellow villagers from warriors and assassins in a winner-take-all battle for a fortune in gold.
The film’s advertisement poster credits Quentin Tarantino as presenting the film, and its caption reads, “You can’t spell kung fu without F and U,” which is about what one would expect from RZA’s tongue-in-cheek wordplay.
“The Man With the Iron Fists” features world-renowned fight choreographer Corey Yuen (“The Transporter”) and stars Lucy Liu (“Kill Bill: Vol. 1”), Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”), Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”), Rick Yune (“Ninja Assassin”), Jamie Chung (“Sucker Punch”) and Chia Hui Liu aka Gordon Liu (“Kill Bill: Vol. 2”).
RZA said directing a kung fu movie was a blessing for him and a confirmation that dreams can come true.
“I dreamed about making kung fu movies as a kid, but that wasn’t a dream I saw likely to come true,” he said. “I mean, I dreamed about being a hip-hop artist and making records. I knew that was coming true. I knew how good I was. I knew that we would be what we are. Confidence was impeccable when it came to Wu-Tang Clan and going to be the number one hip-hop rap group, I foresaw it all. This I didn’t foresee … It was something that I wanted and didn’t know that it was going to happen in my life.”
While producing the soundtrack for Tarantino’s 2003 film “Kill Bill,” RZA said he saw a chance to learn about directing, so he got the film’s production schedule, wrote himself a $50,000 budget and flew to Beijing, China. RZA said he spent about 30 days on set with Tarantino and just sat there taking notes every day.
“When I saw an opportunity to even learn about being a director, I wasn’t shy to take that opportunity, and that was to ask Quentin Tarantino to become my mentor, to take the time to spend with him to learn from him,” he said. “Basically, people look at me as the abbot and the teacher, you know what I mean, but no I became the student … and was not shy doing that.”
Born July 5, 1969 in Brooklyn, N.Y., RZA was introduced to kung fu movies at a young age.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, my older cousin took me to the St. George Theatre on Staten Island to see a Bruce Lee movie and a Jim Kelly movie. Those were my first martial-arts films, and I fell in love with the genre back then,” RZA told Vanity Fair during a July interview.
It was a love that he would carry over into his music and what would eventually become the Wu-Tang Clan empire, which to date has produced seven platinum albums (“Blackout,” “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” “Ironman,” “Tical,” “Tical 2000: Judgement Day,” “The W” and “Wu-Tang Forever”) and 10 gold albums (“Beneath the Surface,” “Bobby Digital in Stereo,” “Immobilarity,” “Iron Flag,” “Liquid Swords,” “Nigga Please,” “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” “Return to the 36 Chambers,” “Supreme Clientele” and “Tical 0: The Prequel”), according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
The group’s music has maintained a kung fu motif since their 1993 debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” which got part of its name from the 1978 movie “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” starring Gordon Liu as the Master Killer.
“Gordon Liu as an actor was my favorite of all the martial art fighters,” RZA said. “I mean, I keep Bruce Lee as number one, but I remember me and Ghostface [Killah] like, ‘Yo, you think Master Killer can beat Bruce?’”
RZA said his experience in negotiating the different personalities of the Wu-Tang Clan members (Ghostface Killah, GZA the Genius, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon the Chef and U-God) helped prepare him for directing some heavy-duty martial artists.
“There was some testosterone [on the set],” RZA said. “It got to a point to where some people was like, ‘Yo, he’s lucky he’s your boy,’ … And I’m like, ‘Listen man don’t worry. Raekwon and Method [Man] used to fucking always argue and I turned that shit into a song called ‘Meth vs. Chef,’ you know what I mean.’ So I told them don’t worry about that, you know just [use] the energy.”
RZA said he and Eli Roth (“Hostel”) spent about two years working together on the script, and before pitching “The Man With the Iron Fists” to producers he financed and directed a video to show them he could handle a project of this magnitude.
“There’s a thing that’s called ‘Wu-Tang vs. the Golden Phoenix,’ which is something I filmed myself with some kung fu guys I flew in from Hong Kong … I filmed this thing and I showed it to the producers before we went in for ‘Iron Fists,’ so they knew that I could control action. They knew that I had the mindset, so they had the confidence to go in and give an untested, first-time director a budget of that magnitude,” he said.
RZA said the budget for “The Man With the Iron Fists” was roughly $20 million.
“I don’t know if some of the actors was able to make side deals and shit, because you know business is business, but what I controlled was [$20 million],” he said.
RZA said the film was shot in and around Shanghai in about 10 weeks, but he was in China for about 150 days. He said his original cut of the movie was around four hours, but they had to scale back some of the film’s content to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating and to get it down to the hour and a half length the studio wanted.
“That’s me being a first-time director and loving every shot I took,” he said.
However, he said the director’s cut is already in the works and there should be about 13 minutes of additional scenes added to the film’s DVD release, where they’re not so worried about the ratings board and can “let it all hang loose.”
