RZA Reveals How He Applied Making "Only Built For Cuban Linx..." To Making "The Man With The Iron Fists"
Exclusive: RZA explains how he quelled conflict on the set by describing how Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were initially "enemies." He also confirms rumors of a remake of "The Last Dragon."
RZA is sitting behind a conference table in the Cornerstone Agency’s Manhattan offices. To his right stands an easel with an oversized movie poster of his directorial debut, The Man With The Iron Fists. A couple members of his public relations team sit on the leather couches directly across the room. He’s been doing interviews all day, but you can’t tell from his demeanor. No exhaustion in eyes. No fatigue in his answers. He’s animated. After years of studying under his movie making mentor - and Executive Producer - Quentin Tarantino, and recording over 1,000,000 feet of film, the heavy lifting is in The Abbot’s rearview.
Two decades ago, the Abbot devised the plan that launched the Wu-Tang Clan into unparalleled global reverence - the type reverence best exemplified by the avid fans roaming with the group’s ubiquitous “W”-logo tattooed on their faces - so feeding the media beast is undoubtedly routine. But what’s wrecking the RZA’s nerves these days, as he tells HipHopDX in this interview, is the anticipation of the public’s reaction to his first official Hollywood endeavor.
RZA Explains The Challenges Of Directing The Man With The Iron Fist
RZA: On one level I can say I feel accomplished because I did it. But now I gotta be accepted by the world. It’s got to be criticized by the world. It has to have a market value to it as well. People invested money into this thing.
HipHopDX: It seems like you’ve been in the Hollywood portion of the [entertainment industry] long enough to alleviate some of those fears.
RZA: Nah, man. This is different. Doing a score is for somebody, It’s his movie. Shit. I got the music and of course I want to do a great job for the [movie]. Even if did the score and the movie is fucked up, the director will get more of the blame than anybody. I’m Captain Kirk of this Enterprise. If the ship goes down, kid, the Captain is to blame. That’s nerve wrecking. At the same time, I finally understand what they mean. When we were editing the film, they were like, “You’ve gotta cut that. You’ve gotta cut that. You’ve gotta kill your babies.” I was like, “Kill the babies? What the fuck y’all talking about. We don’t kill babies.” Actually, within the last two months I would say this film has become a living entity. Therefore, this film is like a baby. You know everybody’s gonna look at your baby like, “Is that an ugly baby? Is that a beautiful baby? Is that a smart baby? Is that a dumb baby? Is that baby retarded?” That’s how a film feels, yo. People watch it.
I watched it last Saturday with Quentin [Tarantino]. I was like, “Oh shit.” And he made me sit right beside him. [Laughs] I was sitting there with so many things going through my head. Once he laughed at one thing like, “Oh!” I started easing up. I started easing up. Through the middle of the film, I got a few pats on the back like, “Good Bobby!” His name is on that motherfucker, you know. So, we’ve still the rest of the world to appreciate it - the Hip Hop community for those who wonder why RZA would leave music. I wasn’t kicked out of music, you know what I mean. I walked on my own and did another dream, another passion. And this was it: To bring something from our aesthetic to the world and potentially make more of these. To me this is like [Wu-Tang Clan's] Enter The 36 Chambers and it feels like it. I was real confident on Enter The 36 Chambers. I knew I had the illest thing in the world. I feel this is just as ill, but the difference between that and this is that I’ve spent so many years as an emcee/producer before the world ever heard me. This is basically right out of college right now. After six years of studying and all that and doing it. This is not like my third or fourth album. Enter The 36 Chambers wasn’t my first album. It’s the first album the world heard by me. I made many tapes in my neighborhood. Niggas got 10 albums by me, you know what I mean.
RZA Talks About Older Wu-Tang Clan Movies, Self-Financed
DX: You’ve written screenplays. You’ve shot movies before that you never released.
RZA: Like Bobby Digital, but I did Bobby Digital with no screenplay. [Laughs] I just got the camera like, “Add money.” I spent like $400,000 on that motherfucker. I didn’t care. I just went for it. That’s a way of learning.
DX: Is that the equivalent to those early demos that people never heard before Enter The 36 Chambers?
RZA: I would say so. I think that is like early demos. And maybe one day somebody will watch it and be like, “That shit was good, motherfucker!” But maybe they’ll like it more after seeing this. But it ain’t the same, yo, because the difference between Bobby Digital or Wu-Tang Versus The Golden Phoenix, is that I spent my own money. If it’s garbage, I can throw it away. Nobody to fucking argue with. In this particular case, I’m spending somebody else’s money. I’m representing not just myself here. I’ve got a lot of people - important people - involved with this. It’s a different kind of pressure. This is why we say this is my first directorial debut because this is not just a guy that has money and is like, “C'mon! Get the cameras.” A lot of things start that way. Look at Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. But that’s cool that it started him, but it’s not really a good movie. No disrespect to him. It’s cool. The girl was sexy. But by the time he got to a real movie that we all went to see...Do The Right Thing was the one that ushered us into his talent. But he had a few things that he did as a student and all those things - those amateur films that may have resonated with a few people. I don’t have that same kind of career, but I’m just saying that this is not an amateur [film]. This is professional. This is like playing for the pros.
