Kung Fu dreaming: The evolution of RZA

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by Cornelius A. Fortune

When it comes to the worlds of hip-hop and Kung fu movies, there’s a shared creative real estate. Just ask Wu-Tang Clan’s mastermind, RZA. But he’s come a long way since producing those albums. His résumé has included movie scores, acting, technical film work, and now his directorial debut with the film “The Man With the Iron Fists.”

RZA-Promotes-movie-in-Detroit
RZA STARS in “The Man With the Iron Fists,” an action-adventure inspired by Kung-Fu classics as interpreted by Quentin Tarantino’s longtime collaborators RZA and Eli Roth. Making his debut as a big-screen director and leading man, RZA, – alongside a stellar international cast led by Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, – tells the epic story of warriors, assassins and a lone outsider hero in nineteenth-century China who must unite to destroy the clan traitor who would destroy them all. —(Photo/Chan Kam Chuen)

From the first few seconds of the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut album, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” you realized that if Kung fu had a sonic expression outside of cinema, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and subsequent albums fully embodied it. RZA, with help from cousin ODB (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), Method Man and the rest of his crew, provided a genuine love letter, lightly scented and delivered – with a punch – to the genre. It changed the landscape. And changed the life of RZA (born Robert Diggs).

The movie hits theaters today, and for those who have followed his career, this career move was inevitable. For the writer, director, composer and star of the film, however, it was more than inevitable. It was “a dream pursued” beyond hip-hop beats and mix tapes.

“I WOULD SAY as early as 11, I predicted, I’m going to make records,” said RZA, in a cool, laid back, New Yorker accent. “Me, making a movie? I didn’t predict that. I dreamed about it though. I fantasized about it. This is really a case of a young kid’s dream coming to life. Being an MC and a famous rapper is not the case of a young kid’s dream coming to life. That’s a case of knowing I could do it. I felt Wu-Tang was the best at it. This? I know I’m not the best at it. I know there’s so many great people ahead of me. This is something that is a dream. It’s a dream that was pursued.”

But he didn’t start in the director’s chair. There followed several chambers for him to master, and the door was often rotating from medium to medium.

In 1999, he scored his first film,“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” a modern samurai film where he had his first cameo. He landed the score for “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (where he first worked with Quentin Tarantino), which received a BAFTA (The British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination. He contributed music to “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” “Soul Plane,” “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” “Blade: Trinity” and the critically-acclaimed animated series “Afro Samurai” starring Samuel L. Jackson. He also contributed to the score for the Vin Diesel film, “Babylon A.D.”

Then came a string of acting gigs: “Derailed,” alongside Clive Owen, Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” “Repo Men,” starring Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, and “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. He even appeared on the Showtime series “Californication” as Samurai Apocalypse.

“I was getting jobs as an actor, and I was paying attention to everything,” said RZA.

THIS WAS MERELY a training ground for something larger – directing feature films. So, in 2003, RZA asked Tarantino if he could become his student. He agreed. What followed was an apprenticeship similar to the Kung fu movies he’d grown up with. Albeit, the first lessons didn’t come from sitting in the director’s chair; it started with photography.

“I took a lot of time to study with the Canon 7D and 5D,” said RZA. “I worked on music videos and I was able to bring that to the table. A lot of different things came together.”

Three years later, his sensei finally gave him the nod. Quentin told him, “You’re ready.”

“I then pursued it super-hard,” he said, “and in 2010, after working with Eli Roth (director of “Hostel” and another Tarantino protégé), we had a screenplay written and a had good team of people believing in the vision.”

The vision: “The Man With the Iron Fists” is an action-adventure with a tip of the hat to the movies he grew up on during the ’70s and ’80s. Moreover, it tells the epic story of warriors, assassins and a lone outsider hero who all descend on one fabled village in China for a winner-takes-all battle for a fortune in gold. Sure, just like music, RZA admits, you can slide into imitation quite easily. His job was to rise above that.

“I tried to do my own thing,” he said, “but there is one thing Quentin pointed out: He was like, ‘Subconsciously, you captured some of your favorite films without even trying.’ I saw a thousand Kung fu movies. How can I make one that stands out? That’s the challenge. That’s what I knew I had to do. I tried to avoid what I didn’t like about the other ones.

“THE CHINESE have different humor than us. They may think p—— in a guy’s face is funny. They do that all the time. But that’s not funny. I tried to find a way to bring comedy into the film. I strived to make it so different that when they see it, they’ll appreciate the love I have for their culture.”

Despite the pressure, he feels ready to show his contribution to martial arts cinema. A list that includes classics such as “Enter the Dragon,” “Street Fighter,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the Quentin Tarantino-produced film, “Hero,” and a host of others.

“I’ve taken the Black roles a lot, the hip-hop roles, whether it was Moses Jones or Winston (characters he’s played), I’ve shown I could make them laugh. This character? I wrote him. I designed him. But when you see this, I take acting serious. I’m prepared to direct many films now. I understand what it takes. I understand the flow and ebb of things.”

And really, he noted, it all goes back to those childhood dreams and how to unleash them in a creative setting.

“I use my childhood for my manhood,” he said, warming to his subject. “I’m a big fan of hip-hop and never left it. I saw my first Kung fu movie at nine years old, never left it; my first comic book at eight or nine, never left it. And then, as a man, I become a famous producer but I realized in the middle of that fame that there’s a wavelength that it all operates on. Whether you’re a painter, rapper, dancer, singer, director, there’s an artistic wavelength. I see a common denominator in all those things.”

(Cornelius Fortune is managing editor of the Michigan Chronicle.)

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