Man With The Iron Fists: Director RZA Talks Kickbutt Bromance With Russell Crowe

A Renaissance rapper in every sense of that unusual notion, the multi-talented RZA, alias Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, has most recently moved on from hiphop performer, soundtrack artist, actor, and among the most influential music producers around, to writing and directing a movie. Known simply as Bobby to the stellar cast he assembled for the made in China period martial arts thriller, The Man With The Iron Fists, the co-founder of the Wu-Tang Clan dropped by for this interview to talk his very unusual kickbutt bromance with Russell Crowe in the film, and checking in with collaborative co-star Lucy Liu for her girl power perspective, even if she does play a brothel boss in Fists. And, how she managed to put RZA in touch with his possibly feminist side, however raunchy. Likewise up for discussion was the challenge of a rap performer staked out behind the camera instead; Tarantino and Bruce Lee as artistic inspirations; female Buddhas; Ford plants; and exactly how the late Wu-Tang Clan co-founder, Ol’ Dirty Bastard Russell Jones, inhabited the kinky soul of another Russell – Russell Crowe, in this movie.

RZA: Wass up!

Hey, great to see you. So why was it important to you to bring on Quentin Tarantino as executive producer of this movie?

RZA: Tarantino is my mentor. He let me come on to the set of Kill Bill in Beijing. I spent thirty to forty days there.

So basically, he’s my teacher. And when it came time for this film, I needed to separate it from the rest of the Asian films in the world.

Because they make a hundred of these films a year. And what makes my film separate and different?

I’ll tell you what. ‘Quentin Tarantino Presents,’ babee! That’s the stamp of approval!

Now about Russell Crowe getting kinky all around that brothel in your movie, that was pretty weird.

RZA: Russell is a master actor, there’s no question about that. There’s very few men, not even a hundred men in the world, like that.

But this particular character, the only thing we talked about was yo, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the case study for Jack Knife!

You saw the film, you know how nasty Ol’ Dirty was, okay! The first time he pops out of that tub with the hooker and those beads in his mouth, I’m quite sure somebody had Ol’ Dirty in their mind.

Because that was an Ol’ Dirty Bastard tactic. You know what I mean? I would say he was the soul of Jack Knife. And I always wanted Russell for Jack Knife.

But Russell is a master actor, whether he’s adding his ideas, or whether we’re giving him something to do spontaneous. He just sinks right in, y’all.

Crowe at London Film premier of State of Play, 21 April 2009.

And I remember yelling out to Russell, go ODB with it, go Ol’ Dirty with those hookers!

And just go Ol’ Dirty on all those women. And when you give an actor that backdrop, you’re gonna get a better performance.

But Russell did give me one assignment! In the screenplay, originally I was going to make our two characters enemies.

But he was like no, no Bobby. We have to have a scene where these two men come together.

So I went to Eli and said, you gotta erase those pages and come up with another scene.

And we found the moment, and the way to do it. And I think just as a smart man, he was smart to know that would be an important energy for the film.

The same thing with Lucy, and the female power. And she’s an actress with this knowledge and this energy, who knows where she’s coming from. It’s not just coming from a piece of paper.

How about teasing the audience with that possible Russell Crowe/Lucy Liu hot sex scene?

RZA: Yeah! It looks like Russell and Lucy’s coming together, and something’s happening. And then, psych! Anyway, that was fun, y’all.

What was it like filming in China, as opposed to Hollywood?

RZA: It was just tough in China.

How so?

RZA: Well, out of about four hundred of us, only seventeen spoke English. But all my department heads were bilingual.

And I had a great translator, who is a smart smart guy. He’s gonna be a director himself one day, I’m sure.

But we were prepared. I spent over 150 days in China. And my team of people got to know me, and got to understand my rhythm.

So when the time came that I need to push harder, they pushed harder. And when I knew it was time to ease up, we cut the day at 1pm.

Which only happened once or twice. But I was able to do that too.

What about navigating China culturally to make your movie?

RZA: Culturally, the different vibe, it was just a lonely situation, really. Not only seeing no blacks in China, you’re not seeing no whites either.