DX: You’ve referred to [Quentin] Tarantino as your mentor. If there were two points that he impressed upon you going into your first film, what were those two things that stand out to you now as you’re approaching the release?
RZA: It’s hard to point to two things. I can’t narrow it down to two things, actually. I learned so much from the man from spending time with him, watching movies with him, and seeing how he saw things. Seeing how he dissected. I guess that’s one thing: The ability to dissect a scene or a script or a character. Dissecting and then rebuilding - that’s important. Even when you make a movie, you’re filming it, but that doesn’t make it a movie. I don’t care how much you film. We filmed over a million feet worth of film, they said. When they measured the shit, they said, “This guy’s got a million feet.” That’s more than most movies. Most movies are 500,000 or 600,000 feet. There’s movies that are only 300,000 worth of feet. I got a million feet. That don’t mean that I got a movie yet. It’s not a movie until you’re able to bring that into the editing room and be able to tell a story. The ability to dissect.
Another thing I learned from him was the proper sequencing of events. You notice about Tarantino - whether he switches it around like in Pulp Fiction; whether he makes it linear like Reservoir Dogs or Inglorious Bastards - he has a way of sequencing events to keep you captivated and even puzzled, sometimes. That became important to me. When I had the first cut, I had a long cut of the movie, it was three and a half hours. I turned in all this shit. I worked with him on Kill Bill, so I’ve seen him turn two movies out of it. I was in the editing room with him on Kill Bill. I’ve seen him edit the scenes. I was right there on the scene. I was on the set with him for Kill Bill. I’ve seen Uma Thurmond do that whirlwind kick 20 times. When I thought she did it good on the third time, he’s like, “Good. Um, one more time.” [Laughs] Then when you’re back in the editing room, you can hear him torturing that woman. Every time, “That was good...Oh...one more.” Or, “That was great, Uma. Let’s try it again.” Or, “Oh good...One more” I went down and watched him on Django [Unchained]. Same thing. [Samuel L. Jackson] is just walking. All Sam is doing is walking eight feet, and he did that motherfucker 20 times. I learned from being on hand with him.
But when this film was basically done we had that first cut, I was arguing with my producers about cutting shit out. So I went to him. We watched some of it, then we stopped it in the middle. He was like, “Okay. This is what’s happening here. You’ve got a train. You’ve got this here. And I care about this, and I care about this. But I don’t care about this. And if I don’t care about this, I’m going to lose attention to it. So, you have to figure out how to pair the ‘cans’ with the ‘cans’ and the ‘can-nots’ with the ‘can-nots.’”
DX: You have to figure out which babies to kill.
RZA: Exactly. And which ones to sequence. That advice helped me tremendously. So it’s hard to point out what I learned from him because there’s so many things.
RZA Reveals That Ghostface Killah & Raekwon Did Not Always Get Along, Learning From Experience
DX: I think one of the things that’s most fascinating about your career is the organization you were able to set up with Wu-Tang - regardless of whether we all realized you had a five year plan and planned to expand that way you did. I think that’s a fundamental key in being successful in anything: Galvanize people and manage people to see an idea through to fruition. How would you compare that as a director now? These crews have got to be massive. There has to be hundreds of people on set.
RZA: Yeah, it’s hundreds of people. But it’s the same principle. There’s an Art Of War and a Book Of The Ninja that says, “When you are in the right mind frame, whether you’re controlling one or a thousand, it’s the same.” I think being a part of Wu-Tang; and being able to understand the dynamics of my crew; and being able have all of us focus on one mind [is] the key to this whole world if we can just snap into one mind. Not One World Order or shit like that. An order is one thing. A community is another. If we can all snap into this perfect frame of mind where we can all understand and feel what’s right and exact because we’re living and it’s resonating - that’s when the most power and most achievements are gained.
