Sitting in a circular booth in Warehouse Live’s green room hours before his show, rapper-turned-filmmaker the RZA talks in a deep murmuring voice about deadly weapons, buckets of blood, lengthy fight scenes and a lifelong love of kung fu movies — all with a veteran’s knowledge and a kid’s zeal. Best known as the orchestrator of the innovative and influential Staten Island, N.Y., hip-hop ensemble the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA (say Rizah) began acting in 1999 with Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” As director, co-writer and star of “The Man With the Iron Fists,” which opens in theaters Friday, he’s moved deeper into a cinematic career.
RZA, born Robert Diggs, didn’t exactly tiptoe into becoming a filmmaker. “Fists,” which was filmed in China, was such a long film that he initially toyed with the idea of breaking it into two parts, much like the film’s executive producer, Quentin Tarantino, did with his “Kill Bill” movie. Tarantino and co-writer Eli Roth (“Hostel”) urged him to slim the film down.
Still, at 96 minutes, it’s packed to the bursting point, with lengthy fight sequences, lavish sets, weapons and costumes, lots of back story and a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Pam Grier and Lucy Liu along with martial artists and fighters Rick Yune, Cung Le and David Bautista.
A deep cast of strong personalities was something RZA knew well working with the Wu-Tang, once a nine-member consortium of rappers that ranged from introverted to volatile.
“There was a lot of testosterone on the set,” RZA says. “Everybody thinks they’re the toughest. Everybody thinks they’re handsome. Everybody thinks what they do is the best way to do it.”
RZA required a rougher work-out regimen to play a quiet blacksmith who defends his village in China when it’s set upon by an assortment of toughs seeking gold. “So you get one guy telling me his way is the best, another saying, ‘No, no, no, bro, he’s got long muscles, he needs to be doing things this way.’
“Some friction built up, but I said, ‘Listen, y’all ... would you believe Ghostface and Raekwon (prominent Wu-Tang rappers) were enemies before becoming one of the best rap combinations ever? I told them how Meth (Method Man) and Rae would battle. Dealing with those personalities helped me in dealing with actors.”
The mood on the set, he says, gradually grew more celebratory, with actors sometimes hanging around for hours after their SAG-dictated 12-hour day had ended, Crowe among them.
Crowe also helped tie the film back to RZA’s other life as a rapper and producer, basing some of his character’s personality on RZA’s late cousin, the frenetic Russell Jones, aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “He’d call me up and say, ‘We’re going Ol’ Dirty,’” RZA says. “Or on set, he’d say, ‘OK, let’s get Ol’ Dirty on these (expletives).’”
Before the Wu-Tang clan formed, RZA and ODB were regulars at martial-arts features when they were kids. RZA threw himself into cinema to escape the neighborhood where he grew up.
“It was escapism when I was growing up,” he says. “There was a lot of love in my house, but it was a crowded house — 11 brothers and sisters there. So basic necessities were rare. I’d ask my mother for a nickel and she didn’t have a nickel. That’s deep. So first I’d escape into my imagination. The bus required a pass and a nickel. I didn’t have the nickel so I’d walk to school creating characters. The Seven Blow Assassin. No man has ever survived seven strikes from him. That’s if you’re an expert. If you’re lame, one strike will do.”
Eventually he found small jobs: selling newspapers, working for parks and recreation, working at the local pool. When he got a little older, RZA would work as a night watchman and a messenger. “Once I had a little money I’d cut school and go to the movies,” he says. “Me and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.”
Instead music called and Robert Diggs became the Razor aka the RZA, who provided the searing sound for the Wu-Tang Clan — RZA, ODB, the GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa — one of the most influential hip-hop acts of the past 25 years. The group’s standing was due in part to the variety offered by its MCs, but RZA’s production was likely the most identifiable sound in hip-hop during the ‘90s.
The ensemble took its name from the film “Shaolin and Wu Tang,” and the parenthetical of its classic debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” was also a tip to classic martial-arts cinema.
In addition to the Dirty homage, “Iron Fist” is intertwined in Wu lore. Veteran martial-arts film star Gordon Liu appears in the film; one of his many nicknames, “Master Killer” was an alternate title to “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” “Iron Fists” also features Kuan Tai Chen, who appeared in “Executioners from Shaolin,” which yielded the “tiger style” snippet from the Wu’s “Ain’t Nothin’ ta (Expletive) Wit.”
“Those albums were my attempt to make audio movies,” RZA says. “That was what I was trying to do. Now I got a chance to go visual. The Wu-Tang, that seemed like preparation for this job to carry me into the future. I didn’t enter this as a novice. I entered as intermediate. But I’m pushing for expert level.”
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