Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

RZA on comics, meditation, and Katrina-related conspiracy theories

RZA is a man of many talents. One of the founding members of the many-headed hydra known as the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA has been a legendary player in the music industry for almost 30 years. About 20 years ago, he took his interest in music and his interest in film and combined them, kicking off a successful career as a composer and working with directors like Quentin Tarantino before stepping behind the camera himself for 2012’s The Man With The Iron Fists.

RZA’s latest directorial project is Cut Throat City, a heist movie set in New Orleans circa 2005, or just after Hurricane Katrina. A story about making ends meet at any cost, Cut Throat City is stylish and at times shocking, and features one of the most startling scenes of raccoon-based gang violence you’ll ever see.

The A.V. Club talked to RZA via Zoom about that scene—“walking the plank,” as it’s dubbed in the movie—as well about his relationship to New Orleans and to comic books. Parts of that interview are in the video above, but if you want to read a transcript of the whole shebang, you can do that below.

The A.V. Club: Cut Throat City’s release roll-out was supposed to start at South By Southwest, and then it was supposed to be April, then early August, and now it’s coming out at the end of the month. You’ve been thwarted few times by COVID, in other words. What has that process been like for you and how have you come to terms with how the world is going to get to see this movie?

RZA: Well, at first of course I was bummed about South By Southwest. I mean, I cleared my schedule to be there. I love going down there. I love watching other films and the experience, and I was going to even stay an extra week to get to the music part of things. So that was a bummer. Then of course, there’s the idea of the film not being seen by audiences, which is another bummer, because we make movies so they can be seen.

Just think about The King Of Staten Island. I was looking forward to seeing that at South By Southwest, but then Staten Island showed up on VOD, and I watched it, of course, but the experience wasn’t what I wanted. I’m a movie goer. I’m a movie buff. Me and my wife, Wednesdays is our “go to the movies date night” and we see everything. We like those types of things as a couple.

My film had a chance of not being on a big screen and I made it for the big screen. And so I was kind of bummed about that, but when The King Of Staten Island came right to VOD, I started accepting the possibility of what that could be.

I still wanted a better fate for myself because the intention was to have an audience sit there with their popcorn in the experience, but then of course it’s nerve wracking with the system. Nobody is certain about what’s what. It spikes up and it spikes down. After talking to a lot of the independent theater owners and even some of the executives, I think we have to open where we can and we have to keep the culture alive. I don’t personally want to see moviegoing culture disappear to a home experience. I appreciate the home experience—I actually have a pretty cool screening room in my house—but it’s nothing like the communal experience of watching a movie on a big screen with a little popcorn in your lap.

So I was very pessimistic at first, but now I’m very optimistic. For the sake of independent theaters and for the sake of the community and the sake of me being an Academy member I’m supporting the idea of safely trying to get back out to watch movies.

AVC: Have you and your wife been to a drive-in yet? Those are popping off right now.

R: No, but I was actually going to watch [Cut Throat City] at a drive-in. Snoop Dogg has his own drive-in, so I was thinking about going there, but I don’t know of one that’s really near me. I’m in California right now and we’ve been stuck here the whole pandemic. But Snoop Dogg said he would do a screening at his drive-in, so I’m looking forward to that.

AVC: Your new movie is so heavily steeped in New Orleans culture. What’s your relationship to New Orleans and specifically to the Lower Ninth Ward? 

R: Well, I don’t have a personal relationship. When I got the script, I remember talking to a few good people from New Orleans. I talked to Master P and some of the hip-hop artists that pioneered the sound of New Orleans. What resonated with me with the story when [screenwriter] Paul [Cuschieri] gave me the script, though, is that it was the story of four young men who had all these aspirations. One’s a musician, one guy wants to open his own kennel… those are pragmatic aspirations, and they feel like they get close to these aspirations. And then here comes Hurricane Katrina. So it’s tough. They’re Black from the Lower Ninth or are at least pulled from the Lower Ninth. The character Junior, he’s not a black guy. He’s a young white kid who’s going through the same struggles as Black kids, because poverty doesn’t have a face on it. Poverty is poverty. So they try to get out of it and then their aspirations turn into desperations.

That’s quite a story. That story to me happened right on Staten Island in my life. That’s why when I got ahold of the script, I talked to the writer, and he was like, “Wow, you understand exactly what this story is.” And he told the producers, “He understands the story. He actually can embellish it.” And that’s what I did.

AVC: The story also has elements of underlying theories about whether the levees broke for a reason, or whether rich people were trying to take over the neighborhood. There’s all this underlying tension there too, which is pretty interesting.

R: I would just say in a Black community, we have a different way of looking at things. We may hold onto the cause of a conspiracy.

But what I liked about it is that I heard this conspiracy when I was going to the neighborhood and talking to people. I interviewed people. We shot in the Lower Ninth. We went into some of the homes that were destroyed by the hurricane. We saw how some people are building their homes up high on stilts and stuff. It’s rather unique how they have to respond and prepare for something like that that’ll happen again. But some people were telling us what happened, and even some law enforcement people were like, “yo,” about all these stories.

