RZA on his new film and the 20th anniversary of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
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Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan’s revolutionary 1993 debut, opens not with beats or rhymes, but with a sample from an obscure kung-fu flick, an early indication that group mastermind/producer RZA already had his mind on the big screen. RZA expanded upon this cinematic sound and aesthetic with a series of universally revered early Wu-Tang solo albums like Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx… and GZA’s Liquid Swords. Then he moved toward the big screen himself by composing the music for the cult classics Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (he also had a cameo) and Kill Bill Volume 1. RZA segued into acting with brief, memorable supporting roles in films like American Gangster, Repo Men, and Funny People. Now, he’s primed to make his biggest cinematic statement to date with his directorial debut/dream project, a kung-fu movie he directed, co-wrote (with Eli Roth), and stars in alongside Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Pam Grier. The A.V. Club recently met RZA at a Chicago club where he was scheduled to perform, and spoke to him about realizing his lifelong dream, the 20th anniversary of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and overcoming the hurdles of the film industry.
The A.V. Club: The last few times we’ve talked to you, it seemed like making a kung-fu movie was a dream you’ve been working toward for a long time. How does it feel to finally have a movie coming out in theaters?
RZA: Yeah, it’s almost as exciting as having a child born. It’s a similar labor. [Laughs.] But I’m going through the labor, not my wife. I’m so busy. I never understood when other people would say that a film has a life of its own, and it’s an entity. Now that I’m directing one, I understand exactly what they mean. So much energy went into it, so many different minds that have to turn into—be spearheaded by—one mind. Like that one sperm. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did the idea for The Man With The Iron Fists come about, and how did it evolve over time?
RZA: The idea for this particular film originated with a man named Stephen Belafonte, who saw one of my films, called “Tragedy,” that was on the beginning of a movie called Rhyme & Reason. And he ran into me at a club one night, and was like, “Yo!” You know, I was looking handsome and good and healthy. He’s like, “Man, you fucking look like a movie star! You ever think about making a full kung-fu movie?” He says, “When I saw Rhyme & Reason, that was the best part of the whole fucking movie, was your fucking video!” At the time he was working with Ed Pressman, and I was like, “Yeah, I always wanted to do one, but it hasn’t happened for me yet.” He said, “I got a situation. You should fucking—let’s do one. I got a guy, he did The Crow and all this stuff.” I was like, “All right, well, I got a few treatments and stuff.” And I wound up meeting Ed and we talked about it, and the idea was, first I was going to just maybe do a cover. You know, choose a film I like, see if we could get the rights to it, and cover it.
AVC: A remake.
RZA: Yeah, do like a remake maybe. There’s one film I wanted to remake called The Savage Five, which I still want to remake.
AVC: What made you want to remake it?
RZA: Well, that movie is just a good movie, to me. In any setting. It’s set around 1903, I think. You have a woodcutter, a thief, a welder, a fucking alcoholic, and a martial artist who don’t know each other. And they’re all in this town for different reasons at different points, and then a group of fucking bandits who had just robbed a bank comes to this town as a pass-through to where they’re headed. And this town is so soft; the thief lives there because it’s like utopia for him. And all he steals there is chickens. He’s a murdering thief who just steals a chicken every day. When they catch him, they tell him, “Stop it.” He does it again tomorrow, and that’s the way this town works. And here come these mean bandits—who would kill a baby—to this town that would never fight back. Then these five men have to come together to get rid of these bandits. And the bandits got guns, big ones. So anyway, I still want to do that movie. It’s a great movie to me. Anyway, not being able to find how to get the rights to that movie [Laughs.]—I went to Image, I went to a few places, but I couldn’t chase the rights. And then it’s like, “Just write your own shit.” Quentin [Tarantino] told me, “Write.” So I took his advice, and I started writing my own shit, from my own imagination.
AVC: Did you buy any instructional books before writing the screenplay?
RZA: How to write? No, that was actually one of my downfalls later on, was that I had no book on how to write. I just went for it. I’m a lyricist, and I write songs. And the one thing that people may not know about me is, I was offered a scholarship as a writer when I was in the ninth grade.