I’ll give you an example from Wu-Tang. You notice that the first five albums - especially the first three - but the first five albums are considered the classics because that’s when [the mind] was galvanized. It’s after that it starts separating and scattering...It was still a success or whatever. But the rest of the world didn’t feel it. On Enter The 36 Chambers, everybody agrees. But by the time you got back to maybe after [Ghostface Killah’s] Supreme Clientele, or even me doing Bobby Digital - I got some people to agree. It ain’t galvanized. The same thing with a film. The people have to be galvanized. Everyone has to be come centralized into one mind. The difference in film is that people know that. They know that the director is the leader. My first [Assistant Director] would talk me dizzy repeating me for months. I wanted to fire him because he was getting me nauseous. After meeting with him for three hours, I’m nauseous and dizzy. I’m needing coconut water. I told the producer, “Thomas is getting me fucking dizzy.” I’m ready to fucking fire Thomas, but I needed him. I needed him. And I knew I needed him. This guy was smart and he was stubborn; he was consistent and persistent on my ideas.
“Bobby, you said that the knife spins this way. How does a knife spin this way?” I said, “I told you, man. I told you yesterday.” He’d say, “Okay, but tell me again.” And every time he would do that, I’m like, “This fucking guy, is he retarded?” And would you believe that after 12 to 14 weeks of this shit, when it came time to shoot, everything was on point because he was meticulous like that. There was one day when I got nervous like, “Hold on, wait. I needed 30!” And he said, “No, no Bobby. We have 30. The other ten are still getting ready for you. They’ll be out in five minutes.” I’m like, “Oh. Okay.” It was covered.
Working with Wu-Tang did prepare me for this. From going to [Rick Yune] - beautiful dude, love him. Tough dude, though. Tough man to please. This guy, actually. I’ll share this with you. I didn’t share this with everybody, but I’ll share this with you. “Brass Body” [Rick Yune] and the “X Blade” [Dave Batista] didn’t get along.
DX: Personality conflicts?
RZA: These are both two, muscle bound workout motherfuckers that know what they know and convinced on what they know. Now they’re talking to each other about what they know and they’re arguing. Now they’re both trying to convince me on something. [WWE wrestler], Dave Batista is like, “Yo, if Rick wasn’t your boy.” Rick is like, “Man, fuck that. That muscle shit don’t mean nothing.” And then I had to get them both together and say, “Listen, man. Would you believe that Raekwon and [Ghost were enemies? Then came together and made [Only Built For Cuban Linx...]? This is all part of growing, yo.” Wu-Tang became [a group] while Park Hill, [Staten Island] and Stapleton, [Staten Island] was at war. I got two neighborhoods together in one group. But after riding on that tour bus - or tour van. It wasn’t a bus back then. Laying on each other’s shoulders and falling asleep and slobbering on a nigga, a bond happens. The same thing with these guys. The same thing happens with these guys. After being out there in that freezing snow, freezing cold, 14-hour days - and then everybody has to go to lunch and the next thing you know, it was just us at the table. The niggas, start sharing because we was all in that mission together.
DX: I’m looking at the soundtrack and I’m seeing Raekwon and Pharoahe Monch. I’m seeing Idle Warship, Flatbush Zombies. I’m seeing the Black Keys. Did you have an overarching vision for the soundtrack?
RZA: I didn’t have an overarching vision for the beginning of the soundtrack. The main thing I wanted to do was make sure I made an accompanied piece to the film. I made sure that, no matter what, some of the music must have [the film’s theme]. Everything must tie together. There must be a common thread throughout. Some of the artists were my choice. Some the artists were brought to me. Like, “Word? Pusha T wants to get on? The budget is gone. Think we can find something a little more? I’ll find a little more if you’re with it.” I’m like, “I’m with it. I love Pusha T.” Pusha T, Raekwon, and Joell Ortiz - who had another song that we had to change. Did you know that Danny Brown is on that song as well?
DX: I didn’t know that.
RZA: Exactly, because that’s a secret. That’s what happens when you get the soundtrack. He came on last minute because I loved his voice. I’ll say one thing, a lot of people love to be in movies. But I had the privilege of the fact that what we were doing attracted a lot of talent. I think we came with a great soundtrack. But somebody like Kanye West, for instance, he’s the first person to come in. He came in and watched the scene. I didn’t show everybody the scenes. I showed him the scene. He saw it and went and wrote me a song. Corrine Bailey Rae, she was the second person I brought in. She came in and watched 70% of one of the first cuts and she got moved and she wrote her song. The Black Keys song, we wrote that right before we started filming because I was telling him a story about the movie and the ideas I had. So some people got stories that go directly with the film itself, and some people were just inspired by the film for their music.
DX: The first kung-fu move I fell in love with was The Last Dragon. I don’t know what that says about me as a kung-fu buff, but...
RZA: [Laughs] It’s a start, baby!
DX: There was a rumor that you are working on a remake. Is that true? Is that really happening?
RZA: It’s true. It’s a true rumor. We had meetings just last week about it. It’s looking real positive. It’s not easy to get movies made. You’ll learn that if you ever get into this business. But, it looks very, very positive.