RZA said most of the film’s bloody scenes make use of practical special effects versus digital CGI.
“Our special makeup guys, these guys like to use the water pump for the blood,” he said. “I’m serious, these motherfuckers. I’m like, ‘Yo, hold on man! It’s gonna take an hour to clean this shit up for the next shot.’ That’s a lot of time.”
However, RZA said the scene with Rick Yune’s character Zen Yi slicing and dicing his way through six people was scripted with digital blood in mind. This scene can be seen in the red band trailer online.
“That was a digital shot of course, but that shot was written digital,” he said. “What happens, you won’t never know this because you don’t speak Chinese, but the blood goes up to write the word ‘revenge,’ that’s what it does … I thought I should subtitle it, but I said, ‘No just leave it, it looks cool.’ The Chinese audience will be like ‘Ah!’ they’ll love it.”
In a July interview with Wired.com, RZA said he believes he achieved most of the shots he envisioned for the movie, but about six weeks into filming he tried to push the crew faster to keep on schedule, at which point the assistant director pulled him aside and told him members of the stunt crew were being sent to the hospital almost daily.
“So I said, ‘You know what, I don’t need that shot.’ I mean I achieved at least 85 percent of my vision. You’re not going to get everything. You understand, because some stuff is dangerous, some stuff is impractical, it’s better to go CGI,” he told Wired.com.
RZA said he would love to continue directing, and audiences can expect more films from him in the future if “Iron Fists” does well.
“I’ll say this out loud, I’m gonna put it in the universe, if I have my way this movie is ‘36 Chambers,’ my first album,” he said. “And before I even got fatigued I was able to give you ‘Tical,’ ‘Liquid Swords,’ ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Links,’ ‘Return to the 36 Chambers’ and ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ … and then I came outside. But if I can do the same thing in film, give us some classics like that, it would be a blessing yo and I’m aiming at that. I’m really aiming at that.
“This film has so many layers of love for this genre, and you know the Wu-Tang way of course, the Tarantino sensibility, the Eli Roth gore … and I would say the RZA cool with a bunch of pretty girls. I know you guys gonna walk away from this one like, ‘Ah that was a good time.’ You might want more … but if it goes well I’m gonna give you more.”
While “Iron Fists” was his first time in the director’s chair, RZA has had parts in more than a dozen films including a walk-on role in Jim Jarmusch’s lesser-known 1999 cult-classic film “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” for which he also produced the soundtrack, and a moderate role in Ridley Scott’s 2007 “American Gangster” starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
While RZA firmly embraced his dream of writing and directing “The Man With the Iron Fists,” as well as playing the lead role, he begrudgingly agreed to produce the film’s soundtrack.
In the July Vanity Fair interview he said, “We finished the movie and had temped it with all of this music. I had some songs I wanted to put in there. At one point, I talked to Quentin Tarantino about helping me with the music because I helped him with ‘Kill Bill.’ A bunch of us got to the studio and we watched the movie, and they said, ‘Well, good, but the music. We don’t think the music is so cool. Why don’t you do the music?’ I said, ‘But I’m the director.’ They said, ‘But you’re such a natural.’ I didn’t want to do it.
“So I went to Quentin, the producer—I was cooking him a steak at the time, at his house, because, you know, I’m his student—and I said, ‘Man, I got a problem. They want me to score the film. And I don’t want to do it. What you think?’ He walks over to me and tells me, ‘Bobby! Who else is going to score this film? People are going to expect you to score it.’ I couldn’t get no help from him so I had to score it,” he told Vanity Fair.
Tarantino was right, after producing numerous soundtracks for other movies, people (including this writer) were expecting him to produce the soundtrack for his directorial debut, and RZA responded in kind when that expectation was expressed during the interview.
“You one of the people that helped get me cornered,” he said. “Listen, I was so ready to just go to bed. I mean seriously, I was like directors cut was done … You know we was happy. I mean I compromised some of the things to get it to a certain length; they wanted it at a certain length and I found a way to do that.
“I was like, I want to just smoke a nice one and just leave me alone for like a couple of months. I haven’t been left alone yet because it took eight more months of making the music and soundtrack and all that shit, so from that I went right to promoting. This is a big investment of my life.”
The film’s soundtrack was released Oct. 23 and includes new songs by The Black Keys, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, Wu-Tang Clan, Talib Kweli, Pusha T, Pharoahe Monch, Kool G Rap, Flatbush Zombies and Mable John, as well as tracks by Wu-members Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and, of course, RZA himself.
In the Wired.com interview, RZA said having such a great cast and crew working on the film made the whole experience very fulfilling for him.
“To have all that energy come together and me to be the Captain Kirk of the crew, I really feel like I actually took myself to a place that no man has gone before,” he told Wired.com.
The Universal Studios’ film runs 96 minutes and is R-rated for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use.