What I thought was interesting was that Ethan Hawke, who plays the councilman, that character gives us a history lesson. He says, “this ain’t the first time that this happened.” I was like, “wow.” And when Ethan was doing some research, he came in with a few ideas for his character and it was perfect. It was right in line with where we were headed, and it really added some glue to what we did.

AVC: Speaking of that, did you talk to New Orleans natives and ask, “Is this authentic to your experience? Are these characters using words you would use?” How did you make it authentically New Orleans? 

R: A lot of my extras and a lot of like guys that may pop in on a scene for a second or whatever, some of those guys were people with the real CTC tattoos. CTC was considered a gang. They were in a gang or whatever in that neighborhood, and they named that place Cut Throat City.

We took out the part of the script where we give you the history of why it’s called Cut Throat CIty. CTC actually stands for “Cross The Canal,” but the locals called it Cut Throat City.

Anyway, we had homeys from Cut Throat City and people who were a part of it. One of our extras had bullet holes all in him because he lived through it. They lived through the hurricane, too.

I was blessed that the director’s assistant came from the Lower Ninth, too. He worked his way out of it. He went from the Ninth Ward, I think, to the 10th ward or something like that. He had worked on maybe another 50 productions before, so I just got the best man. I didn’t know all this. I just had resumés of people to interview, and so I interviewed this young man and he just seemed really smart and really sharp. And I said, “I’m gonna hire this guy.” Then I come to find out that he lived through it and he ended up getting an associate producer credit on the movie because he helped us navigate so much in that city and get so much of the dialogue and the things that we needed to tell the story we had. We had a great guide by having this director’s assistant. I’d come in every day and say, “Y’all take me over to this place,” and ask, “When the water came, where did people retreat to,” and “What’s the street story?” So, yeah, I had some good local guidance.

AVC: There are a number of scenes in the movie that are pretty brutal, but one of the most singularly disturbing ones is something called “walking the plank,” which involves a certain body part and a caged, rabid raccoon. Is that a real thing? Where did that come from?

R: Well, the writer wrote it in there. He wrote a scene of these two animals fighting and he wrote the scene you’re talking about. But as a director, I was like, “What would you call this shit?” Excuse my language. And I said, “Well, this is like walking the plank.” Because it was written like he’s going to put the gun to the guy and make him do it, so I said let’s name it something. So we named it walking the plank. And it’s brutal, but it fits the brutality of the character. As far as whether it’s real, the writer had some information that validated that brutal instinct and that beautiful act.

AVC: Did you have any thoughts on the soundtrack of the movie? How did you want it to sound?

R: I didn’t do the score. Dhani Harrison did the score, which is great. I’m a big fan of Dhani. Of course I’m also a fan of his father [George Harrison] from The Beatles, but Dhani has been scoring movies and TV shows and he was available to score the film for us.

As the soundtrack, we hired a music supervisor named Adrian Miller. He’s managed big artists like Anderson Paak, and he’s worked with T.I. and other New Orleans artists. So I was comfortable putting the music in somebody else’s hands.

What I did do on set while we were filming the movie was keep a lot of songs playing by Master P, No Limit, Cash Money, Lil Wayne, Lil Boosie… We kept all those songs playing. Some of our actors were big 50 Cent fans, so you’d hear those songs playing as they all prepared to be in character.

We kept a 2005 playlist—actually, I’ll say from 2000 to 2005, but that was the playlist that was happening on set, and that kind of goes to energy. And then our music supervisor Adrian Miller, it was his task to go and get music that matches that vibe and help us do the film.

AVC: Do you keep up with comics? In the movie, the main character wants to make a graphic novel or a comic book.

R: Of course, I’m a comic guy. That’s how the Wu-Tang got all these different names. We took the superhero personas for ourselves. Ghostface Killah’s codename was Tony Stark.

I was a big comic collector as a kid, but I definitely stopped collecting when I started the celebrity part of my life. But every now and then I’ll find myself in a comic store. When Happy was a comic, I got that comic. When Reggie Hudlin did a new version of Black Panther maybe 10 or 11 years ago, I collected all of those. The new X-Men that’s out right now, that’s what I got Method Man for his birthday, you know what I mean? So, I don’t collect like I did as a kid when I had boxes and crates, but I’ll definitely come across a dozen comics a year and put them in my catalog or share them with some friends who I know are still into it.

AVC: You’re a big meditation guy. How have you been using meditation in this very isolating time?

R: Well, there are many forms of meditation. The first thing I would say is that, for me, meditation is better than medication. I would tell people to always seek meditation over medication because your body has the answer to most problems that it’s going to come across. Being a guy who has read through Buddha, he says something like one side of your body is there to help the other side of your body. So sometimes if the problem is over here, the answer is over here.

With that in mind, I definitely give myself some time daily to sit in meditation, whether it’s 10, 15 minutes, or a walking meditation. Walking meditation is my favorite because… I don’t know, just the oxygen intake and the way my brain works. If I walk a mile or two, I’m coming back with something great creatively. I don’t get writer’s block because I know the remedy for it. It’s for me to meditate or to take a long walk and the ideas come right back to me.