RZA: A Kung Fu Life

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

For those who’ve followed the musical career of RZA, founding member, producer, and de facto leader of the legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, the question isn’t really what led him to make a kung fu movie; it’s why it took so long. The group’s richly developed mythology revolves around martial-arts imagery, metaphors, sound effects and philosophy. It’s safe to say that other than Jackie Chan or Quentin Tarantino—who happens to be a producer on RZA’s new movie The Man With the Iron Fists—there’s no other living cultural icon more associated with martial arts than the iconic producer/director/actor/composer.

“To me, growing up in the ghetto at my age,” he explains, “I just needed escapism. And these films offered it to me. They offered me something that I just became passionate about. The culture showed me things that I wasn’t getting from normal American films. Brotherhood, loyalty, sacrifice. What I mean by sacrifice, you watch a movie like Executioners From Shaolin. There’s a scene where Hung Hsi Kuan is running, and the government is after him, and he bumps into another guy. And the government comes with their arrows, and they come and they try and attack Hung Hsi Kuan and this dude jumps in front of their arrows. I mean, they just met, and he goes to fight off the government while Hung Hsi Kuan gets to run. That’s sacrifice. You know, those types of things, brotherhood, loyalty, those things were powerful in the films. They resonated with me.”

It started from a very early age for RZA (born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs in Brooklyn, N.Y.). “It was a double-feature movie,” he remembers. “At the St. George Theatre on Staten Island. My aunt took my to the movies. It was a Bruce Lee film, and a Jim Kelly film. It was my first time seeing that kind of action. This probably was my fifth time ever in a movie theater.”

He was immediately hooked, and went back for more as soon as possible. And it was in those early days that the seeds for much of what would become the Wu-Tang Clan were planted. “The first movie I ever saw was Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But from there it was Star Wars. And then it was The Swarm, and then I didn’t see any more until I saw Fury of the Dragon, which was basically Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, and then Black Samurai with Jim Kelly. And if you look at my career, first there’s ‘Wu-Tang killer bees on a swarm.’ And then I’m always talking about this force of spirituality, which I got from Star Wars. Kung fu and Bruce Lee is all in my stuff, of course. And here’s a black guy in a kung fu movie, like Jim Kelly. So the first five movies really helped develop me.”

Still, even for someone so grounded in the culture, and someone who’s been involved in films before, it was a little intimidating to sit in that director’s chair and continue the tradition of kung fu filmmaking. “It was a nervous, nervous nerve-wrecking process,” he admits. “What I did to help me conquer it, was I stayed sober. You know, with music, I can smoke weed in the studio all night, let the energy flow. But with that much money under my control—that many people, A-list talent, in my hands—I had to be super focused. But I was prepared for the challenge, and I was not going to let myself not rise to the occasion. And I knew I had done it when I saw my actors trust me on ideas that were not on the paper sometimes. They knew that they were in the hand of a good director who was an artist, first.”

It helped, as well, that he had access to some great experienced directors with whom he had worked in the past. One of his first films was Coffee and Cigarettes, directed by Jim Jarmusch. “I did meet Jim Jarmusch first,” RZA says. “And Jim gave me a lot of time, a lot of wisdom that I absorbed. What Jim does to me, is he’s able to capture an image in his movies and he’ll stay on the image and he’ll stay on that character, and he’ll stay on it for so long that sometimes your mind drifts. You know what I’m saying? Which is cool! Because you can be watching that guy and you’ll start thinking what he’s thinking about. That’s the tactic.”

Working with Ridley Scott was another step in the learning process for RZA. “When I was working with him,” he remembers, “that’s when I first saw multi-vision. Here’s a guy that can set up nine cameras and know what each camera’s got. I mean, Russell [Crowe] told me a story about him on Gladiator that blew my mind. I saw what he did on American Gangster and I said to Russell, ‘Yo, this guy has, like, a multi-vision going on.’ I coined that word. Multi-vision. He’s like, ‘Listen, in Gladiator he would do shit like, he’d call action and have all the cameras set up and then it wouldn’t go right and he’d go back and say, ‘No no, when this horse passes this particular river, you jump up. And you, when the leaves fall from here, that’s when you pull your horse.’ He said about 18 different things that nobody else understood because it’s all complete his mind. But if this guy don’t get that horse there in time, he’s messing up what he wanted that camera to catch and this camera to catch.”

