Interview: RZA

October 23, 2012

RZA stopped by FADER offices recently in support of his A-list directorial debut, the elegantly gory kung-fu dramedy The Man With The Iron Fists, in which he plays the titular character. He opened up about mentors Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, his current relationship with the Wu-Tang clan and laying off the PCP.

You’ve had a long and sprawling career: writing and producing records, scoring for film, authoring a book and now acting and directing. What do you want to be remembered for? I think I found the wavelength to artistic expression and I know how to translate it through any medium, but I’m going to continue to build myself. I still got more to go. If there was just one thing I could suggest somebody say that I am, and if I could say what they should be, it’s to never stop being a student, even when you are a master. I think I’m a good dad, also. I ask my children that all the time because I know I’m absent a lot. They say, 'You’re the best.' That’s one of the most rewarding things.

Was taking on the role of director a humbling experience? I was definitely humbled, but I’m more nervous now, with the finished project. I was never scared as a director, because I was prepared and taught by a master. That gave me super confidence. When you prepare for something, it’s like jumping into cold water, but you’re prepared. You jump in. And you start swimming, or if you don’t swim, you drown. So I was prepared to jump in and swim. And I knew I could make it to the other side. As a man and as an artist, I’ve completed a great task that nobody can take away from me. My producers and me went to China, a tough place for Americans. It’s getting a little better, but it was especially tough when we were there. And we were able to pull together hundreds of people and film a movie and come home with it. It’s this part, the results of what the film will do, that you can’t prepare for. We all wish for the best. If the universe chooses us, we’ll get the best.

Do you find it difficult to assess and judge your own work? Everybody thinks they’re the shit. And I have this statement: Self-praise don’t mean a damn. This movie is dope, I’ve watched it over 100 times. I just saw it again, with Quentin Tarantino. He laughed, he oohed, he ahhed, and he patted me on the back and shit. That’s enough to make me feel like, Motherfucker I’m straight. But there’s a whole audience of movie-goers out there who keep our business going. And there the ones who ultimately determine the actual value of something.

How did you build a relationship with Quentin Tarantino? I asked him could I be his student, like in the old kung fu movies. I didn’t have to get down on one knee and bring him no tea. We watched a lot of movies together. We were just friends. He started Kill Bill and gave me the script to read. Early on I said, if I can help out in any capacity, let me know. I flew to China and I sat there, and I watched him work on his movie. I stayed there for 30 days. Later, I met up with crew in Mexico. Some of the crew guys would be hanging with me, out on the roof the villa, all sharing knowledge with each other. Some of the people who worked on my film worked on Tarantino’s films. It’s not easy to get these guys, especially on a modest budget. There was some financial shit, but because of trust and respect it worked out.

How long have you been working on this film? I always had this imagination about making colorful movies. I use to walk to school and daydream about it. For The Man With the Iron Fists, it’s been seven years since the genesis of me sitting down in front of my computer and writing out a first draft of the screenplay. Having never taken classes or knowing the proper structure, I only wrote from what I knew. I could tell a story with lyricism, I could tell a story in 16 bars, I could tell a story in three pages, whatever. So I had a story, but I didn’t have what I thought was a proper screenplay at the Hollywood level. Many independent film guys make movies with these kinds of screenplays, but that’s why they remain independent. When I gave my draft to Eli Roth, he loved the story, but he knew it could be better. With his wisdom coming together with my imagination, it went form a 90-page screenplay to 130 pages.

Have you ever worked on a single project for this long? This may have been the longest, but there’s also Wu-Tang Forever. You know that album, Wu-Tang Forever? 1997. I started that album in ’93 in my mind. In 1992, I first told Wu-Tang Clan, “Give me autonomy. Let me drive this bus. Y’all can’t ask me nothing, and I promise you in five years, I’ll get us to be number one.” They all trusted me, and gave me their word that I could be the dictator. And in five years, they were number one. When I went to the idea of making this film, I kept it kinda bottled up. But I told some of my family members, Yo, I got another five-year plan, I’m gonna be a movie director. I first said that in 2005 and in 2010 I got a green light. It took two more years for the movie to come out, though.

As a director, are you still looking for the go-ahead to be a dictator? No. The director can be a dictator, but it’s not wise to be. You have to choose the days to be a dictator and the days to deal with diplomacy and democracy. Every great leader should know that, even a dictator. Tyrants get overthrown. Sometimes my producer would suggest something, and I could have been like, Get the fuck out of here!, And they could have gotten the fuck out and left. But if I don’t heed the advice of a wise man, especially if I’m on unknown territory, I’m a fool. A wise man has to always listen to the peers he surrounds around himself. That’s why you surround yourself with other smart people. Captain Kirk keep Mr. Spock right beside him.

What’s your relationship with the rest of Wu-Tang like now? It’s still good. Wu-Tang Clan always wanted to be apart of the movie’s soundtrack. I kept sending beats to them, and they wound up blessing it. Not with the tracks that I sent them, but they still came in and they gave me some Iron Fist energy. There’s so many of us, and we all continue to cross each other’s paths. I think we all believe in the same philosophy in which we started. We all accept it and bear witness to it and try to live it out. Whether it’s collectively or individually. We’re all branded Wu-Tang for life. We had this little story I used to say to them years ago, when we started having little talks about confrontation in 2002. I was like, If they coming for one, they’re coming for all. You seen then when they burnt down Shaolin temple, some of the students escaped, right? And what did the government do? They hunted down every student. You’re not gonna get away kid! You’re Wu-Tang for life.

You live in LA, far from where Wu-Tang had its beginnings. What do you like about life out there? My polarity changed. The pressure of New York is different for me now. I have such a big family, big demand and big pull into other things that aren’t healthy for me. It’s good for me to be away.

Speaking of health, what do you recommend people eat? I suggest that kids should be vegetarians. Egg products is cool, but eggs on a normal level is pretty finicky unless you need protein. I think vegetarianism is the best way for our children to grow up for longevity and health. I know people are talking about these new paleo-diets and all these other weird things, but naw.

Your alter ego Bobby Digital smoked a lot of PCP. Do you still fuck with that? Bobby Digital smoked anything you fucking gave him. But I’m not too much into drugs these days. I don’t even smoke weed like I used to. I just grew out of it. Now I can throw down some Patron, some champagne on your ass, but I don’t need to smoke. Drugs should only be used for meditation, not medication.

CONTEST: Win The Man With The Iron Fists gear
To celebrate RZA's big leap to movies, we're giving away a pack of MWTIF goodies. Leave your full name, real email and favorite Wu-Tang-related video in the comments for a chance to win a poster, bandana, shirt, beanie and cufflinks.

Interview: RZA