I mean, I remember days standing at the elevator going up to my room, and there would be maybe this one white guy there.

And we’d both be like, we’d start talking about sports, or something.

And the reason he was there, was because Ford was building a car plant. So they stopped using the one in America, and was building one there.

Then I met a few Wu-Tang fans at a Japanese restaurant. They were like RZA? What you doin’ in China, man!

And I’m like, I’m doin’ a movie, What you guys doin’? We’re working for Ford, man. And I was like, hey. Get me some Sake!

But it was way lonely. My wife wasn’t able to come over, because of the duties of home.

You know, I don’t depend on maids, and stuff like that, to take care of my children,

You know, I’d rather have my wife do it, than depend on anyone else. So she didn’t make it over, and I was real lonely.

And everybody else had love. The only time I had love, was one week I got super duper lonely.

I mean lonely, lonely to where I was like, I didn’t turn the TV on. I just started making music.

And when Jamie Chung came in to play my girlfriend Lady Silk, I just started like, hey. Looking at her like, that was my woman! You know what I mean? That’s how lonely I was as a man.

And then we wound up going out to a club one night, and she had a male friend with her.

And I was like, I wanted to fight the guy! And the other actors had to stop me.

Well, it seemed to have affected your performance in the movie, because your character Blacksmith looked really lonely.

RZA: Yeah! He was morbid. And very internal, shall we say.

How about the challenges of directing The Man With The Iron Fists?

RZA: They were big challenges. Because I’m not playing just with any small Joe. I got some of the best stars in the world, to represent with me.

And you wanna protect that. And you know, that you’re not being made a buffoon, or made a joke of.

And with a screenplay, nobody is gonna get the full imagination of what you want. Except the person who wrote it, he knows everything he meant.

So now hopefully the actors trust you. And we were all collaborative on the ideas, which helped the trust. But it was a real challenge, yeah.

Like when Lucy made a suggestion to me that women’s power must really be shown here. I had been to the temples, and already seen the power of the female Buddha.

But for Lucy to come and tell me this, I was like, yeah. But I still had to check with my writer! It was all good, though.

And we had time to meditate on it. And I thought, she’s right, y’all. And Eli and I thought on it, that there’s one thing all women have. And that’s a motherly instinct.

And if a crisis is about to happen, and she’s gonna risk herself, it’s worthy. But I wanted Lucy for Madam Blossom, that was a dream.

And I didn’t think I was gonna get her. But I convinced her good! It was like, I’m workin’ on it, I’m workin’ on it!

Nah, I really wanted her so bad, man. And even when we got some big offers and shit, and they took her picture off and put up someone else, I was like, what!

And they told me, it ain’t gonna happen. And I was like, it gotta happen. I see it, I see it already! And I’m so glad it happened.

But I will say that this is a story I wanted to tell. And probably a few things that were important to me, but not important to the world.

So we took those out, but they will be on the DVD as deleted scenes. Yeah.

Who would you say is your big influence?

RZA: It was very important to pay homage to those things that inspire me, especially Bruce Lee. To me, I consider Bruce Lee a minor prophet.

You know, the Koran teaches that we have major prophets, and we have minor prophets. So Abraham, Moses and Jesus would be major.

Then you have minor prophets who only live for small periods of time. And inspire people in their own small ways.

And I feel Bruce Lee was like that. He awakened the world to the strength of Asian men, and Asian people in particular.

And he brought martial arts films to the world stage, based on his vision. And Enter The Dragon is one of the greatest martial arts films made by Hollywood.

And I think the second one, would be Kill Bill. And hopefully the third one will be The Man With The Iron Fists!

So how would you sum up the directing experience?

RZA: A film evolves, and it happens all the time. And the page may say one thing, but when it’s time to do it, it’s like, nah. We gotta do it this way, yo.

Because now it’s real. You’re filming, and you’re capturing a piece of life. Even if it’s fiction. The camera is real, and the people are real.

And you’re capturing a moment in life that you’re now editing together. And telling a story.

So it changes and changes, y’all. And I know that more than ever now!

To see the trailer of Man With The Iron Fists:

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.