Cung Le and RZA - Image courtesy of Cung Le
Legendary hip hop star, RZA, discusses upcoming film, possible Wu-Tang projects and more.
RZA is a name synonymous with artistic vision. His list of musical accolades, awards and achievements is a mile long, and continues to grow. He is well known for developing an even stronger connection between martial arts and the urban/hip hop culture than had already existed, and continues on with that endeavor, as evidenced by his latest project. Over the years, he's made several forays into acting, of which have been largely successful, and now adds the title of director to his already impressive resume. In a career that has spanned more than two decades, he has done what most can only dream of.
His latest effort, The Man With The Iron Fists, has been generating serious buzz among diehard Wu-Tang fans, as well as entertainment and combat sports media, since word first came out that it had gotten the green light. He wrote, directed and stars in the film, which chronicles a blacksmith that assembles a group of warriors and assassins to protect their small community from a villainous traitor. The movie, boasting an all star cast that includes Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu and UFC star, Cung Le, is scheduled for release on November 2, 2012.
Through a favor from a close friend (Thank you Cung Le!), I was able to secure an interview with RZA for our readers. It should be noted that when I found out I would be interviewing him, I only had 30 minutes notice, so I put out a call on Twitter and across a couple forums for some fan questions to mix in with my own. Among them, one question made me incredibly nervous, 'How did you get an interview with him? He's sort of known for being difficult with media.' I have no idea how anyone could have gotten this impression of him, as he was one of the most gracious, forthcoming people I have ever interviewed. I was on a PR enforced time limit of 15 minutes, but he allowed me extra time, and answered every question I asked. In short, he was great. So, without any further ado, I present to you my interview with the legendary RZA.
Stephie Daniels: The fruits of all your labor will finally be recognized in less than two weeks. What are your overall thoughts as the time winds down, and the press junkets and media tours go into full swing?
RZA: I'm so proud of it, and I hope we have great commercial success with this film. Personally, I'm satisfied in the sense that I've achieved a dream. At the same time, there's a lot of other people that have put their blood and sweat into it, people like Cung Le, Dave Bautista, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu. These people all came to the table for me. You've also got the producers and the studio, putting all that money into the marketing efforts for it, so the commercial success is extremely important so that they can know that they've made a good bet.
I'm just so happy that a vision from a kid's mind could come to reality like this. I'm glad the studio is taking all the steps to make people aware of this film. It's a very fun movie, and it's going to be great to see it on the big screen. It goes well with popcorn [laughs], you know what I mean. This is one of those films.
Stephie Daniels: You've been mixing the hip hop culture with martial arts for years now. Talk a little about that connection.
RZA: Well, I think that Bruce Lee really broke through with it first. I think physicality has always been important in the urban culture. Breakdancers took moves from martial arts movies, and I feel that there's just some kind of synergy there that's hard to decipher, but it's definitely there. It's appeared over and over again. Some people say that it's because those movies were sent to the grindhouse theaters, and those theaters were in the black neighborhoods, so it ended up being one of our choices. We'd get two movies for the price of one, and would end up falling in love with these films. It could come from us being two minorities in this country, but I do know that there is a synergy between the Asian martial arts and urban cultures. I'm happy that I learned about it at such a young age, and I'm really happy to be giving back with this movie.
Stephie Daniels: What's your favorite aspect of this film?
RZA: My favorite aspect is the underlying philosophy. I'm going to sum it up with a quote from the film. This comes from the Bible, as well. It says, 'In the beginning, we taught man by the word, but when the word failed, we were forced to teach through action.' To me, that is martial arts. Bruce Lee talked about the art of fighting without fighting. If you can't, however, talk your way out of a fight, you now have to act. Sometimes it takes action to show people what the right way to go is.
Stephie Daniels: How much martial arts training did you do for this film?
RZA: I did training with Hung Ga for about two months, for 1-2 hours a day. That was at the end of every day, before the next day's filming. I'm also a Shaolin disciple, and I study martial arts principles, as well as Chi Gong.
Stephie Daniels: What went into the selection of your cast? Did you already have certain people set in your mind for the roles?
RZA: Rick Yune was my choice for Axe Blade by the time I got to page 20. Three years ago, right after I finished the screenplay, I already had Russell Crowe in mind for Jack Knife. I didn't know about Dave Bautista until maybe a year out, but I saw him doing stick fighting on the internet, practicing, and this big dude was moving as fast as lightning, so I brought him in.
Cung Le was actually brought to my attention by a buddy of mine, Bokeem Woodbine. Bokeem is an actor, but he's also a martial artist, so when Cung was having his fight with Shamrock, Bokeem had a fight party at his house. He had called me up and told me, 'You've got to come out to my house and watch this guy Cung Le. He's one of my favorite fighters, and he's using real martial arts.' People don't think that real martial arts can work in MMA, but Cung has been proving that it can. He broke Shamrock's arm with a kick. From then on, in my head, Cung Le was a true martial artist, in every sense of the word, and then I got a chance to meet him. I forget who hooked the meeting up, but when I met him, he just had such a great spirit, beyond his martial arts skills. I knew that he would be great as Bronze Lion.
