By Gene Ching
The Man with the Iron Fists is the most anticipated Hollywood Kung Fu film of 2012. The diverse cast includes Academy-Award-winning actor Russell Crowe, China doll Lucy Liu, and an army of leading martial arts actors, both old and new. At the helm is the RZA, arguably the greatest hip hop producer of all time, the "abbot" of the groundbreaking super rap group Wu-Tang Clan which brought Kung Fu to a completely new demographic of Western aficionados. Always a martial provocateur, RZA is the first disciple of Shaolin Monk Shi Yanming (釋延明). In The Man with the Iron Fists RZA did everything - write, direct, act - he even scored the soundtrack. Orson Welles didn't do that for Citizen Kane.
In late August, I caught up with RZA at the Happy Vegetarian Restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown to discuss his new film.
GC: How did The Man with the Iron Fists come about?
RZA: It was a story that I had written down - a 90-page script. I told my buddy Eli (Roth) about it. He loved it. He saw it as I was telling it. I had forgotten he wanted to do it with me at first, and it wasn't really working out. It wasn't really good for me. Eli came back later on and was like, "I want to do it with you." And he took a read of the script and he saw some problems that needed fixing and he came on board. He helped me write it into a screenplay that not only the audience would understand, but that Hollywood would understand. From there, we kept going step by step and got it made.
GC: You filmed this in China at the Hengdian Studios in Shanghai. How was that?
RZA: Aw man, it was beautiful - but strenuous and crazy at the same time. The people out there were so great. I had a great assistant director, Thomas Chow, and Ying Chan (陳志英), my director of photography, who I met a few years earlier. He worked on my video with me earlier. I did a video in Hong Kong. I did a video earlier when he was still up-and-coming. And ten years later, we wind up working on a film together. That was kind of crazy.
I had a big crew of people, about 400 people working for us at some points. And it was amazing, man. Not easy though, not easy. Only about seventeen of us spoke English. Some things got lost in translation. I got dizzy some days. You know China. But there was a lot of patience and understanding and a lot of creative people there with great minds. I had a great team of people working also. My production designer was from America, my boy Drew Boughton. We really busted our asses, man. We worked hard. Corey Yuen (元奎), a master action director came on board. It was great working with Corey. You know, I had about four cameras. I had a camera. He had a camera. He wasn't a guy that sat there and just talked. He picked up the camera and shot the shot. That was great.
When I was doing the film, I was not allowed to use real-life cultural references from Chinese history. We had to be very meticulous about that - very careful about it - to the point where we couldn't even say "Peking duck." We couldn't use "Shaolin Temple." I had to devise names because, in the script, it was Shaolin. But I had to devise a name for the temple that could reflect the movie and my concept that I was trying to get across. And I came up with Wu Chi temple. And when I made the name, the Chinese crew that was working was really impressed with the name. They thought it was really special.
GC: Wu Chi (無極). Good call.
RZA: Yeah, because from Wu Chi, you get Tai Chi (太極). Tai Chi is the "Grand Ultimate Extremities." Wu Chi is "No Extremities." It's beyond that. And so to me, it was actually a blessing for me to get a philosophy in that way, instead of the way it is traditionally done in martial arts films. Songshan Shaolin means "mountain" and "forest," basically. The mountain and the forest.
GC: But being a Shaolin disciple, how do you feel about the name switch?
RZA: Well, I'm also a Wu-Tang disciple, with what we did with Shaolin in Wu-Tang. . .
GC: If Staten Island can be Shaolin. . .
RZA: Yeah, so it made sense to me. The essence is there. It's also that I know I'm making a movie. So it is fantastical things going on. This is a fantasy. There's history in the film, but even the history itself maybe happened twenty years later, you know what I mean? Stuff like that. So I was real crafty in making it feel like something that was real that is fiction.
It was funny. Instead of saying "Peking duck" they allowed me to say "Cantonese spare ribs."
GC: (laughs) Chinese spare ribs!