RZA: I went to Curtis High School. I was in the honor’s program. My reader level was a 12.9 ever since I was 11 years old; I already had a college-reader level. But I didn’t have the patience. I wanted to get some pussy and a 40-ounce. [Laughs.] Not sit in school. Anyway, I started writing; I wrote a synopsis, and Ed Pressman was interested in it. That was 60 pages, 90 pages, and we was talking about doing it. At this point, about a year and a half had passed. We had some paperwork that was floating around, and we had a potential budget. Then my lawyer said I shouldn’t do it with these guys. Ed Pressman’s a great producer; we respect him—he just felt that it wasn’t a good entry level for me. At that point, I think I told him, I left the music industry alone, but I had to make X amount of dollars a year no matter what, to keep me as me. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s expensive to be RZA.
RZA: Yeah, without worrying about nothing. I don’t have the time for worrying. [Laughs.] And this would have slowed me down a lot more than I would have wanted. It took a lot of time, and he just thought it was a bad idea. But I still pursued it until, coming back from a trip to Iceland, me and Eli [Roth] were talking about this story, and I was telling him I was about to do it, I was really thinking about signing the papers in the next few months, and all this shit. And he loved the story.
AVC: What was the story at that point?
RZA: The story has always been the same, about clans, gold passing. The original story was territory. The original story always was about Jungle Village, a place where the slogan is, “Are we men or beasts?” That’s the slogan of the town. And the Hyenas is a clan, the Lions is a clan, the Wolves, the Rodents, the Monkeys, the Snake—had all these clans. We got rid of a lot of the clans in the final cut, actually. The Monkeys, we got rid of. That was the last clan we just edited out. But anyway, all these different clans trying to take over the town, so they could control all the shipments of what came in and out. It was like a—what’s the movie where Marlon Brando was on a shipyard working?
AVC: On The Waterfront.
RZA: Yeah. So who controls that, controls everything. So it was kind of a mentality like that. But eventually, it evolved significantly. It was this character who made the weapons for all the clans. And they were coming to him and demanding weapons; he would make them because he was smart mechanically. I thought, “The Hyena weapon bites like this.” [Makes chomping hand gesture.] And so the Lions needed a weapon to beat that, so he designs a weapon so that when they bite, they block it with their weapon and their teeth get stuck. When their teeth are stuck, their weapon unlocks, and they get you. [Laughs.] That weapon didn’t make it into the movie, but it is on the DVD. Anyway, that was original story, territory, and in the new story, we added an element, which is the commerce itself is coming through, not just the territory, but now the gold is coming from the government. So we put a higher power over the clans, even higher, therefore it’s like the criminals are good. We added the extra layer. And many other things, too, as far as characters and development. But this was a tedious process. Before me and Eli rewrote the screenplay, there were other writers. Eli came to me a few months later, saying he wants to do the film with me, and he has some cool producers, so let’s take a shot.
I said, “You know what? I’d rather do it with my buddy than anybody. Fuck all this shit, I’ll just tell them no.” So he got on the mission. He took my script to the producers, they read it and thought it was cool, they saw the story, but they felt like it wasn’t developed. And this was maybe, if I remember correctly, I took it into two other studios before that. It was Ed Pressman, it was a company called Ambush and another company. And Ed Pressman was the one we were going to go with. Ambush came in and they wanted me to make it post-apocalyptic. Which I thought about. It could have been post-apocalyptic. But when I got to Strike, who are the producers of the film, they thought the script needed more development. So they actually sent some writers to help me. I went through two other writers, and it was tedious, because I did not see the film becoming the film I wanted. I wanted to make a movie… I knew that no matter what it was, I wanted to make it cool. So Eli goes away to Inglourious Basterds, while I’m working with other writers. And he’s still Skyping me, but when he gets home, he reads this new thing we have, and he’s like, “Bobby, that’s not the movie we talked about! Let’s go back to your original script and start over from there.” So okay, fuck it. Scrap all that. Went to my laptop, got the original, printed it out—poof, here’s the original. Then we started from there, and we took a year. And we got it to where it’s at.