“And when we were doing Gangster,” he continues, “there was a dialogue scene, but one of the actors thought the camera wasn’t on him, as far as the camera you could feel, you know. Some actors can feel cameras. Ridley’s got cameras where you don’t feel ’em, though. And this actor didn’t feel the camera. It was on me and Russell maybe. He was kinda like waiting for his close up or whatever, right? Shit. And when they cut the scene, Russell walked over to him, ‘Aye, where was you at? Where was you at? Nah nah, the way Ridley shoots, your part in this fucking take could have been right there.’ And he was right. You know what I’m saying? Cause the first time the guy ate the doughnut, the second time he was just sitting there bullshitting. No, no. Bite that fucker every time! You know what I mean?”

The most profound influence, though, came from Tarantino himself. “First, I just want to say that Quentin Tarantino is my mentor and my teacher,” he says. “So if I was to belong to a kung fu school, I belong to the School of Tarantino. I just got years of watching films with him. Sitting beside him. You know what I mean? In his home theater. Traveling around the world to film festivals. Absorbing and talking. Got a chance to spend nights at his house and check out his library and things like that. So, that’s my school. “

“There’s one movie we watched on VHS,” RZA remembers, “which I never would have watched. I remember the commercial as a kid. Fast Break! Now I’m thinking, why am I watching Fast Break? Ok? But yet, from watching that movie, I still learned a little morsel of filmmaking. And of acting. So, there’s no telling what he’s going to put in. What the triple-feature’s going to be that night. A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die. We watched that. We watched many Kung Fu movies, but some of the prints would be burnt, the colors were burned. Like say it’s all pink or it’s all blue like that. But, something about the way it looked inspired me to actually shoot scenes like that. I want the scene to look like that. You’ll notice in my film, you’ll notice the colors are a certain way. You know, Tony Scott, rest in peace, always has a hue pitch of green, in his movies. You notice that? Ok, so I had to choose a color. And I like the color, a hue pitch of purple. Just squeeze a little bit of purple in that motherfucker.”

Combining those disparate influences, of course, is exactly what he’s spent his musical career doing as well. “I learned that from Quentin too, from watching him, you know, do this. And the funny thing is it’s what I did in music. I didn’t have instruments. I had a sampler; that was my instrument. So, I had to go and take a snare from James Brown and kick from Isaac Hayes, a horn hit from Mad Lads, you know? A piano from Bill Evans, maybe, you know what I mean? A note from this, a note from that. And put all that together to make my sound. And it don’t sound like no damn Bill Evans—who I love, one of the greatest jazz players. But it don’t sound like his when I get through with it.”

RZA was determined not to write the score himself, but events—and Tarantino—intervened. “I was not going to do the score,” he says. “The studio asked me to do it. I tried to get out of it. But Quentin double downed on it, so I did it. But when I was first writing the film, I wrote it to music. I had some of the Stax music, you know, Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding, Mad Lads, William Bell, these type songs. I would write to these songs. Also I had a lot of classical music, a lot of things, I had a whole playlist for Iron Fists. I was hoping that we could buy some of these songs. I told my music supervisor early on, I said, you can hire a composer, but I want to make sure we get the rights to some of these Stax masters cause I would love to take them, strip ’em down, and re-orchestrate them. And he was like, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea. That hasn’t been done’. I said ‘Yeah I know. That’s why I wanna do it.’”

He laughs and continues, “But, he actually was able to go and we got about five masters from the Stax collection that we were able to change around and reorchestrate. So that’s some of the sound of the music. And of course, I infused hip hop—I got some of the Wu Tang songs, and I was able to reorchestrate some of those things. Some of the beats, you’ll hear them coming in a different way. And then, I love classical, and so me and my buddy Howard Drawson, we spent about eight months writing music for this thing. It’s a combination of all these different things. And it really works in the film because you’ll be watching this film, and you’ll find yourself tapping your feet, you know? Which I think is a good thing in a movie. To me a movie should be fun, first and foremost.”

It’s that openness to multiple influences, that awareness of his surroundings, that discipline, the calmness, that makes RZA so promising as a director. And it all comes back to the martial-arts background. “Martial arts informs my everyday life,” he insists. “It goes in everything I do. I think I live by the martial principle more than the actual forms of martial arts. As a director, it’s remaining calm. Actually, the DP said I’m the calmest director he worked with in 20 years. And yet everybody did what I said. They worked to please me, and I didn’t have a bull horn. You know what I mean? Even in China, they always got bull horns. So he was impressed. It’s because of the calmness of the spirit that martial arts teaches me, and I’m able to calm myself and absorb a tremendous amount of stress. And, I think also, it helped me communicate to other people.”

And to think, all of it—the music, the films, the work—started from that one double feature in a run-down Staten Island movie theater. I hope he sent that aunt a thank-you note.