RZA: Exactly! I got the idea from "Chinese spare ribs." It became "Cantonese braised ribs" (laughs). So you know, we still got a good reference in there. Here's something funny for you, Gene. "Chinese spare ribs," okay, that's from Return of the Dragon (1972), and in that movie was about all those white men trying to buy the Chinese restaurant. Would you believe that white man is in my movie?
GC: Which guy?
RZA: Jon Benn, the villain with the glasses. Is that crazy? And he does this scene with Pam Grier. So basically it's a '70s moment in the film that only us two diehard fans probably understand. You know, Pam is the queen of Black exploitation movies.
GC: Foxy Brown!
RZA: Foxy Brown. This character being a guy from the martial art influence, you know what I mean? And I bring these two actors together for the scene. It's like homage to the culture and the genre. When I did it, it was a stroke of luck. But still, a stroke of genius at the same time.
RZA: Yeah, I had one actor that was actually better for the role. But when they said I could have Jon, I was like, "No, just give me Jon." It's going to be beyond the actor. It's for the cinematic idea of me capturing the genre and the time in my film.
GC: Well, you've always been the king of homage, man.
GC: There are websites dedicated to referencing Kung Fu films honored by Wu-Tang Clan lyrics. Will The Man with the Iron Fists be the same?
RZA: I think The Man with the Iron Fists is sort of like my 36 Chambers. When I made 36 Chambers, I came out to make a classic album and something that was unique for the hip hop world. I think I succeeded in doing that.
RZA: And now I'm doing the same thing with film. Of course, the fans are the ones that will let us know, you know what I mean? I think I do got something that's really cool here that's definitely worth the price of admission and the bucket of popcorn you sit down and eat with it.
If you're smart, you'll get inspired like I was when I was a kid. After eating that popcorn, you'll do some Kung Fu after you finish watching the movie. Burn off the calories.
GC: How much control did you have of the casting?
RZA: The cast? It's a process. We went from many different names, as far as local talent, that we had to comb through.
GC: So you've got some legendary Kung Fu stars on board - Gordon Liu (刘家辉), Chan Koon Tai (陳觀泰). How was it for you to work with them?
RZA: Ah, a blessing and an honor. Of course, being a director, everybody looks at you as the man. Director - that's what we do. They could not know how thrilled I was inside to have them on my set. In a strange way, we all got our hero actors. I love all my American actors - De Niro, Pacino, Brando, it's a long list. I'm a cinephile so I love acting and movie-making. But Asian films have been my cream of the crop, you know what I mean? It's something I've watched more than any other form of movies. And some of these guys, I've watched their movies so many times. I know the words - the dubbed versions - by heart. And then there I am, sitting next to Hung Hsi Kuan (洪熙官), who I've watched in movies so many times, actually copied him, imitated him. I watched his movie and wanted a dummy like his - you know, he had to fight it and it threw out the balls and he had to catch the balls. I wanted that so bad in my life. And actually, I was able to fit something in the film. I got something like that. I was actually able to keep it as a prop. It's at my house now.
GC: Sweet. That's like every martial artist's dream. All of us, on some level, fantasize about making movies with the legends.
RZA: And we got Beardy, right? (Leung Ka Yan 梁家仁) If you listen to that ODB album, there's a song called Hippa to da Hoppa. And he says like "dragon fist, horse fist, bastard, I didn't know who you were." That's that actor's dubbed voice in that skit. Now here he is - one of my favorite actors. Actually the martial arts style that I emulated for the technique, for the The Man with the Iron Fists, was a fictional style that he invented in a movie called The Victim (1980). It's called the Iron Horse.
GC: Now, if I remember correctly, Beardy wasn't a classically trained Kung Fu practitioner. He just picked it up for the movies.
RZA: No, he's an actor. But he inspired Wing Chun with the Wing Chun movie Warriors Two (1978).
GC: Sure, he's earned his place in the genre.
RZA: Yeah. With Sammo Hung, Warriors Two was one of the movies that came out and inspired Wing Chun around the world, like Ip Man (2008) is doing now.
GC: I know you practice Kung Fu, but here you are working with some of these great martial stars. You must have had to step up your game.