AVC: You didn’t know the other writers that worked on the script before Eli entered the picture?
RZA: No, I didn’t know them.
AVC: What were their backgrounds?
RZA: Some write for TV. They have talent, obviously; they live off of what they do. But they had to go watch 20 kung-fu movies. And then come in. And they loved them. One of them actually became a buddy of mine, John, I like him a lot, and I think we’re going to do something in the future together. He’s a smart dude, good energy. But he wound up falling in love with kung-fu movies, but for a different reason than me. He thought they were more funny. So it was a different vibe. But he was a good writer. He had something; his ending was interesting. I almost used it. I almost went with what he wanted to do, but Eli said to stick to our original story, and that’s what we did. This is years of work, of brainpower, and that’s just a small part of the labor. The big part of the labor is when you do get a green light, and now you have millions of dollars to control. And me as a first-time director, do you know how much scrutiny I had to go through? Every movie gets what they call a bond on it. The bond guy just happened to be somebody who didn’t think highly of me.
AVC: Was it because you were a first-timer?
RZA: No, because when I worked on Babylon A.D. He was the bond guy on that movie, and that movie was a disaster. It was one of those movies that the studio had to take over, and I quit that movie.
AVC: What were you doing on that?
RZA: I was the composer, and I quit. In the middle of it.
AVC: That had a really tortured history.
RZA: There were too many chefs in the kitchen. I’m like, “Who the fuck is the boss here?” I’m not used to that. When I was trying to put together The Man With The Iron Fists, I was talking to one of the lower agents, shall we say? And this guy, he loves me, he thinks I can do it, he asks like a hundred questions. I’m telling him all my answers and shit, and he’s like, “Okay, I think you can handle it. But, uh, hold on one second.” And then the boss walks in and sits down, and looks me right in the eye. [Slow, menacing voice.] “Remember me?” “Yeah, I remember you. Babylon A.D., right?” “Yeah, that’s right. That was a disaster, wasn’t it?” he said. I said, “Well, just for the record, wasn’t my fault. I did everything I could—I had too many chefs in the kitchen on that one.” He’s like, “Yeah.” So he asked me questions, and of course I answered them. And every question he asked, I answered with poise. And the producer’s right there beside me, and he’s confident in the way I’m answering the questions, too.
Then he just said one thing to me. He said, [menacing voice again] “Do you know how movies get made?” And I went into this whole philosophy, “Yeah, movies get made when people come together and collaborate their energy, focus, dedication, know what I mean? They bring it to life.” And he said, “No, no. On schedule.” [Laughs.] I looked at him and said, “I’m going to add that to my knowledge.” And I did. I didn’t miss one day. This movie was finished on schedule. On contingency, on budget. They didn’t spend not one dollar extra. No reshoots. None of the things you hear about on almost every movie. First-time director didn’t cost one extra dollar. I saved money.
AVC: How were you able to do that?
RZA: Oh, focus. My answer was good, supreme focus, but the scheduling thing made me focus more! [Laughs.] There was one thing we were shooting, and I didn’t get what I wanted. I was so disappointed. I was like, “Fuck that, I need another two days. Call and let the studio know.” And one of the producers told me, “Look, if you need extra, I can get you extra money. Because I don’t think you’re going to be able to pull this movie off with your budget. I think you’re going to need more time. If you need it, let me know.” I said, “Okay, thank you.” I just kept working.
But now, I felt like I needed it. Eli was like, “I don’t think we should go back. It don’t look good.” I was like, “Man, fuck that.” Ten minutes later, it was emails throughout the whole fucking chain of networks and shit. I went home that day, and I said to myself, “You know what? Nah, I don’t need it. I know what to do. I’m going to simplify this one thing, and I’m going to change the character.” That’s what I had to do. Action takes so long, and it takes long because of the way they shoot it. For that character, I had them shoot it like that. But for this [other] character, don’t shoot it like that. There’s a movie called Old Boy, and that motherfucker just whips ass. That’s how we’re going to shoot the scene for this character. I’m like, “Don’t worry about it, I’m going to set it up.” And that’s how we did it, and it saved me a whole two days.
