RZA on The Man with the Iron Fists

How he prepared to direct his first feature, working with Russell Crowe and the unexpected influence of a Natalie Wood musical.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Over two years ago, we interviewed RZA at Fantastic Fest when he was prepping his Kung Fu movie. Hard to believe The Man with the Iron Fists is in theaters this weekend. Last week RZA gave a press conference at the House of Blues on Sunset Blvd., where he would perform that night as part of his Iron Fists tour. The film is his directorial debut, co-written by Eli Roth and starring himself as a blacksmith who creates iron hands after an attack, and Russell Crowe as Jack Knife, a VIP at the local brothel who also happens to be a badass.
 

We ask RZA if he approached Yuen Woo-ping to choreograph the fights, and how he ended up with Corey Yuen.

RZA: I actually did ask Woo-ping to help out. He had a tight schedule and even Corey had a tight schedule but Corey was able to adjust his schedule to come on board, but Woo-ping was my first choice. But I’m glad Corey came through. He really represented for us and he worked hard for us so I’m proud that he did it.
 

We slip in a follow up: How does The Blacksmith wipe with iron fists?

Wiping, right? He gotta keep it sh*tty.
 

Why Russell Crowe is CroweDB.

Well, I do think being a part of Wu Tang Clan, the abbot of Wu Tang Clan and having such strong personalities in my life, unknowingly prepared me for the job of directing. When things got out of hand or felt like it was going to be crazy, I don't think I ever lost my cool. Maybe one time we had a little ping pong match but I think I kept focus. As far as Russell Crowe, I talked to him about it for a long time and I wasn’t really sure if he was going to do it, but he says that he trusted me as an artist. I think that’s the most driving force that convinced him to come on board, is that he’s seen the 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. I’m grateful that he came on board and we found some energy for him to relate to, ODB energy, Russell Crowe, Russell Jones. In fact, Romper Stomper was a film he told me to watch. I hadn’t seen it at the time so I watched Romper Stomper and then I wound up putting some more extra sh*t in there. He said, “No, no, no, I don’t want to be the romper stomper mother****er” but he wanted me to know just how wild he would go with it. I recall one scene that we kind of made up on the fly. There was a [bath]tub in the middle of the room, so he comes into the set that day, I’m like, “All right, big brother, look. We’re going to start with this girl. She’s moaning, she’s screaming her ass off, all right? And then the camera’s going to pan by her, her leg is going to be up and you’re going to come out of the water with these booty beads in your mouth. Trust me, it’s going to be a crazy cut.” He’s like, “Okay, Papi.”
 

How a Natalie Wood movie influenced Man with the Iron Fists.

What’s the musical with all the strippers with Natalie Wood? Gypsy. In Gypsy, each stripper had a theme. One stripper had lightbulbs. So we thought of our hookers, we should at least have girls with themes. They just can’t be a hooker. So we got the Lady Sunshine room that her room looks like Jimi Hendrix could’ve been in there painting or something. We got the opera woman, instead of a waterbed we put a river outside the bed. So we were very creative and being cinephiles, we were able to be inspired not only by martial art films or sci-fi films or horror films, but just good old American movies.
 

RZA’s Kung Fu Inspirations.

There are so many martial arts films I’ve seen over the years that I could lay down as the foundation as inspiration. If I think of movies like The Five Deadly Venoms or there’s a film called 36th Chamber which Gordon Liu is the star of. And so many others, it’s a long list but the main thing though was to make sure that knowing that martial art films have their pros and cons, I try to stick with the pros. I try to make sure that this is being made from an American sensibility. Most of these films are made from an Asian sensibility and sometimes it’s subtitled. I was trying to think about can I be able to do what Quentin [Tarantino] did in Kill Bill, was he was able to give us a modern day martial art film that’s a movie. I was striving to do the same thing, have a lot of action, have a lot of characters but at the same time, have some kind of glue that you could just relax yourself and enjoy a film. So I felt like I achieved it.
 

How RZA learned a four hour first cut was natural.

My first cut was four hours. That’s one of the good things with having Eli ride this journey with me is that he said that’s natural. I didn’t know that was natural. To have Quentin and Eli on my side throughout this, they let me do my own thing. This is my film but having them prepare you and letting me know that look, there’s going to be a landmine 10 feet ahead. You can go through it or you could jump over it or you could go around it. Eli was that person because he knew, he’d been there before. Sometimes I looked at him and I went through the land mine, like yo, I’m going this way. And sometimes it was like, “You know what, bro? I think I’m going to go around that one.” That was important. That was important for me.
 

RZA did his homework on directing a movie.

I feel when I say I can do this and carry this opportunity to make movies, it’s because I took the time to study it. A boxer can’t just jump in the ring. You’ve got to practice and practice and practice. Like it says about Carnegie Hall. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. I practiced. I watched so many films. I went and got the Canon 5Ds and 7Ds and I knew all the lenses. I started studying ISOs just so I could talk to my DP about how much light I wanted. Saturations. As you’ll notice if you watch the making of this film, you’ll see after 12 hours of work, I still went and trained with a Kung Fu instructor. I still got up the next day and practiced with my camera in the morning, walking around, taking shots. I had the 5D. One time the shot couldn’t really be understood, I had to pull out the 5D and like, “Hold on.” And do it with that first and say, “No, this is what I’m looking for.” Then show my DP. Through great input you get great output and I know that Eli is the witness of me being very determined and very focused and delivering this project first but also letting this be the foundation of me bringing more movies to the silver screen.
 

RZA knows his stuff about blacksmithing too.

If you notice in this film, a lot of things that they’re doing happens 20-30 years later. For instance, to make the iron fists, he uses a Bessemer. Now, I discovered a Bessemer when I was in Pittsburgh working on The Next Three Days with Russell when I’m walking through the city, I’m studying the city and I came across the Bessemer that U.S. Steel used the make temperatures rise to a higher level to make the strongest [metal] in the world. Now that doesn’t happen until 30 or 40 years later. So my idea is this character, if you noticed, the character when the guys came in for the horseshoe, he stuck two books in his bag. The first book was the book of Newton, laws of mathematics and physics. So he’s a scientist. And then he stuck the bible so he’s a religious man. So when you take those two things, science and religion together, you should be able to be advanced. That’s the idea so here in this little laboratory underneath the main blacksmith house, he has his big Bessemer that he’s mixing mercury, magnets which is hard to merge together, steel and for the movie magic, he put the blood in it because chi travels through our blood.
 

The fantasy and reality behind Man with the Iron Fists

I’d say martial arts films is definitely the foundation and backdrop but comic books, horror movies, sci-fi, all these things play a part in entertaining us. So even finding those glasses, we did check historically about the things we did. We use the real chi acupuncture dummy to make the statue. And you look at Brass Body, we kept trying to figure out how the special effects team was going to make him look. They came with the Silver Surfer look, all these different [ideas]. No, we want the acupuncture body doll to be his body so that people realize what he’s doing also is channeling his chi to become Brass body. So we thought of all these things from one way or another to merge this world together so that the audience could feel like they are definitely watching a Kung Fu movie, but they still gotta think they’re, like George Lucas, taken to a land far, far away. For the hairstyles, that was ‘80s. Duran Duran, Tina Turner.
 

The Man with the Iron Fists drops this Friday.

It’s a big relief to have it out. It’s like giving birth to a child, say. I’d 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 everybody to like your children. I’m still nervous because I gotta wait for the public to see it and absorb it and commercially have success if life goes proper, but personally I’m 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. Most movies may have some kind of base in reality, this is not an American genre, so to be able to bring this to the American screen for me is a great thing.