When Wu-Tang Clan founding member RZA decided to make his feature film directorial and acting debut, he knew the story he had to tell. The Man with the Iron Fists stars the rap legend as a nineteenth century blacksmith in feudal China caught in the middle of an old-fashioned fight between good and evil.
The film is heavily influenced by RZA's decades of watching Saturday morning martial arts movies and has a surprising superstar join his cast of Lucy Liu, Jamie Chun and a bevy of martial arts movie biggies: Russell Crowe.
“I talked to Russell about it for a long time and I was never sure if he was gonna do it, but he says that he trusted me as an artist,” RZA said to Movie Fanatic.
Crowe keenly knew the vision and breadth of talent shown from RZA's early days with Wu-Tang, as a fan. “Russell’s seen a young man that has a lot of artistic vision and he appreciates it and he would like the world to appreciate it as well. He comes with a validation of what I can do,” RZA said. The filmmaker even saw a little bit of a former Wu-Tang member in Crowe’s performance. “I'm grateful that he came on board and we found some energy for him to relate to ODB energy!”
The Oscar winner turns in a performance in The Man with the Iron Fists that truly pushes the envelope of chewing the scenery. The man has a ball, but all you have to do is go back to one of the Australian’s first works and see his inner madman was always firmly in place.
“Romper Stomper was the film he told me to watch. I watched Romper Stomper and was blown away. He wanted me to know just how wild he could go with it,” RZA said and laughed about Crowe’s performance as a menacing Nazi white supremacist.
RZA compares working with such superstar talent to his days in the rap group and how he always managed to keep an even keel. “I do think being a part of the Wu-Tang Clan with us having such strong personalities unbeknowingly prepared me for the job of directing,” he recalled.
“When things got heavy or felt like it was going to be crazy I don't think I ever lost my cool. Maybe one time we have a little ping pong match, but I kept focused.”
Having a producer in Eli Roth (Hostel) helped as well. Roth was involved every step of the way, firmly in the belief he was mentoring a budding filmmaker that had already been mentored by Quentin Tarantino with their work on the soundtrack of Kill Bill.
The first cut RZA submitted of The Man with the Iron Fists was four hours. “That’s the great thing about having Eli with me on this journey, he told me having a four hour first cut is natural,” he said and laughed.
“To have Quentin and Eli on my side throughout this, they let me do my own thing. Having a companion tell me there’s going to be a landmine ten feet ahead, go through it or jump over it or go around it, was awesome. They were those people. Sometimes I still went through the landmine. Sometimes, I realized that I needed to go around one.”
A longtime martial arts movie fan, his inspirations were varied. “There are so many martial arts films that I’ve seen over the years that could lay down the foundation. Films like The Five Deadly Venoms or Thirty-Six Chambers… there are so many, it’s a long list,” RZA said.
The main thing for him as a filmmaker was to make sure that he used his martial arts movie knowledge and utilized what he knew would work and what wouldn’t for an international audience… well beyond Asia.
“This was a film made with an American sensibility. Most of the martial arts movies are made with an Asian sensibility,” RZA said. “Can I be able to do what Quentin did with Kill Bill? He was able to give us a modern day martial arts film that’s a Hollywood movie. I was striving to do the same thing.”
Further proving how vast his inspirations are… RZA even brings up a classic Tinseltown musical in how he crafted a spoke in the plot wheel of The Man with the Iron Fists.
“I remembered in Gypsy, each stripper had a thing. One had light bulbs,” RZA recalled. He wanted his Cat House residents, like Lady Silk, to wield similar individuality.
“They’re not just going to be hookers. The Lady Sunshine room, it looks like Jimi Hendrix could be painting in there. There was the Lady Aqua room with instead of a bed, there’s a river in there. I’m a cinephile and was able to be inspired by martial arts films, but also sci-fi films, horror films -- good old American movies.”