AVC: Did you do a lot of storyboarding in pre-production?
RZA: Yeah. I did everything. My preparation for this movie was impeccable. We lived through the movie over and over. Me and my team, my heads of department, about 17 people, we did every type of prepping known, as far as scout prep, where you go to the location, and you actually walk through every shot. We spent 12 to 14 weeks on this. We spent more time prepping than we did shooting. We only shot for 10 weeks. We prepped 14 weeks, scouted for four to six weeks. It’s usually—I don’t know how it works, but I don’t think that’s usually how it works. But Marc Abraham was a great producer; he demanded that I prep like that. I told him, “All I need is six weeks of prep.” He’s, “Nah, trust me, kid. Trust me.” And I argued with him, but after 13 weeks, I still didn’t have enough. [Laughs.] And I realized he was 100 percent right.
When I realized he was right about that, I took heed to some things he was saying, because he made 35 movies prior to this movie. Now for him, this being his 36th movie, I told him, “That’s a good movie for you. Because of 36 Chambers. So this movie is going to work and be special, and your wisdom is going to be appreciated.” And his wisdom was appreciated; he was a great ally on this film because of his experience. And same thing with Eli, he was experienced help. [Producer] Eric Newman, experienced. Quentin Tarantino. Their knowledge and experience helped me, because if there was a bomb two feet ahead, they knew it was a bomb. They’d tell me, “You’re about to step on that mine.” “How you know?” “Eli stepped on it last time.”
AVC: Going back to 36 Chambers, with that album, you had all sorts of collaborators, but it was also very clearly your vision. Did that help when it came to the collaborative medium of film?
RZA: Well, that’s another thing they made sure of, too. They was adamant to each other, the producers and everything, “This is RZA.” There were a couple of days where, Eli’s the writer, so his name is important on some of these lines. And so there came a couple of days where Eli thought the character should say this, or that line’s not going to work. And I’m like, “I think it’ll work because of what it’s going to bring.” And maybe we would get into a little tug-of-war about that. Marc would be like, “Look. This is RZA’s vision. This is his movie. It’s not your movie. You’re a writer, and you’re here. And you’re a producer, and you have a producer’s voice. But this is Bobby’s vision. If it’s not that, it’s not going to work.” So I had that kind of protection. Then as far as me being cast as The Blacksmith, that was something we talked about in the beginning, but when it came closer to me directing, I was ready to cast somebody else.
RZA: I realized the workload I took on. I didn’t think it would be easy, and it wasn’t easy.
AVC: Did you conceive of the role as a part you would play?
RZA: When I was writing it, I was writing it for myself, in the beginning. I could see some other good actors definitely doing it. When I first asked Russell [Crowe] to be a part of it, he actually said, “The blacksmith character is pretty unique. I might want to be the blacksmith!” I was like, “Well, the way I wrote it, it wouldn’t be logical, but it’s a consideration!” [Laughs.] I told the producers, and they’re like, “No, no. That’s not what we’re making here. That’s not what you wrote.” You can change it—like, one thing about the movie is this: It always changes. All the way down to the fucking editing room. All the way down to the last day before you say it’s a closeout. That’s another thing I learned: that a movie is made three different times. It’s made in the screenplay, it’s made when you shoot it, and it’s made in editing. Then it gets a life of its own. Because the fans watch it, like we watched Star Wars, and we got our own imagination about what’s happening. We just add our own imagination to what we see.
AVC: Do you feel like that with music as well, that Wu-Tang Clan belongs to the fans as much as it does to the artists who create the music?
RZA: Yeah, it does. Because after a while, the fans have their own philosophy. In some of my lyrics, I mumble my words, and you got to figure out what I said. And you may figure out something that makes totally logical sense. But it ain’t what the fuck I said. [Laughs.]
AVC: You explain a lot of your lyrics on the website Rap Genius. What was the thinking behind that? Were you at all worried that explaining everything would remove the element of mystery from your music?
