Image via The Man with the Iron Fists

You Must Think First … Before You Movie

INTERVIEW: RZA and the story behind The Man with the Iron Fists

By Chris Faraone

Originally published in the Boston Phoenix (November 2012)

It’s a snowy night in late 2006, and Hostel director Eli Roth is stranded at Logan Airport with RZA. The two are bound for Los Angeles, on their way home from hanging with Quentin Tarantino in Iceland. It’s just a layover, but with their flight delayed, Roth suggests that they eat dinner with his parents, who live right down the Mass Pike in Newton. The world-renowned ringleader of the Wu-Tang Clan accepts the invite, they hail a cab, and a few hours later, as RZA puts it, “The Man with the Iron Fists begins over a good bowl of mushroom soup.”

On some level, this story starts in 1993, when Wu-Tang first hijacked the music industry. As the Staten Island outfit’s chief maestro, RZA — alternatively known as the Abbot — had already dabbled in the rap game, and as such was hip to the corporate gauntlet. Two years earlier, a solo deal he’d struck with Tommy Boy turned sour, but he spun the loss into a lesson, and began to grow his Clan of close friends and cousins into an inimitable empire, mercenary-style. By the time labels finally showed interest, his swords were sharp enough to cut an honorable deal.

As Wu-Tang advanced — yielding an assault of group and solo outings — RZA stockpiled heaps of conceptual currency. He wasn’t simply hoarding beats, but also branding the group through sound bites plucked from such kung-fu classics as the 1981 film Shaolin and Wu Tang. That flick inspired not just the group’s moniker, but also RZA’s tactical mantra, which he sampled on the Clan’s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): “A game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first before you move.”

Speaking two decades after that initial foray, RZA calls 36 Chambers a showcase of his freshest work up to that point. The project’s dark karate thug aesthetic reflects a range of his defining influences — from Southern-soul samples, to the Shaw Brothers’ slice-’em-ups that RZA studied with his cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard in dollar matinee shows on old 42nd Street. Those prerequisites, he says — plus everything he’s learned since then, along with Roth’s mom’s mushroom soup — gave way to his latest chess move, and filmmaking debut, The Man with the Iron Fists.

I recently sat with the first-time director for an exclusive chat about his Far East fantasy, which features him as a blacksmith who hunts murderers to repossess the weapons that he made them.

“This is the second tier of what I did at the beginning of Wu-Tang and of being able to put all of my energy into one outlet,” says RZA, who co-wrote the Tarantino-produced Iron Fists with Roth. He continues: “I’ve been making music, acting in movies, and scoring films like Kill Bill for years now. With The Man with the Iron Fists — this is a lot of me giving back to everything that inspired me.”

RZA’s actual film career began in 1999, when director Jim Jarmusch tapped him to score the Jersey City samurai flick Ghost Dog. In the process, Jarmusch gave a small acting role to the Abbot, and a dormant movie man emerged from the shadows. The leap was hardly surprising: all of RZA’s soundscapes are intensely cinematic, and his imagination has always fashioned screen-worthy characters, from his nihilistic alter-ego Bobby Digital to his role in the horrorcore troupe Gravediggaz.

After riding scores into Tinsel Town, RZA honed his acting chops across genres and, to his surprise, found fulfillment in executing small duties. “Being the head [of Wu-Tang] is a heavy job,” he says. “But working for others was good for me, because there’s a difference between being driven and driving. In acting, I felt for the first time the freedom of pampering — instead of worrying about everybody else, they were worrying about me. That was a good feeling, and it gave me a bug, an itch. I wanted to be an actor.”

Without overexposing himself, RZA racked up a string of unique performances — a broke bankrupt rap producer in Repo Men, a deli counter muse in Funny People. There’s also his memorable turn as a cop in American Gangster, through which he met his friend Russell Crowe (who RZA later asked to channel Ol’ Dirty’s unhinged charisma for the part of Jack Knife in Iron Fists). RZA’s biggest breakthrough, though, came behind the lens — as an apprentice on Kill Bill. For 30 days on sets in Beijing and Mexico, he took notes on Tarantino’s movements, all the while composing music for the double feature.

“A typical hangout with me and Quentin is us having a good time — some margaritas, some movies, a nice bowl of weed,” says RZA. Their friendship has evolved, with RZA working up from pupil to chief creative force on Iron Fists. “As friends, I learn by just watching movies and dissecting them with [Tarantino], paying attention to what he thinks, and seeing what he prescribes. But when we first worked together, I came on as a student. A master should always know how to be a student.”

By the time he found himself at Logan airport with Roth, RZA was three years deep in Tarantino’s circle, and just beginning to write Iron Fists. On that snowy night, the Abbot spoke endlessly about the concept, and the two continued the discussion all throughout the next year. They’d bonded; in addition to a shared affection for gratuitous carnage, they discovered that RZA grew up in the same neck of Brooklyn as Roth’s father, and even attended the same elementary school years earlier.

“We started talking, and it turns out that they were also from Brownsville,” says RZA, who moved to Staten Island as a teenager. “A year later, Eli had a situation to help get [Iron Fists] made, and wanted to write it with me. I thought if it could be done with a friend — someone I was cool with — then that would be great. That’s the thought that I put into picking teams: scrutinize everybody. I’ve learned a lot from doing so much with music and movies, and I always work best with friends who are like family. That’s why I say this all started over a good bowl of mushroom soup.”

Read more of Chris Faraone’s music archives here …