RZA: Oh yeah. Well, one thing, we've spoke about Kung Fu many times before - Kung Fu (功夫) being "man at work" or "body at work" or "spirit at work" or "energy at work," whatever way you want to define it. So I've been doing Kung Fu for years. What Bruce Lee tried to teach us was to lose the form. Conformists, know what I mean? In fact, that's what Bodhidharma espoused, right? That's the ultimate goal. Losing delusions. I think that my martial art is a formless style of martial art. I won't do it twice, like a "jazz" martial arts.
GC: Free rap, man.
RZA: Yeah, that's what I do. The only form that I can say I took up and learned the form is Hung Gar Tiger Crane. I first read it as a kid in a book. I used the book and copied the moves and did the best I could, looking at a Kung Fu book. The beautiful thing for me was when I went to do the movie, Corey Yuen assigns me a trainer to get me in shape for the film. And he sent to me a Hong Kong master. And he's the martial arts brother of Lau Kar Leung (劉家良), the director. He plays in the Kung Fu movies - he's in My Young Auntie (1981長輩) - he's one of those five old men. And in Lau Kar Leung's class, who we look at as the modern Wong Fei Hung of Hung Gar - nobody has made movies or tried to promote it as much as he did throughout his career - this guy is right beside him in the photos with their master. And he showed me the photos. It's only about twelve guys that are true descendants of this master. He's one of them. And he's passing it on to me. We spent probably about two months doing the form with him and he said something to me that was funny. He liked me, I guess, you know what I mean? "You learn more of the form than Gordon." (laughs) I was like, "Get outta here." I think that was just the master giving me inspiration because I was always talking about Gordon and asking him questions about Gordon and Lau. He had so many great stories about growing up with them. And he's Gordon's uncle basically.
GC: You got some of our local champions too, so I'd be remiss if I didn't give some face to Cung Le and Daniel Wu. How was it working with them?
RZA: Great! I'll speak about Cung first. He's the ass kicker of the movie. There's a lot of fights in this movie, and some scenes will be better than others, but the true martial artist who really brought a lot of energy to the table was Cung. And he's just kicking ass. (laughs) The movie starts off with him kicking ass. I let you know right away who is the ass kicker of the movie.
Daniel Wu, who tweeted me the other day - he knew I was going to be in San Francisco - was great, man. He's a great brother, a great spirit. I really like him as a person, as a man. There's really something special about him. His acting was great as well. You know, Russell Crowe is in this film, and Russell is a real meticulous actor. He's a very classical actor from Hollywood. He was very meticulous about who he worked with and who he did scenes with. And you know, maybe he's one of the best actors in the world, so all the rest of the actors on the set had to get up to his "Kung Fu" level, shall we say. The only one that I seen him get immediate actor response to was Daniel. It was immediate. Their scene together, how they did it, how they hold their eye contact was good. And they liked it. They dug it. They felt doing their scenes together. They felt the energy of what they were playing. And thanks to those two good actors - everybody is a good actor in the film - I felt I was able to capture the best of everybody. I got a lot of good things out of everybody, but these two guys are pros that can do it. If it's Kung Fu, these guys can fight Kung Fu. It was really cool to me to see the quality and level of Daniel and how Russell respected him as an actor compared to the other actors. Some of the guys were trying to be in his peripheral, you know what I mean? But Daniel was there. They did some great scenes together.
GC: I don't want to drop any spoilers, but is there room for a sequel?
RZA: Definitely. The story's not ended, actually. It never was written to be ended. Of course, success will make that happen, know what I mean? We got to get some box office numbers and have a studio happy to do it again with me. The studio was not silent. They let me know that this was a movie they did out of respect of the artists. This is outside of the box. But they gave it a chance. So we got to thank Hollywood as well for investing into a movie like this and investing in a guy like me to bring it to the screen.
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Gene Ching :
The Man with the Iron Fists opens on November 2, 2012. Click IronFists.com. Read RZA on Director's Cuts, Creating Weapons and THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS for additional material from this exclusive interview.