RZA: I don’t worry about the mystery, because it’s already mysterious. [Laughs.] I mean, not being egotistical, but I write multi-layered. So I don’t worry about that, because it’s necessary sometimes for me to fucking explain what I’m trying to say.
AVC: Next year will be the 20th anniversary of 36 Chambers. Do you have anything special planned for that?
RZA: Yeah, Wu-Tang Productions, the company that started 36 Chambers, has been talking to Live Nation and some cable networks as well as documentarians like the Malloy brothers. We’re talking about making it big; we’re talking to the band. The band would have to show up. [Laughs.] And if they do, I got a great plan for us. If everybody agrees to show up. We’re not contractually bound anymore. Haven’t been that for over 10 years.
AVC: Wu-Tang Clan as an entity isn’t?
RZA: Wu-Tang Clan belongs to me as an entity. Belongs to Wu-Tang Productions, me and my partners. But the members are not signed to Wu-Tang Productions anymore. Before, any member was signed to the same company. Now they have their own companies, or they signed to other companies.
AVC: So everybody’s kind of a free agent.
RZA: Yeah. So they would have to come back to Wu-Tang Productions for this particular campaign. And they’d do that; we did it last time, where they came back and they didn’t have to sign. They didn’t have to sign the last album we did, they just had to come back and get their money. But this one, this campaign, you have to sign. Because there’s a lot of people that’s happy about the 20-year anniversary, and there’s a lot of people that want to invest in it. They like Wu-Tang. They want to see us do one more run. On a large scale. Just yesterday I got a call from Bonnaroo and Coachella. So it means the energy is out there, and I think Lollapalooza is thinking about it as well. So this is one of those years that could be a great year for the Clan.
AVC: And why do you think it continues to resonate so strongly? Why do you think it has that impact? It’s so revolutionary, so raw. There wasn’t really anything that came before it. What was your biggest influence at that point?
RZA: Wu-Tang is a lamppost. There was nothing that inspired it, not being egotistical [about it]. My inspiration is the GZA. I can’t go past him. So there’s nothing else.
AVC: As a lyricist, as a thinker, as a mastermind?
RZA: All. All of the above. He’s my enlightener. He’s the one that exposed mathematics to me; he’s the one that exposed hip-hop to me. My first block party, he took me to it. My first time in the Bronx hearing rappers rap—I’m only 8 years old—he took me there. I think GZA is about three or four years older than me. I was 12 and he was 15, 16 in those days. The first rhyme that I ever said out of my mouth was his lyric.
AVC: Do you remember which lyric it was?
RZA: Yeah, it was: “Meet a young lady who would like to get fresh / You go hug her, squeeze her, put your hand up her dress / Drink champagne, then eat caviar / A few hours later, take a ride in my car / A Lincoln Continental label marked five / She had to be home no later than 9.” That kind of shit. But it was him that inspired the show. There’s one interview that you should check out online: the GZA, RZA, and ODB being interviewed right before he came out with his first record, “Come Do Me.” And the girl asked him, “Who is your inspiration? Where did it start?” And his answer was, “No. We don’t have no inspiration. We are the new thing.” These were his exact words, “This talent has never existed before.” And then Dirty says, “Yeah, this is totally new.” And I was like, “Yeah.” And they asked me, “What do you do? Are you the dancer?” I said, “No, no, no. I don’t do none of that.” What I got on my mind, basically it was a surprise. Nobody knew what I was thinking, I was younger than them. But I was thinking of even crazier things than they was thinking of. I was thinking of Wu-Tang.
AVC: You had something genuinely original, which doesn’t happen much these days.
RZA: I know. And I think that’s the reason why, when I always talk about that five-year plan, is because I actually saw the end. I saw what was going to happen. It’s like seeing the cloud, and you know it’s going to rain tomorrow. It was like that for me. And for the record, the thing with directing was this: I took a bet on directing. In 2005, I said to my fiancée, who’s now my wife, “In five years, I’ll be a movie director. I’m going to make that happen, I’m going to put all my energy towards that.” Because I believed the Wu thing, I could do it. But I will honestly say that I didn’t know like I knew then. But I believed.