Byron Mann as Silver Lion, that was something I got lucky with, because I was actually casting him as someone else, but his screen test was so good, that I gave him a bigger role. Gordon Liu, as the Abbott, was also another stroke of fate, because I wrote the Abbott for my own sifu. I have a sifu named Shi Yan Ming, who teaches Shaolin styles in America. I had always wanted him to be this particular character, but he couldn't get his visa back to China. He's now an American citizen, and couldn't get his visa back [laughs]. I ended up casting Gordon Liu, who was available, and getting him for that role was a dream realized.
I had a guy from Hong Kong named Mike Leeder, who knew about me and Wu-Tang, and he came onboard to help me pull in Hong Kong actors. I just told him my dream list [laughs], and he just started pulling those guys in. Lucy Liu as Madame Blossom has always been in my head as one on the wish list, and I'm fortunate that we got her. It didn't seem like we were going to have her, but I got her. Pam Grier was an extra blessing. I couldn't even imagine getting Pam for her role, but they gave me three names to choose from, and hers was on the list. I was like, 'Oh, we're getting Pam Grier, for sure.'
Some of the people I cast for the strangest reasons. Pam plays a scene with a guy named Jon Benn, and the reason why I cast Jon was because he was in a Bruce Lee movie called Return of the Dragon. To have him and Pam Grier do a scene together was amazing. I wanted to have that 70's vibe for just a brief moment in the movie. It has it, too. When you see it, you'll think, 'Oh shit, is this a 70's black exploitation film for those three minutes?' [laughs].
Stephie Daniels: What was it like, working with Cung Le?
RZA: Cung was great. He was great in the film. He's an awesome guy both on set and off. He also gave me a few workout tips [laughs]. He knows how to stay in shape. He gave me some good tips that I still use to this day, actually. During the process of making the film, a lot of us got very close, and now, Cung trains Eli Roth. Eli lost at least 20 pounds in China, hanging out with Cung.
Stephie Daniels: What do you tap into for the ideas for your music and your film making?
RZA: I like to think that I tap into life. Whether it's my personal life, or the lives of others that I've witnessed around me, or even if it's the lives of people that have already passed on. It could be the prophets or great warriors. I'm a very studious person, so I just try to tap into the universal life energy.
Stephie Daniels: What's your favorite martial arts film?
RZA: The Five Deadly Venoms. This film is great with or without the martial arts. The story is good, the acting was good, but the myth of it, the magic of it, that's what really makes it so great.
Stephie Daniels: The 20th anniversary of 36 Chambers is coming up. Are there any plans to do something special to commemorate it?
RZA: We're working on it right now. Steve Rifkind has now joined the team, as well as some directors we're working with. We're putting together some things on the business side. It's just going to take the boys, you know, the clan, to really all come together and put a moment toward the legacy.
Stephie Daniels: Are we ever going to get that Wu-Tang documentary?
RZA: I think we will. I'm really pushing for it. The reality of it is that it takes all of us to show up. It's not like in a movie, where if someone doesn't show up, we can recast the part. If one of the clan doesn't show up, we can't replace him with someone else [laughs].
Stephie Daniels: Are you, by any chance, going to be doing another Afro Samurai movie with Samuel Jackson?
RZA: [laughs] I was hanging with Sam on the set of Django, and he told me, 'Boy, just put the afro wig on and let's go!' I don't know how that's going to turn out, but it was definitely fun.
Stephie Daniels: Are the Gravediggaz ever going to do anything else?
RZA: Well, you know we lost a member (The Grym Reaper). Prince Paul, who is having a great time with things he's doing, actually reached out to me about two months ago, and said that people have been calling him saying that they're interested in a Gravediggaz tour and one more record. I told him if we could tie it to some kind of horror film or something, not just music, then I would be interested. The thing is, I just can't do only audio. I need audio and visual. I'm not satisfied with just audio expression anymore.
Stephie Daniels: What do you think of the current state of rap and hip hop?
RZA: Well, I'm happy to see that rap is continuing to feed families all over the country. It's fed the West Coast, it feeds the East Coast. It's feeding the South. It's really feeding families around the globe. You've got artists coming up everywhere. Hip hop has been a blessing for my community, and it continues to bless other communities, and now it's a world-wide phenomenon. Of course, I would love to see more consciousness put back into it, and more social awareness, but that should apply to all music, not just hip hop.
There are no more Bob Dylan songs coming. There are no more John Lennon songs, or Michael Jackson and those guys with We Are The World. The uplifting part of music is what I feel is missing. Right now, it's just parties, drinking and going for sex. I like those things [laughs], but that's Friday and Saturday. What about Sunday? What about Monday? We need music that addresses the other side of the mind, as well. To me, that's what's missing.
Stephie Daniels: Do you have any plans to collaborate with Quentin Tarantino on any future projects?
RZA: We'll see what life gives us. He's done such great work. You know, he mentored me, and he's graduated me. If I could go back and do more with the teacher, I would love to. He gave me one assignment recently, and that was to write a song for Django, which I'm in the process of doing right now.
Stephie Daniels: How do you find time for yourself, with the schedule that you keep?
RZA: That's been very difficult, but I will say that what I'm doing is an expression of myself, so I'm not complaining.
Stephie Daniels: Last question, if you could sum up your film in one sentence, what would it be?
RZA: Exciting entertainment for everyone 13 and over [laughs].
You can follow RZA via his Twitter account, @RZA
Cung Le has kindly given me this never before seen photo of himself and RZA from the set of the movie for our readers.
And finally, here is the trailer for The Man With The Iron Fists
The Man With the Iron Fists Red Band Trailer (via IGNentertainment)